Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Olympic Sports and Interest

In theory, the Olympics is meant to be a huge showcase for sports, opening them up to the world and exciting people about them so that they’ll want to do them. All that, of course, presupposes a sufficiently interesting sport. It might actually be possible for the Olympics to have the opposite effect on some people, so that after seeing a sport they had a vague interest in, they decide that it’s not so much fun after all.

Take fencing. I love fencing sabre, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who watched the men’s individuals would believe that it was purely about crashing into one another and waiting for the referee to sort it out.

Or take judo. I’ve recently taken it up, having grappled with judo people and found that they have good throwing and holding skills along with an emphasis on the top game that I like. Yet when you watch the highest level of their sport, it’s a stalling game. It’s not a game of throwing the opponent and then attacking on the ground. It’s a game of throwing yourself face down on the floor to keep from being thrown, and then turtling up on the floor until the referee stands it up. It’s a game, in many cases, of wasting five minutes and then winning with a minor score. And don’t get me started on the idiotic leg grab rule.

There have been sports that have been changed to make them more spectator friendly. Fencing is, in theory, one of them, though I have to ask “what spectators?” They did it by introducing visored masks that then proved very dangerous when fencing epee. What no sport ever thinks to do is concentrate on making itself as much of a genuine contest as possible.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Right, so far, I’ve watched fencing, judo, swimming, rowing, archery, shooting, cycling and handball. I may be going a little overboard with the Olympic coverage. I think watching the judo brought home to me all the bits of it I don’t like as a sport more than the bits I do, but the fencing was fun.

The opening ceremony was… interesting. There were some very spectacular elements, but I have to admit my favourite bit was Rowan Atkinson’s role in the Chariots of Fire section. It was certainly better than Danny Boyle’s vision of British history, which seemed to be a collection of random stereotypes.

As I’m writing this, Natalia Sheppard (our only fencer through to the last 32) is 5-0 down in the women’s foil. It’s about what we might expect, but it’s amazing how just a small difference in ability can make a huge difference to the score line and the apparent ease of victory in this sport.

A quick explanation of the fencing concept of Right of Way, without which the Olympic foil and sabre will be incomprehensible. Though it will be anyway. The idea is that, in a sport where the weapons are blunt, it’s quite easy for people to hit their opponent just by ignoring an attack being made on them. To counter that unrealistic tendency, the rules say that if both fencers hit, only the one with right of way gets a point.

If no one is doing anything, right of way is gained by starting an attack (by extending the arm with the weapon threatening the target) or bringing your arm up into a point in line (fully extended) position. For your opponent to get the right of way from there, they have to parry your attack or beat your blade. That, or they can just dodge as they hit you so that only one light comes up on the scoring box.

On a couple of non-Olympic notes, It’s been a while since I’ve said anything about my own writing. I have some friends beta reading a long-ish piece at the moment, so there might be more on that in the future. I’ve also been playing with the way I play the guitar, going back more to the way I played it a few years ago (very legato). In doing that, I’ve been thinking about how often the ways we do things naturally get swamped under a wave of later lessons.

In playing the guitar, for example, picking a lot of notes is common, not necessarily because it’s the best way to do things, but simply because it’s the most difficult thing and there are consequently lots of exercises around for it. People practise what they can’t do, or what they think they ought to do, rather than what they do beautifully. And the whole structure of music teaching encourages that, because telling people that they need to be able to play these things is a good way to ensure lots of business for the people teaching them.

I think that’s often true for writing, too, as people’s early tendencies can find themselves slightly squashed as they try to learn all about form and structure, the ‘rules’ of dialogue and characterisation. I’m not saying that you can just ignore all these things, but I do think that it’s important to remember what you do well, as well as what you can’t do.

