Friday, December 21, 2012

Snowfall - a story for Christmas

I haven't posted any fiction on this blog before, but I thought I'd give you a brief story for Christmas.  It isn't actually a Christmas story, although it's vaguely seasonal.  I hope you enjoy it.

It was his fevered, dying delusion, of course.  How could it be otherwise, after days stumbling through the burning sands of the desert?  Maybe death was kind, after all, and came as a cold, beautiful snow-fall.

He rolled onto his back, opening a parched mouth to catch the flakes, but they swirled too wildly in the wind – still the burning winds of the desert – and settled on his body instead.  Weak hands scrunched up suddenly wet clothes, so that he could bend and suck their moisture.

It was scarcely enough to dampen his mouth, but he felt at once refreshed and stronger.  Sitting up, he tried to peer through the snow, but it was falling heavily now, whiting out his surroundings as effectively as a sandstorm.

He got to his feet like a newborn foal, staggering on weak legs but gradually regaining balance.  Taking an experimental step, he realised that he was still walking on sand, even though the blizzard was now heavy enough for a complete carpet of white.

It didn’t matter.  Nothing mattered, except that he was strong again and happy.

“Will you play with me?”

He whirled around at the voice, and saw her standing where no-one had been a moment before.  She looked about ten: a pretty girl with a sparkling, impudent face, dressed in a thin summer frock, her feet bare.

When he didn’t reply – he tried, but no voice would come – she put her head on one side and asked, “Do you like the snow?  I thought you would.”

“Did you make the snow?”  His voice sounded harsh and unnatural in his own ears.  “Are you a goddess?”

She considered that.  “I suppose I am, in a way.  I’m not a scary goddess, though.  I just like to play.  Do you like snowballs?”

“Yes.”  It was a strange conversation, though entirely natural.  “But there’s no snow on the ground.”

The girl hit her forehead dramatically, pulling a playful face.  “I knew I’d forgotten something.  There is now.”

Looking down, he saw thick snow carpeting the ground for as far as he could see.  The girl bent down, gathering snow up into a tight ball, and threw it at him.  It didn’t sting at all, merely refreshed him, and he stooped to make his own snowball.

“Can’t catch me,” the girl called out, running away, but not fast enough to avoid being hit by his creation.  She squealed in delight, and they began a running, screaming snowball-fight that seemed to last for hours.  When they finally tired of that, they built a snowman together, and then lay exhausted, making snow-angels.

Finally, the girl reached over and kissed him lightly on the cheek.  “It’s time to go now,” she said.  “It’s all right, though.  You don’t have to go back to the desert.  I told you, I’m not a scary goddess.”

His body was lighter, less substantial than he’d ever known it, but that was all right.  The snow still fell, playing in the wind in and out of him, and his body and consciousness mingled with it, playing and swirling in all directions, until it was indistinguishable from the rest of the snow.

“Goodbye,” said the girl softly.  “Have fun.”

Thursday, December 13, 2012

But I'm Not a Comedy Writer

I’ve never considered comedy to be high among my abilities, but I’m coming to the conclusion that other people don’t agree with this.

Back in the 80s and 90s, when I was doing performance poetry around London venues, I had plenty of serious subjects to write poems about: political and social issues, ecology, exploration of mystical states.  I performed many of these with musical backing, and they generally went down well, but my biggest “hit” by far was a doggerel piece about a woman who tries to slim too much and turns into a black hole.  It always got a lot of laughs, and people used to tell me I should concentrate on that style.

Trouble was, that wasn’t what I wanted or needed to write, and similar ideas very rarely occurred to me.  I simply wasn’t cut out to be a comic writer.

Fiction’s the same.  I’ve certainly tried to avoid being dry as dust or over-solemn, and there are many humorous moments in my stories, but those are just lines or incidents that rise from the situation and fall back into it as quickly.  It wasn’t till I started writing flash fiction that I began sometimes to write completely comic stories.

Flash fiction (stories shorter than a thousand words) was something else I didn’t expect to be good at, since even my short stories tended to the long side.  I only really got into it when an online writers’ group I belong to started to do one-hour writing challenges.  Some of the pieces I’ve written in an hour to a theme are throwaway, and others are the beginnings of longer stories — including my recent publication from Musa Publishing, The Treason of Memory — but some are complete short pieces.  Often, as it turned out, comic.

The advantage of writing comedy at that length is that a story can be based around a single joke, and can often be therapeutic.  When my washing-machine leaked and flooded the kitchen, I wrote about a wizard having to call in a water-witch to fix his magic well.  When I missed an appointment due to relying on technology to direct me, I wrote a tale of a heroic quest gone wrong called The Sat-Nav of Doom.  It felt good, especially when the latter was published by Every Day Fiction.  But it was still just a flash story.

Then I met Sam Nemesis.  He began, too, as a one-hour writing challenge.  The challenge, as far as I remember, was to write a story that was, at least partially, in an unfamiliar genre, and I chose a fantasy version of the hard-boiled noir detective – Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade etc. – which I’d never written before. 

Not just a fantasy detective, though: specifically, a P.I. who operates in the world of Greek mythology.  The familiar doings of gods and heroes are seen as mysteries to be unravelled, in exactly the same way as discovering the whereabouts of the Maltese Falcon.

The idea was received enthusiastically by the people who read them, and before I knew, I had two stories about Sam – substantial stories, not just flash – waiting for publication, in Penumbra and Wily Writers, and I've just completed another.  What's going on?  And what are the secrets of writing good comedy, which I appear to have somehow managed to learn?

It seems to me that writing successful comedy fiction needs four main things (besides the obvious requirement of being able to think of good one-line jokes).  One is to have a really good basic idea to start with, and run with it.  When Douglas Adams decided to follow what happened to a very ordinary man who’d survived the destruction of Earth, he had a situation where – quite literally – the universe was the limit.  When Terry Pratchett created a world that swam through space on the back of a giant turtle, which could potentially contain not only every cliché of fantasy, but also anything he chose from the contemporary world too, he gave himself ammunition for countless dozens of books.

