Friday, 22 May 2015

Writing Ramble: How I Write Novels Now, Part 1

This is not how I write novels.
It's an obvious point that no two people write novels the same way, and an even more obvious one that there's no right way to go about it - though it's surely the case that there are all manner of wrong ways!  At any rate, even within the space of one career-so-far and a few short years, my own method of going about such things has changed completely.

That change was started by chance and necessity, as I realised after Giant Thief got signed that I had exactly two years to write exactly two books and then flailed around trying to figure out some way to make that happen when my first novel had taken something like five years and more drafts that I'd been able to keep count of.  Out of that flailing, though, came the beginnings of a process that worked for me, and that's worked ever since - ever since in this case meaning, for my recently completed fourth novel To End All Wars, two more books currently midway through redrafts and another that I've just begun.  It's seen some refinement over that time, and there's undoubtedly room for more, but it definitely has its virtues too.  And so, because I find this stuff interesting and therefore conceivably other people out there do too, I thought it would be worth sharing here.

Skimming lightly, then, over the very early stuff - an idea that digs in like a tick, that comes to feel like it has meat enough on its bones to stretch to novel length - we get to the preparation stage.  Before even a word gets typed, there's a period of planning, floating ideas around, and depending on the subject matter, of research.  So far this has varied from a few weeks to a year, (that being the book I just started, White Thorne, which is set in the Middle Ages, a time period that turns out to be even less like the current day than you might think.)  The aim here is somewhat hard to define, and equally hard to set a timescale on, but basically involves reaching a point where the next stage feels like a practical possibility.

This is not how I write novels.
For that next stage is writing the entire plot out in synopsis.  By this point I'll at the least have a few major scenes in mind, characters, an idea of the tone I'm aiming for and the mental outline of a beginning, middle and end.  In small snatches over the course of perhaps a month, I note down what I have and work to fill in the gaps, figuring out significant plot mechanics as I go.  The end product here is a document of somewhere between five and ten pages that tells the story crudely but coherently from start to finish, that contains all the characters I'm likely to need - though not necessarily by name - and which another human being can read and take away a solid sense of the story from.  In fact, that's one of its main purposes; with White Thorne especially I jumped on the opportunity to get feedback on plot mistakes before I made them, and it was such a huge help that I rewrote the synopsis heavily on the back of the feedback I received.

Either way, once the synopsis is at a point I'm happy with, it will get broken down into a chapter plan - this being the key reason why it needs to be so detailed.  This stage generally only takes a day or two, and basically involves figuring out all the little climaxes that would make for suitable chapter end points and then balancing that against what I can realistically cram into, say, five thousand words.  One of the reasons it's a valuable process is that it flags up the structure, in so much as there is one at this point, and emphasizes any weaknesses.  If there's a leg of what might be three chapters where not much happens, or a stretch of constant action without much exposition, say, it will definitely show itself here, and with luck I can juggle scenes accordingly.

Which feels like a sensible place to break, if only because all this talk of writing novels is making me stressed about all those novels I should be writing.  In part 2: all of that stuff!  And everything that comes after...

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Short Story News, May 2015

I've been a bit remiss in keeping up to date with short story news this last month or so, which is unfortunate because I've had an unusually large amount of stuff out.  But it's nice in a way, in that now I get to post about it all together and it looks like I have a ton of stories out in great venues every month!

Truth is, though, that even by the standards of the markets I've been lucky enough to sell to, this has been a really excellent selection.  Taking them in chronologically reverse order, it was a mere couple of days ago that my weird horror tale Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams appeared in The Drabblecast.  This is a story that's been around a bit, and this isn't even the first time it's been podcast - that honour goes to the now sadly defunct Shadowcast - and everywhere it's appeared it's been treated more than decently.  Caretaker was editor's choice in the issue of Necrotic Tissue it appeared in, made their all-time best of anthology, got a terrific - and terrifically grotesque - illustration from The Shadowcast and this time around receives an absolutely brilliant rendition, with not only an evocative reading from David Cummings of the No Sleep Podcast but some perfectly chosen sound effects.  All bias aside, this thing is weird and creepy and I urge you to give it a listen!

