25 November, 2010

Fourriers, Grognards, and Dolmans -- Alors!

My current novel-in-progress begins in 1799 and follows Napoleon's Grande Armeé from Egypt to Austria, Russia and beyond. I've put together a plot and characters, that was the easy part. So was writing the first thirty thousand words or so. Now I'm catching up on my period research, especially making sure I have military formations, uniforms, and tactics correct for the battle scenes that come later.

What did I get myself into?

 Fig. 1: Yes, he fought in that getup.

It's bewildering. First off there's the ranks. In the French army a brigadier did not command a brigade--he was a corporal in a cavalry troop. Similarly one must not confuse a maréchal des logis -- supply sergeant -- with a Marshal of the Empire.

And speaking of marshals, mon général Grouchy would appreciate it if everyone would pronounce his name correctly and stop intimating that he wears green fur and lives in a garbage can.

But I wouldn't doubt that somewhere, somewhen, there was a regiment of hussars, or chasseurs-à-pied, or mameluke lancers clad in green fur of exactly Oscar's hue. 

These guys wore anything -- especially the cavalry. No two hussar regiments had the same uniform. And the hats!  You've got shakos, busbies, cocked hats, square-topped Polish headgear I can't remember the name of right now... Napoleon's big bicorne seems rather staid when you line him up against a regiment of grenadiers with two foot of bearskin bonnet per man.

How did they fight in all that kit? I've been reading personal accounts of Napoleon's soldiers and not one has mentioned a man being killed because of the ridiculous outfit he had to fight in. But there are several accounts of men being shot through the hat and being unharmed. One tells of a man who lost his hat in a cavalry action but was able to get it back from the enemy for a small 'ransom' the next day.

An excellent and comprehensive reference is Swords Around a Throne by American officer John R. Elting. He provides uniform guides and in-depth looks at each branch of service. I'm also reading diaries of a couple of Imperial Guard infantrymen and a cavalryman named Marbot who rose from the ranks to command a regiment of chasseurs at Waterloo.

My biggest surprise so far? The number of horses involved. The poor animals are much less durable than men, and it was easy to wear them out. Officers had several and used them in rotation... or ride each into the ground in turn. Many regiments had no idea how to care for their horses, and got them killed by letting them graze too freely (or not enough). Some soldiers knew what they were doing, but not the French... a Polish lancer regiment came back from Russia with two hundred horses out of a thousand while many French cavalry managed only to save a few mounts for their officers.

Next up, I need to get a better idea about contemporary life in civilian France at that time. Unfortunately the bulk of novels in English from that time are set in, well, England. And I will do a lot of things for my craft but I'm not reading a raft of crappy Regency romances. So next on my plate is to learn enough French to read Balzac (although his novels are set after the wars), Paul Adam and Emile Zola... I've already been plowing through the daily Paris newspapers of the period, helpfully scanned and available online at gallica.fr.

Next, I think I'll write something set in the modern era. In Schenectady. It worked for Vonnegut!



12 November, 2010

The Most Important Thing to Teach A Kid About Chess

I went to my son's first chess tournament last weekend. Some of the kids barely knew how to move the pieces, and the ones that did very quickly cleaned up the board. And yet, almost all the games were draws. Why?

No one knew how to checkmate.

 Fig. 1 : Know how to get here, from anywhere on the board.

I saw a trash talking kid with two queens fail to win against a nice little girl reduced to only her king. He just kept giving check, over and over again, until he blundered into a stalemate. It happened over and over again. It was excruciating, especially since it was a competition and I couldn't give any hints.

I suppose it's as true of chess as it is for anything else: turning a winning position into an actual win is an art in itself.

It's not enough to write a book that should be published: there's a long road from there to getting published. It's not enough to deserve a job: you have to actually go and get it. How many armies (and, more importantly, sports teams) have all the advantages, but lose because they don't know how to use them?

And so I spent the rest of that weekend teaching my son to win. First, with a queen and king against my king. Next with two rooks. Then a simulated game, me with a king and eight pawns versus his whole side.

OK, I might have been a little harsh. I might have even, once or twice, said "Wrong! Again!" in a credible imitation of Leopold Mozart at his worst. But he started to get it. He learned how to cut off the board, drive the king into the corner, and win.

The best part was his sister's chanting: "Checkmate Daddy! Checkmate Daddy!"

And despite my channeling a Prussian drillmaster, he kept wanting to try. All last week, he's been as likely to want to play chess as Lego Batman Wii when I come home from work. It's the taste of victory. Who wants to move pieces around a board once you know you can win?

I can't wait for the next tournament. He's going to murder those little punks... and, uh, learn very important lessons about perseverance and sportsmanship. Or something.

04 October, 2010

Happy. Query. Fun. Time.

A terrifying thing happened to me about a month ago: I got some great advice and I acted on it. The result was a major revision of my historical novel, Saint Mark's Body, followed by what we aspiring authors refer to as Query Hell. This is the process of getting an agent who can get you a publisher, and it's no fun. Until you get that great agent, and then it's all worth it. Sort of like being a Red Sox Fan starting in 1919, and hoping you live to see 2004.

I've sent off the first several batches and hope to get back to blogging, and actual writing of new fiction, very soon.

31 August, 2010

Ask Mayhem: The First Person Fight

I got several good questions after my open invitation, but this one is tough enough that it's all I can answer this week:

Dear Mr. Mayhem: How should a fight scene differ in pace and focus if told from the POV of someone in the fight vs. someone only watching? -- Jessica

Fantastic question. The easy and most general answer is that the pacing of the fight doesn't change, but the perception of the fight and therefore the way it goes on the page does. It's a bit difficult for your narrator to remember who jabbed and who feinted when he's dealing with this at the same time:

Fig. 1 : Do I have your attention?

Readers will recall a previous post on how to pace a fight: the basics are to understand that a fight has a rhythm, like music. A good writer will vary the rhythm of the fight and control fast and slow parts to evoke the feelings he wants in the reader's mind.

This is a tough question for me as a fight choreographer, because in that line of work all fights are in third person: the point of view of the audience. So when I approach it as a choreographer turned writer my natural inclination is to think of the whole fight in third and then put myself in the position of my first person narrator. This is where things get interesting.

We all know the basics of Point of View (POV): first person shows us everything that the narrator sees and feels, and only that. Whether writing in first person present or past, this means that something as rawly primal as a fight should have a feel of immediacy. If the narrator is recounting the story of his fight with dispassion, you may as well be writing in third with a change of pronoun.

So in that immediate first, the author has to consider what parts of the action the character will miss because he has other things going on. You can't do this:

Bob hit me in the back of the head with the tire iron, and right away I couldn't see anything but bright flashes. All I heard was the ringing in my ears. Then he pulled out a six inch kitchen knife and started honing it on the steel.
Right? Our narrator can't tell you what's happening after a significant injury. Everything he sees and hears comes through the filter of more immediate sensations. For example, you might have him describe the first blow he receives, but after that he might only know that he's being rocked around like a rag doll.

He's also going to lose track of the fight if he gets enraged, scared, exhilarated, shocked, et cetera -- all sorts of things could happen that interfere with his ability to observe what's happening. 

And this is what might cause a problem for pacing. I think that any good fight uses slow and quick actions, like music, to create a feeling that tells the story. With a first person narrator the actions can blur, and he may also be unreliable due to his own perceptions and prejudices. I suppose if I could offer one piece of advice here, it's to treat that 'blur' as just another rhythm for the story.

So, here's the fight again from the original post on pacing. Like I said, my approach would be to plot out the fight as an omniscient choreographer and then work out how the narrator tells it.

Bob's fist just grazed Alex's temple. He swung again as Alex stepped back, this time landing a hook just under his ribs. He struck again, but this time Alex intercepted his fist with a large unbound manuscript.

"Is that what I think it is?" Bob asked.

"That's right," said Alex, "It's my memoir: The Day Alex Kicked Bob's Ass"

"Memoir? Fiction, you mean!" Bob kicked the manuscript out of Alex's hands. The cloud of papers masked his next kick, straight into Alex's solar plexus. Alex doubled over, wheezing.