While I’m not saying my idea is on that scale of brilliance, I think I’ve hit on something that can run and run.  Greek mythology is full of violent death, theft and abduction, and having a P.I. investigating it all makes a lot of comic sense.

Another important factor, I think, is an element of juxtaposition.  I recall a well-known comedian (I forget who it was, but I remember it was a well-known comedian) suggesting that one key to Monty Python’s success is their habit of taking two familiar situations and shoe-horning them together in a way that makes the situation completely surreal.  Most of us have experienced a pet dying, and most have us have suffered frustration from poor customer service.  Few of us, I suspect, have experienced that frustration while trying to return a dead parrot, and the absurdity of the juxtaposition makes the sketch funny.

Pratchett, too, is a master of juxtaposition.  Discworld is full of all the things we expect from the most clichéd of fantasy tale – wizards, assassins, barbarian warriors and the like – but alongside all this, he gives us a police force, a post office and even (the gods help us) tourists.  It’s all completely logical, but, put together with other elements, deliciously absurd as well.

Greek mythology and the hard-boiled detective are, I’d say, two of the more familiar fictional elements in modern western culture.  Even people who know little of them will instinctively recognise the archetypes.  I think it’s fair to say, though, that they aren’t the most obvious elements to put together.  To filter stories regarded as the highest of high culture through the eyes of someone who regards goddesses as “dames” and heroes as “punks” achieves, I think, that level of juxtaposition.

Good characters are vital.  That might not seem so important when the object is to be silly, but it isn't really funny when absurd things happening to cardboard cut-outs.  Even if the characters are exaggerated or in unreal situations, we can only really laugh at them if they’re people we can relate to.

I’ve tried to make Sam a character, not just a cypher of clichés from noir fiction, even though that’s how his situation and experiences are made up.  I’ve also tried to surround him with people who are interesting and vivid in their own right, whether they’re gods, monsters or heroes.  In general, readers seem to like the people in my straight fiction, and I’ve applied the same level of characterisation for comedy as for an epic or an adventure story.

If the need for good characters in comedy isn’t obvious, then it might seem even stranger to emphasise the need for accuracy and authenticity, but this is especially vital in parody.  If we’re laughing at a specific target, then it’s only funny if we’re laughing at that target, not at something vaguely like it.  It’s no accident that the best parodies tend to get the strongest results from fans of what’s being parodied.  You probably could, for instance, laugh at the wonderful film Galaxy Quest without having watched Star Trek, but it takes a true Trekkie to get all the jokes and really appreciate how funny it is.

I’ve lost count of the comedy treatments of mythology I’ve read – usually Greek or Norse mythology, or else stories of angels and archangels in heaven.  Some are done excellently, but in far too many cases, they seem as if the author has spent ten minutes reading a Wikipedia article on the subject and then taken a few random characters that sound fun, regardless of whether or not they’re being used in the right way.

I studied Greek mythology as part of Classics at university, and I’ve read a great deal about the subject, both before that and since.  The characters I’ve used are those who belong in the stories, and their functions and characters are (suitably adapted for noir and comedy, of course) those the mythology gave to them.

Sam’s investigation of Herakles carrying off Cerberus from the Underworld, for instance, features the minor goddess Hekate in a fairly important role.  This might seem rather random but, in fact, Hekate has a small part in that myth.  It makes complete sense that she’s around, especially since she also belongs in the Underworld, where the story starts.

So: a great set-up, juxtaposition, strong characters, authenticity.  With the possible exception of the second, that doesn’t seem so very different from what’s needed to write a straight story well.  And that, I think, is the real key: to write a good story, rather than to write comedy.  The requirements are much the same; it’s just that the outcome needs to be funny, rather than exciting, moving, thought-provoking or scary.  Not that it can’t be all those, too.  But in a funny way.

It seems, then, that maybe I am a comedy writer as well as a serious one.  You never know: I might even end up as a stand-up comic.  What’s certain, though, is that I’ll be trawling Greek mythology in search of more cases for Sam Nemesis, Private Investigator to gods, heroes and monsters.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Treason of Memory out from Musa Publishing

The Treason of Memory
Nyki Blatchley
Cover by David Efaw
Published by Musa Publishing (Urania imprint)
Young aristocrat Estent n’Ashne has been arrested for assassinating the king he’s always loved. He remembers the deed, though not why he did it, but the enigmatic spy Sharru seems convinced of his innocence. Together, the unlikely pair must search through the slums and palaces of the city of Jalkiya to uncover both political intrigue and an ancient evil. But how can Estent find the truth when he can’t even trust his own memory?
Combining the sordid world of espionage with dark magic, The Treason of Memory is an action-packed adventure story set in a fantasy world of flintlocks and rapiers. 

The House of Dreams in Lore

Lore Vol.2 No.2 (November 2012)
Edited by Rod Heather & Sean O'Leary
Cover by Christopher Allen
The latest edition of Lore is out, featuring my story The House of Dreams. Featuring my recurring character the Traveller, the main character of my novel At An Uncertain Hour, the story was inspired by Walter De La Mare's haunting poem The Listeners, whose character is referred to as "the Traveller". Well, I couldn't resist, could I? The story gives my answers to the mysteries and enigmas in the poem.
The issue also features stories by Bridget Coila, Keith P. Graham, Steve Rasnic Tem, Colin Heintze, Stephen Mark Rainey, J.P. Boyd, Jeremy Harper, Nickolas Furr, Jeff Samson, Corey Mariani and Denise Dumars.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Broadsword, Flintlock or Fireball?

