I’ve been writing various ‘How To Write’ blog pieces, and I’m certainly not the only one. But it occurs to me that what doesn’t get talked about so much is how to be a writer. At least, not in terms of it having nothing to do with writing. Which it doesn’t. Writing is just a side effect of being a writer.

I know a guy I’ll call Mike who’s the country’s leading expert in his field, which is essentially testing products. Now, a lot of test people join a test lab, learn how to run the tests and then carry them out. They’ll have the necessary qualifications for the job but they won’t necessarily have the same attitude as Mike.

When Mike joined his first test lab, he didn’t just learn the tests. He wanted to know why they’d been designed the way they had, and how each instrument in the test procedure worked. So he took everything apart, the theory and the practice. Which meant he not only learned why a test was designed the way it was, he also discovered that many of them could be improved and that some didn’t really even do the job they were supposed to.

Mike and I went to Sweden once, to work through a new test procedure with the experts at one of the world’s leading furniture makers. On the way to their centre in our host’s car, Mike was listening to the engine and at one point advised our host on several things that needed looking at. Our host confirmed that a garage had just said the same for about half of Mike’s observations, and he would now get the other half checked out too. At the end of our two days at their research labs, they took us on a tour of their test facilities. Mike was constantly pointing out machines that weren’t adjusted properly or materials that weren’t quite right of the job. I felt a little embarrassed for the guys showing us around, one of whom was the head of the centre but he asked Mike if he’d be willing to return specially to run a formal audit over their entire set-up.

The new test procedure that Mike and I put together would have quite a big effect on a lot of people. So we took it on the road, speaking at all kinds of conventions, universities, workshops. Those who didn’t like the new test for various reasons would often try to catch Mike out, either with questions in public or private conversations in the margins. But they never could. And the reason they couldn’t was because his mind was always on the job. Not just the immediate topic but all around it too, on the chemistry that’s involved with the test process; on why exactly the industry would object to a particular element; on how the whole puzzle of theory, practice, outcome and effect came together.

Writers can just put a story together, following a stock plot pattern, using stereotypical characters, functional dialogue and a predictable outcome. This doesn’t require anything more than concentrating reasonably well during the writing process, and doing a bit of pre-planning and tidying up afterwards.

Or they can do the sort of thing Mike does. Which is why I called this blog ‘How to Writer’, not ‘How to Write’. A writer has his mind on the job constantly. But for him the job is not just writing a story. In fact, that’s just a small part of the job. Even early drafts and lots of revising are just a small part of the job.

I once heard a football manager tell a story about Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary Manchester United manager. Our guy had been talking to another manager who was interested in a young player from a small Scottish football club. Our guy suggested he phone Sir Alex and ask him if he knew the player. So they did and sure enough, Sir Alex gave them a thorough run down on the player concerned, even though he was obviously not the boy’s manager. Then our guy suggested for a laugh that they phone back Sir Alex and ask him if he knew anything about the groundsman at the same Scottish club. So they did and Sir Alex indeed knew the groundsman’s name and quite a lot about him. Now, our guy is a not bad manager but will never be asked to manage Manchester United, I believe, because he didn’t seem to see the link between Sir Alex’s constant on-the-job attitude and success at the highest level. He didn’t see the link between that obscure Scottish player and Manchester United’s long list of trophies under Sir Alex; he seemed to believe it was just a fascinating hobby Ferguson happened to have.

In fact, I believe that many people who write or want to write fiction make the reverse assumption: that only the time they actually produce words matters, and because they do occasionally produce words, they must be a writer. Like our okay football manager they’re blissfully unaware that to produce writing that soars, causes emotion and produces memorable characters, they need to learn how to writer. Well, actually, I’m not sure such an attitude can be learned. I think it probably results from an inherent and through-everything love for the art of writing.

Sir Alex was well known of being the first into Old Trafford most days and the last to leave. I don’t think that was him making some kind of work-ethic point; I believe it was down to love for what he did.

With the next post, I’m going to look closer at what I believe are some of the key ingredients and attitudes that make up how to writer, starting with observation and meaning.





“I’m thinking of doing some blogs on how to write science fiction,” I say.

Nige appears to consider this statement. Either that or he’s mesmerised by the upwards travelling bubbles in his pint of Stella.

“Do you know how to write science fiction, Tel?” he says.

I’m about to protest that I’ve been a professional writer for longer than he’s been patching up holes in walls with damp newspaper and Polyfilla but realise he really means ‘science’.

“Good question. There’s a bit of a war that goes on in SF as it happens, between soft and hard types.”

“I’ve heard they go on about that quite a bit in the porn industry, too.”

A rumbling, mumbling, loosely parallel set of noises starts up at the musicians’ end of the pub. It might be ‘Desolation Row’ by Bob Dylan. Or it could be ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele. Perhaps they’re so indistinct in order to avoid any claims for royalty payments.

“Some critics claim, ” I say, “that SF’s nothing much more than a scientific idea stretched out across a lot of one-dimensional exposition. Either that or it’s all light sabres and spaceships making impossible engine noises in space. Or, in the case of art house SF movies, both.”

“In other words,” he says, “leaving aside the movies, hard SF is only read by hard scientists who probably don’t read much fiction anyway, whereas soft SF isn’t read by anyone much because it’s too literary and literary lovers wouldn’t be seen dead reading SF.”

“Um, actually, that’s not a bad summing up. The frustrating thing, though, is that literary ideas can be really enhanced by SF, because you can use it to accentuate the conditions that affect us all.”

“Well, the last few years with my missus was somewhat akin to being somewhere no one can hear you scream.”

“I have a theory.”

“That she’s going to say sorry and return Led Zep albums, those and my masculine dignity?”

“It’s not just accentuation – the really good SF writers actually lead with interpretation, awareness and proposition.”

“Now you sound like the introduction to a business seminar. Let me get some more drinks.”

The musical rumblings lumber into a different set of possibly parallel noises. It could be ‘Come on Eileen’ or it could be ‘Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West’. I realise that it doesn’t really matter.

While Nige is at the bar, I try to marshal my thoughts. I’ve often noticed that someone who has greater insight and awareness and ability to detect the motives of others accordingly, is usually ignored by everyone else. Well, not ignored so much as just not seen. Perhaps you can’t ‘see’ someone who has more insight than you. Insight is developed out of meaningful observation; and if you don’t have that ability, you simply won’t see what it portends.

The real prophets are not the holy book thumpers; they’re the quiet people in the corner of the room, reading everyone else around them. They could predict someone’s future, but they never get asked to.

Nige returns with two pints and looks at me curiously. “I worked with this guy once, a plasterer,” he says. “Now, you don’t talk much while you’re slapping on the plaster but this guy didn’t say anything even in tea breaks or the occasional team trip to the local boozer. We all thought he was a bit simple, notwithstanding his skill with a trowel. Then, one night, after we’d all had a few and we were gooning on about footy or some such crap, I glanced at him and just for a second, before he adjusted his expression, I saw this kind of knowing glint in his eye. And I realised he’d been reading us all, probably understood us better than we did. I vowed to myself that I’d get him on his own soon and ask him what he saw.”

“But you never did.”

“Nope. I guess I was scared to. Instead, I just went along with the standard line that he was a bit thick.”

“A really good literary writer,” I say, “can write beautifully and with meaning, and get right up close to real insight. A really good soft SF writer might not write quite as well as the literary guy but they can have real insight which means they’re on the other side of the line, the one that marks a shift from what is basically still just observation, to real awareness. Which maybe is why that kind of writer chooses SF in the first place, because it’s the tool that best allows him to express that insight. But even really great literary writers are perhaps scared of that tool.”