"You... you animal," Alex said. "I never numbered the pages!" He sprang up, fingers clawing for Bob's throat--but Bob dodged aside and kicked Alex's ankle out from under him. His face hit the ground like a flipped pancake and the pages of his manuscript settled over him in a pile of 8 1/2 by 11 inch futility.

And now from Alex's POV in first person:

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blur, and a rough bony something grazed my temple--Bob's fist. I couldn't get away before he punched me square in the side. It was all I could do to get the manuscript in front of my face before he clobbered me.

"Is that what I think it is?" Bob asked.

"That's right," I said, "It's my memoir: The Day Alex Kicked Bob's Ass"

"Memoir? Fiction, you mean!" Bob kicked, and I was lost in cloud of 8 1/2 by 11 inch dreams. My dreams! His foot shot out through the flying pages and caught me right in the gut. White phosphorous stars exploded behind my eyes, and I sucked in air like I'd just run a marathon.

"You... you animal," I managed to choke out. "I never numbered the pages!" I dove for his throat, and that's almost the last thing I remember. He dodged out of the way and the next thing I knew I was flat on my face. The pages of my manuscript settled down on me as I closed my eyes. It was just like falling asleep in a snowstorm of futility.

That was fun--looking forward to more good questions!

28 August, 2010

Reports of the death of my genre...

If publishing is as dead as a doornail, then publishing aimed at men is dead as a coffin-nail (which, per Dickens, is the most lifeless bit of ironmongery imaginable.)

According to nautical novelist James Nelson, "Historical fiction for men is dead." I can't argue much with him, at least in the US market. When we look at Amazon categories and agents purportedly devoted to historical fiction, what we really find are a bunch of romance novels set in certain time periods other than the present. As Nelson says, "You can write five books a year about Anne Boleyn and they all sell." According to the latest issue of Solander, he has now sailed on to the more lucrative waters of nonfiction.

A.L. Berridge, bestselling author of Honour and the Sword and all-around fabulous lady, is selling loads of books in the U.K. and has a sequel coming, but isn' published in the U.S. yet. The reason? Her book doesn't have a Big Romance, and Men Don't Read.

Meanwhile there's C.W. Gortner, charter member of the so-called Historical Boys. His novels all feature a strong female lead in first person tell-all memoir style. In other words, the Historical Boy is writing for girls. Christopher's books are doing quite well in the U.S.. I have always suspected he uses the C.W. byline so that women will assume that he is in fact a woman who's using the initials in order to pass for male.

The worst part is, I'm guilty of being part of the problem. Before I got into the book production side of things I was not much of a book consumer. I read the same old Heinlein and Bradbury and Tolkien until I wore out the covers, and filled up the rest of my fiction reading with the likes of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Otherwise, when I bought a book it was non-fiction. Now I read a lot more, but most of it is research. My latest Amazon order includes a technical manual on mummy preparation and an Osprey reference book on French cavalry uniforms.

In my inexpert analysis, the problem of manly historical fiction in the U.S. is that we have a conceit that History Must Feature Americans. By this conceit I mean that we insist on producing movies like U-571, where the plot gets written so that it is Americans, not Brits, who steal the Enigma machine. Don't get Ms. Berridge started on that one!

Thus, American novelists looking for manly action--i.e. war--have a limited historical window to exploit. While British authors have all sorts of juicy swashbuckling wars in which to place their heroes, America begins in 1776 and all the romance (small 'r', not the genre) is gone by about 1917. We don't have the dashing Napoleonic period to exploit, that gave us heroic English warriors like Horatio Hornblower and Richard Sharpe. We get the Civil War and Jeff Shaara, and not long after that the machine guns come along and ruin it for everyone.

In between, we have the special historical genre of the Western. We have some great stories of WWII. But when we think of works of fiction in those eras, the mind turns to John Wayne as much as it does to Louis L'amour.

Is it simply that the story of American manly action is better told in film than in print?

For now, I'm grateful for the fact that there is more than one country where people read in English. Apparently some of the people in these countries are men, and women who do not need every book they read to feature a Woman Who Loves Beneath Her Station or a Queen Who Just Wants To Be Kissed.

I realise that my books may need to take on a different flavour to succeed in such markets, but one must do what one must do.

23 August, 2010

I'll take your questions now...

I've come across some good blogs featuring help for writers in the (blog) author's particular area of expertise. Mine?

I'm a gardener. A very aggressive gardener.

No, seriously, I'm here to help with questions on historical weapons and fighting skills from major army and fleet actions down to the very very personal. My practical experience comes from european fencing competition in college and a couple of black belts since then: but more importantly I learned how to fake it for fiction by working as a fight choreographer and operating a stage weapon rental shop. I've done gun fights, axe fights, cat fights (*mrreow!*) pillow fights, spear fights, fist fights and nearly every combination thereof.

If I use your question I'd be happy to include a link back to your website, or keep you anonymous, as you prefer. You can reach me by email: richard(at)saintmarksbody(dot)com or by commenting here.

Depending on the volume of questions (please, let there be volume!) I may post questions and answers up to once a week.

14 August, 2010

Ten Random Words that Make Me Happy

Mackerel

Rebar

Penitent

Inefatigable

Élan

Mandible

Enfilading

Mizzen

Impugn

Vestibular

09 August, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Here's the roundup from a week in the Adirondacks with the family:







  • Fifteen fish caught and eaten, mostly perch (Fig. 1). My boss expressed surprise when I told him I was going to fish on vacation. I suppose I don't have a reputation for quiet solitude. I thought about it, and when I came back told him that he had me pegged exactly right--I don't have the patience to just sit and enjoy nature, I have to be waving around some kind of fish-killing apparatus so I can pretend I'm doing something useful.
  • 9000 words done in the first draft of my next novel. I thought this was a pretty good score, given that I spent as much time outdoors as possible.
  • Several firsts from the kids--my son's first captured (and released) fish, my daughter's first time paddling a canoe. Penguin sand sculptures and barefoot expeditions into the pine-bark carpeted woods.
  • One sighting the former most powerful man in N.Y. State, now convicted of several diverse and interesting influence-peddling crimes. I could not resist blurting out, "Is that Joe Bruno?!" as he entered a restaurant on Lake Placid, and the old man immediately whipped out a pair of sunglasses the size of virtual reality goggles.
  • Zero cell phone calls from work, as we were entirely Off the Grid (except for the brief foray into Lake Placid, enabling me to update my Facebook status to "...just spotted Joe Bruno!!!") Other co-workers on vacation who visited places with cell phone service (for example, Hungary) were not so lucky, and ended up calling in to several hours of urgent meetings from.
  • Also zero blog posts. (see "off the grid", above) But I'm back!



14 July, 2010

So you think you can write? OK... who cares?


Today Nathan Bransford has a post asking, in just so many words, why it is that so many people feel they're entitled to break into the writing world as novelists. After all, Bransford muses, people playing pickup basketball don't think they should be drafted into the NBA. Why, therefore, does eveyone with a working computer think they can write a best-selling novel?

Well, for one thing, there are some best-selling novels out there that are crap. It's easy for an unpublished novelist to point to one of those and say, "I write better than that: ergo, since that crap is published, I should be published also."

There is some merit to that argument -- however, there is an important nuance that can't be ignored: the game is not "who can write the best book" : the game is, "who can sell the most books."

Publishing peope talk about 'branding' ad nauseum, but it's true: quality writing is only one of several factors that move books off of bookstore shelves and into beach tote bags. In fact, it may be one of the least important factors. Why? Simple:



A book buyer cannot tell if the writing is any good without reading the book. If she needs to read the book to find out whether it's any good... then what's the point?

The buyer can get around this problem if the author is established. She knows what she's getting when buying another Dan Brown, Sue Grafton, or Estate-Of-Clive-Cussler.

If the author is NOT established, the buying decision can come down to whether the book is on a subject the buyer wants to read about.

It's true! For a while I was reading anything set in the British navy of the Napoleonic era. Other people are nuts for Regency romances, or steampunk, or Viking stories, or cozies featuring sleuths who are also Franciscan monks, or whatever.

And this is why a genre book is easier to sell as a first novel -- it taps a ready market. The bar for writing quality is set lower. And so I postulate further:




A 'genre' book will sell in the established market for that genre, as long as it does not completely suck.


