Thursday, 29 September 2011

Awards You've Never Heard Of

Because I've made them up. Being a series of made up awards for all things fantasy, and thus an excuse for a list:
  1. The Big Red Eye Award for outstanding services to evil. Awarded annually to... well, whoever steals it first.
  2. The Guild of Extreme Cartographers Are We Nearly There Yet Award. For the individual who has found the most fiendishly lost city during the year. Or lost the most obviously found one.
  3. The Thing Owners Club Breeders Award. For the breeder of the best in show, with the ideal tentacle to eyeball ratio.
  4. The Barbarian Beer Festival Award. Barbarians spend so much time quaffing that they're probably the best placed of all fantasy types to award this one. Though given what happens when barbarians get drunk, T-shirts saying 'I survived Barb-Fest' aren't as common as they might be.
  5. The Humble Minion Awards. Or Squishies. Awarded in a number of categories, including most servile grovelling, fastest escape from a castle being overrun by heroes, and most gratuitous Wodehouse rip off.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A Brief Post

Preparations for the York University Open continue with me trying not to panic about all the things I've identified as problematic with my fencing technique (it's only my grip/distance/long attack/guard position/feinting). Plenty to work on in the next two weeks.

I'm currently reading Tom Holt's Open Seseme. Of all his books, I think it has probably been the slowest read for me, though that may just be that I rather overdid things on his back catalogue.

Incidentally, an idea for every person who ever has too many ideas, or trouble trying to choose between them. Simply write down everything you would ever want to see in a book, stare at the resulting mess of a list, and then have a blinding flash of inspiration as you see a single coherent thread through it. And no, I haven't.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

All kinds of things have been going on this week. I'm edging along slowly with a novel that I've been working on for a while now, although I'm slightly worried that I only vaguely know where I'm going with it. I suspect this one may be just something I do bits of more for the process than anything, though hopefully it will come out all right. I always think you can tell when someone is enjoying writing something.

That's something that very definitely applies to the short stories I've been working on. Helping to put together a short story collection is harder than it sounds, not so much because individual stories are difficult, but because you have to write them to order, and write quite a lot. But this one is so much fun it's not a problem.

I picked up a copy of the Wind in the Willows earlier in the week, and I'm reading it now for the simple reason that I never did so as a child. Is that something you ever do? Go back to things you wish you'd read? I'm enjoying it quite a lot. There's something about the whimsy of it that suits me.

On the martial arts front, I've picked up a couple of regular gigs writing about them, just putting together small blog posts and articles. One thing I've found with ghostwriting is that it's actually these smaller, regular gigs that give you peace of mind, because you know you have a certain amount of basic income coming in, without taking up so much space that it gets in the way of the bigger, one off jobs.

And finally, the start of the fencing season has rolled around, meaning that, as usual, I'm worrying about my technique. That's pretty much a given at this time of year, though.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

We Have A Cover

My publisher has just unveiled the front cover for my novel to the public. It's probably a bit early for heavy promotion yet, since we're looking at a January 1212 release what with all the stuff you have to do first, but facebook-y types can see it over at Pink Narcissus Press's account if they feel that way inclined. I would show you, but it's not in a file format that blogger seems to like, at the moment.

On the ghostwriting front, I'm working on a collection of short stories with Arran Gimba, which has so far covered the zombie apocalypse, meditations on lost cities, and building universes in sheds. I should also be starting work on another novel in a day or so, for a client who, understandably, wants to be named rather less than Arran does.

Just out of interest, did anyone have a look at the history one I did with Keith Lenart? It's one of the weird things with being a ghostwriter that while technically, the reviews don't matter to you, in practice, they generally do, because they're the best feedback you're going to get on what you're doing. Although, as I know from one of my more regular gigs, you do then spend your time staring at the bad reviews and trying to work out which bits were down to you, and which bits were assorted other people involved. Mentally shifting the blame is the first skill of the writer. It's rather like being England cricket captain in the 1990s in that respect.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Your Approach

The start of the fencing season has rolled around, and with it my usual concerns about whether I am fencing sabre correctly. To which the short answer is not exactly. I won’t bother you with the fine detail of my technique except to say that it is different enough from the normal one to be noticeable to me, yet not so different that opponents are constantly wondering what I’m doing.

The big point, however, is that it works for me. And this is where it spills over to writing, because as occasionally useful as I think the whole industry teaching us to write ‘better’ is, I think that people occasionally take it too seriously. They think that you have to write their way, when in fact, you should be writing in yours.

There is a caveat to that, however, which is that you should be writing in yours if it works, and if you aren’t getting better results from other approaches. The slight quirks of my sabre technique have not been adopted on a whim, but are rather an attempt to both disguise my major weakness and open up greater precision in my blade work. I adopted them only after working for some time with the precisely orthodox approach, and I still go back to it from time to time to keep connected with it and what it offers.

