ghost raven obituarist writing


I don’t revise my work very much. Wait, scratch that, it makes me sound like a terrible writer. I mean, I revise my work all the time – while I’m writing it. I’m constantly tweaking, polishing, deleting and rewriting my work as I go, which is one of several reasons why it takes me 20-3 freaking years to write a book.

(The other reasons: day job, energy levels, easily distracted by games, drunk all the time.)

But I don’t tend to do a lot of heavy after-the-fact revision – except for right now, when I’m revising both The Obituarist II (due to be published next week!) and Raven’s Blood (due to be published if the fates are kind!). Yes, I’m elbow-deep and mucking out the word-stables in an attempt to clean the horse poop off these drafts, and it’s clear that my metaphors are not yet fit-for-purpose in 2015.

Anyway – yes, I am working on making my writing better. And if you too are trying to do that, and feel the need for some tips and advice from someone with no more claim to authority or expertise than the adorable dog sleeping at the end of his desk, then read on and marvel.

Read it like a virgin

I think the single best way to start a revision is to read your entire draft manuscript, start to finish, as if you were coming to it for the first time, just as your alpha-readers did, just as any reader would if you were foolish enough to upload it to Amazon right now no stop don’t do that. Take a virgin eye to your work, looking for the bits that don’t work (and relishing the bits that do) and being honest about how well it all hangs together. Don’t let yourself think excuses like this confusing scene in chapter 2 will totally make sense after I read chapter 9 or the worldbuilding in these five pages of exposition is utterly vital, because no-one else is going to cut you that slack. Read it, decide whether or not you actually like it, and then get to the business of making it better.

Slice away the weak spots

Pretty much all drafts (mine included) have big problems – dull characters, confusing plots, every single thing being awful – and little problems. Start with the little problems – the repeated phrases, the excessive adjectives, the punctuation errors, the way half the dialogue starts with ‘Well,…’ and yes I am pretty much talking about myself here. These little moments of weakness are pretty easy to fix and they get you into the mindset of revising so that you gain momentum for the more systemic issues. Think of these small victories as the mooks that protect the end-of-level boss, and your revision as a rising swagger of heroic power. That unnecessary comma? DEAD. His friends? DEAD. The flawed book that commanded them? BRING IT.

Re-connect all your pipes

Structuralists and screenwriters talk about ‘laying pipe’ – putting information in one scene that pays off or unfolds in later scenes. It’s about more than just clever foreshadowing; it’s that consistent logic of narrative that means a story makes sense. But pipe isn’t always laid down cleanly and perfectly in the first draft, as you forget about old ideas and introduce new ones that aren’t fully justified yet. The revision process is the time to finally work out the path you want this story to follow, and to backtrack, reorient and trailblaze so that the map is clear all the way from start to finish. That might mean deleting plot bits that didn’t pay off, or inserting new bits of data in the first half to give stuff in the second half a solid foundation. Then all your pipes will connect up, and your book-water will flow cleanly rather than dribble as stinky effluent from cracks in the middle.

I’d like to apologise for my metaphors. And I wish I could say they’d get better this year.

Kill your darlings, yes, but also birth new ones

Revising is not a time for sentiment. It’s a time for ruthlessness and no weakness, a time to delete (or at least cut-paste into another document) anything that isn’t making your book better. But it’s also a time for creation, because just cutting and flensing is probably going to leave you with a bloody skeleton rather than something readable. Writing small inserts (see above) is just the start; you may need new pages, scenes or whole chapters to make the story better. (Both my works-in-progress needed a new chapter, and Raven’s Blood may end up needing more.) If this is the case, then write them. Duh. Occasionally I hear advice like ‘your final draft should be 10-20% shorter than your first draft’. No, your final draft should be good, and if that means it’s as long or longer as the first draft, but all-killer-no-filler rather than a box full of Hamburger Helper, then you’re doing the job right.

Don’t fix what ain’t broke

And speaking of dumb writing advice – some pundits say that you should rewrite everything, that the first draft is a ‘vomit draft’ or an outlining exercise, and that the second/third/eighth draft should be written from scratch. Good luck to ’em if that works for them, but for my part, fuuuuuuuuuck that. A flawed draft is not a piece of mouldy fruit that is irrevocably riddled with bacteria; it’s a work of craft that can (probably) be improved with time and effort. Your draft has good stuff in it, probably more of it than you thought while writing it, and you should retain that good stuff rather than ditching it. Embrace what works and be proud of it – and then focus on lifting the rest of the work to that high bar you’ve set for yourself.



ghost raven

Vision thing

Folks, I have something to show you, and I AM EXCITE

But first, some context.

For as long as I’ve known him, Cam Rogers‘ writing workspace has been the centre of a visual explosion, his walls bedecked with artwork, quotes, photos, magazine covers, nightclub flyers… a whirlwind of hooks and homes for the eye. When I visited him in Helsinki last year I asked about it, and he told me that they’re less about inspiration and more about confirmation – that when he sits down and looks at that space, those images and ideas that speak to him, they engage him and tell him that it’s time to write, time to re-enter the world in his head that those sights inhabit.

I thought about this when I got back from Europe, and also about what Kevin Powe – yeah, I’m just name-dropping my inspirational friends tonight, so sue me – did with the animation series he’s developing, Altered, where he commissioned a separate artist to create images of the major characters well before things got to the production stage, so that he has a visual touchstone to guide and propel his own work and keep him engaged.

Engagement. That’s the ticket.

So with these things on my mind, I got in touch with an artist and commissioned them to do some artwork of the Ghost Raven, one of the two major characters from Raven’s Blood – to create something I could put next to my computer, to look at every night and pull me back into Crosswater and into that story. Sadly that commission didn’t work out, and I forged ahead and finished the book without that visual push.

