A draft of a chapter of some thoughts on things.

The following is a very early draft of a chapter from a book I’m writing with Tom Abba. Think of it as a couple of academics/creators trying to help other creators avoid all of the dumb mistakes they’ve made. It’s very early stages still but all feedback welcome (send them to baldur.bjarnason@gmail.com or to Tom, if you can dig up his contact details somewhere. Probably on his twitter. Or his home page. Maybe just shout it in our general direction).


Choose your structural grammar

My dad has regularly been going to the theatre for decades. He and a few of his friends have a subscription at Þjóðleikhúsið and, come rain, come shine, every few weeks they go to see whatever it is that they're staging. It doesn't matter if it's getting awful review, whether it's a farce or a tragedy, they go, watch, and then talk about it over wine. This tradition has survived two divorces and several major career changes.

Theatre has that effect on people (especially if you fancy yourself as a cultured middle-class citizen of the world). People get hooked on watching it. People get hooked on working in it. Theatre isn't a mainstream hobby activity but it's here to stay.

It is, arguably, the oldest form of storytelling that we still practice. (The other contender being music, although given how intertwined drama and music have been, the distinction is moot.)

Speak to any historian of cinema (especially the amateur ones) and you'll get a yarn about how early cinema consisted just of a camera pointing at a stage: recorded plays that didn't use the medium to any sensible degree and that film didn’t begin to advance until filmmakers began to break away from the conventions of the stage.

This narrative—even though it's demonstrably, completely, and utterly untrue1—has become a standard trope in media commentary.

Even though this story is a complete fiction, its message is a useful one: different media have varying qualities which means that each medium lends itself more to doing some things over others. It’s a McLuhanite parable—his pithy ‘the medium is the message’ aphorism writ large.

Which is all good. My only problem is that there’s a better yarn we can use for this: the story of an earlier media evolution that has much stronger parallels to our current new media predicament.


The novel has a longer history than people expect. How long, exactly, is a bit more complicated to answer because then you have to start defining exactly what a novel is in terms of length, style, and structure.

We’ve clearly been telling stories in prose for millennia but even if we restrict ourselves to something more specifically novelistic in terms of structure and style then we’re still talking about more than a thousand years2.

This is something we’ve clearly been doing for a while.

Despite this extended history, prose never really took off as a method for telling long stories. It dominated non-fiction, philosophy, and theological studies, sure, and it was the primary form of telling really short stories like fairy tales, fables, and ghost stories.

But when it came to telling longer interconnected stories poetry was what most storytellers reached for: Gilgamesh; Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Virgil’s Aeneid; Beowulf; Poetic Edda; Dante’s Divine Comedy; Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso; Milton’s Paradise Lost; Byron’s Don Juan; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Prose stories and novels existed but they have been in the storytelling minority for most of their history—even many of the exceptions relied heavily on poetry. Most of The Canterbury Tales are in verse. Even the Prose Edda was written and presented as a textbook for poets—it isn’t strictly speaking intended to be a prose retelling of the Norse myths. It was a Christian-era explanation of norse myths so that contemporary poets could read and use the metaphors, idioms, and similes that were based on those old myths. Drama and poetry ruled the storytelling roost.

(On a tangental note: what the Prose Edda omits, elides, and adds is just as interesting as the retelling itself. If you compare the Poetic to the Prose Edda, it seems clear that Snorri Sturluson adjusted the myths a bit to suit the more Christian culture of his day. For example, you can read the Poetic Edda as saying that Freyja ruled over the armies of Valhalla with Odin—that she, as the viking feminine ideal, was a lot more warlike than the Christian retellings made her out to be. Make love AND war, instead of make love, not war. The idea that the viking goddess of love would be a passionate general appeals to me.)

It wasn’t until moveable type became the norm that the novel began to make headway and even then poets like Byron and Pushkin dominated the scene with what were essentially novels in verse.

It isn’t that printed poetry doesn’t work. It does. It’s that poetry isn’t reliant on print, as a form it works just as well orally3 as it does printed.

Novels needed print to thrive as a medium.

Print distribution put novel distribution and dissemination on an even level with poetry. But even with a more even playing field it took the novel many years to reach parity and then surpass poetry as the western world’s primary form of written storytelling.


Back when I was a kid in gagnfræðaskóli (the Icelandic equivalent of high school, literally ‘school for useful studies’) a friend of mine, pressed for time, wrote a book review essay for school pretending that a AD&D roleplaying session of his was a fantasy novel.

His teacher had given the class the assignment to review a book of their own choice. He’d been too lazy to read something so he just gave the session a title and wrote a literary ‘review’ of it for the class. The teacher couldn’t tell the difference and none of the kids blabbed.

