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Sunday, 31 December 2017

Review - Movie - Traders

I don't typically like overt violence in movies, and most British small-scale movies have that weird greying effect that makes them look more depressing than they are. But there are a few British movies of that type I've watched and enjoyed. The most recent - and most unexpected - is the Irish-produced Traders. Currently available on BBC3 via iPlayer, Traders is what might be described as an action thriller with a surprisingly dark twist.

The premise is simple; a man named Henry Fox dissatisfied with his low-paying work becomes embroiled in a game created by Vernon, a man he meets by chance. The game is called Trading, and it soon takes in a viral quality. The rules are simple; sell possessions to create a money stake, fight to the death, survivor collects both stakes and arranges it so the victims are presumed suicides with methods difficult to trace and confirm. His first "Trade" nets him 10,000, but the thought of more pulls him into more and more trades, which become increasingly dangerous and violent.

The theme of the movie is the time-worn question of how far someone is prepared to go for riches, but it can also act as a commentary on the modern world and how the internet is allowing the creation of these types of "entertainments". It's one person creating the Trading game, and that one person is causing dozens of deaths. The theme is disturbing to say the least, more so because of a distinct lack of blood and guts. This is where the subdued tone works in the movie's favour; the emphasis on middle to lower-class suburban neighborhoods drives home a feeling of desperation, the fact that those trading probably have problems in their lives that need this money. The ambiguous ending drives the overall message home.

On the whole, the movie looks good. You can tell the budget was low, but the tone and subject matter actually help rather than hinder. The cast, including Killian Scott as the lead and John Bradley as Vernon, does a creditable job of portraying a group playing for high stakes out of desperation or greed. It must be stressed that this movie is not for younger viewers. Quite apart from the disturbing content and subject matter, there's violence a plenty. Most of it is deceptively bloodless, and consequently more disturbing. For me, seeing someone stabbed to death is far less unpleasant than someone getting the life choked out of them. There's also the usual - but thankfully sparse - use of swearing.

On the whole, this is a great movie of its kind. A very modest scope belies a scenario many might easily compare to Stephan King's original Running Man or Battle Royale, but while not original it's still highly enjoyable in a delightfully disturbing way. Some contrived moments drag the experience down, and the ending might upset some, but on the whole this is worth a watch while it's available.


Sunday, 24 December 2017

Y'ha-nthlei or bust...; Me and Lovecraft

If you want to see an earlier post about my feelings towards the work of Tolkien, please look here.

My relationship with H.P. Lovecraft is complicated to say the least. My encounters with his work were non-existent until I accidentally heard an abridged reading of At The Mountains of Madness on what was once Radio 7. I later heard another reading, this time of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Then for my 20th birthday my father bought me a book dubbed Necronomicon; The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft. This large book contains thirty-six stories from Lovecraft's body of work, including his entire Cthulhu-related bibliography, several stories from his Dream Cycle including the posthumous novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and a few other notable stories and poems.

Once I got into Lovecraft, I began seeing his influence in other works I enjoyed at the time, such as Hellboy and The Fifth Element, and later The Scarifyers and Blood-C. I also quickly realised that his writing wasn't the kind the modern world is used to reading in popular fiction. Very long words, exhaustively descriptive and plodding prose, and the use of several archaic phrases and expressions make it a bit of a drudge for modern readers. I also saw some elements that others might look over more readily. These are that none of his key characters were women; and that his enemy characters or the worshippers of his pantheon are described with terms such as "negro", "mongrel", "scum", "mulatto", "hybrid", and other casual racist or elitist epithets. There are some things I'm willing to tolerate, but such blatant and casual degradation isn't one of them. I later learned that his circumstances and the culture he was raised in led him to hold these prejudices, but it's still a bitter pill to swallow.

There was also an extra element; my work focuses on human accomplishment and individual power, in addition to openly critiquing class or race-based divisions in society. Lovecraft's work most famously focuses on humanity's insignificance in the greater scheme of things, and portrays the more successful or enduring races as congregational and caste-based. He often goes into nihilistic territory and frequently relies on insanity (in his time a piteously misunderstood condition which resulted in occasionally terrible abuse in the name of medical care) as a plot development. This allows for some truly disturbing uses of the unreliable narrator, but it also reflects upon Lovecraft's opinion of humanity as a whole and the so-called "oddities" within it in particular.

Thankfully, many authors are in a position to rectify that. Due to a variety of circumstances and events, virtually all of Lovecraft's work is in the public domain. Indeed, he openly allowed contemporary authors to borrow from and incorporate his work into their own, with August Derleth becoming the largest contributor to what came to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos after Lovecraft himself. Derleth, together with Conan creator Robert Howard and successor Richard Tierney, have expanded upon and borrowed from Lovecraft's work. More and more authors have been influenced by the Mythos, with some additions being dead serious and others - such as Neil Gaiman's I, Cthulhu - being more humourous. Now, I think it's my turn. Instead of complaining to myself without end of Lovecraft's defects, I should follow his advice and use his work to create something of my own. Using my style, with my approach to characters and plot, but using an available and beloved fictional universe.

If you want to listen to what I consider a good reading of Lovecraft, listen to this; an unabridged reading of The Call of Cthulhu by actor Garrick Hagon.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Welcome to Reality!

Reality. It can be the bane of the dramatic writer who doesn't know how to work within the laws of the real world to create adventure and mystery. In my latest work, recent finished and now undergoing proofreading and editing, I set myself a real challenge. Writing an adventure story without relying on cheap get-out clauses or improbable events (well, improbable without reason).