When I first started writing stories set in fantasy worlds, during childhood and my teens, they were pretty much mediaeval.  At least, the very first ones, when I was around seven or eight, had knights on horseback together with modern-style cities, because... well, why not?  By my teens, it had turned into very much the kind of mediaeval romance style of world that's been popular in fantasy at least since William Morris  ̶  bold knights, maidens in distress (though sometimes getting out of it themselves) and mysterious towers.

That's all very well, but by the time I was into my twenties, the model had changed to "good" countries full of turbulent politics and new ideas flying around and "evil" countries ruled by autocratic tyrants.  By now, I was heavily influenced by classical Greece, though with a fair amount of input from the Renaissance.

To some extent, that's remained my comfort-zone ever since, although there's a good deal more shades of grey now between the good and evil.  I don't follow my models in everything, of course.  I reserve the right to let my favourite societies manage without slavery, and I've allowed them to invent the printing-press before guns.  Still, these are the kind of cultures I enjoy writing about.

In the past few years, though, I've been branching out.  The stories set in my main world, about the Traveller and others, cover a very long period and, although I've perhaps been a little guilty of extending the pre-gunpowder iron age to the limit of credulity, it can't stretch forever  ̶  either way.

I've dabbled a little in neolithic and bronze-age stories, though I need to explore those more, but I've done more about bringing my world up to date.  Various stories have been set in the age of steam, an equivalent of the mid-20th century, and even in this world's own computer age, with one story (due to be published next year) managing to cover the ten thousand years between flint technology and computers.  Musa Publishing has just issued my long story, The Treason of Memory, set in the age of flintlocks and rapiers.  I have been known to describe it as flintlockpunk, but that's just a joke.

It's been huge fun to watch my world growing up, letting it parallel our own but keeping it sufficiently different not to be a straightforward copy.  Some of their
"modern" technology has taken a slightly different course  ̶  electric cars, VTOL planes, phones you wear on your wrist and the like  ̶  but it's essentially a similar world.

This isn't the only possible approach, of course.  I've also written a few stories set in a separate world where all modern-style technology is powered by magical principles, rather than scientific ones.  You set a spell in motion to start your car or your communication device, and the weapon of choice  ̶ roughly equivalent to anything ranging from a rifle to a machine-gun  ̶  is the fireball-thrower.

Nevertheless, my main interest is to examine one particular what-if  ̶  what if the world were essentially as it is (give or take the odd sorcerer or immortal, to create a bit of fantasy) but with all the details different.  Different landmasses, different cultures, different nations, different solutions.  How would it evolve?

I want to explore this further, although I'm not going to give writing in my "comfort-zone", but the options aren't limitless in either direction.  If we go far enough back that the characters know little more of their world than "the forest" or "the grasslands", how is that different from a story set in an equivalent period of our own world?  I have actually written something of the kind, about a group of palaeolithic hunter-gatherers.  It pleases me to define it as being set in my own world, but without anything clearly distinguishable (three moon, a blue sun or whatever) it could just as well be about the prehistory of this world.

On the other hand, there's only far I can go into the "future" without running into a similar problem.  There's some leeway, and it might be interesting to show them encountering issues we haven't yet, but by the time they've developed FTL travel, sought out new life and new civilisations and started their own Federation, I might just as well write straight SF.

Still, that leaves me with anything from urban neolithic to early space exploration, giving me room for a lot more exploration.  Pick a level of civilisation  ̶  there's something to be written about it.
Click here for The Treason of Memory in any ebook format.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Writer & the Computer

Last week, I spent eight days without a computer.  Now, that shouldn’t have affected my writing too much.  I’ve been writing fiction for many decades and had my first professional publication in 1980.  I wrote six novels and innumerable short stories and poems, using a mixture of handwriting and a manual typewriter, until I finally got my first PC in the mid-nineties (60Mb hard drive and about one step on from Bill Gates’s prototype of Windows).  I shouldn’t depend on a computer to be a writer.

The result (at first, certainly) was to leave me at a complete loose end.  All my WiPs of any kind exist only as computer files.  They’re backed up, of course (memory stick, CD and Googledocs) but nothing I can get at without a computer.  There was nothing current I could work on.  I could have started a new story from scratch, of course, but even that would have had pitfalls.  I re-use a lot of characters and settings, and I tend to rely on being able to flick open the file for a previous story to check on what I said there about this or that.  All on the computer, of course.

All right, so maybe I could submit some stories.  Well, even if I could find markets that take snail-mail submissions, and then pay the exorbitant mailing costs (international mail, since there are very few UK-based markets), I need the internet to find them and check out their guidelines.  Then I’d need a submittable copy of the story and a proper cover letter – both of which mean printing it off the computer.

So could I use the time for research, or discussion of the craft?  Well, about from a monthly writers group, all my discussion about writing is carried on over the internet; and, while I have a large collection of books and could no doubt research some topics, I rely heavily on what I can find online.

I did gradually find solutions.  My town doesn’t have any internet cafes, but I was able to use the computers at the library – for one hour a day, excluding the two days the library’s shut and the one day I arrived to find their computers down.  That enabled me to check my emails and at least look in on the writing groups I belong to, but most importantly, I was able to print off various unfinished and unrevised stories, and then work on the hard copy.  Then again, when I finally got the computer back, I had a lot of typing to do, so that wouldn’t have been a long-term solution.

The upside was that, without the distraction of social media and games, I was able to focus more on the work I did have access to, and I got several things done that had been hanging around for too long.  The downside was that I couldn’t really have kept that up for long.  Printing at the library’s a lot more expensive than printing at home; I’d have to have found some time to type up the work I’d done; and I’d also have had to have found time to submit it, all within the very limited computer access.  And I’d have ended up with stacks of paper to file away somewhere – something I’m eternally grateful to computers for freeing me from.