I stop, realising I haven’t thought this out very well. Then again, we may be touching on a subject that by its very nature defies being worked out exactly.

“Those guys at the back, plugging away at their guitars,” he says. “They enjoy themselves but they never lead, do they? They’re just belting out other people’s songs.”

I think I get the connection. “It’s not that literary writers don’t create while SF writers do. More like SF writers are more willing to lead – to write about what happens when you extrapolate where human behaviour is heading, not just in terms of technology but more in how the individual is mostly unaware of their possibilities, negative and positive.”

Again, I’m not sure what I’m trying to get at and try a different approach.

“I went on a date once,” I said, “with someone I’d met through the dating pages of a newspaper. We had a pretty funny conversation on the phone, so I was really looking forward to it. But within just a few minutes, she was giving me advice on how to run my life, saying that I need to ‘lighten up’ and not be so ‘deep’. It was frustrating because I knew I wasn’t being deep or, um, non-light.”

“She didn’t really think you needed advice, Tel. She was just scared.”

Is that it? The scorn that literary types can pour over SF writers – is it not so much that they really believe they can’t write as well as ‘proper’ writers; more that they’re just plain scared?

When I don’t reply, Nige says, “One of the reasons I never got on at school was we once had to read a novel by Virginia Woolf. In class, the teacher asked us what we thought and I said she wrote in a way that other toff intellectuals would reckon was clever but in truth she had nothing much to say about anything.”

The band is now playing what could be ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ by the Hollies but I choose to hear ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’ by the Beach Boys. As such, I realise I could be in danger of diluting my beer with eye-juice.

“Kurt Vonnegut turned his back on SF,” I say, “because he thought it was a ghetto he wanted to get out of as fast as possible – a drawer that serious critics often mistake for a urinal.”

“Was he as vacuous as Virginia Woolf?”

I sigh. “No, he was a brilliant writer.”


“Strewth, Tel,” says Nige, “I was nearly blinded by your bleedin’ bike light earlier tonight, coming down the street.”

“Sorry,” I say, secretly pleased however that my new light is so powerful. It took me quite a bit of research, on the internet at least, to find one that’s such a great balance between brightness and battery longevity.

We’re in Brockley’s London Beer Dispensary which Nige feels split about. On the one hand, it’s full of a wide variety of beers. On the other, most of them cost too much which according to him is a result of the increasing middle-classification of the area.

“And how much did you pay for it?” he asks.

“Ninety-eight quid.”

He raises his six quid pint of Penge IPA to his lips and smiles. “And normally you need one as bright as that because you’re mountain-biking in Snowdonia in the dark, right?”

“Not exactly. I’ll probably only use it in London.”

“I see.”

He probably does. Nige has a bike that cost considerably less than my light. I consider countering his evident cynicism by reiterating that on the whole I haven’t succumbed to the lycra, aerodynamic back-pack, speedo computer, cleats, goggles sporting fashion world of modern commuter cycling, but decide not to since I can’t deny that my light costs around ten times more than a perfectly adequate normal model.

“It was really useful on Lundy,” I say, “for getting back from the tavern at night.”

“Really?” he says. “You write fantasy, don’t you?”

Uh-oh. “Sometimes,” I say.

“How much would a character in one of your stories pay for a flaming torch to get him back from the inn at night?”

“Well, he probably wouldn’t bother with a torch. He’d just use the moon or stars or, if they’re not out, go by memory.”

Nige doesn’t reply for a while. Instead, he finishes his pint and I go fetch two more, leaving him to think about new ways to drive a mental spanner into my bike wheel of creativity.

“One of the reasons I don’t get on with fantasy,” he says after I return, “is it’s full of fancy gadgets instead of utilitarian tools.”

“Oh, I don’t know. There are plenty of tools in Game of Thrones,” I say.

He raises an eyebrow. “It’s not just the actual devices; it’s the mind set of those operating them. Look, fifty years ago there were only two types of bike: racing and ordinary. The ordinary ones were ridden by people who just wanted to get somewhere quicker than by walking. They fixed their own punctures and wore comfortable clothes. What they didn’t do was see the tool they were on as some kind of personal statement.”

“And there’s nothing more certain to get you killed on a pre-industrial battlefield than wielding a weapon that’s more a personal statement than a killing tool?”

“Yeah, but isn’t the kind of fantasy you write a personal statement?”

Only this week, I received some round robin email advice from an author about how to avoid a dead-end career as an author. One piece of advice was to ‘choose your turf’. He went on to say that as an author you have to figure out ‘whom you want to become’. By which he didn’t mean as a spiritual entity but more as, say, ‘the John Grisham of hard science fiction’. This was somewhat contradicted by other advice he gave which was to not be ‘a one-trick pony’. But I think I get his point: if you want to succeed at writing, you need to make it less about the world it describes and more about your personal statement.

“Not enough, apparently,” I say.

“‘Course, the irony is,” he says, “that most of these different personal statement brand bikes you see today are all made in the same far east factories.”

“Are you saying that all modern fantasy novel personal statements are actually made in the same mass western author factory?”

“Yes, because mostly they’re just gadget fiction.”

“But surely that’s the point of fantasy: to take us away from the utilitarian.”

He shrugs, somewhat annoyingly, it has to be said.

“Do you remember that day,” he says, “when you and me did a complete service on your old Morris Minor?”

I do. We got covered in oil and crap. It took hours, partly because Nige explained how every part worked and what it did. It was great fun but I never did it again and probably couldn’t anyway since the Morris is long gone and my modern replacement doesn’t lend itself to DIY servicing.

“For me,” he says, “there ain’t enough nuts and bolts in fantasy fiction. I may be wrong but there’s very little detail about how, say, a castle actually works. I mean on the engineering level. Or where the shit goes. And without them things, the characters aren’t real to their time. They’re just actors with implausibly whole sets of teeth, clean underpants and heads full of, well, the same superficial story stuff as their creators.”

I think about arguing that what he’s just said is actually the strength of fantasy. But then I recall a story I once read in a top fantasy magazine, about Robin Hood and Maid Marion, dressed in designer gowns, singing to each other across a moonlit woodland lake in Sherwood Forest, illuminated by fireflies. By fireflies, for God’s sake.

“Yes, but not everyone reads Haynes Manuals for fun like you do, ” I say.

“Well, if they did, maybe fantasy would be better than it is. You’d have readers coming from a position of knowing how stuff bleedin’ works and what tools are actually for, wanting to be entertained. And if the author did the same, the stories would start from a proper, real set of foundations. Ideas can soar from a solid base. Instead you have a bunch of readers who take their bikes to the bike shop to get a puncture fixed wanting to read about designer warriors who never need to eat, sleep, oil their bleedin’ swords – ”

“I think that’s a bit unfair; I’m sure I saw someone polishing his sword once in Lord of the Rings – ” I begin, but Nige is in full rant mode now.

” – my point being that great innovations and discoveries are always made by technicians stretching out, not by artists pretending they know how things really work but who can’t be bothered to actually learn how.”

He sits back, folds his arms, apparently satisfied that he’s nailed it. But I’m not too sure what ‘it’ is. I think we’re saying that real fantasy, or rather fantasy that’s based in reality, or perhaps we mean reality that supports believable fantasy – whatever, that as with bike culture these days being mostly all about fashion and very little about adjusting one’s own spokes, maybe fantasy fiction has moved too far from Tolkien’s folklore-based DIY and into J K Rowling’s flat pack ready-made generic branded simulations.

