Monday, 29 December 2014

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2014 (Part 1)

So in a sense I'm only doing this because I did one last year, and in another sense the fact that I did it last year means that a part of my brain has been planning this post for the entire last twelve months.  Which makes it particularly disappointing that 2014 has been, well, ever so slightly disappointing.

Now I hasten to admit that there are some major and not so major releases I've yet to catch, and it's possible the film that would otherwise have been my number one was among them.  I mean, there's a chance that The Hobbit Part 27 will turn out to be the classic that the first however-many chunks lumberingly failed to be (it won't) and that Under the Skin was the best Science-Fiction movie that I failed to catch (it just might.)  Therefore I make no bones about the fact that the following is completely personal and largely arbitrary.  Heck, I celebrate it.  That may even be the point!

Also, due to the fact that this post has got so wildly out of control that it's making Blogger creak, I'm splitting it into two parts...

10)  The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt 1

Oh how I wanted to love The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt 1, and oh how hard the crass, money-grabbing decision to split one book needlessly into two movies made it, and then oh how confused that left my feelings when I got to the closing credits and realised that almost everything I genuinely did love in the movie was a direct result of that undeniably wrong-headed decision. 

Because if you once get past the fact that Mockingjay Pt 1 is a film whose primary reason for existing is to set up another film containing all of the actual events that should have been in this one, there's an awful lot to like.  Its enforced slow pace makes it feel almost like a director's cut of another, shallower movie, padded with functionally superfluous but visually and emotionally thrilling odds and ends, and the subjects it dwells heavily upon - the nature of grief, propaganda, the impossible moral conundrums of conflict and social upheaval - are as far from the stuff of usual Hollywood fare as you could hope to get.  Mockingjay, Pt 2 will no doubt get all of the things happening that were missing from Pt 1, and will likely be objectively better for it, but it's hard to imagine it being quite this odd and interesting.

9) X-Men: Days of Future Past

 My hopes for having Singer back on the X-Men franchise - X-Men 2 remains perhaps my favourite superhero movie of all time - were tempered by the fact that he just hasn't been making particularly great movies of late.  And sure enough, Days of Future Past turned out to be neither as wonderful as I'd hoped nor as lousy as I'd feared: infinitely superior to the aptly named and almost franchise-killing X-Men: The Last Stand, a touch ahead of First Class, about a thousand times better than Singer's half-baked Jack the Giant Slayer, and yet still undeniably a letdown.

In the end, though, Singer's direction proved to be neither Days of Future Past's salvation nor its major failing, as it ended up being a good and solidly fashioned film about characters that the franchise has already explored to death - in a couple of cases, literally.  It's impossible to imagine how this wouldn't have been more interesting had it followed the comics in having Kitty Pryde as its time-traveling protagonist and left Wolverine to sit one out; likewise, even with four of my favourite actors playing them, the Professor X / Magneto storyline is surely about tapped out by now.

Nevertheless, 2014 was the year that the X-Men franchise finally got back on track and retconned its greatest failing* out of existence, and for that I'm all sorts of grateful.

8) Godzilla

On paper this was very nearly as dumb and futile as every other attempt by Hollywood to repackage and Americanise another nation's beloved intellectual property.  Read in synopsis, its plot is all sorts of lazy and culturally imperialistic and by-the-book. And perhaps it's only my huge affection for his debut Monsters making me say this, but I can't help feeling that the only thing stopping it from being all of that was the presence of Gareth Edwards behind the wheel.

It seems to me that there are basically two ways you can go with a tentpole giant monster movie: either you take the route favoured by Pacific Rim and show off your monsters as much as you possibly can, or you pretend like all those other giant monster movies never happened and approach your subject with the sense of awe and terror that a 350 foot tall radioactive lizard would really inspire.  Both approaches make sense, but given that we already have Pacific Rim, I'm glad that Edwards' chose the path he did.  Because for me, despite its leaden script, despite its rote plot, that earns the new Godzilla its place at the table: I've never seen a film, perhaps excepting Monsters, that conveyed so determinedly the sense of teeny, tiny human beings facing off against a threat of plain unimaginable scale.

Still, that's really only a trick that you can pull off the once.  So Godzilla 2?  Maybe a bit more of the giant monsters punching each other.

7) Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow, you came so close to being the best Science Fiction movie of the year.  You were tremendous fun, you were smart, you were slick and shiny and exciting and you had some excellent action sequences, two great leads playing entertainingly against type, and getting past that whole "Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers" thing you were surprisingly novel.  So why did you have to blow it all in the last twenty minutes, huh?  If ever there was a film that cried out to not have a traditional Hollywood action movie ending, with a traditional Hollywood idiotic last minute "twist", it was this one.

On a side note: it still sure as hell didn't deserve to flop.  As long as people keep not going to see films like this, Michael Bay is going to keep making Transformers movies.  Is that the world you want to live in?  Responsible film-goers, only you can save mankind.

6) Guardians of the Galaxy

There's not much to be added about how great Guardians of the Galaxy is, is there?  It won almost everyone over, critics and audiences alike, proved that Marvel can basically make films about whatever the hell characters they like and people will pay to see them - my long dreamed-of Moon Knight movie draws one step closer! - and made a sex symbol out of Andy Dwyer, which is just never going to stop being weird.

So why aren't I rating it higher?  Well, mostly for personal and nitpicking reasons, it has to be said.  I'm one of those people who think Star Wars was an entertaining popcorn movie that killed off the greatest period of Sci-fi film-making ever seen, so my affection for this sort of bubblegum space opera is always going to be a touch muted.  I find it all a bit low stakes by the end, and unnecessarily so; who would really have cared if, say, Xandar had been exploded?  I'm growing entirely bored with Marvel movies that end with either spaceships or helicarriers crashing into the ground and / or buildings; that is just not a versatile enough formula that you can use it to end every single movie.  And a strange criticism but one that I couldn't shake on a second viewing: there's nothing anywhere in the film as powerful as that gut punch of an opening sequence, and in my imagination there's a version of GotG that somehow manages to carry those emotional stakes through to its end, and it's a masterpiece for the ages.

But hey, let's end on a positive, shall we?  I can't think of another film this year with such a flawless opening quarter of an hour, and for sheer, unadulterated fun this was surely the highlight of 2014.

Right, that's it for Part 1.  Yeah, all of those words and we're still only at the half way point.  Can you tell I've over-thought this?  Check back in a couple of days for the final five...

* Actually I'd argue that X- Men Origins: Wolverine is an even worse film than The Last Stand, but hey, that's also now out of continuity as well, right?  Bonus points, Mr Singer!**

** Although presumably X-Men and X-Men 2 are also now defunct.  Aargh, time travel paradoxes!  Damn you, Singer, I think maybe.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Research Corner #8: Medievalism

This is a sad thing to admit in public, but one of my big regrets in life is that I dropped History in favour of English Literature in my first year of university.  To this day I have no idea why I did it, because I find History fascinating and studying English Literature just gave me an enormous inferiority complex that put me off writing my own work for years.

Point being, it's been weirdly thrilling to become an amateur historian this year, sort of an insight into a life not lived, and it's been great too to be learning stuff again; how weird that that's become a privilege rather than an obligation!  On the other hand, that isn't exactly to say that it's been easy.  And perhaps the most difficult thing so far in researching next novel White Thorne is that I don't yet have enough of a plot worked out to know exactly what I should be researching.  Unlike pretty much everything else I've written, White Thorne began with a character - a young witch in the late Middle Ages forced to turn her abilities to solving a murder - and has spiraled from there. 