Which brings us around home again. A novelist wannabe could easily write a high-quality piece with no established market. There is little reason for a publisher to take a chance on a book like that. And it will be quite easy for that wannabe to find a book that got published into an established market which does not suck (or maybe it does), but is not as good as that wannabe's stuff.

And so the 'pickup basketball to NBA' analogy falls apart. It's not whether we can play better basketball than the status quo: it's whether anyone wants to pay to see us play. And unlike basketball, sheer performance on the court is not the thing that convinces the paying public to part with their cash.

10 July, 2010

Research Readings for July 2010


It's raining today (finally) and so the perfect day to stay in and do a little research on my latest novel project: a bit of horreur that begins, but does not end, in Egypt during the French occupation.

Nina Burleigh's excellent book Mirage--Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt is more or less indefinitely checked out to me thanks to my good sense at having married the librarian. Mirage follows the French occupation from the point of view of the cent-cinquante savants General Bonaparte brought with him on his attempt to wrest the East and India from England. It's a fascinating window into Napoleon's character: at 28 years of age, he was already padding his C.V. as a new-model emperor of the Enlightenment.

These French scientists made the first comprehensive descriptions of Egypt for European audiences, and touched off a fascination for all thing Phaoronic that continues to this day. (shout-out to fellow-blogger Libbie Hawker, who specializes in the 18th dynasty)

Next in the stack, arriving this week from Amazon (see, even the librarian's husband must often buy a book) is a translation of a 19th century Arab's chronicle of the invasion. The translation is by Shmuel Moreh, a noted scholar whose work I've used before in research for Saint Mark's Body. I haven't gotten very far in this, but my favorite bit so far is when Al-Jabarti dissects bad Arabic grammar in one of Napoleon's proclamations:



"His [Bonaparte's] statement bta al-Mamalik (belonging to the Mamluks) is despicable and a banal and trite word. The word mutma'in should be mutma'inan because it is hal (circumstantial expression) and converting it to the nominative (raf) incorrectly is an indication of their state, and their significance. May God hurry misfortune and punishment upon them, may He strike their tongues with dumbness, may He scatter their hosts, and disperse them, confound their intelligence, and cause their breath to cease."



Apparently, according to Al-Jabarti, Allah should not be so merciful or compassionate when it comes to the declension of nouns. It seems quite just to me for a speaker of perfect French (which I am not, as any Francophone will instantly tell you) to be taken to task like this.

And of course there is the Historical Novel Review, my first issue since joining HNS. I didn't know quite what to expect from this mag: I joined up simply because I knew so many good authors who are members, like C.W. Gortner and Susan Higginbotham. I can certainly say I'm not disappointed; Historical Novel Review gives me a much bettery understanding of the breadth of the historical novels market. It's vital intelligence for anyone looking to break in.

01 July, 2010

World Cup Goal Review: A Modest Proposal

Officiating at the FIFA World Cup has always been the subject of controversy. At right we see Diego Maradona's infamous 1986 goal against England which was, he claimed, scored "un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios". Well, it's not God's hand we see on the ball in Figure 1, nor Maradona's head either.

In this year's World Cup we had goals and non-goals called wrongly against several teams including the USA and England. And so, despite my earlier paean to the sanctity of officiating mistakes in baseball, I hereby come out in favor of video review of goals in championship soccer matches. Look, these guys fight like crazy for ninety minutes and maybe--just maybe--one of the two teams on the field manages to score a goal. The referees need to get a goal or no goal call exactly right, and they need a little technological help to do it.

Here, then, is my Modest Proposal for video review of goals in soccer:

1) Cameras managed by FIFA (not the TV networks) are fixed at each end, with a clear view of each goal line and the penalty area.

2) Any player on the field may make a challenge to the referee's decision to either award or disallow a goal. This is the only kind of play that can be challenged.

3) The player must give grounds for the challenge that can be absolutely confirmed or dismissed by viewing the replay-- e.g. that the ball did or did not cross the line, that a player was or was not offside, that a handball did or did not occur. A foul called or not called by the referee is not subject to review, and no fouls can be charged or forgiven based on video review.

4) The head referee views the video, and may elect to reverse his prior call. His final decision cannot be appealed, on or off the field.

5) If on review the referee does not reverse the call, the player who challenged is automatically booked with a yellow card. The referee has the option to show a red card and send the player off if he feels the challenge was frivolous.

6) Time spent on a goal review is added to stoppage time.

Simple, eh? FIFA is welcome to contact me any time via this website. Your comments are also welcome.

23 June, 2010

There Has To Be Another Way

A recurring theme in my writing is that whenever a character is presented with two options, he or she seems to find a third. One historical character, Caliph Al-Ma'mun, even finds a third way a coin flip can go. (though that, I admit, I cribbed from an old Batman story)

And so I hope there can be a third way for publishing in the 21st century, because I really don't like either of the options so far.

As I see it, what's brought us to this point is two factors. The first-- No One Buys Books Anymore. Some blame the economy: less money, fewer books. I blame the easy availability of free reading material. Case in point: you, Dear Reader, and this blog. The second--Everyone Is A Stinking Author. We all have computers, and access to every imaginable writing resource, like the whole world was one big round table at the Algonquin. This is the era that spawned a million teenage paranormal romances. This is the era that spawned, well, me.

And so we have--what I wouldn't give to know the number of unpublsihed, possibly unpublishable books out there. And fewer and fewer available publishing spots to put them all in. Used to be, if you were one of the few who was willing to bang out a hundred thousand words on a Smith-Corona and mail them to a publisher, you had yourself a published book. Now, well, you're one of the millions (and millions) who had a few English courses, posesses a working laptop, and have written yourself a novel. Which brings us to:

OPTION 1: ONLY BRANDS SELL

This has always been true in some way, but as the market for new books tighten publishers rely on a few proven brand-names. Names like Cussler, Grafton, Collins. The astute reader may realize that some of these brand names don't even write their own books anymore. Some of them might even be dead. I can't be bothered to find that out right now. But they are all still publishing new books. Perhaps this is why the undead are so big in fiction these days.

So, for the unpublished, much text is typed about Becoming A Brand. And it's true, those who already are a brand-name (Tyra Banks, Glen Beck, Pope Benedict XVI) can get ANYTHING published.) If you're not them, the pundits say... better start a blog or something, get yourself a platform. But anyone can do that, right? Which leads us to,

OPTION 2: WE ARE ALL PUBLISHED AUTHOR'S. w00t!

And yes, I know damn well that's not a posessive. I am making a point! It's ridiculously easy to publish a book, so long as you don't care about quality and you don't care if it's marketed nowhere other than by Twitter and Facebook. There are a lot of pretty good options for print-on-demand and electronic publishing is even cheaper. The entry barrier is low. Hell, I could publish right now. Actually, in a way, I am publishing right now, or will once I hit the 'POST' button.

What's wrong with that? Laura Miller puts it so well in this Salon article: "Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?" If everyone publishes everything, how do you ever find the good stuff? Most importantly, if I self-publish and self-promote my Very Excellent Novel how are you going to find it in a sea of barely-disguised Twilight fanfic, fraught with error and tripe? With everyone else blogging and tweeting and worse?

You won't.

__________________________________

And so, I want another choice please. A third way. Books are too wonderful a thing for either of these fates to happen. I could even learn to like Kindle, I really could, if the quality of great Books were still there in the digital ink. But I see both of these options reducing the quality of the published works to the lowest common denominator.

I, for one, am not prepared to wade through the world's slush pile. Or read only the books that come from a Certified Brand on the marketing department's short list. There has to be another way.

Please?

16 June, 2010

Highlights of the Theological Discussion Between my Jordanian Cab Driver and Me

Points of Agreement

Jesus was, at the very least, a fine prophet and philosopher.




Fig. 1: Before




Picking me up at 5:15 would leave plenty of time to get to the airport, insh'Allah.

The practice of translating the Bible into many languages helps spread the Word, but engenders different views of Christianity.

The practice of not translating the Quran makes sure that everyone is looking at the same words. However, this limits the spread of Islam.

