Monday, 29 August 2011

Going Home

A piece of flash fiction I was originally intending to make a little longer:

The man they called simply the Grey looked down from the hillside above the village where he had been born, taking in the cars and the houses, the neat lines of the roads and the little church on the way into the place. He stood, and he watched, and he tried to remember his name. Norman? Neville?

So much had gotten in the way. So many other places. So many other worlds. A long lifetime of experiences racked up, ever since he had walked out of the taproom of the village pub aged eighteen, too young and too drunk to know better than to follow a man who claimed to be a wizard. He’d sobered up soon enough, when he’d seen the dragons.

Neil? Nigel? He felt certain it had begun with an N. Or maybe not. There were too many other memories.

The time he’d spent walking across the moors of the mist-lands, for example, hunting after wraiths that should have been invulnerable to mortal weapons, yet dissipated at each touch from a silver spoon given by a farmer’s daughter in exchange for a kiss. And more than a kiss when he’d brought it back.

Perhaps it was an M rather than an N. Perhaps he was a Mark. Did he feel like a Mark?

That brought back thoughts of the great city of Arn where thieves ran the night and the Grey had learned that everyone was a potential mark. In his time there, he’d picked pockets there and cut purses, run over rooftops and made his way up walls as easily as walking. He’d stolen gems as big as chicken eggs, and found himself stealing chicken eggs to eat when he’d gambled away the money.

Matthew, Maurice? Names slid through his memory without even touching the sides.

The Pit of Darkness. Now there had been an adventure. Diving into it, pursued by a dozen Things too hideous to contemplate, then climbing out of it over three days with the aid of a pair of elven twins cursed so that only one could see at any given time. How many creatures had they slain on the way back up? And there had been the sword sticking out of the rock half way up. If he hadn’t paused to retrieve it, would both twins have lived, in the end?

Adam, possibly? No, not Adam.

Memory gave way briefly to regret, as he recalled all the ones who had died on the way. There had been the Erracan dancing girl sacrificed on the altar of the Mad God, and the whole Company of the Hawk in the battle before the gates of Prel. The bard Illian had died trying to outdrink a mountain giant, while too many others to count had fallen to the sword.

Door, perhaps? Book? No, those weren’t even names.

How could he, of all people, have forgotten this? He who had learned the names of demons, and spoken the true names of fallen gods. He who had helped to build the tower of the seven mages, then brought it down again when they dedicated themselves to darkness. How could he find himself so stymied by one little word?

Perhaps he should just give himself a name and have done with it, the way he had when the northern folk had held their naming contest, bragging about their achievements and their victories. He had stood up on the stage then and said simply, ‘I am Grey’ and that had been that. Would that be enough here to make him Barry or Daniel, Stephen or Zackary?

Zackary, he liked the sound of Zackary. Zackary could become Zack, or even just ‘Z’ if he acquired any friends close enough to warrant it. Zackary sounded like the sort of man who had a minor hobby that interested him a lot more than it did his girlfriend, who went to the pub with his friends once a week, and who held down a nice job in marketing. The Grey believed that Zackary would be a nice man.

He stood at a sound behind him and found himself facing Lillia the Red, greatest thief in the Five Kingdoms since… well, him. Since she only made any noise when she wanted to, the Grey nodded to her, assuming that she wasn’t there to try to kill him this time. Though she had once tried that tactic back in the ruins of ancient Kar. Had that been the time they’d ended up in bed together too?

“I brought you a present,” Lillia said, fishing a rolled up piece of paper out of her belt.

“A map to some lost temple? A spell no mortal mind can hold?”

“I think we’ve both seen enough of them for the time being, don’t you? Read it.”

The Grey read. It was a birth certificate. There was a name at the top.

“This is mine?”

Lillia shrugged, then nodded to the village below. “What do you see in all that, anyway?”

The Grey read the certificate again, rolling the syllables over in his mind the way he would some complex incantation, trying to find a way for them to fit. Finally, he rolled the certificate up again, and ignited it with a word of power.

“Not as much as I was hoping to.”

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Tom Holt: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

A quick review for the Tom Holt book Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages, which I’ve had lying around for a while, but have only just got round to finishing. It’s one of his post Portable-Door series ones, taking the same world, full of corporate magicians and strange monsters in a world that is so everyday it might as well be Wales on a wet Tuesday afternoon, but running new ideas through it.

