After a certain amount of umming and ahhing, I’ve finally locked down my convention schedule for 2014. It’s a busy one, mostly because there are so many awesome cons around and I don’t want to miss out!
N.B. Panels and other events will be confirmed nearer the time.
Way back in 2011 (gosh, was it really that long ago?) I read Abraham’s debut, A Shadow in Summer, and loved it for its beautiful writing and unusual Eastern-inspired setting, so when I heard he had written a more conventional epic fantasy series I was a little conflicted. I couldn’t blame him for wanting to write something more commercial than The Long Price Quartet, but I’m not a huge fan of bog-standard medieval EF so it didn’t exactly leap to the top of my TBR list. However I’m currently waiting on several much-anticipated books that aren’t out until spring, so I decided to bite the bullet and give The Dragon’s Path a go… Read more
So, the BBC have a new “historical” drama series based on that much-loved classic The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. So far, so awesome for any fan of swashbuckling action, right? Well, yes and no…
On the one hand, The Musketeers offers a wealth of eyecandy to…I was going to say ‘ladies’, but maybe that’s too heteronormative – to anyone who appreciates the sight of attractive young men in leather doublets and bucket-top boots. The settings are excellent too; the series is filmed in the Czech Republic, which stands in for so many historical locations these days. I also love the opening titles, which have a “Young Guns” vibe, blending gorgeous artwork with live action to a foot-stomping theme tune.
One the other hand, sticklers amongst us may have a few gripes. The swordplay isn’t exactly stunning – the actors wield their rapiers more like broadswords, slashing where they should be lunging – and the dialogue can be clunky at times. Peter Capaldi, who has excelled in many roles including the infamous Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, somehow lacks the necessary scenery-chewing presence as Richelieu that this light-hearted drama requires. Given his riveting presence in other shows, I can’t help but wonder if the director is more to blame than Capaldi himself?
I was particularly pleased to discover that Santiago Cabrera had been cast as the womanising Aramis. Having seen his appearance in early episodes of Merlin, I picked him out as an actor I’d love to see cast as my own Mal Catlyn (though Aidan Turner will always be my first choice). So, watching Cabrera run around with rapier and pistol is a nice substitute for getting to see Night’s Masque itself made into a TV show
To me as an amateur historian, though, the most interesting aspect of the series is the casting of black actor Howard Charles in the role of Porthos (far right in the above photo). Before anyone cries tokenism, I’d like to point out that Dumas himself was mixed-race: his paternal grandmother, from whom he took his surname, was a black slave in Haiti. It’s so easy to view our past through the whitewashed lens of previous generations – frankly it’s about time we admitted that Europe has always had a small but nonetheless real and ubiquitous black population.
The Musketeers may not be up to the standards of great BBC dramas such as Pride & Prejudice or Sherlock, but it’s a fun show that will hopefully bring a classic story to the attention of a new audience.
Unlike many organisation methods, Getting Things Done works in a bottom-up way; that is, you start with the small tasks and work your way up to the big picture. This has the advantage that you can get to work right away and only have to worry about the long term once you have the day-to-day landscape under control. However you can’t put off the higher-level planning forever!
No doubt when you started listing projects, you came up with some that you haven’t currently got the time or money to pursue. Maybe it’s a story idea, or a holiday destination, or a long-term plan like buying a house or going back to college. Rather than leave these as “open loops” that nag at the back of your mind, GTD encourages you to create them in a category called “Someday/Maybe”. If you’re using GTD software, these blue-sky projects don’t get listed under Next Actions, so you aren’t distracted by them during your daily work, but neither do you have to worry about forgetting them.
Still, they can’t be ignored forever, otherwise you’ll never get to do that cool stuff. That’s where your regular Review comes in.
It’s a good idea to set aside some time every week to go through all your projects, to ensure that each one is on track and you haven’t overlooked anything.
Whilst you don’t want to review your Someday/Maybe category every week, it’s a good idea to look it over once in a while and see if there are any projects you can move off the backburner yet. I would do this no more than once a month, but probably no less frequently than once every three months.
GTD can be as simple or as complex as you like, but either way it really does help you keep a handle on your responsibilities so that you can Get Things Done!
If you want to get into the process in more depth than described in this short series of articles, I strongly recommend reading the original book, Getting Things Done by David Allen. You might also be interested in the 43 Folders website, named after the paper-based version of managing recurring tasks (31 folders for the days of the month + 12 for the months of the year).