Then, a mere few days behind that, and wrapped within that glorious cover over there, we had Jonathan Green's anthology Sharkpunk, which has been a part of my life for so long now that I'm almost sad that it's out.  Still, it is, and it's brilliant, surely the definitive take on a beastie that was crying out for its own definitive anthology, and it's already garnering some gushing reviews.  There's this at The Eloquent Page, and particularly nice from my point of view, both The Ginger Nuts of Horror and Geek Planet Online pick out my The Shark in the Heart for special mention.

Next is a bit of cheat, in that I suspect it's been out for a while now, but due to the tectonic slowness of the US to UK postal service I only recently got my contributor copies.  Anyway, it's the anthology of Clarkesworld's seventh year, unexpectedly titled Clarkesworld Year Seven, it contains my Across the Terminator, and of course it's amazing because it's bloody Clarkesworld

Then, lastly and not at all leastly, in that I'm only talking about it so late because I somehow hadn't entirely realised it was out, there's Mark Teppo's XIII anthology from Resurrection House.  A curio this, in the best sense of the word, and perhaps more at the literary end of the genre spectrum than the kind of markets I tend to appear in, but in a world where there are people who still think editing yet another zombie anthology is an exciting prospect, it's so damn nice to see a theme anthology where the theme - transformation, rebirth and that titular number - is so unabashedly weird. XIII really is a treasure, and it received about the most thorough review I've ever seen at Tangent Online, which by the way has extremely nice things to say about my Twilight For the Nightingale.

Oh, and speaking of people saying nice things ... let's end by pointing out that David Steffen recently picked out my story Ill-Met at Midnight for his top fifteen Beneath Ceaseless Skies podcasts at SF Signal!  If you haven't listened to it yet then it's still available here.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 2

A month on and my inexplicable obsession with tracking down and watching nineties anime shows no signs of abating, even as the hope of discovering rare gems amidst the brightly coloured dross looks increasingly desperate.  Still, it's proving an educational experience, and also a deal of fun, because say what you like about nineties anime but even during its worst excesses it's rarely less than entertaining.

This week, the animated self-flagellation continues with Bubblegum Crash!, Virus Buster Serge, Amon Saga and Rayearth...

Bubblegum Crash!, 1991, dir's: Hiroyuki Fukushima, Hiroshi Ishiodori

This came as a pleasant surprise after watching things like Ninja Scroll, in that it had mostly female protagonists and it didn't feel the need to treat them entirely like crap.  But in retrospect, that perhaps gained it bonus points it didn't fully deserve, since none of those cast members were developed much beyond "this one's a pop star, this one's a stock-trader" and - maybe more importantly - they were still fighting in mech suits with built-in high heels.  Still, it wasn't awful, and as I get deeper into this self-dug hole, the more I appreciate just how good "not awful" can be. The characters are likable, the action sequences energetic, and each of the three episodes is noticeably better than the last, until it all wraps up in satisfying fashion - though one that relies a little too heavily on familiarity with the series, Bubblegum Crisis, that Bubblegum Crash was a spin-off from.

At any rate, of everything I've watched so far, Bubblegum Crash felt somehow most typically nineties-anime, and it's also my favourite example of the titling convention of flinging unrelated words together and expecting them to make sense, so that's something, I guess.

Virus Buster Serge, 1997, dir. Masami Ôbari

I can't quite rationalize my affection for Virus Buster Serge.  Objectively I know it's barely a jot better than, say, Bubblegum Crash or Detonator Orgun, the latter of which it even has the misfortune of sharing a director with, the apparently somewhat infamous Masami Ôbari.  And it's not exactly difficult to list its faults, which include a plot that starts at barely comprehensible and then proceeds to be as obtuse as it can, and some of the most eye-watering character design you're ever likely to witness - yes, her eyes are really that big! - which gives the entire twelve episode series the vibe of some twisted alternate-universe YMCA video.

Still, I enjoyed it, and there's no question but that it gets a few things more or less right.  In fact, it begins extraordinarily well, with a creepy introductory dialogue between disembodied voices that sets up the back story and a credits sequence with one hell of a good tune attached.  Sadly, from there on in, things get more hit and miss: you have those ghastly characters, but the mecha and monster design is rather nice; a genuinely intriguing plot suffers from being delivered in nuggets of cryptic dialogue that pop up about once in every two episodes; the animation quality is hopelessly inconsistent, with terrible sections around the middle and a noticeable upswing towards the end.