Hello, I’m Nyki, and I’m a computer-dependent writer.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review of Tempest by Bob Dylan

I’ve been a fan of Bob Dylan since 1965, and I’ve almost always been able to tell in advance how I’m going to rate a new album.  I remember counting down the days till I could go into the local record shop and buy Blood on the Tracks, whereas in other cases I looked at the album and decided I’d get it some time.  Although some of those have grown on me a bit, that first vibe has usually been confirmed. 

I was excited as soon as I heard about Tempest.  It’s an album that’s divided Dylan’s fans – hardly a new experience for him.  I can understand people not getting it, but I’m definitely in the “it’s a masterpiece” camp.

I’ve mostly loved Dylan’s recent output, especially Love and Theft, Modern Times and some tracks from the Tell Tale Signs collection, such as ‘Cross the Green Mountain.  The songs on Tempest seem, at the same time, a continuation of the same groove and a new departure.

As with most of his recent work, Dylan’s casting a jaundiced eye over the modern world – “the new dark age” as he once called it – attacking hypocrisy and lamenting the loss of honour and compassion, but his world-view has rarely been as bleak as this, and his voice matches it.  Dylan’s voice has always been raw and rasping, but it’s even more so now.  This is an element many people seem to dislike, but it seems to me that he’s finally achieved what he’s been trying for since he was twenty – the true rough edge of blues masters like Charley Patton or Blind Willie Johnson.  In spite of the rasp, Dylan’s in full control of what his voice is doing, and his timing, phrasing and ability to invest a word with extra meaning are unimpaired.

He’s using his touring band on this album, and it shows clearly that they’re used to playing with him.  Like all Dylan’s most successful backing combos, such as the Band and the Kooper/Bloomfield line-up of the mid-60s, they have the knack of sounding like an extension of what Dylan’s doing, without sacrificing their individual musicianship.  It’s not an easy balance to maintain through his various musical styles, and they achieve it beautifully.

For any new Dylan album, though, the most significant factor has to be the songs he’s come up with.  For the most part, as on recent albums, it ranges from Chicago blues, to country ballads to rock ‘n’ roll, but there are variations – Scarlet Town is as swampy as a six-foot alligator, while Tin Angel is a barely sung folk ballad over an ominous bass riff.

Lyrically, the earlier songs on the album are fairly direct (well, direct for Dylan, that is) and play about with his old habit of setting up clichés only to explode them in our faces.  I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises he warbles at the beginning of Soon After Midnight, but this isn’t some dumb romantic song.  His “date with the Fairy Queen” is on night-time streets full of whores, death and vengeance – Two-timing Slim, who’s ever heard of him? I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.

Dylan has said that he wanted to make a religious album, but it didn’t turn out that way, and religious imagery haunts many of these songs.  You went and lost your lovely head for a drink of wine and a crust of bread (from Narrow Way) suggests the Christian Eucharist, as does Man cannot live by bread alone, I pay in blood, but not my own (from Pay In Blood).  This is a long way, though, from the straightforward religion of the late 70s/early 80s, and the references are both uncomfortable and ambiguous.  Is the blood he pays in the blood of Christ, or the blood of other people – victims of war, perhaps?  Or both?  Maybe, in the end, that’s distinction isn’t what the song’s about, and you can take it whichever way you like.

The later songs are more oblique.  Scarlet Town begins with the opening line of the traditional ballad Barbara Allen, but then goes its own way into a nightmare vision of life in Sodom and Gomorrah where you fight your father’s foes... You fight ‘em on high and you fight ‘em down in, you fight ‘em with whiskey, morphine and gin.

Tin Angel also begins as if it’s going to be a traditional ballad (Black Jack Davey in this case) but soon veers off into what could perhaps best be described as the lovechild of Isis and The Man in the Long Black Coat, but far darker and more vicious than either.  This Tin Angel couldn’t be further from the gentle song of the same name on Joni Mitchell’s Clouds – and, since Mitchell criticised Dylan for plagiary a few years back, maybe the choice of title isn’t an accident.

 The title track is a thirteen-minute telling of the sinking of the Titanic, but not a straightforward version.  Dylan has transformed the event into a myth of a society that can’t see that it’s ship is sinking, in a way that reminds me a little of Black Diamond Bay.  An assortment of characters that would do justice to Desolation Row are intent on their own business – even Leonardo DiCaprio gets a look in back on the ship – overseen by the Watchman (Dylan himself?) who saw the Titanic was sinking and tried to tell someone.

Dylan has only ever done one song before that’s a tribute to a fellow artist – Lenny Bruce from 1981, which was uncompromisingly direct.  On the final track here, Roll On John, he gives us a version of John Lennon’s life that doesn’t allow mere facts to get in the way of a good myth – on a slave-ship, ambushed where the buffalo roam, it tells us not how Lennon’s life was, but how Dylan sees it.

Modern Times was criticised in some circles (including by Joni Mitchell) for the way Dylan based some of the tracks on older songs, even though it was no different from what he was doing in the 60s, basing songs on Scarborough Fair, Lord Franklin, The Parting Glass and many others.  There’s been criticism of Tempest on the grounds that he uses many quotes in the lyrics, but this misses the point.  There’s an old saying that a bad poet/artist etc imitates, a good one steals.  Dylan steals, just like Homer or Shakespeare, but far from cheating, the connections the quotes evoke give a whole extra shade of meaning.  Just as they do in Elliot’s The Waste Land, which is widely considered one of the great poems of the 20th century.

There’s been speculation that there may be significance that this album has the same title as Shakespeare’s last play (well, more or less his last).  Dylan’s joked that his title is missing The, and that makes all the difference.  Whatever the significance, I can’t imagine him calling it a day before he has to.  On the form of Tempest, I hope that’s a very long time.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Witch in Aoife's Kiss

The September 2012 issue of Aoife's Kiss is now out, featuring my story Witch. The seventh story to be published about Eltava, swordswoman and adventurer, goes back to show her at fourteen, when boring grown-ups got in the way of adventures.

