Battle Scenes in Fantasy

One of the biggest challenges in writing fantasy is the battle scene.  It presents an opporutinity for engaging drama, but how do you deal with it without turning it into a boring ‘blow by blow’ account (literally!)?

I’ve just finished reading the historical fiction novel Battle Flag by Bernard Cornwell, and I’ve learnt a lot about handling a battle scene.  Set in the American Civil War, this book is the third in Cornwell’s Starbuck Chronicles. 

Cornwell has a nice balance of factual info (eg guns, weapons and strategy) that is strongly grounded in the character’s experience.  This is the secret, I think.  Good research, sure, but a character centred perspective so that the reader really cares about what’s happening.  Cornwell might begin with a personal perspective of one of his characters, then move into the bigger picture of a large scale battle, yet he still manages to deal with this large scale on a personal level.  We see the expressions on a character’s face, or we hear the dying words of someone the hero happens to pass.  The emotional content is maintained even in the midst of action that could so easily be just a textbook rendition.

This is not to say I want a battle scene to descend into melodrama, with the hero overcome with grief.  The opposite approach could be the most appropriate.  Awful things happen in battle, and shock sets in.  The characters directly involved will be experiencing that shock, and it will show in their thought processes and actions.  They’re not going to be rational and logical all the time, but at the same time, they might not be feeling anything that can be easily identified.  If anything, they’re going to be terrified, and will be dealing with that fear in ways that may not always be consistent.  And they’re not going to walk away the same people they were before. 

As always, balance seems to be the key.  Do my research, then write it through the personal perspective of my character/s.  Think about where the story is, with whom I’m journeying, and stay true to them.  And ultimately, it’s the emotional experience of the character that’s paramount, and I might not need a lot of detail anyway.

Fantasy tends to be about ‘good vs evil’ on some level, and will inevitably involve a major fight between the two sides, even if the fight isn’t physical.  Handle it well, and it can be the pivotal point in my book, the scene that people will remember long after they’ve put it down. 

No pressure. 😉

Excellent Resource for Writers

When I first started delving into the world of blogs, I came across Jennifer Lee‘s website for Artizen Coaching.  Jennifer talked about business planning for creative people, a concept that immediately appealed to me.  I’ve been waiting for Jennifer’s book The Right Brain Business Plan:  A Creative Visual Map for Success with much anticipation.  It’s arrived in my post box, and it’s an interesting read.

The thing that I like about The Right Brain Business Plan is the fact that it translates a left brain task like business planning into a right brain creative one for artists.  This is particularly relevant for writers, because while we are creative and therefore use our ‘right’ brains, we deal with words, which are left brain.  We necessarily straddle the brain divide, and I believe we need support tools that straddle this divide also. 

Maybe it’s because I have a day job, or maybe it’s because I’m a planner in my writing, but I love the fact that Jennifer brings business concepts to creative entrepeneurship.  It’s reminded me that there is a reason why I’m doing this, and it’s not just about having a hobby.  It’s about my life plan as well.  This is something that’s easy to forget when I’m in the middle of the humdrum of working, writing and sleeping.  Too often it’s too easy to let the writing go for a night or two, which could end up being a week or a month.  When you don’t get ongoing feedback from regular achievements, it’s too easy to forget you’re aiming for something here, even if it’s just some level of excellence in your chosen field.

I’m only up to Chapter 1, but I’m looking forward to the journey from here on in.

A Simple Way to Detect Passive Voice

A good grammar book will tell you what ‘passive voice’ is much better than I, but I’ll give it a go.  Briefly, it’s when the subject is having something done to it (passive), rather than doing something (active).  So what?  I hear you ask.  Well, in order to gain maximum reader engagement, you need maximum reader involvement.  The more action, the more your reader is ‘living’ your story, making it irresistable.

Passive voice describes things in a way that leaves the reader standing outside the story looking in, aware they are watching a scene unfold before them rather than losing themselves in it.  At first, I didn’t think this would make that much difference to me as a reader, but in reading through my own work after I’d put it away for a while, I really noticed the shift in my reading consciousness and level of engagement with the story.

So when I’m rewriting, passive construction is one of the first things I look out for.  I don’t look at every sentence and ask myself if there’s an active subject in it.  While I might have been OK at English at school, I mostly do things by feel.  If it feels right, then it is right.  I’m lucky enough not to have too much of a problem with grammar – cheers to my primary school education, despite moving schools mid way through my primary years!

I look out for any form of the word ‘be’, including ‘was’ and ‘is’.  If it’s with the past participle of a verb, it’s passive voice, but I don’t spend time trying to work that out.  When I spot the ‘be’ words, I just try and find another way of writing the sentence.  And do you know, I get the most amazing work at the end of it?  More action, more excitement, more plot.

Which is kind of ironic, considering all those self-help books I read tell me to stop ‘doing’ and start ‘being’.

An Inverse Relationship

Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed there seems to be an inverse relationship between my writing and my painting.  When writing is going well, I struggle with painting.  When my painting starts picking up, my writing declines significantly in terms of ease and quality.