But recently I contacted another artist, Stacey Richmond, and commissioned her to work on a piece. It arrived at the start of last week, and holy hell y’all it is amazing.



Stacey worked directly from a manuscript extract to create this, and it’s pretty much perfect. There are a couple of details that aren’t quite what I imagined, but you know what? I like them better than I like what I’d imagined. I look at this and I want to read this guy’s story – more than that, I want to write his story, even knowing that he… actually, never mind, you can wait to find out that part.

That’s the point of this post, rather than just boasting about the beautiful thing I got – although I’m doing that too. It’s about engagement, about being drawn into just into your story but into your writing, your work itself – it’s about roadmaps and signposts that guide you into the headspace where you need to be. There are lots of reasons why it took me two years to write this foundation draft, but a lot of it comes back to engagement, or a lack thereof. Would I have written the book faster with this glued to my office wall? I think I might.

We all need something to keep us in the zone. Maybe you’ve got that inside you, and good on you if you do – but if you don’t, think about the benefits of some focusing art in your workspace. Images can be your touchstones, your motivators – the pictures that launch a thousand words. I want to do more with those visual spurs that keep me focused, especially once I start revising Raven’s Blood in July.

What will you use? Let me know in the comments.

Also holy crap Stacey did me a second picture OMG:


And if you’re wondering whether you should commission your own art from Stacey – yes, yes you should. But not before I get her to do some pictures of Kember, my heroine. HANDS OFF.

ghost raven writing

Okay, now what?

So, you’ve finished writing a book –

Really? Me too! What a coincidence!

…sorry. Couldn’t resist.

In my right mind I’d lead things off more strongly, but I’ve spent the last week staring blankly at things and walking into doors while trying to remember how to brain. In the post-Raven’s-Blood-world – a world that’s taken far too long to reach – my head is grey and muzzy, as if I’d dropped all the pills at once and was now trying to climb back out of a serotonin-hole long enough to remember how to write even something as simple as an email or a text message.

But yeah, let’s back it up. I finished my book! And maybe you too have finished writing a book, or a story, or a really satisfying bit of toilet wall graffiti. What to do next?

For me, there are three things on the agenda.

Get someone else to read it

I’ve sent the Raven’s Blood MS to about half-a-dozen alpha readers – and can we just talk about how great a phrase ‘Alpha Reader’ is? That’s a superhero or space adventurer name, that is: Blam! And in a hail of laser fire, Alpha Reader smashed through the enemy barricades, intent on rescuing his beloved editor Lance Commacutter! Much beta than ‘beta reader’, which sounds either like a defunct style of videotape player or some kind of Men’s Rights Activist/Pick-up Artist kind of insult.

But yes, I’ve sent the book to a few people, including established authors and emerging ones, and asked them to beat the living shit out of it. Lovingly, perhaps, but I need to see bloodstains when I get their notes back, because being nice about it isn’t going to help me fix it. There are definite issues with voice, character, dialogue and consistency in the book – and I know about these problems, and I have some ideas on how to fix them, but having someone else back me up on that, or better yet point out failings I don’t realise, will be vital.

If you’ve finished writing a book, ask someone else to read it before you do anything else. Even if you’ve got a contract. Even if you don’t know any other writers. Even if – especially if – you think it’s already perfect. And ask them to be as friendship-shatteringly honest as possible in their notes. Because tough love is the best love.

Write something else

In On Writing, Stephen King advised putting a finished manuscript into a desk drawer and ignoring it for at least six weeks, and in that time starting work on something else. In this, as in so many things that weren’t writing The Tommyknockers, SK is hitting all the correct buttons. The worst possible time to start rewriting a book is the moment you’ve finished it, or anytime while it’s still super-fresh in your mind – because all you’re going to have in your mind is the stuff at the end that you know wasn’t quite right, and you’ll get stuck in a Groundhog Day loop on that while the earlier problems pass by unseen. Shelving it for a while gives you distance; writing something else keeps your word-brain engaged so it can come back to the problems while you sleep or shower or drink all the coffee in the world.

In my case, I’m writing a new short story that was commissioned for an upcoming anthology – yes, that’s right, someone contacted me and asked me to contribute a piece to this project. That’s a nice feeling that never gets old. I need to get that done in the next couple of weeks, after which it’s time to start work on The Obituarist II: The Quickening – because yes, the second half of that story sorted itself out in my brain while I was still wrapping up Raven’s Blood. With any luck I can get the core draft finished by the end of June, which is when I’m hoping to get my RB notes back. Oh, and I’m going to ramp my blogging efforts back up to a regular two posts per week, which I’m sure will make all y’all very happy.

Chain that shit, homes, like you’re summoning Pokemons or sumthin’.

Do nothing

After a burst of frenzied word-humping, you need to take some time off to recharge your grammar-glands, and I’m going to stop this metaphor now before we all regret it.

But yes – downtime. Non-writing time. Coming home and not smacking mtself in the face with a manuscript every night. Doesn’t that sound like fun? My plans include reading some books – because jesus shit, I haven’t read an actual book so far this year – and graphic novels, playing a variety of games – including Lego Marvel Heroes, Netrunner, Dishonored and Sentinels of the Multiverse – and even watching television, a pastime which has mostly eluded me for several years, but I hear True Detective is just too good to miss.

And of course, all this downtime is time when my subconscious can grapple with Raven’s Blood and worry about whether the romance plotline is engaging enough or whether it has enough parkour. That’s what writing brains do when you don’t write – they begin stockpiling their moist and musky word-oozes, and sorry I know I said I’d stop that metaphor I’m sorry I’m sorry.