This may sound like a crazy way of writing a book, and a year ago I'd have probably agreed.  Hell, I'd probably agree right now.  Nevertheless it's what I'm doing, and I'd hesitantly call it a success so far, in that a plot is slowly taking form out of the murk.  On the other hand, I've pushed back my start date by two months to accommodate, so perhaps this isn't a method I'll be quick to pursue again.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that it's taken me down some unusual avenues.  Here are just a few...

Dreaming the Middle Ages by Steven F. Kruger

That should be an interesting subject, right?  I mean, dreams are interesting.  The Middle Ages are interesting.  So probably people in the Middle Ages had some wacky dreams that would be good for an anecdote or two down the tavern?

Well, maybe, but if they ever existed then this book would want nothing to do with them.  If two people told this book about their dreams, and one of them dreamed about being kidnapped by ninja pterodactyls and the other one dreamed about doing their accounts on a wet Tuesday, it sure as hell wouldn't be the ninja pterodactyl dream that made it in.  This, in short, was my wake up call that a lot of what I'd be reading would be really goddamn dull.  Dreaming in the Middle Ages?  Sliding into a coma while you read about dreaming in the Middle Ages, more like.

Oh, and if you fancy a copy in hardback it'll set you back £90.  One other thing I'm learning as an amateur historian ... academic history books are a rip-off.*

The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg

Conversely, this doesn't at all sound like an interesting subject and turned out to be really good.  Landsberg is more than usually passionate about the practicalities of her subject, digging deep into just why and how medieval horticulture must have worked, probably because she's been involved in recreating medieval gardens herself - something the book explores in depth towards its end.

Another thing I'm learning is that coming at the period from oblique angles like this, or looking at it through the lenses of very specialized topics, can be more revealing than trying to get a sense through more generalized text books.  Oh course, that was my thinking with Dreaming in the Middle Ages too, so maybe it's not going to work out so well every time...

Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History by Owen Davies

I'm pretty certain I'd read this before, as research for my MA dissertation, which was on the historical phenomenon of witchcraft, (hence, I guess, a large part of why I'm now planning a novel with a witch as the protagonist.)  Anyway, I remember because, coming back to it, I was annoyed and frustrated by all of the same things that annoyed and frustrated me the first time round.

Witchcraft is a fascinating subject, and a surprisingly under-researched one, and Davies spends his entire book coming tantalizingly close to saying truly interesting things - before either shying away or tripping himself up by being a monumental pedant.  Most exasperating for me was the lengthy section where he dismisses connections between English cunning-folk and European shamanism because the former don't meet his crazy-restrictive definition of the latter.  (Basically ... they can't be shamans!  They don't play drums!)  But the whole book, really, suffers from the same flaw: it's the story of a whole lot of phenomena that don't conform to what Davies has decided cunning-folk were and a very few that do.

All of that said, this would probably be massively eye-opening if you didn't know much about the subject of English witchcraft, and there's no getting around the fact that it was a revolutionary text when it came out.  So, as much as it personally wound me up, I guess I find myself still recommending it.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

This, on the other hand, I have no hesitation in recommending to anyone.  Of everything I've read so far, this was surely written with exactly me in mind.  When I was studying History there were signs of a trend towards focusing on how actual people actually lived rather than the bleak, narrativeless, traditional approach, which tells you about as much about people's day to day existence as a spreadsheet would.  Based on what I've read so far, I'm not sure what happened to that, but at least Ian Mortimer took it to heart.

So, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England has a fair go at doing exactly what it claims to do: it pretends that you the reader have gone back in time and then does its very best to prepare you for that (frankly, horrible) experience.  And if Mortimer doesn't quite pull that nigh-impossible goal off perfectly, he at least does a very good job.  As such, if you write European-modeled Fantasy, or are at all interested in how other human beings have lived in other times, then this is surely a must-read.  It's fascinating stuff, and as entertaining as any History book you're ever likely to come across.

* This being where library's come in useful.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

How To Make Lulu Work For You

And no, I don't mean the singer.  Because honestly, that would be a whole 'nother post, and if I knew how to bend aging former celebrities to my will like that then you can be sure I wouldn't be wasting my time with this writing lark.
Not likely to work for either of us ever.

No, the Lulu I'm talking about is the Print On Demand service.  You know, the one that's not CreateSpace.  The one that I sort of get the impression no one uses much anymore, and that I'm probably only still using out of habit.  Still, that stubborn refusal to explore alternatives despite the fact that Lulu frequently makes me want to strangle myself (again, the POD service rather than the singer.  Although...) has meant that I've managed to get quite a good handle on how to make the most of it.

I should say at this point that what I use Lulu for is mocking up copies of my early drafts of novels, because I don't much like proof-reading from electronic copies and I know a lot of other people don't either - and because there's a certain psychological benefit to having your book-to-be in a form that makes it look and feel like a book when you're trying to hammer it into a book-like shape.  So my emphasis has been on making something readable and cheap, although a couple of disastrous early attempts have had me lean a little towards aesthetically pleasing too.  The main point, though, is that I wouldn't have a clue how to use Lulu to self-publish, although my experiences so far have made me wonder if such a thing would be feasible; I think I've bashed down the costs about as far as they'll go and it still isn't exactly cheap.

Probably not the final cover.
So anyway, the book that I just Lulued was Degenerates, this year's novel number two, which I finished in first draft at the end of October.  I chose Digest from under the Value options, which gives a book 13.97 by 21.59 cm, a ratio somewhat wider and taller than the average paperback but that nevertheless produces something looking and feeling very much like a proper book.  Degenerates, at a whopping 470 pages, came out at £6.25 a copy, which was about acceptable for my purposes; but you see my point about how this might not work for self-publishing.  Because that £6.25 is before P&P, and boy are Lulu's P&P charges on the preposterous side.   With that in mind, be careful to opt for the cheapest option; Lulu will try and convince you that this means your books will turn up in about four years time, but in my experience this is a fib.

A few other thoughts.  If you're planning on doing something similar to what I'm doing, make sure to set your project to "make available only to me" on the first page of options, otherwise you may end up with complete strangers reading your draft novel.  Unless you're ready to create your own cover from scratch, Lulu's cover designer is very much on the rubbish side, and it's exceedingly fussy about the quality of images it will accept; I've gotten around this by using the fantastic and free IrfanView to crank up the resolution and dpi.  Oh, and something I probably shouldn't mention but will anyway: it's very easy to find money off coupon codes for Lulu, which they appear to give out like candy, and they don't seem terribly bothered when you misuse (or reuse) them.  Five minutes of hunting will probably save you at least 15% off your blatantly over-priced order.  Lastly, something I plan to experiment with when I have the time is the options to create an e-book; since Lulu appears not to charge for this and their software sounds quite robust, it might well prove a straightforward and cost-free option.

Those, then, are my experiences of trying to bend Lulu to one specific task.  Has anyone out there found ways to drum that price down even further that I'm missing?  And am I wasting time anyway?  Should I have moved over to CreateSpace long ago, or are there other, better options that I'm not even aware of?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Working Through My Issues With NaNoWriMo

From the moment I first discovered NaNoWriMo I was convinced that it was about the dumbest,
most self-defeating idea I'd ever come across.

