Friday, 30 December 2011

Court of Dreams is Nearly Here

My comic fantasy novel Court of Dreams is officially going to be released on the 18th of January. My publishers have opened pre-orders for it today, making it probably the funniest thing you'll find in the January sales.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Suitably Seasonal Story

Well, it has Santa in it, at least. Sort of. Enjoy. And I hope you enjoy the holidays too. Oh, and I should probably put an official disclaimer on it: no Santas were harmed in the making of this short story. Probably.

A Very Evil Christmas

Lord Edwin the Moderately Unpleasant sat upon his Throne of Darkness and bit his fingernails in not very villainous anticipation. The anticipation was mostly because of the pair of goblins dragging a very large and very squirming sack into the great hall.

“You managed it then?” Edwin demanded.

The goblins stood to attention. One did so with gleaming elegance, the dinner jacket he always wore perfectly arranged. The other narrowly missed being squashed by the sack when his cousin let go.

“Grot assures me that he has succeeded, Sir,” the well-dressed goblin said.

“You didn’t go with him to make sure?” Edwin demanded, in what he hoped was his most boomingly villainous tone. It probably wasn’t up to much, even though he’d been practising.

“I believe I explained, Sir, that I would not be able to do so, owing to the duty coinciding with the Christmas party for the Society of Slightly Supercilious Servants.”

“Oh, yes,” Edwin said as he remembered, “that. But doesn’t that mean that your cousin did it all by himself?”

“I am sure cousin Grot is very capable, Sir. Indeed, I know from personal experience in the slime pits that he is capable of almost anything.”

Grot, on hearing his name, capered towards the front. “Grot done well,” he said. Edwin saw Tilesbury wince at the performance, though frankly, he thought it made a nice change. A henchman who actually behaved like a henchman, and who hadn’t been thrown out of hench-ing school for excessive politeness, could only be an improvement on… well, whatever Tilesbury was.

Edwin looked over to his manservant. “I didn’t know goblins even celebrated Christmas, Tilesbury. I thought they celebrated the Festival of Sludge, or something.”

“Slime, Sir.”

Grot capered some more. “Festival of Slime! Festival of Slime!”

“One likes to show willing, Sir,” Tilesbury explained, carefully keeping clear of Grot.

“Well, at least it gave me the idea for my Great Plan,” Edwin said, slotting the capitals into place with the ease of long practise.

“Yes Sir, though I feel I must point out-”

“Oh, you always want to point something out. Just because I came up with the idea to kidnap this ‘Santa Claus’ and thus hold an entire world to ransom, while simultaneously gaining stacks of presents.” Edwin rubbed his hands in satisfaction. The Big Red Eye would have to take notice of this one. Edwin might even move ahead of Lord Nasty in the league tables for villainy at last. That reminded him, he really should call round and see old Nasty at some point, it being the season, and so forth. Perhaps a small invasion?

“Even so, Sir I feel I should mention the fundamental flaw in any plan to capture Santa-”

“No. No even so-ing. Just open the sack.”

Tilesbury didn’t sigh as he opened the sack. He quite pointedly didn’t sigh, Edwin felt. A figure tumbled out. It was fat, wearing red, and sported a bushy beard. All in accordance with the explanation Tilesbury had given him.

“Aha! I told you we would get Santa, Tilesbury. And here he is! So you see, you aren't the only clever one around here.”

“Yes Sir, though I must point out that this particular Santa is wearing a false beard.”

Now that Tilesbury had pointed it out, Edwin could see that was indeed the case. Also, the Santa appeared to have a pillow case shoved up his jumper to make him look fatter. “Do they do that? You there, Santa, explain yourself or I will…” Edwin tried to think up a suitably unimaginable torment. As usual, he couldn’t quite imagine one. “Well, I’ll be pretty miffed, I can tell you!”
The man in the false beard, who looked faintly stunned, stared up at Edwin. “’m not Santa. My name’s Dave.”

“An imposter?” Edwin looked to Tilesbury. “Do they do that, Tilesbury?”

“I believe so, Sir.”

“To foil kidnappers and assassins and so forth?”

“Possibly, Sir.”

Edwin focussed on Grot for a moment or two. Given that Tilesbury was the only goblin Edwin had heard of with any concept of personal hygiene, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. “You. Where did you find this Santa?”

“In a…” Grot’s hands moved as he tried to put the concept into words. “Place. Place with shops. People. Place named after me. Grot-o. Man asked Grot if wanted to sit on Santa’s knee. Grot hit him.”