If you have a radically different approach to your writing, in other words, that’s fine, but it needs to be based on a deep understanding of what you’re doing. Some people are so quick to jump off into what they think is their unique voice that they don’t realise no one else is doing what they’re doing for a reason. Make sure you’re following an interesting path as a writer, not a dead end.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Dividing up the year

It’s the last day of the county championship season today, with Warwickshire needing to finish off Hampshire if they’re going to win the league. Coincidentally, tonight happens to be my first fencing session of the new season.

That particular combination has me thinking about the ways in which we divide up our lives. I’m not just talking about the big events; the rites of passage as Van Gennep called them. I’m talking about the little markers each of us has in the year as part of that very human tendency to carve time up into manageable chunks. They might be holidays or birthdays, the start of a sporting season or the official first days of the real seasons. They might, given that we’re writers, involve the regular appearance of NaNoWriMo (No, I’m not. I never do. The last thing I need is another deadline) or the publication of a favourite anthology. We have markers.

So what about your characters? How do they mark the passage of time? Is there any sense of it? This is particularly one for the fantasy writers out there, because I’ve got a pretty good idea what some of you will do. Mostly because I’ve been there as a writer and seen it as an editor. You’ll have the change of the seasons, and maybe a holiday linked to that, but there won’t necessarily be those other markers. Yet they’re so easy to introduce.

Just consider a few very traditional markers in rural communities for a moment. There are the first and last days of harvesting, which was a much more important endeavour in the days before mechanisation stopped it being something for whole communities. There were the major markets, which in some communities came around for just a few days each year, covered by royal or episcopal charters. There were the days when fishing fleets or regular trade fleets set off or came back. Normal life, in other words, and it’s always the sign of a good fantasy novel when there’s normal life going on in the background.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

A Writing Day

Today featured writing bits of a lot of short stories in front of the TV while watching the final county championship cricket of the season. Yorkshire are relegated, and the chairman is already making noises about how the players need to pull their socks up. That seems a bit rich coming from a committee that is happily and hugely in debt, and which initially didn’t want a run getting overseas player because they couldn’t afford one.

Where exactly does pulling one’s socks up come from? Does anyone know? I can’t see how it can imply taking things more seriously, or being ready to take things on when Nora Batty out of Last of the Summer Wine was always ready to take things on, often with her broom, and never knowingly had her socks unwrinkled. They make us pull our socks up when fencing too. Apparently, a thin layer of wool will stop us getting stabbed in the shin should a sword break.

Going back to short stories, it’s interesting how trying to write ten at once feels different to one at a time. Whenever you get stuck on one, you sort of flit sideways to another. Presumably, it still takes as long to produce them, since I managed about the same number of words as usual, but it feels less like I’m trying to tackle the hard bits head on.

If you haven’t heard anything about my novel Court of Dreams in a while, it’s because we’re waiting for things like the cover and the galleys and the final proofing. It feels like a much more involved process than with either of my first two novels, and I am taking that as a good sign. Eventually, I imagine I should beg all of you to help me out with arranging a suitable blog tour to draw attention to it, but possibly not until I know little things like the release date.

I actually have a sequel to it in first draft form (or possibly second, given that I started again on a different tack after I decided I didn’t like the first version.) I’m wary of doing much with it until I can see that the first one is doing well. It makes fun of vampires in much the same way that Court of Dreams makes fun of the whole urban faerie thing. While still having a story of its own, of course.

I’m also working on the thing that I deleted not that long ago after trying to write without a plan. I have realised that this is something I do. I actually went through three or four attempts at Court of Dreams before we finally got to the finished version, complete with Grave (who remains my favourite character ever. Imagine Hagrid as a forgetful faerie assassin in a truly amazing coat and you’ll be nowhere near what I actually intend, but probably near enough to get an idea.)

Sunday, 11 September 2011

On Goblins

Goblins always seem to get such a raw deal in modern fantasy literature. For one thing, they don’t show up that often. Entire series full of elves and dwarves, undead and suspiciously derivative short people on long journeys can go past without a single goblin. That’s particularly true for many urban fantasy series. In fact, I can only think of two off hand that bother with them.

The second problem is that people treat goblins like they’re stupid. Like they’re cannon fodder. Like they don’t matter or have individual personalities. Like they are, in fact, straight out of Lord of the Rings. The trouble is, those that show up there are essentially just target practise for the heroes. If it’s not Lord of the Rings, it’s the dungeons and dragons view of them, which again goes ‘stupid short green people for heroes to kill’.

Contrast that with the goblins who show up in European literature and folk myths. Firstly, they aren’t uniformly short and green. Goblin is a term used for almost any mischievous or unhelpful spirit, and so can cover a lot of ground. Just think of the wide range of ones set out by Christina Rossetti.