I only mention this here and now because someone - specifically, Sam at the SRFC-style event in York last weekend - did a surprisingly (well, surprising to me, anyway) good job of convincing me that just possibly I'd gone and got the wrong end of the stick.  And so, as much as a part of me would like to, I can't just write a post full of seething anti-NaNoWriMo vitriol. 

Still, I've been irritated by the thing for so damn long now that I can't just let it go, either.  So to kick off, here's at least a little bit of vitriol:

- 50'000 words, the NaNoWriMo base goal, is by no definition a novel.  I know that's an obvious and much-made point, but there's no exaggerating just what a useless length 50'000 words is: too little to expand into an actual novel, too much to trim to a novella.  When the heart of your concept is that flawed, surely there's reason for a rethink?

- 50'000 words may not be a novel, but it's still a whole hell of a lot.  At 1600 words a day and change, it's not like it's not doable; but writing that fast, every day, around other commitments?  Odds are that most people, working at that pace, assuming they don't just give up altogether, are pretty quickly going to start flinging crap at the page like a depressed monkey in an about-to-close zoo.  A few writers are well-suited to working flat out, day in, day out; many aren't.  In this sense, it seems to me that NaNoWriMo is pushing something that will be productive for only a tiny minority as a writing-apathy panacea.

To take that point further: writing at full pelt for one month in the year goes against the single piece of advice that every professional seems to agree on: write every day, even if it's only a little.  Becoming a writer isn't about throwing words around like crazy for thirty days in the month and then forgetting about it for the other 335; it's about writing often enough, and well enough, that writing well becomes a habit.

- Put that all together and it seems like you have a finely tuned system for generating millions of crummy none-novels, at least some of them from people who might be producing good work if they weren't following all of these arbitrary rules; if, in fact, they stopped imagining that novel-writing is (or can be, or should be) an easy win and accepted that if it's worth doing it's worth doing properly. 

There we go then: my objections.  Well a few of them, anyway; I mean, I could easily go on.  Yet as much as I still stand by all of that - Sam was persuasive, but not that persuasive - what I perhaps didn't fully appreciate until last weekend is just how much people are taking the NaNoWriMo framework and subverting it to their own needs.  It's not that those doing it necessarily fail to see that it's problematic; these days, it's maybe more about taking that existing model and contorting it into something that's genuinely useful.

Perhaps the reason that NaNoWriMo sometimes seems a bit like a cult to those of us on the outside is that, well, it is a bit like a cult.  But there are reasons people join cults, right?  And since it can't be all about the robes, one of those reasons is clearly mutual support.  Although I'd occasionally seen it in action, I hadn't fully grasped just how much group spirit there is around NaNoWriMo, or how cool - and work-enhancing - a thing that can be, until I heard Sam enthuse about it.  Similarly, because I'm basically a slow-and-steady writer at heart, I'd maybe forgotten just what a buzz it can be to chuck out words like your life depends on it, and how doing that can sometimes trip you into that awesome state of writing-on-purified-brain-drugs that's one of the holy grails when you're learning the trade.  I mean, I almost always enjoy writing, and even on the days when it makes me want to tie myself in a sack and throw myself in the river I'd still rather do it than any other damn thing.  But crazy, adrenalin-fueled, hell-for-leather writing?  I can see how a month of that might be an appealing prospect.

So maybe NaNoWriMo doesn't have to mean writing that useless 50'000 nonentity.  Maybe that 50'000 words can become 70'000 or 80'000 words; maybe it can be well planned and plotted in advance and so become the core of something that might actually end up being a real novel.  Or maybe it can be split over a load of different projects, but with the benefit of an awesome support network watching your back, ready to throw some enthusiasm your way the moment you start to flag.  I hope I'm not paraphrasing too much if I say that the impression Sam gave me was this: for those who take writing seriously but still do NaNoWriMo, it's something almost like a holiday.  They're still writing, but for that one month they're writing flat out, riding inspiration and mainlining motivation, surrounded by like-minded people who genuinely give a damn if they succeed and are there to offer support when things look dark and scary.

Anyway, I don't entirely know what the point of all this.  I realise it's not like NaNoWriMo, vast global leviathan that it's become, much needs my approval; nor do I imagine that any of the kerzillion people who've done it this year will much care what I think.  But hey, it's healthy to have debate, right?  Especially when it comes to something that affects so many lives and as has become such an integral part of the industry as this. So please, wade in with your thoughts.  I'm genuinely curious on this one.  Was I right in the first place?  Are my objections mistaken?  Are there more NaNoWriMo virtues that I'm missing?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Thought Bubble 2014

I'd had grand plans for this year's Thought Bubble, aka the Leeds Comic Art Festival, after I went last year and felt like I'd failed to make the most of it.  But by the time it actually came round, many of those plans had fallen through for reasons out of my control, most of the friends and acquaintances I'd been hoping to see there had backed out, and honestly it hasn't been a brilliant year on the comics-writing front, to say the absolute goddamn least - so in the end I couldn't have dragged myself into Leeds with a whole lot less enthusiasm.

Which is to say ... Thought Bubble, it wasn't you, it was me.  I understand that you went to a crazy amount of trouble, and then I just turned up and spent two hours scowling at the over-packed tents and the random-seeming queues and the people dressed up as characters from things I've never seen and then gave up and went and hung around the Royal Armouries* instead.  All of that?  It's on me. 

But maybe it was you just a little bit too.

Because, honestly, having been twice now, I'm still not one hundred percent sure what I'm supposed to do at Thought Bubble.  I mean, I have my suspicions, but they're cynical ones and I'd like to think that they're wrong; because I'm starting to get the impression that I'm paying £24 to be encouraged to spend a whole load more money on other things, and that would clearly be ridiculous.  Still, while I have no doubt that there must be more going on than the two aircraft hanger-sized rooms full of people hawking stuff and signing work, I seem to have managed to miss all of it for yet another year running.

So hey, Thought Bubble, next year I really am going to try and figure you out.  I'm going to get your programme well in advance, and I'm going to plan out exactly what I'm going to ... this I swear upon the severed bat-nipples of George Clooney.  But if at the end of all that I still feel like I've blown £24 on a not-very-inspiring day out?  Well then, just maybe it actually is you and not me.

* It's making me unreasonably cross that Blogger keeps trying to correct the spelling on this.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Unexpected Birthday Presents

One of the nice things about being a writer is that every so often, out of the blue, people send you exciting things in the post.  And statistically I suppose that the longer you go at it, the more of a chance there is that those things are going to arrive on your birthday.  Still, it was a nice surprise when not one but two parcels containing contributor copies arrived just in time for me to pretend that they'd been sent to celebrate my successfully surviving another year.

I've already talked plenty about 01 Publishing's anthology of Lovecraftian Horror Whispers From the Abyss - and rightly so, it's really good - but I tell you, however good it was as an e-book, it's a whole lot better in print.  And this isn't just my weird, old-man affection for books that are made out of dead trees talking, either; in fact, it's got a lot more to do with my weird, old-man affection for additional artwork and sexy formatting and books that are generally really nicely put together.  Honestly, I wish I could show you how great this thing looks on the inside ... and I could, quite easily.  But it would involve taking more photographs, or scanning or something, and honestly, I'm bored with both of those things right now.  You'll just have to take my word for it.