Aoife's Kiss is an excellent magazine (and I'm not just saying that because they've published three of my stories now) and this issue also includes fiction by Steve Newton, Tim McDaniel, D. Thomas Minton, Rebecca Harwell, L. Joseph Shosty, Mary E. Lowd, Brent Knowles, Charlie Brooks, Tony Peak, Giovanni Giusti, Sarah L. Byrne, Grant J. Howe, Olga Godim and Eamonn Murphy; poetry by Diego Miller, Sandra Sowers Platt, Stephanie V. Sears, Holly Day, Anna Sykora, Will H. Blackwell Jr, Yue Xing Wang and Jason Sturner; and an interview with James Gunn.

All this and the striking cover by Laura Givens for a mere $9.00

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

An Old Horror Story and a Convention

A little over thirty years ago, I was a young, aspiring and mainly unpublished author.  I’d had one or two poems in magazines, but my most prestigious story publication was in a school magazine.  My main interest as a writer was (as it still is, to some extent) a cross between epic fantasy and sword & sorcery, with occasional diversions into other genres.

In 1980, I discovered through a friend that the Fontana horror series, edited by Mary Danby, was accepting unsolicited submissions.  I had an idea for a horror story, so I wrote Safe as Houses, submitted it and was delighted when it was accepted and appeared in The Thirteenth Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories – immediately before a reprint of a story by some chap called Lovecraft.  Whatever happened to him?

And then – nothing.  Looking back, I don’t really know why I didn’t write some follow-ups and submit them to Mary, or to any rival publication, but I simply went back to writing fantasy and, increasingly through the 80s, a surreal style of story I described at the time as “dislocated realism”.  I submitted here and there but, in the days before Ralan, Duotrope and electronic submission, it wasn’t easy to find potential markets, and I had to wait another fifteen years for my second published story.  It’s gradually developed from there to the point where now I can (occasionally) sneak into fully professional magazines.

I was always proud of that first publication, but I didn’t really think that much about it.  Horror was always something of a fringe interest for me, and it wasn’t till I started googling myself a few years ago that I was surprised to discover how many hits Safe as Houses got, and that it was part of a horror classic.

Even so, it was completely out of the blue that I got an email earlier this year from Johnny Mains.  He was going to be interviewing Mary Danby as one of the guests of honour at Fantasycon, and was trying to get as many authors as possible that she’d published to be there.  I’d have loved to go to Fantasycon properly, but owing to being on the wrong side of the economic policy of a certain government who shall remain nameless, I couldn’t afford it.  However, I was invited to come down to Brighton for the Saturday as a guest.

I’ve been to various cons as a punter, but this was my first time as a guest, in however minor a capacity.  It was a wonderful day.  Besides mixing with the con crowd, meeting up both with people I knew in person and people I’d only known on line, I got to meet Mary at last.  She was delightful, and endearingly astonished at the fuss everyone was making about her books.  I discovered that she’s descended from Charles Dickens, and the niece of Monica Dickens, and it was awesome to be sitting right next to a member of a great literary family.

Johnny also came over as a really nice guy.  The authors who were there took part in the discussion, giving our reminiscences (although some of the others had a good deal more to contribute than I did) and then shared her signing session.  It was mainly for her new collection of her own stories, Party Pieces, but some people brought along copies of the anthologies, and I got asked for a few signatures.

It seems strange that something I did that long ago, which seems pretty much detached from my current writing, is almost certainly my most widely read story, and can still have an effect after so long.  So I’d like to thank Mary for publishing it, Johnny for inviting me, and both of them for being so friendly and welcoming.

And next time, perhaps I’ll be invited as a guest of honour for my bestselling novel.  Well, I can dream....

Monday, September 24, 2012

Why Can't I Never Use No Double Negative?

When judgement was called for in Hamlet’s duel with Laertes, the official result was Nothing neither way.  This must have given a headache to generations of teachers trying to impress on their students that they shouldn’t protest I never done nothing.  Why did the greatest writer in the language transgress so?

The answer is that it was perfectly correct to say that in Shakespeare’s day, just as it’s perfectly correct to say in French ce n’est pas faux, even though it contains two negative elements.

The No Double Negative rule was the result of grammarians trying to apply mathematical logic to language.  This would be a dubious activity anyway, but in doing so they committed the elementary logical error of assuming that, just because two things are called the same, they must be the same.

The argument’s simple: if you multiply -2 by -2, you get +4; therefore, if you apply one grammatical negatives to another, the result is a positive statement.  This doesn’t hold water, though.  A negative number isn’t just the absence of the positive, it’s a mirror image, and a mirror image reflected in another mirror ends up the right way round.

This isn’t true of a grammatical negative.  If it were, the statement I didn’t take a step forward would actually mean I took a step backward.  In fact, a negative here is simply a statement of nothing – though in relation to a specific nothing.  The mathematical equivalent would be multiplying by zero, since multiplying any number by zero simply negates it, producing zero.

So what do we get from 2x0x0?  Two?  Four?  Of course not – it’s exactly the same as 2x0.  (Now I’m going to get a mathematician protesting that there’s some theoretical difference between the two sums, but that’s just splitting hairs.  The result is the same.)  In the same way,  a negative negativing another negative should still give us a resounding negative.

So what does this prove?  Well, nothing really, apart from as a cautionary tale against trying to apply logic to anything as illogical as language.  The English language is what it is – chaotic and inconsistent – and the rule against a double negative is part of that now.  Perhaps, though, we could feel less superior next time we hear someone breaking that rule.  It was good enough for Shakespeare.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What's Your World Called?

