Thursday, 31 May 2012

Things I've learned this week

I've learned two or three very different things this week. One is a reinforcement of a pet hate of mine, which is when authors kill minor characters (star trek style) and expect us to care about them. It's actually part of a much larger collection of writing irritations that all work around the same idea though. Killing characters is only one part of it. Another is what I'm told they call a 'pat the dog' moment in scriptwriting, where a writer suddenly needs to make you care about a character and they haven't done anything to set it up, so they have them do or say something saccharine to tell us that they're someone we 'should' care about. There's also the part where they have minor characters do bad things because they're afraid to have major ones take the consequences. They're all symptoms of the same kind of problem to me.

Then I've also learned that often you don't realise when you're getting better at things. That's true of writing, but of a lot of other things too. I found this out after doing BJJ for a year or so and regularly getting smashed by other players, only to go into my local judo club earlier this week and find that I could do rather well on the ground. Of course, the opposite also applies, and you can get worse without noticing too. I think that until you actually test what you're doing outside your normal situation, you don't get that kind of feel for it.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Adventures with Frogs

I was looking at the blog stats, and particularly the things people typed into search engines to get here. It turns out that the thing people look for most on this blog is… frogs. Well, here goes, with some fantasy adventure/story ideas starring the real heroes of these things. Apparently.

1.      Hunt the frog. A wicked (or at least misunderstood) witch has transformed royalty of your choice into amphibious form. Now, princesses might be readily available or they might not, but since said witch did this in the middle of the Five Kingdoms Rare Amphibian Reserve, this could be trickier than it sounds.

2.      Our heroes have stolen the Jewelled Frog of Klall. Just one tiny problem… it’s actually the frog people’s queen, who had been taking a nap at the time.

3.      In the middle of the annual Plague of Frogs, a shady businessman is profiting rather a lot by predicting just where the next outbreak will be and selling suitable frog repellents (herons?). His big van full of things that go ‘croak’ might or might not be a clue.

4.      The barbarian gnomes of the North have swept down into the civilised lands to wreak havoc and fish in new ponds, riding their terrifying war frogs.

5.      A botanist wants our hero to extract some rare compounds from a particular type of tree frog. That the compound in question happens to be a rare poison, and that a Very Important Hero’s birthday is coming up happen to be complete coincidences, probably.

6.      Our heroes must search for the fabled Lost City of K’roak to find a way to overthrow the frog tyrant plaguing their lands. Or at least persuade his mother to have a word with him.

7.      Other superheroes get proper powers. Not frog-man. Oh no. And everybody thinks that he’s just some sort of police diver.

8.      The city’s frog races are all run by criminal rackets, but when a pretty biologist with an amphibious fixation wanders into a PI’s office one man stands up for what’s right. Or he would if the frog poison derived alcohol had worn off.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

The bits you enjoy

There are so many different elements of writing. There’s using language in new and interesting ways, getting to play with a bunch of characters, constructing worlds, the discipline of sitting down and just putting down words, the fun of talking to people and trying to persuade them to read what you’ve written. So many different things, and different writers will like different ones. I think it’s quite important as a writer that you understand which bits mean the most to you.

So what is it for me? What is it about writing, rather than constructing origami furniture or mapping the historical cheese delivery routes of England, that I like? I think the major thing is that business of solving puzzles; fitting things together, finding ways to make them work. Picking at the little points that don’t work in a plot or idea and then finding a way to shift the whole thing so that it does. That’s fun.

It’s the little creative moments too. The jokes, obviously, but just the moments when I get to purely make things up. Lists are always good for that, and so are places where you have a lot of things happening, so that you can just describe a few fantastical things without having to think too much about the consequences.

And then you do think about the consequences, because that brings the first point into play. All of which creates a kind of ‘come up with mad things and then make them work’ vibe, which is what I love. Which is why I look for those moments when I’m writing, and possibly why the moments that don’t include them are slightly more difficult.

