Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Word Hoards - Storytelling without writing

So the delightful Sarah Dahl asked me to jot something down about how I write, after I was happily typing to her while supposedly writing a novel at the same time... 

I like writing about what might nominally be called the Viking age and while I could write a second post on exactly what that means and the dates involved, broadly speaking I’m talking about bearded Norse pirates, Dane axes, Valhalla, and all of that.
The skalds and scops of that time knew what the hell they were doing, and as a consequence the great sagas became an art of exaggeration.  When one of them really, really got into their flow, when they really stretched themselves for fantastic new bullshit to describe heroism, villainy or violence they were said to have ‘unlocked their word hoard’.
I love tha
t. To have a hoard of words; a room or a cave somewhere where I keep all of the individual pieces of a story and then, when it’s time to pull out something special, to really go to town on a description and make it come alive in the mind of the reader, I go to that place, unlock the door and rummage around through the gold and the brass, the jewels and the dirt and somehow combine them to enchant and entertain (or at least, I try to…mostly it’s just swearing).
Now I love writing, or more specifically I love storytelling. My word hoard doesn’t stay locked in the dark, nope, I love to throw the door wide and chuck the contents out on the floor in front of everyone. I think that piece of many a writer’s psyche, that thing that makes people fearful of how their work will be perceived, is missing in me. I just love telling stories; I do it all the time, I’d do it every day if I could. Some of them are howlers, embarrassing as I read them back, but I don’t care. I’d rather produce 100 pieces and have one of them inspire the reader than spending a year polishing just one trinket from the hoard in the hope that it can inspire everyone.
Here's the secret bit: I hate writing.
I hate it, When I think about it the thought of bashing at keys drives me to tears. My mind moves faster than my fingers and all the practice, touch-typing courses, and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness in the world doesn’t help me. I find myself one-finger poking at the keys, looking down at them and not of the screen.
Worse: by the time I’ve got that one idea down a dozen more have come and gone and faded away into nothingness. Every minute I’m writing I’m losing other content because I’m just not fast enough.
Writing is tiring; looking up and down from screen to keys wares on me, grates on me and I quickly lose patience with it. I hate it

The controversial bit though: how I write has nothing to do with the act of writing. Tapping keys is no more part of the creative process than drinking coffee. It’s the thing that gets my story to you, the thing that replaced using a pen or pencil.
The kind of keyboards you use or the screen you write on is no more relevant to the finished article or what someone else experiences than whether you use blue ink or black, whether you join your letters up on not. Writing is not storytelling.
The painter’s paint becomes part of what your experience, the materials a tailor uses defines the experience you have of those clothes. Storytelling is different. The action takes place in someone else’s head, and all that matters is the story; nobody cares what plate you used to carry the gems from the word hoard, or what keys you used to unlock that door.
So I stopped using keys. I’ve left in the spelling errors and grammatical mistakes, so this blog will look somewhat less polished than my usual efforts (not that they are particularly polished). That’s because, as I sit here writing this I’m stuck in traffic pushing through Bristol on my way to my day-job churning out line after line by speaking into a microphone. I’m hoping it won’t be too scrappy, but there are bound to be some howlers; I normally pick these up when I edit on arriving home. Voice recognition technology has come on in leaps and bounds. Mine is relatively basic: appropriately, I have ‘Dragon’ to help with my word hoard.
I used to hate driving almost as much as I hated writing. Now happily I do both at once.
Think of all the times in your life that you sit waiting for things, think of the last time you sat there talking to yourself. Now I talk to my laptop, and as I do I smash out a couple of thousand words a day.
It needs a close edit when I get home, but the best part; anything I write, I feedback into the program and it learns about my word hoard: Dragon understands more about me every time I unlock the door to the vault.  It learns that if I finish a sentence in a certain way and the next time it doesn’t quite hear what I said, it will make the best guess based on my writing style. It digests your vocabulary. Mine knows words like bowstave and broadhead and whoreson, which at times feels like I’m teaching a child to swear.

The best part though, the thing that really defines the experience to me is that I needn’t write whole chapters of the time. Got an idea for a piece of dialogue? Stick the microphone on and act it out, role-play it. Allow the conversation to flow as you take on each character, saying what you (or rather they) would say and let the thing write itself. You want to stand in a shieldwall? Get out of your chair, stand as you would; knees bent in that half crouch, left arm forward as if carrying the shield and feel your weight shift as you imagine the men to your left and  right shuffling and bracing before the charge strikes home. Describe it as you do it and there’s your scene done. Fortunately, my house is stuffed full of the trappings of re-enactment (because everybody needs a hobby right?). I want to describe a dagger? I pick one up. I can talk of its weight, the bindings on the hilt, the edge of the blade or the balance as I turn it through my fingers.
I tend to take my laptop with me wherever I go, so if it’s back in my tent at a weekend away as a Viking, I can come sweating, and sometimes bloody from a hard fight and breathlessly describe what it felt like: consigning those words to a file on my desktop, knowing they’ll find a home when the time comes to take them out of the word hoard and mesh them into some violent little story later.
Method writing, I suppose you could call it. You want to write about a knife fight? Have one.
I also like the idea that this is somehow back to the old notion of storytelling as an oral tradition.

Couple of thousand words a day on your commute, another thousand on your lunch hour, and any time you can spare in the evenings to act and shout at your laptop, and suddenly all of the drudgery is gone out of writing. That’s 3% of a big novel, every day, written during time you would otherwise have wasted. Easy.

Like a Norseman fresh from a raid I get home laden down with riches for the word hoard, though be advised: you get some very odd looks on the train to London, though it does near-guarantee you your own seat.