Anyway, as exciting as getting print copies of Whispers From the Abyss was, it wasn't quite so exciting as what Spectral Press head honcho Simon Marshall-Jones sent me.  A little back-story: in 2012 I won a competition with small press Horror publisher Spectral to have a story produced as a chapbook, a competition I only entered because I'd had my eye on them for months as potential publisher for that particular story, The Way of the Leaves.  As well as getting tWotL chapbookised, my prize for winning was a copy of every chapbook Spectral put out henceforward, which was pretty cool because - more so that it has any right to have done for what's still a relatively new imprint - Spectral has become one of the lynchpins of British Horror over the last three years.

Actually it seems an age since I've talked about The Way of the Leaves, and perhaps when it was released it got neglected a little, falling as it did between Crown Thief and Prince Thief coming out.  (Though, that was also partly because it sold out pretty quickly.)  I don't remember even posting any  reviews, and it got some particularly solid ones: Morpheus Tales even reviewed it twice, with J. S. Watts calling it "...haunting, dark and lyrical..." and Stanley Riiks pointing out that it's "...a soul-chilling tale worthy of the Spectral name," that "...builds into a heart-wrenching urban fantasy..."

So, short story long, what Simon sent me was the gorgeous boxed set of the first eight Spectral chapbooks (including my own, obviously) pictured above, which is a pretty great birthday present by any definition.  I mean, look at it!  It's like someone painted the monolith from 2001 red and then it spewed chapbooks.

As a postscript, it would be great to end by mentioning that there were plans in motion that would mean more people got to read The Way of the Leaves, what with it being one of the better things I've written and only having appeared in a limited edition and all.  And maybe there are even plans afoot in that direction.  But if there were then I obviously wouldn't be able to talk about them.  
So I won't.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Style ... What is it Good For?

One of the many things taught to learning writers that I've never much agreed with is that you need to work on developing a style, and the sooner the better.

To me, this is dumb advice for any number of reasons.  In fact, I'm never even sure that the people handing it out are one hundred percent clear on what having a style entails.  All right, they're talking about making an effort to use language distinctively, but you can do that quite easily by relying on a few stock phrases and words of choice, and surely no one considers that a good thing?  Anyway, writing distinctively isn't necessarily a good thing either.  A lot of terrible writers have distinctive styles, but often it might be better if they abandoned them and concentrated on just writing well.  Then lastly, if you write for long enough - hell, if you do anything for long enough - then you're going to develop a style whether you like it or not.  You're a unique human being; once you've grasped the fundamentals, there's no way that that uniqueness won't start to find its way into your work, whether you want it to or not.

My own feeling has always been that I'd rather aim to do good work in all sorts of styles, and in all sorts of genres, than to worry about manufacturing one characteristic voice for everything I do.  I'm sure there are common elements between all of my Fantasy stories, for example, but I'd like to think that many of them are different to the common elements in my Science Fiction stories - because if I was writing both genres in exactly the same style then I wouldn't feel like I was doing my job very well.

Or to put it another way, I've always thought that the story should dictate the style and not the other way around.

This is one of the reasons I have huge admiration for film director Robert Wise.  Unless you're a dedicated movie nerd it's likely you won't be familiar with the name, but you'll certainly have heard of some of Wise's movies.  He directed the very first Star Trek - you know, the one with the seven hour shot of the Enterprise in dry dock - and he made both West Side Story and The Sound of Music.  Those films, however, are not why I list him amongst my favourite directors.  No, that would be because he made the greatest Haunted House movie (arguably the greatest Horror movie) of all time, in the shape of The Haunting*, and because he made not one but two of my favourite Science-Fiction films: The Day the Earth Stood Still** and The Andromeda Strain.***

Because, yes, The Haunting and Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Sound of Music, all of those were made by the same guy.  Wise also did more-than-creditable work in the Crime genre (Odds Against Tomorrow, The House on Telegraph Hill), took a stab at War movies, Westerns ... the man could do damn near anything, mostly he did it at least well, and every so often he knocked out a stone cold classic.

Knowing all this, and thinking the way I do, I was thrilled to stumble upon the following quote from Wise:
"I’ve been accused by some of the more esoteric critics of not having a style, and my answer to that always is this - I’ve done every genre there is, and I approach each genre in the cinematic style that I think is appropriate and right for that genre. So I would no more have done The Sound of Music in the thinking and approach that I did in I Want to Live! for anything. So that’s why I don’t have a singular mark but I justify that by saying that it’s just because of the number of genres I’ve done and the cinematic style that’s proper for each one. That’s in my view, of course."
With all due respect, Wise was a little bit wrong about his own work, and so were those esoteric critics; there are definitely recognizable elements across his films, however disparate they might be on the surface.  No one so talented could fail to develop a few stylistic traits and ticks.  Then again, it was a style that Wise was absolutely in command of, and he managed to stretch it to its very limits over the course of his astonishing, more-than-sixty-year career.

To me, consciously trying to develop a style is like designing your own straightjacket.  Might it not be better to spend that time figuring out just what style entails and how best you can make use of it?  Not everyone has to be an auteur, and looking at a craftsman like Wise and his remarkable body of work suggests there's a lot to be said for understanding just what style means rather than getting hung up on whether or not other people think you have it.

* Not the futile 1999 remake with the crummily bizarre CGI ghosts.
** Not the futile 2008 remake with the crummily bizarre Keanu Reeves.
*** Not the futile 2008 miniseries ... no, actually, I hadn't seen that one.  It might be great.  Still, not that one.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Film Ramble: Take Shelter

One of the things I find most exciting about the current state of genre film-making is that I'm no longer one hundred percent sure what the term even encapsulates.  So many of the Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror films I've liked in recent years have hung upon the edge of those categorizations; for where exactly do you place oddities like Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Safety Not Guaranteed, or Seeking a Friend For the End of the World?  And what about a film like Take Shelter, which tells a story ideally suited to a genre movie - a man begins to have vivid visions of an imminent apocalypse - and equally so to something considerably more Art House, and ends up straddling a perilous line between the two?

That story in brief: Curtis (Michael Shannon), a blue-collar worker of limited means - husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and father to a young daughter, Hannah, suffering from deafness, though not beyond hope of cure - begins to experience nightmares and hallucinations of terrible, imminent future events.  Curtis has plenty of reason to doubt himself, not least the fact that his mother is in assisted living after a complete breakdown that occurred during his childhood.  Yet if he's right then the possibility of not acting on what he's seen, horrors that specifically jeopardize his small family, is too awful to contemplate.

From that summary, it wouldn't be hard to read Take Shelter as a work of Fantasy.  And, since much of it, whether it be prediction or hallucination, takes place specifically within Curtis's head, it inarguably is fantasy of a sort.  Or ... take for example a moment during one of Curtis's predictions / hallucinations, where every item in his living room is suddenly drawn up from the ground, as though the house itself has bucked free of gravity.  Everything hovers, as Curtis stares, wild-eyed.  Seconds pass.  Then the furnishings plummet earthward.  The scene is never referred back to, never explained.  Rationally, even within the context of Curtis's visions, it's not quite explainable.  Emotionally, subconsciously, while it's on the screen, it's absolutely convincing.  It's a perfect moment of Fantasy film-making.