The point is that by identifying what it is you really love about the writing process, you can find yourself doing so much more of the bits you enjoy.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Lightning Flashed

I took part in this last year, and it's great fun. 300 words maximum, starting with the words 'Lightning flashed' I was going to do something deep and meaningful, but then two of my recurring characters showed up. Enjoy.

Lightning flashed when the doorbell rang, as seemed to be usual here. It was all these dark and stormy nights they kept getting, or maybe just an inevitability when on holiday in this particular corner of the League of Ultimate Evil, in a small but gloriously spiky little castle-ette. A real home from home, in fact. Either way, Edwin the Moderately Unpleasant didn’t stir from his chair behind the ebony desk, carved with scenes that made Mrs Ormeroid the cleaner have one of her turns when she looked too hard. As she did surprisingly often for a woman of seventy.

What would it be this time? Some creature pieced together by an inquiring mind that saw merely being in bits as no challenge to a world containing cellotape? Some nosferatu thirsting for the blood of virgins and liable to make a run for the door if his cousin Sandra got hold of him? Possibly adventurers, though you didn’t seem to get so many of those out this way. Instead, it tended to be more lost souls driven mad by nameless horrors, or possibly just by their map reading skills.

Edwin closed his copy of the latest Lucy Delane romance as his official hench-goblin Tilesbury stepped into the room. Tilesbury made the usual effort at servile capering, but eventually settled for his inevitable crisp bow, the tails of his ridiculous long suit jacket scraping the floor.

Edwin tried to look imperious. “Visitors, Tilesbury?”

“Yes, Sir. Forgive me if I was a trifle slow on the door. I was helping Young Master Vilhelm in the tower with his lightning rod.”

Edwin coughed. “Your private life is your affair, Tilesbury. What is it? Nameless Horrors from Beyond? Things?” Edward shuddered. “Market researchers?”

“Worse, Sir.”

“Worse? You don’t mean…”

“Yes, Sir. It’s your mother.”

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Free Books, Cricket, and other things

Just to clarify my last post. I've had a look, and it turns out that the kindle version of Court of Dreams is free to anyone who wants one until the 23rd. So even if it wasn't something you were originally thinking of reading, this is probably the time to grab a copy.

From shameless self promotion to the cricket, where England are playing the West Indies. Things have gone quite well for England over the last two days, with Stuart Broad's seven wickets putting an end to the West Indies' first innings, and then Andrew Strauss getting a hundred. That's a good one, because it takes some of the pressure off him over whether he is currently worth his place. It did, however start me thinking about how in sport and life, often we care more about single performances than how things are going generally.

We seem to have the need to find a moment that defines things. Some big symbol of how things are going. I'm not sure life works quite like that, but the thing is that we often think in stories, and stories do work that way. Change might occur generally, but it is the symbol of change that matters more, often in the form of some sort of decisive action taken towards the end of the story.

Another quick thought on the cricket: the current West Indies team shows brilliantly how so many human endeavours are down to more than just being good at them. In this case, it's also about the politics and arguments of getting good players onto the ground. I'll say it straight away: what's playing England is effectively a second string team. Key players like Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo are playing in the IPL instead. So is Narine, their mystery spinner, who would almost certainly prove dangerous against English batsmen. Fast bowler Jerome Taylor, meanwhile, has been messed around by the West Indies board that he has effectively given up the game.

If you haven't been put off by all the cricket, here's a thought for the writers among you. This is surprisingly like what happens with books. You write one, but whether it succeeds also comes down so much to what other people do with it. There are the editors, the publishers... you'll notice I don't speak about my first two novels too much. Suffice it to say that Pink Narcissus, who publish my current one, came as a pleasant surprise after all that. It does mean though that when you're writing or selling one, you do have to think about that sort of thing as much as you can.

Friday, 18 May 2012

In Which I Plug Giveaway Copies

I know how much people hate it when writers just endlessly plug their stuff, but this one is a freebie, so you might want to make an exception. For this weekend (actually the 19th-23rd) my publisher is planning on giving away kindle versions of Court of Dreams to readers, so if it's been one of those books you haven't quite got round to, or if you like the cover, or if you just like the idea of a big, funny modern fantasy story full of faerie creatures, get over there and give it a go.