This week I’m delighted to host an article by award-winning author Kameron Hurley, whose Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy is at last being published in the UK. Kameron and I first met in 2012 at Chicon 7, where she was giving away books if you ate a bug (dried mealworms and crickets, designed for human consumption, I would add!); I ate several bugs but did not take a book, for the sake of my luggage allowance, but would heartily recommend her work if you’re into SF with tough female characters.
Inside the Ring: Crafting Believable Combat in Fiction
Once upon a time, I took boxing and mixed martial arts classes. For the first time in my life, I learned to appreciate the power my body was capable of generating.
One fist. One punch. Power.
Boxing classes taught me the physicality of close combat. I’ll never know what it’s like to fight in a war (let’s hope) or to kill someone (let’s hope), but what I did have was the ability to learn how to throw and take a punch. What I couldn’t get a feel for in the ring, I could pick up by talking to others and through extensive research.
It wasn’t a huge surprise, then, that when I was trying to come up with a fighting style for the folks in my novel, God’s War, I leaned heavily on my knowledge of boxing, kickboxing, and Krav Maga. I liked the rawness and physical brutality of these styles. It wasn’t about being pretty. It was about getting results.
What I didn’t realize before I started taking classes was that there was also a lot more to stepping in the ring than just hitting hard. Anybody can throw one great punch. The trick was to be able to keep on throwing them – and taking them – for long periods of time. Fighters needed endurance. I found myself jogging three miles, twice a week, on the Chicago waterfront in blistering cold, just so I could keep up with the punching drills in class. If someone would have told me that being better at boxing meant cardio, I would have quit before I started.
But it did give me good details for the worlds I created. The better fighters, like better zombie evaders, kept up on their cardio.
Even now, years after taking classes, I can still close my eyes and work myself into a situation similar to my characters’. I can block it out. Imagine their footwork. Don’t ever ask me to dance, because I’m terrible at it, but I’ve gotten pretty good at blocking out a fight scene.
If you can’t rely on personal experience of some kind – or, even if you have some passing experience taking a martial art – your details are only going to be richer if you do your homework. Watch boxing matches. Watch MMA fights. Read about medieval combat. Scour books for firsthand accounts. Talk to friends with military training. Not long after graduating high school, a number of my friends became Marines, and were delighted to show me all the different ways they’d learned to kill people. It’s an unsettling thing to realize your friends have become trained killers, but it should feel surreal. Because if you’re writing fight scenes in a world that’s incredibly violent, like the one in my novels, people are going to be pretty different. It should feel that way.
Here are some things to keep in mind when writing fight scenes:
Blocking. Where are the combatants located? I’m pretty good at mapping things out in my head at this point, but when you have complicated battles, or those involving armies on a grand scale, it might be worth hauling out a pen and paper or some D&D minis and figuring out where everybody is and where they’re going. My theater training also came in handy here, believe it or not. When I’d memorize my lines for a show, I’d also memorize my blocking, my movements with each line, so I got used to mapping out virtual situations in my head. Having a second person read what you’ve written helps, too. I had a reader once email me to note that the left uppercut my character threw was actually a set up for a right hook, not a left hook (I’d written left. So they’re punching up with the left, pulling back, and punching around again with the same arm, which is a wasted movement, and counterintuitive. Just try standing up and trying to throw those punches – two lefts or a left, then right. Pretty clear which is the winner). But sometimes this stuff gets through when you’re writing quickly. When in doubt, stand up and block it out with a friend. Nicely.
Weapons. Do your fighters have weapons, or bare fists? If weapons, you’ll need to know the potential reach and damage of those weapons. I made up a lot of different types of fantasy/science fictional weapons for the God’s War universe, from scatterguns to acid rifles to organic pistols. I needed to figure out how many shots each had, at what distance they were accurate (more or less, depending on the skill of the user), how heavy they were, where my characters stored them (at the hip? Strapped to the thigh? Across the back? Over the shoulder?) and of course the shape – which is important for when they’re out of ammo and hitting people with them. Large differences in the height/reach of your characters are also going to matter. My spouse likes to tell a story of when a bully with a shorter reach once challenged him to a fight. My spouse is nearly 6’4”, and was able to snap out and hit the guy easily without ever being within the other guy’s shorter reach. Fight over.