The reasons for my strong dislike for those types of scenarios outside very specific situations stems from a natural liking for the realistic. Even in my fantasy worlds, I keep events as realistic as possible. Even in my science fiction, the "science" is based on the real and the possible rather than using Clarke's old tactic of tech being advanced enough for magic (which, while interesting to think about, is something of a cheat when it comes to story writing). But one particular novelist, Clive Cussler, doesn't do any of this. I first encountered Cussler's work through the movie adaptation of his novel Sahara, which I really enjoyed and still enjoy to this day. I decided to buy the original book, and was instantly put off. Any semblance of realism present in the movie was clearly not in the book. My father also reads - or read, at least - Cussler as light entertainment. I tried his other work in Raise the Titanic and Mayday. Suffice to say, these were more than enough to put me of Cussler for life. In reaction to this and my combined enjoyment of and amusement at Dan Brown's novels surrounding the character of Robert Langdon, I decided to write my own story.

First off, I needed a protagonist. She's someone I've tried to get into stories for a long time. Inspired by my love of independent and sassy female heroines (think Lara Croft meets Adele Blanc-Sec with touches of the 1980s Red Sonja and Aeon Flux). I've tried her in fantasy, then in science-fantasy, and neither worked. I think it's because I was using a third-person narrative for a character who deserved a first-person spotlight. She's essentially a version of me, so I was able to write in a convincing way I haven't quite managed with my other works to date. It also enables me to slip in some constructive criticism of genre tropes without it sounding odd or awkward. It's just someone commenting in the narrative on their situation.

Next, I decided to keep my story squarely in reality. I love Lara Croft and Syndey Fox, but you've got to admit the idea of massive temples and tombs with still-working traps after thousands of years does stretch the suspenders of disbelief to breaking point. There's also the modern world problem of where to find undiscovered ruins that aren't either buried under a large amount of jungle (as in completely overgrown and unexplorable) or have been reduced to their foundations. The obvious solution is to make them underground temples and tombs, but then you need to find an area that can accommodate it in the real world. No point putting an underground temple of some scale into rock that's too hard to mine with the tools its builders would have used. Someone will always call you out. So yes, I can hide an ornate tomb in the desert, as long as it's a subterranean structure built into sandstone.

I also wanted to put in some genuine archaeological or historical locations without turning them into surreal "for the reader and for drama" incarnations of their real-world counterparts. I think you can guess what I mean - Egyptian tombs with working traps and vast conveniently lit catacombs, huge undiscovered Khmer ruins with deep catacombs and complex locking systems... Basically what a lot of adventure stories tend to incorporate. My locations eventually included (not strictly in this order) the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia, the Scavi beneath the Vatican, the Gilf Kebir in Egypt, Pere Lachaise Cemetery the Carriere de Paris, the Cambrian Mountains in Wales, and several minor locations that can be visited today. As to why she's going to all these places, that's part of the story, so I'm not telling you anything here.

All of these places and associated locales had to be meticulously researched, realistically portrayed, and where needed embellished in such a way that it only requires a minor stretch of the imagination and not total suspension of disbelief. It also provided a wonderful opportunity to slip in a few in-jokes at the expense of the very authors I'm emulating. Such as.... a complex locking system on a door breaking due to rot when Helena tries to use it, and in the end all the door needs is a few kicks to get through one of its rotting panels. Yeah, that happens. And she's more than vocal about the fact that ancient locking mechanisms always seem to work in the movies...

Basically, it took five months of alternating between writing and research to complete what I fully consider to be a first draft. There's still editing, proofreading, formatting, and other such tasks to complete. I want it to be as readable as possible. But that's the future. Now, I can enjoy my victory. My first full-length novel written without a scrap of magic or science fiction in its pages.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Review - Book - The Picture of Dorian Gray

Note: This review is based on an unabridged 8-CD reading by CoverToCover.

Oscar Wilde is most widely remembered for his comic plays, which act as social satires of his time and contain some of the greatest witty dialogue ever put to paper. But Wilde's body of work also covers essays, short stories and novellas, the latter including classics such as The Canterville Ghost and Lord Arthur Savile's Crime. But one book has had a profound legacy outside his traditional sphere of work; the Gothic philosophical novel this review is dedicated to. It has been adapted multiple times for radio, television and the movies, but aside from a very few, they all seem to miss the point of this story.

The figure of Dorian Gray and his vaguely implied Faustian pact has cast a long shadow over Gothic and horror fiction, elevating the character and concept to a fame the original book has struggled to match. I'm sure most people know of Gray, but fewer know of the book itself. They know the character through the movies, where erotic elements have been added to appease a sex-hungry public in an age where many might consider romance to be dead. But this novel is so much more; it's a biting commentary on the society of the time, but without Wilde's traditional wit. This turns it into a far darker offering than his comparably fluffy plays.

The basic synopsis is well known and well worn. Gray, in the full flush of youth, curses a recently-completed portrait which captures a beauty which will inevitably fade. Through a disastrous romantic escapade with an actress, Gray sees the painting begin to change in a subtly unpleasant way while he remains pristine. This is the basic premise, but what many people will fail to grasp is the principles behind Gray's actions over the course of the novel. In his affair with the actress, there is nothing sexual; he falls in love with her acting ability, which brings life to the Shakespearean roles she performs. Later, when he resolves to use the painting's "gift" to experience life as never before, it is focused on the aesthetic wonders of life and experiences that heighten his sensations of the world (which, yes, includes the popular drugs of the time such as opium). We're never given exact details of his pursuits beyond his passing passions for music and jewels, but it's never stated once that he does anything sexual. It's all about the aesthetic beauties of life and gratifying his senses, in addition to a streak of experimentation that I'm sure most people will understand in some way. He also, at several points in the novel, exemplifies the Victorian upper class stereotype (and often reality) of never wanting to talk or thinking about things that were not "nice".

Alongside Gray are two characters that must not be forgotten. Lord Henry Wotten, an unrepentant and opinionated hedonist who influences the impressionable Gray, is arguably the one responsible for the events of the novel, even though he knows little of Gray's true nature. Basil Hallward, the painter who creates the eponymous picture, is Lord Henry's antithesis, being humble and morally upright. He is also gradually undermined by his complete infatuation with Gray as his ultimate muse (those who wish to see otherwise in Hallward's proclaimed "love" may do so, as I'm sure many at Wilde's indecency trials chose to). These two characters pull Gray in different directions, and provide mediums against which to compare Gray.