The above was all rambled out in one sitting and has not been edited as a means of showing the extent to which the method does/doesn't cope with that old stream of consciousness.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Foresters Miniseries - The Bottle Episode

"Just tell us how you came to be in possession of all that money” Goddard tried. 
“Go fuck yourself”  Rank Cynrid’s witty rejoinder. 
 She could see that this line of questioning wasn't going anywhere and tried a different tactic: 
“Be reasonable; tell us where you got the money Cynrid” Goddard asked in as diplomatic a tone as she could manage, “you cunt”. 
That ruined it.

So here's another episode of my nasty, irreverent, stupid medieval cop-show: 'Foresters'
It continues to follow three Lawmen as they go running after scum in Norman-Era Nottingham. 

I've always wanted to write a 'bottle episode' - you know; where the characters are stuck in one location, they can't leave and tempers are running high. It happens often enough in real policing; just ask any custody Sgt.
I hope you'll find it as big and brash and dumb as the previous one, and it may feature at least one of the characters getting chewed out by their superior: the Reeve of Nottingham.

Oh, and for the record; I've never just found a finger in a custody suite.

Episode 1 can be found in 'Sample Scribbles' over on the right.

Click here for episode 2 and enjoy, share, comment.


photo by Roy Smallpage

Monday, 13 April 2015

Foresters Miniseries - Pilot episode

"Goddard leapt the ale barrels without breaking stride, vaulted the first table, dodged a chair in her path and slammed a drunk out of her way. 
‘Foresters’ she shouted, as if the mail and the harness didn’t give it away. She received a growl from the assembled, but no one blocked her. They knew better, spilt beer or no. She was the fucking law"

You'll recall that I was kicking off a new project - a bit of fun I'm calling 'Foresters'.
It's an episodic miniseries featuring a grubby trio of Nottingham lawmen, working one of England's most dangerous beats in 1191AD.

The Extract is the slightly longer-than-usual pilot episode to introduce a few recurrent characters.
It's big and brash and stupid but hopefully you'll agree that it's also a lot of fun.

It's a lot more 'police' than my Novel about Robin Hood, and this makes it a little more fantasy, a little less history, but think 'medieval cop-show' and you've nailed it.

As before, I feel the sudden need to mention that it is in no way a thinly veiled ramble through some of my own police experiences, seen through a flimsy historical filter (no, wait, that's exactly what it is).

Click here for Extract and enjoy, share, comment.

photo by Roy Smallpage

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A Nasty way to Start the Show

'Cutthroat' is my take on the Robin Hood legends. 
Its a grim low-fantasy reworking of the medieval ballads, drawing experiences and language from my time as a UK police officer and medieval reenactor.

I wanted to get the first three chapters up here to share with you, while I go through the process that everyone has to: trying to navigate the world of conventionally publishing it.
As for the action: It covers the opening frame of the novel and  the drawing of William Scathlock into banditry and crime. It's a nasty look at how easy it is to step off the path and be lost in Norman England, and a good window into a world that wasn't all Disney and Costner and Merry Men

No golden arrows, no fights with giants, no heroes... just Cutthroats.

Click here for Extract and enjoy, share, comment.


photo by Roy Smallpage

Monday, 6 April 2015

Editing: Time at the Coalface

I actually like editing. There, I said it.
Most people hate chopping and thrashing through the process, not me; I actually like taking the hatchet to the text
I've spent a disproportionate amount of time editing over the last week, and those of you who follow me on twitter will have seen the result: a pale, shadow of a guy with a weird, haunted look who mumbles to himself about oxford commas and character progression.
By doing this I've hammered the first chunk of Cutthroat into a really neat self contained extract, and I'm actually rather proud of the result.
I'm also going to make sure there's a bit of the edited extract up here and getting it done means that I can get Foresters up on the blog this week as another fun read for fans of grim medieval fantasy.

In the mean time, I'll be at my keyboard.

Monday, 23 March 2015

You know how to shoot that thing?

Can't write about the history of Medieval England without archery. The nation's been at it's most warlike when archery has been a fashionable pastime. You can argue the point (and please do, that's what the comment box is for) that England's success in medieval overseas conflict went into decline as the bow itself declined in popularity.
Young people stopped shooting, and so didn't grow up to keep shooting all over Christendom

With archery popular at the same time that the early Robin Hood ballads were popular it's no surprise that the outlaws were depicted as archers. These were songs and plays for pubs. If the sport of the day had been football, they would have been footballers.
In the ballads, archery is used more as a sporting contest than deadly combat. Hood rarely shoots it out with an enemy, and rarely kills with the bow. Most of the time Hood and his opponent set a wand in the ground and shoot at this, with the winner being he that shoots closest.
Violence, when it happens in the poems is usually settled with swords.

Now personally, I've ignored this 'sportsmanlike' behaviour in my own novel. Looking at it with an ex-copper's set of eyes, the average bloke in 12C England had a social (and later, legal) obligation to practice with a bow, and often, a need to steal to feed himself.
It's the equivalent of every single person being trained to shoot, and having a gun in their home, but not enough money to eat.
Of course those bows are going to get used for violence.

side note - The practice of shooting at wands is pretty common in the ballads. It bears a striking similarity to 'clout archery'; shooting at pennants still practiced today.

I'm interested in the idea that archery is on the rise again. 

It's getting popular.
It's attracting attention.
Lets just keep it sportsmanlike though, eh?

As a parting shot, take a look at (see the note in the sidebar) on differences between modern shooting technique and medieval stance and draw, and the incredible 200lb draw bow!