Whether or not one believes that the Quran is the infallible word of God, a lot of people will read the words but hear what they want to hear in them.

This is also true of the Bible.

Whiskey is a refreshing and healthful beverage. However, to fully appreciate the taste it's a good idea to dilute it with some spring water--never ice.

It was very interesting that on the same day we met, a giant statue of Jesus (pictured) was struck by lightning and destroyed.

It would have saved a lot of trouble if Jesus could have made a definitive pronouncement during His time on Earth regarding whether a statue of Him would, in fact, count as a 'graven image'.

Syria is not a neighbor you'd want to have.

Feta is a delightful cheese, and one should have it in a salad whenever possible.

Really, Caliph Al-Amin should have left well enough alone and kept the agreement his late father brokered regarding the succession, rather than getting into a ruinous civil war with his brother Al-Ma'mun in 810 AD.

Lamb is delicious.

Points of Disagreement

Whether the driver of a moving vehicle should have at least one eye on the road and/or one hand on the wheel at all times.

Whether a daughter should be allowed to live at home until she is married.
Whether a monarchial oligarchy is a viable form of government in the modern world.

Not Discussed

The proposed new Charter of the Anglican Covenant.

09 June, 2010

Writing the Fight -- Pacing

Legend has it that during times of foreign occupation in China, rebel fighters practiced their forbidden martial arts in the open and explained that they were only dancing. It's not that far-fetched. A fight has rhythm and pacing. Part of writing a good fight is making that rhythm of blows and holds come out in the words.

For pacing my fights, I have just a few cardinal rules. One of them is, Vary the steps. This ain't a waltz.

Alex hit Bob over the head with a two-by-four. Bob staggered, and then smacked Alex in the gut with his tire iron. That hurt Alex quite a bit, so he could barely lift the sack of potatoes high enough to drop it on Bob's toe.

Among the many things wrong with that sequence, every action is the same: one fighter hits the other with a one-step move. You want the notes to come in a surprising but sensical sequence, kind of like a Coltrane solo. A one-step here, a two-step there, a hold, a stop-hit, etc.

Wait... what did I mean by that?

ONE-STEP: a direct attack--a punch, kick, throw, gunshot or whatever. It could hit or miss, but you can describe it with one verb.

TWO-STEP: a compound action, either a two-step attack (Alex grabbed a fistful of Bob's hair and punched him in the nose.) or an attack with a defense (Alex swung the hammer, but Bob snapped his hand back just in time)

HOLD: A long action. It could be an actual hold (Bob tightened his grip on Alex's carotids. His face reddened at first, and then blanched white. It was in that moment that Bob realized he was on to something.) or maybe a pause ("I suppose you're wondering why I just punched you in the kidney," said Alex. "It's only because you should have given that kidney to your poor dead cousin! OUR cousin!") Anyway it takes significantly longer than a punch.

STOP-HIT: An action that interrupts another action. (Bob lobbed a wild hook at Alex's cheek, walking into a straight right. Bob wobbled and said, "Let me try that one again."

I like fights that are chaotic and unpredictable. Mayhem! When did a real fight ever go according to plan? So that's why I want the pacing to vary. A fight that beats one-two-three-four like my first example is just too predictable to thrill a reader. Go one, one, one-two, hold, one-two, hold, stop-hit and now maybe you've got something.

Bob's fist just grazed Alex's temple. He swung again as Alex stepped back, this time landing a hook just under his ribs. He struck again, but this time Alex intercepted his fist with a large unbound manuscript.

"Is that what I think it is?" Bob asked.

"That's right," said Alex, "It's my memoir: The Day Alex Kicked Bob's Ass"

"Memoir? Fiction, you mean!" Bob kicked the manuscript out of Alex's hands. The cloud of papers masked his next kick, straight into Alex's solar plexus. Alex doubled over, wheezing.

"You... you animal," Alex said. "I never numbered the pages!" He sprang up, fingers clawing for Bob's throat--but Bob dodged aside and kicked Alex's ankle out from under him. His face hit the ground like a flipped pancake and the pages of his manuscript settled over him in a pile of 8 1/2 by 11 inch futility.

,

Did I get the rhythm right in that sequence? One, one, one-two, hold, one-two, hold, stop-hit aaaannnd faceplant.

04 June, 2010

The Blown Call --OR-- Why I Love Baseball

Two outs in the ninth inning. Armando Galarraga has retired twenty-six batters on eighty-seven pitches and the eighty-eighth is a 1-1 changeup that Jason Donald hits on the ground to first. The pitcher covers the bag--catches the toss--and Donald is called safe by umpire James Joyce!

It would have been only the twenty-first perfect game in major league baseball history, although the third this season. But it wasn't. Donald is safe at first, and Galarraga finishes with a one-hit shutout.

The replays show it clearly, if by 'clearly' we mean that it's clear in a freezeframe. Donald should have been called out. Some say he WAS out, that it's a perfect game for Galarraga.

Why not call it a perfect game? It doesn't hurt anyone. You could even give Donald the hit and Galarraga the perfect game at the same time. Why not? It doesn't affect the outcome of the game, the Tigers win whether it was a hit or not. It's like a bad call in figure skating, right? Didn't that just make you cry when those meanie European judges robbed Canada's widdle sweethearts? Wasn't it right to just give everyone gold medals and make it all better?


Fig. 2: Awwww. Does everyone feel better now?

Because this is baseball, not figure skating. There is no crying in baseball. The umpire made a mistake? Part of the game. An act of God, if you will, and in the tiny world of dirt and grass bounded by chalk and the outfield fence, that man in black is the Supreme Being.

The Tigers' manager argued, but The Call was Safe, and verily the runner is safe!

But after the game, James Joyce reviewed the tapes and saw what everyone else already had: he blew it. Donald was out by a full step. That was a perfect game.

And then Joyce did something no god or umpire never does: he came down his throne on high and said, 'I blew the call. I'm sorry.'

Class.

And what did Galarraga say? What every baseball player says in every interview. It is what it is. Just out there to help the team. James Joyce is a great guy and a good umpire. It's a long season.

Class.

Next day -- because Baseball is played every day when the weather suits -- Joyce isn't the first base umpire. He's behind the plate in charge of balls and strikes now. And he walks out in front of that Detroit crowd. He robbed THEM of perfection. He robbed THEM of a hero. This is a sports town that riots when they WIN. And what happens? They stand and APPLAUD.

Class.

The Tigers send Galarraga out to perform the ritual of handing Joyce the team's lineup card. Joyce looks it over and you can see him start to choke up. He gives Galarraga a tough-guy-I-love-you shove, the man he deemed by his supreme yet fallible authority to have pitched a one-hit shutout last night. And then Joyce reaches under the brim of his hat and wipes his moistening--

Fig. 3 : Class.

Did I say there was no crying in baseball? Well, maybe it's OK, just this one time. Play ball.

30 May, 2010

Questions From the Back Seat

"Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"Daddy, can Han Solo's blaster shoot through Iron Man's armor?"

"Let me think about that... no, because Iron Man's armor is magnetically shielded."

"Like the door in the garbage masher on the Death star?"

"Yes."

***

"Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"Daddy, when is it a quarry and when is it a mine?"

"It's a quarry when they dig up stones to sell. It's a mine when they dig through the stones to get to something that's worth more, like gold. Or bauxite."

***

"Daddy?"

"What?"

"Daddy, is Superman a daddy?"

"No."

"But he's a grownup, and he has a mommy and a daddy"

"Everyone has a mommy and a daddy, but not everyone IS a mommy or a daddy."

"But Daddy? Why isn't Superman a daddy?"

"Because he never... well..."

Melissa chimes in: "Remember he's an alien, Henry. He might not be able to have babies with a human woman."

"Honey, do you really want to open that line of questioning?"

"Daddy?"

"He has to get married first, and he's not married."

***

"Daddy?"

"What, Henry?"

"Daddy, what are pirates?"

"Robbers who rob people in ships."

"Why are there robbers?"

"Because some people are too lazy to get jobs."

***
"Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"What happens when lightning hits you?"

"You can die."

"Why?"

"That much electricity can stop your heart or give you burns."

"For real?"