From a simple reading perspective, the prose can get a little difficult to swallow as Wilde goes into long philosophical expositions on Gray's inner thoughts, and a large portion of the central book is dedicated to explanatory time-skipping. But parts actually form part of the experience, and key pieces of the narrative are scattered in among them. Without that additional exposition, you wouldn't understand Gray's progress through life half as well. Wilde's style, in contrast, helps convey the emotion of situations expertly and succeeded within a few lines of turning my sympathy for Gray into utter disgust - that's something a very few books have ever managed to do in my experience.

The story as a whole is highly enjoyable, and I recommend that you seek out a complete edition of the book rather than any abridgment or any but the most fanatically faithful adaptation. But for those who have seen Wilde's plays and expect light comedy and titter-worthy lines, be warned. There is little to no comedy in this novel, it's biting satire and mature philosophising people won't typically associate with Wilde. But in doing this, I'd say that Wilde created one of his finest works. and a true piece of literature. Regardless of its influence in horror, its place in the canon of fiction should not be ignored. In an additional note, the complete reading upon which this review is based - with narration by Edward Petherbridge - is top-notch and a worthy edition to any CD or audio collection. If you can find it...


Sunday, 19 November 2017

Story Construction - The Line Between Influence and Cribbing

Note: Sorry if it's rather short compared to other posts, it's rather short notice.

Taking inspiration from those that have come before is common practice for any author, whether it's the scholarly writer of non-fiction, or a writer of the most outlandish fiction imaginable. But where does inspiration end and cribbing begin. To be exact, when I use the word "crib", I'm talking about plagiarism, that career-destroying sin authors commit when they either take heavy inspiration from or lift word-for-word from another work without acknowledging their inspiration/source. This is a problem with me for a very particular reason; with some exceptions, I don't have a good original visual imagination.

Yeah, that was quite a mouthful. I'll try to explain it. In some respects, I've an extremely active and visual imagination, as I'm an avid fan of visual media such as comics, movies, television and video games. In contrast, my spark of invention lies primarily in the written word, meaning the images in my mind are more akin to placeholders for the characters I create than actual visions of what they look like from the book. From characters created by artists to the visages of notable actors and actresses, I copy-and-paste to ensure I've got something there for when I create the scenes in my head. This tends to go hand in hand with how I can find sudden inspiration while going through something completely different from my story that's got a strong visual motif. Example; much of Crystal and Sin has a tone that took inspiration from both the anime series Cowboy Bebop and the American live-action series Firefly.

But that presents a very real danger. Where does inspiration end and cribbing begin? There's always the risk that the unwary author will take too much of something and run the risk of being seen as too derivative. Of course everything's been done at some point, and phrases or names will inevitably slip into our subconscious to be filed away for future usage. But when they begin intruding on your own thoughts and wishes, it becomes a real problem. I've abandoned more story ideas than I can count because they're just too derivative. Other ideas have needed massive modification due to the same reason.

Example: I have a wonderful idea focused around a world where humanity has become sterile, and its population is mainly replaced by artificial humans whose only difference is a slight blankness of look and are ruled by the last six surviving "true humans". The main plot is the mystery why one of the surviving humans is trying to kill the others. Sounds great. Except that I was inspired by the video game Drakengard 3 and the book series by Sean Russell starting with Beneath the Vaulted Hills, which have a very similar premise (a key figure related to something bringing an end to that same something). If the premise is strong enough, which I believe this is, it could be carried through. But if it remains verbatim, then I'll never be fully comfortable with it.

Another one barely worth a mention was a planned series that stank so much of the Earthsea and Inheritance books I dumped it after fifteen chapters, utterly unable to continue writing something that derivative. It led to the creation of something else slightly more original and promising, but its original form is dead and buried. And good riddance.

These are just two instances. There are dozens I can only just remember because the ideas came within a few days and left in just as short a time, or were modified that their initial derivative forms are lost for good. And a good thing too. The last thing I want to feel like is a copycat...!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Using a Genre; Straight, Satire, or Deconstruction - Part 3

In this series of blog posts, the first in some time due to a variety of factors, I've decided to focus on the three major ways people use genres in general; playing them straight, satirising them, and deconstructing them. Each has merits, and none are set in stone. That's what lovely about them!

This time, for this final post, deconstruction is the order of the day. So what is deconstruction, when not applied to Lego or philosophy that is? Well, it's generally applied to stories in various media which take the tropes of a particular genre and examine them with a critical eye and the aim of understanding its interior workings. While satire does something similar, deconstruction tends to be far darker. The word "deconstruction" has been associated most recently with anime, which has become notorious for relying on genre tropes to the point of exasperation, but many of these deconstructions don't actually count as such. They're just dark or violent takes on those same tropes without actually deconstructing them.

It's difficult to pin down what counts as deconstruction, so it may surprise you what I've picked out as fine examples of it. For books, I think one of the best examples for its time is the work of H. P. Lovecraft. Yes, his weird fiction may be a common subgenre now, but in its day it was groundbreaking. While most stories at the time focused on humans overcoming impossible odds, Lovecraft takes completely the opposite approach, using typical story beats of his time, wrapping his distinct and near-nihilistic views on humanity around them, and creating stories that can be seen as a commentary on how these stories are typically told, and how their protagonists are portrayed. Of course every book can have deconstruction in it somewhere, but there are very few which have it as a major part of their narrative.

The same can be said of movies and television, although there it seems to be spread even thinner on the ground due to...reasons. But there are plenty out there. Shrek, in between its bouts of comedy and genuinely moving romance, deconstructs multiple fairy tale tropes people take for granted, accomplished by making its lead character an ogre, a being typically portrayed as a villain or antagonistic minion. A series that I think does this well is Firefly and its movie conclusion Serenity. While it has the usual allowance of sci-fi tropes and concessions, its people are more real than most other sci-fi casts, facing its extraordinary circumstances with down-to-earth responses. A special shout-out must be given to Whedon's writing as he makes characters real even in the most outlandish situations.

