During a recent discussion with an aspiring author, who’d met with repeated rejection from publishers and agents, I suggested that he explore the self-publishing route. I told him how well it’s worked for me and for many of the authors I know — the majority of the writers I’m friendly with are self-published — but the idea was firmly rejected because he believed that independent authorship wasn’t where “the real money” was.
It would have been easy to name several indie authors who are making an enviable living off their book sales, but I decided to dive down the rabbit hole of trad-pub author finances instead. Not like I had anything better to do that day…
What follows is the result of some quick-and-dirty research and number crunching, so take what you’re about to read with a generous grain of salt. I checked multiple sources, which of course all had slightly different data to report, and went with what seemed to be the most common figures or, failing that, an average of the averages, so I wouldn’t regard any of these numbers as authoritative.
Also, I’m not great at math. I became a writer to avoid math.
However, in my defense, the numbers support something career authors and all-around good guys James A. Moore and Christopher Golden said once during one of their roaming author coffeehouses: a tiny, tiny percentage of trad-pubbed authors make a living solely off their book sales — maybe three percent of such authors, with an emphasis on the “maybe.”
Suffice it to say, traditional publishing is not necessarily where the “real money” is.
One important caveat before I get into it: the overall point of this analysis is not to deter anyone from pursuing traditional publishing. This is strictly an examination of the earnings potential, so aspiring authors can pursue that path with their eyes open and expectations reasonable.
First, let’s start with the advance, which is typical when selling a novel to a major publisher. The average advance from a big publishing house is $10,000, which is a nice chunk of change, right?
Except that chunk is going to get smaller if you have an agent — which, if you’re getting a five-figure advance, is likely. An agent’s cut is typically 15 percent, so right off the bat your advance just shrank to $8,500.
After Uncle Sam takes his cut, which would be 10 percent on $10,000, your advance is now down to $7,650 — and I say that assuming the taxes are collected on the advance alone. If that amount pushes your overall income into a higher bracket, say goodbye to a larger piece of the advance.
But hey, $7,650 is still a pretty sweet payday — and the good news is, that money is all yours to keep. The advance is essentially the publisher paying you in anticipation of recouping that money through future book sales (more on that later), and if your book happens to tank? Not your problem anymore; the publisher took a chance on you and it didn’t pay off for them, but they’re not going to ask you for their money back.
Of course, the chances of the publisher asking you to write another book for them would be slim to none, but one hurdle at a time, yes?
The bad news (part one) is that you’re not necessarily getting that entire advance in one payment. Many publishers dole it out in phases as you meet certain milestones, like signing your contract and turning in your finished manuscript, so dismiss the idea that you can give up your day job and live off your advance while you finish your book.
The bad news (part two): the advance will be the only money you see for a while. Royalties — your cut of the book sales — don’t kick in until the advance has been “earned out,” meaning that the advance has been recouped by the publisher through sales.
(Told you I’d get back to that.)
How long does it take a book to earn its advance back? Nine months on average — less if your book really takes off, but if you’re not a runaway success right out of the gate, it might take a year or more before you start seeing royalties.
Now let’s talk about royalties, shall we? This is when you start making the big bucks, right?
Short answer: probably not.
Royalties are a percentage of the sales as determined by three main factors: the book’s retail price, how many copies have been sold, and format. Here’s the basic breakdown:
- Hardcover books: 10 percent of the retail price for the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5 percent of the retail price for the next 5,000 copies sold, 15 percent of the retail price for every copy sold after the first 10,000
- Paperback (trade or mass market) books: 8 percent of the retail price for the first 150,000 copies sold, 10 percent of the retail price for every copy sold after the first 150,000
- Ebooks: 25 percent of the net selling price
Quick aside: in the above examples, “retail price” assumes that the books are being sold at full cover price. Publishers are increasingly basing royalties not on the full listed retail price (“list royalties”) but on how much the book actually sold for (“net royalties”), so if your book goes on sale or ends up in the bargain bin, your royalties adjust accordingly.