One of the things many fantasy writers seem obsessed with is giving their invented world a name.  In some ways, this is reasonable – it’s a lot easier to talk about if you can call it something – but does it really make sense?  After all, what’s our world called? 

Well, in fact it has hundreds of names, but most of them are either the common word for the ground we walk on, or else the generic word for a world.  Why should other worlds be different?  As Ursula LeGuin put is in her SF novel Rocannon’s World, there are planets without names, called by their people simply The World...  There’s no reason for a fantasy world to be different.

Of course, LeGuin did give a name to her most famous fantasy world, but that’s a little different.  Just as the Earth is simply a description of the ground we walk on, if you lived somewhere that was nothing but islands and oceans all mixed up together, why wouldn’t you coin Earthsea as a word to mean Everything?

The same principle applies for a country, a planet or an entire plane of existence: it only needs a name for people who are aware of something else.  A tribe living in the rainforest, that maybe has some dealings with a tribe that lives a couple of days’ journey away, doesn’t need to give their homeland a name.  Even when inhabitants do become sufficiently aware of the rest of the world to adopt a name, it’s often very functional.  Take Germany, for instance.  It’s proper name is Deutschland – and all that actually means is The Land of the People.

The scale of naming works gradually outwards: your village as opposed to others; your local territory, perhaps defined by a larger town; your country; your continent...

Many of the classic fantasy worlds are actually at one of these levels.  Narnia, for instance, is the name of a country, not a world, while Middle Earth is a continent.  Tolkien’s world (which, of course, is only a mythical version of our own) does have a name – Arda – but this is only used when the perspective is of the Valar, who know of something beyond it.  Elves, dwarves, humans and hobbits, like our ancestors until very recently, just call it the World.

And this is the point.  We now sometimes think of our planet as Earth, not just the earth (or sometimes Terra) because we’re now aware that there’s something more, even though it’s largely a theoretical knowledge.  Most of us never claim to have met an alien (and almost certainly none of us actually have) but we know that, theoretically, there are probably other planets somewhere with other species living on them.  Even if there aren’t, we have stories about them, so we need to think of Terra, not just the world.

This can apply to entire fantasy worlds.  If you write, for instance, about a world that’s linked by stable magical portals to one or more other worlds, with which they’ve interacted, traded, made war and so on for many generations, then of course they’ll need not only names for the other worlds, but one for their own, just as we’re aware of living in Britain, Canada or Japan.

For a story, though, that’s set in a single world whose inhabitants are unaware of anything beyond it, there’s no reason for a name other than the local word for world.  But that raises a problem in itself.  You could decide that some name (let’s say Shansilea) is the word for world – but whose name?  Our world contains thousands of languages and, even in our age of globalisation, a few dozen that have international status, and all of those (certainly all the international ones) have their own word for our planet.  Which is the name?

None of which is saying that a writer shouldn’t give their world a name, if only to be able to talk about it; but be careful of how to present that name.  Your main character might call it Shansilea, since that’s the word for world in his/her language, and that can be how you talk about it, but be aware that other characters might use a different name.

Or, of course, the god who created your world might have decreed that its name shall be Shansilea, now and forever.  Fair enough.  Your god, your world, though you still have to explain how that commandment is common knowledge throughout the world.

My main world still doesn’t have a name, after more than forty years of development.  If I want to discuss it, I call it the Traveller’s World.  I could pick someone’s name for it, but which?  If I chose the Kimdyran name, for instance, I’d be afraid of offending the people of Errish, or Hafdosu, or Shillau.  Such is relativistic world-making.  So it remains the Traveller’s World.  Or just The World.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review - The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists

A while back, I came across an interesting-looking CD in the library called The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists.  I took it out for a weeks on spec, fell in love with it and bought my own copy as soon as possible after I had to take it back.  I’ve also got three of their other albums now (Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The King Is Dead) with the rest on my wish-list.  They’re all excellent, but The Hazards of Love remains my favourite.

According to the band’s account, it originated when their main singer and writer, Colin Meloy, became intrigued by an album of the same name by 60s British folksinger Anne Briggs.  Meloy loved the album, but decided it had only one fault – there was no title track, which he regarded as a waste of a great title.  He set out to write one, and ended up with a sixty-minute concept album instead.

Now, I know there are people who run screaming when “concept album” is mentioned.  There are certainly plenty of bad, self-indulgent examples to put them off, but I personally consider a well-crafted concept album the best possible use of the format.  The Hazards of Love is up with the best.

It tells a strange tale, rooted in folklore, of wild forests, animals that are really enchanted humans, gods of wood and water, faithful lovers and dastardly villains.  The story’s told in a sequence of songs and instrumentals that veer between folk rock, prog rock and hard rock, with plenty of variety to move between the dreaminess of young love and the hard edge of murder and kidnap.

Not that the story progresses in a linear, logical manner.  The songs form vignettes of key moments in the tale, with the listener left to construct a plot around them, although plenty of clues are given.  When the main villain, known as the Rake, makes his appearance, for instance, we might be forgiven for wondering exactly what this has to do with what’s gone before, and I’m still not entirely sure what happens to him in the end.  He does play a vital part in the story, though, and more than makes up for any vagueness by the quality of the songs relating to him.

There are four characters in the song, along with parts that are told by a neutral narrator.  The two females, Margaret and the Queen, are represented by guest vocalists – Becky Stark and Shara Worden respectively – but Colin Meloy does both males – William and the Rake – as well as the narration.  This could be seen as dramatically a weakness, although it’s never really a weakness to have plenty of Meloy’s vocals, but it’s very understandable.  He wrote the thing and, while William has a lot more of the album, there’s no way anyone who’s written The Rake’s Song is going to give it to someone else without it being torn out his dead, bloody hand.