“It’s a long way from the Hobbit to Harry,” I say.

He takes a long swallow of his American IPA. “It’s a long way from Watney’s Pale Ale to this,” he says. “The yanks grabbed hold of something we took for granted and reinvented it, in the process learning more about the brewing process than us.”

I refrain from pointing out that this reference appears to be going in the opposite direction to mine. Instead, I take a long swallow too and the wonderfully dark kick of flavours against the back of my throat makes me determined to avoid choosing and sticking to my turf at all costs.


“What’s the price, Tel?”

Nige looks pleased with himself. This may be because it’s Friday; the Farmers is open late; there’s a pleasant mix of hoary locals and slightly slumming it young folks, and Alex who’s been asleep or dead every night here for the past many years, pewter tankard always half full. Despite the buzz, there is no one behind the bar on account of Jackie is on one of her many fag breaks out back; but out back with the door open to keep an eye out for customers, which means cigarette smoke wafts up our nostrils making us nostalgic for the days when pubs smelt of fags and not an unsettling mixture of disinfectant and damp wood.

We are sitting at a table for once, since Nige dropped a hammer on his foot a few days back. We had been talking about the utter patheticness of shooting parties, since Nige had encountered one of them on a job in a big house in Sevenoaks recently. But I thought we’d switched to fantasy writing and I had a few ideas I wanted to put past him.

“Well, I suppose it’s whatever the fantasy novel costs,” I say.

He shakes his head sadly. “I don’t mean that kind of price. It’s like those shooting idiots: the cost to each of ’em is several thousand quid for a bleedin’ gun, then a couple of grand for a day’s shooting on Madonna’s estate or wherever, just so they can bag a few birds what they could have bought for a tenner in Sainsbury’s and not busted their teeth on shot when they troughed them. I mean what’s the price for becoming one of said twats?”

I sense a trap. Saying ‘They give up their souls’ is too obvious.

“That you become a killer whether or not you think you are,” I say.

“Well, I was going to say ‘twat’ but the principle’s the same. Thing is, everyone becomes what they do, not what they think they are.”

“So, instead of a working class sage, you’re really a brush full of Wickes’ magenta soaking in a pint of Foster’s.”

“And you’re a set of suspiciously soft fingers tap-dancing across a keyboard stained with sweat, whisky and Pic’s peanut butter.”

“I do like a nice dollop of Pic’s on toast.”

“No, what’s the price for a fantasy reader, Tel? Someone who spends hours every day dunking his noodle into a bucket of dragons, knights and implausibly well-bosomed princesses?”

“I know what you want me to say. That if he spends all that time fantasising about fantasy then that’s what he’ll become.”

“Not exactly. I said what’s the ‘price’, not what’s the obvious danger.”

One of the reasons I like these conversations with Nige is that his thoughts don’t feel obliged to run along the usual channels. When I’m with other writers, while we all believe we’re being original with our comments, in fact we tend to follow whatever’s the latest genre thinking. Maybe that’s our price.

I look at Alex, hair and beard entirely silver now; a long way from the rich auburn I remember from when I first saw him in here. His eyes are half closed, head bowed. I don’t know if he’s listening to the conversations around him or dreaming of Before. Whatever it is, it’s the price he’s paid and he’s now determined by it; will die by it.

It’s not reading fantasy, exactly, that’s the price. After all, any form of fiction is fantasy after a fashion. But perhaps the price is that you’re reading someone else’s story; not your own.

“You know,” I say, “I’ve never wanted to do crosswords and now I think I know why. It’s because it means putting myself in thrall to someone else’s brain. I can only write exactly the words he wants me to write; and can only follow the clues he’s given me.”

Nige is nodding knowingly, looking something like a young hippy Don Juan. Perhaps I should offer to buy him some mescal-flavoured crisps.

“The price is mental slavery,” he says, “because it’s not your fantasy you’re submerging yourself into. You can’t help but become the story-teller’s whore.”

“Which says it’s better to be a fantasy writer than a fantasy reader?”

“I’m not so sure,” he says. “I read one of them rare bad reviews of the new Star Wars movie the other day. It said something like, ‘This film gives us exactly what we want instead of showing us something we didn’t know we wanted until we saw it’. And in that scenario it’s difficult to see who’s the whore and who’s the paying banger.”

“So, with most fantasy, both the writer and the reader are simply switching positions, screwing each other for mutual needs?”

“Well, I always thought Star Wars was bleedin’ crap anyway. The first film is like watching a bunch of pantomime actors let loose on a movie set, imagining that they’re saying something worthwhile but doing nothing much more than staring at the scenery meaningfully and pretending to believe you could ever get such a thing as an autistic robot what can’t walk straight.”

“The price is creativity,” I say. “Not just the author’s but the reader’s too. I mean, if we were to listen to any of the conversations in this place, they’d all be ritualistic, kind of comforting, rather than creative. And if you look for more of that in your fiction, well . . . ”

“In that case, Tel,” he says, “creativity is the last thing that’s going to sell.”

I feel I’ve been in this trap many times. The fundamental driving force behind my need to tell stories is – at least I’ve always told myself it is – to be original, thought-provoking, different. But how often am I like that in my day-to-day life? And if the answer is not very much then how can I turn on creativity only when it suits me, when writing fiction?

“I know that expression,” says Nige, standing, having spotted that the draft from the open back door has stopped and with it the fag fume gusts. He points to my glass in such a way that isn’t a question but a confirmation. “You’re now worrying that you’re nothing but a phoney.”

“Something like that.”

He taps the side of his nose.

“Cocaine-flavour crisps?” I say. “Why not?”

When he returns, he puts down our pints and says, “Are you a good writer?”

“No, I’m a very good writer.”

“Do you sell in Potteresque quantities?”

“Not even Bunteresque quantities – and now, not then.”

He shrugs. “There’s your answer. You’re a creative writer.”

“Hang on; that’s far too simple.”

“Not really. If a writer ain’t selling much it means either they’re crap or they’re too creative.”

“Or they’ve got no idea how to promote themselves.”

There’s something of the expanse of the New Mexico desert in his gaze, which somehow makes the non-creative yakking around us fade temporarily into so much verbal tumbleweed.

“Most people’s tastes are stupid,” he says, “wilfully so. They can’t be bothered to think; can’t be arsed to put together a creative scenario in their heads; to take a punt on meaning. It didn’t always used to be like that. I remember ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. That was a film that didn’t lay it on a plate for the audience. I still ain’t got a clue what it means but I also can’t forget it. It wasn’t too many years later, though, that space movies became cowboy yarns where the effeminate city slicker is replaced by a gay robot and the bad guys wear black helmets instead of black hats. And the really sad thing is there are blokes in their forties out there what believe that such tossed-off tosh has meaning for their lives.”

“But stupid’s where the money is,” I say.

“Pity you ain’t stupid then, Tel.”

I think about Match of the Day for some reason then. Which I will watch when I get back to our street, feeling somewhat smug that I’ve managed not to learn the scores. But just how stupid is football?

“The point is,” I say, “that we’re all stupid most of the time. But until recently, a lot of people read books or watched movies because they weren’t stupid; because escape for them was to be inside a created work where they could think and expand their imaginations. But ever since writers realised that stupid pays, those fantasy worlds are really the same as the so-called real world, just dressed up in fancy costumes.”