But yes – one of the best things to do after writing something is to not write something. At least for a while.

And in that spirit, WE BE DONE HERE.


ghost raven writing

The big push – an update

Dateline: 28 April 2014

Status of Raven’s Blood draft:





82 954 WORDS




Night, folks.

ghost raven superheroes writing

The write-finer monologues

So what’s up man?

Cooling, man.

Chillin’ chillin’? Yo you know I had to call, you know why right?

To reprise the opening lines from the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic track ‘Protect Ya Neck’?

Well, yes, but also to see how the writing’s going. Are you doing it? The big push to finish Raven’s Blood?

I’m doing my best.

Which is… what?

Three chapters since the start of the month, which is, um… 7000 words in 13 days.

Hey, that’s pretty good!

Thanks. I’m not 100% happy with the level of polish, but I gotta put that aside for the moment. That’s what later drafts are for.

How much do you have left to do?

Probably five more chapters and an epilogue. I’d say about… 11 000 words? Maybe 12 000?

And you’ve got 17 days until the end of April? That sounds doable if you work a little bit harder, do a thousand words a day.

I hope so. I’m trying to wrap it up by the 28th so I can give the finished MS to my wife as a birthday present.

How romantic.

It was her idea, okay?

Fine, whatever. Still, you should be able to make it if you stay focused.

Yeah. ‘If”. Assuming I don’t lose any time to distractions.

Is that likely?

Oh shit yeah. I’ve already lost plenty of time in these last two weeks.

I thought you were working hard at this!

I am! But hey, it’s Comedy Festival season, you know?

Slacker. Any show recommendations?

Yep – Ben McKenzie, Laura Davis and Justin Hamilton all have terrific shows this year. You should go see them next week before the Festival finishes.

I’ll try, but as a figment of your imagination I find it tricky to get out on my own. But that’s been your only distraction, right? Right?

…I might have gone to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Oh for god’s sake. 

Come on, this surely comes as no real surprise to anyone. And I worked on the book before and after!

Fine, fine. Was it any good?

Oh yeah, it’s terrific. A top-notch superhero movie with great performances and a solid thriller aesthetic. And Batroc the Leaper!

Shit, really?

Well, he doesn’t do much leaping, or any savate. Still cool, though. Best Marvel Studios/Avengers-family movie so far – top of the rankings list!

There’s a list?

Yep. The official ranking is:

  1. Captain America: Winter Soldier
  2. Captain America
  3. Iron Man 3
  4. Iron Man
  5. The Avengers
  6. Thor 2
  7. Thor 
  8. Incredible Hulk
  9. Iron Man 2

Hmm. Interesting. Official in what sense?

In the sense that it’s my bloody blog.

Jeez, fine, settle down. But that’s it, right? Knuckling down from this point?

Definitely. Largely. Probably. Okay, look, I’m going to lose some time to shows and gaming and day job stuff, but that’s the way it goes. Nobody gets to just lock themselves in the writing box and only come out when it’s done, okay? Not unless they live in a shack in the woods, peeing into bottles and working on a manifesto. Life has its own demands, and you have to roll with them rather than beating yourself up for being human. The important thing is to work as hard and effectively as you can, when you can, and keep the deadline in mind. It’s like the inverse of Parkinson’s Law, you know? ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ So if you have a set amount of time available to work, your work level will rise to make use of it.


Well, yeah.

Is talking to yourself on your blog one of the ways you’re expanding to fill the time available to you?

It’s this or talking to the dog.

I probably would have done that. He’s less critical than I am.

This is true.


ghost raven

Have yourself a Ghost Raven little Christmas

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favourite time of the year

Actually, wait a second – jumped the gun on that. Christmas is still about 2.5 weeks away, which is kind of a relief because I haven’t brought any presents yet.

But I come bearing gifts nonetheless – a gift for you! The gift of words!

Having just knocked off another good chunk of work on Raven’s Blood this morning, I thought it was a good time to show y’all a bit of what I’ve been working (far too slowly and haphazardly) over the last 18 months. So here, in its entirety, is the entire first chapter of Raven’s Blood, offered as an exclusive preview to all you folks who’ve stuck with me and this here blog for so long.

Hope you like it.

(Note: extract is short on Christmas cheer and long on horrible things.)


Two Warrant-guards had Kember in their grip, each one holding an arm, and she was trying to come up with an escape plan when the body fell from the sky and smashed through a run-down market stall in front of them. Screams and cries erupted throughout the Carnaby Court fruit market as blood and apricots spilled out across the cobblestones, panic washing across the crowd like a shock of cold river-water.

The guard on Kember’s right let go of her elbow to draw his sword. ‘Blood of the Host!’ he swore as he advanced on the wrecked stall. ‘What was that?’

In a finer world the one on her left would have done the same, but as in all things this world was less than it could be, and the grizzle-faced guard on her left was Sergeant Jesseck, a woman all too familiar with Kember and her habits. Surely this was what led her to not just maintain but tighten her grip on Kember’s upper arm in the face of such distraction. The milling crowd buffeted them like waves, and Kember tried to let them pull her away in their wake, but Jesseck stood resolute and her hand tightened like a vice.

‘Damn you, Jesseck,’ Kember said, ‘no need to rip my blessed arm off! How about you let me go and attend to your swordmate like a proper Warrant-leader?’

‘Quiet, girl,’ Jesseck replied. ‘We don’t need none of your lip this day! No disaster or murder will stop me from delivering you to the Mayor for judgement – and ’tis better you face his wrath than I do!’

‘Sergeant, come here! You’ve got to have a look at this!’ the watchman called from the smashed stall. Jesseck made her way across, dragging Kember by her side – without much difficulty, since she too wanted to see exactly what kind of disaster had livened up an otherwise ordinary early-spring day in Crosswater.