Much ink (and pixels) has been spilled on the issue of the role of storytelling in games. There’s always been a narrative element to games but the use and importance of stories in games exploded in the late 20th century. Even without computer games, roleplaying games, board games with an explicit and important setting and back story, and choose-your-own-adventure books make the issue complicated enough on their own.

That a medium like games can accommodate and use narrative elements but not be dependent on them seems to break the brains of a lot of academics, despite the fact that this is the role that stories tend to play in at least two other historically important art forms:

  • Poetry? Can use stories and story-like elements but doesn’t need them as a form.
  • Music? Ditto.

Of course, this complicates all attempts to define a theory of games. Is it a good game when you’re just using the mechanics of the form to deliver a story? Is it a good game if the story is rubbish but does an excellent job of serving the gameplay? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Asking if something is a good game or novel is only a useful question if you’re an academic or an annoying snob. You can take that question and its siblings (such as did this conform to the rules of its form as academics define them?), put them in a box, and throw them in a particularly indigestive volcano. They don’t help you create. They don’t help you create.

The questions to ask are more along these lines:

  • How did this affect me?
  • Was the experience consistent?
  • Did it play with or too my expectations in an interesting way?
  • Would I do this again?

Anybody who has spent any time researching readers and players knows that these four qualities—effect, consistency, expectations, and repeatability—are what is important to them about works of art.

When it comes to deciding on a medium or genre as a creator, how those four qualities play out and support or don’t support our goals and intentions is the single most important factor to consider.


My great grandfather was a journalist, translator, politician, academic, poet, playwright, and a priest.

Not all at the same time but he multitasked more than you’d expect.

He was an interesting fellow—founding member of staff of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service and in charge of their newsroom during the start of World War Two—but what’s relevant to us today is that the list of the media he worked in roughly corresponds to the list of subjects and fields he worked in.

He didn’t do journalism or news reportage as poetry or drama. He didn’t deliver academic essays on Byron’s work from the pulpit.

He did mix up some things. His poems were very political. His drama had religious overtones. But for the most part the various media were treating like sorting boxes: something from this field went into that box, a different field went into another.

He realised what a lot of creators today don’t: some things only fit in some boxes.

Most of what’s in people’s head about writing and creating is romantic nonsense dominated by psychobabble (‘the creative personality’, ’artists have an irresistible urge to create’) or mysticism (‘the creative spirit’). Most of those bullshit notions about art and creativity aren’t compatible with thoughtful consideration of your actions. Beginning writers don’t choose novel writing because it’s the right choice for what they have to say. They don’t even think about what it is they have to say in the first place.

I know because I’ve made all of those mistakes myself.

Despite the label, creative acts—storytelling in particular—tend begin with the creator just going with the defaults.

If you can write, the default is to write a novel. If you can draw, the default is to draw a comic book. If you have money and gullible friends, you make video.

Major upheavals in media, such as the shift from poetry to prose, or the current introduction of digital media, only happen because somebody began to choose something other than the default. It happened because, at some point, an storyteller looked at the stories they had to tell, then at the qualities of the various media at hand, and decided on using something less tried, less developed, and unexplored.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman includes a story called A Game of You. It's usually remarked as one of the least popular of the series. It's difficult, awkward where its predecessors (especially the piece that comes before; Season of Mists) are sly and clever. At its heart is a narrative about dreams, and the power of an internal fantasy life that might tell us things about the external world. It is also an echo of a Jonathan Carroll novel; Bones of the Moon. Gaiman initially abandoned the story after reading Carroll's novel, finding the similarities too close to ignore. Carroll told him:

Go to it, man. Ezra Pound said that every story has already been written. The purpose of a good writer is to write it new.

A Game of You is a cousin to Bones of the Moon. They share genetic material, a DNA of story, but each tells its tale in ways that only their chosen form can deal in. The grammar of a 24 page comic book, with monthly instalments, words and pictures in concert on a page, re-reading and visual connections, is markedly different to that of a novel. The two works are, as Gaiman suggests, born from 'two radio sets tuned to the same goofy channel', but what arises from that transmission is native to their form, each using the grammar of their medium with subtlety and grace.

This place. This point where you are looking around and poking your way through digital media. You don’t get here without an essential curiosity—a compulsion to chip away at the unexplored and to wander into the dimly lit unknown.

And the first step in that wandering is a decision to choose. Once you’ve made that decision, whether you end up going with the default or not doesn’t matter, because you will have considered and weighed your options, instead of just being pulled along with the crowd.


One of the biggest mistakes you can do is simply lump all digital media into one and pretend that it’s all the same thing. That’s like pretending that all print books are alike and that the distinction between novels, short stories, journalism, poetry, and comics isn’t meaningful.

