Thursday, 30 June 2011

Another Review

Another review of Rapunzel's Daughters has gone up here

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Time Travel Part Two (Or Possibly One)

I received a request on my last post about time travel for some more specific tips on how to write it well. As such, here are some things I think it is vital to remember.

1. The story is almost certainly not about time travel. Unless you sign your cheques ‘H.G.Wells’ the odds are that the time has passed when merely having a trip through time in your story is enough. The story is going to be about the usual elements of character growth and development, with time travel merely as a device.
2. Consider plotting out your story with as little time travel as possible, and then adding it in. This probably sounds strange, but it ensures you get a coherent story that plays in the right order, which is something time travel stories often have trouble with.
3. As a wider thought on that theme, treat time travel principally as a way of accessing interesting locations and characters for your story, rather than as a vital component of your plot. If you put together a perfectly ordinary ‘heroic journey’ type plot and it just happens to involve wandering through ancient Rome, the English Civil War and last Tuesday, that is a good thing.
4. On the character front, many of the interesting time travel stories I’ve read/seen simply drop a character from a different time into the story, then take away the time travel. Think of the Terminator films for a famous example. Those plots play out in linear time, just with characters from the future, and a motivation based on the future.
5. Observation is better than action. Don’t get me wrong, your character has to do things, but plots get very confusing when they start doing things that make it impossible for them to have been born, or start supplying themselves with clues from the future. What Wells did was more of an occasion for sharply observed social commentary, and probably makes more sense.
6. Avoid circularity. If your hero is doing something because they went back into the past to tell themselves to do it, then ask yourself why they went back into the past to tell themselves to do it. If the answer is ‘because at the start of the story they went back into the past to tell themselves to do it’ you have a problem. And possibly a headache.
7. Make your terms of reference clear. What can time travel do? What can’t it do? Let your readers know early, so that this stuff obeys some sort of rules, and isn’t just ‘oh, the author’s looking for a way out’
8. Finally (or, this being time travel, to begin with) avoid the typical time travel ending. They get to the end, go back, and make it so nothing ever happened. Or everything’s all right. Why not just say that it was all a dream while you’re at it?

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Ten Uses For Frogs

Since my story in Rapunzel’s Daughters is a take on the classic frog prince idea, I thought I’d provide some ways to get more frogs into your stories. After all, what story isn’t improved by a few dozen amphibians?

1. Turn someone into one. Go on. You know you want to. It’s a classic. There’s nothing quite like that moment when your insurance salesman secondary character utters the words “a long term endowment- ribbit!”
2. Have a plague of them. If you want to send the magical equivalent of a horse’s head in the bed to a character, why not say it with frogs?
3. Poison a character with them. Looking for an unusual way to kill off a character? Why not introduce them to a poison arrow frog in an unexpected spot?
4. Have a character keep one as a pet. Depending on the genre, it might or might not be a transformed person.
5. Use them to evoke a swampy atmosphere.
6. Have your characters plot an escape for a boxful at a fancy restaurant before they become appetisers.
7. Deliver messages with them. (So much springier than owls)
8. Have the seedy pub your character goes to feature frog racing (all the frogs inside a circle. First one to the edge wins)
9. Feature a witch who only knows spells that involve them.
10. Have a rare species of them block an important development, creating problems for gangsters, lawyers, or environmentalist characters.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Learning From Fairytales: Characters

Since the publication of Rapunzel’s Daughters is getting ever closer, I thought I’d look at a few things it’s possible to learn from fairy tales. They are, after all, one of the most fundamental storytelling forms. Here are some thoughts on character:

First, think about what your characters are for. In fairy tales, characters fill well defined roles in the story. They are there for a purpose, or they aren’t there. If you’re one of those people with dozens of characters floating around, it’s worth looking at.

Secondly, they stay true to themselves. Fairy tale characters are utterly two dimensional in most ways, but one advantage of them is that they act in consistent ways. Consistency is a better word than believability. It isn’t about what a real person might do in a situation. It’s about what that character does.

Thirdly, every facet of the character, from their name to the way they look, contributes something to the character. Again, in fairy tales, that is mostly a function of being two dimensional, but for us, it’s worth consideration. What do things like your characters’ clothes and names say about them?

Finally, they are affected by their own actions. One of the most important points with fairy tales is that actions have consequences. That should be true of your characters too. As a ghost writer, I have worked with people where their plots involve things coming from nowhere. Trust me, it is far, far more powerful when the things that affect characters are down to their choices.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Green Grass

One curiosity, when it comes to the martial arts, is the extent to which people get the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome on a regular basis. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and I wouldn’t want people to think that I’m somehow claiming any kind of moral high ground here. I’m not, but it does bear remarking on.