The average retail prices for hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, and ebook formats are, respectively, $25.99, $15.99, $8.99, and $12.99. Using those figures, the first tier of royalty payments for each format you’d receive, again respectively, are $2.59, $1.28, $.72, and $3.25 (assuming the ebook sells at full price).
That sounds like it could add up — and it could, if you happen to be wildly successful. To be fair, you could indeed be that one in a million author who hits it big, but you’re more likely to be an average author, so we’re going to base your income off your averageness.
And how many books does an average author sell? The range is 3,000 on the low end to 10,000 on the high end, and it’s important to note that that is over the course of the book’s lifetime — not weekly, not monthly, not annually, but from the day it drops to the day its publisher decides it’s not worth printing anymore.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume you’re on the high end of that scale, which means 10,000 hardcover copies sold will earn you $29,200, 10,000 paperbacks will earn you $20,000, and 10,000 ebooks will earn you $32,500.
Reminder: these figures do not factor in your advance, your agent’s fee, or taxes. A $10,000 advance alone chops these numbers down by one-third to one-half.
In any event, don’t count on this money as steady income like a weekly paycheck. Depending on the publisher and the contract you’ve signed, you would get your money at best on a quarterly basis, at worst annually.
Of course, an author’s book sales are a mix of hardcovers, paperbacks, and ebooks. It was tough to pin down solid figures, but as best as I could determine, 81 percent of all book sales are print and 19 percent are ebooks — and I know this seems counterintuitive to many indie authors who derive most of their income through ebooks sales (I know I do), but print still dominates the marketplace overall.
So, if we apply those numbers to an individual author and their 10,000 copies, a single novel would earn over its lifetime $46,027 — which is the gross income. That drops to $36,027 after the advance is taken out, $30,623 after the agent’s commission is taken out, and $27,561 once taxes are taken out.
I couldn’t find hard data on what an average book’s “lifetime” is, but I found several sources that indicated a typical novel sells 250 copies in its first year — and that average apparently factors in authors ranging from self-published nobodies up to mega-bestselling authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling.
That means if you want to reach that 10,000-book benchmark, your book would have to consistently sell at least 250 copies a year for 40 years — and for the sake of this example, we’ll assume that your book doesn’t see a drop-off in sales after its first year (which, in real life, it would).
And so, after your advance pays out in the months after the novel’s release, your annual royalty earnings come out to — drumroll please…
As I said earlier, I’m not looking to dissuade anyone from traditional publishing, but if that’s your goal, money probably shouldn’t be your primary motivation. The trad-pub route comes with its own benefits, including the possibility of becoming the Next Big Thing, but getting picked up by one of the Big Five publishers is by no means a guarantee of mega-success, or even a reliable revenue stream that would allow you to ditch your day job and become a full-time author.
If you want to know why it’s important to copyright your artistic creation, just ask George A. Romero.
(Not literally, of course. The guy’s dead.)
(Or IS HE?)
Romero’s classic horror film Night of the Living Dead is and always has been a public domain creation because the original theatrical distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, forgot to put a copyright notice on the film. According to copyright laws in 1968, that meant Romero had no legal claim to his own creation, which meant anyone could show, sell, or reimagine the movie without having to receive permission from Romero and without having to pay for the privilege.
Copyright laws have gotten a little better since then. As of 1978, writers are considered to be the legal copyright holder the minute he types out the first word of their manuscript. You don’t even have to add the “© Copyright [Year of Creation] – Indie Author” notice anywhere, though it’s generally considered a good idea as it strengthens any legal defense of your work in the event of plagiarism or unauthorized use.
That also happens to be why you should consider going through the formal process of copyrighting your work.
While the inherent copyright that comes with creating a work and the addition of a copyright notice have legal standing, they don’t have strong legal standing. Without a formal copyright from the US Copyright Office (https://www.copyright.gov/) you cannot sue for copyright infringement in the US, nor can you receive statutory damages for copyright infringement if said infringement occurred before the work was registered (or within three months of post-publication registration).
That doesn’t mean you have no recourse if you find someone using your work without your permission. You have the right to send cease-and-desist (C&D) or Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices, and that’s often enough to make an offender back down, but if you have to go to the next step of litigation, you’re not going to get far without that formal copyright.