Skill of combatants. Is you protagonist a good shot? Have they been formally trained on how to throw a punch? Is this their first fight, or their 50th? Have they fought for a living? Are they war veterans, or do they have military training? The way a character thinks about and approaches a fight is going to vary based on their training. Good, decent people with training actually try hard to avoid a fight with a less skilled opponent. This is because if you’ve been trained to kill people, getting into a fight with a screaming frat boy or blustering sorority sister is a life-or-death match that the better trained fighter knows the other isn’t ready for. Fighters with training will always beat fighters without, often with a single blow. The fights that stretch out are blustering-drunk-fights among the unskilled or fights between equally skilled opponents. It’s often shocking to realize how fast most fights are over. It’s not all thirty minutes of KungFu drama. Even boxers are quickly shuffled off the circuit if they can’t give the audience “a good show.” Which means sticking it out for several rounds. Nobody likes a one-hit wonder match.
Number of combatants. This is related to blocking, as it’s important to know exactly how many folks you have in motion at any one time. For massive campaigns involving hordes of troops, the best resources are historical ones. I have a great book called 100 Battles that Shaped the World that gives me historical overviews and troop movement maps for great battles from antiquity to the modern day. My research assistant found some strong resources, too, including this interactive timeline for the battle of Gettysburg. For small-scale combat, writing scenes where one person takes on a group are… well, they are Hollywood at best. In real life, you’d need to create a crazy Conan-type character or a single character with superior weaponry to successfully take on a group (which, yes, I do quite a lot because I love Conan). Again, when you have, say, three people of equal fighting ability and it’s two on one, the person who’s fighting on their own is pretty much fucked unless they are incredibly smart about using their environment to get away – running, dodging, leaping. Running, basically. I had a martial arts instructor tell me that once I moved into a fighting stance in response to an attacker instead of running, I’d chosen to fight. So I needed to be seriously sure I was ready to start a fight before committing to that stance. It’s a commitment I have my characters very aware of making as they slip into it instead of running. There’s always a choice. What your character chooses to do is interesting in and of itself.
Women have always fought. Everything I’ve said here goes for combatants of every type. When building fictional worlds, remember that it’s a good time to challenge your own expectations for who fights, and why. Women have of course fought in regular armies, revolutionary armies, and in individual combat forever. It’s something folks sometimes forget when they put together their armies, militias, patrols, and bar fights. Writing my God’s War trilogy forced me to interrogate my default assumptions for secondary characters of all types. With all men drafted at the front, every spear carrier – from the bartender to the boxing ticket manager to the security personnel outside the bounty hunting reclamation office – were default female.
I don’t take any fighting classes these days, because of jobs and mortgages and dogs and commutes. But when I sit down at my desk I can still close my eyes and go back there. In truth, I’m there every day, stepping into the ring with my characters, letting them take the blows meant for me.
Sometimes they’re pissed at me. I tell them it builds character.
This week’s post is a tad later in the day than planned, as I’m back at the day-job this week and – more crucially – didn’t put “Write next GTD blog post” in Things (the ToDo app I use on my phone and various Macs). A good example of why you should write things down the moment they occur to you!
So, last week I talked about setting up your buckets: places to save everything that needs dealing with, whether it’s a bill to be paid (your in-tray) or a blog post that needs writing (your notebook or ToDo app). If you’ve been following along, you’ll probably have a long list of stuff in your bucket and may be feeling a little overwhelmed by it all! Don’t panic – today I’m going to cover organising your tasks.
Note: I’m deliberately not following the “getting started” method described in the original GTD book, as that requires you to spend a whole day (or weekend) setting up your system, which I think can be a bit overwhelming! Instead I’m taking a “baby steps” approach, introducing concepts as and when you need them.
A key concept in GTD is that of Next Actions. By focusing only on what you can/must do next, you avoid the panicky flailing around that often accompanies a long ToDo list.
If you look at your current list, some items are probably single actions, e.g. “return library books” or “iron dress shirt for party” whilst others are really entire projects, like “write a novel” or “repaint living room” – things that are going to take a lot longer than an hour or two! These latter projects need to be broken down into their individual steps, e.g.
Pick up paint swatch leaflets from DIY store
Choose paint colours
Buy paint and brushes
If you’re using a GTD-capable app like Things or OmniFocus, it’ll have a Projects mode built in; if you want to keep things simple with a basic checklist approach, look for an app that allows you to organise lists into folders or subtrees, e.g. Notebooks or CarbonFin Outliner (these are all iOS/Mac apps, btw – I’m afraid I’m not up-to-date on Windows software).
