Saturday, 30 July 2011

Things to Do

The second Test seems to be determined to be as dramatic as possible, what with Stuart Broad’s hat trick, England’s low score, assorted injuries, and so forth. I saw most of the first day (working in front of the TV being a perk of freelancing) but ignored much of today.

I was outside for some of it. I realised today just how much I take living on a beautiful farm for granted, and how little I actually go outside. Also how rubbish I am at identifying plants (I thought some raspberries were nettles). The cat hid in a hedge and stalked me while I hunted down a solitary blackberry.

I went back to an old short story yesterday. I tucked it away as not worth sending out, but one re-read (and quick change to 1st person present) later, it’s looking good. I’m also trying to think of what my next personal project should be. My initial feeling is short stories, since they can help promote the novel as it comes out. I also have a couple of other novels tucked away (the possible sequel to Court of Dreams and my YA Brian Northington one) that will need some attention.

Yet I’ve just started writing a list of things I might include in a different novel. I’m not sure about the most basic details of it yet, such as whether to start in this world or work entirely in a fantasy one, yet I already know I want to include both evil rites learned from a mail order course and redecorating villains. No, I don’t know how either.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

A post about history

I keep meaning to dip my toe back into the waters of history, but given how things went during the PhD, I’m a little cautious about going for it full bore. As a way of seeing how much it excites me now, and as a source of blog posts, I thought I’d write a few on general historical/medieval subjects, and go from there. I’d like to start with the simple task of summarising my entire PhD thesis in one blog post (it might be quite long):

The Minster Churches of Beverley, Ripon and Southwell 1066-c.1300

In the Anglo-Saxon period in England, churches called ‘minsters’, from the Latin ‘monasterium’ came in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but could often be at the heart of their local areas. Gradually, however, changes came to the organization of the English Church. Those changes came particularly quickly in the two and a half centuries after the Norman Conquest. The structures of the Church changed, while new types of institution, particularly new monastic forms, came to compete with minsters and parochial churches. Across the country, many minsters became little more than parish churches, while others (such as Howden) became mere subdivisions of larger bodies.

Those of Beverley, Ripon and Southwell changed too. In fact, they converged. Specifically, they converged on a common institutional model based loosely on that of the cathedral at York. They acquired broadly similar prebendal structures (a prebend is a living for a type of priest known as a canon. Secular canons in the case of these ones, to distinguish them from the regular canons of quasi-monastic institutions). They acquired similar office holders. They acquired similar regulations. There were significant local variations, but the similarities far outweighed them.

Once we accept that, we have to ask how and why it happened. If we look at powerful figures connected with the institutions, successive archbishops of York stand out. They had a kind of consistent contact with, and power over, the minsters that kings and even popes often didn’t. They even served as a kind of buffer when dealing with those figures.

Yet seeing the change as a top down plan from the archbishops isn’t enough. We know that the archbishops didn’t have complete control over the minsters (things didn’t work that way in most cases in England in the period, and in any case, there are specific examples of resistance). We also know that the archbishops often had close links to the minsters, and so might not have wanted to impose their will for the sake of it.

Additionally, the minsters had much closer links with one another than might occasionally be supposed. They communicated. They sent men to work for the archbishop together. They occasionally shared personnel (either consecutively, as a kind of career progression, or concurrently, with what were known as pluralists). Beverley and Ripon even engaged in a spot of forgery together.

As such, it seems reasonable to suggest that the minsters would have played a role in their own remodelling. It certainly accounts for the blend of similarities and differences better than most of the alternatives. It also suggests something rather wonderful.

You see, as I said at the start, pre-Conquest, ‘minster’ could mean all sorts of things. Yet for these three, it came to mean broadly the same thing. So much so that they were grouped together quite often, as if they represented a particular class of institutions, even though they didn’t in any technical sense. What that did was to create a kind of shared definition of what a minster was for these three at that time, as a kind of secondary institution within the archdiocese, which the archbishop could use as an extension of his power over some of the further reaches of a very large area by English standards.

They effectively re-defined what a minster was, creating a definition of it that allowed them to survive as relatively important institutions in a world where other minsters came to be squeezed out by outside pressures, new monastic houses, and other difficulties. What we see here is a perfect mix of need- from the archbishops, in needing to control their archdiocese, and from the minsters, in needing a new role. The result sheds light on the ways change happened in such large institutions, as well as on the exercise of power over them.

