Sunday, February 22, 2009

Writing believable sword fights

One of the things that annoys me is when writers assume that the bigger the sword the more effective it is. This simply isn't true and a writer concerned about realistically portraying sword fights should realize this. Swords are for cutting (and less often for thrusting) not for crushing so weight is meaningless. A heavy claymore or bastard sword is more likely to merely tire the user and isn't more necessarily more effective. In sword fighting, agility and maneuverability count.

Smaller, lighter swords are generally more maneuverable. However, a very light weapon (epee type) are so light that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to parry a heavy weapon with one. It would give way under the pressure.

Smart sword fighters don't jump into the air. It may sound cool, but it would get the fighter killed. The fighter can't change directions mid-air and doesn't have any way to maintain their balance. A sword fighter's feet belong on the ground in a sword fight.

All parts of the sword are a weapon, including the hilt; so are insults or a face full of sand. Especially with a larger opponent, legs are great targets. A fighter can win simply by letting an opponent bleed out after a leg slash. Eye-witness accounts indicate this was a frequently used technique.

A sword fighter should be closely aware of their opponent. An opponent's hands and shoulders often tense momentarily when they are about to strike, for instance. They may glance the direction their going to move. A fighter needs to also be aware of their surroundings. Sending an opponent backwards over an obstacle is always a good thing.

Last, but not least, a fight to the death takes tremendous energy. A good fighter doesn't waste it on fancy maneuvers that may look cool but don't damage their opponent.

On writing about sword fights a few well-known sword fighting terms are good to use, I think, but I'd suggest not going over-board. There are extensive terms for the Italian and German schools of fighting and somewhat fewer for English, but they would merely confuse the reader. However, block, dodge, parry, and riposte are terms that are familiar and give a picture of the action to the reader.

A fight to the death is serious business. While the Wesley vs. Inigo Montoya sword fight in the Princess Bride was hilarious, it was a great example of how to write one that surely no one believes or takes seriously. I could mention others that were meant to be taken seriously but don't want to offend the fans of some good writers whose sword fights make me cringe.

You don't have to be an expert to write good sword fights. I do think it helps, though, if you get an accurate reproduction and try it out at least, even if you don't have the time or desire to be in a club. If you take some of this into consideration, your sword fight scenes will have a lot more believability.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Swords and More

Ok, now I am a fantasy writer. In my case, this means I write story that take place in worlds I make up and they mostly use "medieval" style weapons. I put medieval in quotes because the fact is swords, shields and bows have been used in many times other than medieval, but I suppose I can live with that description.

Anyway, I want to discuss weapons a little bit. First let me mention, that until well into the late renaissance people did NOT use epee type weapons -- you know, those thin little things that are used in fencing. This is not how sword fighting was done for most of history. It evolved from the smallsword of the late 17th century into the dueling sword of the 18th and 19th centuries. They were good for the purpose because, quite frankly, it was much harder to actually kill each other. You could draw blood without, quite often anyway, actually killing someone. And these are NOT good weapons against most other swords.

BUT, I hear someone saying, your female characters HAVE to use one of these because a longsword (I prefer the term hand-and-a-half but it's long to type) is too heavy for a woman to pick up, much less use.




The typical medival longsword, my dear ones, weighed less than three pounds on average. So you mean to tell me that women can sling around thirty pound kids, heft 50 pound bags of wheat or flour, but CAN'T pick up a three pound sword. And, of course, can't learn to use one or like Mr. George RR Martin's Brienne --and I'm usually a BIG fan of Mr. Martin -- has to be a huge monstrosity in order to pick up and use a weapon. Oh, please. Mr. Martin -- give me a break on the sexism. And dragging in epee type weapons for the little helpless women to use quite ruined at least one of Brandon Sanderson's novels for me.

No. Women didn't and couldn't use weapons because they were forbidden to learn how and were never taught not because they weren't capable of it. A claymore such as William Wallace is said to have used generally weighed around 8 or 9 pounds and are two-handed swords. So a woman can't use something that weighs nine-pounds using both arms? Of couse she can.

Now smashing them together is absolutely tiring. Don't get me wrong. But it is certainly something that a woman can learn and do. To win against a larger, stronger person with longer reach, a woman with a sword uses a somewhat different technique, just like a man does when he comes up against another man who is larger.

Evidently someone (another man, mayhaps) has told many of our male writers that the largest man always wins, regardless of skill. Not so. I promise.

If you want to write about using these weapons, I do suggest trying to find a sword fighting club. They do exist, and, again, I emphasize that I am not talking about fencing which is a modern hobby which has little to do with sword fighting. (Nothing wrong with it, but they're not the same)

In a few days, I'll post a little basics on sword fighting techniques you might want to take into consideration if you want to write believable fight scenes.

Monday, February 16, 2009

What writing advice has helped most?

I ran into a blog with comments from a lot of famous writers on this subject the other day. I'd point you toward it IF I could remember where I saw it!

