Archive : Month

In Defence Of Middle-Earth

POSTED ON July 29th, 2010  - POSTED IN Genre

In my own mind, if Fantasy authors were arranged into one massive over-simplified family tree, it would feature two great dynasties: Tolkien and Peake. Under Tolkien, people like Eddings and Donaldson, under Peake, writers like Clive Barker, China Mieville, maybe even a dash of Neil Gaiman, with people like Lovecraft a distant uncle or second cousin.

The further you move down the tree, the more mixed it becomes, probably reaching a crux with George R R Martin, where the two great families merge. Following it down to modern day, it seems that convergence has strengthened the Peake dynasty but the Tolkien dynasty has almost died out.

Tolkien is incredibly unpopular these days, and this saddens me. As a writer, I defintely see myself as part of the Tolkien dynasty, where all the cool kids… they’re so Peakes. You can’t mention elves and dwarves without people raising eyebrows and muttering about derivative fiction.

I like Paul C Smith. He’s clearly from that “other family” but he’s intelligent and makes good points without snark. And so when it comes to his points on Lord of the Rings, I do agree with most of them.

Tolkien’s real strength, in my honest opinion, is his worldbuilding. And by that, I’m not talking about Elves and Dwarves, but the way he breathed life into his world. Very few writers are able to convey that there’s something different round every corner, that every place has its history, but Tolkien is the master of this. What he does is take us from the safe confines of the Shire (safe because we know everything about this part of the world) and into stranger and stranger places, panning the camera out as he does so, becoming less and less precise, to give us this sense of scale that is truly mind-blowing.

Of course, this means the books are a little uneven. Getting through the first book of the Fellowship of the Ring can feel like treacle, as it can feel that Tolkien is a tour guide rather than a storyteller.

But as the story progresses, there’s another thing that grows. As we become less and less safe, so the feeling of hopelessness looms ever greater in the story, to the extent that towards the end, even Gandalf, guardian and stalwart of hope basically exclaims “we’re fucked.”

A lot of the characters in Lord of the Rings get accused of being a little shallow, that because of the story of good versus evil, characters aren’t allowed a shade of grey. I disagree with that to some extent. All the characters are fallible to some extent, all have fears and wants. Look at characters like Boromir, Denethor, even Theoden to some extent. They give into their fears and in doing so are corrupted. Look at who the real hero of LOTR is: Sam – a character who for most of the novel is a comic foil but whose pureness and unwavering devotion save the day. That’s not pedestrian.

That’s not to say that the characters are perfect. Gender is poorly represented by today’s standards, there are few women in Lord of the Rings. Yet, whilst we might bemoan the masculination of Eowyn (having to dress as a man to enter battle), I think for the time this was incredibly forward thinking. She defeats the witch-king by being a woman and laments being expected to stay at home. Pretty commendable by 1940s standards.

As a result, I get very dismayed when fantasy’s latest crop of L’enfant terribles start picking on Tolkien like a bunch of hoodies hounding some old guy who has pissed his pants. I’m not saying we should ignore the faults, or treat Lord of the Rings as some unquestionable sacred cow, but at least have a little respect.

Tolkien’s biggest fault, as I can understand it, is his popularity. I can never understand people who renege against the popular. I can understand not liking something, or thinking something doesn’t deserve the level of praise it gets but to dislike it based solely on its popularity… that seems very shallow to me.

But I understand, how the popularity of Lord of the Rings has plagued the genre. Lord of the Rings cast a shadow over the genre, and influence so great that everything got benchmarked to it. And that meant that to the general populace, unless it had elves and dwarves and a Joseph Campbell plot, it wasn’t ‘proper’ fantasy. And so there were years of derivatives, and understandably, some fantasy fans (not just from the Peake dynasty) pushed back saying “we don’t want these sorts of things” which in an overgeneralised statement has resulted in this real push back against Tolkien.

But, I’d argue that a derivative novel is a derivative novel, whether it has elves or cacti people, and this kick back at anything vaguely Tolkienistic is shortsighted. Likewise, kicking out at anything that isn’t Tolkienistic is counter-productive.