Before looking down, Kember looked up, just in time to see a figure silhouetted against the sky atop the nearest rooftop, three storeys above the street. A figure shaped like a man except for its massive left arm and shoulder, bulging out from its torso like a gargoyle jutting from a tower. But before she could utter a word the shape drew back and vanished from sight. She thought for a moment to tell Jesseck, but then forgot about that as soon as she looked down to see the body lying in a heap of broken fruit boxes and crushed apples.

The dead man was wrapped in a cloak of feathers, mostly grey but speckled here and there with shades of black or white, all stitched unto a silk backing – and all tinged red with spatters of blood. Two crossbow bolts protruded from his side, plunged deep into brown leather that had proved too thin to deflect them. The hood of the cloak had fallen back to show his face, but it was hidden under a black mask, a broad domino that flared sharp by his temples.

The younger watchman took a step forward, slowly, almost like a step taken to genuflect in the Lunar Temple. ‘He’s dressed like… do you think it’s him?’ he asked.

‘Pull your head from your arse, boy,’ Jesseck snapped back. ‘He’s been gone for ten years and more!’

‘But I’ve heard stories…’

‘Swive your stories! Do your damn’ed job! Here, hold this rascal girl while I take a proper look!’ And with that Jesseck thrust Kember forward into her subordinate’s arms. The watchman staggered back, his grip loose as he fumbled with his sword, and if there was ever a time for Kember to escape it was now.

But she did not take it.

Jesseck bent to the side of the corpse, pears and gooseberries breaking to pulp under her knees, to peel away the mask from the man’s face. Under the black felt was the face of an Easterling man in his early twenties, his eyes closed, his checks pocked with freckles and a few acne scars. ‘I know this man,’ Jesseck said under her breath. And Kember said nothing, because she thought she recognised the face too.

The face that suddenly sprang to life, eyes snapping open to fix on her, mouth opening to gasp and then croak: ‘Tell him! Tell him! It was in the river! The golem-men of Bridgedown, they found it! They –’

Whatever he had left to say choked off in his throat, though his mouth stayed open. More, it opened wider and wider, as did his eyes that rolled in terror and agony. He locked eyes with Kember and she could not look away as a light began to burn in his sockets, in his mouth, through his skin as it outlined his bones.

A light that blazed white through red, so bright and pure that Kember had to pinch her eyes near-shut to stand it. A light too bright for the world to tolerate.

She knew what would happen next. Every child knew what would happen next. The light would burn and burn, burn away the flesh and blood of the man, burn his bones till they fused to red glass, and then the skeleton would rise to its feet and kill and kill and kill until smashed to glittering pieces. Just as they did during the War.

Kember screamed in panic, tried to wrestle herself from the watchman’s grip, but he was already backing away as fast as he could with her arm in his hands and screaming himself. Everyone left in Carnaby Court was doing the same, long-dead terrors rising from oblivion to wipe away all courage and thought.

But it didn’t happen. The light began to ebb, white fading into red and then to nothing, leaving only an awful heap of cooked flesh in the shape of a man, wrapped in a shroud of smoke that stank of blood and burnt feathers. No blood-glass skeleton ripped itself from the remains. It was only a lone man’s death, his terrible and grotesque death, and Kember knew she should feel sorry for him but she was too relieved at her own survival to spare him much thought.

As the remaining crowd slinked back into the market square and hubbub began to arise, Kember slowly, carefully slid her arm from the young watchman’s grasp. He was too fascinated by the impossible corpse to pay her heed, and she quietly turned to escape into the confusion. Only to find Sergeant Jesseck ready for her, clapping her wrists in gauntleted fists and pulling her in close.

‘Let’s go, girl,’ Jesseck said, and there was nothing forgiving in the woman’s eyes. ‘We need to go see the Mayor.’

A few notes, if you’re interested.

The core of this chapter has stayed the same since I first wrote it, but it’s gone through many iterative changes – as has pretty much the whole book, as I’ve been revising as I go rather than write discrete drafts. (Should probably write a blog post on that one day.) I’ve changed details and dialogue, fleshed out the descriptions of place a bit (and probably will again) and tried to make the scene more arresting and horrific – but still, this is largely what I wrote just after getting the idea for Raven’s Blood, and I can’t see it changing markedly.

Actually, wait – one major change is that Sergeant Jesseck was male in the first iteration of the story. But I got to a point later in writing where I felt that too much of the story revolved around male-female interactions with a paucity of female-female interactions, and that I couldn’t see a place to introduce a significant new female character in the story space I set up. So Jesseck changed gender – and became way more interesting to write about. In a setting where gender equality is standard – because stuff writing either gender as secondary citizens – it’s super fun to have the hard-bitten veteran also be someone’s grandmother, and for that to just be the way it is. I love it when Jesseck makes her way into scenes; she kicks all the arse.

This is a very different writing style than something like The Obituarist, or indeed pretty much anything else I’ve done. It’s a very direct style, with the story pointed right at the reader, and with more description than I usually prefer. But I think that’s a style that’s more appropriate for a YA audience, and as I continue with it I’m finding it more comfortable and enjoyable to write. It’s also got a few florid touches, both in dialogue and in voice, and that’s my attempt to conjure a slightly old-fashioned vernacular – nothing too authentically Elizabethan, but with just enough mannerism to convey that it’s a fantasy story. Hopefully it works; will find out soon enough.

Anyway, work continues apace on Raven’s Blood, and I think I’m on track to finish it by February. Assuming I keep at it.

And I think I will.

ghost raven maps worldbuilding

Month of maps – Raven’s Blood

What I wanted to do today was mostly drink bourbon in bed with the covers over my head and maybe keep doing that for the next three years.

