Breaking Free Of The Boys Club (What I’m Reading)

Breaking Free Of The Boys Club (What I’m Reading)


Warning! May contain emotions!

I just started reading War of the Roses: Stormbird (WotR #1) by Conn Iggulden. Don’t worry, I’m still reading The Falcon Throne (give me time!).

Conn Iggulden is an author that I read a lot of in my childhood. His historical novels always struck me as being what I affectionately call “boys club historical fiction”. They’re books about brave chaps with big swords laying waste to their foes. Bernard Cornwell is another author I’d put in that category. Of course, women read their novels as well. But I always got the impression that this type of historical fiction was targeted at a stereotypical male readership.

So far, I’ve read the prologue and found myself very surprised.

“What’s this? Why am I reading from a female character’s perspective? She’s kissing a man now. I’m having feelings! Emotion feelings! What’s happening?”

It looks like Conn Iggulden has broken free from the boys club! I’m eager to read more of Stormbird and the War of the Roses series. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still expecting there to be plenty of gore, bravery and battle. But I can sense something new coming through this historical fiction, the female perspective and more subtle elements in the narrative. Perhaps there will be conspiracy afoot, political scheming and, heaven forbid, feelings.

Find Stormbird on Amazon here.

Tip #16: Writing Minor Plots

Tip #16: Writing Minor Plots


I’ve previously discussed Character Development and Writing The Main Plot. But a truly excellent story needs depth. You don’t just want to engage the reader with a scene or a person’s life, you want to draw them into an entire world that you’ve created. Think about A Game of Thrones (I have some issues with the novel, but I’ll get round to discussing that in the future). If there wasn’t such a broad and detailed tapestry of minor plot arcs unfolding in the background, it would be a very flat story about a series of noble souls riding around a fantasy environment and getting into mischief.

Why give minor characters a story?

Your book is either going to be about one central character or several protagonists whose stories are fundamentally intertwined. An example of a single protagonist story the Harry Potter series. It’s about one boy and his adventures.

Contrasting with this, the Song of Ice and Fire series concerns a number of individual characters’ exploits, but they are all related by family ties or circumstances.

If the protagonist was standing alone, the story would be more like a shallow morality tale or fairytale than true fiction. Harry Potter doesn’t just run around waving his wand and getting in detentions. Ron and Hermione are there too. They’re his supporting cast, but J K Rowling pulls them out of the scenery.

Other characters are scenery. What was the name of that person Harry bumped into in the hallway? You’ve forgotten, as you should. They weren’t important. But there are always a few supporting characters that need to be made import to give more definition to the story.

Can minor plot arcs go wrong?

Yes, yes they can. When you start writing your story you’ll usually make a decision whether to have a single protagonists or multiple. As I’ve mentioned, multiples must have strong links between their individual plots.

Once you’ve made that decision, the danger is that you can stray too close to the other extreme. Give a minor character too much of a plot or develop them too far and they could start taking over the story. This draws attention away from the protagonist, not a good thing.

Alternatively, one of your multiple protagonists could start to fade. Neglect their development and they will become grey, blending in with the background. This also weakens the story.

How do you use minor plots?

Here’s an example from something I’m writing at the moment. It’s the story of a young man at the very bottom of the pile. He’s the sort of person that society steps on, kicks into the dust and leaves for dead. But his journey is an upwards trajectory, there are great things waiting in his future. There have to be, an extraordinary transformation makes a good story.

That’s not real life though. It’s not believable to have a world where everything goes everyone’s way, and if it did, there’d be nothing extraordinary about my protagonist’s transformation. So there’s another character. He starts off in exactly the same position as the story’s focus, lowest of the low. From there, things only get worse for him. It’s the real life element, a minor plot in the background that forms a point of comparison for the reader.

Another example is Sep in my fantasy novel The First Covenant. He’s another minor character that the author doesn’t treat well. But that’s what minor characters are for. They’re people the reader won’t mind you slapping around a bit to make a point. He’s a brave, noble man and that does absolutely nothing for him. The point is that being brave and noble gets you nowhere, you’ve got to be mean to get ahead.

What to write?

Minor characters will appear in your story of their own accord. Your protagonist will need to bump into someone who tells him the enemy hordes just overran the town wall. That might give you their name, job and basic physical description. If they’re part of the scenery then leave it at that.

But you might need more from them later. They aren’t important so you can use them to make a point. Now give them a few characteristics and traits that suit your message. Unlike main characters which can take on a life of their own, you should always stay in control of the minor characters. They’re tools to be used. Purpose defines their traits and mannerisms, not personality.

Ron isn’t a loyal but cowardly friend because J K Rowling thought that’s what suited his character best. He’s a tool used to show the reader how Harry Potter transforms those around him, giving them hope and bravery. Ron is a mirror showing what it is about Harry that makes others want to be loyal to him. If Ron suddenly turned to the dark side, ran off to join Voldemort and started developing as a character beyond his purpose, he’d take over the whole story. It’d be the Harry and Ron series.