Another Review

Another review of Rapunzel's Daughters here. Oh, and I get a mention in this one, which is nice.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Summer Season

I’m getting nicely excited about the new Jim Butcher book, Ghost Story, which releases in a day or two, as well as a couple more new books on the horizon, which are presumably released for the summer holiday reading season. I’m not sure why there is such a season, exactly. Everyone knows that all books taken onto beaches become cheap thrillers regardless of what they started out as, so why not just take any old thing.

In fact, reading any old thing can be fun. Old books have a certain charm to them, particularly if they’re out of print, and you can be certain of reading something that practically no one else has for years. I have a few very cheap second hand books on cricket around the house, and it always intrigues me to read them. They’re like a time capsule, yet at the same time, many of them are still at least vaguely relevant. Plus they give me a chance to go ‘Oo’ at odd moments of recognition, such as when the commentators on the first Test with India happened to mention that the only spinner with a better Test record at Lords than Grahame Swann is Headly Verity, whose book on bowling I have tucked away somewhere.

My own novelling proceeds apace. Apparently, there’s a good chance of getting preliminary sketches back in the next week or two for the cover, and that’s always a great moment. Some of the ghostwritten stuff is taking a little longer to get on with, but it’s still going at a decent pace.

I had a go at contacting someone connected with the Beverley Literature Festival the other day. I haven’t heard back yet, but it might be nice to get involved, because I know the area has a lot to offer creatively, and I am one of those people who is in danger of doing the whole ‘sitting in a garret’ thing otherwise. A laptop and an Internet connection can connect you to the world in theory, but they can also provide an excuse not to go outside for… actually, I’ve just worked it out, and it’s been a rather scary six days worth.

Friday, 22 July 2011

On Zombies

The problem I generally have with zombies in stories is that most of them don’t have much in the way of motivation. They’re the shambling hordes. They don’t want anything (except brains, which raises the worrying possibility that the scarecrow from the wizard of oz might have been one). There are exceptions, of course. Shadow’s late wife in American Gods is one, while Mike Carey’s zombies in the Felix Castor novels are always much more individual. Anyway, a few things zombies could want:

1. To stop themselves falling to bits. The most common motivation for self aware zombies in fiction.
2. Revenge, making them essentially corporeal versions of ghosts.
3. Nothing very much, so that they are as much of a zombie now as they were when alive.
4. To get on with some work for the large multinational they work for, unencumbered by things like lunch breaks.
5. To complete their stamp collection (because zombies should have boring hobbies)
6. To have a drink in every bar in the known universe (they only shamble when they’re drunk)
7. To paint the town… um, grey, making up for all the fun they missed while alive.
8. To watch every zombie film ever released. In chronological order.
9. To achieve levels of cool normally reserved for vampires.
10. To get an official apology for the whole ‘undead’ mess out of a particularly long winded civil service department.
11. To be accepted in a wildly inappropriate job (children’s party entertainer?)
12. To go around to excitable evil cultists’ houses and explain patiently why endeavouring to raise zombie armies to take over the world just won’t work.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Faerie Tale

If she hears things now
Out on the edge of sound
Where faeries used to call

If she sees them dance
With shining glamoured flesh
Beneath the setting sun

If the fey announce their hunt
Beneath the harvest moon
She does not say it now

She is a sane girl after all
The doctors told her so
And all the faeries of the world
Will never make her mad

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Review

Another review of Rapunzel's Daughters.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Release Dates

Revisions for Court of Dreams seem to be almost done, assuming that nothing obvious springs out now that the first few rounds are done. Hopefully, therefore, I’ll be able to tell you all more about the final thing shortly.

Including, hopefully, when it will be out, though I want to be certain on that front before I say anything. Release dates strike me as potentially one of the trickier issues when it comes to books, and not just novels. Having an official release date for things is helpful, because it obviously allows you to plan announcements, contests, blogtours, invasions by tentacled Things to celebrate, and so forth. I know from my first couple of novels that, when I only really found out about their release by accident, it didn’t make for a well organised initial campaign.

I’ve also noticed that it can be problematic to announce these things too soon, however. Specifically, problems arise if you put something down on the calendar before it’s done enough as a project to be certain about. This happened with one book I was ghostwriting. I got it in, but then the editors didn’t like lots of bits (the jokes, mostly), and the whole thing dragged on as they picked it apart, with the result that the thing just wasn’t there for the planned hoopla, and it hasn’t done quite as well as others by the same person, despite being one of my better efforts.