Dimensional travel, in this case, with a full set of strange occurrences adding up to a dimension shifting plot that takes most of the best bits of Holt’s time travel routine and does away with the tendency of time travel to destabilise the plot. He also plays around cleverly with the notion of character archetypes by having the same basic characters appear in a number of interdimensional incarnations.

The jokes and observations on the world are as witty as ever, with a dry tone that I really like, which gives his work a very different feel to Pratchett’s, for example. In particular, Holt has the knack of pushing the logic of things to the extreme, while still remembering what people are like with just the right amount of cynicism. If magic were real, we all secretly know that we would end up in a world where we needed to fill in form 23b before using it.

There are a couple of minor down points. The plot manages the trick of both being a little tricky to follow in places and giving away the surprise ending fairly easily, which makes it feel like the fundamental story is a little secondary to the laughs. There’s also a sense that you really need to be someone who has read all the portable door series if you’re going to get the full effect of the world being written. At the same time though, it’s a nice, funny book that should please Tom Holt fans, even if I’d suggest that, of his more recent works, May Contain Traces of Magic might be a better place for newcomers to his stuff to start. (Or buy one of the lovely omnibus editions of his early stuff)

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Bad Jobs For Fantasy Characters

In the current environment, many people are changing career path, but fantasy characters have to be careful about that sort of thing. Here are some particularly poor combinations:

  1. Wicked queen as shop assistant. She'll never be able to say that somebody looks great in what they're trying on without trying to have them killed, after all.
  2. Barbarian traffic wardens. It's bad enough that people write tickets, without burning down your entire city and slaughtering the population every time someone parks on a double yellow line.
  3. Gnome building contractors. Because not every house should look like a toadstool.
  4. Orcish fast food vendors. Actually, what am I saying? It can't taste any worse than the usual stuff bought at two in the morning from these people.
  5. Hobbit motorcycle couriers. Because not every trip should be accompanied by rampaging hordes of Nazgul trying to stop you.
  6. Wicked Witch image consultants. Mostly because they always think that small, green and croaky goes with everything.
  7. Evil overlord marketers. Their idea of a persuasive marketing strategy is to horribly torture people until they hand over the cash, after all, and the ASA would probably have something to say about that.
  8. Wizardly librarians. Not that they don't like books. It's just that I can see everything in their care quickly transforming into tomes full of knowledge man was not meant to know, which is a bit awkward if you'd just popped in for the latest Jackie Collins.
  9. Goblin party entertainers. Never trust a creature whose idea of a fun evening is a game of 'hunt the toenail'.
  10. Things. Anywhere.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

I've been working away on other people's novels as usual this week, and making good progress, but one thing I have noticed is that it has made me suddenly very picky about my own work. I'm less inclined to say of an idea 'that's good enough' and trust in myself to make it better as I go along. I think that's partly just a time thing. I have less time for my own projects now (which I'm sure is true of anyone with a full time job) so I have to be more cautious about what I commit time to. There's also the question of seeing things done over and over again. I see so many stories at the moment that I know I want to do something better, something different. Something that catches my mental eye so much I just have to do it. I'm toying with a couple of ideas at the moment, and I'm still not quite sure which I'll end up committing to.

On an entirely different note, the martial arts class I have been going to has closed. They tend to. One of the things you find with classes is that there tend to be a lot in any given area, which spreads numbers thinner. Plus, people still invariably want to do the same one or two arts. I'll be looking for somewhere else to train, but I've realised that I've become, if anything, even pickier about that kind of thing than about novels. Still, I'll probably end up at a small submission grappling class somewhere (it apparently has to be that rather than BJJ because I've just learnt that the latter has all kinds of rules about having to do my beloved leg locks badly if you want to do them at all.)

If anyone hasn't seen the post below this, plugging Keith Lenart's 'What Really Happened' e-book, I advise you to look at it now. It's just over a pound, and it has lots of my short stories in (I'm named as a contributor on this one, so I get to say it.)

I'm currently reading three Tom Holt books at once. It's fun trying to remember which bit of plot goes where.

Monday, 15 August 2011

What Really Happened

What Really Happened?

A plug for a book I've worked on. Anybody who likes a mix of humour and history will (I hope) love this collection, which gives the inside (and frequently made up) track on important events from history. I contributed quite a few stories to this one, covering everything from the real reason the Danes lost Stamford Bridge to Julias Ceasar's travel diary of Britain. It's available in ebook form in the UK here, and elsewhere here.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Hatred Blogfest

This one is for the Hatred Blogfest over at Tessa's Blurb, and is about the way that the big, grand hatreds of heroes and villains don't always spread all the way down the ranks. Enjoy.