For now though, I’m back to watching the fencing.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Guitar Tips

One from me in guitar playing mode for once (and also guitar waiting for mode. I asked my local guitar shop to sort out one moderately tricky problem three months back and I still don't have my guitar back, which is annoying since earlier I worked out at least one simpler fix for one of the issues that they really should have suggested). Anyway, here you go. A few quick tips for instantly sounding better, or whatever it is that these things invariably promise at this point:
  1. Play in time. One of the simplest points on any musical instrument. Acquire a metronome. Use the metronome. Learn to tap your foot on the beat or otherwise mark it physically. Keep your picking hand in motion in time to the beat. Suddenly, you'll find that your playing sounds 'tighter'.
  2. Play in tune. Obviously, you should tune your guitar, but also make sure you set the intonation correctly (adjust the saddles at the bridge until the twelfth fret harmonics are the same pitch as the open strings). Practise those elements of playing (bending and vibrato) that take you beyond the fretted pitches, so that they are perfectly in tune, every time. You can do this by playing a variation on the classic blues intro lick. Play a note, go down a fret and bend up to it. Go down two frets and bend up to it. Go as far as is comfortable, and no further.
  3. Hit chord tones. If you are playing over a chord, the most 'correct' sounding notes are the notes of the chord (usually the 1st, 3rd and 5th of a scale, plus others). Be able to identify them within your favourite scales, and grab them consistently all over the neck. Use them at strong points in a phrase like the start and end to sound like you know what you're doing.
  4. Explore dynamics. Play the loudest note you can. Now play the quietest. Now take a simple phrase, start quiet and end loud, or the reverse. Or start loud, go quiet, and dig in for the last note. You could also vary the techniques you use to provide tonal variation (such as legato v picked, tapped v legato, or hybrid picked v swept)
  5. Listen to what you play. The only deciding factor on the guitar is whether your music sounds the way you want, but you won't know if it does unless you pay attention to the way it sounds. One of the classic ones here is the whole alternate v economy picking debate. Economy picking gives much greater speed when crossing strings if you're picking all the notes, but proponents of alternate picking make the valid point that to them, it sounds 'better' (probably with more pick attack and more rhythmically accurate). Whatever sounds right to you, do it. Even if that means playing your guitar with a modified electric drill a la Paul Gilbert.

Friday, 20 July 2012

More World Building

Most fictional worlds are not whole worlds. There has to be the sense of a world around your characters, obviously, but that does not mean that every area of your world gets an equal amount of attention. It may seem like a very basic point to make, but the area immediately around your characters is more important than the rest of the world. Take something set in the modern day in a small village in the Home Counties (because I want to make the point that world building isn’t just a fantasy thing). We know that Wales, Germany and Denmark are out there somewhere, and it probably contributes something to our understanding of the world to know that, but they won’t be detailed in the work.

Generally, your actual world, in terms of the space that shows up in the text, will consist of one of two things. Either it will be a single broad location (a city, a village, a room that people wander in and out of in extreme cases or plays) or it will be a line of such locations arranged to make a journey. You will never have heroes visiting every location in the entire real world, because you don’t have that many pages, and because that wouldn’t make for much of a story.

What that means is that you actually have different categories of places to define in constructing your world:

Places that will actually show up in the story- if you’re going to set something there, then it needs to be fully detailed, whatever ‘fully detailed’ means for you. Your level of description won’t be the same as mine, or anyone else’s, but in general, these are the places you need to know most about. Setting a fight in a bar? Then you should at least know the layout, not to mention whether there are any handy chandeliers to swing on. And possibly whether the landlord has decent insurance, what kind of patrons it attracts…

Places the heroes know well- these are places that they won’t actually go, but to which they have probably been, because they know them, and will refer to them, remember them, etc. You need to know enough about them to make those memories real, but probably not so many of the physical details. It’s about tone. Actually, that’s true of everywhere, but particularly so here.

Background places- these are places they’ve heard of, places things come from, or people, or ideas. They’re the place that war is happening in somewhere else, or where that magical sword must have come from, or where their cousin’s brother went to get a job in cabbage packaging. You need to know far less about these, because people know far less about far off places than they often think.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

BJJ and Judo

A post unrelated to writing today. Recently, I’ve taken up judo, and I also practice no-gi submission grappling where the basis is Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. In theory, these two martial arts should be pretty close, because BJJ sort of comes from judo, in that one of Jigoro Kano’s students was the guy who taught the family who came up with BJJ, yet playing with both has thrown up some interesting points:

First, the whole gi v no gi debate. I’ll say now that I’m not in a position to comment on which is better, though I do think that people need to do whichever is closest to the way they plan to compete/fight. But I will say that I think I prefer the fluidity of no-gi. I can see that wearing the gi slows things down enough to think, but honestly, my experience of it in judo is that it doesn’t promote advanced tactical thinking so much as people just latching onto a collar and stalling like crazy.