If you like it, or if you've read it already and you enjoyed it, I'd love it if you let people know about that. It could be on Amazon, or Goodreads, or even just telling the person sitting opposite you right now. Right, end of shameless plugging.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Flash Fiction Day

Technically, it was/is the UK's national flash fiction day today. I don't really do flash fiction (I can't remember the last thing shorter than a novel) but I thought I'd get into the spirit of things with a brief offering. And yes, I still have seven minutes left:

If there was one thing William Abhrams hated, more than evildoers, more than the tendency of the public to demand superhero assistance after hours, more even than the inability of the police to take on the most minor of robot armies without help, it was the part where people always asked him where his costume was.

Every single time. Like they’d never heard of him. Like they hadn’t seen him stop Doctor Unpleasant with a single well placed tax query. Like he hadn’t saved more citizens from The Great Hilda’s Ponzi scheme than all the other heroes had saved in their entire career.

From his base in the office over Leeds, William looked down on the city. He’d had enough. If people couldn’t even recognise a proper superhero when they saw one, he wasn’t going to do it anymore. In fact… yes, that would show them. He’d probably have more fun too. Supervillainy here we come.

The world would rue the day it laughed at Accountant Man.

Monday, 14 May 2012


First, a confession: I quite like the music of Genesis. No, wait, come back. This is solely by way of explaining the fact that I was watching a documentary on them just now, during which they made some interesting points about the creative process.

One set of themes that stuck with me was on the nature of creative identity. They talked about a few things relating to it, starting with the idea of having a band where practically all the members had solo projects. The idea that an artist in whatever field can have multiple outlets is an important one I think for writers, because there are things that one ‘identity’ won’t let you do that might be approachable by finding other avenues.

There was also some stuff on the notion of working in a group for the writing process, which is perhaps less applicable to a non-musical environment. Yet as a ghost-writer, I’ve done the whole thing of working with someone, and it is an interesting process, because there is that guidance and re-shaping, and having to strive to make the whole more than the sum of its parts. The time when it goes wrong is where the project is limited to just what I do, or more likely just what they want, because then there isn’t that transformation. If any of you have ever collaborated on pieces, you might understand that feeling.

One notion that struck me as interesting though was the idea that they had done a lot of different music, and that the band name was just a catch all for it. I can see the point, yet in some ways I would argue against it. Genesis did many different things, but to me, it always sounded like Genesis doing it, just as Joe Satriani’s many different album feelings still sound like Joe Satriani. I think in some ways that’s even more interesting, because there’s that tension between the urge to do new things and the kind of continuity of voice that we’re all taught to seek out as writers.

In fact, I think that genre or style hopping may actually help with the development of a consistent voice, because it forces us to see which bits are just genre conventions, and which bits are genuinely us. You see, watching odd documentaries at unhealthy hours is good for you.

Friday, 11 May 2012


There are plenty of cliches in fiction, but for a writer who likes comedy, they can actually be rather fun. To show you what I mean, here are half a dozen potential openings for stories, all of them based very loosely on the classics. Try to think of a few yourself. You might just find one or two ideas for stories coming:

1. Last Tuesday, in a galaxy frankly quite a lot like ours except for some impressive special effects…
2. It was a moderately stormy but actually quite light night, with a wind chill factor of minus fifteen, and…
3. The man staggered into the inn clutching a roll of parchment, screamed, and fell with a dagger in his back. One of the regulars checked his watch. “He’s late this evening.”
4. Yrng the barbarian stared out over the endless steppes, the wind whistling through his hair as he sat on his suspiciously tiny horse, and considered the thought that anywhere else, all this would have been an out of town supermarket by now…
5. In the crypt, shadows flickered. Which was just as well really. After all, if you’ve gone to the trouble of paying for the deluxe villainous crypt, the least you expect for your money is a complete set of flickering shadows…
6. The figure slipping through the dark didn’t move like a cat. As anyone who has ever had their dustbins knocked over at three in the morning knows, cats are overrated when it comes to stealthy movement.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Something to Say

A friend of mine once told me that he hadn't written anything for a while because he didn't have anything he felt strongly enough to write about. I suppose that applies while blogging, because I'm trying to write only when feel like it enough that it might be interesting.