But no, we must soldier on; there are new battles to fight and more work to be done. And I don’t have any bourbon in the house anyway.

Instead, let’s talk about maps some more.

I promised I’d spend the month creating and then discussing maps for some of the projects I’ve been working on. So here, in all its glory, is my map of Crosswater, the city that is the setting of Raven’s Blood:

Crosswater map

This is obviously a bit bare-bones, but it shows the core information about Crosswater’s geography – that it’s a town built around two rivers (the Dawn and the Dusk) that come together to let out into a harbour.

So what discussion points does this suggest?

Pretty and Useful Ain’t the Same Thing

If you’re looking at this map and thinking it looks like something I slapped together in MS Word in like twenty minutes, well, you’re perceptive. There’s no way this is going into the front pages of the book once it is snapped by Random Penguin and they print it to universal acclaim, or even if I end up publishing it myself and paying someone fifty bucks to do the map in Dundjinni or something.

But so what? This is a working document, not a finished product. Maps are tools, first and foremost, and this map does the job of presenting the relationship between places that I need it to do. If anything this is still more developed than it needs to be (note the sumptuous use of colour, after all); I could get just as much use out of a diagram, a mind map or some scribble in a notebook.

If you’re sitting down to create a map for your project, don’t feel paralysed by any feeling that it requires visual polish. That comes at the end, when other people look at your stuff. When you make stuff to use, just do what works for you – anything more will distract you and is likely to need revising once you’re finished anyway.

Filling in Details as We Go

What are the names of the three untitled districts? Don’t know. What are the areas around the city? Don’t know. Are there additional districts and locations? How many ships are anchored at Dockside? Is there a wall to the north of the Commons? Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know (but probably). Bottom-up design is all about doing what’s required and no more, and this map shows everything that the narrative has demanded so far. Once I finish the book I’ll come in and fill in some of these blanks, because I’ll want to present a finished map, but there’s no need for that right now.

This map is also not to scale, because scale is also not something I really need yet. I know it takes about an hour to walk at night from the Arrowsmith manor to Kember’s house, because Kember does that, and that gives me some idea of Crosswater’s size. That idea will probably morph at the end; I think the town is a bit wider that this map implies. I’ll work that out once I get there.

If you’re more inclined to a top-down approach, this probably sounds like a terrible approach, in which case you should do what works for you. But if you prefer to work through the core of the story first and then fill in the rest, a map like this – bare-bones but with the important bits in the right place – can help you develop the flow of that story, rather than dictating it.

Fantasy Languages Need Not Apply

As you can see, Crosswater is lacking in polysyllabic and apostrophe-laden fantasy words, or even just words that aren’t in English. Part of this is a personal aesthetic; I tend to like portmanteaus, compound terms and colloquialisms much more than stuff in made-up languages. I can’t keep those words in my head when reading and can’t develop them in a logical sense when I write; better to work with word-components that actually engage me.

The other reason is thematic. Crosswater and the Westron Lands are meant to evoke Elizabethan London and England to some extent, although not exclusively. Using English words for place names helps with that, as so many locations of the period follow that model – and those that don’t are often derived from Roman or Celtic terms that were originally compound terms. (Manchester was basically called ‘breast-like hill’, at least according to Wikipedia.)

Not all of these words are set in stone. ‘Courtpark’ isn’t going to last, because it sounds like something you find in a basketball game. My original plan was ‘Kingspark’ but that didn’t click either; it doesn’t pull apart cleanly into ‘King’s Park’ rather than ‘King Spark’. And ‘Dockside’ is a bit bland; I need to bring something in to spice that up. Time to pull out my reference books – the Vulgar Tongue, the amazing Macquarie Thesaurus and Liza Picard’s Elizabeth’s London – and see what grabs my eye.

Bird’s Eye versus Boots on the Ground

This map is a useful tool in a lot of ways, especially as it helps me work out where all the various locations fit alongside each other.

But the map is not the territory, as they say, and this map – any map – doesn’t tell you or me what it’s like to live in Crosswater. It doesn’t say what the rivers smell like, how the food tastes, why the border between Greywharf and Wright’s Parish is erupting in violence; it doesn’t tell a story. Well, it doesn’t tell the story I want; maps can tell stories, but they are stories of grand scope and change, less stories about fist-fights with bronze cyborgs on collapsed bridges.

Evoking a location is something that happens in the text itself, rather than the map at the start. (Or at least it does if I do my job right.) That’s where the colour and shape comes out, where sights and sounds and smells enter play. But having said that, the birds-eye map still helps, because it shows you where that detail might be found. If I want to describe the feel of Dockside, I can see from the map that I need to reflect the presence of the harbour – the smell of the sea, the churn of the Dusk as it emerges into a nest of wharves, the warning bells as Warrant ferrymen take prisoners out to the jail of the Rock. Without a map to remind me, I might lose track of that – and that’s why my bodgy Word diagram is such a valuable tool.

In closing, Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous may have been awful trash, but it gave us some cool CGI visuals for Elizabethan London – so if you’re wondering what Crosswater looks like a bit lower to the rooftops, take the image below and add approximately 30% more masked superheroics and villainy. And some parkour. And maybe a giant snake. That’s pretty close.

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East and west – the people of Crosswater

Now, where was I before I went off on a tangent about my hot new collection of flash fiction (oh go on buy one it’s really cheap papa needs a new pair of shoes)?

That’s right, worldbuilding. (Still.)

Two weeks ago I talked about how people are the most important part of worldbuilding, the thing that connects most strongly with readers, and gave a few rough tips on developing cultural elements and ideas. So here’s a post to sketch out the two main cultural groups in Crosswater, the town that is the setting of Raven’s Blood, and how I’ve applied those ideas in this case.