Secondly, small differences can sometimes have a bigger influence than you think. Take the difference in the scoring systems between submission grappling and judo. For SG, you get points for passing the guard and taking advantageous positions. For judo, you get them for holding someone down. That means that the bottom game is much more about turning face down and then stalling. Which you wouldn’t normally do in SG, because the opponent has as much time as they like to set the choke.

Of course, there are bigger differences in the moves allowed, yet weirdly, the absence of leg locks or shoulder locks alone hasn’t been the thing that has been getting in my way with judo. It’s more the way those gaps mean that I have a space in an established game plan. I can work around that part.

Other things are actually more of a problem. Like the way things stop when your opponent stands up. That means that all the cool standing guard stuff from BJJ no longer applies, but it also means that the butterfly guard stuff is a problem, because standing as the opponent tries to roll you over is a common thing (which would ordinarily force all the fun standing guard stuff mentioned before)

One interesting observation for the BJJ types though, which is that judo does a lot more ground work than you think. It might just be the club I’m at, but while competition judo newaza is only a few seconds at a time before the referee stands things up, that actually translates to training very hard on the ground to try to make something happen against a defensive opponent. I actually feel that the judo people I’ve run into have stronger hold downs and escapes than most of the BJJ people I’ve trained with.

There’s also a real sense of continuity between throwing and the ground, which is both good and bad. It’s good, because no fight or grappling match these days starts on the knees. It’s maybe bad because the throw lets you bypass the guard game a lot, so that doesn’t seem as developed for many judo guys.

All in all though, it’s a fun combination, and I particularly like the way doing one is making me think differently about the other.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

What does your plot give your world?

One obvious question in terms of your fantasy/sci fi world is what you need for your story. Just a simple nuts and bolts question of what your story needs to run. If you have, for example, a very classic fantasy arrangement of a barbarian in civilised lands, undertaking a quest for royalty that brings him or her into conflict with a wizard after a long journey and many fights against non-human monsters, then you know a few things about your fantasy world from the start.

You know that it has a division (false or otherwise) between civilised and barbarous lands. You know that it has at least one kingdom or empire, which might be small, but at least has a royal ruler (and thus presumably a social structure that supports that). You know that you have a world with either magic or the appearance of it, and it is a world with monsters in it.

These are very simple observations, but I find one of the things about world building is that it’s possible to build from simple observations to something more interesting and useful. Whereas if you build from complex thinking about your world to your story, it doesn’t always work. If you know what elements are in your story, then you know the bare minimum of things and relationships that have to be in your world, whereas I live in dread of creating a world that has no room for the story I have in mind.

More than that, you can create a lot from these simple piece by piece observations simply by asking yourself where each element comes from and where it fits in. Rather than stifling creativity, it should spark it, by giving you a whole list of things where you have the space to build detail. It also helps if you’re constantly asking two questions in conjunction.

The first is ‘so, what’s an interesting way of approaching that element?’ The idea of these story components leaves you usually with a list of clich├ęs mixed in with some more imaginative things from your original inspiration. Because it’s just a list, rather than a worked out world at this stage, you have the freedom to brainstorm more imaginative options. For example, if we take the royalty before, we might go with the stock all powerful emperor or pseudo Egyptian/Persian god-king. Or we might go with the nominal king of a country who is in fact in charge of very little (a la Louis VI of France), or the chief Elvis impersonator on a planet full of them, or a monarch in hiding after a revolution, or a constitutional monarch so tied down by convention that an outsider is the only way to get anything done.

Which brings us to the second question we have to ask, which is ‘yes, but how does it work?’ For me, a lot of fantasy is about the interaction of the imagination and the consequences of that imagination. Thinking about why things are as they are, how they could possibly work, or simply what comes out of them logically is a great way to get more of your world on a plate. For example, a world where everything is made of cheese might give us as an obvious threat a horde of super intelligent mice.

