Sunday, 31 January 2010

Very Friendly

Things you should never do when working on the sequel to your urban fantasy novels, no 1- don't read Rachel Caine's weather warden series shortly after starting. You end up feeling surprisingly inferior about the whole thing, even if you suspect that what you're writing is actually quite good.

No2- Don't end up doing about three other things at the same time. It gets in the way. Normally, I'd have a huge deleting spree at this point, but I'm not going to this time. My weird/funny thing 'The Glass' is too good to start deleting, and I like this sequel. As for the third thing, that's for someone else, so I can't give out any details.

I finally got my hands on a copy of the full version of Adam Wilson's short story collection Total Synthesis (since I know him, I've been in a position to read earlier versions of the four pieces) and read it over the last few days. If you get the chance, you should too, because it's really very good.

I've been watching more fencing video footage. Odd, isn't it, that Epeeists do the bouncing backward and forward like gangly jellyfish thing while Sabreurs don't? There must be a reason. Maybe it's because my lot don't stand still long enough to bounce? Or because we get bored and flunge at that point? Suggestions from any fencers please.

There was a piece in the paper about how well off kids from the UK are abandoning UK universities for those in the US, on the basis that they have more cachet than doing what everyone else is. Two points: One, if you wanted to do something different, why not come to Hull? I bet none of your friends are doing it, and you still get to say that you went to one of the three great british universities.

Two, it got me thinking about how every university manages to find something to shout about in the various rankings. With Hull it tends to be the student satisfaction survey. We're apparently very friendly.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

York

I popped over to York again yesterday, so some observations on the city to start:

In some senses, it doesn't feel like a city. Certainly not the way somewhere like Leeds or even Hull would. If anything, the endless cafes and touristy bits and medieval elements make it feel more like a big version of Beverley.

It's quite easy to find your way to the minster, because you can spot it from most angles. That's in contrast to Beverley, where something about most of the shopping area blocks the view.

The library is very quaint, but I actually find myself prefering those in Hull. They're set out to be as easy to use as possible, while the minster library isn't necessarily that convenient. There's a lot of clambering about on ladders, for a start, and not that many places to work. On the other hand, it does seem to be the only place for fifty miles that has bought the complete set of the English Episcopal Acta series.

It's the only place I've driven to recently that I haven't got lost finding. Mostly because even I can manage "follow the A1074". It's not quite a yellow brick road, but it will do.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Kreative Blogger Award

Lisa Damian has given me this Kreative Blogger Award, so thanks to her. Apparently, I'm supposed to tell you five random things about myself:

  1. Because I've moved around a bit, my accent tends to wander if I'm not careful. The trouble is, I have no idea I'm doing it at the time, because I'm also one of those people who thinks their voice sounds very different to how it really does.
  2. It took me six attempts to pass my driving test. Six.
  3. Rather unfortunately, given my academic field, I have a terrible memory for dates. Most of the time it isn't an issue, given that I can write them down and refer to them, but it can be a bit awkward when I can't remember things like exactly what year Beverley suffered a major fire. (Um... probably 1188-90ish, I think)
  4. Despite reading poetry and living in Hull, the first time I read any of the Hull "school" (as others have pointed out, it hardly counts as one stylistically) of poets I was a few hundred miles away, in Canterbury.
  5. When I first learnt to fence sabre, the fleche was still allowed and some small competitions didn't use electric kit in the first few rounds. I always love it when people in their fifties and sixties try to tell me about how much better fencing was in the old days. I was there. Even if I was eight.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Real Skills of Electric Sabre

You might have noticed that I'm a fairly obsessive sabre fencer, and I've decided that you should be too! As such, given that the modern sabre game is entirely electrical in its scoring, you'll need to know the essential skills of the electric sabre game. No, not those silly things about parries and ripostes and footwork- the real skills of electric sabre:

  1. Fighting for a box. It is a sad fact in this universe that some people want to fence epee. These strange individuals also seem to think that they need an electric scoring box, on the basis that "it's all about when you hit someone". Usually around the time you want to practise. Essential skill tip- barging them out of the way isn't nearly so useful as simply pointing and saying "oh look, your tip-spring has come out" and then running past them.
  2. Heat Management. It's not so much a fitness issue as an "I'm dressed like a turkey about to be roasted" issue. You will sweat. You will feel like dying. You will drink all the water you'd brought for the day after the first bout. Essential skill tip- if the bout hasn't gone well, lean over the score record sheet shortly after removing your mask. The resulting waterfall of sweat should obliterate things nicely.
  3. Shouting. The right of way system hasn't actually changed, but presidents sometimes spend more time watching the lights than the fencers, so the shout that tells the world you've got the hit is a vital component of any fencer's armoury. Essential skill tip- One you have the hang of shouting, go the extra mile, literally. One French acqaintance of mine would set off on a little victory lap after every good hit. Try calling him back to tell him that you've given the hit the other way then.
  4. Style. As we all know, you get extra points when fencing for style (Though strangely, they never seem to show up on the final scoresheet. It must be some sort of mistake) For maximum NuSabre chic, make your technique look as little like somebody fencing sabre as possible. The no guard en-guarde position is always a favourite for, while hitting with the edge of the blade is practically verboten. Essential skill tip- The real pros might want to try Ratneswaren's habit of putting both hands above his head mid-hit. Presumably it's to lull the opponent into thinking that you've surrendered. Or because he has some castanets hidden where no one has noticed.
  5. The double teapot. It used to be that sabre looked like you were singing "I'm a little teapot" complete with the actions. Nowadays though, your hand is more likely to be on your hip at the end of a hit, when you whip your mask off and tell the president they've got things wrong, then somehow manage not to get carded for it. Essential tip- For best effect, demand that they go to the slow motion replay. This is especially fun if there isn't a slow motion replay.
  6. Bouncing, flunging and stop hitting. See point four.
So there you have it. The essential skills of electric sabre, all bound up in one neat package. Now, who's looking forward to the Yorkshires?

Friday, 22 January 2010

Looking at the Workings- Witches and Psychics

I've decided to treat these two together, since I suspect that they play an essentially similar role, even in worlds, such as mine, that treat them as slightly separate things. They've been a staple of fantasy, horror, and urban fantasy, and are in some senses my favourite type of character. Some thoughts then:

  • They're human. That is in some senses the most appealing aspect of them. They are in all senses bar the obvious one perfectly normal. Even with someone like Kim Harrison, who treats them as an entirely separate species with a longer lifespan and a connection to demonkind, there is still something basically normal about them.
  • They're fragile. In most cases, you don't need silver bullets, or stakes, or cold iron, or anything else particularly special to kill them. They aren't super strong, or fast, or tough. That means that you can have enough risk to make things exciting, while still having a character with the potential for power.
  • I mentioned above the question of the division between various magic users and those with psychic powers. Interestingly, although they do broadly the same thing in story terms, there is almost always a division of sorts between them. Usually it's the division between learned skill and natural talent, perhaps to create the possibility of people who are different even in fictional worlds accepting of magic.
  • Of course, this creates questions over the magic system in use, and the differences affect this type of character more than almost any other. A coherent magic system is essential, even though mine is deliberately quite chaotic to reflect the thought that in a world where the supernatural is hidden, people might not actually know that much about the detail of what they're doing. The source of that power tells us a lot about the flavour of the magic user in question. Is it an inborn talent, a connection to some supernatural being, or simply greater knowledge?
  • Usually, there's also a concern for the morality of magic, though positions vary. It might be that all magic use is seen as inherently evil (particularly if it is only gained through connections to the supernatural), or certain classes of spells might be forbidden, or it might just be a question of what you do with it. The latter creates a more human option, while the second implies the existence of a group doing the forbidding, and requires a more formal setting.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Popular v Formal

I'm finding at the moment that I'm becoming interested in the interaction between popular faith and religious centres in the Middle Ages, but I have also noticed that something of a split seems to exist in the historiography. With the possible exception of Arnold's Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (which admittedly might have done the whole thing so thoroughly that others don't dare) people seem to either do 'popular' faith in the period, or institutional history, without the two necessarily connecting.

That intrigues me, because it seems that there are potential difficulties if it is the case, and I haven't just missed the relevant literature. Doesn't it risk ignoring the role of extensive official religious mechanisms in influencing popular faith on the one hand, while treating the institutions in too secular a fashion on the other?

The interactions between large institutions and the towns and people around them can be fascinating, not least because of the ways they altered and shifted. In Beverley, the minster had to compete with the growth of numerous smaller institutions, and with the expansion of monastic houses there that occasionally strayed into liturgical areas, as its 1309 dispute with the Dominican Friars there over them offering Mass suggests.