(Wow. I wrote that like I was some kind of expert, rather than someone half-arsedly fumbling through ideas he’s only just had and still can’t fully articulate. Go me.)

The Westrons

The Westrons are native to Crosswater and the lands to the west. They tend to have dark skin (ranging from olive to almond in complexion) and straight hair. Originally a loose collection of towns and city-states, Westron society gathered together over the last few centuries into a cohesive kingdom. Originally Crosswater was the seat of the kingdom, but after the War Against the Host the royal family relocated to another city further inland. Still, Crosswater remains the mercantile hub of the kingdom and a centre of trade, travel and intrigue.

I based Westron society on Elizabethan England – originally just because I loved the image of masked heroes in ruffs and surcoats, but I soon realised that that this also gave me a lot of other story options. Technologically, it let me include cannons, pistols, the printing press and other such devices without needing to justify their presence too much, letting me focus on magical anachronisms like golem-armour and grappling-hook guns. Patterning Crosswater after London gave me plays and culture, but also narrow alleys and bunched-together houses perfect for parkour scenes. And it gave me a society founded on business and trade but also with a strong military bent. I could have made all of things up whole cloth, but the shorthand of ‘it’s like Elizabethan England’ lets me get it across quickly so I can spend more words on action and explosions.

The stereotypes of Westrons align with their mercantile society – they care about money and business more than family, they see outsiders as opportunities (or threats) rather than as people, they always look for the profit or power in an interaction and they’re very concerned about status and wealth. Those stereotypes also tie back to the theme of Westron magic, that everything has a price. They’re a people who expect to pay for everything they get, and look at gifts with suspicion. The flip side is also a willingness to suffer losses to get ahead – most of the victories in the War Against the Host came from soldiers sacrificing themselves (or their subordinates) in order to make gains. That readiness to sacrifice can be a nobility in some Westrons and a callous ruthlessness in others.

The Easterlings

Easterlings tend to have pale skin (ranging from light pink to almost white in complexion) and curly hair. Hailing from far-off lands, their society has suffered radical changes in a short time. Like the Westrons, they were originally a collection of independent states, ones more inclined towards sorcerous war than trade. But sorcery proved their undoing, as it brought the Host to the mortal plane, and those 27 evil angels conquered the Eastern states and made them into an empire, corrupting the lands in the process. The Easterlings lived as slaves to their blazing gods for three hundred years, until the Host were cast down in the war against the Westron armies. Twenty years later, the Easterlings in Crosswater (and other Western lands) bereft of roots and separated from the blighted lands their fathers called home.

Easterling society is a shaky mash-up of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt – almost as if the first abruptly morphed into the second, Zeus and the gods becoming manifest and demanding not just worship but utter servitude. It’s not a stable kind of change, but it’s not meant to be; it’s a reflection of the theme of Easterling magic, that change begets change. Pushed through worship into slavery and then out into an uncertain, penniless freedom in a land that doesn’t want them, Easterling society is shell-shocked and on the defensive, ready to change again if the situation allows it. (Greece and Egypt also inform Easterling aesthetics and technology, but not so much as with the Elizabethans/Westrons.)

The stereotypes of Easterlings in Crosswater are generally not pleasant – they’re a poor, untrusted underclass for the most part, sometimes derided as ‘worms’ due to their pale skin. Many Westrons assume that Easterlings still worship the Host and would continue their holy war against the West if given the opportunity. The truth is more complex. Some older Easterlings do venerate the memory of the Host on some level, but it’s a reverence born of fear (and a little Stockholm syndrome) rather than love. Younger Easterlings are generally glad to be free, but chafe against the social and political restrictions the Westrons impose on them. But where can they go? Their lands are gone, so they have to leave in the hot, hostile West – and more and more of them are ready to fight for what they need.

As you can see, the stereotypes are stronger on the Westron side, mostly because they’re more solidly anchored in real-world history and the context it brings with it. I have to do more work to make the Easterlings real, but at the same time they’re so strongly defined by recent events that I don’t have to look back too far to find (i.e. make up) inspiration and context for how characters act.

And when you get these two groups together  – say in a city where Easterling resentment is rising and where there are rumours that the Host have returned – then conflict is inevitable. And conflict is where the story happens.

That’s probably enough about worldbuilding for a while, and indeed Raven’s Blood. Time to focus on writing the book, rather than about the book.

Come back next week! No idea what I’ll be discussing then!

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The magic of Raven’s Blood (part 2)

I don’t know about you, but I spent my Sunday afternoon running through a warehouse shooting zombies with a laser carbine – all as part of the IRL Shooter / Patient Zero project, which turned out to be excellent fun. As a result, though, I’m pretty freakin’ tired, as I’ve squandered all my adrenaline by lugging around a 4kg gun while screaming ‘contacts!’ every few moments. So as a result, I was too weary last night to finish this post, and that’s why it’s a day later than usual.

Now, where were we? Oh yes – talking about magic in the world of Raven’s Blood. Last week I talked about the magic of the Easterling lands; tonight’s it’s the turn of the Westrons.

The magic of the West

As before, there is a core principle behind Westron magic – everything comes with a price. In order to gain magical power or control over the world, or to channel that power through something else, one must make sacrifices and give up something in return. Minor or limited power may only require a small sacrifice, a cost in time or resources – but true power only comes after you give up the thing that matters most to you, perhaps the thing that made you seek power in the first place.

Story function: ‘Will this character succeed?’ really isn’t that engaging a question in fiction, because the answer is generally always yes – and if it’s no, then you usually have fair warning of what kind of downbeat sadface stuff you’re reading. ‘How much will this character sacrifice for victory?’ and ‘Is this character willing to lose in order to win?’ are much more interesting questions, and that’s what I’m hoping to emphasise with the principle of Westron magic.


