The value of rage: RIP Sir Terry Pratchett.

pratchett_rats

Publicity shot from ‘The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents”.

Morbid? Yes, it is. Bandwagon-jumping? Absolutely. The sort of thing PTerry himself would probably despise? I doubt it not. However there are people looking at this blog apparently in the expectation that I’ll have said something about such a momentous event in fantasy as the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett, and far be it from me to disappoint my future readers.

I’ve got a when-I-met-Pterry anecdote I’ll come to later, but the best article I’ve ever read about the man is this one, written by Neil Gaiman: “Do not underestimate this anger. This anger was the engine that powered Good Omens.”  It talks about Terry having a deep sense of justice, and anyone who’s read Pratchett can appreciate the near-perfect balance he struck between acute social awareness, blackest irony, and an infallible sense of petty, stupid humanity and all its attendant farce. Continue reading

The writer’s eye: punctuation

This isn’t a blog about the how-tos of writing, but since getting involved with a live roleplay group including several aspiring writers, I think I’ve got something useful to say on the subject. So pardon me while I interrupt normal service with something useful for a change!

Everything They Never Told You About Dots

No doubt you remember from school that punctuation is the most boring, irritating and incomprehensible part of written English.

Today I’d like to present an alternative view. Punctuation is straightforward, easy to understand, and an incredibly useful writing tool when you know what it’s trying to achieve.

Continue reading

Theatre with Felix, or, How Not To Do It

derby_playhouseI really must have a good rant about The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug at some point, if only to make lots of points about dragons in fantasy and rabbit on and on about Smaug. But since I just saw my first ever ancient Greek musical, for today I’ll rant about what it’s like to go to the theatre when you’re me. Continue reading

Thoughts on fanfiction

There’s been a featured post on the Livejournal homepage recently talking about the opinions of various well-known authors on fan fiction. It prompts me to consider more deeply what I think about it, now that I’m trying to start a Proper Author Blog  and considering the world of professional ficiton writing seriously.

There are various quotes in the post from everyone from George R R Martin (who objects to other people muscling in on his sadistic fun) to Charlie Stross (do what you like as long as I still get paid). It calls in at various barmy stops along the way – including Anne Rice’s hilarious comment “It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.”

The reason I find Anne Rice’s attitude funny is that fanfic is out there. It exists. It is part of Internet culture. Sticking your fingers in your ears and telling the horrible nasty fangirls to go away is just daft. Genies don’t go back into bottles. So if you’re a writer in a world where fanfic exists, how do you cope with it?

Now I’ll admit, in the interests of full disclosure, that I’ve written fanfic myself. No, I’m not telling you what fandoms or where you can read it, because I was having a crap time in my life back then and it’s all a little too obviously written as part of me processing my Issues. All of my writing is fundamentally about me reflecting on my inner life, but some parts of it are a little less embarrassingly transparent than others!

I came to fan fiction in my mid-to-late twenties, long after I started writing original fiction, and I’d call myself a dabbler – I never really became embedded in online fandom, just had fun for a while and then moved on when my inner conflicts were a little more settled and my neophilic fascination waned. But one thing I do know is that I wrote fanfic exactly the same way I write original fiction – as an exploration of myself, my life and my attitudes and ideas. I write to process the cultural world around me, and I do that whether the characters I’m using are mine or not.

And in fact, I think that’s what a lot of the best fan fiction is. During my time in fandom I saw, broadly speaking, two schools of fannish creativity. One was fanfic as a social hobby; these are authors who write mainly for their circle of friends. They may write scorching erotica, lingering romances or gloriously insane crackfic (and there are some exceptionally talented writers out there doing all of these), but they do it purely as something they can share and enjoy with the people they care about. I’ve always been very refreshed by the average fangirl’s acceptance of her own sexuality, too – there’s plenty of smut in fan fiction and most of it is created by women for women, but the nice thing is that as a rule the women doing the creating accept that their sexuality is a valid part of them. Even if, like most men, they still feel a little dirty for enjoying it at times. Equality can be a fascinating thing.