To obtain a formal copyright, you register your work with the US Copyright Office, which does cost money — $105 for “a document of any length including no more than one title,” i.e., your novel. You can file electronically, but you will still need to provide a hard copy for the Library of Congress, so there will be mailing expenses as well.
FYI the first: there are any number of outfits that claim they will help you file for a copyright. A few are complete scams that are actually trying to steal your copyright out from under you, but more likely they’re just trying to make money by doing the work for you. The process really isn’t that complicated. You figured out how to write and publish a novel. Figuring out the copyrighting process is a comparative cakewalk.
FYI the second: there is no legally defensible shortcut to obtaining a formal copyright. A common myth is that you can obtain a copyright by sending a copy of your manuscript to yourself via registered mail, effectively making the US Postal Service your “witness,” but the so-called “Poor Man’s Copyright” provides no more protection than simply slapping the © mark on your work.
Some final quick-hit factoids:
- Posting a work online does not automatically make it public domain. You have to explicitly declare that your work is public domain before anyone else can use it legally.
- Anyone who uses your copyrighted material without your permission, even if they do not realize financial gain from its use, is in violation of your copyright. That includes fanfic writers using your stories as inspiration for their own (or fanfic you write yourself and post online).
- “Fair use” allows for limited reproduction of copyrighted material, usually for purposes of commentary and critique — e.g., someone posting a copy of your book’s cover art along with short excerpts from the book, preferably with full attribution to the creator, as part of a book review.
- Unlike trademarks, you do not have to actively defend your copyright in order to retain it.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which is all about getting creative writers motivated to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, is a few days behind us, and I’ve already seen a few participants crowing about meeting their goal — which they should, because writing 50,000 words in a month is no small feat.
If you’re among the NaNoWriMo winners, good for you.
I mean that. Whether you’re doing this for the first time just for the fun of it or you’ve always wanted to take a serious crack at becoming a novelist — via traditional or self-publishing — and you’re using NaNoWriMo to light a fire under your ass and finally get it done, I hope you found it an exciting and rewarding experience.
Now comes the “however” part…
I’ve known a few people who did in fact attempt to parlay their NaNoWriMo product into a published novel and failed hard, and what I’ve gleaned from their efforts is they made a critical mistake of thinking that once the novel was completed, all they had to do was run spellcheck and that would be it — their novel was finished.
No. No no no. Your work has only just begun.
First of all, your story might not actually be finished. If your larger goal was to produce a proper novel, you probably still have some writing to do. Depending on your genre, 50,000 words might only be a novella — which isn’t a bad thing, and maybe 50,000 words is the right length for the story you’re telling, but if you plan to seek an agent or traditional publisher for your work, you might want to think about going beyond 50,000 words.
This piece by Chuck Sambuchino is a great reference for defining novel lengths, and you’ll see that once you start writing for any adult market, 50,000 words isn’t going to cut it as a “novel.”
But let’s say you have produced a finished work. If November was National Novel Writing Month, December should be National Novel Revising Month. This is when you take your finished first draft, read through it, and recoil in horror at how truly unfinished it is. You’re going to find spelling errors, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, continuity gaps, plot holes, inconsistent characterization, clunky dialog — all manner of major and minor screw-ups. Suddenly, the literary masterpiece you think you wrote will turn into a steaming pile of crap that will make you doubt your talents as a writer.
Welcome to the world of writing.
First drafts aren’t about producing a finished work; it’s about getting the ideas out of your head and onto the screen. Second drafts are about replacing or scrapping entirely everything that’s wrong with the story and strengthening everything that does work. Since you’ve given yourself a month to do this, take your time. Go through the manuscript a few times and keep fine-tuning it.
No, you’re not done yet, because January is National Novel Test-Reading Month. This is when you send your manuscript to some trusted friends to look it over and tell you what they think. Four to six people is a good number of beta testers, but make sure you choose people who will be brutally honest with you. You don’t want their praise, you want their criticism. You want them to tell you what still isn’t working so you can fix it in February, which is National Novel Revising Month – The Sequel.
