Beware the risks of burn-out

NB: If this is TL:DR for you – head to the bullet points at the end of the piece. I won’t be offended.

Fatigue syndromes and their symptoms are not something specific to writers, but since I am one this is where I’m coming from. I saw a Tweet the other day and it really set the alarm bells ringing.

‘When you say it’s the weekend, every writer–from the freelancer to the successful novelist–is gearing up for a 48hr stretch of marathon anxiety and hopeful productivity.’

Unpacking this is ugly. It’s laced with suffering-to-succeed bullshit, it’s championing the false triumph of producing content over mental health and it’s implying (and wow, the high-fives in the replies to the tweet just back this up) that if you aren’t taking this trial of strength EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND you probably aren’t trying hard enough.

It is, of course, nonsense. And it’s dangerous nonsense too.

Don’t get me wrong, coming up to deadline on a project can mean all sorts of long hours and personal sacrifices. No problem. But every day, every weekend, every spare hour? You’re storing up problems for yourself.

While I’m at it, another caveat. I’m lucky: I get to write full-time, so I don’t have to cram my writing around my job, thereby making evenings and weekends critical for getting words on paper. But I did write my first six novels that way, getting cross when I couldn’t get a seat on the train as well, that sort of thing.

The point is, wherever you are on your journey as a writer, you have to take care, and be aware, of your emotional and mental wellbeing. Things like burn-out, fatigue and yes, I think writer’s block, if you want to call it that, don’t happen overnight. They creep up, they’re an incremental process of hollowing you out until you are unable to adapt any longer and things get horrible.

Here’s a story for you:

We’re all busy being beings

I’m typical of so many of us. Busy life, plenty to do. A family, dogs, a house and garden to maintain…so many bits and pieces perfectly common to many of us. I am in no way unusual or a special case. I try to keep office hours, for want of a better term. When the children are at school and the dogs walked, I can get to the office about 9.30am, work til 1pm, have lunch, back to work 2pm til 6pm. Good, right? A solid working day.

Of course, it’s not all pure work. It never is. Life intervenes at random. But I can’t, and refuse to, complain.

But, it’s never enough. It never has been. It wasn’t enough when I was writing on the tube and it isn’t enough today because there is always more to do. And that is the centre of the problem.

So, I’d do a day’s work, then all the other things I had to do because life happens anyway and if I got any other spare time, little by little, I found myself back at work.

So, what is relaxation, exactly?

I forgot how to relax. I remember laughing with my wife about that, about the fact that I wasn’t satisfied unless I was achieving something. Not funny, as it turns out. Even when I was reading a book it was haunted by work because it was research or a review copy or I was keeping myself up to date with the genre. Everything was analysis. It was the same when I was watching a box set… I wasn’t enjoying it for what it was because I was judging script and performance, shot and direction because they might all inform something I was working on.

It all felt like fun, up to a point. Looking back now, the time I should have started to question what on earth I thought I was doing was when not constantly ‘achieving’, in whatever form I’d created that day, soured my mood. If I wasn’t stupidly busy, I was unhappy.

And I then fooled myself with an indefinable end-point beyond which I’d be able to do all those things you might associate with relaxation with a clear conscience. It would happen, I convinced myself, ‘when I am not so stupidly busy.’ Oh dear.

So, there’s the set up. There are the incremental steps that lead me to effectively attempt to work all the time and be quietly, or not so quietly, irritable when I wasn’t. And no defined end point.

By this time, I was long past the stage of recognising that I was tired and should take a break; or realising that the reason I felt I must work all the time was because I was being woefully inefficient and not doing my best work, not by a long way.

All fall down

The day the edifice crumbled began like any other: kids off to school; dogs walked; breakfast; head to the office; sit at the PC.


I was in the middle of a draft for a book sequel, today was a day for writing an action scene and I love action scenes. But that day, I simply couldn’t see how to write it. I couldn’t see how it would carry the impact, energy and excitement that it had to have. I’ve had blank days before and just shrugged my shoulders and waited for the moment to pass (‘ignored the warning signs’ would have been more accurate, because they became more and more frequent) but this felt different. Well, it did in hindsight.

Obviously, I managed to deny everything and went on, deciding to write a proposal and work on a short film script instead. Thing is, I couldn’t make headway on either of them, couldn’t think my way around the simplest problem.

It went on like this for a few days before I couldn’t pretend any longer and that was the moment, like with every admission, that the problem was faced and could be tackled.

First, I had no concentration. It wasn’t so much fractured as ground into dust. I could not settle on anything. It was horrible. It robbed me of my desire to write. It robbed me of knowing what to write.

Second, the pool of creativity, of ideas, was dry, the bed cracked and fissured. Now, I’m someone who has so many ideas tumbling through his head that writing them down is the only way to get them out; and I’ve often said that it is both blessing and curse but that having that well run dry would be scary. Let me tell you, if you’re a creative and your life is enriched with endless ‘what-ifs?’ and you wake up one day and find they’ve all gone, it is terrifying.

I felt like I was failing. It was a dark place to reach.

And now, the good news

The treatment is really good fun, once you accept you need it.

The first thing I did was stop. Just stop. There was an immediate hit of relief that I wasn’t staring at writing I should be doing but unable to progress, but it didn’t last long. Next, I needed distraction. Not walking in the park because that leaves the mind free to roam and hence to worry, but something to occupy the mind in splendid passive nonsense.

So, I bought a couple of games (Dishonoured 2 and Death of the Outsider if you must know) and played. And when I wasn’t playing, I watched cartoons (Phineas & Ferb and Futurama are perennial favourites). Or I read books. Not genre books or history books for now, anything else I wouldn’t normally pick up. Police procedurals and horror, for instance — stuff I’m not going to try and write (well, I don’t think so).

I don’t recall exactly how long I did this for, but it was over a week and it didn’t come without its challenges. There’s guilt, as you can imagine and there is anxiety because what if the ideas don’t start presenting themselves again? And, in the beginning, concentrating on any of these distractions was a trick in itself.

This was cold-turkey stuff, but it worked for me. The desire returned at its own pace and solutions to those formerly insoluble problems began to present themselves. But in a moment of rare insight, I realised I should on no account rush back in. Instead, I set specific and short hours of work and did distraction stuff in the interim. As an aside, that included walking the dogs in the park but singing rather than thinking about work; liberating indeed.


In short, I feel better about my writing than I have in months, years even, telling me that this issue was long in the making. My confidence is back, my mind is alight with ideas and all the achievement-anxiety is gone.

The temptation, of course, is to assume it’ll never happen again and go merrily on. But once bitten and all that… so checks and balances are in place.

Basic hours of work as described above are fine – you should never worry about normal working hours, after all. But breaks are rigidly ‘enforced’…step away from the PC/phone/notepad and go read a book/watch telly. Then, at the end of the day, make sure it feels like the end. Close-down the PC, close the note pads and leave them in the office. I’ve found this particularly useful because the physical act of shut-down resets the mind away from work and into relaxation mode. As for weekends, well the PC never leaves its resting place now and the notepads sit atop it. Best place for them.

And finally…

What I fell into is an extreme example, but it serves as a warning to check yourself regularly, ask yourself if you are doing too much and raising your own ‘achievement-anxiety’ levels in the process. We all have days when we’re knackered but the moment it’s a regular interference, or your enjoyment of your craft is diminished, check yourself, don’t just plough on.