It’s notable in the UK, for example, that western martial arts systems just aren’t that popular. Oh, there are boxing clubs, but where is the wrestling, particularly the folk styles? There are undoubtedly more people playing judo in Scotland, for example, than back-hold wrestling. And there are probably more BJJ guys than catch wrestlers around Lancashire. There are also more kendo schools than longsword ones.

This trend has almost always been the case. English sword and buckler teachers found themselves pushed out by continental rapier masters in the late middle ages, for example, despite several of their number winning duels against the newcomers. In mid C20th France, savate got into real trouble as the inhabitants turned to karate instead.

Lest you think that this is some phenomenon confined to Western Europe though, it shows up elsewhere too. The catch wrestling mentioned above is actually more popular in Japan than the UK, while one of the best sabre fencers I know is also from that country.

This isn’t some xenophobic rallying cry to only practice your country’s indigenous martial arts. It is, however an attempt to get you to think about the way you think, not just in this area, but more generally. Is something automatically better because it has come from a long way off or been handed down for generations? Are you missing out on what’s in front of you? Is the grass really that green elsewhere?

Monday, 20 June 2011

Time Travel

The thing with time travel in fiction is that it’s really hard to make it work. Obviously, there are some well known examples where it has been done well, but even in these, I can’t help the feeling that sometimes, problems arise. Even Tom Holt, who is in most respects one of my favourite authors, can run into rough patches with it, so what hope do the rest of us have?

One of the biggest difficulties for the writer is that it seems to create an excuse for messing about with the structure of the story. That is dangerous. Time might be malleable, but the way a good plot runs isn’t. Ideally, the plot should still run in a meaningful order, just with some bits of it happening in twelfth century Tuscany, or next Tuesday. When you start having your end before your middle, things get really out of hand.

Then there’s the question of the plot that collapses in on itself as it gets more and more circular (spiral?) things happen because the characters set them up later in the story while going back before the start, and they do that… because they set things up later in the story because they’ve gone back earlier. You create a sort of circular logic to the story, where there’s no real initiating event, and there’s no reason for the characters to have gone to all that trouble when they could just have sorted it out easily later (or possibly earlier) on.

And then there’s the tenses. Don’t get me started on the tenses…

Friday, 17 June 2011

Genre?

Most people will have considered the genre that they write at some point (and yes, literary fiction counts, given that it implies a specific sort of writing) and it’s often quite easy to pin down, even in these days when vampires don’t make you horror and the past doesn’t make you historical. I, for example, am most readily described as a writer of comic or humorous fantasy (or urban fantasy, in the case of the older stuff).

Except when I’m not. Even leaving aside the different spaces my ghost writing pulls me into (from comedy cyber-punk to fairy-tale style fantasy and even some very weird pieces of historical fiction) not everything I write is necessarily funny, or fantasy, or both. I’d guess that the same is true of you.

What’s worse is that I sometimes find myself thinking ‘right, how do I get the jokes in?’ or ‘how do I make this more obviously fantasy?’ Not often, but sometimes. And at that point, the genre has taken over. It’s like when you decide at the start that you’re writing YA vampire romance, and you make a list of points to hit that includes werewolf third point to the love triangle, refusal to be bitten, older vampires wanting to kill the MC, etc. Or you start to plot your epic fantasy, and you spend hours working out how to work in the elf, the dwarf, and the slightly grumpy old wizard.

Surely it is better to just write whatever comes out of your imagination? To spend less time sticking a label on work and more on making it your own. Who knows, they might even name a genre after what you do.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011



It occurred to me that, when I was announcing the existence of this collection (by pink narcissus press, who are also going to be publishing my novel Court of Dreams) I didn't give you a look at the lovely front cover. So here it is.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Six Reviews at Once

As some of you may know, as well as obsessing about fencing, I have also practiced a few unarmed martial arts, taking in five styles of Karate, some Feng Shou Chuan, Chi Shou, Shuai Chiao, Aikido, Tai Chi, Xing Yi, Bagua and Jujitsu. My current focus is on submission grappling (MMA without quite so much in the way of being hit) and, since I’d like this blog to occasionally reflect more than just the writing side of me, I thought I’d post some related book reviews. Six of them at once, in fact, since the same sorts of concerns and points tend to show up with all these things.

Those questions come down essentially to three questions. First, who is the book aimed at? Second, what is the quality of the presentation like, and in particular, given that it’s a field that tends to use ghost-writers, how effective is the writing? Thirdly, how useful is what’s on offer in terms of the techniques being shown? So, keeping that in mind, let’s crack on.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Renzo Gracie and Royler Gracie with Kid Peligro and John Danaher, Invisible Cities Press, 2001): Those in the know will be aware that there is really only one surname that matters in BJJ circles, and the authors here have it. This book is designed to be a reasonably broad guide to techniques of the jujitsu variant their family founded (and its variant spelling), and it largely succeeds in that. The volume is well presented, divided up into clear sections according to the difficulty of moves, and features lots of clear photography. It’s a good place to start for any BJJ practitioner, though the lack of space perhaps means that it doesn’t go as deeply into some areas, such as the butterfly guard, as I would have liked. Since it’s ten years old, there are also a few more recent ideas that don’t get much attention, and there’s almost no emphasis on the no-gi game, with perhaps a few too many collar chokes for my taste, but it’s a solid foundational text. Though I’m told that Saulo Ribero’s Jiu-Jitsu University covers more.