Don’t undersell the importance of this step. By now you’ve gotten a little too familiar with your novel and aren’t seeing a lot of flaws anymore. Outside eyes will catch the problems that have become invisible to you.
And don’t dismiss this as “art by committee.” Just because your readers make suggestions, you’re not obligated to heed them — though you’d be foolish to ignore them out of hand. Think about their critiques long and hard before you make a decision one way or the other.
While the book is out with your test-readers, you can consider whether you want to try and pursue a traditional publishing avenue or go the indie author route. Each approach has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, so consider what you need, want, and hope to get out of putting your book out there, and see which path fits better. Personally, even if you decide to go with self-publishing, going through the process of preparing your book for submission to agents and publishers is a good experience. It’ll help get you in a professional mindset, you’ll learn how to concisely describe your book and pitch it to a prospective reader — something you’ll have to do a lot as an indie author — and who knows? Maybe you’ll get picked up.
You can find an extensive list of publishers and agents in the Writer’s Digest market guide, along with many helpful hints for putting a submission package together. I’d also advise checking out the SFWA Writer Beware page, especially if you go looking at small presses. There are a lot of predatory small presses out there, as well as self-publishing platforms that falsely present themselves as small presses, and the last thing you want is to unwittingly give up the rights to the novel you worked so hard on.
If you decide to pursue indie authorship, this is a good time to start hunting down editors and cover artists — two things you do not want to skimp on. You want someone with a professional eye to review your finished manuscript for any lingering errors and perhaps make final suggestions for tweaking this and that, and you want a real artist to put together an eye-catching cover that will attract readers’ attention.
Services such as CreateSpace can help you put together a prefab cover that looks decent, and for little to no money, but if this what you choose to do, tread carefully, and never assume your skills as a graphic artist are sufficient to the task. Go check out LousyBookCovers.com to see what happens when a cover misfires if you need further convincing that hiring a professional is the right call.
Yes, these people will cost you money but it’s worth the investment. If you can’t pay for them out of pocket, crowdfunding may be your salvation — but again, do your research to find out what makes a successful crowdfunding campaign or you’ll hit a brick wall pretty fast.
Assuming you’ve managed to stay on schedule so far, dedicate March to preparing everything while your editor does his/her thing. Get your submissions list ready — or, if you’re self-publishing, make sure you’ve familiarized yourself with your chosen platforms, because preparing a novel for publishing is a major undertaking in and of itself. Write your cover/query letter, synopsis, and any other required submission materials. If you need to, go back into your manuscript and fix any lingering problems, even if it pushes your timeline back (unless you want to be embarrassed by putting out a novel that isn’t ready for public consumption).
Once all your ducks are in a row, once all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed, it’s time to face the scariest part of the process: pulling the trigger and actually submitting the novel to agents/publishers or releasing it via your chosen self-publishing platform. Trust me, it’s terrifying, but take the leap. The worst you can do is fail, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
There’s a LOT more to do once the book is out there — marketing, promotions, publicity, etc. — but that’s a dissertation for another time.
Final word of advice, which is admittedly a bit of a personal pet peeve: don’t use NaNoWriMo as a promotional point. I’ve seen self-published books that are pitched to readers as a “NaNoWriMo Award-Winning Novel,” but that’s perhaps the least impressive “award” you could claim. It doesn’t speak to your story’s quality at all, it just means is you wrote a 50,000-word first draft in 30 days, so don’t start out your career by slapping disingenuous awards on your book.
Swords are fun!
No, really — they are. I’ve gotten to play with a variety of them, from several different time periods, as a regular stage combat performer with New England-area renaissance faires, and they’re all a blast — even if (or perhaps especially because) it’s all fake.
Along the way I’ve learned a great deal about real-life swordplay from people far more educated about such matters than I, and I’ve put that knowledge to good use in my fantasy work, crafting swordfights that are exciting and dynamic but still well-grounded in reality. On the down side, it’s become a lot harder for me to enjoy swordfights in fiction because I’ve become too aware of how under-informed the general public is about how swords function in practical use.