Hanalf the Dire and Rubens the Paladin of Light faced off across the space of the battered ruins, brandishing weapons, making faces, and promising violence with layers of detailed unpleasantness that even most professional wrestlers would have found a little distasteful. It was only to be expected. One was, after all, a master of the evilest arts, sworn to cruelty and general nastiness, while the other had been voted ‘hardest smiter’ for the forces of Light several years running.

As the two figures glared and prepared for battle, two slightly shorter and less muscular figures crept their way through the ruins, meeting up somewhere towards the middle. They nodded to one another.

“I am sent,” one declared, “on behalf of the good Rubens to offer your master the chance to surrender himself to the forces of Light.”

“Funny that,” the other one said, “I’ve been sent to ask your lad to bow his knee before the forces of Darkness. Any chance of that, do you think? They’ve promised to only horribly torture him a bit."

“It’s more than my one has promised. He’s got the thumbscrews all lined up. For a paladin of light, he’s bloody quick with that kind of thing.”

The evil one’s representative nodded. “So how have you been keeping, Henry?”

“Oh, not bad. You, Trevor?”

“The same. Squiring for the Light’s lot treating you well?”

Henry shrugged. “Same as usual. Plenty of armour to polish, prayers before breakfast, trying to work out how you get curtains to go around a horse, that kind of thing. How’s the hench-ing?”

Trevor’s shrug matched Henry’s. “Well, I’ve got to blacken the armour, and it’s more horrible sacrifices before breakfast then trying to work out which bit of a Thing is which, but it’s basically the same.”

Henry sighed. “It always is.” He took out a small bag and offered the contents to Trevor. “Jellybaby?”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Trevor chewed thoughtfully for a bit. “So I take it your lad’s not about to give in then? Too seething with righteous anger and all that?”

“Got it in one, Trev.”

“And my one’s just generally seething. Oh, and you know better than to call me Trev. It’s bad enough, mine calling me ‘Igor’ half the time without you going round calling me Trev.”

“Sorry,” Henry said, putting away the jellybabies. “So, there’s no chance of reconciling this then?”

Trevor shrugged. “Is there ever? Right, I’d better get back to give his nibs the good news. He gets stroppy if I keep him waiting.”

“Not as stroppy as mine. Did I mention the thumbscrews?”

Trevor considered that. “Oh, before I forget… are you going to Aunty Vera’s this weekend? You know she likes to see us.”

Henry nodded. “I’ll see you there. Though it’ll be meatloaf again.”

Trevor shrugged once more. “It’s always meatloaf. Anyway…”

The two subordinates of good and evil trudged back out of the ruins, paused halfway, and then trudged in the direction they were supposed to be going, secure in the knowledge that mere centuries old hatred’s between good and evil didn’t hold any terrors next to Aunty Vera’s cooking.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

In fairy stories and much fantasy, princesses are boring, or at least, presumably, quite bored. According to the traditional archetype, they sit around, waiting to be rescued, kidnapped and so forth, with little that's fun to do. Some things they could be doing to liven things up:

  1. Kissing frogs and perfecting the perfect puckering of the lips to turn them into different things (some slightly more useful than princes, which are presumably in plentiful supply in most castles anyway)
  2. Tapestry, assuming that they can get people in assorted battles to stand still long enough.
  3. Rocketry. Those pointy hats (wimples?) have to be for something, so why not nosecones?
  4. Practicing with a very sharp frisbee (yes, I know it's a chakram) so that they can be upgraded to a warrior princess in the next act.
  5. Practising holding their breath so that they can stay underwater long enough to lift a sword out of a lake.
  6. Reading Magic Mirrors Monthly to see who this month's 'fairest princess' is (the reference to which presumably makes more sense to those people who've read my story in Rapunzel's Daughters. Yes, I'm still shamelessly plugging. Just imagine what I'm going to be like when the novel comes out.)
  7. Reading all the books on evil magic needed so that they can be a witch queen when they grow up, as well as trying to work out how exactly you fit into the kind of clothing required.
  8. Coming up with more useful than usual mirror rhymes (For spread betting: Mirror mirror, sitting still, will Arsenal win the cup one-nil?)
  9. Waiting for their mirror to download essential updates.
  10. Trying to keep up with who they're technically married to this week as part of some very complex medieval style politics. This is a situation in which what a princess really wants is to stop having dream weddings.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Why The Monomyth Doesn't Work

I'm doing some work at the moment with the heroic journey structure of writing (not particularly by choice) and one of the documents I'm working with makes the rather annoying claim that there is essentially only one way of writing, and it follows that structure. You have no idea how angry that makes me, because it not only isn't true, but I actually suspect that the approach proposed will make it less likely for an individual writer to produce good work.