Taking all of that into account, I suspect that much of my unreasonable fondness for Virus Buster Serge has to do with the fact that it feels, in a few specific ways, like a demo reel for one of my all-time favourite series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - and however many qualifications I might heap upon that statement, it remains a compliment.  There's a vast gap between the edgy cyberpunk masterpiece that Virus Buster Serge wants to be and the camp, cryptic oddity that it is, but for ambition alone it remains an intriguing failure.

Amon Saga, 1986*, Shunji Ôga

Another film that get's bonus points for being not awful, your tolerance for Amon Saga will likely depend on how passionate you are about hackneyed, eighties-style fantasy plots.  For Amon Saga has barely a dash of originality about it anywhere, with the possible exception of the fact that the main bad guy travels around on the back of a gigantic turtle - a notion that would soon afterwards be ripped off, to slightly better effect, by arcade game Golden Axe.  (Though the chronology makes such a thing impossible, Amon Saga feels exactly as though it was written while playing Golden Axe, which is probably an excellent measure of much you'll get out of it.)

The frustrating thing is that it all starts quite promisingly, with a first act in which our titular hero works to get close to his nemesis by joining his army via a brutal gladiatorial initiation test.   If the individuals elements are hackneyed and the animation rarely strays above functional, it at least feels like a fresh way into an old story, and one that promises some fun moral greyness; just how much evil henchmanery will Amon have to get up to before he seals the deal?  Which makes it all the more disappointing when Amon Saga hurries to drop that whole undercover hero aspect in favour of  more traditional Sword and Sorcery nonsense.

Still, it's all quite watchable.  And when the lackluster sword fights give way to a bit of magical dueling towards the end, things pick up so dramatically that you have to wonder why the animators made the film they did, given that they were clearly more invested in animating wizards doing trippy things to the insides of each others' heads.  All in all then, no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but not an unpleasant way to pass an hour and a half either, so long as you're basically sympathetic towards the cliches of eighties fantasy.

Rayearth, 1997, dir's: Toshihiro Hirano, Keitarô Motonaga

Let's end on a film that could - with a little squinting and wishful thinking - be described as genuinely good: the OVA** of the series Magic Knight Rayearth.  It is, at any rate, a huge technical step up from a lot of what I've been watching lately, and a clear high point in Manga Video's Collection series, which appears to have been a dumping ground for absolutely anything they could license at a knock-down price.  Rayearth looks not unlike modern anime, it's animation is never less than adequate and often very good indeed, and while it never strays far from a great many anime cliches, the particular ways in which it combines them are at points genuinely thrilling.

Still, it remains hard to get all the way past that sense of familiarity.  In fact, with a plot that finds three schoolgirls trying to defend Tokyo with the aid of a magic cherry tree fairy and element-themed spirit animals that turn into giant, upgradeable mecha-beasts, Rayearth plays out like Digimon with an awful lot more blood and nudity.  (I honestly don't know if that's a recommendation or a warning.)  Plot-wise, a dense back story makes up for the fact that there's not much in the way of actual present story - the girls take turns worrying over not having powers, then get their powers, then get into scraps using their powers - and yet somehow it plays out quite satisfyingly.  The third act revelations, when they come, perhaps don't warrant all the mystery that's come before, but sometimes it's fun to be kept guessing, and at least it all about adds up in retrospect.

So, a qualified recommendation then, especially taking into account that, like everything here, you can pick up Rayearth for pennies.  If you enjoy anime, there are worse ways to pass a couple of hours, and if you don't then ... um ... well done for reading this far, I guess.


Looking back over this, it would appear that I enjoyed just about everything I've watched, whilst at the same time not considering much of it to be particularly good.  Clearly my standards are dropping at a rate of knots!  And given the sound of some of the things I've purchased for round three, that can surely only be a good thing...

* Okay, so this one's a slight cheat, but it was released in the UK in the nineties, I think probably.