“Exactly,” he says, “when did you last hear Dr Who say anything more profound than ‘Quantum blah blah, here’s my sonic soddin’ screwdriver which is the answer to everything, including why all these gorgeous young chicks want to have sex with me which I would if it weren’t for the bleedin’ fact it’s supposed to be a kids’ programme’?”

I drink my beer and wonder if Chelsea will have finally got their act together for this season.

“Here’s to stupid,” I say, raising my glass.

He raises his. “Here’s to hoping the other side of stupid will pay again some day.”


“I’ve been thinking,” says Nige. He pauses. Takes a long swallow of his lager. It’s eleven-eleven, and he has two more pints waiting after this one. Ordering three just before last orders is a hang-over from when it was always eleven in the Tavern. These days, it’s difficult to know when the place will close but Nige, despite his elastic thinking at times, is oddly ritualistic where drinking is concerned.

His paint-splattered hair is a little American Indian tonight and his eyes indeed have an eagle-watching distance to them. I sense a builder’s stream of consciousness may be ready to erupt into the Monday night calm of the Tavern, like psychedelic Dulux from a paint gun.

“Apparently,” he continues, “we’re all surrounded by our own unique microbe cloud, Tel. Our germs and bacteria and various poxy particles make up a signature that’s as distinctive as our fingerprints. Which means if the police could find a way to measure said cloud they’d be able to track down criminals dead easy.”

“Don’ they already have fingerprints?” I say.

He sighs. “Yes and villains have gloves. But you can’t slip a latex sheath over your microbe cloud can you? But crime-fighting isn’t what I was thinking about, as it happens. For bleedin’ centuries, people could only tell what’s what about other people by their physical manifestations. Because we couldn’t measure or even know sod all about microbe clouds, we could only spot obvious, and often un-germane differences between folks. In other words, we’ve never got in the habit of looking for the stuff about other people that you can’t see.”

I resist the urge to remind him that in fact many people over the centuries have claimed to be able to see the invisible emanations we apparently make, and to interpret what they mean. One reason I don’t is that while I more or less believe such emanations exist, I’m not convinced that many people are very accurate at interpreting them.

“For a start,” he says, “I reckon the most distinctive invisible stuff we all give off is the fantasy cloud. Everyone spends the vast majority of their lives fantasising in one way or another. They picture themselves with muscles they ain’t got and high cheekbones which are actually obscured permanently by McDonald’s blubber. Blokes are constantly picturing women without their clothes on; and running through a brilliant speech they’re going to give their boss to destroy the bastard’s hold over them and leave him a whimpering wreck. And the fantasy cloud is self-perpetuating; it feeds back into our brains so we actually come to believe it, to the point we think the real world is just some bleedin’ intrusion into our real reality.”

As he talks, I look around the room. In one corner is a table of regulars. I can’t hear what they’re talking about but their expressions, eye-shine, confident tone says that they believe they’re right. But almost certainly they won’t be. Maybe Nige is on to something: our fantasy cloud is self-infecting.

“As you know,” he says, “I’ve been trying to help you teach self-deluded writers how to write fantasy.”

“I didn’t say they were self-deluded,” I say.

He picks up his pint again, shaking his head pityingly. “Unless a writer understands his own fantasy cloud, he ain’t got a chance of producing anything that won’t read like Wayne Rooney’s auto-bleedin’-biography. And if he’s writing fantasy, then the unconvincing distance effect is compounded.”

“Come again?”

“I ain’t no teacher, Tel, but the first question I’d ask a fantasy writer is: what’s in your characters’ fantasy clouds?”

I laugh and take a long swallow of my expensive craft beer. I don’t understand exactly what he means but the authentic noise of it is like a great resounding bong on the Rank Movies gong of truth.

“Let me have go at this,” I say. “Us real world types are surrounded by fantasy clouds, so it’s logical to assume that characters in fantasy novels will be surrounded by reality clouds.”

“No, that’s false logic, mate. Characters in fantasy novels are real to their world. They won’t have clouds around them that reflect our world; they’ll have clouds full of fantasy what pertains in their world.”

“Okay, so what would be in Gandalf’s fantasy cloud?”

“Good question and possibly unique in the history of Lord of the Rings fandom. So, what does the most famous wizard in fantasy history fantasise about?”

“Being a hobbit,” I say, “settling down with a nice hobbit woman and drinking beer in a hobbit tavern, philosophising with his hobbit builder/decorator mate about what David Copperfield fantasises about?”

He ignores my attempt at circular irony. “I reckon he would fantasise about being a better soddin’ bloke, actually. I mean, he’s all beard and meaningful looks but that won’t cut it with a wizard chick. She’s going to respond more to creative humour and a manly strength that’s so confident it can open a window of vulnerability for her to see the true him through, what contains more real magic than anything his wand can ever summon up.”

“Well, now you may of course be alluding to the author’s own fantasy cloud and his unconscious suppression thereof.”

“You’ve hit it, Tel,” he says. “The fundamental problem with modern fantasy.”

“Hang on, let me get my notebook out; this is going to be a real scoop.”

“Until a writer is proper au fait with his own fantasy cloud he’s never going to produce characters with believable fantasy clouds. The bleedin’ reader doesn’t need to know what exactly these characters’ clouds contain, of course, but he has to sense their presence, and that takes the form of characters who don’t look and sound like they just switch off when they’re not in a scene and get hung up in the author’s various mental closets called ‘Wise But Boringly Dead Pan Wizard Unless He’s Slapping His Thighs At A ‘Joke’ That The Reader’ll Never Get Because Frankly It’s Not Very Funny’, or ‘Ballsy Princess Who Nevertheless Carries Around An Impressive Pair Of Knockers’ or ‘Villain Who Never Changes His Underpants’. If both author’s and his characters’ fantasy clouds was fully operational you could have your villain, I don’t know, just watching Panorama and looking like he’s a bit lost in big issues, and he’d be even more villainous for it.”

“If all this is true,” I say, “how come millions of readers seem to enjoy fantasy with cloudless characters?”

He looks sad and swallows two thirds of his second pint in one hit. “You’ve now hit on the other fundamental problem with modern fantasy.”

“Where did I put my pen . . . ?”

“The fantasy novel is the reader’s fantasy cloud, at least while they’re reading, or attending conventions or whatever. It prevents them having to try to understand their own real fantasy cloud.”

“Okay,” I say, “so, we’ve got authors who are not sufficiently aware of their own fantasy clouds, writing characters who don’t actually have fantasy clouds, for readers who are escaping their real fantasy clouds for a collective cloud made of the author’s subconscious cloud and his characters’ missing clouds, which together approximate a fantasy-fantasy cloud that by existing in a fantasy setting allows the reader, and probably the author too, to believe they are actually grappling with a legitimate fantasy cloud but in fact they’re just avoiding real fantasy?”

He nods, a little smugly it has to be said. “I knew you’d get there eventually, Tel.”


I’m with Steve in what used to be Mr Lawrence the wine bar but is now the London Beer Dispensary. Much of the furniture – old wooden tables and a range of chairs that wouldn’t look out of place in a fantasy tavern – is the same. What’s different is there is now a lot of beer: beer in barrels, beer in bottles, beer – sorry, IPAs – chilled on tap. Being old farts who were pioneers of CAMRA back in the 70s we should really sneer keglessly at all this, well, variety, but we both have a sneaky liking for colder beer and therefore quietly hail the US-style IPA revolution taking place in the UK; at least, in the parts of the UK where people don’t mind paying £5.50 a pint; in fact, would be suspicious if they paid any less.