Or take a whole clutch of books I’m vaguely intrigued by in my role as an occasional submission grappler (or at least victim to those that can do it properly). Along with most of the jiu-jitsu world, I’ve been looking forward to Eddie Bravo’s Advanced Rubber Guard for ages, and I’ve also been looking at a couple of other books by the same publishing house, which seemed to be incredibly well organised, given that it was releasing several titles at once, all on the tenth of this month. Now of course, it turns out that was just some kind of provisional date, and no one seems to know when these things are actually out. It’s discouraging.

So, for now at least, I’ll be careful about suggesting when Court of Dreams might be out. When I do know more, I’ll undoubtedly jump up and down pointing to a big foam cut out of the date, but since you won’t be able to see that, I’ll also post about it.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Fairies You Don't Hear About

You know how you have flower fairies, each exhibiting characteristics appropriate to particular flowers? (And here I must thank Sir Terry Pratchett for the existence of Nanny Ogg and that wonderful name for a flower fairy, Fairy Hedgehog). Well, why can’t there be fairies of other things?

1. Brick fairies. As in ‘Ho there, Fairy Breezeblock!’ Probably not very good at flying.
2. Kitchen fairies. After all, we know about the washing up liquid one, so why wouldn’t there be yellow, explosive ones of powdered custard, or slightly frazzled looking microwave fairies?
3. Stationary fairies. Otherwise known as the little buggers who steal all the paperclips when no one’s looking.
4. Shed fairies. Logically, if they live in the garden, at some point, specialised fairy forms are going to evolve to deal with sheds. They’re probably the reason hosepipes get so tangled.
5. Electronic gadget fairies. Currently at war with the gremlins who stop them working.
6. Sock gnomes. Technically not fairies, but nonetheless irritating, as they take hosiery in an effort to distil potent alcohol through it. No, I don’t know how either.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Review

Another brief review of Rapunzel's Daughters here

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Pauses for thought

Gaps and pauses are odd things in fiction, when you think about it. On one level, they’re absolutely essential to timing and rhythm in writing, whether it’s the characters taking some downtime before the next big event, or literally the words ‘he paused for a moment before speaking again’ in the middle of a conversation. They break things up, slow them down, stretch them out.

And yet, if you think about it, there are no pauses. Not really. Oh, maybe there are divisions, with sentences and paragraphs and chapters, but those are gaps meant to be spanned. Writing, meanwhile, is continuous and flowing, because that is simply the way we read. When I write, ‘nothing happened. Nothing continued to happen for a good five minutes’ do you pause for five minutes to get the full effect? Of course you don’t. The pauses, like so much in fiction, don’t really exist. There’s probably a clue in the word fiction, now I think about it.

But what do they do? Mostly, I think they draw attention. A pause isn’t a real break in time, except in the sense of the second it takes to process the words before going on to the next sentence. Instead, it’s a symbol, or a flag, or a big flashing neon sign that we know means either something significant has just happened, or something significant will. Occasionally, it’s a way of showing a character’s need to think about things, or a way of showing embarrassment.

It is never just a pause though.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Cities

Fantasy cities are fun. Because they're never really normal places. They're accumulations of potential backgrounds for scenes, tacked together with an overarching feel and maybe a lot of oblongs drawn on a map (I used to do this, before I realised why it was pointless)

For me though, it's the feel that's the important bit. All my favourite cities in fiction generally, not just in fantasy, aren't about down to the last detail descriptions of the place. Guidebooks don't manage that, after all, so a novel certainly doesn't have time.

The best bit is that you get to create your own city out of even a real one, just by the feel you give it. It's the same way that painters could paint the same place, and still produce different works. My take on York is probably nobody else's, but it's the right place for a couple of my novels.

I particularly love places that show up in fragmentary phrases, just in passing, and you know it would be cool to set something there some day.

Take this passage from a MG/YA fantasy novel I've got laying around:

Varansburg, in Illthria’s Border Marches, is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most important city in the known multiverse. Or one of the top couple of hundred, for that matter. It will never, for example, match the bustling industry of the great ant cities of Hive. Nor will it come close to the mind boggling oddness of the city of Corner, where other dimensions impinge almost at random, and where it is frankly impossible to nip down to the shops for a pint of milk without wandering through a couple of spare worlds, a trackless desert, and the storerooms of the British Museum. As for keeping up with the sultry delights of the cities of the Isth peninsula…

Okay, maybe not my most wonderful writing, but I knew as soon as I wrote those places that just from those simple ideas, there would be something fun there. I might even revisit them at some point.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Failure.