Digital storytelling, once you’ve let it settle after shaking it up like a snow globe, tends to settle into two broad piles, each which can be subdivided into countless mini-piles.

The first pile, on your imaginary left, is games.

The second pile, on your imaginary right, is hypermedia.

There’s a bit of indistinct sludge in between the two where you can’t quite tell which pile it’s in. That’s okay. Crisp, paper-like boundaries are for print anyway.

Games are the more easily recognisable of the two. Not because there’s more of them (in fact, there’s less) but because they have a much clearer boundary. When you can’t figure out whether a piece of storytelling is a game or hypermedia, that’s because it isn’t fitting the definitions coming out of the games field. Hypermedia doesn’t care. Hypermedia loves everything and everybody. Possibly a little bit too much.

Games design is much too big a concept to be covered here. Like poetry and mechanised print, games predate digital by several millennia. Their principles, while benefiting enormously from digital, aren’t dependent on it.

The ‘hypermedia’ that predates computers, on the other hand, works in ways that are fundamentally different from actual hypermedia. To pull that off in print, you’d need to be able to perform instantaneous transformation of matter.

Because it isn’t the link, per se, that puts the ‘hyper’ in hypertext. It’s the instantaneous and dynamic transformation of one text into another when you press the link that gives hypertext the oomph we associate with hyper media.

Think ‘hyperspace’ and you’re on the right track.

The hypertext that you read and enjoy vastly outnumbers the games you play because hypertext is how the web and apps tell stories.

And almost everything we do on the web and in apps is storytelling.

Facebook’s a story. Twitter’s a story. Blogs are stories. Every website, every app, every chat platform, they’re all hypertext and they are all stories.

That most of these are also conversations doesn’t make them any less hypertextual because hypertext is fundamentally conversational. That’s what linking and dynamically including texts in a variety of context does. It makes conversations. That’s hypertext.

Even in a plain old web page, links are conversational. Unlike references, which are formal even at best of times, links can be witty, tragic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek, and laugh out loud funny, even when neither the linking or the linked text are any of these things. Simple things like linking from a person’s name to the page in a medical dictionary for restless leg syndrome can be hilarious in the right context, even when the tone of both texts is serious and deadpan. That’s hypertext.

Hilarious juxtapositions of tweets or Tumblr posts are a common enough phenomenon for it to become a regular trope on Twitter and Tumblr. That’s hypertext.

Even ebooks are hypertext, if only by virtue of their reading context. Some of them are only accidental hypertexts, sticking to print conventions and ideas even as they have lost all meaning and sense in digital. Others, like this book, are written as hypertexts first, where links are used as one of the primary punctuation marks—more common than the m-dash, less pretentious than the semicolon.

This isn’t a book; this is hypertext.

Because this text was written with digital first in mind—unlike those print books which have been skinned and then re-coated with a digital gloss—this is a loose, conversational, and sprawling hypertext that might well eventually be bundled up and stuffed into print form like a set of clothes stomped into a suitcase while the taxi to the airport is waiting outside.

Which is fine. If I don’t want you to criticise my preference for reading print books lifeless, skinned, and flattened into ebook form, I don’t get to criticise you for preferring to read the ebook as a bleeding, severed appendage cut off from its network.


Games design is huge. Lucky for us, there are a lot of books and websites covering the subject so we really don’t have to do the form an injustice by covering it badly.

My personal favourites are:

  • A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster.
  • Lost Garden by Daniel Cook. A website that is a treasure trove of notes, ideas, theories, experiments, and examples on games design theory and practice.

There are more and I’ll add them as I think of them.

Digital media of all kinds is built on a series of action feedback loops. You do something and the device gives you feedback on that action. It’s the foundation of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design and the basis of everything we do in the field.

The core difference between the structural grammars of games and hypermedia is that in games the centre of meaning is in the action feedback loop but in hypermedia it is in the feedback loop’s context.

This difference in grammars expresses itself as different kinds of structures. Games are a tightly interwoven structure of feedback loops: one loop leads directly into another and they build on each other like Lego™ blocks. Sometimes that structure is hierarchical, i.e. levels of increasing difficulty and requiring increasingly complex actions: finish one to get to the next). Sometimes it is networked: e.g. a large space that you can explore where difficulty and complexity is distributed spatially.

In hypermedia, no matter whether it’s Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, A Story, Kottke’s weblog, or Twitter in its entirety the centre of meaning is in the context: where you get to after you take the action. The action only has meaning insofar that it affects the context. The page or tweet you see is what says something, the link and following it only modifies it.

The popularity of game mechanics in user interface design complicates things but mostly because they are usually badly thought out and not that unique to games.