I’ve said to people for years that what genre really needed was something popular enough to widen the public’s perception of fantasy beyond that of Tolkien. I think to a large extent, Harry Potter did that (although I’d probably argue that Rowling belongs to the Tolkien dynasty rather than the Peake one). I think it’s helped the general populace (i.e. people who don’t read fantasy) to be more open to different types of fantasy, but still think there’s some way to go. What we really need is a New Weird novel that gets Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter level of sales. Even as a Tolkienist, I’d love that. As a reader, like most people, I think I’m a bit more complex than to be able to placed solely in one camp. (I love Lord of the Rings, though later novels leave me cold. Huge fan of Clive Barker but have never read Peake).

Surely, then, we should break up the dynasties, or merge them into one great family called Fantasy. There are bigger challenges for us to face, new dragons to slay, than to spend all our time infighting. Brother against sister, daughter against father. It’s like some George R R Martin novel! Diversity is good, people. Respect for things you don’t like (but others do) coupled with honest, snark-free debate, is even better.

Now With Added Fiction

POSTED ON July 28th, 2010  - POSTED IN Free Fiction

In the past 24 hours I’ve seen my creative mood swing from feeling very positive to extremely critical. There’s been no trigger either that I can see. It sucks, because I need to get the novel done, and things like this get in the way.

But in my slump, I decided that I really need to get my fiction section going. I’ve wanted to get some free fiction onto the site for some time and the original plan was for sometime next year when I would add my story that’s coming to New Horizons this autumn. But digging around last night, I found a number of flash pieces that I’m never really going to do anything with.

So I’ve put three stories online.

The Tim Machine was from blog competition on Jay Lake’s site a while back, where we were only given the title and had to come up with the story

The Salt of Life might have been something similar, or something I just wrote in order to have something to read out at my local writer’s circle

Finally That Time With Mary By The Oak Tree was my (unsuccessful) entry into the Campaign For Real Fear. Given how many entries they got, I figure there are a load of these stories floating round trying to get placed, so it’s better here.

You can check them all out in the new Fiction Section. Comments are enabled so you can tell me what you think, but note that whilst comments are moderated, they are only moderated for spam. So if you say anything critical, as long as you’re not being a total ass, it’ll still go up. I would prefer gushing praise, as I’m a writer in a slump, but I’d prefer honesty over even that.

I’m hoping to add more stories in the future, so if you like what you read, help spread the word, by posting about the stories on your blog, facebook, twitter, etc. Seriously, you might not think this much, but it can mean all the difference!

Predators

POSTED ON July 22nd, 2010  - POSTED IN Movies

I don’t expect this to prove to be universally true, but for me, Predator is the perfectly paced movie. The story has a rhythm to it that means I can pretty much watch that movie on a continuous loop (and have done so in the past).

After action movies of the 80s where Arnie would always kick arse, it was refreshing to see a movie where the action heroes had it handed to them on a plate. It was essentially G.I. Joe vs Aliens, and I loved that premise.

The predator has remained my favourite movie monster ever since – something about those facial mandibles. I’ve even had chance to talk to some of the people who designed it over the years (including the late Stan Winston).

The Aliens Vs Predator movies never seemed to have enough alien or predator action in them so when I heard about Predators, I was excited.

The premise is pretty simple – The world’s best killers are rounded up and put on a game preserve planet for the predators to hunt. But what I liked about this movie, in a slight twist at one point, is that the killers decide to go after the predators.

It has many of the elements I loved about the original – the jungle setting, the cast getting knocked off one by one, vague references to the original Predator, heck even the mini-gun (officially the greatest movie weapon ever made).

Unusually, you never learn the names of the vast majority of characters (or if we did it was very quick and I missed it) and that can make you disconnect with them slightly. Still, it did feel odd, cheering a serial rapist as he decides to jump a predator. And perhaps that’s the problem. There’s nothing likeable about these characters. They’ve all done terrible things, why should we care that the predators knock them off?

Adrien Brody makes an interesting action hero that retains some of Arnie’s traits but gives it a slightly different twist. I’m not a huge Brody fan, but he is good in this. Topher Grace was the one who surprised me, putting in a very subtle but effective performance.

Look, I doubt this movie will win a lot of critical acclaim, but as a popcorn movie sequel to the original Predator, it does it very very well and I found it thoroughly enjoyable.