Let's start with a couple of claims made for the method. The big one is that everyone, whether they know it or not, writes like that. Shakespeare used this, apparently. Except that he didn't. Or at least, there's no evidence I know of for him doing so, because we simply don't know enough about him to make that sort of comment. What's true is that you can look at his work and impose this structure over it if you try, just as you could impose almost any other conceptual structure as a tool of analysis.

That's one of my other big issues with it. Highly detailed structures are about analysing literature and picking it apart. They do not provide a guarranteed route to producing great, or even good, work any more than a painting by numbers set makes you Van Gogh. Far too many people make the claim for their story structures that because they can pick apart a bunch of famous films, you can automatically write things just as well by reversing the process.

Then there's the claim that all stories are basically this journey. Yes, if you stretch the idea like a rubber band. If you do that, of course, you're moving a long way from the simple point by point outline proposed.

And there's my final issue with it, which is far more practical. I spent much of today (and will spend much of the weekend, probably) messing around trying to come up with an outline that hit every point in order, the way the job in question wants me to. I have just read the results. I would NEVER write that story. It's awful. It's far, far worse than anything I have plotted in those ways I normally find comfortable, and I can't see a way to make it better without ripping all the annoying framework out of my way and doing the job properly.

If you're using this with success, I'm happy for you. I'm happy you have a method that works for you. I just get annoyed when people make over inflated claims for their methods, while simultaneously being unable to tell the difference between a construct for human understanding and the real essence of something.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Princesses

Has anyone else noticed this about YA fantasy literature: that none of the teens portrayed are ever normal?

I don’t mean that they turn out to be werewolves, or vampires, or whatever. That’s fine. What I mean is that they always, always seem to end up being the long lost chief vampire, or a princess, or someone who is fated to run the world, or whatever. They’re not just special, they’re more special than anyone else ever.

It’s something that is starting to annoy me slightly, because I have to ask what kind of message this is sending to young people. I think it’s reasonable to suggest many of the YA authors involved would like to convey the message that their readers are all special in their own ways, and should make the most of their talents. Yet to me, that is almost exactly the opposite of the message being conveyed.

Instead, they say that it is not enough to be yourself. It is not enough to have a talent, or to be smart, or whatever. Only princesses are enough. You can’t succeed in their books and still be an ordinary (ish) person. There has to be that big extra revelation that says to the reader that it’s okay that the character has dealt with the situation, because she’s secretly the ruler of the fey. That immediately says to me that all the positive qualities the author wanted to show are worthless. They aren’t why the character has achieved anything, after all.

I’m not saying that this kind of ploy can’t be fun. I use it myself. Yet for me, it is part of the set up. It is a way of creating more problems, and it is frankly something that I am making fun of when I use it. I’m sure some authors will come back with “yes, but don’t people want to be princesses and rulers? Don’t they want to be important people?” and suggest that it’s just wish fulfilment.

My point, if you’re writing YA, is that your readers are important people already.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Capital Letters

One of the more amusing concepts I like to play with when I write is the difference between what you could call the ‘capital letter’ version of something and the ordinary one. If we take evil, for example, it isn’t much fun. It is, frankly, unpleasant. Proper Evil, on the other hand, merely knows that it is very cool indeed to wear black and twirl your moustaches.

Or take heroism, which possibly has more depth to it even if you don’t get to do as many pits with spikes in jokes. As we all apparently know (because people tell me that we all know it) Sam is the real hero of The Lord of the Rings even though he does the least traditionally Heroic stuff. Exploring that gap can make for great comedy, as well as some touching moments as your characters realise that all the Heroic stuff they were doing wasn’t the
point.

It’s not just a comic fantasy thing. Gritty modern fantasy plays around with the idea of unheroic heroes, while villains who are just ordinary people on the other side are a staple of practically everything. It has the potential for great fun all round, as well as the opportunity to breathe new life into old stereotypes.