What I'm saying is that these interactions are interesting, and that they're easy to miss sometimes. Particularly if we get so caught up in the popular religion of the Middle Ages that we ignore the formal sort. Well, actually, what I'm saying is that I've found a new angle to run with for a bit now that I've done the institutional history, but you get the idea.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Small Changes

It's amazing how much tiny differences in approach can matter. I found this out a few days ago when I was fencing. I've spent much of the year fencing away from the electric kit, on the basis that you look, and feel, like a turkey being slow cooked in tin foil. It's hot, in other words. Then, I came to fence some electric sabre with a friend and it took me a good ten or fifteen hits to work out that I was doing half a dozen things that just don't work plugged in. From the outside, the technique looks similar, but it's a big difference. My practise of the last few months has been effectively of the wrong thing.

I was thinking of how this applies to writing, and I think it might be the same with writing exercises. You think that you're practising the writing that you use, but when it comes to actually putting something together, it's an ever so slightly different prospect. The rhythm isn't quite the same, or you find that you're focussing now on the characters, where you were focussed on the language. Sometimes the only way to practise something is to do that thing properly. Actually write something, in other words.

The same thing appears to apply between writing formats. A short story isn't just a novel, only shorter. It certainly isn't a fragment of a novel. Novels need achitecture and structure to hold them together on a level that the short story sometimes doesn't. At the same time, trying to write a thousand word piece in the same rambling, elegant style used over your epic just won't fit. Doing one isn't necessarily a complete preparation for the other.

So what does this mean? Among other things, it means that every time you approach a new format, you need to take the time to understand the way it works. It means that sometimes you should give the exercises a rest and just write something. It also means that I need to stop trying multi-stage feints and hitting cleanly down the edge of the blade, but I'm not sure that's so helpful.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

My Voice?

So, England lost the last Test against South Africa, foiling our cunning plan to edge to the top of the world rankings one boring scrape past our opponents after another. Also, does the extended batting line up policy mean that our batters have therefore failed more? And will we be up to facing the might of Bangladesh next month? (To all non cricketers, that last bit wasn't serious. Even England should beat Bangladesh. Probably.)

I find myself picking at the idea I'm not working on at the moment, trying to make all the elements fit. The danger is that it's quite close to something at least one of my favourite authors has done, and I need to find new places to go with it so I'm sure I'm not just writing essentially the same thing. I also need to settle on a tone. I thought I'd go for something quite dark, but then I wrote an opening line that just wasn't, followed by a second sentence that was just plain daft.

I think I need to focus more on the rhythm and play of words. My best stuff seems to come when I'm playing around with language as much as anything. Again though, there's a danger with it. With music, they sometimes talk about bands going into recording with a sound in their head that isn't theirs, but which they're really hearing as a hangover from someone else's records. I must be careful that it's my voice I'm playing with. Presumably so long as I see a steady stream of fairly pointless jokes, I'll know I'm on track.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Looking at the Workings- Werewolves

Aww, aren't they so cute and fluffy? Well no, obviously, when they're trying to eat the hero. Now I must admit that werewolves give me some trouble, which is why I used a rather different type of shape shifter for my current urban fantasy series. Even so, I've been thinking about them, and shapeshifters generally, quite a bit. This is what I've come up with:

  • At their most basic, shapeshifters of all kinds are a metaphor for the hidden angers, desires and other emotions within us all. They're the beast within that most people manage to keep tamed.
  • They're also very human, most of the time. The vampires are the main contenders for this in that they can pass for human more easily sometimes, but werewolves actually are human three weeks out of four. They are, therefore, a pretty good way of getting a character who is both 'normal' and 'not normal'.
  • Werewolves tend to have more of a social structure in recent attempts, like real wolves, which lets the author comment on social systems in quite a raw way.
  • The big questions for a writer usually come down to how much of themselves the shifters keep when they change, and how much control over the process they have. I've occupied a position where they have nearly full control of the change aside from the full moon, along with full control of themselves, but still a few instincts that they have to work on. Others have made them more monstrous, but I'm not sure how much the full 'Ravening Beast' bit works in urban fantasy. Even Kelly Armstrong's werewolves, which are among the more brutal and instinct driven, are generally quite self controlled, with only occasional lapses. I guess it's hard to have them be heroes if they're constantly eating people.
  • One intriguing point for me is how much the notion of were-other-things makes a difference. Are they just werewolves in funny clothes? Or are they more of a reflection of different personality types? One of the reasons that I chose a snake for my main character was that I wanted something that reflected the idea of him having a solitary, quite unpleasant strand to his character that would change as things went on. Of course, once you start having other sorts of shape shifters, you end up with quite a complex supernatural world, so that's worth taking into consideration too.