So I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned over the years, and I’m going to start with this major caveat: do not take anything I say here as gospel. I’ve researched and continue to research period martial arts and weapons work, but there is always going to be new information out there — or different takes on existing data. You see, historians are an argumentative lot, and those who specifically study ancient arms are no different. You want to see sparks fly? Gather together a group of sword experts and ask them whether it’s best to parry an attack with the flat of the blade or the edge, and then stand back and enjoy the show.
The point is, someone somewhere is going to have a differing opinion about the information I’m presenting, and they’re not necessarily going to be wrong — but they’re not necessarily going to be completely right, either. Use this feature as a starting point for your own research and decide for yourself what works best for your storytelling purposes.
MYTH #1: Swords are heavy
Here’s something you can try at home. Grab a gallon jug of milk or water and swing it around vigorously for five minutes. Exhausting, isn’t it?
That’s why a typical medieval longsword weighs only about three pounds on average. The people using them are going to be swinging them for a long time, and a heavy sword is going to wear the user out more quickly—especially if they have the added burden of armor weighing them down. That isn’t to say there weren’t heavy swords, but A) even big pieces of steel (so-called “great swords”) such as the Scottish claymore or the German zweihander weren’t as heavy as you might expect, and B) these swords had very specific purposes and required different techniques. They were not everyday all-purpose weapons.
Related note: a common sword feature often called a “blood groove” has nothing to do with providing a victim’s blood with a handy channel to run down, thus accelerating his untimely demise (yes, that is a common misconception) or making the sword easier to withdraw from a human body. The proper name for this feature is the “fuller,” and its purpose is to lighten the weapon without compromising its strength.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?
When you give your character a sword, there are a lot of factors to consider, but there is one key question you need to ask: what sword best suits the character and what he needs the weapon for? A rapier or court sword isn’t necessarily going to make sense in the hands of a large, strong, slow character, just like a claymore wouldn’t make sense in the hands of a small, fast character. You wouldn’t arm a character with a short sword if you’re going to pit him against cavalry, and you wouldn’t want a character hefting a zweihander if he’s expecting to be fighting in a confined space.
Other factors such as the time period, geographic region, etc., will also factor in, but I’m a big believer in starting with the character and building from there.
Regardless of the character and the context, do your research on the weapon you have in mind so you can portray its use correctly.
MYTH #2: Swords are sharp
I’m sure if you think about it, you can name at least one movie or TV show or book in which a warrior neatly slices through an armored limb with his mighty sword.
A sword was once described to me as a sharp hammer. It has an edge, and under the right conditions it can indeed cleave through a person, but it is not a magical Ginsu that could slice neatly through one layer of plate steel armor, the chainmail beneath that, the gambeson (a thick padded jacket) beneath that, the flesh and muscle and bone of a human limb, and then through another layer of gambeson and armor.
(Unless, of course, it is a magical weapon, but that is a different matter.)
Could the edge penetrate armor by cutting? Yes, but that is not a universal result of taking a sword to armor. Sometimes the damage would be blunt force trauma. It depends on the weapon, the user, the armor he’s facing, and the circumstances of the fight.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?
Swords are surprisingly complex tools. You do yourself as a writer a disservice by not learning as much as you can about them so you can portray their use convincingly and correctly while still wringing maximum dramatic effect from them.
This can lead to some fun changes in how you construct fight scenes. Readers love a dramatic death blow that takes a villain’s head off, but if the villain in question is wearing a helmet that partially covers the throat and/or a gorget (a piece of neck armor), that final sword blow might not be so final after all — or it will break the bad guy’s neck rather than cut through it, which I’d argue makes the death stroke that much more brutal.
Again, you’ll have to do some research, particularly when you introduce armor to the mix. Chainmail (or, for you purists, maile) armor is designed to prevent cutting damage so a sword’s edge isn’t going to penetrate — but that same armor isn’t going to be worth a damn against a stabbing attack or the blunt force trauma that comes from a blow of any kind. Know your weapons, know your armor, and know how they all interact with each other.
MYTH #3: Katanas are awesome
First, let’s all acknowledge that the plural of katana is “katana” — if you’re speaking Japanese or a Japanese speaker is saying the word in English, but for us Muricans, “katanas” is acceptable as the plural form.
