Saturday, 27 February 2010

Knights, fantasy, and general sword fighting ahead

Spent much of the week writing short descriptions of things to do and see in various places I've never been. One of the joys of freelance writing, I suppose, is that you end up learning a lot of stuff you wouldn't otherwise know.

Also just got the final lot of chapter outlines on the ghostwriting project. Should have a complete version by the end of next week-ish. I'm quite proud of this one. Even though my name's not going to be anywhere near it, I've still put together some good work, which is all you can ask really.

The Yorkshire sabre is in Barnsley tomorrow morning. Why Barnsley? (Pronounciation note: for that authentic Geoff Boycott or cast of Last of the Summer Wine Feel, remember to ignore the last two letters, so it becomes "Barnsl'". On no account pronounce it Barns-ley). Kind of hoping for snow, on the basis that if the good people are all stuck in snowdrifts, I win.

Reading Elizabeth Chadwick's The Greatest Knight, about William Marshal. There were some comments in reviews about whether her tone matched up with the history, particularly David Crouch's biography of the twelfth century tournament champion/regent/general tough guy. Personally, I thought things were quite close to the opinions I've heard Prof. Crouch express about him, right up to the bit where Chadwick has Marshal expecting his enemies to fight fair like they do in tournaments. Fight fair? In tornaments? Pull the other one. At least two of the mobs Marshal fought for had the tactic of sitting around on the edges pretending that they weren't playing, then charging in at the end when everyone else was tired to take hostages. Still, maybe she'll have him get suitably hard nosed later on.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

It's not like the...

Being a spiky little piece of doggrel I came up with when annoyed by the "it's not like the old days" sabre contingent. I know. I was there. This is better. Mostly because I'm now not eight and shorter than everyone else.

Will I one day wax lyrical
About the flunge’s flight
The bending blade
Stop hit to wrist

The way they do about cross steps
The edge of blade
Long timing stuff
They used to fence

Or will I, having changed
Know the game
For what it is
Now swords aren’t sharp

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Online Fiction?

Still plugging away at the ghostwriting project, which is proving to be fun. One of the big differences between this sort of thing and writing for yourself is obviously the input and outlines you get from the author, and it's nice to let someone else's imagination sort out the structure for once.

That said, I haven't done too much on my own WIP in the past week or so, though it's one I plan on keeping going with. The only downside is that, having decided to include quite a lot of angels, suddenly everyone is doing angels. Is this me subconsciously picking up on the emerging trend, or is everybody looking over my shoulder as I type?

Is being different in your writing something you worry about? Does it matter? Does the need to write for a market automatically produce huge waves of bandwagon jumping with every new trend? Is it still possible to write meaningful and original stuff while doing so?

I've also been reading through a few of Aphelion's other short stories when I've had spare moments. I've decided that I don't really read enough of the online fiction that's out there, and I certainly don't offer enough of the feedback that they ask for. At the same time, I suspect that relatively few people do. Writers are often guilty of spending a lot of time submitting things to places, but not really reading that same online fiction. It's going the way of poetry, where the number of people who admit to writing poetry generally outstrips the number of people reading it regularly.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Character Examples 3- Names

The names we give our characters define so much about them, and I generally like to get just the right name for mine where I can. There are all sorts of different naming approaches, so I thought I'd take a look at a few of the names I've given characters to see how they work:

Single names. I'm a big fan of this. A full name gives someone a sense of reality, but sometimes that's not what you want. A single name can reflect on the archetypal nature of the character, or on disconnection from the real world, or simply on a situation where full names don't matter too much. In 'Fishing for Worlds' for example, I can't imagine that Timothy having a second name would work at all. In my comic fantasy novels, it creates a disconnection between otherworldly characters like Grave and more normal ones.

How posh? I'm a fan of the posh character with the double barrelled name, such as Cynthia Williams-Frothes, probably better known to those who've read any of my Receipt for a Dragon story as Spider. Contrast that with the story's hero Brian Northington. That's a name that went to its local comprehensive school if ever there was one. My usual tactic with names like that is to combine a fairly straightforward first name with a surname that sounds like it could be a vaguely northern placename.

Something the Something. The classic fantasy combination. As such, mostly one I use when making fun of that sort of thing, and so the second something is likely to be silly. A wizard of mine known as Gregor the Slightly (short for Gregor the slightly less green than Gregor the green) is a good example.

Silly or pun based names. I try to use these rarely, because they can give away too much about the character in one go. Still, one currently unpleasant character has the surname Wittingly-Snide.

Names and age. Some names just sound older than others. Take two characters from my novel Searching, in the form of Brigit Wykeham (an obscure reference to a famous pluralist canon in the surname, if you're interested) and Tina. Now, which of those names sounds like it might be several centuries old? Or take Timothy above. I think the name is about right for the age. Certainly, I can't think he would have come across quite the same if he'd been called Frank, for example.