The esoteric, gross form of Western magic is thaumaturgy – bargaining with the spirits of the higher planes for power. Specifically, thaumaturges use rituals to call and then bargain with the 27 Lords of the Lunar Court, which are governed by the Queen of Night and Regret. These spirits have great power and can lend that power to mortals, but it always comes with a price. That price is always something that matters on a personal level to the thaumaturge, for the Lords are beings of fate and meaning, and it’s fate and meaning that they rework to fulfil the bargain. A thaumaturge might give up the chance of ever knowing true love, or the ability to know joy, or of ever sleeping without nightmares again.

In exchange, the Lords grant power, whether power over the self, over others or over the world. A thaumaturge may become strong enough to kick through a wall or fully recover from a wound within days. She might control flames or winds, cloud the minds of others to become invisible or coax obedient life into stone or wood. The extent of the bargain is up to the whim of the Lords and the nature of the sacrifice. Thaumaturgy is not a common art, and its practitioners are seen as forbidding, dangerous people, but not feared as much as monstrous ichor-sorcerers.

Story function: While sorcery gives me flashy, overt and scary superhumans, thaumaturgy allows for more subtle characters in the style of Captain America, Black Widow, Spider-Man or any of the Bat-family. These are the characters that seem normal until they reveal their secret side, for good or ill. Thematically, the nature of the bargain reflects a core motif of superhero comics, especially Marvel comics – power has an innate tragedy to it. Characters lose what matters to them, and as the story progresses, they have to consider whether the loss was worth the gain.


The mundane, subtle form of Western magic is artifice – building tools and devices and then imbuing them with unusual or supernatural power. Artifice is a complex art that requires great study, but a skilled artificer can craft objects that are almost miraculous. The more powerful the item or its magic, the rarer and more valuable the materials needed to create it. In order to fund their projects and pay for their materials, many artificers sell their services and their creations; the most powerful are also the most wealthy – and the most in need of more wealth.

Story function: More toys, of course – magic swords, golems and crystal balls, but also exo-skeletons, rocket packs and lightning guns. Raven’s Blood is a gleeful mash-up of fantasy and supers, and awesome gadgets are a mainstay of both genres, so I knew I had to have some way of bringing those on board. I don’t have an Iron Man or Tony Stark character in mind yet, but you never know.

Artifice also gives me a more socially palatable alternative for Westrons to look up to. Everyone knows that thaumaturgy exists, and the rituals to call the Lords are simple to learn and perform, but the cost is high, too high for most people to bear. Artifice is a more difficult, more technical form of magic, but all it costs is time, effort and materials, and artificers are respected artisans. Well, until they decide to steal all the orichalcum in the city to create an army of robots…

(As an aside – I reserve the right to change the names of characters, ethnicities, magic systems and pretty much everything else as the book progresses.)

East meets West

It’s easy to see similarities between the two forms of magic, both on a narrative and a conceptual level. That’s deliberate. I like developing a structure and then seeing how it can be filled, so breaking each set of ideas down in the same way – core principle, esoteric form, mundane form – is conceptually satisfying to me and lets me think about ways to apply that approach to different ideas in the future. If I did a sequel and wanted to involve necromancy or dwarven iron-lore (oh yeah, the dwarves, forgot to mention them), then I have a framework to start developing those and drawing out core themes.

I also like drawing parallels between things, which is another reason why the structure is repeated along with some core narrative elements. Why are there 27 Hosts and 27 Lords of the Lunar Court? What’s the connection there? Do people in the setting see the similarity? Those are questions I want readers to ask, and they’re questions I will probably address at some point. Once I work out the answers.

Themes aside, the two forms also interact narratively within the story in various ways. Artifice and alchemy pair up nicely, and it’s possible to learn both skills and draw on both disciplines – the creation of pistols and rifles after the war was just such a project, packing explosive burn-salt into hand-crafted iron tubes and stocks. It also means our heroes can (and do) happily use both smoke bombs and magic swords at the same time. Sorcery and thuamaturgy, on the other hand, are completely incompatible – the use of one forever precludes the other. Is that a physical incompatibility or a supernatural one? That’s a good question, and again the kind of thing I want readers (and characters) to ask.

Okay, that’s enough on the subject of magic. Hopefully it’s got you intrigued as to how I develop those ideas and use them to evoke kick-arse scenes and drive interesting stories; if not, well, we probably both could have found better uses of our time than this blog post.

I for one do have better things to do next weekend – I’ll be flying off to Shanghai for a week, along with my lovely wife! We’ll be hanging out with friends and celebrating a 40th birthday by exploring the Paris of the East (and taking a bullet train to Beijing and back). As a result of this, and because I’m going deliberately internetless for the duration, there’ll be no PODcom update next weekend – and depending how late we get back, maybe not the weekend after. We shall see.

It’s okay to tell me you’ll miss me. You’re among friends here. Just try to soldier on while I’m gone.

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The magic of Raven’s Blood (part 1)

Chekhov’s Law is generally couched as “if one shows a loaded gun on stage in the first act of a play, it should be fired in a later act”.

Here’s my corollary law for fantasy: if your wizard character casts an ice spell in chapter 5, they should have to freeze a lake solid to save the day before the end of the book. The fact that Merlin-9000 uses ice magic needs to matter, and it needs to create a meaningfully different story than if he used fire magic or forcibly converted all his enemies to Mormonism.

Or, more succinctly – magic needs to shape and be shaped by the narrative.

Yes, this is one of those places where my theories on worldbuilding bubble up and make me massively fucking annoying to talk to at parties.