"For real. But I read about a park ranger who got hit seven or eight times and lived."

"Seven times? That lightning not very strong den."

"No, Henry, it wasn't."

28 May, 2010

In Praise Of The MacGuffin

It's hard to have a thriller story without one. It drives the plot, it gives the characters a reason to kill and die and love. It could be anything, anything at all and we call it ... the MacGuffin!

Fig. 1: Featuring Backbacon

No, no, not a McMuffin, a MacGuffin! Hitchcock said it best:

"We have a name in the studio, and we call it the "MacGuffin". It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is almost always the papers."
So, how do they work? Well, it really could be almost anything. It could be something impressive, like an object of imaginable power that moves nations and empires and will change the balance of power in all the world. I call this the "Power MacGuffin". For example the Sausage Elven MacGuffin with Invisible Cheese, pictured right.

It's obvious in Tolkien's story why everyone is after the One Ring. The author sells it well from the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf is afraid to touch it. Effing Gandalf the Grey! That's some serious mojo. And Tolkien doesn't even tell us right off why or how the ring is so powerful. That falls to Elrond the High-Elven Lord of Copious Backstory. (And yes, Dear Wannabe Author, Tolkien got away with putting 4000 words of uninterrupted backstory in the middle of the book. You can't.)

And here's another great MacGuffin, pictured left. It's very similar to the Sausage Elven MacGuffin in power and function except that it's much harder to carry. But the Double Bacon Fried Nazi Cheese MacGuffin does give the wielder great power, and has the side effect of destroying a wielder who isn't suited for it. The Lost Ark also has another great feature common to MacGuffins: in the end, it just doesn't matter. It disappears into a giant warehouse never to be seen again. The purpose of the Power MacGuffin is not for its power to be used, but for the threat of its power to drive plot.

Next up we have the Intrigue MacGuffin. This kind is the necklace or papers Hitchcock mentions. The consequences of having or not having this MacGuffin might be limited to one person--for example that necklace had better be dangling in Lady Bottomfeeder's cleavage at the opera tonight, or else Lord Bottomfeeder is going to know that she's given it to that rascal Captain Doublet to pay for the mercury he needs to cure his crew's raging syphillis infection. My all-time favorite Intrigue MacGuffin is the transit papers in Casablanca. I don't have a picture of them because I'm not sure we ever even see them. They are not an impressive object that glows and shoots fire. What they do is drive one of the most masterful plots ever constructed. The point of Casablanca is the human story and the Egg and Transit Paper Kiss is Just A Kiss MacGuffin is what pulls characters together and drives them apart.

Finally, the WTF MacGuffin. I love this one because it strips away all pretense. The author simply tells you that the object is important, and the characters sell the importance with their actions alone. This one appears in many formulaic plots and can be a Particularly Cheesy MacGuffin. But in the hands of a master like Dashell Hammett, the fact that we never really know WHY all the characters are after it is irrelevent. In fact, it may add to the mystique.


Fig. 4: Yeah, Bogie, I don't get it either. But it certainly gives you an excuse to slap Peter Lorre.

I'm sure Faithful Readers can come up with many more types and examples of the venerable MacGuffin. Like its close homonym in Figure One it can be cheap... but it is filling. It is cheesy... but there's a slice of meat in there too. It can take but a moment to consume... but hours to digest.

FIN

21 May, 2010

The Forty-Year-Old Soccer N00b


The last time I played soccer was my freshman year, 1984. I was quite proud to have made the junior varsity team, as I didn't know that they pretty much took everybody. I even bought one of those wool jackets with the vinyl sleeves in the surety that I'd get to have my mom sew a letter on it in a few years. I have no idea what ever happened to that jacket.

I'm not sure I ever played during a game in regulation. I remember always coming on in the 'fifth quarter', 15 minutes for the kids who hadn't gotten to play. My scrawny body and lack of skills were only part of the reason I didn't play much; attitude was the rest. I never quite got it in my head that everyone on a team has a role, and maybe for a while mine was to play the position they assigned me and do my best to learn. So, I quit.

A couple of weeks ago when I found out about the lunchtime pickup game at work, I went right out and bought cleats and shinguards. I even got a pair of long black socks so I'd feel... well... like a right footballer. And today I played.

I don't like the expression 'youth is wasted on the young'. I agree that when we're young, we do a lot of things wrong. But I don't like the idea that we miss our chances. Sure, the body might not respond to training or heal injuries quite as fast as we age, but it's never too late. No, no, it can't be too late.

I did a lot of things wrong today. I didn't know how to properly mark a man, so I let quite a few get past me be either coming in too close or giving him too much room. I don't have a strong or accurate kick, so I put a few balls where I shouldn't have. And worst of all, a ball came right at my head... and I ducked it. I couldn't believe it. How 1984 of me.

But I did a lot of things right too. I played damn hard for sixty minutes. I had some sort of idea where I was supposed to be, and I ran there. I beat more than one younger guy to the ball--what I did with it when I got there was another matter, but I gave myself chances to do something useful. I even sprinted to fetch balls kicked out of bounds. I guess effort was the only thing in my control, given my lack of skill, and I wanted to at least show that. I made a couple of decent tackles, and at least one better-than-half-bad pass. And once I knocked a dangerous ball out of play with a jumping header... after ducking that first time, I was going to put my head on a ball that game if it killed me.

I got to my afternoon meeting still sweating after the shower. There's a blood blister covering the whole pad of my left big toe. I am so playing again next week. I'd like to think I'm going to get good at soccer, but I know I won't. The best I can do is run hard, be where I'm needed, and try to remember not to duck.

17 May, 2010

Anachronism? Prithee, nay!

Some fellow authors who've read sections of my novel Saint Mark's Body have commented that the voice sometimes sees out of place for the 9th century A.D.--or worse, that some of the Venetians sound *gasp* American! I respectfully submit that often a modern voice is the best way to tell an old story.

First off, we need to understand that we are reading in translation any novel set in a time or place where modern English isn't spoken. Even an author with a Mel Gibson-sized ego can't write an entire novel for an English-speaking audience in Aramaic or Incan. Books do not have subtitles. (well, yet... I suppose all things are possible with ebooks).

The author's job is always to make us feel as though we're witnesses to the action. When the characters are all speaking, for example, 15th century Swiss German, the situation is complicated. It's as though the author gives us the gift of tongues--somehow by peering through the veil of the printed page, we understand 15th century Swiss German.

C.W. Gortner does this well in his novels of the old Spanish court, for example The Last Queen. Every now and then he throws in a Spanish phrase most people will understand, or uses a more obscure one but skillfully works in a quick translation. It helps that Gortner is fluent in both languages, so his Juana chooses words we read in English that feel to us like old Spanish (even if we don't understand old Spanish, or any Spanish at all.)

Readers have the same expectation of books set in old-time England. They want to feel like they're right there, and they understand what everyone is saying... but in this case, often forget that once again they are reading in translation. Drop any one of us moderns in Robin Hood's England, and we'd be completely lost for a while. There are enough common words between our English and the 11th century version that we could probably order coffee and get directions to the train station (if either existed) , but fluent communication would be difficult.

However, most people don't realize this. Most think that Medieval English was just like ours, except you call peoply 'thou' and tack 'est' onto the end of every other verb. Speech in that format, even if it's as wrong for the period, sounds 'oldey-timey' and correct. Why?

Because that's the way Errol Flynn did it, that's the way Hollywood does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far.



Fig. 1 : And he was a terrible fencer. Yeah, I said it.



It reminds me a bit of gunshots on stage. In a theater, a real gunshot doesn't sound like a gunshot. A blank round sounds like a gunshot, because that's what audiences are used to. We learn our version of reality from the contrivances of fiction, and then disbelieve fiction that matches reality instead of the contrivance.

So, why do my Venetian sailors use modern swear words, contractions, and other things that don't sound oldey-timey? Because I want the reader to be there with them on the ship, and I know that 'thee' and 'belayest ye sheete!" is as much an anachronism as Valley Girl speak, there being no language recognizable as English in 827 anyway.

And I do want my Venetians to sound just a little American. I'll get to the 'why' of that in another post.