This year, my painting has been going really well.  Needless to say, I’ve really had to push the writing barrow, and have lamented on many occasion a certain lack of spark in my prose.  Tonight, I started a new painting (a gift for a friend, no less), and it went really badly.

Hoorah!

Anyhow, I wish you all a safe and happy Christmas if you celebrate it and all the best for the new year.

Moments of Writing Stillness

Despite all the problems I’ve been having with my story, I’ve found myself over the last few weeks preferring to write my tome rather than do the cyber-posting thing.  Normally, any excuse not to write is a good one, so this has surprised me a little.  However, I’ve gone with it, and my gut instinct seems to have been right.

This is because lately I’ve noticed that I seem to be hitting little spots of ‘stillness’ in my writing.  Sounds like writer’s block, doesn’t it?  Just the opposite is true.

Moments of ‘stillness’ are when you’re so absorbed in your writing that time fades and you hit a run of power and you know there’s some essential truth in what you’re saying.  The emotion is raw but real, your character is alive and making their own decisions, and your heart is breaking every bit as much as your reader’s will be. 

The wierd thing is that usually, I have to work hard for those moments.  I have to set things up, laboriously scrawling word after word trying to get into my groove.  Only after a lot of words and hours of tedium did that moment happen,  when I hit that bit of dialogue that gives me goosebumps, and I think maybe I’m OK at this gig after all. 

But lately, I’ve hit it in a bout of fifteen minutes of writing. 

You read that right – fifteen minutes.  Whenever I find myself putting off writing for days on end, I say to myself ‘I’ll only write for fifteen minutes a day’.  It always works – for some reason whenever I try to up the limit I resist and refuse.  I’d like to say the fifteen minutes becomes longer on most days, but it doesn’t.  Often, I’m watching the clock and forcing myself to remain seated with my pen moving for the full fifteen.  How can inspiration possibly come under such circumstances?

But it does.  And in the last couple of weeks, I’ve found that those moments of stillness I used to have to work hard for can hit within seconds of forcing my pen to start writing.  Maginificent!

I’ve got a problem…

I think I’ve worked out why my writing doesn’t feel right at the moment.  It’s not that it’s any worse than usual, or that it doesn’t flow.  It feels flat, even when the sentences and paragraphs themselves have energy.  I can come away from a writing session feeling like I’ve achieved something, but when I think back on it, I get a grey cloud thing happening.

And then today it hit me – it feels like I’m starting the story again, when I’m actually supposed to be finishing it off.  In order to move my protagonist closer to the crescendo that is the ending of book 1, I’ve had to move them geographically.  As a result, I’ve had to start them off in their world again, building relationships from scratch, finding their feet in a new town and occupation.  It’s not that there isn’t anything happening.  There is.  It’s just that it’s the kind of stuff that normally happens at the beginning of a book when the reader is getting to know the character.  Here, it’s the character who is getting to know other characters, which is having the same effect.

This realisation has been kicking around in my head all day, but I’ve decided not to do anything about it just yet.  It’s more important to me to keep writing so that I find out the nuances of the action rather than to stop now and go back.  I suspect what I’ll end up doing is cutting out a big chunk of what I’ve already written and pushing this part back so that it’s before the midpoint, not after it.  I’ll be able to take some of the earlier stuff, chop it up and relocate it so that I can still use it.  I think the story will be much better for it, to be honest. 

But who knew writing could be so complicated?

Can Men Write Female Characters and vice versa?

Is that an ambitious title?  Probably. 

But this is something I’ve wondered about for years.  It’s particularly pertinent to me, as I’m writing a male character in first person (needless to say, I’m not male!).  I’ve always wondered if representations of male characters written by female writers are accurate, or if they’re just what women want men to be. 

Is this generalising?  Probably.

While I recognise the pitfalls of generalising – how else can this topic be discussed?  I asked a male friend about this a few years ago.  His response was that no matter what kind of person you create, there will be someone like that somewhere in the world.  He is the ultimate non-generaliser.  I will also be using him to read my book to ensure my characters are believable.  Then again, if his perspective on this is unique, maybe that’s not such a good idea …

I’ve thought about this from the other direction, reflecting on female characters created by male authors.  There are a number I can think of where I didn’t even think about the gender of the author, and I totally believed the female character.  That’s a good sign.  Really, as writers we are empathetic to some extent, with the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.  We are one of the occupations where an understanding of people and how they work is an essential skill.  If a writer has never fought with a sword or flown a spaceship, does that mean they should shy away from these topics?  If we did, reading would be boring. 

So maybe we can learn about the opposite sex in the same way we learn about the life of a Roman soldier or speculate on the impact of technology 200 years from now.  The challenge is, our readers know unequivocally what the rules are, and if we get them wrong, it sticks out.  Is this where ‘write what you know’ comes in?

Personally, I think not.  Maybe writing a character of the other gender allows our ‘male’ or ‘female’ side to get some much needed airplay.  And if I stop and think about it, there are a number of female characters written by female authors that I really object to, which is interesting.  At the end of the day, we’re not writing a documentary here.  Even if we were, there’s still a lot of scope for artistic licence. 

What do you think?

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