In anime, deconstruction has sadly become more of a buzzword than an actual description of the anime's contents. Shows like School Days and Puella Magi Madoka Magica are labelled as deconstruction without actually understanding what a deconstruction is. In my view, they're just ultra-violent or downbeat takes on a genre's tropes without actually deconstructing them. There can be deconstructive elements there, but it's not like the whole show deconstructs the genre. One show I think is often overlooked in the deconstruction line is Neon Genesis Evangelion. It stands as both a prime example of the mecha genre, and a brutal examination of what real teenagers with real problems would do and how they would react when stuck inside a giant mech and forced to fight merciless monsters dubbed Angels.

Video games have a far richer field of view for deconstruction due to their interactive nature. But again it's an industry averse to taking risks, even more so than the movie and television industries as they focus more on high returns than art. The setting I most associated with deconstruction is Yoko Taro's seminal Drakengard/Nier franchise. On the surface a Medieval high fantasy world, its dark twist on multiple RPG-based storytelling tropes from the hero with animal companion and love interest (here a sadistic soldier with a racist dragon and a sister holding secret incestuous love) to the righteous cause of the main character (androids sent to Earth to defeat monstrous machines, only said machines aren't nearly so monstrous and their leaders not nearly so honest as they seem). One part dark fantasy, one part cautionary tales about prejudice and the nature of killing, one part deconstruction of what games are, this franchise is unique in the gaming world. And that's saying something!

Closing Note;
Playing it straight. Satire. Deconstruction. Each has merits. Each has pitfalls. I'm not telling you which to use or which to ignore, only showing what they have to offer. I hope you've enjoyed what I've shown you as examples of these three approaches.

Shameless plug time ;)
If you want a cheap sample of non-violent deconstruction, then why not take a look at When Ai Met Yu: A Modern Japanese Romance, my take on the LGBT-focused yaoi/bara genres.

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link
Kobo Score link

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Review - Television Movie - The Count of Monte Cristo (1975)

Note: I’d intended this week’s post to be the third in my series on approaches to genre, but I couldn’t resist the urge to write this review of what ranks among my favorite Dumas dramatisations.

Few stories are as ingrained into popular culture as Alexander Dumas's seminal saga of revenge The Count of Monte Cristo. Wronged Marseilles sailor Edmund Dantes is falsely condemned to over a decade in the Chateau d'If, escapes with the help of friend and tutor Abbe Faria, and discovers a promised stash of unimaginable wealth on the little island of Monte Cristo. As the Count, and under a wealth of other aliases, Dantes sets about exacting a slow and calculated revenge on the men responsible for his ruin. The original book is a literal brick to read, but has spawned multiple adaptations, pastiches and parodies, and is ranked among both Dumas's (and his ghost writer partner August Maquet) greatest works and among the great works of literature.

There are over twenty separate adaptations in existence across multiple languages, including a stellar four-part BBC radio adaptation with Iain Glen taking the role of the Count. There are three notable movie adaptations, but the one I'm focusing on for this review is the Emmy award-nominated 1975 television movie with Richard Chamberlain in the lead role. This adaptation has the unenviable task of fitting the basics of a book coming in at nearly 400,000 words (the size of four standard modern books combined) into the modest span of 105 minutes, or one hour and forty-five minutes (116 minutes/nearly two hours in Europe).

The first thing to note is that this isn't a faithful transcript of the novel, but an adaptation of its salient points. This means that nearly every subplot has been cut, leaving the bare bones of the original novel's narrative. In this case, it's a plus, as many people probably need a graff to keep track of what's going on from one chapter to the next. Despite its meagre runtime, the movie does an admirable job of communicating the novel's plot, and succeeds in being more faithful to the original story than either the 1934 black and white adaptation or the more action-oriented 2002 version. There are clear influences from the 1934 version, from motifs to direct lifts for particular scenes, but the original novel's bleak tone is maintained. Dantes isn't a hero, he's a man out for revenge. And in this story, revenge is served very cold indeed. The cut subplots help keep the movie's pace at a breathless speed, and while there are multiple artistic liberties with the sequence of events, they don't stop it being an enjoyable romp through one of the great revenge plots of our time.

The casting has some mixed results. The lavish direction of the production shows in the actors brought on board, but it's difficult to be entirely convinced by Tony Curtis as Count Fernand Mondego, and some of the other performances come off as over-the-top. The other leads and major supporting roles are surprisingly good despite some occasionally laughable French accents; a shoutout must be given to Louis Jourdan in the role of Gerard de Villfort, who both brings a smile to the face and makes us relish the character's downfall. Chamberlain does a good job with Dantes, both in his innocence and his life as the Count, showing a gentlemanly grace combined with his cold-hearted determination to be avenged upon his foes. Those who only know Chamberlain for his roles of Aramis in The Three/Four Muskateers and 20 Years Later and his dual role of Louis XIV/Phillipe in the 1970s version of The Man in the Iron Mask will be surprised at how dark and tragic his performance is.

The production values are unquestionable. The location shoots and costume design give a sense of authenticity regardless of any anachronisms the expert might pick up. Set design invokes the renewed decadence of France during the 19th century following Napoleon's defeat, and many of the costumes reflect the gaudy designs present among the French elite at that time. The music, composed by Allyn Ferguson, is suitable sweeping and dramatic, even though it's totally at odds with the music they were actually playing at the time. But then, we didn't complain about Dmitri Tiompkin's work on The Fall of the Roman Empire. It just works, regardless of what the era's music was actually like.