14 May, 2010

A Fighting Writer's Review of KICK-ASS

This was a movie I thought did a great many things right, and only a few wrong, in presenting belivable and engaging violence on-screen. I'll discuss it in terms of Characterization, Fight Techniques, and at the end, Call Shenanigans.

Characterization

Kick-Ass himself has a perfectly believable set of non-super superpowers: due to significant injuries he has a lot of metal-reinforced bones, and can't feel a lot of pain. His fighting skills are minimal. However he's in decent shape, completely ruthless (I mean, the boy carries two truncheons), and his powers enable him to keep fighting even after his more skilled opponents beat him down.

Hit Girl is close to cliche (as I discussed last post) what with her mastery of weapons and screen-ninja marital arts abilities. However, he background as presented in the film makes this somewhat plausible. She is, essentially, a child-soldier no less deadly than the kids who shoot each other up in wars all over the developing world (and in many cities of the 'developed' world). Lethal violence is a game to her, and it's clear that she's had an upbringing that focuses exclusively on that.

Big Daddy is an ex-cop with good weapons skills and heavy body armor. His hand-to-hand skills are good, but not as good as Hit Girl's -- which is appropriate, since he had something of a normal childhood.

The Fights: What I Liked

Kick-ass gets his ass kicked by better-skilled fighters in every single scene. He keeps getting up, like a Rocky outclassed by an Apollo Creed, and 'goes the distance' so we root for him even though he's a loser. Actually he's such a noble and believable loser he wins. Kick-ass's techniques are appropriate for the character's skills. He doesn't swing a truncheon or a fist the way a trained fighter does--he's wild, with big wide actions that his opponents usually dodge. He doesn't have an effective defense, and they score a lot of hits on him. Every fight he's in is perfectly consistent with his character ideas.

Hit Girl is also mostly believable. I can buy that a kid taught nothing but martial arts from an early age can execute the crazy maneuvers she pulls off. Appropriately, she is not knocking out 200-pound men with her size 2 boots. When she takes a man out, it's with a knife, a gun, or (aweseomely) a sort of double-ended naginata. When she goes unarmed against a large man with martial arts training inferior to hers, she has a lot of trouble with him. WHICH IS RIGHT. She can hit him ten times to his one, but she can't really hurt him. His strikes hurt, and he also has a reach advantage which the fight director made apparent. There are a couple times when he delivers a kick while she is still out of range and setting up her attack. Great use of DISTANCE (the tactical kind) throughout her fights to tell the story.

Big Daddy is mostly in shootouts, so little comments here other than I liked that the bad guys could actually hit him at close range with their handguns. (that is, they did not train at the Imperial Stormtroopers School of Marksmanship) He's wearing body armor heavy enough for us to beleive he can shrug off those shots.

What I Didn't Like

Not much! I found it a little annoying that every time Hit Girl emptied one of her pistols she had to turn the whole thing and look at it (exactly like a character in a first-person shooter videogame) to verify it's empty. She should be able to tell her pistols are empty from her ordinary view over the gunsight because the slide locks back on the last shot. There is one scene where we see her take down a bunch of goons from her POV, and this works as an homage to FPS games... but elsewhere it's annoying.

I Call Shenanigans!

But only once. Hit Girl is in a shootout and empties both of her pistols simultaneously. She ejects the magazines, pulls two new ones from her belt, THROWS THEM IN THE AIR and somehow they land in the pistols with enough force to seat themselves in the mechanism so she can chamber the next rounds. Even if her mad ninja skillz allow her to catch two spinning magazines in the grips of her two pistols, I think there just isn't enough kinetic energy to seat them in the pistols after a fall of only about a meter. So, shenanigans... however it was awesome to watch and a very creative reload.

Overall: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED and added to my list of Great Fight Movies.

10 May, 2010

Usually, An Irresistable Force Should Squish a Soft Object

A reader asked me about a situation in her novel that comes up very, very, often in fiction. The heroine--athletic, well-trained, small--is up against a big goon. What happens?

Well, what usually happens in fiction is that the little girl wins. She executes kick after flawless kick to the big guy until he goes down hard. It's almost a reverse lock: in an action movie you can sometimes assume that the smaller and prettier the heroine, the more ass she will kick. And then there's Figure 1.












Figure 1: Shenanigans, Lucas!

The sad truth of the matter is that a big, fast, well-trained person is going to beat a small, fast, well-trained person most of the time. Seeing as I weighed in at 70 1/2 kg today in the gym, I wish this weren't true but it is. That's why there are weight classes.


Of course in a work of fiction anything can happen, right? Well no, not really. In fantasy anythign can happen. In fiction we at least ask for plausibility. So we've discussed writing the fight in two posts-- one on character and one on outcome. We haven't even gotten to techniques yet. So, suppose your character is a 50 kg firecracker in a skimpy bodice and she needs to defeat a twenty-stone (I know I'm mixing units.) deviant psycho. How are you going to write your way out of this one?

I know what you're all thinking.


Fig. 2 -- What You're All Thinking


But is that really going to work? I think usually, no. Otherwise guys would kick each other in the nuts all the time. There would be entire martial arts with thousand-year histories devoted to the art of kicking another man in the balls. Don't think we don't do it because of some sense of honor. That's ridiculous. We don't do it because it's a low-probability strike and it doesn't do quite as much damage as you'd think. Yet in fiction, it's presented as the One Weakness that can bring down any big goon, just as long as the person trying it is sufficiently small and weak-looking enough to be allowed to stoop so low.

Come to think of it, the Kick in the Balls is kind of like the thermal exhaust port (just below the main port) on the Death Star. It's an instant win, and it can only be accomplished by cute little bitty starfighters.

But I still haven't told you how to get your 50kg lovely away from the goon. Look, all of the obvious things really can work. You just have to avoid making them cliche.

I Know Kung Fu -- Superior training can do a lot, but it should help equalize a disparity in size rather than make your tiny ninja completely invincible (unless you're writing fantasy) Why not,

  • Actually let small size be a disadvantage! You know, let her get grabbed, even picked up off the ground. The goon's arms are longer--let him hit her a couple of times. It's not fair, it's frustrating, but it might be good fiction.
  • Let the overdogs win sometimes. That builds credibility. At least in Episode IV the stormtroopers managed to slaughter some Alderanian marines and the Jawas.

A Weapon -- It can be lethal or not, intended or improvised. Even fingernails, keys, etc.

Cliches to avoid:

  • "The goon is ALWAYS surprised by the weapon and goes down with one shot." Let the weapon equalize the fight but not end it. A weak arm swinging a baseball bat is still a weak arm.

  • "Every action hero or heroine is an expert in every stinking weapon." I'd like to see some unfamiliarity--like a sword expert forced to adapt her techniques when all she's got is a lawn chair.

An Ally -- The cavalry to the rescue! This one is pretty straightforward.


The classic cliche:

  • In the Nick of Time" Well, of course they have to be in time. Just please, no ridiculous delays. If the audience is yelling "why doesn't he just shoot her already?" then you've missed your mark.

Go for a Soft Spot! -- The eyes, face and yes the infamous Ball Kick

Cliches to avoid:

  • "A direct hit starts a chain reaction that destroys..." Why not have that ball kick miss, or just not be effective, and the heroine has to try something else?

  • "The bad guy is never expecting it" Why not have her set up the Soft Spot hit rather than go straight for it? Flail around at his head with that lawn chair and THEN go for the nuts. Please, just ANYTHING but the Unstoppable Lethal Ball Kick.
Didn't Bring the 'A' Game (thanks to Jessica--I added this after her comment)

Right--so, what if the Goon isn't trying as hard as the teensy hero?

The classic cliche:

  • Fatal Overconfidence: "Ha! I could just shoot you with my bazooka, but that wouldn't be sporting! Instead I will tie one hand behind my back and give you this spear." In my opinion this sort of thing is moustache-twirling on a grand scale, an Evil Overlord level blunder. If it's a fight with lethal consequences then the bad guy should "just shoot her" unless there's a good reason not to.