Then again, it would be just as easy to interpret Take Shelter as a Horror movie, a reading equally impossible to discredit; if only because director Jeff Nichols is more than okay with wrapping his film up amidst the ideas and imagery of Horror.  Not that it would be easy to make a movie about a man being tormented by apocalyptic visions and doubting his own fragile sanity without at least a little horror slipping in around the edges, but you could certainly make one without the incessant sense of dread that hangs over Take Shelter, or the aggressively unsettling note of unreality.  That scene I just described, for example?  It's truly terrifying, and on a deeply primitive level.  It takes something private and intimate and makes it weird, unruly, discomforting.

Looks like rain...
Yet for all that, Take Shelter for the most part works perfectly well outside the confines of genre.  There's no question but that it's an allegory, the story of an everyman wrestling with the concerns of his particular moment in time; that it's a very specific response to financial crises and wars on terror and climates changing, all of those of-the-moment terrors ramped to quasi-mythical levels.  Strip away the Fantasy, the Horror, and you'd still have a perfectly serviceable movie about a man who knows that awful things are happening, who wants to protect his family, and has no idea how to reconcile the one against the other.

But let's back up.  Because that scene, in which all of Curtis's household goods are torn loose from the rules of gravity and reality, only to be dashed back moments later with shocking force - a moment so fantastical in concept, so real in practice - sums up a lot of what fascinates me about Take Shelter.  It's open to multiple readings, and it clearly wants to be, but at the same time it makes no compromises in telling its own narrative according to its own terms.  That ambiguity, which permeates every moment of the movie, is quite an achievement, and I'm not sure it could have worked half so fluently without the technologies of modern film-making to back it up.

Which I guess is also a big part of what I find exciting about Take Shelter: I don't see how it could have existed in anything like its current form even a decade ago.  Pluck it from a world in which utterly convincing special effects work can be done on a relatively small budget and you'd have a movie that, if it should even manage to get made, would have to commit itself to being either fantastical or realistic.  Now that's no longer an issue; it can be genuinely ambiguous.  It can take from genre film-making without devoting itself to a genre aesthetic; it can tell a story grounded in a clear and definite reality without being constrained by reality.

In genre literature circles we've been talking about this kind of thing for a while now, or at least something very similar, and placing it under the (maybe not altogether satisfactory) term of Slipstream.  But is Slipstream film-making a thing?  Or, you know what, maybe that shouldn't be a question.  Because on the strength of Take Shelter, and those other movies I name-checked, I'm pretty sure that it is.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

I've Earned A Break

So, where are we?  Late October?  Only I'm writing this a few days earlier, because I'm about to go on holiday (off hiking in the Lake District, to be precise), and since I have no intention of doing anything that might be considered as work next week, and also since I want to go away feeling happy and maybe a little good about myself, here's a post about where all of my ongoing novel projects are currently at.

By way of context, I should mention how I have a bad habit of setting myself crazy targets and then sticking to them, even when there's a chance that doing so might kill me and possibly others in my vicinity.  This is something I'm working on; in the shorter term, I did worry that trying to finish drafts of three novels plus all the other things I had planned for my first year of writing full time might be a bit on the insane side.  As such, if there's one fact I'm glad for right now it's that not only am I on target, it hasn't proven apoplexy-inducingly difficult to stay there.  Nor, for that matter, has it been anything like easy.  Which I seem to remember from some government-mandated training course I did once is pretty much the ideal for targets.

Now I'm cheating a little, because once I get back (which, I guess, is when I'm posting this), there'll still be another week for things to go hideously wrong in; but assuming that doesn't happen, here's where all of my current projects should be by the end of this month:
  • To End All Wars, the World War One-set Science-fiction novel I began at the start of the year, will be half way through its second draft.  And it feels like it's coming together nicely.  Given that my biggest issue with the first draft was its wordiness, it's satisfying to be going at the thing with a bone saw.  That first draft was a little over 103'000 words; I'm confident it will end up somewhere around ten thousand words shorter than that.  Whatever happens, I'm liking it a lot, and I'm still comfortable with saying it's the best novel I'm written so far.  Although that may change at any time, because...
  • Degenerates, the book that began as a rewrite of 2010's difficult second novel War For Funland and has since turned into a whole new, vastly more interesting thing with the skeleton of War For Funland wriggling beneath its muscles, will be finished in first draft.  I'm way too engaged with it right now to be sure what I think of it, except to say that there was never a point where I felt that War For Funland was entirely a success and there's never been a point where I've felt Degenerates was a failure.  I find myself falling back on that word, interesting; and I keep realizing that at this stage I'm absolutely okay with it being that.  I know that in the next draft I'm going to have to hammer this crazy monstrosity into some sort of shape, but right now, interesting is an adjective I'm comfortable with.
  • Then lastly there's The Bad Neighbour, my first stab at writing a crime novel, which will be past its mid-point and well on the way to an end-of-year finish.  Okay, this is the one thing about which I was maybe lying slightly above: as much as I'm on target (and indeed a fair bit ahead), it's looking like the target itself may be off; something that's been causing me a degree of panic since a) I'm pretty clearly obsessed with targets and b) this should not be a long novel.  It's supposed to be a book that jumps out and kicks you in the throat and then runs the hell away, and if it breaks 100'000 words I'm not sure it's going to be that book.  Still, that aside, I'm plenty happy with it.  It's not a bit like anything I've written, and since a large part of why I chose to write it was to see how far I could get out of my comfort zone before I burst into flames, that makes me feel like at least I'm achieving what I set out to.
All of which means there's a solid chance that I will in fact finish three first drafts this year, just like I planned - and perhaps more importantly, that I'll be happy with all three once they're done.  Giving up my livelihood to write full time has been one hell of an experiment, and one that still scares me a little every day.  Until I've got some books ready to sell I've no sure way to judge whether it has a chance of being a long-term success, and in the meantime my only measure is whether I can do the amount and quality of work I feel I should be doing to make a living as a writer.  So it's great to be able to say that right now, by those terms, I'm winning.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Film Ramble: Dragon Hunters

Sometimes it's hard to keep from being defensive in these Film Ramble articles.  For anyone who knows me will know that sometimes I get terribly enthusiastic about movies that are not, by any objective definition, entirely what most other people would call good.
Because try finding a high def version in English.

So here, to give you some idea of whether you might conceivably agree with anything I say about Dragon Hunters - a film that, my god, I adore in a way I know can't be entirely reasonable - are some opening assumptions:

I like animation.  When it's great, it's fair to say that I love animation.  I like Western animation and anime about equally.  I'm happy to watch kids' films so long as they're not awful, joyless, carelessly-made kids' films.  I'm okay with the French sense of humour, unique as it can sometimes be.  And I'd sooner have content than style, but if there's enough style I can get awfully distracted by it.

And Dragon Hunters, by the standards of what it is - a just-about-feature length, CG-animated, French Fantasy movie aimed quite squarely at kids - has no shortage of style.  It is, in fact, all sorts of stylish.  It's also, in places, quite brazenly and stupefyingly beautiful.  Judged solely on its most beautiful scenes and images, I would say that it's the single most beautiful CG-animated film I've seen.  And I've seen most of them.  Is it more beautiful that the opening third of WALL-E?  More beautiful than that sequence in Monsters University where they enter the real world?  More beautiful than the frequently-beautiful Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs?  Yes, yes and yes, at least at its very best.  And if you're at all interested in animation, let alone computer-generated animation, that alone should be reason enough to take a look.