To summarise, this movie is a good adaptation of Dumas's novel, but it's not the most accurate. In fact, only the BBC radio dramatisation's come anywhere close to being an accurate adaptation, and even then it cut bits out and made alterations to some events. This movie is a good introduction to this story that's become part of the Western zeitgeist, with some fine performances, its fair share of camp, and a lavish presentation and production. A good movie for those into classic period drama or the work of Dumas, but maybe less appealing for those who prefer a purer approach to adaptation.


Sunday, 22 October 2017

Using a Genre; Straight, Satire, or Deconstruction - Part 2

In this series of blog posts, the first in some time due to a variety of factors, I've decided to focus on the three major ways people use genres in general; playing them straight, satirising them, and deconstructing them. Each has merits, and none are set in stone. That's what lovely about them!

This time we're looking at satire. What is satire? According to the definition provided by Wikipedia, satire is: "a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society". Well, that about sums it up. And by its very nature, satire can be hard to pin down as a single genre.

As with most aspects of fiction, satire is something which can be done right or wrong depending on whose reading it. Some people will of course be terribly offended, while others with clap with joy. The mixed reception is perhaps best exemplified by many works of French author and essayist Voltaire. An open critic of the then-prevalent Ancien Regime, his novella Candide provoked both support and criticism, and is considered a classic satire of the social norms of the time. Playing out as a picaresque novel, it lampoons the conventions of the adventure and saga genres while also making valid points about society in France at the time, which was heavily class divided and ruled through an absolute monarchy. I fully intend getting my own copy of Candide at some point.

Classical writers excelled at heavily critical works which can stray into the realms of satire; Horance pioneered it as popular entertainment, and later the Roman writer Juvenal (who became the inspiration for the word "juvenile" for obvious reasons) gave us. Other notable later writers include Alexander Pope with his parody of Homer The Dunciad (an attack on the society of Queen Charlotte, wife to George II thought by her critics as the monarchy's guiding hand), Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels (in its original pre-Disney form a scathing satire of the English political system in Georgian England), and several works by Mark Twain.

In modern times, satire has taken different forms and tackled issues of the time, a theme that runs through the entire body of satire as a genre convention. A notable example is Catch 22, a novel by Joseph Heller which refers to -- quoting Gilbert and Sullivan for a moment -- "a most ingenious paradox", or a double bind if you like. An airman wishes to get out of a dangerous mission by being declared mentally unfit, but their wish to be taken off that missions shows they have a rational wish for self-preservation and so can't be classified as mentally unfit.

Leaving the realm of the written text into things like opera, we find several satires there as well. Gilbert and Sullivan for one. Well, technically it was Gilbert who did all the satires. Sullivan didn't like it, which partially led to the pair splitting up. Gilbert's plots mocked many conventions of British life during the Victorian era through unlikely and unreasonable situations. Each opera sent up something different; The Mikado focused on the English political system, H.M.S. Pinafore lampooned the rigid class system, and The Pirates of Penzance made merry with the idea of apprenticeship and a sense of duty and loyalty to one's profession -- however much it may be abhorred.

Television satire comes in many forms, but the form I'll focus on here is Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. This television series ran during the late 1980s, and acted as a ruthless satire of the governments first of Margaret Thatcher and then of John Major. Main protagonist James Hacker M.P., later elected Prime Minister in a situation similar to the recent ascension of Theresa May following Cameron's resignation, is in a battle of wits and policies with the Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, watched and more than once engaged in on both sides by Hacker's Principle Private Secretary Bernard Woolley. The series' comedy stems from Hacker trying to make changes to the established governmental and ministerial systems, and Sir Humphrey's determined efforts to keep things static. It's wonderfully funny, but is like that because it's lampooning how the British political system actually works. Later, it goes into the role -- or perhaps lack thereof -- of the Prime Minister.

Movies also have their fair share of satire hidden among the blockbusters and art pieces. These can range from Terry Gilliam's darker absurdist movies such as Brazil; the adaptation of Starship Troopers, which combines its summer flick action scenes with scathing satire and criticism of both the American military and the use of war propaganda; or comedic affairs such as Murder by Death, which takes apart and parodies the accepted tropes of detective stories from both the British Golden Age and the American Crime Noir movement.

Satire in video games can transcend what other media can accomplish due to the interactivity inherent to gaming. Due to the relative youth of the medium, it's also much rarer than in literature, movies and television, and also end up making more potential missteps. A notable example of video game satire is The Stanley Parable. In this game, you -- the main character -- are guided through a short story scenario by the narrator. Even the slightest deviance from the path causes the narrator to comment on the situation and do everything from gently persuade to passively abuse you. It points out the convention of a guided path through games that many take for granted. Other games that call out such conventions include Drakengard 3 (through the snarky comments and the actions of main heroine Zero and her disciples) and Danganronpa V3 (the reasons of which I won't spoil here).

Well, that's all I wanted to talk about here. Now I've covered both playing a genre straight and satirising it, I'll move on to one of my favourite approaches when done right - deconstruction. Until next week, enjoy!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Using a Genre; Straight, Satire, or Deconstruction - Part 1

In this series of blog posts, the first in some time due to a variety of factors, I've decided to focus on the three major ways people use genres in general; playing them straight, satirising them, and deconstructing them. Each has merits, and none are set in stone. That's what lovely about them!

Playing it straight is something every author that has ever existed has done at some point. Whether it's through practice writing, or their published work on any scale, they will take a particular genre and use the straight approach for its portrayal. To be clear, this doesn't mean that someone has to play this completely seriously, or just focus on a narrative. There's a difference between satirising or deconstructing a genre and using it to communicate a particular theme or point. You can do one without doing the other, as many authors have proved. All genres are subject to this, but some show the distinction more than others.

The Lord of the Rings is one of the most notable pieces of fantasy fiction that is played straight. As old readers will know, my feelings on Tolkien are somewhat mixed. But even I'm going to admit that his work is more than impressive. It has scope, intrigue, drama, and a story that has inspired generations of writers following him for good or ill. He includes elements of comedy in the first book, but otherwise the story is serious, portraying the terrible events and troubles facing all sides defying Sauron's bid for global power, much simplified but still more than evident in the movie adaptation.

