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

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 deserve.new 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