Friday, 30 October 2009

Some writing

  • I'm editing and polishing CofD again, since the first few chapters are out to a couple of publishers. Nothing major, which is probably a good sign, I'm just sharpening up a turn of phrase here and there while finding occasional opportunities for extra funniness.
  • What little fitness I had as a fencer seems to be ebbing away. Maybe it's the result of going from six hours of training plus a competition per week to a measly two hours. Or maybe I'm just getting old. (It should probably be noted that I've said the words "I'm getting too old for this" at the start of every fencing season since the age of about twenty)
  • In the absence of anything better to do (come on, UK economy, recover to the point where I'm vaguely employable) I'm considering starting the third in the series containing Searching and Witch Hunt. It depends on if I can come up with a plot that actually excites me before I get distracted.
  • I'm trying to work out whether I have actually submitted my story "Your Evil Horde Needs You" to anyone. I sort of remember doing so, but my e-mail suggests otherwise. Then again, I also remember one of those online submission forms, and they presumably wouldn't show up. Yes, that must be it. I really must write these things down.
  • I'm nearly, nearly at the end of my zombie sofa short story. Much harder to write than it should have been, though maybe the weird font I've been using while I did so (making it unreadable, must go back to TNR before sending) had something to do with it.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

400

It sounds like it should be a sequel full of spartans, but this is, as it happens, my four hundreth post. That's a lot of bullet points, given the number of "stuff" posts in there. As a random celebration, a few links to old posts. I've tried to spread them out a bit, just for variety's sake:

  1. The very first one, because it was the very first one. And also because the poem was very silly indeed.
  2. The writing meme. I actually did this twice, here and here. It's fun to see what has changed, and slightly worrying to see what hasn't.
  3. A post on collaborations between bands and orchestras, to prove that I do occasionally blog about something other than writing or research.
  4. And history, of course, like this one.
  5. And apparently the odd interview.
  6. But mostly writing. Like this one about dealing with rejection in a grown up, sensible fashion that in no way involves kidnapping the editors concerned and making them listen to my poetry for hours on end until they give in.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

It's a matter of...

Timing, of course. Or, as Frank Carson insisted on saying at every opportunity "It's the way I tell 'em". Timing is supposedly at the heart of comedy, and it's almost certainly true. Think about Bruce Forsythe for a moment (yes, I know, I'm sorry). His jokes on Strictly Come Dancing have generally veered between the simply un-funny and the truly awful, but my theory is that most of them would actually have done quite well in the hands of someone else. Most of them are based on the sort of punning and wordplay that have earned the likes of Lee Mack and Jimmy Carr good followings. They fall flat because of the way they're told, rather than the content.

The tricky bit is what that implies for attempts to be funny with the written word. After all, if you're speaking, you can control the speed of delivery and the timing of any punchline just by altering the rate at which you speak. You can't control the speed at which people read, can you?

Of course you can. I'm doing it now, more or less (mostly less). Everything that would normally affect the flow of writing, from sentence structure and length, to use of punctuation, to word choice is a vital part of getting the timing right in comic writing. A few of the more obvious ones, and their silly applications.

  • Brackets. Now, most of us don't put that many brackets in our work, mostly because they signal that what you're about to say has no real place in the sentence, but is just an aside you thought might work. But comic asides and random non-sequiteurs are an essential comic tool (unlike a hammer, unless you happen to think that Timmy Mallett was funny). Terry Pratchett prefers footnotes. It's more or less the same thing.
  • ... is possibly the most useful symbol going, because it both lets you slow the reader down and frequently primes them for what's coming... unless it happens to be a bus.
  • In which case we need short sentences. Like this one. And this. And possibly this. But definitely not this one, because it's going to go on, and on, and on, and... Sorry, I got a bit carried away there. The point is that the very short sentence sometimes works here, even if you might normally join things with commas, simply because of the impact and the break in information. For me, the break gives you a moment to think that it's a normal thought, before hitting you with the odd one. Or possibly a custard pie, for the traditionalists.
  • For extra impact, the funny bit gets its own paragraph. A tiny one. A little paragraph-ette running to just a line or two. And I've just realised that all these pauses are making me sound a little like David Tennant in full Dr Who mode, which isn't really what I was aiming for, so I apologise.
  • Short words keep things sharp. Elongated examples provide an opportunity to produce a more lazily rambling effect. Before you stop. Neither is wrong, and I think that this is where the biggest opportunity to assert an individual taste in humour exists. I probably lean a little more towards the second than the first, but only because I've read too much Wodehouse. (I'm not entirely sure whether such a state is actually possible, but any port in an excuse).
What about you? When you do funny, how do you do it? (Seriously... I need the help).