Many works of science fiction also play things straight, with those who adhere to scientific principals in most of their works being clearer examples than most. Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Azimov both create set worlds which often feature rigidly realistic rules (for their time) when it comes to space travel, scientific advancement, and artificial intelligence. The Robot novels by Asimov not only focus on complicated - or at least unconventional - murder mysteries, but also look hard at the social and technological differences between Earth and colonies on other worlds, and in later books how colonial planets such as Solaria and Aurora differ from each other.

Romances on all levels can involve any amount of raucous comedy or social commentary. Jane Austin's books are full of both witty dialogue and sharp criticism of the culture of her time, the class-driven society of Georgian England when what can be recognised as the prototype middle classes were emerging. Romantic elements are also added to a large number of stories, whether it's straight or LGBT, without it going into the realms of satire or deconstruction. Agatha Christie - while principally a writer of mystery - is somewhat notorious regard to romance, sprinkling in romantic interest and occasionally making improbably, questionable or even wince-worthy matches between surviving characters.

As with any form of fiction, movies, television and video games also share the differing takes on genres, and consequently have stories that play genre conventions straight. The majority of film noir such as The Maltese Falcon, Double Jeopardy and The Big Sleep are played straight and portray a depressing reality our detective (or in some cases murderer) protagonists negotiate during their journey. Video games can end up being criticised for taking themselves to seriously with their subject matter (many Call of Duty games and their competitors/clones are tripped up by this), while in other cases such as Fire Emblem and indeed most RPGs this seriousness is taken as a genre standard.

As with most subjects people write about, there are just too many to list within a single piece or even a series of pieces on the subject. So I think we'll leave it here for now. Next week, we'll be looking at approaching a genre from the angle of satire.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Using a Genre; Straight, Satire, or Deconstruction - Introduction

Hi there, I'm back with a very long post that needs several parts to say what I want to say. This time, as I've started work on a satire of the fantasy genre, I think I'd like to examine the three major ways people use genres in general; playing them straight, satirising them, and deconstructing them. Each has merits, and none are set in stone. That's what lovely about them!

The first part, playing it straight, is just that. Treating the genre's typical tropes, expectations and quirks as part of the standard ebb and flow of writing. In doing this, you can still do humor or going into the darker parts of the narrative, but you do so while still keeping within the bounds of a straight-laced tale in whatever genre you've chosen. You may slip into parody or satire, but in an approach like this you may end up doing so unconsciously.

Satire is one of the oldest arts in storytelling. The word itself comes from Latin, but satire goes back to Classical Greece and Ancient Egypt. For those a little fuzzy on what it is, satire is a means by which something the creator feels needs ridicule is... well, ridiculed. Be it social norms of the time, the political situation, or the particular foibles of a literary genre, satire holds them up and points them out for how ridiculous they are or can be. Satire can be dark and biting, but it also features parody, wit, and numerous other elements. Parody itself could be taken as its own standalone thing, but for the purposes of this blog post series, I'll be incorporating it as part of the body of satire.

Deconstruction is the most difficult to define, as it's the most easily abused. The term has been most recently associated with anime, and as this video ably demonstrates, it's often stuck on as a bling word rather than being a genuine description of something. To put it at its simplest, deconstruction is about taking a genre and examining its most common tropes and cliches from a real-world perspective, with the very act of deconstruction serving as a commentary on the genre. Deconstruction, when applied correctly, is most often used for more fantastic genres such as science fiction and fantasy, but can apply to action-adventure, romance, and other elements.

Now, as with anything, there is no simple line dividing these three, and there will be elements of satire or deconstruction in an otherwise serious or straightforward work, or there might be comedic elements without going into satire, or it might take the darkest or oddest approach to a story without actually deconstructing its tropes and cliches. In any case, I look forward to going through these different approaches with you over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Thoughts from Erica Verrillo - How I Got Published: The Ecstasy

Erica Verrillo is an author of children's books, and is also a personal heroine for what she's doing for writers like me. Through the blog "Publishing... And Other Forms of Insanity", Erica has been slowly but surely building up an incredible resource for people like me - writers just starting out who don't know the ropes and can easily make fatal mistakes. This piece is from a post that describes her emotional roller-coaster after being accepted for publication.

I called my daughter and told her about RH.

Hey,” she said. “I've heard of them.”

Why are you making that sound?” I replied.

Well (harharhar), I never thought (harharhar) you'd actually get published (harharharharhar)...”

My daughter is the only person on earth who can evoke completely incompatible emotions in me.

And thus begins the first emotional stage of Publication: Ecstasy. The other five stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I'll get to those later when I talk about contracts.

Before I could say New York Times Bestseller, I found myself scurrying to comply with my agent's agenda. I was instructed to go to The City to lunch with The Editor and to tour RH. I was also instructed to cut my hair and make myself presentable. (This last task proved beyond me.) I got into a car, then on a train, and then not into a taxi (why aren't there ANY available taxis in The City?), and then ran, in the rain, fifteen blocks to RH. By the time I arrived, I was wet, flushed, and my stockings had fallen down to my ankles.

You look just like a children's book author should look,” said the agent's assistant. Her lack of irony was unsettling.

Read the full post on Erica's blog "Publishing... And Other Forms of Insanity", a go-to resource that has helped me found countless agents and publishers, endless reams of advice, and encouragement when my self-esteem reached a low ebb. Or alternately gave me a renewal of my nigglewights.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

When Art Clashes with Life

I appear to be writing a lot of posts about me at the moment as opposed to erudite comments upon the nature of fiction. I suppose it's helping me cope to a degree. Don't worry, I'm sure I'll get back to that eventually. Anyway, this week, I'd like to talk about how the impact of my current circumstances is affecting my writing.