“I believe my cousin may have inadvertently abducted the wrong Santa, Sir,” Tilesbury pointed out. “Though in fact, this brings us back to the fundamental flaw I was talking about earlier-”

“Nonsense, Tilesbury,” Edwin said. “We just have to push forward, keep going, and jolly well put our noses to the grindstone until we find the right Santa. How exactly does one do that incidentally?”

“Sir-”

“One more objection from you, Tilesbury, and you’ll be spending Christmas polishing all the spikiest armour in the castle armoury.”

“I do that anyway, Sir.”

“Twice then. Now, obviously these shopping places are set up just to distract us, so we’ll just have to try a new tack. Where else did you say this Santa character might be found?”

“I believe various locations in the Arctic Circle are considered traditional, Sir,” Tilesbury explained.

“Good, then we’re going to need a sled, some suitable Things to pull it, and a map of the North Pole. Oh, and someone do something about that imposter.”

“Very well, Sir,” Tilesbury said, and pulled the lever to drop the Santa into what would have been the Big Pit of Spikes had Tilesbury not replaced them with mattresses some time before. Grot, who had been standing close by, attempting to explain that he wanted a big club with nails in it, and a pot of slime and..., fell through with a yelp.

“You know, Tilesbury,” Edwin said, “I really think this might finally be a piece of Evil worth doing. This will really show people what kind of evil overlord I am, don’t you think?”

Tilesbury sighed the sigh of someone who knew that the near future would almost certainly involve him having to rescue his employer from marauding reindeer. Not to mention digging him out of snowdrifts. Still, it was the season of goodwill, and at least all this attempted evil kept his employer out of actual trouble.

“Yes, Sir. If you don't mind, I’ll just fetch my warmer dinner jacket.”

Monday, 19 December 2011

Why watch test cricket?

It’s Christmas time, which means a number of things to different people. For the cricket obsessed, however, it means a feast of Test cricket, with Australia’s traditional Boxing Day Test being the most prominent of all. This seems like a good point to answer that most common of questions from the non cricket lovers out there: what’s the point of Test cricket?

After all, there are some things about it that are hard to understand. Why does it take five days, for example? Why, after that, can you still get a draw? Aren’t all those blokes just standing about? What is this obsession with tea? Don’t they realise that most of us have jobs and things, and so it isn’t convenient for us to watch this? I mean, shouldn’t we all just watch T20 (which is conveniently packaged at the length of an evening out) instead? Well, there are a couple of answers to that, and I’m going to give you both.

The first is what we might call the historical answer. In the early days of cricket, it quickly became a sport sponsored by the aristocracy, who wanted something to bet on, and occasionally to play. So no, it doesn’t care that you have a job, because the lord of the manor didn’t. They had the time for matches that went on potentially forever, or at least until both sides had been gotten out fairly. The trouble with that answer is that it portrays cricket as a whole as unduly burdened by the past. It’s not an approach that is going to appeal to anyone who doesn’t already love the sport.

There is another way of looking at it, which is to see Test cricket as kind of the ultimate sporting challenge. I should explain. Those blokes aren’t doing nothing. Instead, they’re pushing themselves to limits most sportspeople would find hard to understand. Let’s start with the obvious, which is that cricket is complicated. It takes mastery of an awful lot of skills to do it well, most of which are tricky to pull off correctly even once.

But they don’t have to do it once. They have to do it hundreds of times. A batsman scoring a hundred might be at the crease for hours, yet one slip could cost him his wicket. A bowler might bowl twenty-thirty overs in a day. That’s 120-180 separate deliveries, assuming he doesn’t have any wides or no balls to do over. One piece of research on South African bowler Shaun Pollock suggested that he covered something like 18km a day while playing. Test cricket is about taking an essentially technical sport and combining it with a test of endurance. There’s even an element of physical courage involved, when you remember that bowlers are perfectly allowed to bowl the ball so it hits the batter, and that fielders sometimes get positioned just a yard or two from the bat.

Mostly though, it’s about a combination of sustained physical, mental and technical pressure. It’s not about pacing yourself either. The players can’t get away with playing at half power for the match to conserve energy, because those performances will be punished by the other side. A batsman who tries to hold back will probably get out. A bowler who does the same will probably be hit to the boundary, or at least will not take wickets. A fast bowler will start the Test bowling at 90mph+ and might still be bowling only a little way down on that on the fifth day. It’s about the repetition of full power skills over and over until one side achieves victory.

That’s the part that really makes Test cricket gruelling. In most sports, the one with the most points at the end of the time wins, whether it’s a football match or a boxing bout. Yet most fight fans, for example, tend to see matches that end up with a points win as inferior. Test match cricket is closer to the old boxing bouts that went on until there was a winner. Now, obviously modern limitations mean that they can’t go on forever (although even I’ll admit it can sometimes feel that way) but they can say that you don’t get to win that way. You either defeat a team outright, or it’s a draw.