They don’t have to be stupid, either. In fact, if you look at most of the tales pre-fantasy, they’re actually brighter than most humans. They’re tricksters, albeit very dangerous ones. They’re as clever as your heroes, and they may actually be more cunning.

Of course, my own occasional goblins are a bit weird. I am coming mostly from the standard place, because I want to make fun of it, yet I have a certain fondness for goblin man-servants who seem to have read too much Wodehouse. It’s kind of a combination of the two approaches, because they manage to be cannon fodder by type, but far too clever to actually get caught up in it in practise.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

I Hate Elves.

I’ve come to realise that I hate elves in fantasy literature. No, that’s not quite right. I hate the kind of shorthand that lets fantasy writers just say ‘elves’ or ‘vampires’ or ‘merfolk’. I hate what elves have become.

I quite like the idea of fantasy literature that features woodland folk cut off from the human world, or ancient, long lived people who don’t see the point of the petty squabbles around them, or even magical creatures with faintly pointed ears who like to use intruders for archery practise.

What I hate is when people write ‘elves’ like writing it is enough. When it’s obviously shorthand for ‘I know you know what I mean, because we’ve all played too much D&D/read Tolkien’. When the things we know about them aren’t things that the author has told us, but things that we just have to assume. When their place in the world is… well, not an integral place in the world. There’s nothing about them that comes from the idea of the world. They’re just elves.

For me, strange creatures should tell us something about the world we’re in. Yet too often, what they tell us is that the writer is lifting ideas from the general mythos rather than coming up with something brilliantly unique. Or that they can’t be bothered with description.

Not too long ago, I wrote something with elves in. At least, I think they were elves. I was never really sure. I certainly never used the word. And each one was their own person, rather than just a dull fantasy cliché. That’s not a claim to any particular brilliance on my part. Pretty much anyone else could do the same easily. It’s just that sometimes, people don’t, and I really can’t see why not, when it could do so much good.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Next Word?

A thought on the craft of writing today, and structure, with particular reference to that most obvious source of information on it: music theory.

All right, maybe not that obvious, but I do think there is something to be learned. For those who don’t know, I play the guitar. A few years ago, I was really into learning music theory, learning things out of different music instructional books, and picking up lots of different bits and pieces from guitar magazines.

That was great, except that I never seemed to get quite as much out of it as I hoped. I’d pick up the odd lick here, or learn a new mode there, but there always seemed to be something missing. It took me quite a long time to work out what it was. It was my creativity. I was going into these books looking for entirely the wrong thing, because I was looking for someone to tell me what note I should be playing next.

That’s not how it works. Scales, arpeggios and so on are great as far as they go. They give you a quick way of getting a particular sound if that’s what you hear in your head. Yet no one will ever tell you what you should play, because that’s your decision. And when it comes to many of my guitar heroes (notably Carl Verheyen, Guthrie Govan and Paul Gilbert) they have actually gone on record as working the other way round. What’s in their head comes first, and all the massive technique and theoretical knowledge at their disposal is just to aid in getting that out.

I sometimes think, as writers, that we can be caught up in the same trap. We go looking around in books on the craft of writing, not so much to understand what it is we’re doing, as in the hope that someone will tell us what we ought to be writing. We forget that the ideas we have and the natural ways we tell stories sometimes count for more than the rest of it put together. And that’s a shame.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Unlock your inner villain

Villains are useful in so many ways. So much so, in fact, that I think there are definitely some things we can learn from them as writers:

1. Plans for world domination invariably go wrong. You cannot decide that your book is going to be the most popular in the world, because you cannot directly control the actions of your readers (put that mind ray down at the back there). What you can do is enjoy the process of writing, do your best with the book, promote it well, and if you happen to achieve world domination as a result, well, at least you’ve saved yourself the expense of a robot army.
2. It’s vital to have minions. Publishing a book is a team effort. Even writing one is. The people around you are vital in making it easier for you to write your best, and in staying connected to the real world.
3. It’s easy to come back. Just as villains are rarely stopped by little things like falls into lava pits, and always find some way to show up in the sequel, it’s vital as a writer to be able to find ways to come back after setbacks. To find new ways to approach what you’re doing.
4. But occasionally, they should stay down. The key here is ‘new ways’. If something isn’t working, don’t just beat your head against a brick wall (there’s probably some furry underpant wearing barbarian type happy to do it for you anyway if you’re a proper villain) There are times when you have to acknowledge that merely working harder isn’t enough and you need to give up on a project, even if it doesn’t involve giant mutant penguins. In fact, especially if it doesn’t involve giant mutant penguins.
5. Check your plan for flaws. How many villains have been undone by some hitherto unforeseen problem with their grand scheme? Don’t be that person. Don’t settle for a plan or starting point that is good enough. Work on it until it is great.