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A trip to the minster

I finally took a wander around Beverley Minster yesterday, a little more than a month after submitting the PhD featuring it. Sounds silly, doesn't it? The thing is, since I wasn't doing anything remotely related to architectural history, actually seeing the inside wasn't so much a necessity as seeing all the relevant documents. Since I did it on the spur of the moment, I didn't have a camera to hand, but some nice pictures that go with what follows can be found here. Notice that it's the official website. I quite like the idea that someone thinks other people might make unofficial ones.

I wandered around the thirteenth century building (rebuilt after the fire of Beverley in c.1190) for a bit, particularly taking in the nineteenth century stained glass and the stone misericords worked into the alcoves, before deciding to take the tour of the attic level and north tower. I'm glad I did, despite the stairs up being sufficiently cramped that I barely fit up them towards the top. The view was impressive, but not so impressive as some of the stuff hidden away up there.

There's the early phase of the roof joists, which are essentially whole trees stripped of their bark and cut vaguely to shape. Those look worryingly badly done, but they've certainly lasted long enough. There are the bits that show the failure of the original plans for a much taller tower, such as the beginnings of a spiral staircase just below the roof, along with the acompanying cracks that show why they had to put a roof on it, walk away quietly, and pretend that they meant it all along. There was an opportunity to meet Steve; former plumber, current repairman, and apparently part-time hamster, given that he has to run round in a giant wheel to operate the oldest wheel hoist in the country.

I think I probably got a slightly different angle on things from the other people on the tour. Not so much because I already know the history, though I do, but because I don't much like architectural history for its own sake. A big building is impressive, but not as impressive as the human systems that brought it about and scurried within it. Something like the correction of the four foot lean in one tower wall in the eighteenth century by constructing a huge wooden framework to catch the wall, hacking the wall off, and then lifting the whole thing back into place is less impressive to me for the ingenuity involved than for the success in persuading people to go along with such an odd idea.

I particularly like the little touches that show something of ordinary people involved in repairs. One, in the top window of the tower, was put in by the man making repairs in the 1960s, who happened to be a planespotter, and put in little etchings of planes on the glass. Other panes show that a grandfather and grandson both worked on the same thing, and apparently the grandson had no idea that his grandfather had done so. I also rather like the pride that the current verger takes in the fact that Westminster Abbey's current appearance was copied almost completely from the minster's west end.

Overall, I'm glad I went, because it feels like a nice conclusion. It's a nice, big, stone full stop to my efforts of the last few years.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Stuff

  • Watching Mark Knopfler play a live show on tv the other day, I found that the star of the piece wasn't the balding fingerpicker from Dire Straits, but rather his collection of guitars. It seemed that practically every song called for a different one, along with a story about where he got it. Maybe that's why he plays fingerstyle. He's spent so much on vintage Les Pauls and strats that he now can't afford plectrums (ok, technically plectra, but who uses that? Not Mark Knopfler, for a start.)
  • I did one of those literacy, numeracy and core competancy things for a job earlier, and discovered that the life of a medievalist is not a good way to remember all the things I learned in GCSE maths. Still, I can but hope.
  • I have, possibly for the first time ever, actually got lots of short stories out to editors at once. I've even tried to find a home for the series I keep mentioning from time to time. I'm also editing three or four more pieces, so hopefully they'll be ready to go soon.
  • Should anyone need an illustrator (preferably for reasons that don't involve firing them out of cannons, since she's a friend) I'd like to point you in the direction of Bronwyn Coveney's blog, which has a few examples of her work along with comments on her current projects.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Gloom Cupboard

I've put the latest fiction issue up over at Gloom Cupboard.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Self Censoring

This isn't the post I was originally writing. That was going to be a thought on the way the amount of free stuff on the internet has effectively made not getting paid the default setting of writers the world over. But then I realised that it would probably come across as me whinging about people not giving me enough money, which wasn't really my intention, but would probably make me look bad anyway. (Incidentally, should anyone feel the uncontrollable urge to give me money at this point, I'm not arguing. No, I didn't think so.)