Friday, 15 January 2010

It seems I can speak Danish

It's amazing how much of a foreign language you can understand if you try. I know, because I spent half an hour wandering around the Danish fencing federation's website, in Danish, followed by the FIE's website, which defaults to French. For those who don't know, fencing tends to be escrime or something close to it in the more mediteranian areas of Europe, and fechten or variations on it in northern Europe. Not a great deal of use, I admit. Incidentally, good luck to Keita Azuma in the Copenhagen Cup world cup satelite event this weekend.

An observation: People are willing to try things, but only if you push them into it. I'm pushing people to go to the Yorkshire Sabre next month, and most of them are fairly enthusiastic, but only once I've suggested that they should. People just won't go out and hunt for tornaments.

I have officially started volunteering at the Beverley Community Museum, which remains almost impossible for most people to find. They're currently building up an exhibition on Beverley's historic churches. I think I might be able to help. A bit.

I continue to play with the sequel to the sequel. I'm not managing any of those days when six or ten thousand words just appear, but that doesn't matter. Anyway, maybe they're hiding and planning to ambush me later.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Stuff

  • The snow in the UK is currently slowing down my corrections to the PhD. I've been told to reference a source where the nearest copy seems to be in York, and the conditions haven't exactly been right for the journey.
  • Also, does anyone have any ideas about where I might find a decent map of the Archdiocese of York in the central Middle Ages?
  • More SEO, though I did have a nice bit of work the other day writing a blurb for a children's book. Maybe ghostwriting next. Whatever it is, I can't see myself doing this long term, but maybe it will let me bring some useful skills to an academic job.
  • More work on the third in the series that started with Searching. Witch Hunt, the second, hasn't hit the copy-edit stage yet, but I thought I'd get on with it. I've tried planning everything neatly, but that meant that the rhythm of the writing was dicated by the plan, rather than how it needed to feel. Instead, I'm keeping the basics, but just trying to write naturally for the rest of it.
  • I need to put together more academic articles. The trick is finding a moment when I'm actually in the right frame of mind. Maybe my trip to York will spark something.
  • I've also got another novel plan bubbling away. I can't decide if it's unique enough yet, or if I'm in a position to write it as well as it could be. I might be better waiting. But for what?

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Aftermath

I'd just like to say that my short story 'Aftermath' has gone up over at Poor Mojo's Fiction. It's a fairly odd little piece, asking where all those evil overlords that show up in sword and sorcery come from in the first place.

Looking at the Workings- Vampires

Vampires have had a good, or at least extensive, press recently. They've probably shown up in more assorted fantasy, horror and even sci-fi books than almost any other creature in the last ten years. I've included them in mine. But what are they for, and what do they do to the books? Some thoughts:

  • There are broadly two strands of vampires. Well, probably dozens, really, but we'll settle on two for now. There are the ones derived at least loosely from Stoker's tradition, where they are at least a little bit sophisticated and seductive. Then there are the ones from older traditions, such as those mentioned in medieval stories of the supernatural, which are generally savage, bloated, and monstrous. The former informs most of the modern genre. Partly that's because it's what people have read, but partly, it's because there is simply more to do with that approach.
  • Vampires are about sex. Even before they started wearing leather trousers and becoming rock stars, they were still showing up in young women's rooms at night, and the biting is an obvious metaphor. Which leaves the infectious bite/creating more vampires angle as an interesting comment on either accidental pregnancy or STIs, depending on which way the author chooses to play it.
  • Since they crave blood and/or ketchup, depending on whether or not they're Count Duckula, they're also an opportunity for commenting on addiction. Incidentally, am I the only one who thinks that Duckula's plight is a brilliant rendering of the circumstances of the addict who has found a substitute, but who can fall off the wagon at any moment? I am?
  • The whole 'sunlight' issue is also intriguing, particularly since Stoker doesn't do it. Partly it's there to provide a rationale for vampires not controlling the whole world openly, so be careful about messing with it. Partly though, it provides them with an automatic outsider status.
  • Then there's the stuff with immortality and secrecy. The latter isn't required, but is pretty common. Again, it produces an outsider status, and a classic element of many vampire stories is discovering that they are there. The immortality is interesting, because it allows for 'young' characters who are nonetheless very knowledgeable.
  • Although there's a lot more that could be picked out of this, I'll make this the last one. Finally then, they're the undead that can probably fit in easiest with the human world. Certainly better than zombies. Even compared with werewolves and fey, they fit in well, because they were once human (unlike most faery folk) and they generally retain control over themselves.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Semaphore Nominations

Both SFFANNZ and preditors and editors have Semaphore magazine nominated in their awards. If you like the small New Zeeland based publication as much as I do, get over to them and vote. The details of the SFFANNZ awards are here, while those of the PandE ones are here for anthologies, here for editors, and here for the best fiction e/zine award.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Round the Wicket?