“I’ve been writing a blog series called ‘How to Write Fantasy’,” I say.

“That’ll get you noticed,” he says.

“Well, obviously, I’m trying to come at in from new angles.”

“Not really a very innovative genre, though, is it?”

I remember then that while Steve is a huge fan of science fiction, or at least SF from the 50s to the 70s when, according to him, there were at least some writers who were using SF to comment significantly on the world instead of playing at it, he has little time for fantasy.

“Surely by its very nature,” I say, “fantasy must offer the most opportunities for a writer to express his imagination.”

He holds up his pint of IPA with an unpronounceable name, checking, I choose to think, for specks of fantasy gold.

“I think it’s the opposite: most fantasy writers use that endless opportunity to avoid facing the real thing their genre should be producing.”

He puts down his glass and waits for me to say which is? But before I can, he takes on a distant gaze and continues speaking. At least, he carries on talking but at first I suspect he’s decided to change the topic.

“Years ago,” he says, “I went on this art course, in a big house in Yorkshire. There were fifteen of us and each night a team of three would cook the evening meal for everyone else. There were two women on my team but on the night one of them went sick, so it was just me and Mary.”

“Ah, Mary.”

“What do you mean, ‘Ah, Mary’? I’ve never mentioned her before.”

“Yes, but I think I know what’s coming.”

He looks deeply wistful, like a wizard who’s lost his clay pipe.

“If you know what’s coming,” he says, “you should be able to write a killer fantasy story. At last. As I was saying – Mary and I were in the kitchen for about three hours, cooking. I’d noticed her; couldn’t really not: tall, long black hair, kind but sometimes really fierce eyes. Anyway, we talked as we prepared the food. And because we were doing something practical, our conversation was sort of set off to one side of us. Which meant, without realising it we were sensing each other, and listening to the spaces between our words, and liking each other a lot but without actually thinking it.”

He drinks some more beer and gathers deeper into his memory.

“I felt liberated,” he said. “My normal cautious self was busy chopping onions. My free self . . . well, I really liked my free self. It joked about everything but warmly, spontaneously, included Mary without question; and she did the same with me until it wasn’t Steve and Mary any more. Harmony – it’s not a pleasant blending of different tones, Terry. It’s when two free selves rush around together like dogs off their leads in the park . . . And then there was this moment.”

I think I can almost touch the moment he’s talking about, like grabbing after the rapidly fading fragments of a dream you don’t want to lose.

“I was stirring a pot of bolognaise sauce by the stove,” he says. “Mary stood next to me, our shoulders just a couple of inches apart. She had a plate of chopped tomatoes ready to go in the pot. And right then, I knew, and I knew that she knew, even though nothing had been said and we weren’t looking at each other. We knew. Nothing before or since in my life has ever been so certain as that moment. It had no shape or substance and could never have been taught in a dating class or whatever. But it was totally real.”

“What happened?” I say.

He shakes his head. “I didn’t trust it enough. And I guess she didn’t either. And when we hesitated, our normal selves nudged themselves back into the moment and smoothed it off, rationalised it. I did make myself look into her eyes but I just couldn’t read what was there. But of course I couldn’t: because my normal self was already justifying my inaction. I never saw her again after that course.

“That’s what fantasy should be writing about,” he says. “Not poxy dragons, princesses, elves and talking hats.”

“But you can’t only write about those kinds of moments,” I say.

“No, but fantasy should contain more of them than any other genre, because it’s supposed to be about our not-normal selves. But if anything, it contains less per pound weight than any other form.”

“‘The Once and Future King’ has a pretty good ratio of moments to mass,” I say but I’m not really sure.

He looks oddly defeated. “I read the first book of ‘Game of Thrones’,” he says. “The last chapter is one of those moments. It’s fantastic – the writer’s free self really soars. But you have to wade through over 800 pages of stock fantasy normal-self shit to get there. Even if the other books end with those moments, I’m not reading them.”

I mentally summon objections to this; references to fantasy stories that have moments in them. But I say nothing since essentially I agree with him. There just aren’t enough. Modern fantasy has become a game of tomes, where the writer drip feeds tiny tastes of magic, and sometimes temporarily delivers at the end as a reward for his followers wading on so far with him, and for paying him to wade.

“There should be more,” I say. “It’s a writer’s duty, after all, to deliver magic.”

“Well said, Tel,” he says, “but I think you’re missing the point. I’ve only had one of those moments in over sixty years of living. The rest has been just the normal shit.”

“Are you saying fantasy writers who produce thousand page novels of tramping around boggy landscapes with just one moment of magic are accurately reflecting life?”

“No, I’m saying don’t wast your time reading fantasy.”


The Grand Gonado Learns to Truss Himself, Part Two

“Are you sure about this, sir?” said Scrotumnal. He and P’Lok stood behind the Grand Gonado whose backside was cupped by the Interworlds Transport Truss that the King had released from the palace vaults for the task at hand. They held on tightly to the two tension bars of the pad, having pulled it back across half the length of B’Lok Hall.

“Of course I’m not sure about it,” said Gonado in a Genuinely Scared for Once tone. “The Truss hasn’t been used in many a moon and rumour is that the last man to try it ended up wearing it as a shroud.”

Gonado thought about what would happen if the Truss didn’t work, about the bat-shaped stain he’d make on the far wall. On the other hand, if he didn’t try something, the King would surely reduce his means, and overall that appealed less than becoming a permanent wall hanging.

“Truss away!” he yelled, followed by, “WAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!” as he hurtled forward at what he hoped was the speed of an interworld flying dragon stove.

The far wall zoomed at him and he rammed shut his eyes, body rigidly tense, expecting a collision. Amazing himself, he remembered to set his mental compass at ‘Take me to Your Leader’ just before–

–landing in a cloak-flapping heap on a spongy carpet. He opened his eyes to see on it a design that might have been a dragon but actually looked more like a bird of prey ominously clutching weapons in its left talons.

His wizard’s instinct told him to leap to his feet, swirl his cloak enigmatically and intone, before anyone else who happened to be in the room had the chance to realise he didn’t know where he was.

“Hail! I am the Grand Gonado!” he yelled, wishing the spring to his feet hadn’t been quite so hard on his knees.

“I know who you are.”

A tall, erect figure stood behind a dark wood desk. Gonado didn’t recognise the man’s strange, muted clothing but he thought he detected a certain wizardly steel to his gaze that seemed very Deferensian.


“Yes, but aren’t you forgetting something?”

Gonado patted his heart, pockets and testicles. “No, I think everything came through the wall with me.”

“‘The Great’.”

“No, the wall. The grate would have been tricky, given it was full of flaming logs at the time.”

“Actually, I mean–never mind. Why don’t you take a seat?”

Gonado pulled out a rather functional looking chair and sat down. Rigidio sat too, then leaned forward and pressed his finger to a black box. “Carol,” he said. “Could you arrange coffee, please?”

Gonado wagged his finger. “I don’t think you were paying attention, Rigidio. My name is Gonado, not Carol. And it’s not my position to fetch coffee. Don’t you have a servant to do that?”

Rigidio leaned back and studied his guest for a few seconds. Gonado tried to cling on to the fact his rival appeared to be suffering short-term memory loss and therefore might be losing any other powers too. But something about the studied concentration in Rigidio’s gaze belied this hope.

“I suppose you’re here about the dragons?” said Rigidio.