Nicknames, abbreviations and initials. These can be used to create a disconnect between who the character is officially and how they like to see themselves. Take Spider, above. That is clearly the sort of nickname you give yourself when your mother insists on calling you Cynthia at all times. Abbreviations do the same sort of thing, though possibly more subtly. Curiously, initials don't. Instead, I find them useful for a sense of formality, or when mentioning the authors of made up books with big leather bound editions (because those authors are invariably people whose parents, to use Gideon Haigh's phrase 'gave them initials rather than proper names'). They're also useful for setting up overblown names later. P.E.Straggle just about works. Philip Edgemonton Straggle is pushing things.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Aphelion Best Of

A couple of my pieces have made Aphelion's best of 2009 issue. Receipt for a Dragon was there last month, and is there again this month. My poem 'Motto of the Gnomish Postal Service' is also there, based on the famous US postal 'not snow nor rain' thing.

Odd how these things give you a sense of time when it comes to your work, because I'd forgotten that the latter piece was this year. If you haven't read them, enjoy. If you have, enjoy some of the many other highlights over there this month.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Zombies

It occurred to me the other day that when I was looking at various urban fantasy/horror character types, I didn't look at zombies. Now, this might have been because zombies aren't particularly nice to look at, particularly after the first week or two, but I thought I'd better have a think about them, before I get complaints (is there a zombie union? One reasonably local branch could be the South Humberside Union For Formerly Living Entities, for example). So what can we say about zombies?

  1. Zombies are mostly basically stupid. This is something of a problem when it comes to them being major characters. It's hard to be a character without any character. Those times I've seen it done, the individual has retained more personality, as with Shadow's dead wife in American Gods.
  2. This stupidity gives them a certain amount of comic potential, mostly as the ultimate straight men. Mostly though, they end up a bit too disgusting for laughs. Kelly Link seems to do all right with them though.
  3. There's no such thing as just one zombie, except where they happen to have personality, when they suddenly do start to appear alone. Essentially there's a split between the solo zombie and the shuffling horde of.
  4. They make great extras, and I've just had an idea about that, but it wasn't what I meant. What I meant was that they are the ultimate in two dimensional characters, because no one expects any more from them. Need a gas station attendant for a non-speaking role in the novel? Why not use a zombie?
  5. They're generally quite hard to stop. I suppose the point with zombies is as a reminder of mortality. They're the slow but certain death that will, eventually, once it's stopped mistaking bowls of semolina pudding for brains, catch up with all of us.
So that's zombies. I must admit I haven't looked too deeply at them, because I tend not to use them much. I have exactly one zombie story to my name to date, and that involves furniture. I'm sure you all know more about zombies than I do (which strikes me as an odd thing to be sure of. What exactly do I think you get up to in the rest of your time?)

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Character Examples Two

For the second in this short series on character building, I thought I'd focus on the slightly chaotic process that can produce my characters. To demonstrate, I'll be using an example from one of the comic-fantasy novels I've got lying around, in the form of my character Grave, who is variously a henchman, the formost hunter of the fey, and comic relief whenever I've got nothing better to do. The trick is going to be doing this without giving away too much about the novel, but that sounds like a fun challenge. As always, I'm using these examples because they're the ones that best explain my own thinking, and I don't have anyone else's thinking to hand. So this is how I put Grave together:

It started with a plot function. Because the novel in question involves a journey through an especially silly magical kingdom, with at least one character being chased over most of it, I obviously needed someone to do the chasing.

I then thought about all the other chasing types you find in fiction. This is something people don't always admit to themselves that they do, perhaps because they like to feel that everything is utterly without any influence from what has gone before. But how realistic is that really? Having re-read Neverwhere, obviously Neil Gaiman's creations Croup and Vandemar were going to have an effect. The thing with finding an easy influence like that is to then find ways of going as far from it as possible, so cue thoughts about the hunter in the sleeping beauty story, various horror movie types, and ideas about the traditional Wild Hunt (who don't give up, are practically impossible to stop, and frankly seem a bit obsessive about the whole thing)

I found myself giving him a physical appearance before I got a name. I wanted someone big and blundering, simply because it felt funniest. It also fit with the 'Hard to Stop' element above. Then, it occurred to me that this also made him look a tiny bit like Hagrid out of the Harry Potter series, which seemed nicely incongruous. That in turn made me think about caretakers, and particularly about those big brown coats they sometimes wear. It fit with the idea of him tidying up messes in that nicely euphemistic sense. Suddenly, I've got the most distinctive aspect of the character's appearance.

I also happen to own a brown jacket with eleven (count them if you like) pockets, full of all the rubbish you always find in pockets, and it occurred to me that this provides lots of comic potential, particularly if the character isn't always particularly good at finding what he needs. But... does an absent minded hunter work? Aren't the fey supposed to be clever? Then I thought 'well, if he's been around for hundreds of years, he'd have a lot to remember'.