But I thought it was an interesting topic and thought I'd throw in my own experience--not that I'm a famous writer, but I can hope. I've received some great advice from some very experienced authors, but truthfully the best advice I ever got was published and is available to every writer out there. It was Heinlein's famous "Five Rules," originally published in his essay that appeared in "Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing."

They are pretty simple:

Rule One: You Must Write

Pretty simple -- but, amazingly, many people who claim to be authors don't write.

Rule Two: Finish What Your Start

Here it really gets tough. Maybe you think the first pages are weak or the characterization isn't that good. It's easy to give up, but if you don't finish then you don't grow. Half finished stories don't do a thing for you.

Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

Now this one gives people fits. Almost everyone modifies it since none of my first drafts come out ready for an editor to read and I doubt that yours do either. But the fact is, beyond a limited point, editing and re-writing is a lost cause.

Let me ask you this: Do you really know what will improve your work? Do your first readers or your critique group really know? Sure. Fix plot holes and obvious errors. But once you have that piece finished, the plot holes filled in, and reading reasonably smoothly -- STOP! Don't work on it for years. (Sadly, I know writers who do.) You're as likely to make it worse as you are to make it better, unless you deliberately wrote it poorly, and I don't believe that.

Instead of working and sweating over that piece, try to make your NEXT one better than the last.

Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market

Obvious, but most of us fall down on the job here. I admit it. I have a couple of stories I need to get out. Sometimes rejections or even the fear that you will get a reject makes you stop. So reward yourself -- have a piece of candy or whatever works, but get that work in front of editors who can buy it.

Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

Tough! Tough! Five rejections. Ten rejections. You start thinking that the piece must be crap and you should trunk it. But keep putting it out there. I don't think Heinlein's remark that there is a publisher somewhere who is "so desperate that he'll buy the worst old dog you or I or anyone put out" is true any more. But I do know authors who have sold stories on the 70th submission. So just keep trying.

So that's the best advice I ever received and to be honest just about the only writing advice (besides Stephen King's in On Writing and a couple of other books I mention on my website) that I ever bother to follow.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Writer as Cash Cow


I get really tired of all of the people who treat aspiring writers like cash cows. Whether it's people who write books and articles about how self-publishing is taking over the industry (Ha!), to the self-publishing companies that pretend they'll actually help market or that it's so easy (Ha!!), and even a few -- successful doesn't mean not greedy and this is why I say AAR membership is no guarantee of a good agent -- agents who have recently been "caught" sending writers they are rejecting to self-publishers, pretending this will lead to their being considered (see some recent blogs from Victoria Strauss), by far most people who self-publish are taken advantage of.

The number of self-published books, especially novels, that ever sell more than a handful of copies is miniscule. Pretending otherwise is dishonest. It is possible to do. However, it is also TIME CONSUMING, DIFFICULT AND EXPENSIVE!

Doing it successfully involves all kinds of things such as gathering cover quotes and inserted them, copyrighting the book, getting your ISBN number, and of course purchased a unique bar-code so that you can sell it. It probably includes, because you don't get decent sales of no-name writer on Amazon alone, sending out at least dozens, maybe hundreds, of review copies, sending press releases and media kits to newspapers, NPR, TV stations, talking to indies and chains to TRY to get carried (good luck!), setting up book signings, setting up blog interviews, etc., etc. etc.

Most writers don't want to do all that and wouldn't do well at it if they tried. How many writers really want to do what Christopher Paolini did and show up at high schools in costume? But do you see the people who make a profit from this stuff telling them that???!!! No, instead they're acting like it's as easy as getting your pocket picked. And in a way, I suppose it is since that's what happens.

It makes me really angry.

End of Rant

Monday, February 2, 2009

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is in serious trouble and I'm thoroughly disgusted. There is no excuse for a company to have been dragged into financial trouble the way HMH is.

No, it isn't that books aren't selling. Book sales on Amazon are up substantially and while they were down at Barnes & Nobles for the last quarter, earlier in the year they were rising. HMH is giving as an excuse a cutback in textbook purchases, but that is to come. It hasn't happened yet.

What actually did it was GREED. Pure and simple. Mr. O'Callaghan is known for what some refer to admiringly as a "freewheeling" person. Greedy is a much better word for it and with no background that made him a good owner for a company that was doing well until people with no knowledge of publishing got hold of it.

The fact is they borrowed FAR more than this company could possibly repay. They knew it. It's known as killing the goose, having run up a debt load somewhere around TEN TIMES their normal gross income. TEN TIMES!

A "fire sale" may well end up this fine old company's fate. We can just HOPE the next owner actually knows SOMETHING about publishing.

What the hell were bankers thinking making this kind of loans? Well, we know they weren't.

But don't get the mistaken idea that this has ANYTHING to do with publishing as an industry or how publishing will do in the future. This is someone (or multiple someones) running a company into the ground through piss-poor management. It is not the mark of changes in the publishing industry.