It's amazing the things we self censor. I almost deleted the bit in brackets there. I'm also struggling with the short story I mentioned a few days ago because I'm having a hard time writing it the way round that works while still squaring it with my feelings on hunting with dogs (which are that it is A: generally a rather cruel approach to pest control, and that B: it is particularly annoying when it scares my cat first thing in the morning). The problem seems to be the constant feeling that somebody reading it will react rather badly to it, leading me to alter things as I go.

Which is, of course, rather stupid. Practically everything that has ever been written will have been disliked or disagreed with by someone. Attempting to please everyone quickly degenerates into trying not to displease anyone, which in turn becomes writing nothing. But at the same time we are told to write with our audience in mind. So at what point does one become the other? Should we agonize over the potential for our writing/blogging/other work to annoy the audience? Have you ever started writing something and then changed your mind because of the reaction you suspected you'd get? Should I stop being such a weed about the whole thing?

(It occurs to me that, in my last few short stories, I've probably managed to offend security guards, personnel managers, recruitment people, practically everyone with a love of either Shelley or Wodehouse, pub landlords, actors and reality TV contestants. And you know what? I'm not going to apologise. I'm not. I'm absolutely... oh all right, sorry. But not about the reality TV.)

Monday, 12 October 2009

Editing Methods

Since I've been editing Gloom Cupboard's fiction section, I've tried a couple of different approaches to editing, switching recently to a sort of "edit as you go" approach after I let a bit of a backlog build up at the end of last month. That sent me looking for the approaches favoured by other people involved in online stuff, and what I found is that there are a huge number of different approaches to the topic. Some that I found include:

  1. Reading everything as soon as you get it, deciding then and there whether you like it enough to include it. It's what I'm working with at the moment, more or less. It has the advantage that you get stuff done, but the disadvantage that you can't really compare pieces before making a decision.
  2. Save everything, decide in one go. What I was doing, which allows you to pick the best from whatever group of submissions you get, but means you end up trying to do everything in a day or two. Also, you have to hold onto submissions for a while.
  3. Special "submission periods". These seem remarkably similar to option two, except that you possibly give yourself a little longer to decide. I suspect they still mean you end up trying to do most things at once though.
  4. Complex, multi-stage processes. Australian publication ASIM (Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine) has a three stage process, involving multiple editors. Incredibly professional, and probably the only way of coping with masses of submissions, but possibly also way out of my league. I don't have any spare editors lying around, for a start.
If you've got any thoughts about the best approach, or if you know of any others, please let me know in the comments.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

England in South Africa

Since the submission of the PhD means that almost everything has been writing related for a week or two, and since I'm short of something to do, a cricket related post.

England announced their test team for the tour to South Africa the other day, and there were a few inclusions and omissions worth commenting on:

Steve Harmison is out, probably for the last time. The Durham fast bowler has had a poor few years, but kept getting second chances (and presumably third/fourth/fifth, why do we always call them second chances?) because A: he once demolished the West Indies on a bouncy pitch at Sabina Park, B: he did rather well in the 2005 Ashes, and C: because he has a reputation for frightening batters. Unfortunately, he also has a reputation for homesickness, and for showing up for winter tours half-fit. And, sadly, he never seems to have equalled his burst in and around 2005 since. I suspect this is the end of his international career, and it doesn't particularly bother me as a fan.

Ravi Bopara is out, probably only temporarily. The Essex batter (let's not pretend that some medium pace dribblies make him a test all rounder) had a horrible Ashes series, and nothing better came along in the Champions' Trophy. Presumably the idea is that he goes back to county cricket, gets things together, and comes back.

Which brings us nicely to Owais Shah, also dropped. Again. He seems to be in and out of the side as often as Mark Ramprakash and Grahame Hick were before him, though possibly without quite their talent. Perhaps the lack of consistent runs is the problem, but if England are going to have an official one day policy of all out batting attack, they have to expect a certain amount of inconsistency.

Flintoff, of course, has retired from test cricket. Irreplacable according to the commentators. I doubt it. Stuart Broad already has a better average with the bat, and seems to have worked out what he's supposed to be doing with the ball. Plus he's nabbed Flintoff's place on the physio's bench with an impressive streak of minor injuries.

Tim Bresnan's performances in the one day Champions' Trophy weren't enough to earn a test place, perhaps because people latch onto ideas about bowlers and get stuck. People refer to him as a fast medium bowler, or an honest seam and swing bowler, apparently ignoring the bit where the speed gun is consistently in the top half of the 80s. He's replaced, instead, by Liam Plunkett. Admittedly Plunkett seems to have improved as a bowler, but with little to choose between the two, it does feel awfully like change for change's sake.