Better Ideas: Both of these fall under the heading of "Differing Goals", which we established in "Settings"

  • I didn't know you were serious about this!: Goon only wants to teach the little girl a lesson, and doesn't think he needs to hurt her to do it. But little girl puts all 50kg on the goon's kneecap, and breaks it. This reminds me of one of my favorite Heinlein quotes: "Never frighten a small man. He'll kill you."
  • "There's one! Set for stun!" The goons need to capture the Princess alive, but she has no
    qualms about whacking a few Stormtroopers before they do.

06 May, 2010

Writing the Fight -- Setting


Setting means more to me than simply the stage on which the fight takes place. Here I mean setting to include all the factors that influence how the characters (which we discussed in the last post) are going to fight. This includes (but isn't limited to):
  • location
  • environment
  • victory objectives
  • plot outcomes
  • character outcomes

Location and environment are important and can add color. Is the fight on a bridge? Is it raining? Is this a personal combat in the middle of an artillery barrage? Time of day? Position of the sun? Like the setting for a non-combat scene, the more detail you have in your mind the better, but it doesn't all need to come out on the page if it interferes with action or doesn't advance the plot.

Victory objectives is one of those things that might seem obvious in retrospect, but you'd be surprised how often fight writers don't think of an objective greater than 'winning the fight'. Rocky's objective in his first fight against Apollo was to 'go the distance', and playing the fight out that way made it all about the quest for self-respect that defined his character.

What does each fighter consider a win? Think carefully. In my example fight, Batman wants to capture the Joker and his goons and bring them back to his own time. Theodore Roosevelt wants to remove the ability of the Joker to keep the Russo-Japanese War going. Note that the team-mates have slightly different goals: were this not a bedtime story, T.R. might accept killing the Joker but Batman would not. On the other side, the Joker's objective as always is to cause havoc and have a good laugh. His goons want to escape jail and/or serious injury.

Plot Outcomes: Setting your outcomes in advance bounds the problem. You're the writer, you know how it has to end. In the case of a story for a five-year-old, this is easy. The Joker and his goons will be captured. No serious injuries are allowed.

Character Outcomes: Remember, the fight tells a story and it tells us something about Character. I look at a fight as an opportunity to show (not tell) the parts of a character's soul that are only visible under duress.

Action focuses the reader. He stops skimming and starts READING for anything that gets the heart beating faster whether that's sex, terror, or violence. You've got his full attention. What are you going to tell him?

In my admittedly infantile example, we are going to learn that Batman is completely awesome. T.R. is a brave, brave man and a worthy leader of the Free World. Both exemplify Daddy's recurring story theme that it's a good idea to exercise and eat all your vegetables. We will further learn that the Joker is weak and cowardly, mostly because he drinks too much soda. The goons are expendable, there will be no character development for them.

A story told to someone over the age of five will have more complex character development, of course. Rocky proves to Apollo, Mickey, Adrian and himself that he is not a bum. Luke refuses to finish off his father, and his father dies to save him and redeem himself. Achilles shows that he is the finest man of his generation, but that he's just a little too caught up in his own bad self.

Get this right, and your fighter might just dust himself off and find he's the stuff of legend.

04 May, 2010

Mystery: More than a Genre

Genres have rules, and one of the key ones in classic Mystery is that of Fair Play--the Reader must have a sporting chance to guess the killer given only the information presented in the book to the sleuth.

This seems to me a pretty good rule for mysterious elements within a non-Mystery genre novel. When it's broken, readers can feel cheated. When it's followed, readers can fell all smug and wonderful because they think they can guess where the author is going--until, of course, the last chapter when we swerve them so hard their little heads spin.



"Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?"

--Oath of the Detection Club

Most novels include some element of mystery, even if it's not the important part of the plot. Who's really behind the nefarious plot to blow up the Guggenheim? How does dashing Mister Ploofery know so much about Miss Winkel's ill-starred past? And what's the meaning of that mole?


Of course when we're reading a good book as simple readers (if as authors we can do that anymore) we enjoy it even if we have absolutely no clue how it's going to turn out. After all, this is a published novel! There has to be a payoff! I mean, a Real Published Work of Fiction would never just leave readers hanging, right?



Fig. 1: What the what?

Most novelists, however--and by this I mean the most of us who haven't quite gotten to be published yet--can't get away with these sorts of shenanigans. Because the reader--whether it be beta buddie or agent--doesn't quite trust us to pay off. Nor should they!



I mean, suppose you had a Mysterious Character. One that only shows up in a few scenes, and maybe has only a couple of lines. A rookie, unpublished author might do something stupid with that character, like kill him off for laughs and no clue as to his origins or why he's so mysterious. No published author or Real Successful Filmmaker would ever do something so against the Conventions of Mystery and get away with it. Right? Right?!!

Fig. 2 : I call shenanigans
on you, Lucas!


Right. I think it's a bit like horse racing, which I firmly believe no one would bother watching if they could not bet on it. If you give a reader enough information to form a theory, then that reader has an investment in your plot. He wants to stick around to see if he's right or not. Who ever bet a measly $2 on a horse race and then left in the middle?


02 May, 2010

Writing the Fight -- Characters

Designing a fight has to begin with an understanding of the combatants. One good reason is so that the actions in the fight fit the characters, but that's not the best reason--the best reason is that a GOOD fight helps DEFINE your characters.

"You never truly know a man until you fight him"

-- that kung fu guy, Matrix Reloaded



Rrrrighht. So let's begin with some of the things you need to know about your characters before you start having them beat on each other. By the way, this kind of understanding of the characters is important whether they're the fight designer's creation or not. The fight designer does NOT have control over the characters if he's creating a fight for a play or film (the director and actors have that responsibility) and the fight designer has limited authority over character if he's dealing with a historical figure.

For this example I'll use a fight I designed for a bedtime story for my son. The combatants are,

President Theodore Roosevelt and Batman

versus

The Joker and Some Goons

This fight occured when Batman traveled back in time to help the President end the Russo-Japanese War, which started because the Joker planted a whoopee cushion in the Tsar's chair and blamed the Japanese ambassador for it. (That's not important right now, but it's funny.) We'll concentrate on T.R. since this is after all a historical fiction blog.


President Theodore Roosevelt (1905)


Describe the fighter's physical characteristics: The President is a big man, probably a bit over 200 pounds at this point and in decent physical shape but not optimum. He has a desk job but he works out when he can. He is very nearsighted and must wear spectacles to have any chance at ranged combat.



What training does the fighter have? T.R. is an experienced amateur wrestler and boxer who has taken a few judo lessons. His abilities with edged weapons are limited to pointing a saber in the direction of the enemy, or skinning a deer with a Bowie knife. He is a good shot with small arms and can handle large-bore rifles with no trouble. Superb horseman.

How tough is the fighter? Once finished a speech with a bullet lodged in his chest. 'Nuff said.

Before the Fight: Belligerence and Aggression:
Is this character accustomed to using violence or the threat of violence to achieve his goals? How does he react when threatened?
T.R. made implications of violence ("the big stick") a centerpiece of American diplomacy. On a personal level, I think he would make it clear he is willing to fight but not do anything unseemly like put up his fists unless the other fellow already has. If confronted with a belligerent he believes honorable, T.R. would most likely "call him out" for a fair and non-lethal contest, for example a fistfight. As a younger man (and not a sitting President) he could have gotten himself into a pistol duel under the right conditions.

Winning the Fight -- Ruthlessness and Limits:
Will he go all-out? Can he finish the job? If T.R. gains an advantage he will likely continue to attack until he incapacitates his opponent: he will not, however, continue to punish a defeated enemy. He will shoot to kill in a gunfight, and will try to knock an opponent out or force him to submit in hand-to-hand combat. He knows at least a few ways to do this with his hands (punchout, wrestling holds and throws, possibly a chokeout)

Losing the Fight:
Is Surrender an Option? Being more concerned with his legacy than his personal safety, T.R. will put on a 'bully good show' until the bitter end if he thinks his death will have some value. However, I think he would surrender to an honorable enemy if necessary, or especially if it would save the lives of troops he commands.

Situational Questions:
There are too many to answer here or even list them all, but some good ones are: How does he react if surprised? Cornered? Wounded? What tricks does he know? Does he have reasons to fight or not fight that aren't related to the battle at hand? Will he try to use an improvised weapon if he's unarmed? What sort of fight is 'in his element', and what will he do if it's not his kind of fight?