If you’re working on paper, you’ll need a second notebook or, even better, a looseleaf binder (in addition to your “bucket” notebook) – use a page per project and list your tasks in the order they need doing. This is one area where software makes life so much simpler, since you can reorder tasks at will.
You can also group related tasks into what Things calls “Areas of Responsibility” – for example I have a categorise for Writing, Personal and Household tasks. You can treat these like open-ended projects, to keep your ToDo lists short and easy to manage. That way you’re not distracted by household chores when you want to review your blog post topics, and vice versa.
Now you should have a list of Next Actions that will include all the single actions plus the first action on each project list, which is hopefully a bit more manageable! You also can potentially trim this list down further by putting off tasks that can’t or won’t be started until a future date, using either the “scheduled date” in your software, or writing a date next to the item.
But what if you still have a long, long list of things to do soon? Never fear – Contexts will help you see the wood for the trees.
Another key concept in GTD is Contexts. These are places and situations that determine whether you can do a task or not. For example, when you’re in town you can return those library books but not iron your dress shirt! So you could classify tasks by location such as “Home”, “Town”, “Office” and so on. Or you might need some quiet time in the office to make a phone call, or you might prefer to make all your calls in one session – in either case, a context named “Phone” would help you zero in on this opportunity. Or you might want to organise tasks by the approximate time and/or energy they require (e.g. 5 minutes, an hour), so that you can quickly pick out a short simple task when you have a few minutes on your hands.
Some software programs like OmniFocus have contexts built-in, but in others there may be an alternative way of implementing them; Things, for example, uses tags, which has the advantage that you can tag a task with multiple contexts (that phone call to the cable company, which is likely to leave you on hold for ages, isn’t going to fit into 5 minutes!). Contexts are a bit trickier on paper, but you could use written tags (perhaps in different coloured pens?) or organise non-project tasks in different lists by context.
One general context that I find very useful is “Waiting” – if you can’t move a project forward because, say, you’re waiting to receive an email confirmation, it helps to mark it as such so that it’s off your mental radar. Conversely the “Waiting” context can be used as a quick way to look up all the items you need to chase other people up on.
With all your tasks organised into projects and contexts, you’ll have fast access to your Next Actions and should now easily be able to pick out what you can/should be doing!
Next time: with the day-to-day task management under control, it’s time to look at the Big Picture…
One of the things you get asked a lot, as a writer (after “Where do you get your ideas from?”) is “How do you find time to write?”. The simplest answer is that you have to give up other time-consuming activities: watching TV, playing video games, even—to some extent—reading. But even that will only get you so far if, like me, you are juggling other responsibilities, such as a day job or family. And you still need some time for yourself to recharge your creative batteries, or you’ll burn out. Read more
I thought I’d better write about why I haven’t been posting much here or on social media of late. Don’t panic, nothing’s amiss – I’ve just been somewhat distracted by major goings-on at my day job. I don’t normally post about personal stuff on here, but as it’s been impacting my writing and internet presence, I wanted to reassure people I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth Read more
Ever wanted to smell like an Elizabethan? OK, maybe not literally (eww!), but it was in the sixteenth century that perfume and scented items became popular with the wealthy. If you’ve read The Alchemist of Souls, you may recall Mal’s encounter with Jos Percy – and the loss of an expensive silver pomander!
When my friend and fellow writer Naomi Clark set up an Etsy store for her homemade fragrances and began tweeting about all the lovely essential oils she was buying, that got me wondering what scents my characters would like. Long story short, I met up with Naomi and we collaborated on two fragrances, one for Mal and one for Coby – and they’re now available to buy! Read more
My author copies of The Prince of Lies turned up the other day, so I thought it was about time I did a giveaway!
I have three paperbacks (UK edition) to give away, open to entries anywhere in the world. All you have to do to be in with a chance is to leave a comment on this post – please note that comments are moderated to reduce spam, so don’t panic if yours doesn’t appear right away.
One comment per entrant, please – multiple commenters will be disqualified (unless you’re replying to a question on the post or similar).
For security reasons, please don’t leave contact details in your comment – there’s a space in the comment form for your email address, I’ll use that to get hold of you.
Closing date for entries is noon UK time on Tuesday 10th December. Any comments posted after that deadline will be deleted.
I will be picking three separate winners (using a random number generator), to receive one copy each.
I will aim to get the books out promptly, but given how close it is to Christmas, I can’t guarantee delivery times.
If a winner does not respond by Christmas Eve (24th December) or doesn’t provide a valid email address, I reserve the right to select a replacement.