Why Institutionalized Twilight Hate Is Bad For Genre

POSTED ON July 16th, 2010  - POSTED IN Genre

In my years running the website I had the pleasure of running into loads of different fandoms. From Harry Potter and Marvel fans (boy, do you never want to get in a row with those guys!) ruight through to smaller niche fandoms like Jurassic Park and Power Rangers. In general I love fandoms (yes, including the Marvel fans). That sense of community, of seeing a bunch of fans just geek out about their favourite properties – thing of beauty, man, thing of beauty.

The thing is, people do not belong to one fandom. And when fandoms fight, it gets ugly, because they start dictating what their community can and can’t like – and all that does is just alienate people. I love both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings but when the movies came out and some ‘dared’ to say that Jackson’s epics were better than Classic Star Wars, it got ugly for a time. So much so, that I found myself drifting away from both.

People don’t like the same things and I wouldn’t change that for the world. Diversity keeps the world interesting, gives us something to discuss. Which is why all this Twilight hate is really getting to me.

I’ve not read the books, but I’ve seen both the Twilight and New Moon movies. I didn’t think they were particularly bad as movies, but they really weren’t for me. Like many in genre the only thing I want my vampires glistening with, is their victims blood. I’ve not read the novels, people I trust say things that make me think I wouldn’t like them. If I’m honest, I think I’d hate them. I’m not, and don’t think I’ll ever be a Twilight fan.

But you know what, if you love Twilight, great! By the same token, if you’ve read the books or seen the films and hate them, you are equally entitled to your opinion.

The problem comes inbetween, where hate of the books has become institutionalised rather than a personal opinion. And with it, comes the generalisation of members of the Twilight fandom as “idiots”. (Note: people in opposing fandoms are always “idiots”). Call me old fashioned but I think that before you start spouting off to all and sundry about how bad the Twilight books are, you maybe should have at least read them. Note that this is different to someone saying they don’t like the concept of sparkly vampires.

Twilight has introduced a lot of new young fans to genre. Some will only ever love Twilight, attracted to the romance but not the genre element. Some will go on to discover Bram Stoker, or Anne Rice. I bet at least one kid reading Twilight now, will go on to be a big genre superstar in twenty years time, admitting in interviews “I know they were a little trashy but they introduced me to genre and I love them so”.

Which means that with this influx of young new fans comes a little fair bit of ignorance to what has come before. Which means taking a deep breath before telling the hundredth fan that Bram Stoker did not rip off Stephanie Meyer. Just remember that along with the ignorance, comes a lot of new ideas, and that’s good even if some of the ideas are bad.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there is an obligation on authors to educate their fans. I know it’s slightly different but I spent a lot of time engaging with fans of the old site and that investment really paid off, with all of us becoming more informed (myself included). Educated fans help the community as a whole, but that takes time, it takes investment.

The important thing is that Twilight is exposing a lot of new people to genre. That’s a good thing, but like any community when it gets an influx of new people, it takes some adjustment, the old guard wary of the new. In the long term it’s healthy but you gotta be open to change these fans will bring.

Go And Have An Adventure

POSTED ON July 12th, 2010  - POSTED IN Uncategorized

“In fact, I will go as far as to send you on this adventure. Very amusing for me, very good for you – and profitable too, very likely, if you ever get over it” – Gandalf, The Hobbit

Writing can be a very solitary business, and one where it’s easy to get yourself in a rut, chained to your computer for a ridiculous number of hours in the day, waiting for that muse to strike.

But when that happens, I’ve learned I have to go away and do something, make my desire to write stronger by denying it to me.

I have a phrase I use on friends when they’re in a bit of a rut, or a bit down: “Go and have an adventure.”

Now that doesn’t mean to go off and slay a dragon, but that instead the person should take themselves off somewhere they wouldn’t normally go: a shop, a museum, a countryside walk. Go do some activity you’ve never done before, or go to some place you’ve never been before; something you can tell friends about when you get back.

There’s no better way to break out of that rut and lift the spirits, than by going off and doing something different. It breaks the monotony and repetition that can grind you down, gives you inspiration and mark my words, you’ll come back feeling better for it.

It’s Not About The Numbers

POSTED ON July 11th, 2010  - POSTED IN Reading

We have a phrase in Geocaching that goes “it’s not about the numbers”. This means that it shouldn’t matter whether you’ve found a hundred or only one cache today, but instead whether you went for a nice walk or got taken somewhere interesting.