Musically, although the Decemberists are based in Portland, Oregon, much of the obvious influence seems to be British, ranging from Steeleye Span to The Who (the Queen’s song Repaid reminds me a little of The Acid Queen from Tommy) and the band tackles the large range of styles effortlessly, from the brooding folk-prog of Annan Water, where the backing includes a hurdy-gurdy, to the crashing hard rock of The Rake’s Song, perhaps the most individually memorable number.  In spite of the British flavour, though, drawing on much of the kind of music I love, my absolute favourite musical moment on the album is when the wail of a pedal steel guitar breaks into the finale.  It shows a perfect musical judgement that never fails throughout the hour of the CD’s running-time.

You may have gathered by now that I love The Hazards of Love.  It’s a personal taste, of course, but I feel this could very well be the best album of the third millennium so far.  Well, perhaps with the exception of Dylan’s Modern Times, but that’s another story.  If what I’ve said here suggests the kind of thing you might like, do yourself a favour and get it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Run and Hide, Here Comes Real Life

This blog hasn’t been so active lately as it was, since I’ve been hit by real life, an annoying distraction that frequently gets in the way of writers (and other creative people) doing what really matters.  When we have to put that story that’s clamouring to be told onto the back-burner in favour of our job (and/or looking for one), the more onerous family affairs, or a hundred and one other guises in which this “real life” comes, we might be tempted to wish it would go away and stop bothering us.

Would that really be good for our creativity, though?  The great fantasy writer Lord Dunsany once commented that imagination can’t create without experience, and that’s as true for the most otherworldly fantasy as for the grittiest social realism.  If not more so.

On the face of it, real-life experiences aren’t likely to have much to offer a fantasy writer.  There are exceptions, of course: any experience we might have of combat, riding, hunting or farming, for example, could be useful for elements of epic fantasy.  Experience of ruling a kingdom, performing magic or fighting dragons is likely to be thinner on the ground.

Still, as those of us can testify who have to spend an inordinate amount of time on the aspect of real life known as job hunting, transferable skills are crucial.  So is transferable experience when writing fantasy.

Suppose, for instance, your character is a general who has to explain to an unforgiving king why the war’s going badly.  If you’ve actually had that experience, fair enough, but it’s unlikely.  On the other hand, most of us have had the experience of being grilled by the boss on our performance at work, or perhaps had to explain to a teacher why our grades have slipped.

OK, the boss or teacher doesn’t actually have the power to have us summarily executed (hopefully) but turn up the fear and discomfort by several orders of magnitude, and it might help understand exactly what the general’s feeling before and during his royal audience.

Then again, how do we present the feelings of a country’s ruler who discovers that the person s/he’s madly in love with is working with the country’s enemies?  Unfortunately, few of us are lucky enough to get through life without being betrayed or disappointed by someone we love.  The basic emotion is much the same, whether or not affairs of state are bound up with it, and that experience can inform events that seem far beyond it.

So many impossible experiences can be covered this way.  A novice learning to cast spells?  Remember what it was like to take your first driving lessons?  Riding on a dragon’s back?  What’s the scariest, most exhilarating white-knuckle ride you’ve been on?  Meeting an elf/dwarf/faerie/whatever for the first time?  Haven’t you ever met someone you find a little exotic?

It's all valuable material for stories.  So, next time real life comes knocking and disrupts your writing, you don’t have to hide – just trust it’ll all be useful one day.

Unless it comes in the form of the taxman, of course.  Then you can run.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Avoiding Clichés Like the Plague

In 1830, the novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton published a new novel, Paul Clifford.  At that time, the most usual way to start a novel was either to give a potted biography of the protagonist, or else to treat the reader to a lecture on the moral or philosophical theme of the story.  Bulwer Lytton, however, wanted to pitch the reader straight into the mood of his tale, as writers now are encouraged to do, so he opened with the immortal words, “It was a dark and stormy night...”

It wasn’t Bulwer Lytton’s fault that, nearly two centuries later, his fine opening would have become one of the most notorious of all clichés, beloved alike of parodists and beagles.  In the context of 1830, it was actually a pretty strong way to start a novel.

The English language is full (as is any language) of phrases and sentences coined long ago by some genius that are used thoughtlessly (and often incorrectly) by millions today.  It doesn’t matter too much if these are from well-known and respected sources, such as Shakespeare or Dickens (or even the final scene of Casablanca) since enough people realise that these are quotes and not meant to be original.  When the source is more obscure, this can be different.

Just as very few people today read Bulwer Lytton, I’d be surprised if anyone reading this piece has seen the 1931 film The Last Flight.  A tale of GIs going AWOL in Europe after World War I, it includes a scene where one character is badly gored jumping into a bullring in Spain on an impulse.  Asked why he’d done it, his friend comments, “Well, I guess it seemed a good idea at the time.”

Although it’s not known for sure, this appears to have been the origin of a phrase that can only be used now with an element of self-mockery.  It’s an excellent phrase, though, and easy to see why it’s become such a cliché.

And that’s the point: clichés aren’t intrinsically bad.  Quite the reverse: whether they’re phrases or plot elements, they only become clichés because they were originally such great ideas that everyone wanted to use them, not terrible things to be avoided like the plague.

Avoid like the plague.  For centuries, the plague was the scourge of Europe.  Imagine a combination of AIDS, SARS and bird-flu, and then multiply it by at least ten.  It terrified people, and anyone who heard that phrase would have felt in their guts just what it meant to need that badly to avoid something.

The phrases and situations authors try to avoid were all great ideas at one time or another.  What could make a better story than the heir to a great throne being raised in obscurity, only to recognised at the crucial moment?  Or two people who start as enemies and find themselves falling in love against their will?  The problem is that they’re too good ideas, and countless thousands of writers before us have already taken advantage of the fact.