Some of the things labelled as game mechanics are merely good UX design practices, like having clear, dynamic, and immediate feedback loops throughout your app. Others, like using leaderboards and the like to foster competition and manipulate your users into dehumanising their fellow people and thinking of them as things to be beaten is a tactic long used by the managers of sales teams. It, and a lot of other ‘game mechanics’ are only really competition mechanics and aren’t specific to games.

In the end, the ‘is it a game or not?’ question doesn’t matter to us. While the distinction between the two is important when it comes to understanding the strengths of each, it’s important also to understand that digital media (as well as a lot of non-digital media) can be more than one thing at the same time.

You can make a game that works just as well as just a story with all of the game’s feedback loops dialled down to ‘So Easy a Drooling Infant Could Do it’. You can make hypermedia, apps, and websites that can be played like games.

Absolutism doesn’t work for digital. Often the answer to the questions you ask yourself as a creator will be ‘both’.


I don’t remember the first time I told a story. None of us do. It doesn’t matter whether its genetic or learned, nature or nurture, storytelling is a basic human activity.

We only have two ways of teaching:

  • A show-do loop. The teacher demonstrates. The student tries to do. Gets feedback from the teacher who my or may not show again. The student tries again. Repeat as necessary.
  • Storytelling. The teacher encapsulates the showing, the doing, and the information needed to do, in a story.

Every teaching method or form is just a variation of one of those two, usually replacing the teacher or the storyteller with a technological proxy.

Games are strong on the former method: a feedback loop between showing and doing. Hypermedia is strong on the latter: even incomprehensible non-sequiturs are filled with narrative logic once you post them online, on the web, on Twitter, or on Facebook. The very context coopts everything that appears into telling a story.

In real life, how you teach isn’t limited to just one method but usually a mix of the two depending on the subject, strengths of the teacher, and the abilities of the student. The blurry line in digital media between games and hypertext is just a reflection of common practice.

What you teach isn’t limited to skills or knowledge, although that’s what we usually associate with teaching.

Sometimes what you teach is emotion. Feel the sting of murderous jealousy. Experience humbling shame. Understand the fear of death. Fall in, feel, and lose love.

This is what it feels like.

As teachers storytellers cannot just pour information into the heads of the listeners. They have to lead them to an understanding. It doesn’t have to be exactly the way you understand it—we all start in different places—but it needs to be of a kind with your understanding. Emotions need the same build-up, practice, demonstration, and experience as any other thing you teach.

And to be able to do that you need to understand your medium. You need to have at least made a conscious note about what you’re doing. Choose your medium. You need to know how that medium is and has been used. It doesn’t matter if your colleagues in that form aren’t doing what you’re doing, their techniques are relevant. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Will Eisner’s Contract With God are, respectively, journalism, autobiography, and fiction but they share a form of storytelling. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a comic on cute cats, their methods are relevant to your work. Copy the way they do things. Try them for yourself. See what works for you and what doesn’t.

The same applies to games designers and hypermedia authors. Don’t limit yourself to the games or hypertext that are covering exactly the same subject as you are. The form is where the methods and the structure comes from. Copy ideas from apps, websites, and games.

Choose your structural grammar. Study it. Practice it. Repeat as necessary.

  1. Right out of the gate, early cinema focused on spectacle, fantasy, and documentary works. Most of the stage adaptations come after the special effects and documentary films. The crude and stage-bound nature of early film has more to do with the limitations and immobility of the cameras than an over-bearing influence of drama on the filmmakers.
  2. Who’s with me on holding a party in 2021 celebrating the thousand year old birthday of the published novel?
  3. Oral transmission coupled with the mnemonic aids of verse makes poetry less dependent on print for distribution and authorship.

What I thought I wanted versus what I really wanted

(This is the third Stumbling into Publishing post.)

The project idea was simple: write and publish a series of novella-length ebooks.

The reason was even simpler: to learn about ebooks and publishing.

I had a few requirements at the start.

  • I was only going to put together four to six stories. Not just for my sake, but also for the reader. I wanted to make sure that the reader had an end in sight.
  • I needed to pick a genre.
  • Ebook only. I have nothing against print, I’m just not curious about the ins and outs of print publishing like I am about digital.
  • My sister would be doing the covers. We had been looking for projects to work on together for a long long time. This publishing project then led to Studio Tendra and the Oz Reading Club, and will lead to more.
  • I wanted to do the whole shebang: ISBNs, formats, design, website, etc. Because that sounded like fun. (Which it was, for the most part.)

I didn’t do this to get published. I don’t have any particular desire to be published or have my writing widely distributed, but I do find the idea of an ongoing readership interesting, especially if it can pay for the work in some way.

The covers turned out great. My sister is a fantastic illustrator. The ebook files were easy but a tad overworked (e.g. there was no point in them being epub3 at the time, way ahead on the curve on that one). The website was easy (websites is what I was doing for a living at the time.) There was more paperwork, bureaucracy, and admin than I expected but nothing overwhelming.