That’s why I watch this strange, maddening sport.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Deja Vu Blogfest

It being the deja vu blogfest, where we go back to a favourite post from the past, I thought I'd revisit July last year, when I produced this for the blogfest of death (a blogfest within a blogfest. If I keep going do we achieve the effect of standing between two mirrors?) I've picked this one because it's one of my favourite sections of writing, and because it also shows just how long the publishing process is, given that the book this is from comes out in January.

Being the second half of the first bit of the third novel (sorry, I'm in that sort of mood) my entry into the Blogfest of Death:

Grave pushed the memory away and went back to searching. A few seconds of further effort yielded a pair of neatly wrapped egg and cress sandwiches and a folded piece of paper, only slightly stained so far by its stay in Grave’s possession. He unwrapped the sandwiches and ate one handed while scanning the paper. It was always best to check these things. Three names had been crossed off, in a mixture of pens that had, in the general manner of pens, proved impossible to find twice. Three other names were still neatly printed below.

‘Elizabeth Peters,’ Grave rumbled to himself, sending a faint spray of breadcrumbs into his beard.

Something skittered in the darkness at the sound, and Grave absentmindedly kicked a discarded can in its direction. A resentful squeak told him he’d connected. He was in the right place at least. That was a blessing. There’d been that time when he’d been sent over to Egypt and had found himself on the wrong side of the Nile. He’d had to swim. Come to think of it, didn’t he still have a pair of crocodile skin boots from that somewhere? Or was that some other time?

Grave sighed. Other times. There were always other times these days. A thousand years of other times, all tangled up like the web of some giant arachnid. He’d probably hunted one of those too, back in the twelfth century, or was it the thirteenth? His memory played tricks if he let it.

A faint scent brought his mind back to the present. Like cinnamon, but not quite, mixed in with the usual scents of humanity. Even over the car-fume stink of the city, it was easy to pick out. Grave took a quick look at the remains of his sandwich, wondering whether he should finish the thing or push it back into his pockets. The first raised the possibility of trying to do his job with a mouth full of egg and cress, while the second seemed like a recipe for pockets Grave could never put his hands in again. He threw it off to one side instead, hearing the scurry of rats as they scrambled for it. Grave filed the information away for later.

For the time being though, there were more important things to do. Now, which pocket? His massive hands resumed their search, darting between the inner surfaces of his coat, and fetching out objects almost at random. A piece of string? Usable, but no. An unused ticket to an opera that had closed two hundred years before? An antique silver cow creamer? How had that got in there?

Grave’s movements grew more frantic as footsteps came closer. They were a woman’s footsteps, light and fast, with the click of heels striking concrete. That was good. Even though Elizabeth Peters took the same route back from her work each evening, it was better to be certain about these things.

It would have been good, at least, if he could just find the right pocket. A tulip bulb? No. A pair of reading spectacles that weren’t even his? This was getting embarrassing.

She came round the corner right on time. Thirty years old, attractive, though looking worn out from a day spent planning marketing strategies. Elizabeth Peters was huddled in the jacket of her business suit against the evening chill. She didn’t even look across to where Grave stood. Everything was perfect, or should have been. At this rate, he was going to have to improvise, and the foremost Huntsman of the Courts working with… he looked down… an expired library card, just wouldn’t look right.

Elizabeth Peters was past him now, making her way along the side street. Much further and he’d have to go with what he had. One more try. Grave’s hand dipped into another pocket and he smiled as his fingers closed around the hilt of a knife.

‘Ah, finally,’ he muttered, loudly enough that Elizabeth Peters turned, startled that she’d walked past someone without noticing. The movement meant she was just in time to meet the sweep of the knife as it slashed across, throat high. She held her hands to her neck for a moment, her eyes wide with shock, before her knees buckled.

Grave caught Elizabeth Peters as she fell, lowering her carefully to the ground and watching as the light started to fade from her eyes.

‘Well,’ he said amiably as he stood, ‘that was almost a complete cock up. Still, all’s well that ends well.’

Cleaning the knife, he resolved to make a special note of which pocket he put it in this time. Grave walked to the mouth of the street as casually as someone the size of a small giant could, checking that no one would be running to Elizabeth Peters’ aid. That sort of thing was always annoying. About halfway there Grave stopped, looking around, and then sniffed as something came to him on the breeze. He sniffed again, just to make sure. His broad forehead wrinkled in puzzlement.