If you think you’re suffering Writer’s Block, are you? Perhaps you’re fatigued, burned-out, and need to step away. Perhaps that is Writer’s Block. Think about it, don’t lie to yourself that all is well when it transparently is not. And don’t work until bedtime or you won’t sleep properly and thus allow the vicious cycle to continue.

But no schedule you set yourself is perfect and you have to be fluid, naturally. So, if you’re on a roll, bloody hell, yes, carry on because the high from an amazing day writing until you’ve no more to give is wonderful. But conversely, if it’s a blood-from-a-stone day, don’t work beyond your ‘normal’ hours because you feel you need to achieve some self-imposed word-count or scene-ending goal. Think of it like this: the amazing days are insurance against the crap ones.

One last thought. It isn’t the actual burn-out that’s the most damaging bit. After all, it’s then that you have to stop and address things. It’s the months (years?) of run-up when you weren’t doing your best work, when you knew your quality was lacking and you knew you needed to do even more work to fix it, that have cost you. That’s why I say, be on the look out for the early signs.


Okay, you’re here because it’s a long piece. No problem. Here are the key points:

Warning Signs

  • Burn-out is a pernicious condition you need to recognise before it stops you in your tracks.
  • There is no badge of honour for continually working until you drop, so if that’s what you feel you must do, you should be concerned.
  • If you’re starting to suffer a lack of concentration, examine why that is.
  • If you’re feeling creatively hollow, worry why that is.
  • If you’re plagued by the idea you must continually achieve targets you’ve set for yourself and there is little time to relax, you are storing up problems for yourself.
  • If you’re looking forward to that time when you’ll be less busy, ask yourself if you’re ever going to get there.
  • Hitting the wall is discombobulating and you’ll doubt yourself and your abilities. But…


  • Don’t think it’ll be fine tomorrow after a good night’s sleep. If you’re feeling too fatigued/empty/lacking in desire to write, switch off immediately.
  • It’s not going to be easy, but you need to stop working, even thinking about work, for a while. For me, it was over a week. You’ll question it, get anxious about it and think getting back to work would be a better plan. Resist. It’s only a week.
  • Distraction is a great thing. I watched cartoons or played video games. Anything to stop your mind wandering back to work before you’re ready.
  • Baby steps. When you’re ready, and you’ll know because you’ll want to write rather than feel you ought to, don’t pile the hours in. Build it up over the next weeks to what you know is a manageable level (i.e. some way short of where you were).
  • Separate work space from relaxation space. When you’re done working, if you can, leave your laptop behind.
  • Don’t fool yourself that, for instance, reading a book for review is relaxation, it isn’t. Same goes for reading back what you wrote today. These things are for work hours.

 Keeping it right

  • When you’re scheduling your work, be honest and realistic with yourself. I know it’s hard to say ‘no’ when you’re freelancing but you still have to care for your mind.
  • If you’re writing around your day job, again, be realistic. For instance, try not to write up until lights out. You need time to come down after writing or you won’t sleep properly.
  • If you’re having a great day, bugger the schedule and go for it until you drop. It’s a high you deserve and it’s insurance against…
  • …having a crap day. Don’t push it because you haven’t met a self-imposed goal. Stop, relax, sleep.
  • Be honest with yourself. Check in with yourself to make sure you aren’t creeping into old habits or starting to get achievement anxiety.
  • Writing is wonderful. Writing is the core way we express ourselves. It empowers us, enables us, brings us joy, allows us to understand ourselves and our worlds. When any of those things start to drift away, if the joy should diminish, time to reset…

James Barclay

July 2018


• July 24th, 2018 • Posted in Blog, Books • Comments: 0

Unsettling, enthralling, brilliant… Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

419idx4wssl-sx316You may well find what follows a little disjointed and I make no apology for that though I should point out that Behind Her Eyes flowed as well as any book I have read. This is  more of an experiential review. There is no précis for fear of unwittingly giving something away. Neither have I tried to pigeonhole this novel because I believe any lover of a good book in whatever genre will enjoy it. Here we go, then…

It was  such an engrossing read, one of those when you repeatedly think to yourself: ‘Oh all right then, just one more chapter’ until you’ve finished it. It is unsettling, it is enthralling and it is brilliant.

For me, the genius of Behind Her Eyes lies in the use of first person present for each of the principal protagonists. You’re in their minds. Nothing is artificially hidden… it’s all there. All you have to do is see it. Good luck with that.

There was a moment in this book — all right, there were several moments — when I knew I’d worked it all out. When all my double-thinking and oh-so-clever linking of the clues I thought I had found came together and presented me with the only possible outcome. I could have been more wrong, but not much.

Inside the narrative are wonderfully real, properly flawed characters, each one defined by their inconsistencies and undermined, if not by others, then by their own weaknesses. I watched the plot unfold like a helpless bystander wanting to warn of danger or to shake a character’s shoulders and demand why?

I cared about them, even as the sense of foreboding grew and a little clarity was granted. I wanted them to turn from their paths, to not be as I feared they were. Sometimes, I even got my wish.

Yet inevitably, inexorably, I was drawn deeper, seeking the truth inside their minds, the reasons for it all. And when, finally, all was revealed, I could only slump back knowing the clues were there all along, I just didn’t see them.

And when you read this book, and read it you must, you’ll know why you can never reveal THAT ending to another soul. Doing so would rightly condemn you to a special purgatory.

Read Behind Her Eyes, please. It’s not just money well spent, it’s time well spent in the company of a writer conducting a masterclass in her field.

November 2016

• November 8th, 2016 • Posted in Blog, Books • Comments: 0

Reconnect with yourself… a few thoughts following ‘Offline October’

It’s 1st November and I’ve just had a month completely away from Twitter and Facebook. When Sarah Pinborough suggested this self-imposed exile, I jumped at the chance knowing I spend way too much time trawling timelines, getting dragged into stupid rows about things I don’t care about and losing hours and hours of working time.

It was easy

I’ll get straight to it. I cannot recommend time away from social media highly enough. I know some people have to monitor it for their jobs but the rest of you have no excuse. The benefits were immediate and obvious and the anticipated downsides trivial by comparison.

I wondered if I would find it impossible not to sneak on, even anonymously, and see what was going on… whether I would feel I was ‘missing out’ in some indefinable way, whether I would feel excluded. Was there a risk of feeling isolated by avoiding online social contact?

Well, perhaps I’m not such an addict as I think I am because it was embarrassingly easy to keep away. Not only that, I felt liberated. No longer did I feel I had to check in, to be there, to be a presence of any kind. I didn’t have to think about what I might tweet or post. No longer was I measuring my intellect or the impact of my humour, my worth, by the number of likes and retweets. And before, that’s what I did and I feel sure that many of you reading this do the same. Let’s be honest, it’s a bit pathetic, isn’t it? I wasn’t conscious I was doing it either, which is somehow even worse.

Beyond that admission, the greatest revelation was the sheer amount of time I found myself with during a normal office day. It’s obvious when you stop to think about it but from constantly dipping in and out of social media to check on those cursed likes, shares and retweets, to getting sucked into a debate or an argument, it is incredibly disruptive. But I don’t think I’d realised quite how disruptive and again, I’d sleepwalked into it, assimilated it as just part of life and it’s stupid frankly. Because writing novels and the like requires uninterrupted focus. Simple, really.

As you’ll expect, having read so far, I’ve been far more productive. I’ve also found more time to watch saved up TV, read books, do exercise… I feel more connected to me and the backlogs of this and that are falling and that is a very good feeling.