It's probably at about that point that he got a subplot, partly because the novel was feeling a bit one stranded and thin, but partly because I realised that the idea of someone who has been doing the same job for millenia fit with broader themes about responsibility. What would it be like to have the same job that long? You'd have to be obsessed, obviously, but you'd also have all those attitudes people get when they've been doing a craft all their life: professional pride, a certain solidarity with other hard working types, maybe a certain dislike of being told what to do by management. You'd also spend a lot of time thinking a lot about the old days, and possibly about how much better things were. It occurred to me that, if this weren't one of his usual jobs, it would provide a lot of potential for annoyance.

Finally, there was the name. I knew it had to be a one word name, because it had to be menancing, and because I found myself wanting to make fun just a little of those Laurell K Hamilton characters with one descriptive name like Darkness. I also wanted something suitably serious, without being overly villainous. I needed something with gravity, something suitably... oh, right.

There were a couple of additions after that. I put in a bit connecting him more strongly to the past I'd invented, and incidentally making a reference to a certain David Gemmell hero he reminded me of a little. I also put in various other bits as the plot needed them, because with minor characters particularly, you have to be ready to change them to fit. But broadly, that's Grave, and now I've made him, I can't imagine the novel being half as funny without him. Now all I've got to do is sell it, so you can see what I mean.

Friday, 12 February 2010

I'm Quite Angry

With Sussex University, since you ask, who have announced that their history courses won't cover British history pre-1700 or European history pre-1900. Just a quick collection of a few (a very few) of the things this ignores:

The Norman Conquest, The Viking Invasions of Britain, Anglo Saxon England, The Crusades, The Roman Empire, The English Civil War(s), The Reformation/Tudors, The French Revolution, The formation of the modern countries of Germany and Italy, Most of the Enlightenment...

It's a long list, full of some moments of history that have defined humanity, or at least this country. Frankly, I'd like to know what they think they're playing at. Some suggestions as to possible thinking behind it:

  • 'We're running out of money. Better cut something that doesn't attract much funding.' Here's a sad thought; Sussex's attitude is simply a reflection of the funding priorities of education in general, where the arts and humanities tend not to get much of anything, because merely providing things integral to being well rounded human beings doesn't count as practical. Modern history attracts more research funding than older stuff. Just look at the spread of research posts over academic sites for proof of that.
  • 'It's old. It doesn't really matter.' There is this weird idea floating around that recent history is somehow more meaningful than older history, which strikes me as A: ignoring the fundamental elements produced by older civilisations. The most fundamental things we take for granted, such as a belief in the rightness of individual freedom or the right to select governments, owe a great deal to civilisations hundreds, if not thousands of years old. B: ignoring historical theory, which has known for years that meaning is constructed by the historians. Even saying that older things are not having an impact is idiotic. Britain's political system owes at least as much to the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries as to the last few hundred years.
  • 'Not many people are doing them'. This is probably true. Why is it true. Firstly, because the above assumptions are made in the National Curriculum for schools as much as anywhere else, so that again modern history is given precedence. Secondly, because modular formats for history encourage students to take easy options based on what they've already done.
Now, I should say that, not having sat in on Sussex's meetings (they didn't think to include someone completely unconnected to them for some odd reason) I can't say this for certain. But it's a pretty safe bet that I'm right.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Character Examples One

Since the last post seemed to go quite well, and since it's often easier to find general things on character development than anything specific, I thought I'd have a look at the process of character development with reference to a few of my own. This isn't because they're the best characters in the known universe (though several of them probably think they are. I have a thing for overblown and arrogant types). It's simply because, without conducting experiments on better known authors involving electrodes and green bubbling things (you've got to have green bubbling things) these are the only ones where I know about the whole process. I might have to do it over a few posts, because of the space involved. So, here we go:

Let's start with the ones that come out of very little. Take this extract from my story 'Fishing for Worlds': Timothy sat by the shore of the burning sea, dangling his feet off the end of his
grandfather’s dock. He didn’t dangle them in the water, because it was after all a burning
sea, but he didn’t feel it ruined the effect.

Now from what I recall, in addition to the title that was all I had of the story, and the character, at first. Actually, for a good fifteen minutes I just had up to the first comma, in one of those moments where you write something, and you know there's something there, but you aren't sure what. The point though is that sometimes you can find out so much about a character just from what you get in that first moment of inspiration. We know he's a fantasy character. We know he's probably young, and that the story's going to involve the relationship with his grandfather, which raises the question of where his parents are. We know his grandfather has something to do with the sea. We know that there will be fishing involved. Possibly for worlds.