Let me know in the comments if any of this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?


My books:

Palmyrian Night #4

Palmyrian Night #4

Palmyra tower

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” – Pearl Buck.

A breath of silence. The still tomb seemed to exhale, anticipating the reaction that would break centuries of peace. Bardisan was not going to wait for whatever came next. Balancing on the stone support beam high in the towering chamber, he snatched off his other sandal and hurled it down into the cavernous darkness.

In the blackness of the tomb, the men below couldn’t see what had fallen. Tattered leather and sharp iron sounded much the same when falling in the darkness. They retreated out into the bright moonlight, pulling their red cloaks up around them.

“Surround it.” The officer ordered. “Don’t let the thief escape.”

Four red cloaks snapped as the legionaries jogged to take up positions around the tomb. There was no way out, only the one low doorway. Standing in front of it, the legate drew his sword. He heard a whisper of wind easing out through the door, blown down from the small window overhead. Almost, he could smell the thief’s fear within. He was caught, like a rat in a trap.

A horse whinnied behind him. The legate turned and saw four legs pounding the desert sand, two pale feet gripping the horse’s rump, a flutter of rags and a bundle packed under the thief’s arm. A rope swayed and whispered against the smooth stone walls of the tomb, tugging at the window high above.

For something similar, and an excellent read, check out Emperor and Prophet on one of my favourite blogs (John’s Life and Travels)!

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Two Blogging Questions

Two Blogging Questions

I have two questions for you.

Firstly, how and from where do I get a custom domain name? Are there any benefits to having one?

Secondly, I’ve noticed that a few bloggers are somehow making their posts re-publish themselves. I’m not talking about reblogging an old post. This is the same post with all of its comments and likes included, but it’s back in the news feed. How is this happening? The publishing date shows as today, but there are comments dating back months. Have you noticed this? Is it a poor trick or a useful tool? How does it work?

Don’t worry, I’m not asking you all of these questions (I realise I exceeded my two question quota) and giving nothing in return. Successfully answer these riddles and I will… well I guess I’ll just check out your blog a lot today. Until they invent e-pints so I can buy an e-round, that’s the best reward I’ve got!

Saxon Story #10

Saxon Story #10

A heart-stopping crack tore through the quiet woodland air. Breya toppled down from her seat, as if the earth had dropped away beneath her. As she tumbled towards the decaying leaves and roots of the forest track, Breya saw the housecarl dive clear. Hard ground slammed into her side and she felt the air being hammered out of her chest.

“Hell and damn it!” The housecarl shouted as his heavy frame landed with nimble ease on his steady feet. “How’s that for bad luck?”

Breya staggered upright and looked at what he was showing her, one hand massaging her bruised ribs. The wheel of their wain had snapped, broken clean through. A number of its rough-hewn spokes lay in splinters at her feet.

“You were running the nag too hard.” She said, unsurprised and keen not to show her pain. “This wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t so careless.”

The old mare tossed its head as if in agreement, glad that blame had not been laid at its hooves. But the housecarl rounded on Breya, white-hot fury in his eyes. His tight lips drew up in a snarl and his arms shook.

“Woman, don’t you put this on me.”

They were interrupted suddenly, their attention drawn in opposite directions. Breya started as something clattered against the side of the wain. A silver cross tipped out from beneath the canvas covering and stuck in the dark Saxon mulch. Words had been etched on its face in gaudy, scrolling script. William, Duke of Normandy. It read in the Frankish tongue. King of England.

A second clamour through the trees, the thunder of heavy hooves against root and earth. The housecarl squinted into the forest gloom, backing away towards the trees. Breya stepped forwards, cursing herself as she did. What in God’s name am I doing? She grabbed his hand in her thick, strong fingers and shook his arm.

“Where are you going, warrior?” She demanded. “Those are English treasures, for English churches. The Normans robbed them from goodly people and we’ll give them back. Will you run again? Will you turn coward again, king-killer?”

Something more terrible than the man’s anger, more horrifying than the sound of Norman knights hunting them down. She saw a tear prick the corner of the bearded warrior’s eye. He shook his head, as if to drive out fear, and turned his face skywards. A scarred hand rose and drew the hood of his cloak up over his matted hair, throwing his features into shadow.

“I’ll not have Harald’s spirit see what’s to be done now.” He whispered, and then turned back to face Breya. “I’ll not suffer Norman hands to grasp English coin, nor Frankish boots on Saxon soil.” He drew his sword and stepped out into the middle of the track. “Take the treasure away, as much of it as you can carry. See it goes to those that need it. Aye, and leave me here. But take one more thing with you. Take my name to tell our people.”