What surprised me in the early days was how much calmer I felt. I’m not writing this to knock social media because it is wonderful for many things but too often it is an echo-chamber of hate and fury and unfairness and bile and cynicism and try as I might, I’m drawn in to respond. I have no desire whatever to go back down those blind alleys.

Coming next…

The question is, I suppose, how do I handle it all now the month is over?

I haven’t ever considered abandoning social media altogether, it has too much of a positive side for that and it would deny all the enjoyment I’ve derived, the friends I’ve made and the benefit it’s been to me as an author and actor. But it’s the at-times appalling negativity in all its forms that needs to be avoided, or minimised at least. What I am tired of is engaging in a thread that goes wrong and ending up feeling cross half the day. I don’t want to engage with people who appear to be angry nearly all the time. It’s destructive of time, mood and morale. There’s plenty enough bad and fury-inducing news emanating from every news outlet daily as it is without enraging myself with it further on social media.

The plan is this. One: a cull of Facebook ‘friends’. It’s an echo chamber of hate far too often and it needs a serious pruning. Second, not to trawl timelines anymore, rather to keep up with the people I most care about in a more targeted manner. If there’s anything that eats most time, it’s reading post after post, tweet after tweet just in case something sparks my attention or anger or disgust or whatever. Third, not ever again feel internal or external pressure to post or tweet something erudite/pithy/witty… that’s a sorry self-obsessive road and life is too short to waste on such things.

Who knows how it’ll go from here on in but I changed my priorities last month and I want to keep it that way. I honestly don’t think I’ll be on social media as much. This break has (re)opened my eyes and it has been so refreshing.

If I have one recommendation, it’s to think about your relationship with social media. Take a step back and consider if you’ve absorbed it so deeply you cannot comprehend a day without it. Be honest, and if that is you, take a week off, or just a couple of days even, and fill up those days with all the stuff you’re normally so busy posting about loving so much.

Re-connect with yourself on your terms.

James Barclay

November 2016

• November 1st, 2016 • Posted in All the rest, Blog, News • Comments: 0

Out and about in August

Heart Of Granite

Heart Of Granite

I am emerging from my office and even taking a day off rehearsals for a few events this month and here they are:

Tuesday 9th August – It’s book launch time at Blackwell’s High Holborn. The sheer joy that is a dual launch for my new novel, Heart of Granite and the lovely Ed Cox’s The Watcher of Dead Time will be marshalled by Jon Wallace (pity the poor chap). There’ll be chat, Q&A, maybe the odd reading and perhaps even a glass of something. It all kicks off at 6.30pm and probably ends in a local pub. It’s completely free so all you need to do is book by clicking here.

Thursday 11th August – Is there any other place to be this evening but Fantasy In The Court hosted by Goldsboro Books (the court being the tranquil and beautiful Cecil Court near Leicester Square) I’ll be there standing around talking to anyone and everyone and signing books if you bring them along (or even better, buy at the event, something that ensures my undying love). All the details about tickets, location and the excellent line-up of authors can be found here.

Friday 12th August – It’s day one of Nineworlds at Novotel London West in Hammersmith and it’s also my 11th Wedding Anniversary. I’ll be at the convention all day. I’ve got two panels in the morning:

World-building: No One Sells Happy Life Day Cards
Bouzy, 10:00am – 11:00am (Living Words)
Tracks: Living Words

Economics, geography, infrastructure – it’s the background stuff that, like concrete breeze blocks, comes off as the dull, uninteresting graft of world creation. But what makes it come alive and make sense for the reader? What makes people care, and what makes a fictional culture viable?

Getting fighting wrong
Cremant, 11:45am – 12:45pm (Living Words)
Tracks: Living Words

Meaningful exchanges of blows: how to lose pace and focus in every action scene! A lot of things go into a good action sequence – sharp things, explodey things, possibly an angry person waving a mildly threatening stick – but what does it actually take to make a fight scene work? How does writing a battle differ from running one, if at all? Here are some authors to spill their guts! Hopefully not literally. PLEASE not literally.

2-1455219435_SCOTT BARCLAY_Jan16-84croppedSuper panels with top panellists, I think you’ll agree. And if you can’t make the panels, feel free to find me afterwards, most likely having a drink or two…all the details of Nineworlds can be found here.

• August 2nd, 2016 • Posted in Books, News • Comments: 0

Living with Jeffrey

Thoughts from an actor on being Jeffrey Bernard

Drink in hand, Jeff tells another story...

Words of wisdom, undoubtedly…

Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell tells the stories, memories and reminiscences of Jeffrey Bernard during a night when he wakes to find himself locked in his favourite pub, The Coach & Horses, in Soho. Bernard was a central figure in Soho culture in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. He was famous for his alcoholism, womanising and gambling, which he reported in his weekly ‘Lowlife’ column in The Spectator.

It is a comedy, a reflection of life and a charting of the self-destruction of an utterly charming rogue. It is brilliantly written, sourced in no small part from Bernard’s own writings and stitched together into a delightful ensemble by Keith Waterhouse.

A bit of preamble…

For a man of my years (fifty and just the one) there are few, if any, roles more challenging and exciting than that of Jeffrey Bernard. The role is vast: Jeff never leaves the stage; accounts for around eighty-five percent of the words spoken; acts almost as a master of ceremonies introducing every new story and the characters that populate it; he is responsible for all transitions; and he must drive the play practically from the moment the lights come up to the moment they cut at the end of act two.

Including an interval of fifteen minutes, the play runs to around an hour and three quarters. It is emotionally, physically and mentally demanding. There is no respite for Jeff, barely a moment to draw breath and refocus. And focus must never waver. Because Jeff narrates and addresses the audience a considerable amount, he must have the authority to keep them with him, the charisma to hold their attention and to drive in them the desire to be seduced by the stories he tells and the life he has led.

For all those reasons, it is the role I have enjoyed more than any other I have had the honour of playing. With the right cast and crew to create a close-knit and supportive team – and we were that because despite Jeff’s on-stage dominance, this production relies on teamwork as much as any other – it is simply enormous fun.

But you have to be ready for it, you have to prepare (and yes you have to do that for any role in any production) on multiple fronts. No doubt actors reading this will find some or much of it unsurprising but so if you find a single nugget you can take away, I’ll deem this whole piece a success.

Den Den as played by the fantastic Callum Hale

Den Den as played by the fantastic Callum Hale

Where to begin?

With this role as with no other, I’ve been asked how it is I’m able to learn ‘all those lines’. It’s a question that vexes many actors because learning isn’t the ‘hard’ bit, but it is nonetheless a valid question. Or rather, it is a valid sentiment because in reality anyone can learn anything of any length given enough time. The question should more properly be, ‘how can you both remember everything you are scripted to say and also imbue each line, each word, with the desired force, energy and intonation to bring the character to life?’

I was fortunate in that I had time. We were up in mid-May and I began the journey in late February. Some might argue that you can have too much time, that beginning to inhabit a character too early can lead to staleness, boredom. But for Jeffrey Bernard, I would advise the actor to begin as early as they can for a number of reasons. This is not a role you can take on three weeks before curtain-up and hope to do it justice, I don’t care who you are. In the play as in life, Jeff loved words, he savoured them, rolled them round his mouth and down his pen on to the page. He enjoyed them and picked each one with care. You need time to allow that comprehension to settle in your bones.