Now that that’s out of the way…
Katanas are probably the most iconic sword type in pop culture, and they’ve become almost mythic in nature. Unfortunately, how they’re portrayed in pop culture is almost pure myth, and it’s largely Hollywood’s fault.
Even their creation is less impressive than you’ve been led to believe. You might have heard katanas were folded hundreds of times in the smithing process, but that’s not true. They were only folded a dozen times or so, and that was a purely practical technique to strengthen the blade by hammering out the excess carbon in the cheap pig-iron (called tamahagane) available to smiths. It wasn’t about creating an edge that could slice through anything; it was about making swords that wouldn’t break on their first use.
Katanas were also not the samurai’s weapon of first choice. Rather, it would come out after better options such as the longbow and spear had failed or were impractical for the circumstances.
How they’re used in pop culture bears little resemblance to real-world techniques. They were designed for fast cutting, and if you watch an actual master swordsman in action, they flick the sword similarly to how you’d flick a fishing rod.
Blocking and parrying with a katana? Not so fast. Take a hit on the edge and you ding it up badly, making it less effective for its intended purpose. Take a hit on the flat and you risk snapping the blade, which is thinner compared to medieval longswords, which could take a solid hit on the flat.
(Cue historian argument in three, two…)
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?
The katana as audiences know it is so ingrained in the collective consciousness, a writer could portray its use as we’re all accustomed to and few people — mostly pedantic sorts like me — would question it.
But if you want a challenge, research how katanas were actually used in battle and throw your reader a curve ball — but don’t be surprised if the masses then chastise you for “not knowing how a katana works.” Sometimes, reality isn’t your best option.
MYTH #4: Swords make a cool “SHRING!” sound whenever drawn.
No. They don’t.
Scabbards are typically made of leather or wood. Neither of these materials make a metallic “SHRING!” sound when a steel sword is dragged along them.
And why can’t someone have a steel scabbard, you ask? Well, they could, but why would they want one? It’s heavier, and the repeated act of drawing and sheathing a sword would dull the edge quickly. More likely, a warrior would have a leather or wooden scabbard with decorative caps of brass or bronze — or, yes, iron or steel — but they wouldn’t make contact with the blade in the interest of preserving the edge.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?
Here’s the thing: fiction, especially visual media, throws in a lot of dramatic flourishes that enhance the mood of a moment but, if you stop to think about them, make no sense whatsoever, and the metallic ringing sound of a sword being drawn is one of them. It’s the period equivalent of cocking a firearm for dramatic effect (even though doing so actually achieves something in the case of a firearm, i.e., chambering a round).
As with the katana, audiences have been trained to accept, even expect these moments, so chances of getting called out are minimal, but audiences are also getting savvier every day. Tropes that used to slide on by unnoticed are becoming distractions.
Knowing where, when, and how to add some sizzle to your steak, even if that sizzle is complete nonsense, is part of the craft of effective storytelling. If a sizzle moment adds value to the narrative, add it, but if it risks distracting readers and taking them out of the story, reconsider it.
BONUS NON-SWORD MYTH, MAYBE: Flails were common medieval weapons
The flail — a solid, sometimes spiked iron or steel ball at the end of a chain, usually attached to a handle — might not be a real weapon.
This theory, that the flail was either a ceremonial instrument historians mistook for a weapon or was completely made up and had no real-world basis whatsoever, popped up within the last few years, causing no small amount of controversy among historians.
I’m inclined to side with flail deniers mostly because I’ve used flails in shows and they are wildly impractical weapons.
Here’s another home experiment. Remember that gallon jug from the first myth? Once it’s empty (very important), tie it to a two-foot length of rope or twine to create a crude flail. Now, find a target — a tree, your fridge, a willing volunteer — and hit it with your flail. You’ll notice that even with something as light as an empty plastic jug, you get some satisfying impact. It’s easy to imagine how much damage you could do if that jug was a steel ball.
Now step back from the target and swing your flail. Notice what happens when you miss.
That’s right: it comes right back at you — and there’s no way to stop it.