The problems I encountered were both obvious and subtle.

One obvious problem is that I’m crap at marketing. That’s fine. I knew that going in.

The subtle side of that problem is that while I’m pretty sure most of my regular blog readers know about my fiction, they just aren’t interested in it. If I had a penny for every time somebody told me they really liked my blog but didn’t have time to read my fiction, it’d be a bigger pile of money than what I earned from selling ebooks.

Which meant that I was starting from scratch when it came to marketing these stories, I just didn’t know it at the time.

Another obvious problem was with my choice of genre and style. I picked fantasy but didn’t really bring in any of the tropes or traditions people expect from fantasy. Which made it even harder to market. Then again, marketing the stories wasn’t the real problem.

I had four choices for genre. The first was literary fiction. Which, frankly, I’m pretty sure I can’t pull off. Mostly because literary fiction is just a genre fiction with really boring rules and tropes dominated by a big pile of snotty authors. The second was crime fiction. But every other Icelander on the planet is writing crime fiction, so that ruled that out, even though I’m a fan of the genre.

Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery was the genre I chose, mostly because it was safe. It’s a big genre with a big following and plenty of room for variety. Or, so I thought. A big potential audience ought to be easy to market and sell to, right?

I think, in the end, that was a mistake. The mistake wasn’t in choosing fantasy but in choosing it as a safe option. That cut down my emotional investment in the stories right at the start. This in turn compromised my motivation and led me to vacillate during the publishing process as I tried to rediscover the emotional core of the stories and reconnect to them, which then caused the delays. If other people aren’t connecting with the stories, it’s probably because I was finding it difficult to connect with them while writing.

The genre I really wanted to do was oddball unclassifiable weird stuff that would probably qualify as SFF—as in, not scifi, not fantasy, but in the wishy-washy, hand-wavey area that both of those belong to.

At the face of it, that sounds like an even less practical choice than literary fiction. Prose scifi is a tiny niche these days (TV and cinema scifi being less tiny) and, if anything, looks like an even less inviting clique than the fantasy crowd. It’s a community full of old and middle-aged male authors saying awful and horrible things and self-important fans who castigate new writers for not fitting in with their favourite flavour of scifi (hard, space opera, near future, post-human, mundane, whatever). Most of them sound like exactly the sort of people you try to avoid when you go to the comics store.

“Oh, no. It’s a Scott Lobdell fan. Don’t make eye contact!”

(Some writers simply have very creepy fans.)

Wanting to do weird-ass stupid stories that are so hard to categorise that you’d have to just stick with SFF over either scifi or fantasy seemed like a crazy stupid idea. So, I didn’t.

There’s a lot of nice and incredibly clever people in scifi, doing incredible work. Athena Andreatis, Ann Leckie, Debora J. Ross, and Tobias Buckell being a few examples of the many good, smart, and eminently sane members of the SF community (all with good blogs as well), but as a whole the culture surrounding the genre looks worse than inhospitable. It looks outright hostile.

It was a mistake to think I would have to engage in the culture and community around the genre in any way. Fuck community. I’m crap at it, so I’m not going to do it. And, as it happens, these genres—both of them—are crap at it as well, so it all works out.

Anything oddball might well be harder to market and sell. It might not be. Anything that is different should, in theory, be easier to sell because it is easily differentiated. Different makes it identifiable. Different does limit the upside: the maximum number of sales you can make. (Too different: too small an upside.) But, remember, you start with zero sales. Alienating a bunch of non-customers doesn’t matter if it brings you your first real customer.

But, honestly, I don’t care anymore. Fuck sales. My interest is what counts. If I want to be clever, I’ll be clever and play with the thing until it won’t fit anywhere in any genre. If I want to be stupid I’ll be stupid and make something that gives me joy and visceral thrills even if other people groan at the idiocy of it. If I want to be anonymous and alone, I’ll bloody well be anonymous and alone and write in the dark.

Fuck sales.

Which brings me to…

My biggest mistake was not choosing to write the stories that fascinate me the most either emotionally or intellectually. That’s the one that came back to bite me again and again. That choice meant that the stories never quite clicked, never quite worked, never had that spark you drive for. That choice meant that the whole process was a lot less fun.

You have to care about the end result—personally, intellectually, and emotionally.

Otherwise what’s the point?

Light evening trauma

One of the guilty pleasures me and my sister have is our enjoyment of crap TV, usually chatting on IM as we do, shaking our heads at the crap we’re watching.

—OMG, I can’t believe X did Y to Z.’

—I know! That is sooo out of character, the writers must have it in for X.

And so on.