** Original Video Animation, or straight-to-DVD feature, as I discovered when I finally got round to Googling it after twenty years of watching anime.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Game Ramble: Tomb Raider

In a way it seems unfair to pick on Tomb Raider - by which, let's clarify up front, I mean the 2013 reboot and not the 1996 original - as an illustration of the particular video game narrative failing I'd like to talk about here.  It's a fault, after all, that a great number of games manage to commit, and have been getting wrong almost since the birth of the medium, and Tomb Raider is far from being the worst of the bunch.

Still, not all of them have put that failing so front and centre, or emphasized it quite so pointedly in their marketing campaigns, and for me that alone has been enough to make Tomb Raider something of an exemplar.  Because Tomb Raider the story, as conveyed in cut scenes and dialogue, is an entirely different beast to Tomb Raider the play experience, and not only do those two things not line up one damn bit, they actually spend fifteen hours working largely at odds with each other.

Well, I say fifteen hours; it's in the first five that Tomb Raider most egregiously insists on saying one thing and doing another.  Because this Tomb Raider is an origin story, or perhaps rather a coming of age story, but either way its role is to show us just how Lara Croft became the peculiarly cold-hearted raider of tombs and taker of lives that we know she will become.  As such, Tomb Raider the story makes a big deal of the moment when Lara Croft, youthful grave-robber-to-be, first takes the life of another human being.  I mean, a huge big deal; it's built up for a good ten minutes, if not the entirety of the game's opening, and the act itself is as bloody and traumatic as you could ever hope the sight of a teenage girl committing a shocking act of violence could be.  We're made to understand that this is something that will stay with Lara until her dying days, that will cast its shadow over her every waking hour...

...right up until the moment a few minutes later when Tomb Raider the game forgets it ever mattered.

Empathize, damn you!
An hour or two of game time later and you'll be merrily machine-gunning your enemies in the face, not to mention sniping them, shotgunning them, stabbing them in the back with an improvised climbing tool and setting them on fire.  And though that violence isn't exactly pleasant, it's also every bit as frequent and fundamentally dismissive as the violence in a great many other similar games.  On the one hand we're expected to sympathize with Lara's dehumanising struggle to survive and the fact that by implication there was a time when she didn't murder someone every five minutes.  On the other, we're required to help her gun down literally hundreds of people.  Frankly, even the finest plotting in the world might have difficulty making that one stick.

It seems to me that, of all the problems that video games have to overcome before they make the shift from 'medium of pure entertainment' to 'entertainment medium that everyone is also happy to acknowledge as art form' is this particular disconnect, where story and game refuse to overlap.  And this issue is fundamentally connected to other deep-rooted problems in the medium, in that most games still revolve around the act of killing, and it's hard beyond a certain point - increasingly so given current levels of visual fidelity - to portray that act, even when performed in self-defense, as sympathetic.  I mean, I like Lara Croft, I do; we've raided a ton of tombs together over the years.  But there are only so many times you can watch a teenager jab an arrow into another person's neck and still feel comfortable in their presence.

What's the answer?  Is there one?  When these games sell by the kerzillion, does anyone actually care?  Well, if nothing else, I'm confident that the answer to that last is a resounding yes; just look how many shooting-based games go to great lengths to disguise the nature of their cannon-fodder with masks, helmets, bandannas, sunglasses, or as essentially faceless robots or aliens.  Or - as both example and one possible solution - consider how the colossally successful The Last of Us frames its narrative specifically around the self-corroding nature of violence, and along the way admits that there's something horribly wrong with its protagonist for continuing to commit the acts he does. 

That, though, is a trick you can only pull so many times - and therein, I suppose, lies my point.  As long as gameplay is designed primarily around acts of violence, so video games will be obliged to tell stories primarily about violence, and so limit themselves to one shallow end of a very large narrative swimming pool.  Even then, as Tomb Raider illustrates, to tell such stories convincingly requires a relatable human protagonist, and we're basically hard-wired not to relate to people who spend an overwhelming proportion of their time killing.  Tomb Raider tries simultaneously to ignore that fact and to embrace it, and perhaps it's no wonder that it ends up fumbling both.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

C21st Gods Are Near

The stars are nearly aligned.
It feels like I've been working on C21st Gods forever.