We can guess other things just from what he's doing. That he's either idle or bored (I went with bored, as a precursor to one of those stories where being unhappy with your lot sparks something odd), is likely from the fact that he's sitting there dangling his feet over the edge of the dock. It's also the classic activity of someone bunking off from what they're supposed to be doing, so maybe there's a little streak of rebelliousness there too.

Put together, this probably doesn't sound like much, but combined with a few initial thoughts on the shape of the story (I wanted a weird sort of creation myth after reading a couple of siberian ones), it gave me almost as much of Timothy as we end up seeing. This is in contrast to an earlier attempt on the same title and theme, where I just started making up random bits of character. It all fell apart after a few hundred words.

The point is that sometimes, it can be easy to go off making up things about characters when that isn't what's needed. Sometimes, you have everything you need right in front of you.

Incidentally, anyone who feels like reading the complete story can find it in Semaphore Magazine's archive, in the September 2008 issue.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Minor Characters

Characters, especially minor characters, can end up a bit lifeless if you don't watch them (especially in zombie fiction, though there it might be intended. Sorry, even as I write that, I realise how bad the pun is). Now, in proper fiction, I'm sure we should all be spending weeks over each one, trying to make them genuine, well rounded individuals, but frankly, if all I'm after is a cheap laugh around chapter four, I can't be bothered. Here then are some tips for making characters odder, funnier, or simply more outlandish, that have nothing whatsoever to do with making them better or more rounded:

  1. Get the name right. Sometimes a name tells you everything about a character. Suitably overblown names can be funny in themselves, and I must admit I'm a sucker for the overly posh double barrelled surname. You can build in puns or in-jokes too, if you're careful, and you realise that no one will ever take them seriously ever again. Middle names are your friend here, since John Smith becomes a lot more intriguing if we find out that he is in fact John Oberon Smith. Did his parents have an unnecessary love for the works of Shakespeare? Is he secretly the king of the elves when he's not busy doing (probably a very boring) job?
  2. Dress them up. How much information do people think they get about us from the way we dress? Lots, probably, so having the character dress slightly outlandishly can be a great way of marking them as a bit "different". Merely going Goth doesn't qualify, because it's been done so much, but sticking fluffy pink slippers on them might.
  3. Give them a hobby, an interest, or a habit. I can't, off the top of my head, recall the name of the more thuggish villain in Terry Pratchett's 'The Truth'. I can, on the other hand, remember that he said "-ing" rather than swearing properly, knew a surprising amount about art history, and combined a weakness for white powders of all kinds with a complete inability to pick out talcum powder from the other sort. Yes, it's cheap and obvious and doesn't give you a rounded character, but that's not what we're doing.
  4. Give them some power or talent, and then undermine or twist it. Tom Holt's favourite with this seems to be taking the fabulous and making it into "just a job". Wizards who aren't much good at magic are also a staple here, as are heroes who have to watch what they kill, thanks to laws about endangered species.
  5. Give them a slightly unique worldview. Too unique, of course, and they don't make sense, but if you can come up with a train of logic that nevertheless ends up in complete nonsense, or overlooks one crucial fact, then funniness should follow.

Friday, 5 February 2010

I'm On A List

Having had a look round for other reviews and things, I thought I'd mention http://www.jimchines.com/humor-2009/
which contains a list of some funny fantasy and sci-fi stories, including my old piece 'Last Orders'. It's probably the only time I'm going to end up with my work mentioned next to Tad Williams'.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Review

Just a quick post to point you in the direction of a review of the 2009 semaphore anthology, with my piece 'the apocalypse factor'.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Music?

This was going to be a post about how listening to music affects writing, but then it occurred to me that it had an effect on reading too, and also on fencing, playing music, and just about everything else. It's amazing just how much music can fit into the background when you're doing other things, and some people claim that the type you listen to can have a distinct impression on what you're doing. The urban fantasy author Rachel Caine obviously believes it, because she has the habit of listing everything she listened to while writing.

Personally, I tend only to listen to the first half of things while writing. I get to an interesting bit, and I turn off to concentrate. I don't find that what I'm listening to has a particular influence on the tone of the writing, either. Some of my silliest stuff has been written while listening to the sort of stuff where you can't really make out the lyrics except to say that someone is very upset about something.

When I'm reading, it makes more of a difference. The tone of what I'm listening to has to match the tone of the book, or the jarring nature of what follows can end up putting me off both. When I'm fencing... well, I only included this bit because of a brief discussion suggesting that listening to music on i-pods was a vital part of most fencers' preparation, which led to the conclusion that the high speed world of techno was the best way of getting the brain up to speed. I have tried the same thing with various forms of shred, but I'm not sure it really applies that much. The aim in this, as in a lot of other uses of background music, is to switch off from the rest of the world, and maybe from whatever you were doing five minutes ago, not to force yourself to think about it.

So what about you? What do you listen to when you're writing/reading/about to hit complete strangers with swords?