The second school of writers are very bright and deep-thinking people who write to examine, whether consciously or unconsciously, big personal and social issues. They’re just doing it through someone else’s characters. In some cases I think it’s because they’re either not people with a gift for original world creation, or they simply haven’t had enough practise to be good at it yet. Being a good writer is not easy and takes both ability and work. In others, however, I think it’s because that particular fandom, that particular world, speaks to that person about a given set of issues and makes them think. One such writer I knew in fandom was an academic who used fan fiction as a way of getting a different angle on questions she also considered in her professional work. Immoral? Invalid? Socially retrogressive? You decide. It’s this second school of fandom that’s closest to my own heart, but it’s clear as day to me that even for those in the first school, the practise of writing fan fiction is just another way in which to put in some of those legendary ten thousand hours.

Now, on the subject of plagiarism I’m firmly with Charlie Stross: you leave my (putative) money alone. If you’re writing in fandom I think it’s vital to have a clear sense of boundaries: to understand that your fannish adoration doesn’t confer any kind of ownership of the original work, or any right to expect rewards other than the social reward that comes from participating in fandom. Some people are self-centred and venal and are never going to accept that, so in a world where copyright means profit, creators are always  going to have to keep their own sense of boundaries tight and hold the big stick in reserve for those who don’t play by the rules. Passionate fans who know how to do fanfic right can be a huge help in policing that kind of miscreant. A lot of fan writers are young teens who simply haven’t developed a full sense of boundaries and personal responsibility yet, which is a different issue and best addressed by promoting a culture of responsibility within fandom. But – the reason I can’t quite agree with the “I do not permit fan fiction” attitude is that fan community makes such a huge difference to the profile and indeed profitability of a work that I would be mad to tell my future fans not to interact in the way fans like to do. Hell – if my work engages people enough that they want to write fanfic about it, then it has reached them. It has touched them. It’s become part of their inner life – part of culture. And isn’t that what we all, as writers, ultimately try to do?

But I’ll tell you one thing, future fans of my as yet unwritten work. Write, draw or edit up your fic; absolutely. Share it with your friends, go ahead. Love my work and enjoy your fan time; I made it for you to enjoy. I don’t need to know what you get up to in your private moments, so I don’t really need you to show it to me… but don’t imagine for a second that I don’t know the game. I’ll be watching, waiting, googling your fics once in a while – and meditating on whether to Joss the whole lot of you within an inch of your lives 😉

Of elephants, writing and mice

There’s an apocryphal quote that floats round the Internet about a sculptor who, when asked how to carve a statue of an elephant, replied “It’s easy. You just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

I love to think about the writing process as a learning experience every time, and I’ve just finished the first draft of a short-deadline story (using Scrivener) which was written very much by this kind of process. I am happy to report that writing using the carve-an-elephant model is an excellent way to produce, as you might expect, an elephant. The problem is that when it’s a short story you’re writing, an elephant is not as useful as you thought.

At 10k words the story’s definitely failing on the “short” criterion. To be fair that’s a first draft and it’s now in the capable hands of my flatmate and fellow writer, who is gifted at wielding the Big Hatchet and will likely tear both the loose flesh and the sci-fi background to shreds for me. It started out as a longish, exploratory set of rambling paragraphs that established a world and a mystery but had no real plot; on being asked by an anthology editor whether I could come up with a different piece which was a better fit for the antho I submitted to, I’ve now spent a manic week (in between work and an assortment of irritating medical appointments) (a) outlining a proper plot, (b) producing enormous quantities of further verbiage which developed the irritating habit of redefining the plot plan without asking, then (c) throwing chunks of prose around like a mole in a temper and rewriting the linking material according to the brave new plot’s demands. In short, I’ve been lost in the attempt to chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

Well, now I’ve got an elephant. And the next task is to seek its inner mouse…

Lies of Locke Lamora readalong: week 1

Week 1 of the Lies of Locke Lamora readalong is now up, and here are the questions!

1. If this is your first time reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, what do you think of it so far? If this is a re-read for you, how does the book stand up to rereading?

It’s my first time. I found the book instantly engaging and very easy to get into; it’s full of big, enjoyable characters, the dialogue is hilarious, and there’s plenty of drama and fun in the plotline without the cliffhangers feeling like a soap-opera. I’m also really enjoying the camaraderie between the Gentleman Bastards – I’m a sucker for some good male bonding and Lynch does it perfectly, all understated affection and perverse humour.

2. At last count, I found three time lines: Locke as as a 20-something adult, Locke meeting Father Chains for the first time, and Locke as a younger child in Shades Hill. How are you doing with the Flashback within a flashback style of introducing characters and the world?