The Ultimate Guide to Submission Wrestling and Killer Submissions (Both Mark Hatmaker with Doug Werner, Tracks 2002/2003): These come from a very different background, focussing totally on the no-gi side of things and using techniques taken as much from catch wrestling approaches as from jujitsu. I’m told there has been some controversy over the extent to which Hatmaker represents ‘authentic’ catch wrestling, whatever that means, and over whether he has produced enough competition winners to justify the attention, but our focus here should be on the book, and not on that. It’s what I can get from this that matters. On that front, there are certainly some interesting submissions presented, with an emphasis on ‘double wrist locks’, neck cranks, and foot locks that you don’t find in most Brazilian texts. Several of the holds are intriguing enough to add to an arsenal, while there are several variant positional ideas and escapes that could come in usful. That said, the presentation isn’t that great. The quality of the writing is quite poor, both structurally and in terms of explanations, while the photography isn’t really clear enough to learn from. I prefer the first volume to the second, despite the latter’s focus on submission chaining. I think that the broader base and more immediately workable ideas make it by far the better of the two.

Mastering the Rubber Guard/Mastering the Twister (Eddie Bravo with Erich Krauss and Glen Cordoza, Victory Belt 2006/2007): Eddie Bravo is one of the more interesting figures in the no-gi jiu-jitsu world, and his 10th Planet system is very popular. His wrestling based submission ‘the twister’ has won him numerous matches, while his ‘rubber guard’ refinement of the traditional position of controlling someone with your legs gives you a great position to attack from (and also looks very impressive, which is, I’ll openly admit, the reason I first tried it). If these books were just focussed on two techniques though, we might all feel a bit short changed. Yet they don’t. Instead, each serves as a core component of a book talking about Bravo’s entire top game, including back mount and mount ideas (for the twister) and bottom game, including half guard and escapes (for the rubber guard). I think the quality of the photography and writing in these volumes is very impressive, while the moves provide some unusual, but highly effective, options. My only slight warnings would be that neither is a book for someone without at least some grappling fundamentals, while the rubber guard book is due to be updated shortly.

The X Guard (Marcello Garcia with Erich Krauss and Glen Cordoza, Victory Belt 2007): A book from most of the same people as above, setting out another unusual guard game, and with one of the biggest names in the sport behind it. What’s not to like? Only two things, really. First, the photography. Although full colour, I found the plethora of angles slightly counter productive, as it was hard to keep track of which photo followed on from which. Secondly, although it does what it says, after reading books of the breadth of Eddie Bravo’s, one that just teaches the X Guard and the butterfly guard feels a lot more restricted. It’s notable, for example, that there’s nothing here on Garcia’s phenomenal skill in taking the back. His techniques in doing so (and a couple of X Guard moves) actually get more attention in Bravo’s work. So, where those two books might revolutionise someone’s ground game, this one will probably only improve one component of it.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Things to Check When Forming an Evil Plan

1. The weather forecast. Do you think those dark and stormy nights for plotting just show up?
2. That your HR department has been able to replace all the minions slain in your last evil plan.
3. That you don’t clash with anyone else’s. There’s nothing more embarrassing than attempting a minor coup only to find that Dark Lord Nasty is going for world domination on the same weekend.
4. That enough heroes know about it to make it interesting. Have you pinned enough notes to the walls of inns with daggers?
5. That your one weakness is cunningly defended by an elaborate dungeon full of traps and things (and possibly Things). It won’t make any difference, but at least you can tell the insurers that you tried.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Rapunzel's Daughters

The anthology Rapunzel's Daughters, featuring my short story 'Testing the Waters' is now available for US residents to pre-order from the Pink Narcissus Press website. Anyone who likes twisted takes on fairytales should try this one, since it contains thirty-one tales that try to answer the question of what happens after the happily ever after (giving you one for every day of the month). Those of us who live elsewhere will have to wait a little longer for a book of which even Publishers Weekly says "any fairy tale fan will find something to enjoy in this collection"

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Second Test

The second test between England and Sri Lanka ended the other day, petering out into a draw. I thought I'd quickly review some points that occurred to me as I was watching.

First, congratulations to Alistair Cook, whose run of good form continues. 96 in the first innings and then a century in the second means that he's a run machine at the moment. Also well done to Dilshan, who got rather more runs rather more quickly in Sri Lanka's first go.