That doesn’t mean these ideas or phrases can’t still be used, just that authors should avoid reaching for them automatically, rather than thinking of new ideas for themselves.  If a clichéd situation is what must result from the characters and situations you’ve created, then by all means use it – but use it, rather than just repeat it.  There’s always going to be a new twist, and unexpected approach, that can make the tiredest cliché fresh and exciting.

Like writing tragedies in blank verse, all clichés worked triumphantly in their day, but should only be used now if it’s the right, inevitable way to do it.  You might say that they all seemed like good ideas at the time.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nemesis on the Wily Writers podcast

Sam Nemesis, private investigator to gods, heroes and monsters, has a tricky case to solve – Medusa the gorgon has been murdered, and her distraught sisters want Sam to find the culprit. But how’s he to track down a wannabe hero punk who seems to have friends in the very highest places?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Aslahkar in Plasma Frequency

Plasma Frequency, the brand new magazine of speculative fiction, has published its first issue, including my story Aslahkar.  An explorer who's travelled far to reach the legendary city of Aslahkar finds nothing but windswept ruins - but is that really all there is here?

Issue 1 also includes fiction by O’Neil De Noux, Michael Andre-Driussi, Gary Cuba, John H. Dromey, Michael Hodges, Spencer Koelle, Greg Leunig and James Valvis.  The beautiful cover is by Tais Teng, and there's interior artwork by Richard H. Fay and Laura Givens.

The Cell in Bards and Sages Quarterly

The July issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly is available, including my flash piece The Cell.  Karpelthrep the Mighty, the greatest sorcerer in the Thirty-Nine realms of Dundael, has played for high stakes and lost.  Disgraced and imprisoned, he faces his greatest challenge: his cellmate.

This issue also features fiction by Jody Giardina, George S. Walker, Erin Cole, Christian Riley, Barry Corbett, Milo James Fowler, Linda A. B. Davis, Stephen McQuiggan, Michael D. Turner, Verna McKinnon, Tim McDaniel, Dylan Kiely and Mary E. Lowd.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How Goes the Ennealogy?

Not content with your standard trilogies and tetralogies, I’m currently engaged in writing an ennealogy – a series of nine books.

Now, before you get visions of something as complex and drawn out as The Wheel of Time, I should make it clear that, though the books are all loosely linked together, each has a beginning and end, and should be readable in any order.  They simply form a bigger story taken as a whole.

More generally, the nine books fall into three trilogies – the Traveller trilogy, The Winter Legend, and the Cath-Korza trilogy.  The Traveller trilogy has already started with At An Uncertain Hour, published in 2009, telling in flashbacks (and the occasional flashforward and flashsideways) the first three thousand years of the Traveller’s extended life.  On the eve of the final battle of a thousand-year war, he recalls his lost love Anniol and how he came to have spent the last millennium fighting the evil Demon Queen, servant of the Great One.  The Great One is an all-encompassing spirit of evil, that maybe creates evil acts, or maybe is created by them.

I’m currently working on The Winter Legend, a trilogy comprising The Tryst Flame, Children of Ice and Dreams of Fire and Snow.  The state of play is that the first book is at present doing its best to attract the attention of Angry Robot, under their Open Door submission; the second is complete, but will require at least another revision and a polish; the third is about three quarters written in a very rough draft, including a blind-alley subplot that’s got to have something done about it.

The Winter Legend centres on the struggle against Kargor, the Winter Lord.  An on-off servant of the Great One, he’s attempting to carve out an empire, opposed by a variety of characters – including the Traveller.  Under the name Tollanis – simply a local word for traveller – he’s a significant secondary character here.

Unlike At An Uncertain Hour, which is told in a non-sequential first-person style more common in mainstream fiction than epic fantasy, The Winter Legend follows a relatively straightforward narrative style, though it divides between a number of third-person POVs.

I’ve been working on The Winter Legend, on and off, most of my life, which is why I set myself to finish it before writing the book that actually precedes it.  The Empire of Nandesh (strictly a working title) will be a sequel to At An Uncertain Hour and a prequel to The Winter Legend, set about thirty years before the latter starts, though it too will range back and forth in time.  It’ll have two separate first persons – the Traveller and Nandesh, the Demon Queen’s son – and will pre-introduce a couple of characters from The Winter Legend.  And it’ll reveal the answer to a mystery about the Traveller.

This will be followed by the Cath-Korza trilogy, focusing on a new character.  Actually, she’s an old character – I wrote about her in the 70s and 80s, and these stories will be radical reworkings of that material.  They take place about two hundred years after The Winter Legend – but I don’t want to reveal too much about Cath-Korza, as it’ll be some time before I get to these.  Let’s say that this trilogy is, in a way, about the problems of celebrity.

The Traveller won’t figure in these stories – at least, he shouldn’t, but I may succumb and give him a cameo appearance – but the final novel of the ennealogy, which might be called The Last Direction, will have the Traveller and Cath-Korza joining forces in a final showdown with the Great One.  This is loosely based (very, very, very loosely) on a poem I wrote many years ago called “The Song of the Cursed Tower”, but it’ll have little really in common with the poem – just a very basic idea.  It’ll also explain why the Traveller never turns up in the “modern” stories I’ve written in the same world.

So that’s the ennealogy; but it’s not quite that simple.  The couple of dozen stories I’ve written about the Traveller or about Eltava (who refused point blank to let me restrict her to a cameo in At An Uncertain Hour) feed into various of these novels, and my series of stories about Kari and Fai are intimately entwined with The Winter Legend.  Even some of the non-series stories illustrate or are illustrated by episodes in the novels.  And there’s more to come of all of these.

So “ennealogy” might be oversimplifying matters.  Don’t worry, though – there’s no test-paper after reading any of the stories.  Which is just as well – I’d be likely to fail miserably.