Or rather, I should say "we."  For this project began with my artist friend Duncan Kay, there was never any possibility of anyone else drawing it, and for that reason, Duncan has been hanging on with this thing for every bit as long as I have.

Which is a heck of a long time.  I mean, what, four years now?  And in that time Gods has been through plenty of iterations, growing longer and more complex with each passing take.  Looking at the final script, it's hard to believe I somehow originally crammed it into a mere eight pages!  In the end, though, a graphic novel felt like the only option that made sense.  There were plenty of reasons for that decision, just as there are good reasons the book wound up running to three issues, and they don't all have to do with my story - though there's no denying it gains from having that room to breath.  But no, the reason C21st Gods needs to be in its current form, the one it will finally see daylight in, comes down to one thing, and that's Duncan's artwork.

Because for me, first and foremost, that's what this book is about.  It's a story and a script I'm rather proud of, a weird little tale perched on the brink of horror and science fiction and poking at the soft flesh where those two genres meet.  But that story and script have been designed from the ground up to be a showcase for Duncan's illustration work.  It's gorgeous, is the thing; I love looking at it, so will other people, and one of my missions in life is to do whatever I can to make sure they get the chance.

I realise I've gone all this way without explaining just how it's come to be that C21st Gods is close to seeing the light of day.  And that's a story in itself, but here's the shortened version: I got talking to a guy by the name of Bill Campbell about some entirely unrelated matter, and during the course of that conversation I remembered having seen on Facebook that Bill had something to do with comic books.  So we started discussing comics stuff, and it transpired that the reason Bill was an authority on the subject was that he was publishing them through his outfit Rosarium.  Within minutes I'd discovered that Rosarium was putting out some genuinely exciting work and that Bill was exactly the kind of editor I'd like to work with, and eventually I got around to pitching him C21st Gods - which as luck would have it was right then at a stage where it could be pitched.  Needless to say, Bill liked it.  And suddenly, after a mere four years, everything was in place for Gods to become a reality.  If only things could always be so easy!

That said, we've a ways to go yet.  But finger's crossed, we'll have the first issue out by the third quarter of this year, with two and three following in close succession, and then - the main event! - the trade paperback, with probably some DVD-extra type stuff thrown in and definitely a hidden secret extra ending, because it's right there in the script. 

So watch this space.  Or, I guess, maybe just watch the stars.  Either way, C21st Gods are finally on their way.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Eastercon 2015

I have a soft spot for the Three Magpies pub at Heathrow.  Their food is good, their prices are reasonable, their staff are awfully nice and friendly.  In fact it's rare that I've gone in and there hasn't been some sort of wacky high jinx occurring, whether it be the bar staff shrink-wrapping the chef's car or everyone loudly explaining how the dishwasher has just exploded.  What impresses me most, I think, is that, as the only pub just outside the busiest airport in the country, they could get away without doing any of these things; they could overcharge and be rude to people just like the hotel bars do and no one would ever bat an eyelid.

I mention this for two reasons.  Firstly because I ended up passing quite a large proportion of the weekend I was supposed to be spending at Eastercon in the Three Magpies, and - a not unrelated fact - secondly because everything I've just said is so great about the Three Magpies was not the slightest bit great about this year's Eastercon.

I've got to admit, my expectations were at rock bottom before I even walked through the doors.  I'd volunteered a couple of times to be part of the programming by then, and been ignored on both occasions; no polite "sorry, we just have so many potential panelists this year," just plain old-fashioned ignored.  In fact, I'd had no communication whatsoever: no news updates, no reminder of the dates, not even anything to say that the programme was out.  As I talked to other writers, it became apparent that none of these experiences were unique to me.  More people, it seemed, were being cold-shouldered than weren't, and some of them were very big names indeed.  Ignoring people who offered up their time for free was, it seemed, not a logistical error but an actual policy decision.

Then the programme came out.  And oh boy but did the programme explain a lot.