‘Another one?’

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Central Figure

I'd like to share with you an experience from a few years back. I was having a drink with a few friends (does it still count as 'having a drink' when said drink is non-alcoholic? I think so. It's more about the situation, and anyway, most of them were drinking). This was, as it happens, also the evening that happened to spark a whole clutch of zombie soft furnishing stories for me, so those who remember it will know that it really was a while ago.

I happened to mention to one of my friends that I quite liked the work of Tom Holt. To this, she replied that she didn't really see the point of reading him because Terry Pratchett was out there. This friend was not, I should point out, some kind of weirdo. She was certainly an avid reader. She just didn't see the point in reading more than one comic fantasy author.

It's a point that has stuck with me, because I have heard stories of exactly the same conversation occurring with publishers, but what interests me here is the either/or nature of the reasoning. Is there something about books, or about the genre, that suggests reading one author means not reading another? Is it something unique to the genre, or has anyone else come across instances of it elsewhere?
Or is it simply that some authors occupy such a central place in their genres that everyone else comes off to potential readers as merely a copyist?

It's an intriguing thought, particularly for someone who is going to be published in that genre come January (there are no giant turtles in my work, but hopefully you will forgive me that). I'd guess though that it's also a relevant thought for plenty of other people out there. After all, we all need to provide people with a way to understand that they should read our stuff as well as the most well known person in our field (it's at this point that I'd like to suggest that the way Tom Holt switched from those almost Pratchettesque front covers to strange minimalist ones may have played a role for him. It's not that they were ever that similar in terms of writing).

Or perhaps we should be asking ourselves a different question: how do we become that central figure? Hmm... in my case it might involve locking a number of other authors in cupboards somewhere. Just excuse me for a moment, would you?

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Regression to the Mean

In which I almost entirely mis-apply a statistical concept to make a point about writing. I'll point out right now that although I'm quite interested in statistics, much of my knowledge of them was obtained through the medium of cricket. My knowledge of regression to the mean, specifically, through an article by Gideon Haigh on freakish early career averages. The notion, as I understand it, is that over time the average of an expanding set of data is likely to become closer to any general average. Things become more averagely average as they go on, if you like. Also, anyone touted as the new Don Bradman will probably suffer a string of ducks to bring them back to the realms of mere mortals.

Why does this have any relevance to writing? Because of series, of course. Think of all those long series out there. Think how wonderful the first books were. How exciting. How different. Now think of the later books. They might not be bad, exactly, but they do tend to be far less original. They come back to the pack in so many cases. Why is that? Well, the first reason is that often the author isn't writing something they have been incredibly inspired to write, with all the unique plot elements that come from that. They're working more from the craft of writing. There's nothing wrong with that. Not at all. But it means they're less likely to come out with something new.

So those of us with series in our heads should probably think long and hard about them before writing the next book. I'm not saying avoid it. I'm just suggesting that we should only ever write that sequel if there is genuinely something we want to say with it that sets it apart. Otherwise, we're just drifting back, and I'm sure your writing deserves so much more than that.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Twelve Things to get the Villain who has Everything

  1. A new and improved robot of doom. This may cause some conflict with previous models. Please dispose of your old robots of doom responsibly.
  2. Piranha. Yes, you got him them last year, but villains aren't very good at looking after their pets, and so need frequent replacements.
  3. A small, glowing rock. It doesn't matter if it actually does anything or not. Either way, it will still become an essential part of the villain's schemes for years to come.
  4. A collection of minions. Hireable at any good theatrical agent. Though mysteriously, they seem to refer to them as 'extras' for some reason.
  5. One of those certificates where you get to name a star or a planet or something. That way, they can say that at least they've taken over a world this year.
  6. Bilge pumps. Those secret sea bases tend to be quite leaky.
  7. Evil Trivial Pursuit. Yes, all Trivial Pursuit is technically evil, but generally it doesn't feature categories such as 'Famous Assassinations', 'Secret Bases' and 'Mad Science'.
  8. Five golden rings, each inscribed on the inside, with one designed to rule them all.
  9. A grooming voucher for the inevitable white cat (because long haired cats take a lot of looking after beyond simply stroking them while you plot)
  10. Evil plotter's fridge magnets. Simply rearrange words such as 'moon base' and 'laser' on any handy fridge to come up with thousands of evil plots.
  11. Voice coaching. Those villainous laughs don't come from nowhere you know.
  12. A genetically enhanced super partridge sitting on a long range missle disguised as a tree.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Medieval Forgery.