It's an interesting take on writing fiction, though, and one I didn't really understand at the time. For me, it has almost always been enough to see something that I think might be funny, or interesting, or make a workable plot. It's less a question of 'do I really, absolutely need to do this' than simply 'could I do this'.

Yet increasingly, I think that maybe that's the wrong way around. It lets someone produce a lot of work, but is it necessarily great work? Note that word, great. Not just good. Why? Because writing takes time. Writing this blog post takes a few minutes. Writing a short story will take at least an afternoon. Writing a novel... well, if you factor in the time to publication and the promotion afterwards (note to self, more mind control) then you could be looking at more than a year of your time.

If you're going to put in that much time, surely it's worth trying to produce something really great. Most of us won't succeed in absolute terms, but we'll still do far better than we would just writing anything. Certainly, I find that my own writing has more substance when I have something to say in it.

Which begs the big question. What do you feel strongly enough to want to write about?

Sunday, 6 May 2012

A-Z round up

This is my A-Z challenge reflection post. The short version is that I didn't finish. I got as far as V (for villains) before giving up, yet I think it's probably worth reflecting on my reasons for doing that.

Real life was part of it, because I was quite busy for some of the month, yet that wasn't the whole thing. At the point where I gave up, I'd more or less finished some of the pieces I was working on.

My own writing was another big chunk, because I sometimes notice that if I get into a groove of blogging, that's taking away the same energy that says 'you know, I have this cool idea for the next chapter.' I'm writing this, for example, when I was really planning to finish a chapter of the novel that I've been building up a first draft of slowly.

Mostly though, it was just the relentless nature of it. Of saying something even when I didn't have anything to say. Maybe that's a reflection on the nature of blogging in general. I don't know. I do know that I only plan to blog from this point when it strikes me that I can be bothered. Which is probably no kind of way to run a blog, but it seems to work for Neil Gaiman (possibly for the reason that he's Neil Gaiman. Damn. Someone pass me an NG mask). There. Much better.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Early Season Cricket

The county cricket season has been going almost a month now, after its earliest start in modern times. Yorkshire haven’t exactly romped home to victories in that time, with the rain contributing to draws in their first couple of matches, but we have learned a few things:

1. Batsmen like to whine when things aren’t going their way. Just because it has been monumentally wet and the ball has consequently been going sideways off damp pitches, batsmen like Mark Ramprakash have complained about it being unfair and damaging their averages. I note that he makes no apologies for the damage he’s done to bowlers’ averages on those occasions when he’s played on small grounds or flat pitches.
2. Despite that, it has been a bit wet. Quite a few games have been washed out, and there have been some low totals as wet pitches tend to offer more for the bowlers than dry ones. The season started early for a variety of reasons, but for me at least one of them has to be…
3. The powers that be remain interested in the bottom line before all else. Twenty twenty started life as a knock about way of adding some extra interest. Now it has a huge position in the middle of the season and four day first class cricket has to start earlier as a result. I accept that I can’t exactly bemoan the professionalization of professional cricket, but which of these versions of the game really pushes players more?
4. Yorkshire loves an argument. Yorkshire seamer Ajmal Shazad has just been released from his contract, and Yorkshire have got in an Australian in the form of Mitchell Starc instead. Apparently, this is because he is ‘unhappy’ at the club, though that might have something to do with the part where the management seem to think he is not a team player.
5. The West Indies might be in with a chance. Their strength at the moment is in their bowling, because they can put a couple of properly fast bowlers on the park in Kemar Roach and Fidel Edwards. I was thinking that they might have a problem with the back up bowling, because captain Darren Sammy takes up the third seamer spot while not really being quick enough to be that third seamer, but the early season conditions seem to be favouring those slightly slower seamers. As such, it might all work out. Even if Chris Gayle isn’t going to be there for the tests.