“The mechanical dragons, I think you mean,” said Gonado, not bothering to disguise his tone of Withering Contempt.

“I know they’re mechanical, you idiot,” said Rigidio in a tone of Surprising Sentience. “I’m in charge of them.”

“You’re this world’s Dragon Chief?”

“Something like that. I took the truss through the wall about eight years ago and–”

“But you left our world nearly ninety years back,” said Gonado, for once curbing a tone of Incredulous Indignation.

“Time runs differently here,” said Rigidio. “Which is why I can’t return home: my body would instantly age ten-fold and, well, to use language you’ll understand, even I’d have trouble smoothing the furrows out of a near century old flag-pole.”

The door opened and a young woman brought a tray of refreshments to Rigidio’s desk.

Gonado noted her hips were somewhat inadequately sized for child-bearing but was impressed sufficiently by her clear skin, lustrous blonde hair and superb chest to declaim, “I will take this Carol to my bed tonight. Perhaps you would ensure she is sufficiently oiled and pliant.”

“You must excuse my guest, Carol,” said Rigidio, “he comes from a place where they still believe women are possessions and airplanes are dragons.”

Carol smiled sweetly. “Bob is rather puzzled, sir,” she said to Rigidio, “as to how your guest got in here.”

She poured coffee into two fine china cups, then put one in front of Gonado.

“I travelled here,” boomed Gonado, trying to recover his pride after being rejected by a mere woman, “via my giant truss!”

Carol moved towards the door. “I’ll let Security know, sir, that your guest may need more support.”

Rigidio sipped his coffee. “You’ll find the women here are not only very bright, they’re rather cleaner than in Deferensia.”

Gonado tried the coffee. It was excellent but he didn’t let any pleasure show on his face. “You were telling me about how you became Dragon Chief here.”

“Oh, simple really. I transmuted enough gold to buy me status, then swapped bodies with their Chief. Now I’m what they call ‘the leader of the free world’.”

There was a pause while Gonado wondered if Rigidio could actually be serious, then they both laughed uproariously.

“‘Free world’!” spluttered Gonado. “That’s a good one. You’ll be telling me they don’t believe in magic next!”

“Funny you should mention that. They don’t. When they invaded Deferensia the first time, it was more by chance. They’d detected the rent and flown their ‘dragons’ through it, hoping to find gold.”

“But P’Lok said it wasn’t about gold.”

Rigidio shook his head. “It’s always about gold. I sent some mental messaging spells through the wall a couple of years back, one to the King, the other to P’Lok. I told the former that an invasion was coming, knowing he’d command you to resist it. And I had P’Lok believe gold is not at stake so you wouldn’t be inspired by greed so much as by fear.”


“I don’t think even the most salacious appetite for wealth can induce a man to climb into a giant truss and fling himself scrotum-first at the nearest wall. But fear of losing what wealth he has might just do the trick.”

“I see,” said Gonado. “Very perceptive of you. Now, what about that gold?”



The Grand Gonado hurtled across the floor of B’Lok Hall, tightly clutching a precious box under each arm.

He brushed dust off his Armani suit then sprang to his feet. Or at least, he tried to spring but found, as he should have remembered, that his knees were now ten years older than they’d been a mere few seconds before.

“Help me up, please,” he said.

Scrotumnal and P’Lok gently steered him into a chair. After he’d finished breathing heavily, he took in the extra lines on their faces, the bent backs, the old-fashioned and, now surprising to him, genuine deference on their faces.

“We got your message to be here at this appointed time, sir,” said Scrotumnal. “It flew through the wall some five years ago, just before the King was about to cut off your B’Loks.”

Gonado smiled, Quite Naturally, he suspected. “Why don’t you take some brandy up to the star-room and I can tell you both of my adventures.”

When all three were seated under the stars, they clinked glasses and P’Lok risked an observation.

“You hair seems whiter, sir,” he said, “matching your new clothes. But in all other respects, you don’t appear to have aged as much as we.”

Gonado nodded. “It’s true; only a year has passed in the other world. However, in that short time, I’ve learned much, and perhaps the most surprising of which is that they have no magic there.”

The other two shared a horrified look. “Then how do they make gold from lead?” said P’Lok.

“I’ll come to that later,” said Gonado. “But their lack of magic means they have been most ingenious in their use of unspelled materials. Those mechanical dragons, P’Lok–well, you can sit inside them as they fly through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, with no more disturbance than a faint ripple on the surface of your Scotch on the rocks. And the ones they use for military purposes can throw missiles that destroy entire towns.”

“So, why did they fail to defeat us when they came here?” said P’Lok.

“Because Rigidio used magic to fill their engines with semi-corporate ether causing them to crash and explode.”

The other two flinched at the mention of Gonado’s great rival, but he just waved indulgently and said, “Don’t worry; me and Dick have come to an understanding. Dick’s his new name by the way. Dick Richard. He’s the leader of what they call the free world–” he didn’t laugh this time, “–and I’ve come to a very exciting business arrangement with him, as it happens.”

“Does it have anything to do with those boxes downstairs,” said Scrotumnal, “that appear to be full of strange feathered creatures which squawk much.”

Gonado nodded. “Dragons couldn’t conquer our world but chickens will.”

“Before you continue, sir,” said Scrotumnal, “can you please explain why you’re being so nice to us? I mean, it’s most unwizardly, if you don’t mind my saying. I’d actually gotten rather used to your roaring and permanently raised eyebrow, oh, and the spinning on the heels thing, too. Made me feel all was right with the world. Wizards do magic and their servants do the housework. It’s the natural order.”

“As I said, Larj, I am a changed man. In my year over there, I have been lucky enough to date a wonderful woman called Carol. I unwittingly used the most persuasive argument to win her, that I was an unmitigated chauvinist bully in need of converting. Well, she certainly dealt with my over-masculinised ego, I can tell you.”

Scrotumnal and P’Lok swapped another look.

“What?” said Gonado.

“Well, sir,” said Scrotumnal. “It’s just that before, you would have said something like, oh I don’t know, ‘she certainly got on my wick’.”

“Or,” said P’Lok, “‘once she got her hands on my family jewels, I knew I’d soon be rising through her ranks’.”

Gonado sighed. “Yes, yes. But, look, from now on, we’re a team. Which means you’ll have to get used to calling me ‘buddy’, or ‘bro’, or, better still, ‘friend’. And don’t worry; I may be a new man but I’m still in this for the money. We’re going to be fabulously rich: you’re going to be fabulously rich. And we have to get cracking. I’m already old enough to mean Carol needs therapy for possible paternalistic romantic issues; don’t want her paying for necrophilia, too.”

“What are we going to do, sir–bro?” said Scrotumnal.

“We’re going into the chicken business. I’ll help you set up, then I need to get back to Earth. You’ll convert our takings into gold, remove your cut then truss the rest through to me. I’ll split my share fifty-fifty with Dick. It’s called a franchise.”

“Is this franchise the reason you’re wearing white,” said P’Lok, “with some black strings around your neck, two windows over your eyes and an oddly shaped white beard?”

“Yup,” said Gonado, “from now on, just call me ‘The Colonel’.”



The Grand Gonado Learns to Truss Himself, Part One

The Grand Gonado swirled, his wizard’s cloak flapping like giant bat wings, spinning on his heel to face his no doubt trembling visitor. But he kept turning, on account of his heel being inside his special wizard’s shiny silver shoes, polished to a mirror-like brilliance, top and bottom, by his faithful servant, Scrotumnal, so the Master could see his fearsome face in them when taking a pee.