Now imagine that everything is moving.
 Unfortunately it's impossible to convey any of this in a still image, because, again at its best, Dragon Hunters doesn't only present astonishing scenes but moves its characters through them in genuinely imaginative, interesting ways.  Then again, it's a film that does almost everything in interesting ways, even when what it's doing isn't inherently all that interesting.   Its characters are archetypal on the surface, full of charming wrinkles in practice, and the character designs are gloriously eccentric, perhaps all the more so for having apparently each wandered in from different movies.  Its plot is straightforward - dragon about to end the world, mismatched cast thrust together to save the day - and yet its details are everything but.  Because, that world that needs saving?  That would be a vast archipelago of islands and planetoids each with their own gravity, and man-made structures drawn from every place and era of human culture, all in a constant but steady process of disintegration.  Its action sequences are ingenuous and joyfully silly and, like the animation in general, preoccupied by doing interesting things with space and movement and in playing with the medium itself, in a way that so few films are.

Oh, right, and there's this kind of blue rabbity dog creature that pees fire.  For absolutely no damn discernible reason.  And it has a character called Sir Lensflare. Whose introduction just happened to be the point where I went from puzzled affection to outright adoration.

Now, even as someone who clearly adores it, I'd admit without a thought that Dragon Hunters is a long way from perfect - and even perhaps falls shy of being the most perfect version of the film it might have been.  It flirts so heavily with elements of cliche that there are some who are bound to simply see it as cliched, and it only works even slightly if you surrender in the first few minutes to its internal logic - or rather, lack thereof.  There's something faintly but insistently wrong-feeling about the translation from French to English, which leaves characters speaking too quickly and far too much, and that French humour, which bounces fairly evenly between childishness and being downright weird, doesn't always translate well. Of its three central characters, two have the potential to be hugely irritating, and at points are clearly meant to be hugely irritating, and that's an awfully big gamble for any movie, let alone an animated kids' film.

Still.  It is beautiful - often astonishingly so - and it's almost bloated with interesting design choices, and silly and good-hearted and frequently, gloriously strange.  And if you're in tune with, let's say three out of five of the assumptions I set out above, I think there's a fair chance that you'll have fun with Dragon Hunters

Monday, 13 October 2014

Why I Joined Authors United

I guess "because I was asked" isn't an answer?

It's true though; or a part of the truth, anyway.   On July 3rd this year I got an e-mail via the SFWA, drawing my attention to an ongoing dispute between retail leviathan Amazon and publishing giant Hachette.  As the e-mail pointed it, such disputes are far from unusual; what was different in this instance was that Amazon had chosen to penalize Hachette by boycotting their products, which in this case meant books, which in turn meant boycotting the works of a considerable number of writers who were little more than innocent bystanders to the conflict.  In response, author Douglas Preston was intending to post an open letter of protest, and was looking for other authors who'd be willing to put their name to it.  Having read through what he'd said and done a little digging, I decided it was something I wanted to be a part of.

I guess my reasoning came down to two things.  Firstly, as a consumer more than as an author, I've been growing increasingly fed up with Amazon.  Some of the reasons are relatively minor: I got fed up with them when I took up their Prime trial offer and had a series of lousy experiences with unscrupulous couriers trying to meet unattainable targets.  I've been fed up with them since they took over Lovefilm, my movie-providing life blood, and ran it into the ground in ways that seem intended to push users to buy more stuff on Amazon.  Then again, some of the reasons have been more serious: I got deeply fed up with them when I saw that, during a period of brutal economic cutbacks, they continue to pursue a policy of what looks a lot like deliberate and calculated tax avoidance.  In short, my consumer relationship with Amazon had been suffering a death by a thousand cuts, until I'd come to view it as a company that liked to throw its weight around in ways I felt I was unwilling to support.

Despite all that, though, I think it was the second thing that clinched my decision.  Because the second thing is that I don't like seeing authors get a raw deal; and often, too, I get tired of the lack of cohesion in a field that could desperately use some.  Authors United, as it would come to be known, looked like a valid attempt to draw writers together in a meaningful cause, and that alone was enough to peak my interest.  In a sense it didn't matter that it wasn't a cause that directly affected me, or many of those being asked to involve themselves.  In a sense, that was the entire point.

Now here we are in October, the Amazon / Hachette feud is still a thing - and so is Authors United.  And despite being offered numerous opportunities to retract my signature, I'm still a member.  Will I see it through to the end?  Who knows?  And at this point, who can begin to guess what the end will mean?  At any rate, while there have been some points in their communications that could certainly have been phrased a whole hell of a lot better, I still feel like AU is doing more good than harm.  And if my presence and the presence of writers like me is useful for one thing, it may at least puncture the absurd myth propagated in some quarters that the group consists of nothing but high-earning, A-list authors - for I am clearly neither of those things.

Which I suppose is the reason for this post.  Because by the same measure, a lot of people (and notably, Amazon themselves) seem intent on turning the Hachette / Amazon situation into an argument between old-style publishing and Amazon's brave new world, or between print and e-books, or between outmoded traditionalists and self-publishing revolutionaries.  And there's no doubt it shades into all of those topics; it touches on a whole host of things, and the fallout of this dispute will undoubtedly have vast repercussions for the publishing industry and perhaps for consumerism in general.  But for me, what's at stake here is that Amazon is callously attacking the livelihoods of my industry colleagues so that it can plow more money into its already heaving coffers, and asides from finding that a disagreeable prospect, I have no dog in this fight.  I've little loyalty to traditional publishing or to print as a medium, and certainly none whatsoever to Hachette.  All this is to me is two companies throwing authors into the firing line - and while Hachette are surely not blameless on that front, Amazon have been the main culprit at every turn. 

Also ... they purposely misquoted George Orwell to suit their corporate agenda, in what would appear to have been an entirely unironic fashion.  And frankly, if it weren't for all the other reasons together, that one alone would have done it.  For wasn't it Orwell himself who said, "those who misquote 1984 are condemned to repeat it"?*

* No, it wasn't.  But I'm pretty sure Orwell said something about "those who misquote that quote about forgetting history are condemned to, um, something something something bad." **

** No.  Wait.  I made that up too.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Now With Added Art

A grumpy turtle.
It's fair to say I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but that doesn't mean it's always been the only - or indeed the main - thing that I wanted to do with my life.  In my teens, if you'd asked me then I would have mentioned writing definitely, but I'd have probably talked more about wanting to be an artist.  For that was my dream when I was growing up, and if it hadn't been for our glorious educational system - whereby, thanks to some bafflingly half-assed non-teaching, my strongest subject managed to be the only one I failed - it's probably what I'd be doing now.

Still, I'm not bitter.  Well, I am a bit, I failed goddamn GCSE Art because my school couldn't provide a teacher and it affected the entire trajectory of my future, but I'm not that bitter.  Because I love being a writer, and if you asked me to choose between the two - which I guess life sort of did - then I'd choose writing hands down.  However what would have been really neat would have been not to have to choose, and it soon became apparent that that wasn't a realistic possibility.  For the last few years, writing has been a full-time hobby performed around full-time jobs, and it barely left room for things like eating and sleeping, let alone picking up my art again.

A creepy child and creepy standing stones.
But I was always determined that I would.  In fact, looking back, that it was one of the many reasons I was so desperate to get to this point of writing full time: with writing a job rather than a sideline I could go back to being able to have actual hobbies, I could pick up art where I'd left off, and maybe in the long term I could see what might have been.