Another thought for anyone writing anything vaguely medieval in flavour. This one is about forgery, which probably seems like a strange thing to focus on, except that it had a huge role to play through much of the middle ages, and is well worth understanding if you want to know more about the way medieval societies fitted together. I’m focussing on English examples here, but there are plenty of others.

The first thing to understand about forgery in medieval England is that there was quite a lot of it. As a historian, you come across forged or incongruous charters not all the time, but certainly often enough to make it clear that the practice went on. You find charters claiming to be older than the handwriting says they could be, seals that have nothing to do with the charters, and all kinds of other fun stuff. There are a couple of reasons for this.

One is the importance of charters and grants in that society. From the ownership of land to rights to dispense justice and collect taxes, all kinds of rights were granted to individuals and organisations through those centuries. You find Beverley Minster’s right to send just a single banner to the king’s battles, for example, alongside small grants of the right to take rabbits from the local warrens, and much broader freedoms from prosecution by outsiders for those living around particular monasteries.

Rights were not assumed to be automatic (though the law codes of even quite early kings do enshrine certain principles we can recognise today) but were instead given out. So were exemptions. The king made laws, or the pope made decrees, and immediately half the most wealthy people in the country wanted exemptions from castle building, or having to live at the religious institutions they were supposed to, or whatever.

Precedent was also vital. People, even kings, respected ancient rights. If you had a charter from Aethalstan in perpetuity granting a whole series of rights over the local area as Beverley and Ripon minsters did, subsequent kings tended to back those rights, even in legal cases against their archbishops as happened at Ripon in 1228. The thing is, of course, the charters I’m referring to in this instance were both forged, probably sometime in the twenty-five years before that case. People and institutions forged in the middle ages because it could re-shape their relationships with authority.

They also did it because it was easy. In the absence of modern forensic techniques, getting away with it was much easier. Moreover, while kings, archbishops and the rest started keeping collections of what they had handed out, there generally wasn’t one central record of every grant. People accepted too, that older charters would be copied and rewritten (my assertion of forgery above is actually only one point of view, but it seems like the most probable one, given that Beverley and Ripon suddenly acquired identical charters at the moment they most needed them). Even handwriting made things easier, with literacy being lower and handwriting being more standard as a result.

A note on forging coins. It happened. It happened a lot, despite some fairly severe penalties. Two things worth bearing in mind though. A multiplicity of different currencies could often find itself being used in different places and at different times, making ‘odd’ currency the norm, or alternatively, making someone with foreign coin seem to be a forger. Perhaps more interestingly, there wasn’t one centralised mint in England, but rather, specific individuals were given the right to mint coins on behalf of the crown. Or they assumed it. During the Anarchy of King Stephen in the twelfth century, at least one of the barons in Yorkshire started minting his own coins simply because he was the only real authority in the area.

All this is worth thinking about the next time you write a medieval fantasy, not just because it gives you all kinds of ways of causing trouble, but because I think it says something important about the way power worked in medieval England.

Monday, 5 December 2011

A week of thinking

It’s been a fun sort of week. I’ve been kept busy on the writing front, since including my own work, I’m working on around five novels at different stages at the moment. That invariably seems to spark the question among people of whether I get confused and start writing in the tone of one novel while working on another. I have to say that the answer to that is no. Partly, it’s because I’m quite careful about that kind of thing, partly, it’s because novels have more overlap than people like to think anyway, but mostly, it’s because ideas for me tend to have their own distinct spaces in my thoughts, making them hard to confuse.

On my novel front, since it comes out in January, I’m winding up to do the promotion for it. Obviously, I’m not just going to batter people with its existence on this blog, because I’m sure that’s not what people want from this space, but I am thinking of doing a bit of a blogfest in its honour (something reasonably straightforward, given that most of us will just be kicking off the year, more details when I’ve thought of them). Also, if anyone has any good tips for maximising publicity without making people go ‘oh, not another online author’ and switching off, I’d be grateful to hear them.

Fencing on Thursday featured a brief bout of left handedness from me, primarily because I was a bit bored, but also as an experiment. No, I’m not turning into a lefty, but I do find that with this, and with lots of other things, it pays to have ways to get more out of your practise. One of those ways is occasionally to do something very odd and difficult (like doing an activity with the wrong hand) to force yourself to think about what you’re doing more.

I’m re-reading Toby Frost’s Wrath of the Lemming Men at the moment. One of the great things about books with plenty of humour in is that they tend to support multiple re-reads, just so that you can pick out more of the jokes and references (though a good knowledge of sci-fi and stereotypical British-ness will be needed with this one).

Friday, 2 December 2011

My Cover Part Two

This is the official cover for my novel Court of Dreams. I think it looks rather nice.