“Your name, housecarl?”

“You know me by that name, but I’m Robin before my Lord and my king.”


“Aye, Robin who wears the hood. Robin that fears to show his face. Go. Now!

Find Part 1 here.

Tip #15: Character Development In 3 Steps

Tip #15: Character Development In 3 Steps

We can break down the process of writing a great character for fiction into three stages: cause, situation and effect. Let’s start by talking about the character Kevin. He has a violent, volatile temper. That’s the situation. As writers, we need to lead the reader to that point. But we can’t start at the situation. That would be poor character development and looks something like this:

Kevin, a young man with a violent and volatile temper, walked up to his friend.

The best way to reach that character development, the things which make them interesting, is to approach from either cause or effect. Here’s what it looks like if we start with the effect:

Kevin slammed a bunched fist into his friend’s face. Moments before, they had just been chatting. Now, Kevin was screaming. “Say it one more time, I dare you!”

Starting off by throwing the reader into the effect of the character’s volatility will shock them. They’ll start to wonder what it is about Kevin that makes him behave in this way (situation) and how it came about (cause). But you could also start at the cause.

Kevin’s face twitched and he scratched at his leg. It looked like he was trying to bore a hole through the denim with his fingers. His friend couldn’t help thinking there was more to Kevin than the well-adjusted kid performance he put on. “There’s something I need to tell you.” He said. “Something that happened to me a few years back.”

Beginning with the cause, working towards it with a tic or a habit, is a great way to build a sense of mystery or suspense. It makes the reader want to turn the page to find out what situation the cause created, what its effect is.

So, to conclude, cause creates suspense or mystery. Effect creates power, shock and awe. Start introducing a character’s trait with something small that another character or the narrator notices, or with a sudden and unexpected burst of action. Then work through the other steps.

What are your tips for developing a great character? Do you have a favourite character from yours or another author’s writing?


My books:

Tip #14: Gambling Tip For Writers

Tip #14: Gambling Tip For Writers

Let me know when you get fed up with these misleading or obscure titles. Why am I talking about gambling? I think it’s a card-game reference, looking at the dealer’s hand to see what they’re holding. Anyway, let’s get down to business. This is a post about publishing novels (feel free to substitute for poetry, short story collection, memoirs from your days as a unicorn hunter, etc.).

What are we talking about?

Writing is an activity where you put words on a page. Simple.

Creative writing is the process of making up a story and putting it on a page, using words. Understandable.

Publishing is a multi-headed beast that occasionally takes the finished product of the above and sells it to readers. Complicated.

Who’s in charge here?

This might be the most important question to ask. Who’s in charge: the writer or the publisher? There’s a very clear answer to this question from the perspective of an unpublished writer. The publisher holds all the cards.

So we know the deck is stacked against us. It always has been. What’s important to find out is by how much? Just how impossible is this task we’ve set ourselves?

I’ve had a glimpse at the dealer’s hand.

I’m fortunate enough to know someone who knows someone who knows about such things. I’ve had a brief peek inside the mind of a publisher. So how does it work?

We all know that the publisher receives a mountain of manuscripts each month. With that in mind, we can accurately assess our chances of our work being picked up. It’s mathematics and statistics. You know the standard format of a rejection letter “Due to the high volume of submissions etc. etc. etc.” It’s a needle-haystack situation.

That’s the basic rules of the game, but it gets worse.

You’re aiming for the top 1%, but those odds are just the beginning. The publisher (or agent) is building a list of books they’re going to try to sell. Think about this, everyone involved in the process is a gambler. You’re gambling on your book’s quality, the publisher is gambling on its success. A good gambler minimises their losses by spreading their bets. They’re not going to pick up four historical crime novels in the same month, they’ll pick one from each genre.

“Yeah, but my flintlock fantasy novel is better than that guy’s historical romance novel.”

That doesn’t seem to matter. The publisher has someone who reads things for them. Once the reader is done reading this month’s submissions, they don’t say “These ones all look promising, pick your favourites.” That’s the exact opposite of what appears to happen.

A conversation between publisher and reader.

Publisher: “I want one historical romance, one crime and one cookery book for my list. Hit me!”

Reader: “But what about this excellent alien – zombie – Elizabethan drama novel? It’s better than all of those.”

Publisher: “Sorry, I’ve already got a period drama sci-fi novel.”

Reader: “It’s the best thing I ever read.”

Publisher: “Quota full. No dice.”

What are the odds?

You’re playing blind. It’s like sitting down at a card table with a pair of kings and not knowing whether the dealer is playing poker or blackjack. If their list has nothing in your genre, you’re back to the 1% chance of success. If they already filled their quota for flintlock fantasy, you start at 0% and stay there.

What can you do about it?