Only when the time came it was kind of scary ... because what if I'd lost whatever bit of talent I'd had?  I literally hadn't done more than doodle in ten years, and though people would occasionally point out that those doodles were quite nice, my own feeling was that I was struggling to draw a straight line, let alone anything that actually looked like anything.  Obviously then, the logical thing to do was to start with something really difficult.  Like a turtle, say.  Like the one up in the top right.   But, while it took me about two whole months, it did work out better than I'd dared hope.  And since then I've had a picture on the go pretty much constantly; it's staying as a hobby because, hey, that was pretty much the whole point, but it's been one I'm getting an awful lot out of.

Anyway, my existing impetus got a healthy push when I got talking to Mhairi Simpson at Fantasycon and was forced into playing her work-in-progress storytelling card game Be the Bard, despite my protests that telling stories is my day job and I was supposed to be on a break from all that, and also that I was pretty damn drunk.  And lo and behold, it was rather fun - but mainly I got distracted by the cards and the pictures on the cards and the possibility of getting to draw some of those pictures and how fun that would be.  And then I bugged Mhairi to let me do just that, which it turned out she was okay with, enough so that she promptly set me a few to work on ... like that scene with the standing stones up there.  I'm up to four designs right now, and it's great having someone actually asking me to draw things, so that I'd don't just stick with what I know or feel comfortable with.  (Which, by the way, also explains the unicorn.)
A penguin.  No, wait!  A bad-ass unicorn.

Now normally the blog is about writing and this post hasn't been at all, but there are some writing points to be made here, so let's finish up with those.  Or I could just point you to a recent blog post by Andrew Knighton, which says most of what I'd want to say.  But the gist is this: writing, if you put aside the manual dexterity required to hit keys / manipulate a pen / burn words onto a page with only the searing power of your mutant brain, is basically head work, and you can live in your head too much.  Every writer should have a hobby that isn't writing, and it's probably a good move to go for something that requires entirely different parts of your body and mind.  Which works for me, because what I'm discovering is that drawing compliments writing tremendously well, in that it's training me to look harder and in different ways at things I thought I understood - to literally see things anew, using whole other parts of my brain.  This, surely, is a good thing. 

And maybe, just maybe, if I work hard enough for long enough, one day I will be good enough to pass GCSE Art!  Hey, anyone can dream...

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Thoughts on Judging the British Fantasy Awards

So I mentioned last week that I was one of the three judges for this year's British Fantasy Award for best short fiction, and mentioned too that while I felt the result we came to was a definite win, whereby an excellent story gamboled off with the prize - that being Signs of the Times by Carole Johnstone, as published in Black Static #33 - there were also a few hurdles and moments of doubt along the way.

For instance, I'd by fibbing if I didn't say that I found the initial shortlist disappointing.  Not because there was anything wrong with the stories put forward but because the list seemed symptomatic of failings I'd noted before in regards to the British Fantasy Awards: too much emphasis on Horror over Fantasy, too many small press markets, too many British markets and - the one that personally galled me most - too many low or non-paying markets.

Before I upset anyone unduly, I should put all of that into some kind of perspective.  I've nothing against Horror as a genre, I've written enough of it, and I don't even object to it straying into what's nominally a Fantasy award so long as there's a reasonable balance.  I've certainly nothing against the British small press, nor against British publishing, having had three novels and a chapbook out from UK publishers both large and small.  Non-paying markets, admittedly, I have a certain theoretical disagreement with, but I'm ready to concede that there are exceptions that make the publishing landscape a better place.  My point isn't that these things are bad in and of themselves, it's that put all together they don't do much to represent the current state of Fantasy publishing.  The small press unquestionably produces some superb work, but so do the many professional magazines out there - markets like Clarkesworld, Shimmer and Apex, to pick a few - and a list that included none of them felt blinkered.  To fall back on a word I've used on this subject before, the initial shortlist felt like provincialism; a British Fantasy Award that was all too close to actually, literally, being a British Fantasy Award.

And there ends the grumbling portion of this post.  Because while, if I remember correctly, there was a time not so long ago when the winning story would have been selected from that initial short list, that time is now past.  These days, the judges (I seem to remember a time when there weren't those either, but honestly it's hard to tell if I'm just making this stuff up) can add a couple of stories of their  mutually-agreed choosing, and what we decided to do - this not being a terribly difficult decision - was to add in the next two runners-up.

Honestly, it sounds like such a small thing, but it made all the difference.  Suddenly there was a better balance of genres, a better balance of markets, of writers ... and what made it most satisfying was that it also felt completely in the spirit of the award.  We weren't overruling the voters, just widening their selection a little.  And now we had seven stories to choose from, and somehow that list of seven felt in every way stronger than the original list of five.

That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Signs of the Times, our eventual winner, did come from the original short list.  Or that the story that everyone agreed was its closest contender was one of the two that we added.  Take from that what you will, but to me it says that things worked out nicely; that the combination of a membership ballot and a jury decision can yield both a strong shortlist and a solid result.

Is that to say the current situation is perfect?  Not entirely.  Regardless of the quality of the story itself, I personally feel that a story that appeared in a British Fantasy Society publication shouldn't have been eligible; for me that harks back too closely to the British Fantasy Awards of old.  Part of me feels, too, that putting novelettes and chapbooks up against shorter stories published in magazines is unfair to both, though I'm not one hundred percent sure why or what the answer would be.  I certainly don't think there's a need for British Fantasy Award for best novelette, but perhaps the current length bracket is a touch too broad.  And of course the greatest limitation on the British Fantasy Awards continues to be the membership size of the British Fantasy Society; with such a relatively small voter pool, there are always bound to be some curious nominations and results.

But you know what?  Awards don't have to be perfect.  And, as I touched on last week, nor can they be, because perfection lays awfully far outside of their purview.  What awards can do is make sure that things that are awesome get recognition they might not otherwise have done.  And, in my wholly biased opinion, that's exactly what happened - not only with the one I had a hand in judging but with this year's awards in general.  So, while I wouldn't mind seeing a little more tightening of the rules - seriously, BFS-published stories should not be getting nominated for BFS-issued awards - I'm really glad that things appear to be on the right track, and here's hoping that this year was an indication of what we can expect to see from the British Fantasy Award in the future.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Thoughts on the British Fantasy Awards

I've been thinking a bit about awards lately.

And barely two weeks ago I was attending the ceremony for the British Fantasy Awards, in the  slightly professional capacity of having been one of the judges.  Now I've been pretty damning about the British Fantasy Awards in the past, specifically right here, and I stand by what I said then: the 2011 awards were a train wreck, not even only for the reasons that found their way as far as the national press, and the 2012 awards were only better in that they didn't produce any obvious and massive embarrassments.  But in the end that's only the difference between being attacked by an angry bear and an angry dog, and I'm one of those people who would rather not be attacked by any enraged carnivorous quadruped, thankyouverymuch.

Wait.  That metaphor got out from under me.

So, hey.  I've been thinking a bit about awards.  What I've been thinking, in a nutshell, is that awards are both inherently stupid and inherently useful.  In the absence of god or a godlike supercomputer, it's absurd to suggest that any body could judge the thousands upon thousands of novels, short stories, films, comic books, anthologies or microwave ovens brought into existence in any given year and declare meaningfully that one of them is the best.  However awards are also inherently fun, in the way that any fundamentally arbitrary competition can be fun.  And when it comes to genre fiction they're handy for drawing fringe readers into the camp and guiding those of us with limited time on our hands.  So in that sense, any award that represents a broad consensus and rewards works with widely acknowledged merit - a best novel award that goes to a book that the majority of people would consider amongst the best works of that year, for example - has pretty much done its job.