A page a day

I know a number of actors who have scanned the script and announced that they don’t think they could do it. Fair enough. But when you’re cast, you’ve got to. I took a very disciplined approach to getting all those glorious words into my head and heart.

A page a day, simple as that. Learn the first line, repeat, learn the second line, repeat both lines…and so on. And every morning, I went over everything I’d learned thus far. In the early days, of course, it was not a significant task. But as the mathematicians among us will have worked out, that task gets larger every day.

And I stuck to it no matter what. The greatest benefit of the approach I took was the way those words, those beautifully chosen words, became mine.

Say it often enough…

…and it becomes true. There’s one sure way to avoid any form of boredom or staleness when repeating lines and ensuring your memory is secure, and that’s to say them differently every time, or try to. Walking round the park with my dog every morning, I’d visualise the scene as I spoke, imagining gestures and adding emphasis to different words, trying to tease out the perfect way of delivering the sense of what had been written. I must have looked strange to onlookers but to be honest, I was so often lost in my own little Bernardian world, I didn’t much care.

I made wonderful discoveries while I walked. It’s a peaceful place, the park across the road from me. Big, open and largely unspoiled. If you can find yourself such a place, go to it because the lack of distraction, the purity, is an aid to thought. Particularly when considering Jeff’s monologues, I found ways to vary pace of delivery, emphasis, meaning and tone that I wouldn’t have discovered in a more distracted space like an office or a train.

Another benefit, by the way

By the time I was able to recite (and that’s all it really was at this point) the lines, one thought that struck me was how glad I was I’d started early. I switched to

They invariably make the same entrance wherever they go...

They invariably make the same entrance wherever they go…

working on one act each day, identifying risk areas (Jeff’s repeated attempts to phone the landlord are key to the play’s progression, for instance) and places where delivery had to be paced to maintain (or increase) pace and energy.

I became acutely aware of where my actions on stage could drive the play on or let it flounder. Jeff has to be the focal point for the audience a great deal but that is not true 100% of the time and it’s crucial the actor understands this.

Finding a moment to pause

There’s a temptation for Jeff to dominate from line one but it’s an error that will lessen the production.

Here’s why: Jeff spends the entire play recounting events from his life. He was a lover of fascinating people and those people enrich every story he tells. Very often, they appear on stage and, whether it’s for one line, five or twenty, they are living in the moment he recalls them. And because they are memories, they will be accentuated, larger than life and must have the space to be so.

Very often, Jeff adopts the role of the straight man, introducing characters who tell the joke, speak the line that brings the big laugh or draw humour from their physicality on stage. They are the drivers of energy in those sometimes ephemeral scenes and Jeff is reduced quite rightly to onlooker and listener almost as if he is an audience member. That doesn’t mean he steps out of himself, by the way, the balance is fine – what he mustn’t do is upstage. And I would argue that when he is engaged in dialogue with a character, he should adopt the facilitator’s role. In that way, the richness of the people he recalls can be fully appreciated.

A fresh perspective

If you have the time in any role you play, where you have spent a great deal of time alone working on your character, get some professional eyes on what you’ve done before you go into rehearsal.

One of the reasons I wanted to have all the words within me was so I could work on problem areas. For me there was no one better than Sam Lupton who is an actor, a singer, a teacher of both disciplines, and has recent extensive experience of West End musical theatre. He’s a very talented man and, importantly, a good

Of course not, my angel... get your knickers off.

Of course not, my angel… get your knickers off.

friend and that means I trust him and that he can be brutally honest without offence.

We had two, two-hour sessions and in them he challenged assumptions I’d made, showed me other ways to think, changed where I was placing my speech in my mouth and got me to focus more on my breathing.

Right at the start of the play, there’s a lengthy monologue which is, in effect, an obituary which serves to introduce Jeff and summarise a good deal of what is to come. It’s a lovely speech but it has to be delivered correctly or the play will lack energy from the start; plainly undesirable and hard to recover from.

The opening line of this speech is; ‘I could die here.’ Only one way you can say that, right? Reflective…anxious even…downbeat. Wrong. Sam pointed out that delivering the line that way floors the energy of the entire speech and opens the play flat. What if the rest of that line was ‘…and that would be just fine’? he asked. Boom. The energy is up, Jeff sees it as a challenge rather than a problem, the audience laughs (and they did) and the speech is set up to succeed.

As an aside, my agent, Ross MacFarlane who came to see the show said that, right until the very end where Jeff does become properly reflective (but even then, not downbeat) he regards himself as the funniest man alive, a man for whom humour can and must be found in even the direst of circumstances. That is a good rule by which to perform Jeff.

Pitch it right

Sam and I found number of areas where the temptation to become moribund had to be resisted. Even the speech where Jeff considers his own mortality ends upbeat… ‘perhaps the party can go on, different premises and no closing time.’ Identifying them and finding humour rather than pathos makes for a far more energised and engrossing performance. Any research into him will tell you he was not a man who dealt much with negativity.

Anyway, onto vocals. I have a habit of speaking from the back of my mouth. It’s laziness when you think about it. It means the lips and tongue don’t work so hard and it gives the words a breathy, sometimes slightly rough quality. It sounds fine as far as it goes but it also means that the moment my breath runs short, I tend to swallow my words. Sam picked up on this immediately (as he has with my singing technique) and told me to place the words right at the front of my mouth and to use more breath support.

The effects were immediate and threefold. Remember how I said Bernard savours words? Well, placing the words at the front of my mouth allowed me to do that.  Almost tasting them as I spoke them, was quite a revelation. Second, using better breath support allowed me to maintain my energy through to the end of each line – I know this sounds obvious to actors but I’d lapsed into a bad habit and needed shaking out of it. And third, ditching the breathy quality in favour of clarity saved my throat from getting a rasping every time I performed. What’s not to love? Thank you, Sam.

The rehearsal room

Another reason for getting as much prep done as I could, was our short rehearsal time; two working weeks, and only three days in that time did we have the full cast

Jeff, Caspar and Tom race cats, obviously

Jeff, Caspar and Tom race cats, obviously

available. Not only that, we’d be having our dress and tech rehearsal the same day as our first performance. The pressure was indeed on.

Well, I suppose it was but it didn’t ever feel that way and there lies the value of an experienced and talented cast, director, producer and stage manager. Everyone came to the first day having done a great deal of work on anything from performance to props to costume. And don’t underestimate the importance of those latter two because for the cast barring Jeff, there are multiple costume changes, often with precious little time available. Timing, placement of props and costumes, entrance points…all had to be understood on day one while I, as Jeff, rather swanned around the room expecting people to be on cue. They always were.

Brace yourself

I’d got the lines. They’d sunk into my heart and soul. I was at the stage I didn’t believe you’ll ever drop one of them. Ever. The PR accent I was using for the character was so much part of mw, it was hard to drop in normal conversation.

Then I get into my first proper run of act one and it was like I’d never bothered to learn the part at all. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

All right, I’m being a bit dramatic but you have to be ready for it. Reading cues off a book and imagining lines in your head on a train or performing them to your dog and a few ducks in the park is nothing at all like rehearsal. When all of a sudden you have an actual set you have to navigate, props you have to manage, places you have to be to perform certain actions (for Jeff, that’s more often than not a phone call or to pour himself a drink) and, horror of horrors, real actors delivering lines to you in ways you didn’t expect.

Don’t let it get to you. Know that it’s almost certain to happen, remember what you know, recall all the work you did and most of all, get familiar with all those new distractions, work them into your imagination and use them to bring another dimension to your performance. Let’s face it, it’s going from 2-D to 3-D. It’s not all going to be plain sailing.