“What insolence is this!” he bellowed, followed by a muttered, “Oh, shit, I really must stop spinning on my own damn heels . . . ”

He spun around several more times during which a strained silence descended upon B’Lok Hall, Gonado folding his arms and trying to look as if he always started an interview this way.

Eventually he stopped, facing the wrong way, then shuffled carefully around to stare at his guest.

“And who might you be?” he boomed, furrowing his brow in authoritarian scepticism.

“Whom, sir.”

“What kind of name is Whom?”

“It’s not my name, your worship. It’s what you should have said, instead of ‘who’.”

Gonado raised his wizard’s visage to the bat-shadowed rafters high above, buying a little time while he selected the appropriately outraged demeanour to employ.

“Let’s try again,” he said, displaying Dangerously Pleasant. “What is your name, what do you do and why are you here?”

“Name’s P’Lok, your Grace; I’m the King’s personal historian–”

“You don’t say,” said Gonado, now selecting Innocently Sarcastic, which appeared equally lost, however, on P’Lok who, judging by his wispy white hair, gravy-stained smock and mild countenance, stored most of his everyday mind in dusty volumes that no one ever wanted to take out of the library.

“–and I’m here to inform you that the Kingdom is in great danger.”

“Why would the King send a mere historian to inform me that we’re facing great danger?”

“I should think that was obvious, your Batlikeness.”

Gonado sighed heavily. “Why don’t you just tell me what the danger is.”

“You mean, you don’t know, sir? You haven’t already seen it in your crystal ball?”

“I don’t study my balls as much as I used to, if you must know, and I’m not sure what you unmagicked ignoramuses would consider dangerous–Queen Farjeina’s broken a fingernail and her cutician is away having a baby?”

“Actually, your Understatedness, we’re about to be attacked by people from another dimension who are in possession of weapons that can destroy our entire world.”

“I don’t believe it, and how would you know it’s true anyway?”

P’Lok shrugged. “They tried it once before.”

Gonado bent forwards to peer into his guest’s eyes. “Ah-hah.”


“Obviously, you would know about things that have happened before.”

“I’m one of the very few who do. There was something hidden in the text of our oldest records, that–”

“Does it involve dragons?” Gonado interrupted. “It usually does.”

P’Lok sat in Gonado’s favourite red leather easy chair, oblivious to the impertinence, and stared into the distance.

The greatest living wizard in Deferensia decided it would be futile to continue bullying a mere word drudge and sat too.

“The king instructed me to be honest with you, sir,” said P’Lok.

“Did he now? And why would he suspect you wouldn’t be?”

P’Lok’s focus returned to the room, cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Well, you’re a wizard and I suppose he must have thought you’d be upset if I told you what dragons really were–are.”

Gonado sighed again, suddenly tired of keeping up magical appearances. “If you must know, I never really believed in dragons. I suspect they’re just the mythical manifestation of ancient people’s primal, probably sexual, fears.”

“Oh, they did and do exist, your Pyschosexualness. But as I started to say earlier, they come from another world, one that’s interlinked with but usually separate from our own, and they are largely mechanical creations, not living things.”

“You mean they don’t roast virgins for their supper or nest on mounds of gold?”

“Gold is involved but some believe more as analogy than fact.”

“Come again; I mean, pardon?”

“Well, an analogy is when you compare something with something different in order to make its function more easily–”

“I know what an analogy is, tome-breath!” shouted the wizard, his expression of Offended Brilliance unpremeditated for once, and P’Lok finally trembled a little at the sheer magical power it intimated.

“Forgive me, sir . . . gold is, as you know, the major alchemical substance, and the result of transmutating base metal into something more precious. I believe these dragons had the ability to transmute base oil into the fire that thrusts them through the air and wreaks destruction upon their enemies, and that seems more important to them than gold.”

“And what happened last time these oil-burning flying stoves came here?”

“They would have destroyed us all but for the intervention of the Great Rigidio.”

“How did I know you were going to mention that over-blown ninny?”

Despite his look of Lofty Disdain, the Grand Gonado’s innards churned with the frantic wing beats of several ego-bats coming home to roost. Now the King’s message was clear: see off these dragons or forever be known as the necromancer who couldn’t get it up.

“The belief was that Rigidio created a new form of magic especially to confound the invaders’ minds,” said P’Lok, “thereby causing the dragon riders to go mad and crash their steeds into the Sea of Steaming Serpents, so named after–”

“Yes, yes–but how do you know that’s what Rigidio actually did, rather than that the dragons just flew off course and drowned, followed by him claiming the glory.”

P’Lok looked at the back of his hands. “Well, it doesn’t really matter what he did or didn’t do, does it? Because you’re going to have to stop them anyway; the King commands it.”


Later, the Grand Gonado ate his dinner in the star-room at the top of the Hall, the spread of sharp lights across the inky void pricking at his conscience. Scrotumnal brought in the pudding, placed it in front of his master and had turned to leave when Gonado said, “Please, sit, Larj; I would appreciate your company tonight.”

Scrotumnal’s ancient face creased in surprise but he sat on the other side of the star-spat table.

“Um, nice weather for the time of year, sir,” he said.

“Yes, I suppose–look, you’ve known me longer than anyone, so I’d very much appreciate your help with a small problem I’m having.”

“Is it as small as the entire Kingdom being set alight by fire-breathing dragons unless you stop them? Because I would have thought that was actually quite a massive problem, sir.”

“So, you overheard P’Lok and I talking, did you?”

“Well, you do tend to shout when Righteously Offended, sir.”

Gonado fought a lifetime’s worth of righteous offence right then, finally subdued by the need for an action plan that would save the Kingdom without him losing face or, even worse, fancy life style.

“P’Lok told me that records predict a rent between worlds is about to appear five miles west of the city.”

“Then ’tis a shame the Great Rigidio lowered his flag ninety-odd years ago.”

Gonado studied the slow surge of creamy yellow custard down the sides of his spotted dick, wishing he had nothing other to worry about than whether to eat all the custard first or leave a little for the last spots of dick.

He thought about the small black currents popping out of the puffy mass of the pudding proper when you added heat, almost like magic–

“Scrotumnal,” he said, “I have an idea.”

To be continued . . .


There aren’t too many black people in ‘Lord of the Rings’, unless you count the orcs. And you can’t get much more rural white folks than the hobbits. The ruling classes are all white, too, and very western medievalish. The taverns are full of tankards and boring folk music and landlords who could be on retirement from the Wurzles.

Okay, well, ‘Lord of the Rings’ was published in the 1950s when England itself wasn’t too far away from the same demographic. Let’s move forward, then, to the modern day’s most successful fantasy – surely that will be a long way from the three Ws? ‘Game of Thrones’ – hmmm . . .

What about a modern children’s fantasy best-seller? ‘Harry Potter! Um . . . well, actually, it’s even more three Ws-retro than ‘Lord of the Rings’ being in effect Billy Bunter with wands.

Which seems to suggest that if you want to sell high fantasy, you need to stick close to the three Ws. USA and UK publishers themselves, let’s face it, are the embodiment of the Worldwide Westernish Web. They will tell you loudly to your face that they are always looking for something different, more ethnic, more diverse but their vulnerable eyes will be imploring you not to make it too different, and let’s please have most of the ethnic/diverse concentrated exclusively in one of the secondary characters who, say, marries an underage white princess; he’s muscular, non-English speaking (so we don’t know at first that he’s actually more like us than we thought) and seems rather rough and ready (for lots of sex), who gets killed off fairly early on (leaving her to rediscover her whiter roots, only now with a touch of dark (in more ways than one) which will make her all the more alluring and exotic(ish) to her next round of white suitors), but who under all the make-up is really quite white, who can be played by an actor with authentic but not-too deep ethnic roots who will scrub up nicely to a whitish demographic for TV interviews.