While I won't go into details, things are a little tense in the home at the moment. Not to others in the same way as me, but still notably so. Why does this matter so much? I've got the usual problem faced by many writers; massive and occasionally uncontrollable self-esteem issues compounded by infrequent mood swings and reinforced by sensitivities to types of food and additives that turn me into a panicking wreck. I know, it's crazy. I might have been considered crazy in a less enlightened age. Mind you, I use the term "enlightened" loosely in this instance.

This means I've been doubling down on things like submissions, which also means I've needed to take a long and hard look at how I write, what I write, who I should submit to, and how I should submit. It did mean throwing out a couple of long-held and potentially damaging preconceptions that I won't go into. It also forced me to make double and triple-layered schemes related to my writing. I've also got plans outside writing, but that's a separate issue and always will be.

Basically, over the past few months, my writing has been affected both positively and negatively by the situation in my household. On the positive side, I've gained valuable experience for my own work and for my future life. On the negative, I've sometimes been letting the stress get to me, making me go into a brief spiral of self-doubt. And if anyone reading has experienced self-doubt, then you'll know it's a horrible thing to have.

Yeah, so this blog post isn't as long as my previous stuff. But that's okay. Blog posts don't need to be very long to say something important. I think I'll stop here, and let the reader imagine what they will about what I'd have said next. Until next time...

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Future Reading

For any writer, reading is just as important as writing. More so, in fact. How can you expand your horizons if you don't read the work of others. This isn't just limited to the likes of new and classic authors of fiction, but also extends to works of non-fiction, and other works in fields of literature such as philosophy and poetry. I've been looking about, and I've both got some stuff and am looking through my options for future purchases.

Poetry is something I can't write with natural ease, but that doesn't mean I love it. Not only the very popular and oft-quoted works of Shakespeare, but other poets whose work is perhaps less appreciated. Not only the great man's sonnets, but other poets. Like Keats, whose work inspired me to create a character whose main quirk is using apt Keats quotations for specific moments. I've got his complete poetic works on my shelves, and it's a wonderful thing to have. Or Alexander Pope, a man of many talents from bawdy ballads about the infamous Mary Toft and his satire The Dunciad to more soulful works and his landmark translations of Homer. Also taking a proud position on my shelves is Dante's Divine Comedy, a sublime example of social criticism wrapped up in a metaphorical journey of recovery from grief.

One of the pieces of work I'm seriously planning to read is the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. A German philosopher whose work was groundbreaking for its time and the nature of Germany's culture, he sadly suffered a mental breakdown which left him in a state of catatonic psychosis for the remainder of his life. When I first heard of Nietzsche, it was unfortunately in relation to what work he had done which had been appropriated by the Nazis and his pro-Nazi sister following his death. For this reason, I've had to be selective when looking at what work to buy. For this reason, I'm ignoring Der Wille zer Macht as it's just a collection of in-progress or rejected notes that his sister edited to support her own views. Instead, I'm focusing on the three works he completed during his lucid lifetime, and are said to best represent his work; Also Sprach Zarathusra, Jenseits vor Gut und Bose, and Zur Genealogie der Moral. I've seen Neitzsche's concepts used in fiction before, but I'm reluctant to use it myself without better understanding it in his own words - translated into English, of course.

Fiction is also important, and thanks to my sister I've got a large pile to get through. Among my first choices were the works of Dan Brown. While he's an acquired taste, I enjoyed reading through Angels and Demons and discovering how much more rounded and somber the book was in comparison to the movie adaptation. Also an enjoyable addition is Deception Point, which is more than thrilling. There are also the likes of Alistair MacLean present on my shelves, just waiting for me to pick them up and go through their involved and exciting plots.

There's tons more I could mention, but that would make this blog post feel more like a list. That's not what I want to do. The main thing about this post is that reading is just as if not more important to a writer than writing. Write in a vacuum and you put yourselves at a disadvantage. Whether classic poetry, modern fiction, or world history, one thing holds true; Read, Read, Read!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Submission nerves

You get nerves? So do I. Most days, actually. We live in a world filled with distractions and uncertainties, which can often reflect upon you as a person. So what happens when that combines with both an active imagination and a tendency to be attacked by what I usually describe as 'niggles' or even 'nigglewights*'?

It can happen at any time, but it's most prevalent when sending off a submission. You're sure you've done everything possible to polish it up, you may have a time limit for that submission, you may already have done one, when you click that "send" button it'll all be over - the submission will be out there and nothing will change that. Your mistake in that submission might prevent you from getting the agent or publisher you so desperately want, that you so painstakingly researched.

Yeah. I've had that. More times than I'm comfortable recalling. Just admitting it like this takes a bit of effort to be honest. It feels like baring my soul. But it's also one of the best ways to deal with it. If someone tells you that you - as a man - must control your emotions, there's only one thing to say. Bollocks! Men have just as much right to fret and be nervous and agitated as women. And consequently we should open up to others and allow them to help, not just bottle them up in some foolish show of idiotic masculine pride.

So what's it like to get submission nerves and niggles? It's terrible. It's like that day when you went on your first trip to the dentist knowing that something was wrong. Or that time you went to the doctor not knowing what they would say about that pain in your ear. It could just be wax, but it could... Basically, it's that feeling of butterflies with razor-edged wings fluttering through your stomach. Or a fairy from Drakengard hissing in your ear. Not pleasant.

It's worse if you also suffer from occasional bouts of depression that rear up for no apparent reason other than to get you down. But I've also got the routine down for dealing with it; take that meaningless depression, wring it into unconsciousness, and push it out the window or into the back of your mind in a lead-lined chest where it belongs. It's just your nerves, and your nerves can be mastered. In fact, doing this makes for some great experience for writing about such attacks of nerves in your own work.

Mind you, this also applies to writing in general. if you want some advice on that, go check out Erica Verillo's post on the subject. Here's a quote for you from that article.