The complexities of playing Jeffrey Bernard are such that you have to maintain your belief in yourself and the capacity of your mind to handle the role. It’s in there, just waiting to be let out.

The fun really begins

'Jeffrey Bernard is unwell...'

‘Jeffrey Bernard is unwell…’

In acting more than in most other jobs, frankly, if you’re not having fun then what on earth are you doing it for? It is a precarious enough profession as it is; the least you should be is cheerful when you do get work. There are degrees and degrees of fun, of course and I had such fun during rehearsals.

At the heart of that is the team of course. I was blessed to be working with such a group of experienced and talented people. It was like the perfect storm of determination, creativity and intelligence in a theatre company.

Our director adopted a collaborative approach, forced on her in part because she was also a cast member. This had the effect of making the whole ensemble a melting pot of ideas. Thoughts flowed, some were taken on, others discarded. People were free to comment and suggest at any time on anything. And if it sounds chaotic it was anything but. All ideas were channelled through the director who had the final say. It all added to the pleasure.

Another effect was to accelerate discoveries in terms of characters and performance, a good thing given the scarcity of rehearsal time. Each cast member had between twelve and twenty characters to portray and I watched each one develop as day followed day.

You’ll find a paragraph on everyone involved below but if you take one thing away from this, it’s the value of a cast working as such a close-knit team, providing support, constructive criticism and exuding the desire to exceed expectations as to the quality of the production.

While I was the ‘star’ of the show in all honesty, I think my job was easier than any other cast member. I only had to be Jeff…Jeff getting slowly more pissed over the course of a couple of hours while he told story after story. The stage was the calm place, the easy place. Behind the flats, my friends were flying about in total silence, moving to their next entry point, changing costume, sweeping up their props, adopting their next character before coming on, delivering maybe only one line before heading off to do it again.

We need an audience

I’m going to tell you a secret. Despite the fun I was having, I was horrified at the thought of such a short rehearsal period. And when we began I was even more horrified to find out how few days we’d have the full cast. And by the time we’d lost a day to a combination of absences and public transport chaos I was nervous about what we were going to be able to serve up on opening night.

But what happened on the second Monday caused my fears to vanish like mist before the sun. Almost as if the work we’d done the first week settled into our collective sub-conscious over the weekend, the play came to stunning life first thing on that Monday morning.

It’s a confidence thing of course and in the twinkling of an eye, I had what I needed – belief in myself and belief in the team. Not that I didn’t have it before but in this one glorious moment I could see it all laid out and it was obvious that the whole was going to be far, far greater than the sum of its parts.

Incredibly, by the end of Thursday’s rehearsal, we were already in need of an audience. A day to spare…and Friday became a day to do a single run then have the

'If Bonhomie wins, I'm fucked.'

‘If Bonhomie wins, I’m fucked.’

luxury of tidying up a couple of scenes, packing up and going home early.

Live at last

'...I'd have ended up keeping bees.'

‘…I’d have ended up keeping bees.’

The journey was at an end. I’d been living with Jeffrey for three months. He occupied many of my waking hours. I’d read books on him and his writings, we’d visited the Coach & Horses, I’d looked up a lot of the characters he brings on stage. I had snatches of dialogue running round my head, monologues would rear up unbidden and I visualised how I would deliver them.

Sam had said to me ‘You can’t land every line. You have to know where you have to place your emphasis.’ I did – and working through rehearsals had fine-tuned every moment.

Lying under the pub table on the first night, listening to Elizabeth Smart reciting the opening poem, though my heart rate was raised, I felt nerveless. I was ready. Jeff was ready. I’d had a mild panic just before being called and had checked my script for the position of every phone call before rebuking myself – reminding myself that I absolutely knew it.

Getting up and moving about the Coach & Horses, I felt at home. Out there, the audience were watching and as I moved around my domain, I relaxed. I have never before felt so confident on stage, so at ease with my role and so certain about what was to come. Off stage, actors waited to be summoned from Jeff’s memory to walk and speak their moments and I knew there would not be a missed entrance, a missed cue, nothing. I couldn’t wait for them to come on so we could enjoy it together. This was not complacency, it was clarity. It was wonderful.

Actors will argue about portraying a character as opposed to being a character. The fact is, it’s both. For most of the time during a performance, you are aware, as

Eva Johansen

Nikki Wright as Eva Johansen

the actor, that it is you portraying someone from the pages of a script, be they real or fictional, on one level or another. You can hear the audience; you have to so you can adapt your performance as necessary. But I found with Jeffrey Bernard that there were moments I genuinely lost myself within him, when I inhabited him. Like when I listened to Eva Johansen reciting a letter she’d written to him…me. Like when I recounted the tale of a friend who’d urinated through a letter box while I was mixing and drinking a Bloody Mary. Like when I was ironing a short and talking about his…my…parents. These were sublime moments.

Gail Ashwell as Muriel Belcher

Gail Ashwell as Muriel Belcher

I believe we created an extraordinary theatrical experience for ourselves. I was lucky indeed to work with people who were so good they made my job as easy as it could be given its sheer scale. Their confidence and belief fed my own and it’s a feeling I will never forget and will forever seek to recreate.

Our audiences were engaged and entertained. After every performance, we the cast chatted about things we might push a little further, places where we could do better. And then we went out and did it next time. Feedback was wonderful. In the bar following each performance, it was clear that audiences were blown away by what they’d seen. And never mind leaving them hungry for more, it left us starving to do it all over again and again…

An unforeseen issue about living with Jeffrey for so long is that he is reluctant to leave. A week after we closed, I still found myself going over speeches, looking for ways to improve. Odd. Normally, the character flees when the run is done. Not Jeff. He hangs about, just needing the one before he goes…

'Hello Dennis, working?'

Mark Shaer as John Le Mesurier

Deepest thanks…

Without these people, I could not have reached the places I did with Jeffrey Bernard. I am forever in their debt and if I have the chance to do the same for them, I’ll leap at it…

Gail Ashwell is an actress and director who knows how it’s done. Her approach to this production is what made it the joy it was. I’ve worked with Gail before and love the way she is always thinking, and the way she sees through a problem and can fix it with a gentle note or suggestion.

Callum Hale is a very talented young actor. His m.o. was to notch up the physicality, vocal emphasis, or both, every time he walked on, seeking that moment when he went over the top so he could pull back. He pitched every character to perfection, reserving a little bit more for performance when he felt it was needed and the audience would take it. I had to hang on to myself not to corpse helplessly every time he came on as Dennis Shaw or Francis Bacon.

Nikki Wright is an actress of long experience and consummate skill. Hers was a cerebral approach, and you could see her thinking through everything she said and did, looking for ways to strengthen each character. I’ve worked with Nikki before and like last time, I learned a great deal from her. Nikki’s Eva Johansen was beautiful.

Mark Shaer is one of those actors who can shift gear from character to character with apparent effortlessness. But those familiar with the swan analogy should apply it now to get an inkling of the amount of thought, planning and execution that goes into such effortlessness. Again, I’ve worked with Mark before and love watching him grow into the roles he plays. The joy of his Caspar during the cat racing scene will live long with me.

Greta Jenkins is a producer with long experience in the industry. She misses nothing and in a play like Jeffrey Bernard, that’s vital. As the mound of props grew, knowing there was someone who knew where everything had to be and when was a source of comfort making every actor’s job easier. And when I stopped to consider that was only one of the tasks she took on – front of house, programme, set design as well for instance, I wonder if she slept at all.