Right, a quick warning- this is going to involve cricket. Also questions about the subversion of accepted norms. But mostly cricket.

Hopefully, anybody reading beyond that first paragraph will know that cricket is played on a long straight strip of grass twenty-two yards long, with a set of wickets at either end. The current batter stands at one end (along with a wicket keeper, slips, and various other fielders to talk to), while the non-striker, the umpire and the bowler are at various points at the other end. The bowler runs up to one side of the wicket and bowls. But which side?

In cricketing terminology, if you bowl so that your bowling arm is closest to the wickets as you bowl, you are said to be bowling over the wicket. Bowling from the other side is bowling round. Generally, a right handed bowler bowling to a right handed batter will bowl over the wicket.

That's where things have become interesting recently. A number of off spinners (they move the ball back into the right hander) in particular have started bowling around the wicket. Jeetan Patel of New Zeeland seemed to start the trend, but now Muralitharin of Sri Lanka does it extensively, as does England's Grahame Swann. In fact, today Swanny spent almost all the day bowling around the wicket at assorted South Africans.

Which is where we get to our first thought about nonconformity. Things start because people want to do something a bit different, but if they're successful they quickly take over to such an extent that they stop doing normal things as well. You could think of the way poetry has abandoned meter if you want, or the way fashions in music show up and go, or even the way that the odd surprising vampire in fiction has turned into millions of them. I'd rather complain about Murali getting predictable, despite being potentially the most dangerous bowler in the world.

My second thought is this: What looks like a radical idea now has often been tried several times before. Off spinners in the nineteen-fifties often bowled around the wicket, and Jim Laker took several of his nineteen in the 1956 oval test that way. Equally, current 'mystery' spinner Ajantha Mendis is doing little that Jack Iverson or even Warwick Armstrong didn't beat him to, while vampire stories have been around since before Pope Gregory I included a couple in his dialogues.

So, the next time you're thinking about doing something new, consider this: is it new, or are you just following in a long tradition?

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Looking at the Workings- Fey

A few posts back I mentioned the idea of picking things apart, seeing what they were there to do in stories, and working out what they could do. Since I'd like to make the next sequel as good as it possibly can be, I thought I'd have a crack at it with one or two of the more common elements of urban fantasy. For this one- the fey/sidhe/fairy folk/gentry/a dozen other names I can't be bothered with. At least with vampires all you have to put up with is the odd y and an occasional reference to them as nosferatu. So what are fey for? What do they do? What conventions add something, and which ones are just conventions?

  • Generally they're immortal, nearly invulnerable except for cold iron, strong, fast, and clever. From a UF point of view, it helps them keep up. But it's also about them being better than human, superior, and yet very vulnerable.
  • That vulnerability is intriguing, particularly where it expands to a weakness to everything modern. It reinforces the importance of humanity's inventiveness as a major strength, but also links the fey inextricably to a pre-industrial past. It also places them, in a very real sense, outside normal society.
  • There's usually an inability to lie coupled with a tendency to trickery, along with a hatred of being thanked. Both seem to reflect a focus on true essences- on the one hand, the subversion of the essence of the truth without actually lying, on the other, a dislike of empty forms of words.
  • I can't shake the feeling that they are in many ways more us than us. They are so often humans amplified, with larger passions, feelings and concerns, while still being more recognisably human than vampires, werewolves, and the rest. At the same time, there is invariably an alien element that marks them out essentially as personifications of ideas or aspects of nature.
Naturally, I'd be interested to hear any thoughts anyone else has on the subject, not least because there's at least one character I'm trying to pin down without quite managing it.

Friday, 1 January 2010

New Year

Happy New Year everyone. Let's kick things off with some resolutions, shall we?

  1. To fence at least one competition worth ranking points this year.
  2. To write something everyday on whatever my main project is
  3. To seek academic publication, an academic position, and world domination. Not necessarily in that order.
  4. My writing still needs more penguins.
  5. To improve my cardio-vascular fitness to the point where I don't feel like I'm going to die after the first round of fencing's direct eliminations.
  6. To sell at least one novel this year.
Right, having done that, I'd like to direct your attention to my flash fiction piece The Greatest Thief. Enjoy.