This is only going to change for the worse in mainstream publishing. Digital self-publishing is a growing trend (Kindle Direct Publishing, Wattpad, fanfiction forums, etc.). Publishers are less keen to risk money on unproven authors when another unpublished writer already has 10,000 followers on Twitter. But you should still try to go the mainstream route because that’s probably your goal. 1% isn’t the same as having no chance at all.

There are other things you can do while you’re shooting for 1% though. I recently said you should just write stories and publish them, without worrying about quality (Tip #13: Write A Bad Story). In that post I talked a lot about the literary tradition, but there’s another aspect to it.

It’s about going on the offensive. If the deck is stacked against you, it’s time to start counting cards. Publish blogs, ebooks, tweets and whatever else to get yourself noticed. Maybe if you have enough Twitterers you’ll raise your chances to 25%. Get an army of loyal readers on Kindle and it could be 50%. Anything is better than the 1% – 0% scenario.

Self-publishing is a good way to get yourself noticed. And in my opinion, it doesn’t need to be taken as seriously as sending a manuscript to Mr Penguin Publishing. So what if it sucks? At least it’s out there and has your name on it (if it really sucks, consider publishing under an assumed name).

P.S. I am a terrible Twitterer. In fact, I was doing it so wrong that my account was blocked for excessive levels of spam. Do you know how I can not become a social media exile? Do you have any Twittering tips to share?


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Tip #13: Write A Bad Story

Tip #13: Write A Bad Story

I could go into a lot of detail about the reasons your writing will never be perfect, the pros and cons of striving for that perfection. There’s a whole post or series of articles I could dedicate to that topic. But I’m going to put that to one side for now and say what I’m thinking.

I want you to write a bad story, I don’t want you to write a perfect story.

Note that I haven’t said you shouldn’t try to write the perfect novel, story, poem or blog post. I’m talking about what I want. It’s entirely selfish on my part and I’m not ashamed to admit it. You’re thinking “What the hell? You never seemed like a sociopath before!”

Here’s the thing. We like to imagine our work is unique. We’re aware that there are snippets and influences borrowed from elsewhere, but the world or characters we created are our own.

That’s not how writing works. You can’t think about any piece of writing as being a thing on its own. Each book, poem, story or article is part of a literary tradition stretching back to the birth of humanity.

It begins with storytelling.

Imagine the grey-haired sage sitting at the campfire with the young hunters of his tribe. He tells them a story, a tale of a fierce lion that was killed by a noble warrior. It’s the timeless epic of good against evil, but his story isn’t very good. He’s forgotten parts of it and he mumbles through the descriptive elements. The young bucks wonder “Where did this happen?” “Was there sunshine or snow?”

By the time their own hair turns grey the story has become something entirely different, other than the central theme of good vs evil.

Where does your story come in?

You’re the next link in the chain. Throughout your life your mind has absorbed the grey-haired sage’s story and every variation to it since. Now you’re adding your own creativity to it, changing it just enough that it isn’t immediately recognisable. That’s what authors, journalists, poets and bloggers are. They’re people who try to add a new spin, a new flavour to old campfire tales.

Think about a shockingly bad writer, the sort you find festering in the darker depths of the internet (I’m tempted to mention fanfiction forums, but I’m well aware there are hidden gems in even obscure places). What was so off-putting about reading that writer’s work? Let’s move away from fiction to get a better perspective.

The most repulsive news articles are those that trot out 1900s political theories (hardline Marxism and fascism), superimposing them on present-day events. That’s bad storytelling, writing the same story again with the names changed. If I wrote Harry Potter over, replacing his name with my own, I’d have the angry village mob at my door, pitchforks and all.

So, why do I want you to write a bad story?

I’m being selfish because I don’t want you to be selfish. You could keep your story on the back shelf for decades. You might write, tweak, re-write and edit until we’re all on our deathbeds. Maybe you’ll have missed an opportunity to see your work published, but we’re not talking about you right now. Think about all the people who’ll have missed the opportunity to read it!

That sounds foolish. Like I’m assuming we’ve all already got an army of potential readers lining up for the next release. Well, just remember that we’re not talking about your work as an individual book, poem, etc. That piece you allowed to ferment to perfection represents a blank space, a hole in the accumulated stories of good vs evil.

Throw your story onto the pile as soon as it’s presentable. You can always start another and hope that one’s perfect. But each story out there gets us closer to something that really is perfect. I think 50 Shades is appallingly written and more, worse things besides. What made it so incredibly popular? I don’t know exactly, but something that’s been missing from the grey-haired sage’s story until now.

It brought us a bit closer to finishing his tale of the lion and the warrior. If the author had waited, learnt how to write well before sharing 50 Shades, we’d still be that much further from wherever it is we’re going.

So go ahead, write your imperfect story. Don’t keep us waiting too long!

Let me know in the comments if any of this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?


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