Paula Bland was our stage manager and I’d recommend her to anyone needing a calm, efficient, accurate and lovely person back stage. Need I say more?

And lest I forget, Jordan and Martin at The Dugdale Theatre in Enfield who build sets at the speed of light and set lighting plots in the blink of an eye.

James (or Scott) Barclay, May 2016

James (or Scott) Barclay, May 2016


James Barclay has snuck quietly into his early fifties. He’s a successful fantasy novelist with his thirteenth book, Heart of Granite, due for publication on 18th August 2016. He is represented by Robert Kirby at United Agents in the UK, and by Howard Morhaim at Morhaim Literary Agency in the US. He acts under the name, Scott Barclay and when not being Jeffrey Bernard, works in theatre, film and TV. He is represented by Ross MacFarlane at MacFarlane Doyle Associates.

• May 31st, 2016 • Posted in Acting, Blog • Comments: 0

A Change Of Tune

I like it...

I like it…

I went to see Take That last Saturday night. There, eight words I never thought I’d write.

Let me start with a little context… I’ve been brought up on rock and heavy rock, with a bit of new romantic and boogie woogie chucked in for good measure. When I go to a gig it’s to see, say, AC/DC, Jethro Tull, ZZ Top, Cinderella, Bryan Adams, Jools Holland, OMD. Y’see, I’m not just a rocker, I’m an old rocker. A good song is one that grabs you by the balls from the first bar and doesn’t let you go until the final chord has faded. One thing I swore never to do was go and see a boy band. Well, a man band as this particular one is these days.

So, it was with some trepidation and few (positive) expectations that I went to see Take That at the O2 Arena, having bought tickets for Clare as a Christmas present. I mean, I like the odd Take That song for sure but on the whole, let’s face it: they’re just not my sort of music.

What I did expect was screaming and yes, there was some but I guess age has taken the hysterical edge from it and the demographic of a Take That fan has shifted… a very good number has grown up with them and while they may still want Gary Barlow’s babies, they don’t tend to announce it to the O2 audience and in front of their husbands.

I expected it to be a bit naff. Y’know; three men trying to cling on to the glory days of yesteryear, that sort of thing. During the rest of my life, I will have to fight hard to exceed the error in that assumption.

I’m well used to quality spectacles in arenas… ZZ Top at Milton Keynes stands out and to be fair on him, Robbie Williams at Wembley last year was terrific. David Lee Roth was a brilliant showman. I could go on.

Take That completely blew every other live act I’ve ever seen completely out of the water.

This was no mere gig or concert; it was an event. It was theatre, a spectacular for the eyes and ears in which you submerge from the moment the first dancer appears to the last echoes of the encore applause. Yep, I was swept away. The opening sequence was mesmerising, the opening number was performed in an orgy of colour and light.

The Colour & Light Fantastic

The Colour & Light Fantastic

It was flawless in every aspect and it didn’t let up for two hours.

There were several things that struck me. The show, which was put together in three acts, if you like, was incredibly tight, well-rehearsed and fantastically creative. Sure, the band have a musical director, an artistic director and so forth but the beating heart of it all is Barlow, Owen and Donald, men who, among other things, know how to write a tune and how to hold it live. The attention to detail was extraordinary; the innovations in costume, staging and effects enhanced but never overwhelmed; and the interactions between band and dancers, band and audience, dancers and audience, were genuine and warm.

The energy, passion and sheer love that had been poured into the production shone out and it was clear that every singer dancer and musician utterly loved it. Unsurprisingly, the audience felt the same way. This was not a ‘Hey look at us, we’re Take That’, show, more of a, ‘We’re Take That (or as they put it, ‘what’s left of Take That’) gorge yourselves on the show’, show. It wasn’t, in the modern vernacular, all about them.

Weird but, yes, wonderful

Weird but, yes, wonderful

From new material to old favourites played the original way (and with the original dance moves which showed a charming awareness of the present while nodding respect at the past), this was an event to savour and it was as far from a famous band banging out a few songs as it’s possible to get.

They’ve been going, on and off, for almost twenty five years now, so they should know a thing or two about how to put on a show but this took arena concerts to a completely different level. I know not everyone can play arenas but for those super-groups who can, here is your benchmark.

I still wouldn’t class myself as a Take That fan necessarily but I’ll tell you this: I’ve changed my tune about them and next time they tour, I’ll be first in the queue. Does that mean I’m mellowing? Possibly except the track I’m listening to right now is Steve Earle’s ‘Copperhead Road’ so maybe not so much. Does it mean I’m having a mid-life crisis? Well, maybe but if so, bring it on.

Take a bow indeed, Mark Owen

Take a bow indeed, Mark Owen

• June 10th, 2015 • Posted in Blog, News • Comments: 0

My friend, Graham Joyce

Graham Joyce died on 9th September 2014 aged only 59. It is a monumental injustice.

I met Graham back in the very late 90s at a party. We’d been introduced earlier but I’m terrible with names and was overawed at being in the presence of so many amazing writers and industry folk. So, naturally, when we bumped into each other later in the evening, I called him ‘Pete’, because I’d confused him with Pete Crowther (I’ve never worked out why).

He stared at me with those extraordinary eyes of his and said. ‘James…’ (because he never forgot a face or a name). ‘I’m Graham. Pete’s the old bastard.’

Then we stood and talked about books and films and football, drank beer and became friends. Bless my poor name recollection.

I’m not going to go on about his extraordinary talent as a writer; just open one of his books on any page and that’s self-evident. I’d rather remember the man and the friend because he was a truly amazing human being.

Graham had such passion and he brought it to bear in every aspect of his life. Beyond his family and his books, he cared so deeply about inequalities in society, in education and healthcare particularly, and was always nothing less than forthright in expressing those views. I didn’t always agree with him and occasionally there’d be a spiky exchange but Graham respected honesty and a coherent argument (when I could muster one). Mind you, he wasn’t easily persuaded from his point of view. Mind you, that was because very often he was right…

I would drink at the well of Graham’s knowledge as often as I could. Whether it was politics, football, literature, faerie, history, writing… Graham had such a wealth of understanding and experience but he managed never to be patronising or impatient. I’d come away from the conversation armed with new information, new ways to look at things.

And then there was the simple pleasure of sitting with him over dinner. I particularly remember a wonderful evening in Brighton in 2012 with Graham, Sarah Pinborough, Joe Abercrombie and Conrad Williams. I’ll treasure the memory because I have rarely laughed so hard for so long. Graham, with his piercing, sparkling eyes was on incredible form and we all fed off it. Graham had the gift of instantly measuring a mood and he turned that night into something magical. I was lucky to be there, we all were.

Graham’s was the most generous of souls and his was a life that burned so brightly and not for long enough, not by a long way. Whenever I spent time with Graham, I came away feeling improved. Whenever we spoke on the phone, I didn’t want the conversation to end. Selfish, I know but I just loved speaking to him and was greedy for his wisdom.

I am blessed to have known Graham as a friend. We are all blessed that he has left behind such warm memories and the most wonderful body of work. His death has robbed his family of his extraordinary capacity for love and the rest of us of his boundless talent. Today we are all lessened.