I’m fine with that. I like a bit of complexity in my books, and I always enjoy character development that’s done by showing pivotal moments in people’s lives and how they react to them; interwoven timelines often provide some very illuminating comparisons when they’re used in that way, in fact they’re a trick I like to use myself precisely because of that. I also think the stories-within-stories model fits very well in a book about a chameleonic con artist – people within people, scams within scams.

3. Speaking of the world, what do you think of Camorr and Lynch’s world building?

It’s interesting. I’ll be fascinated to see whether the elderglass becomes relevant to the plot at any point, or whether it will just stay a mystery for background colour and depth. I do like Lynch’s inclusion of alchemy, which at present is feeling like a cross between chemistry, genetic engineering and magic; it’s brilliantly Renaissance in feel while at the same time inextricably fantastical. For me I’d say that’s the one element that’s tying the world together, since it provides an intuitive link between the apparently incidental alien-relics backdrop and the human and social side of Lynch’s world.

As far as the people and society go, as a lifelong fantasy fan the society of Camorr very much feels like home territory for me – nobles and rogues, foreigners based on recognisable national stereotypes, all rattling-good-yarn type stuff. But it’s intelligently and lucidly done – Lynch’s descriptive style is gorgeous, clear as a bell – and in any case I’d say it’s necessary to make Locke’s confidence tricks accessible to the reader. It would be hard to be carried along with the mischievous glee of pulling the wool over someone if you couldn’t so readily picture the characters Locke is creating and the people he’s fooling with them.

A certain element of pantomime is inevitable if you’re writing about this kind of thing, I think; con tricks are based on trust, trust is based on social interactions, and social interactions are really, really hard to understate in prose fiction if they’re completely alien to the reader. (Unless you’re Ursula le Guin, but who is). I already find the precise descriptions of social niceties like bowing and hand gestures a little intrusive; if I was having to plough through an explanation of why every character Locke tries it on with has their particular emotional reaction, I suspect the book would already have taken a flying lesson across the room. As it is, I can rely on a lifetime of accumulated understanding about my own world, but acknowledge that rulebreaking is OK because the serial numbers are filed off…

4. Father Chains and the death offering. . . quite the code of honor for thieves, isn’t it? What kind of person do you think Chains is going to mold Locke into?

I’m not quite sure how this question is relevant given that the Locke-as-adult timeline is actually showing us that simultaneously. All I have to do if I want to find out is wait and see..!

I will say, though, that the whole tone of the book speaks the lighter side of roguery. We’ve got a disreputable but tacitly approved-of thieves’ god, a mentor who describes himself as a “crooked old poser” and a child saved from a fate worse than death by the fact his notional owner is driven more by greed than malice; this is in the social comedy ballpark, not the violent, nasty and dark one. Plus, the young Locke is painted as a child with a strong sense of social justice, even if his background, natural talents and methodology are a wee tad suspect – I’ve read a few things over time about how to make a crooked or roguish main character appealing, and a Robin Hood archetype is an excellent way to do that, so that would be my prediction for his adult self.

5. It’s been a while since I read this, and I’d forgotten how much of the beginning of the book is pure set up, for the characters, the plot, and the world. Generally speaking, do you prefer set up and world building done this way, or do you prefer to be thrown into the deep end with what’s happening?

Good question. As a writer, unless I can see a ready way to combine action and exposition fluidly, my natural tendency is to world-build first and start the action later. However, having had the pleasure John Ayliff‘s commentary on some of my work, it’s possible I err on the side of caution there and ought to think more about getting things started quicker. To be fair, John is a hard sci-fi writer with a background in the games industry, which puts him approximately 180 degrees around the circle of speculative fiction from me – high fantasy is the lit-fic of the speculative spectrum anyway, and I’d put myself at the lower end of the pretentious bracket even within that. But even I read back over my own first drafts and wonder how the hell I fitted that much verbiage in. Usually rapidly followed by an editing run in which I remove everything that smacks of me trying to expound the world to my own satisfaction before I can describe it to a reader.

6. If you’ve already started attempting to pick the pockets of your family members (or even thought about it!) raise your hand.

I’m about as subtle as Terry Pratchett’s legendary half-brick in a sock, so I’ll stick to playing rogues in D&D campaigns where success rests on a die roll, thankyou. Not to mention that I dread to think what I’d find in the pockets of a family like mine…