Before we go any further, it’s only fair to note that the wider world has probably moved closer to the three Ws than it realises. This is largely the fault of US movies, which have cornered the world market in flash bang crap. An awful lot of money goes into producing films that admirably give huge respect to the world-wide appetite for mindless, loud, logic-free, hokum. Which means that the world – watching from a semi-prone position of ‘hey, it’s just a bit of fun’ with brain wide-open and no cultural back-bone – now believes that if it ain’t WWW, it ain’t proper crap. Meanwhile, books have moved ever closer to the movies so before you realised what was happening, your chances of reading a story about a black fantasy hero who doesn’t drink because he can never find a booze house with a name that doesn’t start with ‘Dragon’s’ and end with ‘Head’ are about the same as Hermione getting into rap music (although rap is of course often aimed at the three Ws, if only by way of providing anti-parent material for young white males who want to spend a few years on the (not-too) dark side before settling down to make a living).

Of the three, wimpish is possibly the most difficult to understand, not least by the author, but you needn’t worry too much since its strengths and weaknesses are so well embedded in the average three Ws mind that it will tick away nicely undetected in the background like a self-realisation bomb that could go off at any time but won’t because, well, this is fantasy.

In short, the typical three Ws person thinks they’re superior to anyone else but they don’t realise it or want to know that they do. In fact, they like to believe they are tolerant, diversity-loving and open-minded. And they are, just so long as their daughter doesn’t want to marry a non-three-Ws guy (or girl). The truth is, the contradiction between what they think they are and what they actually are represents moral weakness and inability to act when it counts (other than in a negative, initially guilty later ‘healed by time’, manner). Because they can’t say, “I don’t want you to marry a black and/or working class guy because I believe his culture, education and intelligence are inferior to ours” their ability to observe and understand human behaviour on its own terms is far more limited than they realise.

So, while wimpish might be the hardest to understand, it’s the one W you have to make sure you get right. If you write a black character, for example, he can be cool, sarcastic and resourceful but he must never, ever be simply better than your white characters. He must not be better at understanding what’s really going on (even though in real life he probably would be) because what’s really going on is not the preserve of the oppressed whose lives depend on reading and understanding the many and largely unconscious moods of their masters and owners, it’s the natural birthright of the privileged because it’s who owns the most, whether in terms of land or publishing companies, who’s right.

Your largely three Ws cast, therefore, must ultimately hold the moral and intelligence upper hands. You can give spirituality to your ethnics because, of course, the modern three Ws person knows that religion is for the ignorant. You can even give them bigger dongs, too, because everyone knows it isn’t size that counts at the end of the two suns day, it’s rights of entry.




Most fantasy stories need a wizard, mage, necromancer, bloke down the tavern who can provide the largely asexual wisdom glue that fills in the cracks in the hero’s conscience, not to mention the plot. Both require plenty of space for running around in pointless circles in order to pad out the book’s length and the reader needs to be distracted from the stupidity of this by a grandfatherly figure in a long white beard and large hat that points anywhere but in the direction of the bleedin’ obvious.

The last thing a writer needs is a character who can think for himself. If that was the case, Frodo might have come up with the idea that the eagles could have flown him and the ring to Mount Doom, not just from it, and thereby save himself a whole load of tramping through bogs and putting up with Sam going on about how what we need is a few good taters. (Incidentally, there are some wonderfully inventive explanations for why the eagles didn’t operate return flights on the internet, a phenomenon that I’ll cover in a later chapter called, ‘Always Let Your Fans Explain Away Your Plot Faults’.) But Gandalf is the wise direction-pointer and if he doesn’t mention the eagles then they simply aren’t an option.

But you have to be careful not to make your mage too clever. If you do that then you’re in danger of him pointing out the boneheaded stupidity required by your main characters in order to keep the story moving along (very, very slowly).

Hence, Gandalf needs to say: ‘Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.’

This sounds good, if not somewhat patronising, but when you look a little closer it’s actually damning hobbits with faint praise – the perfect kind of wisdom you need from your head mage because this is what will prevent the reader from thinking ‘WTF!’ when tiny, non-violent creatures with absolutely no military training are sent to fight against vicious creatures built solely to kill. ‘You can learn all there is know about their ways in a month’ – is not saying much for their intelligence and spirit of innovation (then again, such would be disastrous on most fantasy quests). And the next phrase is a perfect insult dressed as compliment: they can still surprise you (but probably won’t); however, you’ll have to wait a hundred years to find out.

What you don’t want Gandalf to say is what Carl Jung once said: ‘The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed. It is just these intense conflicts and their conflagration which are needed to produce valuable and lasting results.’ Apart from this making the reader think, which as said is the last thing you want to do, it also pretty much nails the fact that because the hobbit life is such a cosy one, without any intense conflict, there is absolutely nothing valuable or useful about their culture. Which not only blows out the notion that they should be carrying the weight of the quest to save the free world in the first place, it also raises the intelligence of the writer-mage-reader fulcrum and that means the writer is going to have to spend the next 3,000 pages actually thinking about his story, rather than letting it run around on its own for a while before the eagles save the day.

In other words, the mage must not have more intelligence than the reader, because the reader of course secretly thinks he is the mage, or at least can understand and direct the characters just as well as Gandalf can.

In this respect, here are some ideal sayings by fictional mages:

Dumbledore: ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live’. This sounds very profound, as long as you don’t look too closely; if you do you might notice that – as with most fantasy wisdoms – you can reverse it and it still sounds good: ‘It does not do to live and never dwell on dreams.’

Another from Dumbledore: ‘Time is making fools of us again.’ This can be reversed thusly (a word by the way that is seldom heard outside fantasy novels): ‘A fool is he who doth not take account of what time is making him to be.’

Or Yoda: ‘Already know you that which you need’ (yes, I know Yoda is technically a Science Fiction not a Fantasy mage but he appeals to the same audience) sounds just as deep as: ‘Need you that which you already you know.’ Which of course is not very.

Yoda again: ‘Always pass on what you have learned.’ Or: ‘Learn you must what you have always passed on.’

These are actually pretty similar to:

Del Trotter: ‘He who dares Rodney, he who dares.’

Dick Dastardly: ‘I’ll win this race fair and square, even if I have to cheat to do it!’

And really they serve the same purpose. Del, like Gandalf, is directing the reader’s attention away from his latest stupid idea and Dick Dastardly is giving us a laugh by actually stating the bleedin’ obvious.

Just as the point to David Beckham is not football, so the wisdom of the mage is nothing to do with intelligence. The point of the mage is to justify the enormous length of your fantasy novel by implying that there’s more going on in the story than the reader can ever dream of. In fact, your story can probably be summed up in a sentence (and might well be better off as one): good guy has something the bad guy wants and must destroy it to save the world. Or, the bad guy has something he will destroy the world with and the good guy must get it off him before it’s too late.

I’ll finish with a quote by someone who would have made the perfect mage in Game of Thrones – Alan Partridge: ‘Let me tell you something about the Titanic, people forget, people forget that on the Titanic’s maiden voyage there were over 1000 miles of uneventful, very pleasurable cruising before it hit the iceberg!’