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

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:

10am:
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?

11.45am
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

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.

Credibility

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.

Pace…

… 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.

 

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• 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