And I think this should apply to reading as well. If you want to write well, we are told you need to read a lot. And I agree with this… to a certain degree.

I’m an incredibly slow reader. I like to digest books, mull over them, rather than race over them. I used to read fast as a child but after a teacher found out I was skipping words whilst reading allowed, I was ‘conditioned’ to read carefully. This means I tend to scan very sentence three times as I read, and often if I get to the end of a paragraph and feel nothing has really gone back in, I’ll go back and do it again.

It means it takes me a long time to read a book, and in many ways it feels like a secret shame. How am I ever going to be a good novelist if I’m not reading over a hundred books a year?

But I think “it’s not about the numbers”. I’m reading The Passage at the moment and at the current rate I think it’ll take me a couple of months to finish (OK, so a self-imposed writing deadline doesn’t help). But I feel I’m getting a lot out of this book by reading slowly, that I wouldn’t get out of it if I was reading fast. I find myself enjoying the style of it, digging past the prose and into the construction, and I’m really enjoying it. More importantly, I feel I’m learning from it: the way Cronin uses exposition but stops it feeling flat is something I’m really, really enjoying.

Don’t get me wrong, I realise this approach doesn’t suit everyone. When it comes to Geocaching, I’m a complete numbers freak, so I’m not going to moan at people who are prolific readers. And how could you?

I’m just saying, there’s no shame in taking your time on a book if you feel you’re really getting something out of it. It’s not about the numbers!

A Disconnected Evening

POSTED ON July 7th, 2010  - POSTED IN Uncategorized

Everyone these days talks about needing to be connected to the internet but I think I’ve gone the other way.

Last night I had a nasty outage with my ISP which meant my internet connection effectively went down, and I was surprised how much it didn’t bother me.

Don’t get me wrong: email, web access, Facebook & Twitter have all become vital parts of my life, and since getting my smartphone I don’t think I could ever go back to being unable to check my email whilst on the move.

In the ‘old days’ I would have found yesterday a major issue. One of the reasons I’m with the ISP I am is simply because of the quality of service. More than an hour’s downtime and I would be jumping up and down screaming.

None of that stress last night when I just thought that if I really needed to get online I had my phone but otherwise I was in for a quiet evening.

Crunch Time

POSTED ON July 6th, 2010  - POSTED IN Writing

It was Douglas Adams who said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Unfortunately, deadlines are a necessity in publishing, and as a writer, you won’t get far these days unless you can meet them.

So, whilst it’s only a personal one, I have a deadline for this latest revision / draft of the novel of the end of July. And whilst a lot of work from previous drafts will remain as it is, there are a lot of new sections that need to be rewritten.

I have no idea how long the finished novel will be – I’m assuming somewhere between 90k and 125k – so I guesstimate I have 90k words left to do… over 30 days.

That’s an average of 3000 words a day, every day, which is a punishing schedule for someone who likes to take time off at the weekends.

So it’s crunch time. Twitter and Facebook have been turned off except for allotted times (when normally they run in the background) and even email is only being checked periodically for the absolutely vital stuff.

The next month is going to a pretty lonely affair, but I will have a novel at the end of it.

The Plot Knot

POSTED ON July 1st, 2010  - POSTED IN Writing

The last few days have not been good days for writing. A headachey illness has kept me off work a couple of days, and before that was my camping trip. So I’ve done hardly any writing over the last week.

However one major stumbling block I’ve been trying to work my way around is a subtle plot knot and it’s all to do with motivations.

Not everything gets revealed in book 1, indeed, the plan is that over the course of the books secrets will be revealed that will hopefully give more insight into earlier events. Except, there’s an innocent little scene near the beginning where there is a lot going on under the surface, and this knowledge meant that some character’s motivations weren’t exactly correct.

‘Worry’ is probably too strong a word but I’ve been worrying how to solve this particular issue. As the scene loomed large for a redraft this worry grew. It probably wouldn’t worry a reader… until they got to the big revelation in book 3 or 4 and then there would be questions.

But over the last 2 days, when even thinking felt too much like an effort, what happens: the solution pops into my head (along with an idea for a future book). Like I said a couple of days ago, downtime is important because you never know when you’ll get that idea that will unravel your plot knot.