Adil Rashid of Yorkshire has cemented the second spinner's spot, ahead of Monty Panesar. This probably says more for Panesar's loss of effectiveness than Rashid's growth as a bowler, and probably also has something to do with Rashid's ability to bat. My only slight worry is that, following his back injury, Rashid seems not quite as dangerous with the ball.

Steve Davies gets a go with the wicket keeper's gloves. Why not? Everyone else has. Though there is the little matter of Chris Read, who was dropped for not being good enough with the bat, being third in the county batting averages for the season.

Oh, and Sajid Mahmood is back for the one day series. Expect the extras count to rise.

Stuff

  • The hunt swept across the farm we live on earlier, managing to terrify our cat. There has to be something better for people who want to think they're posh to do at ungodly hours of the morning. On the other hand, it has vaguely inspired a short story.
  • I went out and bought a copy of Toby Frost's Space Captain Smith, having decided that I'll almost certainly want to re-read it. This approach to library books strikes me as a little bit similar to throwing money to buskers if you like the tune, begging the question of if, were we to offer one or two other authors quite a lot of money, they'd move along quietly.
  • It's possible that this month will feature two prose editions of Gloom Cupboard, people having sent me lots of stuff. I think we're finally being a little more successful in attracting work.
  • I've made it as far as C so far, and have noticed one thing about French: it does have a lot of very similar words. Also, I doubt I'm remembering very much.
  • I've started some editing on the sequel. No matter how much you like something when you're writing it, there are still lots of bits that need changing. Also, I've decided between the two versions. Maybe I'll keep the other so that in the event I sell millions, it can go out as a bonus feature thing (also, I might change my mind again).

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Stuff

  • I've finally got a complete first draft of one of the articles I've been working on, though I suspect that it may be on the short side. Brevity seems to be the name of the game for me at the moment.
  • I finished off K.E.Mills' Witches Incorporated earlier, and it's a good, fun story. Being a mystery, I'm not so sure about the re-read value, but it was certainly fun the first time through.
  • Unemployment seems to be creeping into my short stories. At least, the one I finished yesterday had a lot about recruitment consultancy, stereotypical fantasy villain style. Also worrying amounts of HR jargon.
  • Talking of which, I've gone through my computer files, deleting the stories I'll never be able to do anything with and submitting a few of the others. I do have an unfortunate tendency to leave things and forget them.
  • Rather oddly, I took it upon myself last night to start reading a french dictionary from cover to cover. I'm not entirely sure why, except that I generally don't do that well with normal approaches to language learning, so maybe randomly memorising words will help instead.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Terry Pratchett: Unseen Academicals

It almost seems like a waste of time reviewing a Terry Pratchett book. After all, you almost certainly know whether you're going to buy it, and you've probably got a pretty good idea of what you're going to find once you do. Jokes, strange and interesting characters, more jokes, a plot that makes perfect sense while also managing to parody at least two or three other things, and a few more jokes.

Actually, you can probably take the last lot of jokes out in favour of a bit more story and characterisation, as seems to have been the case with several of the last few Pratchett offerings. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but is rather simply a very slight shift in style that leaves us more with stories with funny bits than comedy routines with a story weaving in and out of them.

Unseen Academicals deals with the arrival of football in Ankh Morpork, or at least its modernisation from a form that seems either like a simple brawl or worryingly like several traditional English sports, Eton's wall game included. For about ten seconds this seemed like a problem to me, for the simple reason that I can't stand football. As it happens though, this works anyway, because it expertly parodies the traditional plot employed by almost every sports film ever made, where a team of unlikely sorts must play a game for equally unlikely reasons, bond themselves into a unit, and deal with some suitably nasty opposition at the last minute.

Of course, being Pratchett, there's also time for a quick run on the themes of Romeo and Juliet, some stuff about celebrity culture spinning off from the footballer's wives/girlfriends angle, and also a plot running in parallel about the arrival of a new species in Ankh Morpork's famously mixed up environs. It's as expertly written as ever, and very funny in places. Possibly my favourite moment comes just after one member of the UU team scores a goal, and promptly insists that the crowd chant of 'One Macarona, there's only one Macarona' include his full list of titles and achievements. I would include the subsequent version here, but I don't have the space.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Comedy Characters And Where To Get Them

I've been reading some really good funny stuff recently, from Pratchett's new book Unseen Academicals to Rachel Green's An Ungodly Child to Toby Frost's amazing Space Captain Smith. It occurs to me that one thing most really good comic fantasy/sci fi/other books have in common is a collection of really good characters, usually with at least some inherent potential for funniness. Exactly how much seems to vary by the author. Frost seems to favour outrageously overblown variations on stereotypes, while Rachel's characters are at least superficially normal, at least until they start to speak or act. Pratchett seems to have gone from one to the other, starting with what we might call inherently funny character types (such as wizards who can't do magic, very old barbarian heroes, and six foot six "dwarfs") and drifting gradually towards characters who are perhaps more "normal", to allow a fuller story, the comedy coming more in what happens.