If you’ve got an argument brewing about how the flail could be made a viable weapon, I’ll direct you to this great article by Paul Sturtevant (https://www.publicmedievalist.com/curious-case-weapon-didnt-exist/), but I’ll reiterate as a past flail user: they suck as weapons.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?
A friend of mine once observed that in genre fiction (sci-fi, horror, fantasy), audiences are happy to accept big ideas like dragons and magic without questioning them but will get hung up on details based in what we consider universal reality. If you tell your readers the main character is a fireball-throwing sorcerer, they’ll buy that, but if you tell the audience your character once survived two weeks in a dungeon without any food or water, they’ll call you on it.
Impractical weapons are a trope of modern fantasy, and as a rule readers will go along with it if you lay the groundwork properly, but it’s in your best interests to understand what your weapons’ practical applications and limitations are, and maybe use those in the story to add realism to the fight scenes.
All right, so far I’ve discussed the basic elements of crafting a fight scene (links), so now it’s time to actually choreograph a fight—something I sometimes do for my books, but for this example I’m using a fight I put together for the 2017 Robin Hood Springtime Festival (might want to go read the first two entries so you have the full context).
Putting It Together
Here’s the choreography. Don’t worry, I’ll explain it.
The notations are based on the Society of American Fight Directors’ stage combat system, which assigns numbers to a performer’s limbs and head. It’ll make sense in a minute.
Robin is stage center, facing the audience. Will is on his left, John on his right, Tuck on his right and slightly behind Robin. Robin invites his comrades to attack him as part of the training exercise. They waffle for a moment before John takes the initiative and comes in hard, winding up for a big strike to Robin’s left arm (phrase 1, line 2). Robin blocks the blow, as well as the next two attacks to his right leg and head (lines 3 and 4).
Because the head shot is coming in with a lot of force, Robin reinforces his block by gripping the blade of his sword with his free hand (which is a real thing). His next move is to reverse the momentum by smacking the end of John’s staff away using his weapon’s crossguard (line 5)—again, a real-life move, as is using the pommel for a face strike (line 6). A trained swordfighter knows how to use all the parts of his sword.
Because this is a training exercise, Robin pulls the pommel strike at the last second, but it throws a good scare into John, who flinches away instinctively.
Will, seeing an opening, charges in, expecting to tag Robin in the back (line 7). Robin hears her coming and whirls around, sword raised, which causes Will to freeze in a moment of panic (line 8). Robin, scamp that he is, then teases his cousin with a playful boop on the nose—which, of course, irks Will and goads her into attacking. She tries to stab Robin’s left arm (line 10), then his right (line 11), and locks blades with him—something that does not happen in real swordfights as often as Hollywood would have you believe, but I’m throwing it in for a reason.
While they’re locked up and Will’s in close, where she’s the most dangerous, Will goes for a sloppy slash to Robin’s left arm. Robin stops the attack with a forearm block (line 12) and sasses Will again (line 13) before pushing her away to get her out of distance and reclaim the reach advantage (line 14).
He then goes for a cut to her head, again pulling the blow before making contact, thus scoring a symbolic deathblow (line 15). Angry at getting caught like that, Will angrily slaps the sword away with her right dagger (line 16) and rears back for a big double slash to Robin’s midsection, which Robin aborts by bringing his sword up to her belly—another symbolic killing blow (line 17). Robin gives his cousin a smug grin and she stalks off to fume.
Robin then glances over to Tuck (line 19, which has a stagecraft note instructing Robin to keep his face toward the audience) and prompts the friar to come at him, bro. Tuck adjusts his position (stagecraft reasons again) and demonstrates his prowess by striking a right ox guard, a real longsword guard in which the sword is brought up to head level—on the right side, in this case—and the blade is held parallel to the ground, with the point aimed at the opponent.
Tuck closes the distance (line 20) and thrusts at Robin’s right arm (line 21). Robin blocks the attack. Tuck brings the sword around in sweeping arc to get over to Robin’s now unguarded left arm (line 22). Robin executes a hanging block, in which the sword points down instead of up.