Last year Grimm and Warehouse 13 served the purpose nicely. Mostly inoffensive silly fun. And judging by episode three, Agents of Shield might join them this year.

Of course, this only works if the experience of watching these shows is largely disposable.

One series that used to be on this list was Downton Abbey. Less realistic than Warehouse 13. Characters so two-dimensional that they make extras on Buffy seem like they have epic backstories. Soapy story lines. Incredibly reactionary and conservative politics portrayed in such a ham-fisted way that it borders on parody. It’s been one of the greatest ‘laugh at’ TV series in recent years. Perfect.

(Many of you know exactly where I’m going with this.)


Anybody who has been in a serious accident knows the psychological effects of trauma. If you’re lucky you come out of the incident mostly unscathed, if a bit keyed up and disoriented. You think you’re fine.

But…

  • You don’t stop being keyed up, even days later. Your body is still in stress mode.
  • Your sleep is disrupted, you wake up more often, and don’t feel as rested.
  • Because the cause of the stress isn’t immediate, you are likely to misattribute the stress as anger or resentment towards those around you or your circumstances. Our brains aren’t more sophisticated than that.
  • You can sometimes become hyperaware of potential dangers, to the point of being touched off by trivial things. Because you can’t make sense of what’s happening to you, instead of realising you’re overreacting, you blame somebody close to you, taking offence to something trivial.
  • These negative effects can last for a very long time, often until the trauma sufferer is taught how to process them.

A traumatic experience has long-term and far-reaching effects. The psychological aftereffects of major traumatic incidents can ruin lives just as much as the trauma itself.


We are complex empathic animals whose mental processes can be ‘hijacked’ by exterior forces. Otherwise storytelling would be pointless and ineffective. For this reason portraying major trauma in a story can have significant effects on the audience.

There is a difference between trauma and violence in storytelling. It’s a matter of perspective, narrative distance, psychological detail and duration. If the character is one which the reader has ‘embodied’, i.e. feel a strong empathy for, then any act of violence against that character risks being traumatic.

This trauma is entirely psychological but the audience can still feel the full psychological consequences of trauma.

Yes, every trauma effect I listed above can be induced by simply reading something in a story or watching a scene in a movie. Sleepless nights. Constant stress. Irrational anger. Broken friendships.

Having experienced similar trauma in the past increases the likelihood of being affected. Ask, for example, anybody who lived through 11 September 2001 in New York what it felt like to watch the disaster porn sections of Avengers or Man of Steel. There’s a strong chance it ruined the movie for them.

But you don’t have to have experienced the act in real life if the depiction is severe enough and if you relate strongly to the character.

I’ve never been raped but watching the Swedish movie adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor) was a nauseating experience for me. I’d gone in forewarned about the major rape scene and so planned on skipping it (which I did) but I wasn’t warned about an earlier scene in the movie.

The aftereffects I suffered from cover most of the list I outlined above. Sleepless nights. Misdirected anger. Physical discomfort due to stress. It took me a couple of weeks to fully process and recover the experience.

(Yeah, I related a lot to Lisbeth in the early parts of the movie. I didn’t have her fashion sense but many of her characteristics reminded me of myself when I was a teenager.)

Strangely enough the novel was easier to deal with. I found it easier to flip past the rape scenes there as I churned on in disbelief about how incredibly badly written the book is. I don’t know if it was the English translation, but the book I read was rubbish and Lisbeth becomes increasingly caricatured as the story goes on. And, of course, the more cartoonish the book became, the less effective the depictions became. (Thankfully.)

Why did I read the book, even with skipping through major sections? To be able to look people in the face and tell them that I not only thought it was rubbish but that it is an actively and brutally misogynistic novel. I’m annoying like that.

The last time I was this badly affected by a movie was when I watched American History X. Rape scenes always do this to me. They are a surefire way to ruin the week, not just a single evening. The more closely I relate to the victim and the more graphic the depiction, the more severe the effect.


Unfortunately for me, rape is for many writers the go-to mechanism for female character development or as a way to spice up the drama in the story. Even in comics (DC, I’m looking at you: “They did what to Sue Dibny?”). So, it’s not just offensive but also a cliche. This means I need to be careful about what I read or watch, often requiring research on my part so that I can avoid having my light evening entertainment ruin my day.

But it’s not just light entertainment.

One recent example is the apparently excellent Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. Highly recommended by a lot of people, its core concept hinges on a rape. An act that is apparently depicted. Of course, I’m told Nnedi Okorafor handles it all with deft and flair and substantial skill—it’s not the work of a hack looking to spice things up. But a little bit of research convinced me that reading this book would be an incredibly traumatic experience and so I dropped it from my to-buy list. No book is good enough for me to subject myself to that willingly.