Which brings me back to the British Fantasy Awards, which in the past have had a habit of failing conspicuously to do that thing I just described.  In a nutshell, the problem was that they'd tended to represent the specific interests of the organization of which they were a part, or perhaps even rather just a percentage of that membership, whilst in so doing showing a startling lack of attention to what was going on in the wider world.  I think the word I'm looking for is provincialism ... although to take an example I brought up a couple of years back, calling a situation whereby three out of five nominees for an award are the same person who also happens to be a significant figure in the body behind the award provincialism is being awfully damn polite.

Thus it was that when Stephen Theaker approached me to ask if I'd like to judge the British Fantasy Award for best short story I was somewhat hesitant.  But Stephen is a mate and he's still accepted more of my work than any other editor, and there was a malicious little voice in the back of my brain pointing out that if it all turned out to be yet another horrid shambles then I could at least snark about it here on the blog.  Because I won't lie to you, when I'm mean about stuff I get about a thousand times as many hits.

Which makes this post just slightly frustrating to write, for, while I had some doubts in the early days - which I'll come back to next week - I've got to admit that on the whole I think we came up with a thoroughly solid result.  An excellent story walked off with the prize, one I hope most people would recognize the inherent quality of, and I'm happy to call that a win.  And, (this being the point I suppose I've been working towards throughout this whole post), that goes for all of this year's British Fantasy Awards as well.  There were a few eccentric nominations, but a little eccentricity shows character rather than, say, craziness or ignorance or nepotism.  A lot of good work was nominated.  A lot of good work walked away with prizes.  Nothing stood out as being egregiously stupid.  For the first time in my experience, the British Fantasy Awards actually felt like something worthwhile, sensible and internationally meaningful.  Which, given the state of play a mere couple of years ago, is nothing short of a miracle.

Okay.  That'll do for the moment.  If only because all this positivism is surely losing me readers even as we speak.  Next week I'll get to what it was actually like judging a British Fantasy Award, and perhaps suggest some refinements to the criteria and process that I think might help smooth off a couple of remaining rough edges.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Research Corner #7: Random Research

Well not random as such, it's just that I've reached a point now where I have so many novels in the works - at this point, four that I'm actively working on - that my research reading is bouncing between topics considerably more than it was at the beginning of the year.  This is actually proving to be a lot more fun, since you can only read so much about the First World War before your faith in humanity starts to flag; but it's also also a bit confusing, for reasons that will probably become apparent.  I seem to have accidentally stumbled across the literary equivalent of late night channel swapping...

Crossing the Line by Christian Plowman

 Having never read a great deal of True Crime before, I suddenly found myself tearing through quite a lot of it as research for current novel and my first attempt at writing (non-True) Crime, The Bad Neighbour.  Out of everything I read this was one of my favourites, in that the writer-protagonist wasn't a complete asshat - from my limited experience, this being a definite thing when it comes to True Crime.  (For which, see below.)

Plowman's definitely a capable storyteller, with a sense of humour and a good grasp of language, and if that sounds like faint praise then trust me, for this particular sub-genre it's pretty much declaring him to be the next Shakespeare. The experiences he relates were not perhaps that exceptional given the line of work he was in - undercover policing of one sort and another - but his outsider-looking-in focus is definitely the right way to bring this sort of material to life.  Plowman manages to keep things both interesting and suitably horrifying, and as with so many of these books, make you kind of resent the police - watch as your taxes are squandered in horrifying quantities to little noticeable effect! - whilst also being really glad that it's them and not you.

The Defence of the Realm by Christopher Andrew

If there's one thing I've never had much desire to read it was a history of MI5, so I approached this one with trepidation.  Misguided trepidation as it turned out, for the sections I read turned out to be an intriguing, in-depth, warts-and-all take on a vital part of British history and, more interestingly, a distinctively slanted interpretation of that period.  Given their particular concerns, the burgeoning MI5 didn't view the First World War through quite the same eyes as everyone else did, and as such their approach, for better or worse, was quite different.

I don't know exactly what access Andrew had but he certainly seems to know his stuff, and he does a great job of introducing the major personalities and then plunging the reader into their murky affairs.  There's a constant, fun vibe of being made party to something you probably shouldn't be hearing this much about, and also a solid sense of just what this kind of organization does and why and how it can go both right and drastically wrong.  Given that this was supposed to be research I couldn't justify reading beyond the end of WW1, which took me to about page one hundred out of six hundred ... it's a hefty tome.  But what I got through was a fascinating read, and I hope I find an excuse to finish it one of these days.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

I based a lot of my To End All Wars protagonist Rafael Forrester on Siegfried Sassoon, whose journals were a huge influence on my early research.  But with all respect to Sassoon, if I'd read Graves first then it would have been him that I picked; in fact, given that I came to to Goodbye to All That too late for it to have a significant influence, it's uncanny how much Forrester feels modeled on Graves.  If only because Graves, with the advantage of writing long after the event, is a heck of a lot more open about his private life and particularly his sexuality.

At any rate, this is pretty much a glorious biography.  Graves is sharp, witty, self-effacing, endlessly entertaining, and always writing with a clear sense of what was vital about the times that he witnessed.  Where the first volume of Sassoon's biography was something of a slog for me, as a reader with less than no interest in fox hunting, Graves is pretty much brilliant from the get-go.  In short, a great read this, especially if you have even the faintest interest in the history and personalities of the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer

I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't know a great deal about Gandhi before I read this.  And I haven't read a great number of biographies, so that when I say this is the best one I've read, I suppose you have to take that with a pinch of salt.  Nevertheless it is, and as such I recommend it wholeheartedly.  Gandhi was an astonishing individual, a truly unique, extraordinary, revolutionary figure of the kind that comes along perhaps once in a generation, if that.  He was also - and I say this with no intended disrespect, not to mention a healthy dose of understatement - kind of crazy.  And perhaps the main reason that this is a great biography is that it embraces both of those extremes, without ignoring the middle ground whereby Gandhi was a human being with the usual human concerns and frailties.  Fischer has no qualms about portraying Gandhi as a saint, nor about showing the occasions when his eccentricities did harm, as they often did, particularly to his own family.  But by the end it's hard not love and mourn the man, and to be saddened at the thought of the world we might be living if only he had been listened to a little more.
Running With the Firm by James Bannon

Ostensibly a book about an undercover cop masquerading as a football hooligan, Running With the Firm soon starts to look like the precise opposite: Bannon hints that he could have gone either way, and it seems more luck than judgement that he ended up at least nominally on the right side of the law.  Whatever the case, he sure does love pretending to be a hooligan, and doesn't seem greatly bothered by who gets hurt along the way.  What follows is a lot about Bannon's own life and thoughts and feelings and a largely insightless account into football hooliganism, (hooligans are just normally people, basically, except that they really like football and kicking the crap out of each other on a weekend), backed up with a whole lot of self-justification, whereby Bannon tries to convince that he was just doing his job, or else that it wasn't a job worth doing in the first place, but at any rate he's definitely a good guy.

By his own limited definition that's probably true, but by anyone else's maybe less so, and by the end I was really glad not to have to spend any more time in his company.