Panel topics assigned apparently at random.  Panels that were a mix of the endlessly overdone and the willfully obscure, with very little middle ground indeed.  Far too many events that were a showcase for a group or individual and not much else.  One small press author with a talent for self promotion appearing a staggering eight times.  Religious ceremonies.*  An overwhelming sense that the entire thing had been thrown together at the absolute last minute, whilst watching children's TV, drunk.**

Now at this point I would normally admit that I was wrong after all and the whole thing turned out to be unexpectedly brilliant.  Only this time, I wasn't and it didn't.  It looked like a mess from a distance and it looked like a mess up close.  It was, in fact, a mess.  And quite an angry-making mess in the grander scheme of things, because it cost me a heck of a lot of money, money I could have spent on something else - attending Nine Worlds, say - and not sitting in a pub in Heathrow.

But, in that old spirit of fairness, here are some things about this year's Eastercon that were actually pretty good.  The art dealer's room was solid, though apparently a step down from previous years.  I heard nothing but positive things about the Newcon Press mini-programme strand.  A few excellent films were shown, and in particular a pre-release copy of one of my absolutely favourite anime, the magnificent Wings of Honneamise***, not to mention the recently released and nearly as marvelous Patema InvertedAdrian Faulkner's talk on hurricanes and the chasing thereof was entertaining enough that it made me wonder if I shouldn't have gone to some of the other talks, dull though the programme made many of them sound.  And there was the ever-reliable Barcon, in which I hung out with friends old and new, and probably took about five years off the life of my liver, but still managed to have a hell of a good time.  Say what you like about Eastercon - and I have! - but it attracts a fine crowd.  It's only a shame that this year its organisers chose to trap that crowd in a Heathrow hotel with barely a thing to do worth doing.

Hey ho.  Sorry to rant, people.  Unsatisfactory science-fiction convention programmes may very well be the epitome of first world problems.  Then again, this thing could so easily have been so much better, and there's an argument to say that shoddiness should always be called out, in the dim hope that maybe things will not be quite so shoddy again.  I don't want next year's Eastercon to be like this one.  I want it to be awesome.  And so do a great many other people, I suspect.

Positive note to end on?  Um.  Next year it's in Manchester, and Manchester's only an hour's drive away from me, as opposed to the six hours it takes me to get to Heathrow.  Yay to that!

* I'm not saying that religious gatherings have no place at a science-fiction convention.  Although, yeah, I kind of am.  But even if I wasn't, might it not make sense to make it multidenominational, and so avoid pissing your inclusivity policy right up the wall?

** I heard talk that it had in fact been finalized way back in December,which would actually explain the problems every bit as well.

*** Although, if there's one circumstance when I would absolutely argue for a trigger warning beforehand, it's when showing a film that includes a scene of attempted rape.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Twitcher Up At Pseudopod

At the risk of repeating what I just said in that wholly unimaginative title, my zombie story Twitcher is now up at the world's favourite horror podcast site, Pseudopod, introduced by the marvelous Alasdair Stuart and read in fine style by Roberto Suarez.

When Pseudopod asked me for a fact to share with their listeners, I mentioned that the title was a fortuitous gift.  I'd recently finished the story and was having lunch with my then-manager, who asked me why I was staring out of the window.  Not wanting to point out that I found his conversation deathly dull, I told him I'd been watching a bird hopping about, at which point he asked me, "you're not a twitcher, are you?"  I replied that I wasn't, and indeed hadn't a clue what a twitcher was.  When he explained that it was another word for bird-watcher, brain-gears clicked satisfyingly into place.  My story, then called "Little Red Wing" in a nod to one of my favourite Tanya Donelly songs, had a new name, and it was perfect.

What I didn't mention, because it was something I'd forgotten until I listened to the story just now, was that Twitcher started life as a dream.  In the dream, it was vampires and not zombies, but the basic elements - a bird-watcher guarding over rare red birds whilst the world went all to hell around him - were all there.  True fact: for all the hundred times that dreams are weird and disturbing and generally horrible mind-vomit, there's always one you can recycle into a short story.

You can listen to Twitcher here.   It's positively, absolutely the last zombie story I'm going to write, because we're all bored sick of zombies by now, right?  And this makes three now, one of which was my first sale to Pseudopod, thinking about it.  But hey, if you're going to listen to one David Tallerman zombie story this year, make it this one, because it's weird and catastrophically bleak and I'm rather proud of it.