Who Fears Death sets itself apart by having a strong conceptual reason for depicting rape. Most of the time it is gratuitous, a sign that the writer doesn’t consider women to be fully human and is only capable of thinking about them as sex objects.

For somebody with that perspective, the only possible tragic backstory or life-changing event for a sex object is sexual trauma. Their only valid experiences are sexual. And their punishment for not acting like sexual objects is always rape or some other form of sexual assault. In these stories women never have female friends or relatives, only romantic rivals and maybe a mother (you have to have her to do the mother-in-law jokes, obviously). Their power and importance is always either sexual or linked to their fertility. No woman in these stories gains influence and relevance through skill, practice, wit, or experience.

The flip side of this are writers who portray women as deified cyphers put on a pedestal. Portraying them as mysteries is just as dehumanising. (Oh, and if women are indecipherable mysteries to you it’s probably because you are a narcissist who doesn’t actually care what the women around you think. Women are no more mysteries than men or children. People are always partially indecipherable because we aren’t a telepathic species. Men just think they know what their male friends are thinking. Most of the time they’re wrong even about that.)

The depiction of women in most fiction (and so-called ‘literature’ is often just as guilty of this as genre fiction) is horrifyingly bad. Which is bad enough, if it wasn’t also often actively traumatising.


The pivotal scene in last week’s episode of Downton Abbey (episode three of series four) was the rape of a major character. Fortunately, me and my sister don’t watch the ‘silly series’ we watch as soon as they’re out and so encountered spoilers before the fact. We won’t be watching the episode, nor are we likely to watch the series ever again.

Watching or reading things as they premiere—being early to a story—is increasingly risky as more and more writers buy into the idea that rape is a narrative inevitability for female characters in stories that are pretending to be ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’.

Which would be fine—you can always just wait a bit and read the first online reviews which usually warn you about these things—if that same narrative inevitability of rape wasn’t fast becoming an article of faith among the writers and producers of ongoing series (comics, TV, or novels). As the series plod on and the creators look for ways to spice things up, the probability of a writer, editor, or producer proposing a rape scene approaches one. Then, out of the blue, a rape scene injects itself into a series you otherwise considered a known quantity.

And what was a silly, stupid, and trivial piece of entertainment suddenly stops being silly, stupid, or trivial and instead become light evening trauma.

High tide and a room of your own

Under the glacier

The germ of the idea behind ‘Loot, kill, obey’ comes from two sources, one literary, one from real life.

The literary germ is going to be obvious to you once I mention it: Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Specifically the scene with the wreckers towards the end.

Of course that led to a bunch of research that revealed how the whole scenario doesn’t really work, you’re more likely to wreck a ship by turning off a real lighthouse than by erecting a fake one. Which is then what I had the wreckers do in my story.

The second inspiration is a little bit more personal: my great-grandmother’s farm in Staðasveit.


My great-grandmother, María Ásmundsdóttir, was a remarkable woman. She was one of Iceland’s earliest photographers. When she was born, Iceland was a pre-industrial agricultural economy. When she died, it was an advanced western economy with high living standards, free healthcare and free education.

When María was born, a child had only a 50/50 chance of reaching the age of five (which is why life expectancy numbers are so misleading, but that’s a topic for another day). She survived tuberculosis, two wars, saw Iceland declare independence, and got to experience radio, photography, movies, cars, TV, computers, airplanes when they were new and shiny inventions nobody had quite figured out yet.

She also made a decision early in her life which meant that her descendants are cut out of the farm on Snæfellsnes.

Well, maybe cut out is too harsh a word. Her siblings’ descendants own the farm. Her own descendants don’t.

For good reason, as well.


My great-grandmother’s farm

The farm is a beautiful thing to behold. It isn’t a grand thing like you’d expect an old well-to-do farm in Europe to look like. Iceland doesn’t have cottages or estates. A nice two story building covered with corrugated iron is pretty much as grand old style as Iceland gets.

The current farmhouse was built when my great-grandmother an adult. The farmhouse she had grown up in was a traditional Icelandic turf house.

Yeah, like I said. Iceland was a pre-industrial farming economy until the 1940s.

I’ve never seen the original burstabær, it was in ruins by the time I managed to visit the place, but María lived there with her two daughters for the first few years of their life. My grandmother, Áslaug, on a good day, could recall stories and details about the old farmhouse, about a way of life that hadn’t changed much Iceland for almost two hundred years.


My great-grandmother was a single mother in the early twentieth century.

Now, anybody who is familiar with Icelandic culture knows that most Icelanders are proud to live in a country where a single mother can raise her kids without sinking into poverty, anything else is a failure of society. There’s no judgement or condemnation. You cope. Relatives help. Whatever flaws Iceland has (and there are plenty) intolerance towards single mothers isn’t one of them.