• September 10th, 2014 • Posted in Blog, News • Comments: 0

How I write a fight scene

Ravensoul - Pyr books editionThis piece originally appeared in the BFS ‘Prism’ Publication back in 2011 but I haven’t changed my approach since then. I’m reposting it here following a good thread on the subject on Facebook today…

How I write a fight

The last thing you need when you’ve ramped up the tension and the combatants are facing each other across a narrow space is no clue how to proceed. I mean, it’s horrible having your characters shrugging at each other, scratching their arses and looking up at you from the page with raised eyebrows, awaiting orders.

What follows, dear friends, is a summary of the way I approach large or small scale fights involving swords and magic. And if it helps just one of you even one iota, I shall deem my work to be done…

Gather yourself together

There’s plenty of stuff you need before you dive headlong into the fight. Some of it is critical to your scene, some better classed as ‘good to keep in mind’ but all of it is useful, honest.

Nuts and bolts

There’s big picture stuff you need to know. The circumstances of the fight – whether it’s a chance encounter, an ambush, a battlefield set piece etc. will inform your characters’ states of mind as they enter combat. Include the relative skill levels of your combatants and you have a base from which to start. Personally, I always start off knowing who enters combat, who lives, who dies and who wins but always with the caveat that the outcome I plan might not be the one I get.

Make sure you know how the fight will advance story, character or both. For me, this is key because if your fight does neither, it should not be written.

Character in battle

You really have to hang on to your characters in a fight. It’s easy to lose who they are and it’s one way your scene can come across false. Not only that, a fight can be a defining moment of advancement or regression for a character. Hero, coward, saviour and sacrifice are just a few outcomes up for grabs.

Be aware of your characters’ physical attributes and skills with blade, bow or spell. Make sure they remain consistent in their fighting style – an experienced fighter will never try unpractised moves. Mind you, a frightened novice might well try something new out of desperation. Get inside the head of every character, feel how they feel as they see what they see then react accordingly.

Point of view

This is the subject of much debate though for me it’s simple. Fight scenes are chaotic enough (or they should be) without including the POV of every Tom, Dick and Harry carrying a weapon. In a small skirmish, one POV is plenty and you can allow that character to glance left and right, take a pace back to take stock and all that to give your readers context.

In a battle with thousands on each side, I favour a dual POV to give both overall context and close-up action. Your readers have to be able to feel the blade in a soldier’s hands, taste the fear and understand the confusion at the front of a mass battle. Indeed, you might want to keep a single POV to engender confusion – it might benefit your book to have your protagonists knowing nothing about the course of the battle they’re fighting.

I feel strongly that you cannot afford to do an overview POV for an entire large battle or you are just writing a study text. I also feel that providing context in a mass battle is important but the timing of these asides is critical to the pace of the battle and the tension of the scene.


Probably the very last thing you want is for your readers to mutter to themselves ‘Oh, come on.’ in the middle of your fight scene. So you have to be careful to retain credibility. Just a few things to consider here (though the list is actually endless…)

  • Farm boy never kills veteran warrior except by pure chance (like if the veteran falls over his shoelace and stabs himself in the leg with his own blade).
  • A dagger cannot sever a leg, know your weapons.
  • You cannot fight with a two-handed blade in a five foot corridor.
  • You cannot fight with long swords two abreast in a five foot corridor.
  • If you cast a fire spell down a confined space, expect some backwash.
  • An armoured soldier cannot suddenly become a kung fu master.
  • And so on…

Weapons and tactics

I’ve hinted at it above but you need to know a little about the weapons you’re planning to employ and the common tactics of skirmish and battle. If you’re adding spells to the mix, you’ll have to infer effects but looking at medieval and Roman artillery tactics can help. A few examples for you:

  • Cavalry works with infantry in very specific ways if you are to avoid self-inflicted disaster.
  • The Roman gladius is a stabbing weapon and Roman infantry attacked in close form because their basic tactic of ‘open shield, stab out, close shield’ allowed them to pack their ranks. That, plus the deployment of a phalanx and the effect of well-drilled cavalry was at the heart of their domination of the battlefield.
  • The Roman infantry shield is a curved rectangle designed to deflect arrows and weapon strikes as well as to form a solid barrier with other shields. Shields are viable weapons too – getting a good crack in the face from a shield will put you down.
  • A typical long sword would have a blade around three feet in length. Add the length of the wielder’s arms and you get an idea of the excellent reach the weapon has. Unfortunately you also get an idea of the amount of space needed to use one without hacking bits off your comrades left, right and behind…
  • It is my contention that in worlds where spells are used on the battlefield, full plate armour would not have been developed. Lighter armour allows the soldier to run from spell impact as opposed to being pot roasted or fast frozen etc.
  • Mages, can be used very effectively to dump ‘artillery’ spells behind the enemy front lines. But they are vulnerable and would be targeted making their positioning on the field absolutely critical.

Getting it on paper

OK, so you’ve got all your background sorted out and you know what you want from your scene and who the protagonists are. So how do you get it on paper so it reads real and just as you want it to? God, I don’t know. Just do what feels right to you.

Only kidding…. there are a few key things to bear in mind.

Chaos not choreography

Plotting every move your combatants make before you get drafting will create a dance, not a fight. You need to bear in mind right from the outset that sword fighting is ugly and brutal and bears no relation to any Errol Flynn movie. It is fast and it is chaotic and should therefore defy all your efforts at choreography. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan but the best thing about a plan is that it gives you a path from which to deviate almost every step of the way.

No sugar coating

Fighting with weapons, magic, fists and feet is incredibly brutal and has hideous results. I mean think, just think, what would happen if someone swung a sharpened bit of metal really hard into your side? It would cut straight through to your spine and dump your entrails all over the floor. Or what would happen if someone hit you with a spell that increased your skin temperature by a thousand degrees? Brief unimaginable pain and then ashes.

Dear god the stink of fear and blood and shit in a fight to the death must be over-powering. No wonder only the strong and brave do it. Every step they take in a fight is through the blood and bits and bodies of the dead. Sometimes those dead are friends they’ve witnessed being slaughtered. Every block they make merely delays their own deaths. The noise of struggle is terrifying and so very close. No TV screen between them and the intimacy of people desperate to live and equally desperate to kill. Every nick of flesh is a howling agony. And every solid blow crushes bone, severs limb, slices artery and vital organ. Don’t sugar-coat it because it diminishes the acts of incredibly courageous people.

War is visceral and horrific, but within it, you need to reflect the impact of such violence on individuals. Don’t forget that even the most battle-hardened warrior is prey to emotions that might undo him or her. Morale and confidence are hugely fragile.

Visualise, write and don’t stop ’til it’s over

This is really important to me when I’m drafting a fight. For me it engenders chaos and pace and confusion. So I put my head down, visualise the scene and plough into the writing, shutting off all other things. Never mind spelling errors, awful grammar and naff sentence construction; you can fix all that later. See that ‘No sugar coating’ section above? I wrote that without pause and it is the paciest part of this article. That’s what I’m talking about.


… is crucial, clearly. Don’t bother with fluff when the fight starts. Your characters will be unaware of the furnishings or the landscape when trying not to die. Mix up your sentence lengths. There is a school of thought that short sentences mean pace and excitement but that is true only up to a point beyond which they become an irritating staccato. You still need the words to flow. Too many full stops is like a fussy football ref wrecking a match. Remember that most sword duels are going to be very short. Take the big face-off in Gemmell’s ‘Legend’ between Druss and Nogusha. It’s over in less than a page. Lesser struggles can easily be done in a couple of strikes of sword and pen.