I recommend answering as many of these situational questions as you can think of. It's not about whether or not the character will encounter this situation in the fight you're writing--it's about understanding how your character will react in combat, which not only helps to design a good fight but will give you insight on his overall nature. Remember, "You never truly know a man until you fight him."

29 April, 2010

On Genres


SO, I was writing a query yesterday for an agent with very specific guidelines on what she wanted to see from a fiction author. (Note to all the agents who are not reading this blog right now: I LOVE THIS! Because of all the English Lit majors I'm competing with who don't know how to follow directions.

*dodges barrage of dogeared Strunk&White paperbacks*

Anyway, the agent did not list Historical as a valid genre. Since my story happens (but it really didn't happen) in the 9th century AD I've been thinking of it as historical fiction.

But really, is historical fiction a genre? SHOULD it be? Calling every story that happens before the present day historical is like calling every novel that takes place in the present day contemporary. There are mysteries, romances, horror stories, etc. written in all time periods.

And so, I picked Thriller (heeeee- heee! jam on! see picture) from the available labels. Hey, I've got knife fights, brothel brawls, hiding from pirates, political intrigues, and the odd strangling happening as quick as the pages turn. But no zombies..... in THIS novel.

27 April, 2010

Five Common Blunders in Fight Choreography

I first started using the word 'mayhem' as my brand many years ago when I founded a fight choreography and prop weapon rental company called Stage Mayhem. This can make watching a movie with me either very enlightening or eye-rolling annoying, depending on your stomach for snark commentary.

Last night my wife and I were watching a Season 2 episode of The Tudors, and I could tell from the actors' clothes and positions not only that there was going to be a swordfight, but exactly what tactics the fighters would use and how it would end up. Unfortunately it started too fast for me to make the full prediction out loud to my wife and take full credit for my prescience. That's just as well, as she's the one rolling her eyes when I give the correct Final Jeopardy response before Trebek reads the clue. (Rutherford B. Hayes FTW!)

Message to historical fight directors: don't be so obvious! If no one else in your show wears a little cloak off one shoulder, I know you put it there so he can use it as an off-handed parry in a two-on-one attack. (I also know that you found the actor by trolling the lysts at an SCA event) If no one else in your show wears a white puffy shirt and no doublet, I know he's wearing it so the blood will show up better when he gets stabbed. I know this because I had to wear one every stinking night for Cyrano de Bergerac.

Here are a few common problems I have with the fights I see on TV, movies, and stage.


1. Use all the weapons!
By all means, focus on the swords if it's a swordfight. But don't forget the unarmed hand for grabs and punches, foot stomps, elbows. Most practical disarms from the Golden Age of Dueling used the unarmed hand to grapple, not a sweeping bind or prise-de-fer.


2. "Where'd he learn to fight?"
Well, not everyone can fight. And when a tax preparer and a waiter go at it, I don't want to see nice, crisp, well-choreographed punches and blocks. When two guys who don't quite know what they're doing try to hurt each other, it generally starts with shoving and ends with them rolling around on the ground. A great example of this done right was the street fight in Bridget Jones' Diary. Hugh Grant's character was not presented as a fighter, and he didn't fight like one.

3. Attacking the Parry
This one is tough to avoid because of fight safety practices. We teach actors to wait for the parry to get into position and then strike the closed line. Of course in a real fight you'd attack the nice squishy flesh on the other side. A well-designed fight includes some feints to open lines, just to show the characters really are trying to kill each other.

4. The Beauty of Imperfection
I love seeing characters make little mistakes in fights. (characters, NOT actors. That's how you lose an eye.) What if he got too close to the enemy and can't quite get his sword out of the scabbard for a while? Or his voluminous cloak gets snagged or goes over his head? Or he forgot to chamber the first round and his Webley-Vickers 30.80 just makes a fateful 'click'? Read an account of almost any real fight where one or both parties were surprised. Mistakes abound, and the guy who makes the first one isn't always the guy who makes the last.


5. "Why don't they all just attack him at once?"
A perennial favorite. Actually there are some very good reasons why the army of goons surrounding the hero shouldn't all attack at once. And the fight choreographer had better think of one, 'cause otherwise the goons really should just dogpile the sucka.

  • limited space: the fight takes place on the deck of a ship, an alley, inside a Starbucks, etc. Any set design that tends to funnel the goons so the hero can take them one at a time.
  • good tactics: the hero does what an actual trained fighter does in such a situation (assuming he can't run away, which is always my Plan "A") He attacks one or two of the goons to get outside their ring, and then makes them come to him. This will tend to line them up for a series of one-on-one battles.
  • quick actions: There isn't time for anything complicated! If the hero spends more than half a second on any foe, the rest should rightly swarm him. Bruce Lee was great at using quick disabling moves in 20-on-one fights rather than spend the time necessary to fully detatch someone's spine and rip it out of his body. One-beat actions (hero clobbers goon) are fastest. Beat-and-a-half (goon strikes, hero slips the punch and counterstrikes) are nearly as fast. Two-beat actions (goon attacks, hero blocks, hero counters) can be too slow, especially if they pile up. You don't want the audience to see any space where two guys could have attacked at once, or someone couldn't just dive on the sucka.

25 April, 2010

Feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist, 2010

On this day in 68 AD, Mark the Evangelist met his martyrdom on a street in Alexandria
(pictured at right by Fra Angelico).

I first became interested in Mark because of the story of how his body left Alexandria 760 years later and ended up in Venice. The more I learned about the living Saint Mark, the more I liked him.

Mark is unique among the Gospel writers in several ways. First off, it's entirely possible that he was actually there. Tradition puts him at the Last Supper, as a server. (Hey, boy, can you get us a new salt shaker? And wrap the rest of this bread up to go-- might be important later. Thanks.) He may also appear in a cameo in his own Gospel, as the young man in Gethsemane who the Romans try to arrest but manages to get away by ditching his clothes. Mark's mother was one of the early Christians who sheltered the Apostles in the days after the Crucifixion, and so Mark became an early disciple of Peter. In fact, Mark's gospel might really be Saint Peter's lecture notes.

What I love about Mark's Gospel is its immediacy and its directness. Mark doesn't tell a nativity story. Mark doesn't bring in a lot of imagery and symbolism. The message is strong enough that Mark feels he can tell it without first establishing his main character's divine credentials. So, one can approach Mark's Gospel as a philosopher. And why not? Whether or not it gets anyone to Heaven, a philosophy of putting love of others first, if universally adopted, would make Earth a pretty nice place to live.

Besides the mystery of what happened to Saint Mark's body in 827-828 and what that meant for Venice, the other thing that intrigues me about him is the fact that a good portion of his orginal Gospel draft is not known to us.

Say what?

Well, Mark writes his "just the facts" story and at a pretty good clip takes us straight to the moment where the women go into the tomb and find Jesus's body missing. Mark 16:8 has the frightened women running out of the tomb... and then, in the earliest known manuscripts, it just ends. The rest of the traditional text, Mark 16:9-20, wraps the story up with news of a Resurrection, but it reads like another author's work. Maybe Mark's agent or editor added the extra verses to make his Gospel more saleable... (A cliffhanger? No, seriously, Mark baby, that ain't gonna work for your debut. We're already taking a chance on you printing on papyrus and not going straight to trade paperback.) but slightly more likely is the possibility that part of a codex got lost along the way and a helpful scribe added a religiously appropriate ending.

And so today we celebrate the author on whose text Matthew's and Luke's gospels were based: an eyewitness to the last days of Christ and the first days of the Apostles: the man who founded the Coptic Church, the first community of Christians outside Israel: and the man who, if the legends are to be believed, continued to affect history and politics for more than a thousand years hence.

I was talking to the rector of St. George's in Schenectady on Friday (George's feast day, as it turns out) and he asked me where Mark's body is now. Well, he's in at least three places! Most of him is still believed to be in Venice, although in recent years the Venetians have not really let anyone look at him. The head might still be in Alexandria, though it has not been seen since the early 19th century and Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. And certain relics were returned to the Coptic Church (some or possibly all of the Venetian treasure) in 1968.