This wasn’t the case when my great-grandmother was raising her two daughters.

Iceland used to be a strict Lutheran society. Thinking bad thoughts was a sin. Everybody was a sinner. Strictness and intolerance was the norm. More things were banned than not. Iceland was one of the earliest alcohol prohibition nations and one of the latest to lift it. In one word: puritanical.

Of course, María didn’t help matters by having two children with two different men and never showing any interest in marrying them or regret about them not marrying her.


Snæfellsjökull

The farm is in an unusual location. The only way to reach it is to walk, during low tide, along the beach, with the roaring ocean on the left and sheer cliffs on the right. It’s a bit of a trek to reach the actual farmhouse from the nearest road and you have to time it so that you get to the farm before the tide comes in. Otherwise you’d be washed out into the sea.

Of course, nowadays you can also use an SUV or a proper off-road vehicle to reach the farm, but back in my great-grand-mother’s day they didn’t have that luxury.

Most Icelandic beaches are black; the sand is made out of volcanic rock ground down by the elements.

Unusually for Iceland, the beach leading to the farm is white, like one of those white sand beaches you see in the Mediterranean.

It wouldn’t look odd to a foreigner, but to me, an Icelandic college student, this was one of the few times in my life that I had actually seen a white beach and seeing one in Iceland was an alien, somewhat weird, feeling.

Seeing the famous Snæfellsjökull just ahead, hovering almost mystically over the countryside, only made the experience weirder.


Snæfellsjökull is Iceland’s most famous mountain, volcano, and glacier. Or it used to be before Eyjafjallajökull erupted. It was the opening to the underworld in Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. In Icelandic folklore it is Iceland’s point of greatest magical power, affecting all those who live around it in weird ways. Those born “undir jökli” (by the glacier) are said to be different from the rest of us.

Others say that it’s like a magnet for Iceland’s hidden people.

One group of cranks has congregated there on a regular basis because they believe it will be the landing site for a visiting species of benevolent aliens.


Dividing an estate caused friction. It always does. There’s something about inheritances that drives siblings to argue about things that ultimately don’t matter.

When her parents died, my great-grandmother was the cause of a schism in her family. She argued with her siblings about what should be done about the farm.

They wanted to continue to run and keep the farm. She didn’t.

Her logic was impeccable. If they kept the farm, she’d be doomed to live and work there, raising her daughters there, for the rest of her life. If they sold the farm, she could buy a flat in the capital—have a room of her own, so to speak.

In the end, she forced a sale, took the money, and moved to Reykjavík with her daughters, buying a tiny flat by Hringbraut in Reykjavík’s Vesturbær. Many years later, the descendants of her siblings bought the farm back, sans most of the land, which now belonged to a neighbouring farmer, and have been using it as a summer house since. They let the rest of us visit the place occasionally, if we ask really nicely.

María Ásmundsdóttir lived in that flat for most of the rest of her life, only moving into a home during the absolute last years of her life.

That small flat at one point housed six people when my grandmother moved back in with her mother with her four children after she left her husband. The flat was a life saver.

My great-grandmother spent the rest of her life sewing, painting, and photographing. She held her first gallery show of her paintings when she was eighty. Her daughters only found that she had suffered from glaucoma when she told them about the operation that fixed it, after the fact. She, a half-blind octogenarian, had managed to conceal her half-blindness, organise the operation and doctor’s appointments, and make her way to the operation all without any help from anybody.

Then she went back to painting, sewing, and taking photographs.

She was an awesome woman whose frequent criticisms of people were both brutal and especially stinging because she invariably had a solid point. There were times when she was absolutely terrifying. I miss having her around as she was one of the few people who had a tendency to be even blunter than I am.


From the last leg of the trek to the farm

The small town of Galti in “Knights and Necromancers 2: Loot, kill, obey” is inspired by my great-grandmother’s farm. The beach-side walk that is only passable during low tide, the horizon lined with mountains, the small dock and simple buildings are all drawn from my memories of that place.

And, although none of them are based on, María, my great-grandmother, the memory of her and the other awe-inspiring women in my family are the motivation for the creation of the female characters in all of my stories.

In Loot, Kill, Obey, four of the five main characters are women, as are two main ‘bad guys’. The sorcerer Cadence, a character in Knights and Necromancers 1 (and in stories five and six), was created because I wanted a character who was, frankly, as intimidating as some of these women were in real life.

You don’t see truly intimidating women that often in fiction even though they are all over the place in real life.

I hope I can change that a little bit.


You can buy “Knights and Necromancers 2: Loot, kill, obey” on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, on the iBookstore, and from Kobo.

Or, possibly for a limited time, you can read it for free online.