I put that one in to make the point that I’m not asking everyone to switch over to hard sci-fi levels of rigour here. It’s about one part of the imagination sparking another, to whatever level of rigour, common sense and logic you feel is appropriate (in comic fantasy, there will generally be more logic than common sense, so that if there are dungeons full of traps and treasure, then of course there will be strange little companies that build the things, industry awards for doing so, and magazines entitled ‘What Dungeon’)

It’s just… well, if we take our monarch without much power or land above, then we have to ask the question of how he or she is still a monarch, and the answers to that tell us more about the world. And when we pick at how that fits together, that tells us more still. So maybe we have a situation where our ruler rules a very small area that is effectively shut off from the world, and his near godlike status is down to his own delusions, while the ‘barbarians’ outside the gates aren’t all that barbarous, but don’t invade because he is nominally their ruler still, and if you go around overthrowing your ruler, then maybe people will start wondering why they can’t overthrow you. Suddenly, just from taking an idea and asking how it could work, we have the beginnings of somewhere that feels a bit more real. Beginnings that we can expand on by reverting to our first question, or by bringing in some of the other ideas we generated. Combining ideas is always fun.

So give it a try. For me, the advantage of this approach is that it puts you somewhere between the plotter and the pantser when it comes to world building. You’re sure that your world is connected to your story, but you also have the time to come up with novel elements for it that you might not have put in on the fly.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

What is your world about?

One thing I think writers sometimes don’t think about with their fantasy worlds (and perhaps worlds in general to a lesser extent) is what that world is about. About? How can a world be about something? It seems contrary to all common sense. After all, a world is just a place for your story to happen, right?

Right, but because it is the place where your story happens, it should reflect the themes of your story. It should reflect the tone of your story. It should add extra dimensions to it and provide other points of view on it. It should be the space where things happen that affect what your book is trying to say, and will always be the circumstances in which your character acts. So yes, it can be about something too. Every aspect of your world will grow up from the main ideas on which it is based, whether you have decided on a tough world where nothing is easy, or a world where everything is shrouded in intrigue, or one that is about the classic conflict between good and evil.

So what is your world about? Well, what is your novel about? What themes does it explore? What kind of elements interest you? Are you interested in the complex internal politics of great houses? Ideas of true love? Big, sweeping battles? Do you want to say something about nations and the way they work? Families? Do you want to explore the darker realities of ‘heroism’ in the fantasy sense?

The point here is that if you understand the kind of ‘big idea’ behind what you’re writing, you’re more likely to put together a world that allows you layer after layer of commentary and exploration on that theme, rather than running off in directions you don’t have much interest in. You can create it, secure in the knowledge that everything you put in has meaning, and isn’t just there as filler. Better yet, you can be sure that the decisions you make about your fantasy world contribute to the overall story, so that they aren’t just background anymore.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

World Building 1

I’m thinking of doing a quick series on world building for fantasy and sci-fi, particularly aimed at novel length fiction, but probably applicable to just about everything else. After all, the worlds in which these things are set are often the most memorable things about them (although with Game of Thrones it may be the beautiful lego version of the TV title sequence).

I thought I’d start by saying what I believe to be the wrong way of going about it, inasmuch as anything can be truly wrong in an aesthetic endeavour. The wrong way, for me at least, goes something like this: you sit down with a big piece of paper before you have come up with any story ideas and you draw a big map, being sure to draw lots of individual trees, marking out a neat area for the elven nation and writing in ‘here be dragons’ everywhere you can be bothered.

What’s wrong with that, I hear you ask (actually you probably don’t, because you’re sensible people who don’t talk to your computers, but I’m going to pretend). That is, after all, how almost every RPG type started off making worlds as a kid. It’s fun, it’s simple, but actually, there’s a number of potential problems there.

The first is the timing of it. Even if your story is fantasy, where the world is a major selling point, it is my belief that the essence of the story should come first. Without it, you are making a story (probably a fairly standard one) to fit a world, not creating a world for your story. If you sit down and do your world first, how does it reflect and support your story?