In keeping with my bottom-up approach to worldbuilding, my primary thought as I’ve come up with the magical bits of Raven’s Blood is not ‘what kind of magic would make sense in this world?’ but ‘what kind of magic would best reflect the themes and tropes of the story I want to tell?’ To develop that, I’ve thought a lot about what those themes are, what kind of principles could support narratively interesting cores, and what might engage a YA audience without replicating stuff they’ve seen before. Most of all – what kind of magic makes for an exciting fantasy superhero story?

So tonight, here’s a look at one of the two schools/fields of magic in the world of Raven’s Blood – what they are, what principle drives them, and how they feed into the story I want to tell. Hope you find it interesting.

The magic of the East

The magical traditions of the Eastern lands all rest on a single principle – change begets change. When a person, object or substance undergoes physical changes, they may mentally or supernaturally change in turn, and that change may foster and force more changes to follow.

Story function: The Easterlings and the Host were the enemies of the West, but that was 20 years ago; now the two cultures live in relative harmony in Crosswater. But invasions bring change in their aftermath, whether physical or social, and one theme of Raven’s Blood is looking at those changes and seeing how stable and/or how genuine they truly are. Basing Easterling magic on change – often degenerative, uncontrollable change – underlines that theme and pushes characters to think about their reactions to change and the Other.

Plus, hey, this is a YA story – the way I see it, such stories should always be about change in some way.


The esoteric, gross form of Eastern magic is sorcery – the direct channeling of otherworldly power through a human agent. Sorcerers deliberately induce changes in their bodies (or their minds, in some rare instances) in order to change their natures, opening themselves up to the powers of the Otherworld. There are various techniques for this, all risky, painful and difficult, but if they succeed then the sorcerer permanently gains a number of magical abilities. The process can also change the world around the sorcerer, bleeding into the land, mutating wildlife or weakening the fabric of reality – which is how the 27 members of the Host were able to enter from the Otherworld 300 years ago and enslave the Easterlings. The Host are masters of sorcery, agents of change that alter and corrupt the world just by existing, and the ichor in their veins is the most powerful of mutagens. Those changed by ichor – especially those changed involuntarily, perhaps due to being wounded by the Hosts’ powers or ichor-stained weapons – are called the blight-touched.

Sorcery is not a flexible form of magic – a sorcerer may manifest a handful of magical abilities that can only be used in a few ways. But it is powerful, especially when ichor is the mutagen that changes the sorcerer’s body – a blight-touched warrior might be totally impervious to blades, strong enough to toss a horse across a river or able to vomit clouds of gas strong and large enough to poison a regiment. In order to channel and contain that power, though, the warrior is changed – he might be nine feet tall, bulging with muscle, constantly streaming noxious vapours from his mouth and eyes or (of course) totally mad from constant pain or from the corrosive, inhuman influence of the ichor in his system. And that influence may warp him even further in future.

Story function: Sorcery gives me a way to include bizarre, twisted superhuman characters in Raven’s Blood, the kind that make for great villains. Brutes like Killer Croc or the Hulk are obvious options, but so are Poison Ivy, the Red Skull, Two-Face, the Human Torch, the Silver Swan, the Parasite… pretty much anyone that wears their power on their sleeve and doesn’t just look like a normal person. The corrosive effects of gaining power also let me include monsters, blighted lands and other unnatural phenomena, and I can tie it all back to the Host, the terrible reverse-Ringwraiths that are my spooky-as-hell boss monsters.

Sorcery also allows me to add a note of horror into the story (which I always have to do) thanks to both the grotesqueness of the blight-touched and the contagious nature of their powers. A character like Jack Twist the Scavenger Prince isn’t just disturbing because he can manifest a nest of whips around his mutilated left fist, glowing and writhing with ichor-blight, but because even if you survive the touch of his whips you may end up blight-touched in the process. That horror of involuntary change will, I hope, speak to the YA audience as much as it speaks to my YA protagonist.


The mundane, subtle form of Eastern magic is alchemy – altering the properties of normal substances in order to create new effects. In its simplest, stablest form, alchemy simply creates stable and mundane substances with unusual uses, like curative poultices  smoke-powder or the burn-salt the Easterlings used to make explosives. More unusual alchemical substances are harder to make but can have limited supernatural effects, like oils that briefly render metal transparent or drugs that send you into a clairvoyant trance. The most powerful of these substances cause permanent changes when taken or used, opening the body to receive sorcerous power – and so, of course, they are forbidden.

Story function: Smoke bombs, baby, smoke bombs all the way. You can’t have fantasy Batman without smoke bombs and grenades and knockout gas and all those other wonderful toys. Alchemical tricks are a good way to give non- or lower-powered characters an advantage when dealing with their enemies, allowing me to write scenes where a careful, smart hero overcomes a monstrous, blight-touched villain and have those feel believable.

Alchemy also lets me present a more socially-acceptable, less terrifying facet of Eastern magic, in turn giving me story options for portraying the role of Easterlings in Crosswater society. They can be doctors, engineers, apothecaries and sages, capable of small miracles – but because alchemy can be directed into the service of sorcery, they still aren’t liked or trusted. And that distrust propels the social tension and fear that springs up when the threat of sorcery returns to the city…

Huh. That was wordier than expected. These things are so simple and straightforward in my head; it’s only when trying to explain them that they become long and complicated.

Anyhoo, tune in next week for a discussion of Westron magic and its story functions, as well as a bit of compare-and-contrast between the two world of magic and some thoughts on where else I could take things.

As always, comments are greatly appreciated so that I know I’m not just mumbling into an empty room after all the punters have gone home HELLO HELLO IS THIS THING ON