The thing is though, quite a few of the top order for both teams seem to be getting runs in this series, while the bowling attacks have, with the exception of that last day crash for Sri Lanka at Cardiff, struggled. Are English pitches getting that flat, or is there another reason?

There do seem to be cracks in the England bowling attack. Well, not cracks exactly. More a general lack of something extra. We have probably the world's best orthodox off spinner in Graham Swann, but our obsession with tall fast bowlers mean that we had three bowlers in the last test who all bowl the same thing. Namely mid eighties straight up and down bouncy stuff that isn't that accurate or relentless. I wouldn't want to play it, but I suspect people who know what they're doing would.

James Anderson, when fit, brings far more movement to the attack, which is essential for getting out good batsmen, but I'm increasingly worried by the lack of searing pace amongst English bowlers. Stuart Broad looked like he might make a ninety mile an hour plus bowler when he started, but since seems to have scaled his ambitions back, and there seems to be no one in county cricket likely to fill that pace void.

I suspect the workload might be the problem. After all, Australia's quickest bowling attack (Lee, Nannes and Tait) only plays in T20 stuff, while Sri Lankan fast bowler Lasith Malinga has also retired from tests, specifically citing the amount of bowling required. The only bowlers who seem to survive are those who bowl within themselves.

What does this mean for the Rose Bowl? I'm not sure. In theory, it spins, so Swanny might do some damage. The trouble is, spinning grounds also tend to be a bit slow, so maybe there are more monster scores to come.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Slide

I wrote this a while back, the first time (at the risk of sounding like a total fanboy) that I heard Sonny Landreth play. I've been going through some old stuff, and I thought you might like it.

Slide

A simple curve of glass
Pressed against wound wire
Shouldn’t sing like this

Shouldn’t resonate to hearts
Wrung taut as top strings
Or know anything of sorrow

How can this long held note
Drifting into feedback
Ever know what loss is

Somehow though it reaches
Speaking aches like angels
Long fallen to this world

Knowing other beauty
Mourning its once held ghost
And begging for return

Using Themes

After a couple of comments on the last post, it seems to me that not everyone is entirely comfortable with the idea of working themes into novels. Certainly, it’s something that can go wrong, resulting in something that is heavy handed and didactic if you aren’t careful, but it’s worth trying, because when it goes well, it really adds something to a novel. I know Court of Dreams became a lot better in a relatively short space of time when I sat down and really analysed what the novel was about.

There are two distinct times you can add in themes. The ideal way is at the start, so that you build up everything with your core ideas in mind. That creates a very coherent novel, but is also the way where you have to be careful to develop everything fully if you want results that are broad enough.

The other way is to add them in half way through. What you have to recognise here, though, is that you aren’t actually adding anything. You are simply recognising what is already there, and trying to bring it out slightly more. If you’re writing epic fantasy, for example, you might want to focus on themes of family or duty, political expedience or trying to do what’s right.

Having a core theme doesn’t mean that you have to abandon all other issues. Indeed, you shouldn’t. It does, however, mean that one tends to take precedence, so as to avoid an unfocussed effort in which there are several distinct plots pulling it apart (as opposed to several interweaving strands all pulling in the same general direction)

Once you’ve decided on a theme, then it’s simply a case of adding it in at every level you can find. Have characters face large and small dilemmas related to it. Have a world that reflects it in some fundamental way (and which might change as a result of the story). Have subplots that reflect different takes on the same core concept. Include symbolic moments, items, and actions related to it. Think of all the stuff you were asked to unpack when discussing classic novels at school (discuss the way X approached the theme of Y). Now simply do the reverse, for a result that suddenly has much more depth.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Learning

What does your character learn? It seems to be one of the key questions when dealing with novel length fiction in particular, and it’s one that I increasingly feel is important. There is a real danger in fantasy, and especially the sort where you produce long series, that you don’t want the character to change too much, because that leaves nothing for the next one.

Yet that can cause real problems. All too often, you end up with the sort of thing where you set out a perfectly normal fantasy series of events, but there is no feeling of connection between the character and those events. What the character needs in terms of growth is such a huge springboard when it comes to creating scenes and other characters.

I often feel that it’s useful, in fact, for the whole novel to reflect a particular set of themes. Obviously, it’s easy to be heavy handed with that, but I think that it lends things a sense of coherence that they might otherwise lack. Subplots should be alternate approaches to those themes, while the majority of major characters should have a position on them to some degree. Think of it the way a university dissertation must have a central thesis.

In my forthcoming novel Court of Dreams, for example, I explore a lot of ideas around duty and doing the right thing. Very broad themes, obviously, but they helped me to bring together some quite disparate strands, and placed characters on a continuum so that I could be sure that they were all contributing as fully as they could.