Then there’s the map drawing. Believe me, the least important part of your world is that straggly coastline you’re spending so long over. It isn’t about how it looks. Nor is it hugely about the areas of empty forest signified by those trees I mentioned, except in special cases (such as where huge swathes of forest are important to the character of the world in the story. See Robin Hood). It’s about people, and themes, power centres and economics and all kinds of interactions, not lines on a map.

The problem with the elven nation thing? Well, it means that in drawing a map, you’ve made major decisions about both the composition of the people of your world and the politics of it. Decisions that could radically shape your story. Because you happened to scribble the word ‘elves’ on your map, you’ve committed to the presence of at least one traditional fantasy race, probably along Tolkein’s lines, and you’ve given yourself over to the idea of them having a country, which means that you’ve probably also committed to the idea of every other species having a distinct homeland. You can see how major that could be in terms of the feel of your world.

And finally, we have the dragons. Again, they’re a commitment to an element of traditional fantasy, but they’re more than that. They are implicitly a commitment to either a western European, vaguely medieval feel or (possibly, but not probably) a vaguely oriental one. Again, it’s a prejudgement of the whole tone of what you’re doing.

So am I saying that you shouldn’t draw maps? No, of course not. There’s a time and a place for everything, but what I’m saying is that a map should be an illustration of your decision making process, not something that does it for you.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Insecure Writers' Support Group

This is my first post for the whole insecure writers’ support group thing. Do I qualify as insecure? There’s obviously the school of thought that says all writers are, and I imagine just belonging to this particular blog hop suggests I might agree. Yet isn’t that just one more of those ‘you have to be this kind of person to be a writer’ statements?
Still, there must be things I worry about as a writer. Next novels. They're on my mind because I've just finished the first draft of one. That’s always a good one, because it doesn’t go away just because you happen to have three novels out in the ether, or because you’ve worked on thirty odd other ones for other people. It’s always ‘is the next one any good?’, and I suppose that degree of insecurity is actually a useful thing.

At least, it keeps me looking for the holes in my work. It keeps me thinking about what could be wrong with it enough to actually go out and fix the bits that are wrong. Maybe without the worry that our work won’t be good enough (to please whom, incidentally?) we’d just dash off any old thing and call it a body of work. Not that I have. Um… excuse me while I just go back and check.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Mike Carey: The Devil You Know

It's so rare to see good British urban fantasy (I'm not counting Neil Gaiman, or the modern comic fantasy of Tom Holt etc. When I'm talking about urban fantasy, I'm talking not just about a modern but magical setting, but also about a fairly specific feel). There's possibly something about the landscape that doesn't lend itself to the genre, or maybe it's just hard to have vampire slayers who aren't allowed guns by British law, or it could be that there's a dichotomy between Britishness and the kind of tough, hard edged feel involved, or maybe it's simply that the audiences are often US based and like to see their own cities.

I don't know. If I did, my own urban fantasy novels might have been better. What I do know is that Mike Carey is very much the exception to the rule. In his Felix Castor novels, of which this is the first, he's managed to overcome most of the problems that seem so inherent in trying to do British urban fantasy, producing a series that is likeable, exciting, and occasionally brilliant.

For those who don't know, Felix Castor is an exorcist, getting rid of ghosts with the aid of his trusty tin whistle, while simultaneously finding himself in the middle of difficult situations that in this case involve a major public archive, an underworld boss, a couple of demons, and a very unique take on the idea of were-creatures.

The writing here is sharp and often witty as well as gritty. People will probably find it most reminiscant of Jim Butcher, though that might just be the similarities in their heroes. There are differences though. Harry Dresden is a magical tank, able to blast through most problems. Felix Castor is an altogether weaker character, good with a tune but mostly living off his wits, and for me, that actually makes him better. The supernatural elements seem a lot bigger and scarier when our hero has nothing but a cheap whistle and a knack for running away to work with.

This is the first of the series, and maybe there are a few moments where you sense that Carey is just getting his teeth into it, such as the information dump around Castor's history, but for the most part, this is a really good book that I would definately recommend to all fans of the genre.