There’s evidence to suggest that readers read fights far more quickly (25%, or so I’ve heard) than dialogue and description. This is great because it means they inject their own pace into your words. But you must remember to pause for breath in a lengthy fight to let your readers do the same.

Other hints and tips (words of infinite wisdom, naturally)

1. Name your protagonists regularly during conflict for extra clarity. Too much of the ‘He’ and ‘She’ can lose your reader.

2. Make it colourful – sparks, speed, smells and noise. Too many fights scenes are apparently played out in silence.

3. Bear in mind all that can go wrong. A broken weapon; loss of balance; sudden injury; slipping on blood or mud; the death of a comrade; friendly fire; failing courage. The list is long indeed. And if your fights are going too smoothly, have your hero fall over and see what happens.

4. Not all hero deaths need be Hollywood style. The temptation to have all your stars die in spectacular fashion is almost overwhelming. Darrick, one of The Raven, was a consummate rider and swordsman. I’d written him dying as he saved others, getting his body in the way of a blade. After a chat with my editor who used that ‘Hollywood’ line, Darrick actually died when a building fell on him. Not glorious, not heroic (though it was in the middle of a chase scene) but the shock value was equally powerful if my inbox was anything to go by.

5. Show no mercy. Professional soldiers and mages want to kill their enemies as quickly as possible. They do not seek to wound and they will not leave an enemy alive when a quick brain-melt or dagger to the heart will finish him. That’s just common sense.

6. This applies to the whole of your book but do read it aloud to yourself to make sure it makes sense. If you trip over words or stumble over phrases and sentences, be assured that they need changing.

A very brief conclusion

Napoleon said: ‘No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.’

Neither should your fight plan.


Twitter @barculator


• February 27th, 2014 • Posted in Blog, Books • Comments: 0

World Fantasy 2013 – my schedule

Buy your copy at the DGLA Awards

Buy your copy at the DGLA Awards

OK, here it is, the stuff I’m doing at World Fantasy, the official stuff anyway. Naturally I shall be as available as possible to answer questions, sign books, chat and all such lovely things. Come find me wherever I am.

Meanwhile, I’m arriving early-mid afternoon on Thursday 31st October and heading off soon after breakfast on Sunday 3rd November. And the programme is…

Thursday 31st October, 8.00pm – The David Gemmell Legend Awards, Oxford Suite – I’ll be doing the opening reading and running the auction.

Friday 1st November, 2.30-3.00pm – Reading, Hall 8A – I can exclusively reveal here that I’ll be reading from my current Work In Progress… yep, the new stuff that won’t be published until 2015. So come along and get a sneak preview of a very, very early draft. By the way, Sir Terry is on at 3pm so I’ll be wrapping up a few minutes early so I can lead the stampede.

Friday 1st November, 8.00-10.30pm – Mass Signing, Oxford Suite and Cambridge – I won’t be there for the whole evening. Best thing to do is find my name card as I’ll scribble on it when I’m going to be sitting and signing.

Saturday 2nd November, 12 noon – Nifty Shades of Fae, Oxford Suite – I’m moderating this panel… ‘From Grimm to Once Upon a Time, we are seeing a resurgence of interest in classical fairy tales. What is our continued fascination with these kinds of stories, and how do they still resonate with today’s audiences?’ Should be a lot of fun, do come along and participate.

Any questions, do please fire away…

• October 14th, 2013 • Posted in Books, News • Comments: 0

Is DRS hurting cricket?

I’m about to tell you that Stuart Broad was right; umpires are lazy; and teams who fish for decisions get exactly what they cherry

The first Ashes test has ignited a debate about the decision review system. It had been welcomed with open arms by everyone except India but now the cracks are beginning to appear. How the system is used by both players and umpires is now coming under scrutiny.

For those not quite up to speed, the DRS is designed to avoid poor umpiring decisions standing – the howlers… the ball pitches outside leg stump… an inside edge onto the pad given LBW… no inside edge given out caught… that sort of thing. Umpires are human, they make mistakes and it is an amazingly difficult job so surely a great idea, great support for the on-field umpires and reassurance for players that obvious errors can be corrected. Good all round, right? Well, kind of, but…

The change in behaviour of players and umpires during matches can be directly attributed to DRS.

The fielding team… the temptation is there to ‘fish’ for decisions, relying on the umpire to think ‘well, maybe so I’ll raise the finger and see if the batter refers’. Australia did this, making a series of ridiculous LBW appeals. Interestingly, it backfired on them because it led them to use their referrals injudiciously, losing their capacity to appeal decisions later in the innings – and this really hurt them with the Stuart Broad incident. They got what they deserved in my opinion.

But this isn’t always the case. If you get umpires who will nod and raise the finger rather than shake their heads, the pressure is on the batter to appeal and, with LBW in particular, once given out it is tricky to get the decision reversed. Now there are going to be some out there who say ‘so what? If he’s out on appeal, then it was a good decision, right?’ Not necessarily. My point is that if there were no DRS, a significant number of decisions would be adjudged not out, giving the benefit to the batter as it should be, not passing the decision on to a third party..

And secondly, this is not using DRS properly. This is not correcting a howler, this is hoping the umpire will adjudge a batter out on a close call and then have DRS back that up. And remember, if an LBW is given out, the ball can be kissing the top of the bails and the decision will stand. My contention is that this is not benefit of the doubt being given, hence wrong use of the system.

The umpire… First up, umpires are amazing. Their capacity to give the right decision first time round with a ball travelling at 90mph, is astonishing. But there is a creeping tendency, with DRS as a back-up, for the umpire to err too far in the batting or fielding side’s direction and effectively leave the decision to the players – either they appeal the decision or they don’t. It’s lazy umpiring and we saw some of that at Trent Bridge alongside some fantastic decision-making and the odd howler.

The batting team… I’m going to concentrate on Stuart Broad here because the example is so perfect. Broad edged to Haddin, a very clear edge. The ball bounced off Haddin’s gloves (which were very close to the bat) and into Clarke’s hands at slip. Broad gambled and stood his ground and was given not out. Without any reviews, he stayed at the crease and scored more runs. Critical runs.

There is no doubt whatever, that had Australia had a review left, Broad would have walked. There is equally no doubt that it was because they had no review that Broad stood his ground, just in case. I’m certain that he had been told to stand and wait for the umpire, all players are. Broad was absolutely right to do what he did – he was playing the system exactly as the Australians did when making spurious appeals and gambling on referrals. Would Broad have walked if there was no DRS? Well, we’ll never know but I would suggest that he would not and there’s a separate blog on this subject coming up.

This is the legacy of DRS but is it is a bad thing? Not entirely. There needs to be more honesty about its use. England got it right at Trent Bridge, Australia patently got it wrong and I’m sure they’ll work out a system in time for the Lord’s test this Thursday. DRS can really help cricket if it is used correctly and in the right spirit. But if it is continually used by umpires and players as a speculative tool, it will ultimately do the game damage and India’s stance will suddenly become very sensible.

Can anything be done to force this more responsible use of the system? Only one thing that I can see, which is to give each team one referral only and increase the time they have to decide whether to appeal or not. That would force a side to think hard because to waste it would be truly criminal.

I also heard on the radio a suggestion to have one referral per 80 overs (one each new ball) which is worth considering.

Get involved in the debate… what do you think? Comment away, do.

• July 15th, 2013 • Posted in Blog, Cricket • Comments: 0