Robin carries the momentum through and goes for a head cut, which Tuck blocks with his sword (line 23). Robin’s sword skates off Tuck’s, again letting the momentum carry his blade past the friar, who counterattacks with a cut to Robin’s left leg. Robin blocks it (line 24) and goes for the head again. Tuck again deflects the blow (line 25) and once more goes for Robin’s left leg (line 26). That moment creates a brief back-and-forth exchange that changes up the fight’s tempo.
Robin again blocks the shot to his leg, and then reclaims the fight’s momentum by forcing Tuck’s blade up and over to the other side (line 27). Tuck winds up with the point of his sword on the ground—and his ass sticking out as an irresistible target. Robin gives Tuck a playful kick to the rump and sends him sprawling (line 28).
Fun side fact: it took me an hour at the very least to write the original choreography, which I worked out by myself, in my living room, playing the four different roles simultaneously. It took about a half an hour to write the description you just read. It probably took you five minutes or so to read it. In performance, this fight lasts two minutes, tops.
Writing the Fight
The process I’ve detailed for creating a stage fight is very similar to the process I use when crafting a fight for a story. I work through the situation, the characters, the weapons, and choreograph the action.
The next step is turning all that into prose that is well-paced, exciting, and conveys enough detail to describe the action without turning it into a play-by-play, which is generally neither exciting nor well-paced (Jim Butcher is the only name that immediately comes to mind, and I’m calling him the exception rather than the rule).
One thing I do is figure out which elements of the fight don’t need to be detailed. Take lines 2 through 4 of the training fight. I could easily describe that like this:
“Little John barreled toward Robin, his quarterstaff raised high, poised to strike. Robin took a quick flurry of heavy-handed blows on his sword.”
That gets the point across without telling the reader where each strike was going; that’s unnecessary detail. But what about that head strike and Robin’s counter? That’s a key moment in the fight and could benefit from a little more information, along with a little color.
“John brought his staff around in a high arc, as if to cave in Robin’s skull. Robin brought his blade up, bracing it with both hands in anticipation of the crushing impact. The staff fell, sending a shockwave down Robin’s arms and all the way to his feet. Unwilling to defend a second such blow, Robin smacked the staff away with his crossguard. John stumbled. He caught himself and looked up in time to see Robin’s pommel coming straight at his face. He flailed away in a panic.”
There are highs and lows throughout the fight, and one of the keys to turning a literal by-the-numbers piece of choreography is finding those highs and lows and treating them accordingly. To use a phrase I’ve been using a lot lately, what you describe in a fight sequence has to add value—to the pace, to the clarity of the narrative, to the emotion of the scene.
If this all sounds too challenging, it might be wise to heed some advice I read recently: if you can’t write a fight in terms of its moves, focus on conveying the emotion and the psychology of the sequence and write more poetically than literally.
This is a lot to digest, and there is so much more to be learned if you want to write solid fight scenes. To wrap things up, here’s a quick-hit list of final bits of advice:
- Use movies and TV for inspiration, not information. Visual media is generally terrible at accurately portraying how armor and weapons actually work, in which situations they work well (or poorly), or how people respond to injuries, so look for sources that have studied these and related topics. I highly recommend the How to Fight Write blog as a general source of info on all things fighty.
- Avoid fights that happen for the sake of an action scene (like, ironically, the one I just described. Hey, I didn’t write the script, just the fights). Give them a reason to be there, a reason that supports the story you’re telling and, conversely, is supported by the story.
- Don’t rely on tropes such as Natural Talent, when a character who has little to no training reveals him/herself as a martial arts prodigy, or Instinct Kicked In, when a stressful situation triggers an adrenaline surge that turns a regular person into an ass-kicking machine, to get a character through a fight scene. Untrained fighters lose fights, period.
- On a related note, turning an untrained fighter into a skilled combatant takes a lot of time. The old theory that it takes someone 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill might not be true, but a person also can’t become a black belt in the space of a few weeks. Let the development be part of the story and don’t gloss over it.
- Avoid group fights in which the hero stands in the middle of several bad guys, who all politely wait their turn to attack the hero one-on-one (e.g., Bruce Lee vs. Han’s minions in Enter the Dragon, The Bride vs. the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill Vol. 1).
If anyone has any questions or comments, let me hear them!