Since it's a genre I like to write, since characters are notoriously difficult to get right, and quite frankly since I haven't posted in a few days and I can't think of anything better to do, I thought I'd have a look at some ways of getting good comedy characters, hopefully with reference to those mentioned above (and probably also Tom Holt, since the odds of my getting through a post like this without mentioning him are- I just did, didn't I? Well, that's that out of the way)

  1. Remember that they are still characters. Even if they are going to be funny, even if you love the idea of them, make sure that they fit. Make sure that they do something relevant. Admittedly, in the case of a minor character that might be nothing more than to provide a suitably weird encounter to slow the pacing a bit towards the end of chapter three, but don't shove them in the work for the sake of it...
  2. Unless you really want to. This is the same warning as usual, really. Ultimately, do whatever works. Don't assume that I know everything (or indeed anything). As the great jazz guitarist Martin Taylor is apparently fond of pointing out, if it sounds right, it is right.
  3. Right, now that's out of the way... ideas. Where do you get them? Well, out of your head, obviously. But before that? Sometimes keeping your eyes open will provide suggestions. Truth really is stranger than fiction sometimes (though I suspect nobody who habitually uses that phrase is thinking of Douglas Adams). Also, random things you hear, or better yet slightly mishear, can be an intriguing source of things to use. I wouldn't have been able to include references to zombie sofas without it.
  4. It's often fun to take a literary archetype (or stereotype, but not usually a single character unless it's one so iconic that it has become an archetype. Try ramming two together at speed instead) and twist it into something else. An easy way is to apply relentless logic until it starts to look suitably stupid. If the basic barbarian hero your grandad told you about is very good at not dying, then of course he's going to be quite old by now, isn't he?
  5. Failing that, just take what might be the defining characteristic of the type and do something strange to it. So you get wizards who can't do (or are allergic to) magic, vampires who don't like the taste of blood (or, for those of us who watched enough cartoons, prefer tomato ketchup), princesses who are neither beautiful nor particularly nice, and other staples. The only slight difficulty is that many of these have been done a few times by now, so you might have to go further.
  6. One way of doing that is to simply add on comic elements, like weird incongruities, general cluelessness, irritating honesty etc. until you get something interesting. The problem with this approach is that, having cobbled the character together out of parts, it feels... well, cobbled together out of parts, really.
  7. Perhaps a better option is to ensure that you get an appropriate character by starting with a normal character who would fit the story. That gives you a sense of the shape of the hole you have to fill. What you do then is to brainstorm all the different ways that hole could be filled. Generally, the idea is to take the weirdest option that is still viable. This can sometimes provide fun little subplots, and new (but still weird) takes on the central themes of the story.
  8. How thick should your character be? Always an awkward one this. A little bit of stupidity can be really good fun, but too much and they are either unbelievable (though if you look around, you might decide you can go quite far before you hit that point) or unsympathetic. Perhaps the best examples come from Tom Holt, whose early heroes didn't seem to be that bright. In his more recent stuff though they are a bit cleverer, making up for it with a sort of general sense of loser-ness. With main characters, that seems like a better option, though very specialised forms of stupidity (such as a general cluelessness around women or innuendo, an inability to see just how bad genuinely unpleasant people are, or a mindless and automatic reaction under certain circumstances) can still be useful.
  9. One point is that characters very often get funnier as you start to tie them into the plot. They start off doing one thing, but if you're in a position to have them do a couple of others too, then the traits that are funniest start spilling over and affecting those secondary areas, while still seeming perfectly reasonable. In particular, looking for excuses to have characters do seemingly incongruous things for perfectly justifiable reasons is great fun.
  10. Finally, remember to have fun with them. If you don't like them, the reader won't. Make them big, and overblown, and weird. And then, just when the whole edifice of bizarre characterisation looks set to topple with a crash, have them do something sincere or sensible, and remind the audience that they aren't just a joke, but a funny character.