You may recall that a while ago, I said I was going to have a go at writing without a plan just to see how it went. Well, it's been. And gone. I deleted the resulting saggy mess just a short while ago. Essentially, it confirmed my long held beliefs about that approach, which are that you get a few brilliant scenes from pure inspiration, and the rest doesn't have enough behind it to keep up. Back to the drawing board. I might switch to short stories for a bit, since I have a novel coming out soon enough anyway.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Why The Baddies Do It

A quick thought on villainous motivation. Everyone who writes these days seems to get that your baddie, or main opponent, or whatever you want to call them so that you don’t feel they should be twiddling their moustache, needs to have a reasonable motivation to do what they do (for a given value of reasonable. I consider it a perfectly legitimate comedy motivation that the character is trying to be as villainous as humanly possible, because otherwise, Lord Nasty will make some very snooty comments down at the club)

What gets less of a mention is that it’s often interesting if your villain’s motivation ties in to your hero’s. At a minimum, what they want should be the thing that creates conflict with the hero, but why they want it can create whole new layers of meaning.

One basic tactic is to give the villain a very similar situation, but have them pick a different approach to it, making them as much mirror to the hero as opponent. They should offer a different angle on the central theme of your novel. Possibly a diametrically opposed one, but it can also be fun if the difference isn’t that great, or indeed is only one of degree.

One way to check for that is to ask yourself whether your villain’s reason for their actions sounds plausible enough that, for a moment, you could consider your hero agreeing. It’s not necessarily an outright plea to join the dark side, but there should be that moment of understanding somewhere.

Not least because it is that understanding that makes your opponent so well placed to oppose your hero. Remember that the main antagonist in your story is the person best placed to expose and attack the fundamental weaknesses of your main character, not necessarily with an army of crab monsters (though they can be fun) but by encouraging them to give into those weaknesses and see the world their way. For that, you need a way of seeing the world that has at least some connection to the hero’s

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Old Books

Dog eared, tattered things
Spines cracked, as mine might be
By that age, pages dimmed
By years of use, to me
They are paper treasures
Bringing back the past
With leaves that reassure
In being read before, calm
The questioning mind beneath
The weight of well-loved words
Touched by other eyes, read
And thought upon, and loved.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Frog Spells

Yet more thoughts on frogs. Because I can, that’s why. Specifically, an expansion of an idea that a particular witch might only be good at frog related spells. They have more uses than you might think:

1. Turning into them is obvious, but still the classic.
2. For healing. Minor ailments are dealt with by removing the frog from your throat in a very literal sense. Other problems could be transformed into greater numbers of frogs as they go. Or a cure could involve having a frog sit on the affected part.
3. For message delivery (creating a frog that hops off to the desired recipient) Get enough witches doing this, and eventually, they’ll all be telling one another about their lives using it. Frogspot.
4. Creating almost anything else by starting out with frogs. Useful if you have a princess handy too.
5. Generic attacking spells. All right, so fire and lightning are more traditional, but who really wants to be on the receiving end of a giant tree frog travelling at speed?
6. In fact, take all those classic D&D elemental type spells and substitute the word frogs at the appropriate point. Seek frogs, summon frogs, even wall of frogs.
7. For a charm/compulsion, where you either do as you’re told, or become progressively more froglike.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Real Star of the Show

Have you ever had a situation where you look up from the novel you're writing and realise that the character you thought was the main one isn't getting as much of the limelight as you originally intended? It can happen so easily. A minor character with an interesting quirk starts to take over, or grabs attention, and it can be hard to stop.

It certainly happens to me. In Court of Dreams I had to work very hard to balance a relatively normal main character with a bunch of weird and wonderful minor ones. I think I got the balance right, but that will be up to the readers.

It even happens when I'm ghostwriting. In fact, it happens a lot when I'm ghostwriting, because the person providing the ideas will give me main characters ready made, and I'll find my interest caught by someone who isn't fully developed as a way to exercise creativity. Thankfully, I've learnt to use it as a way to produce fully rounded casts rather than just unbalanced books.

So, does it happen to you? Do you find minor characters suddenly become at least as interesting as main ones?

Friday, 1 July 2011

It's Out

Further to yesterday's post, Rapunzel's Daughters is finally out on amazon. It's a nice, diverse collection of stories about what happens after the happily ever after, featuring some great artwork. Now that it's out, they'll actually let you look inside before you buy, so it might be worth heading over just to have a look around.