If you have doubts, does this mean your beloved novel is a piece of crap, and that you should quit right now before you follow in Franzen's self-loathing footsteps?

No, keep writing. And keep revising. And make sure that you've given your finished manuscript to the most critical readers on earth, and that they have drawn blood.
I find that advice more than true. Please, everyone, keep writing if it's what you want to do.

*Nigglewight: A fictional term combining the words 'Niggle' (a word referring to something causing persistent annoyance, discomfort or anxiety) and 'Wight' (an English word originally used to refer to living humans, later to refer to living sentient beings or living creatures, and later to more supernatural and often malevolent sentient beings such as undead or spirits).

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Researching a story, and how Wikipedia helped me

Writing fantasy and science fiction may seem like the easy get-out clause for creating detailed settings and such - I mean you could just make things up on the fly. How wrong you are. In even the most fantastic worlds, you must do some degree of research, otherwise your work just comes off as the meanest kind of fantasy. Once I didn't research, but now I do. Obsessively in some cases. And I have Wikipedia to thank.

Back when I was in my mid teens, I didn't think that much about what was real or possible, only what I wanted to create. The laws of nature and physics meant nothing to me. But then I got interested in Wikipedia, in creating and maintaining articles on subjects that interested me. And that was when I learnt about references, finding sources and backing up the statements within articles. Over five years of writing for Wikipedia alongside my normal writing work, I've created six Featured Articles, over seventy Good Articles, and contributed to a number of other collaborative projects within that space. And all of that work taught me about research. It got me interested in creating a solid foundation for my work that people could properly relate to. That was when my writing truly began to grow.

My approach now is to create realism in my fiction whether it's fantastical or not, something I know several other writers have done successfully. If it's based in history, I research the period it's set in, or the culture I'm emulating. If it's adventure, I don't bend the laws of physics to suit circumstances or contradict my earlier statements on something for dramatic effect. If it's fantasy, I make sure the surrounding culture doesn't look like something from the dark dreams of a Lovecraft or a Cussler, but instead is a grounded society with structures and beliefs we can all relate to. If its science fiction, I make sure the technology is believable even in its most hyper-advanced forms, and if there are aliens I try not to fall into the trap of making them too humanoid so people in rubber suits can play them.

Sometimes online research is enough, with scouring of the internet to find information on different cultures and new technologies. Other times I've needed more traditional books. I recently purchased a book on Edward III to properly write about some of the background stuff in my latest in-progress work, a story that weaves a conspiracy-laden adventure with real history - the main different from Dan Brown's work is that my societies are purely fictional but built upon the firmest foundations of history and human nature. Yes, the Illuminati existed in this world, but they did actually get destroyed in the 1780s, and they were never about controlling the world - they were a group pushing for wider education and enlightenment in a conservative and Church-controlled Bavaria.

In fantasy, there can be a tendency to go to extremes because a setting allows it. While I'm guilty of that to a degree, I also use history and humanity as a reference. There is never just one side to a story; even the worst tyrant has a reason for their way of thinking, a catalyst that set them upon this path. There are no heroes, no villains, only people whose views of the world are at odds. Similarly for my science fiction, it's based around realism in technology, possible or even mildly probable courses that humanity could take, ways in which the world stage could change. Humans are weak-willed and can bicker, but they are also strong and can help each other. This dual nature isn't something to be smoothed over or exasperated, it's something to accept and use.

None of this might have happened by this stage without Wikipedia and its focus on sources. I've had to be strict with myself and some of my wilder ideas. But then I do the research, and see how I can do something even grander or more shocking to the reader while still staying firmly within laws and concepts of the real world. No need to bend the rules for drama's sake. The rules help magnify the drama playing out before you.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Down Time - Elation and Frustration

As I learned comparatively recently, August is a period when sending submissions to agents and publishers is akin to firing an arrow at a corpse and expecting it to jerk in pain. That's because August is the time everyone chooses to go on holiday. It was also the time when I was exhausted enough to take a week off from my work, something I haven't done that often. Taking a break is something that is both relieving and terrifying for me.

As an act of relief, it is almost certain that I will be thankful for it. I normally write Sunday to Friday, averaging around three to five pages per day, which equates to a thousand to two thousand words per day by my estimates (though the way my word counter works I need to do several double takes to adjust for counting non-word characters). It is a somewhat grueling schedule, and while I could increase it greatly, my writing quality and own well-being would suffer as a result. Some time off also gives me time to read books, experience other stories that I might otherwise ignore or put to one side, and just let my mind take a rest from the entire story writing process.

As to the first two points, I should explain. When I'm working, I can end up isolating myself from a lot of exterior influences so I can focus on my work. While that can be counterproductive if I cut myself off entirely (which I certainly don't do), putting too much external stuff in my head during working hours can be detrimental to the flow and originality of my work. Example; one of my earliest completed longform works is highly derivative because I used a lot of external stuff as inspiration without due care and attention. If it's an audio or video thing, then it can cause me to stop and focus on that rather than work. Unless it's music, in which case I can work with that and it often helps me construct my mental landscapes and characters. As to the last, I work on my stories constantly in my head - including several stories at once - so taking a rest allows my brain to kick into a low gear and relax, which can give rise to some interesting new ideas when I return to work.

Now to why a rest can be a terrifying prospect. Mainly it leaves me open to the dangers of boredom. I suffer periodically from boredom. I can normally fend this off by walking absolutely miles or going for a cycle ride or doing stuff around the house, but when I just want to relax, I can be difficult to find things. I'm not an avid gamer as I find many games have an unpalatable time sink effect on me, while other pursuits can seem somewhat dull or repetitive. When you can look at the spin of a DVD and remember the entire plot even if you haven't watched it recently, it can get a little difficult finding new things. At the same time, you don't want to be tied to your computer again as you've been essentially tied there for however long it was since your last rest.

But there is also the danger that I might begin losing my edge. I was afraid for the longest time that if I once stopped writing I would lose the spark and skill I had been nurturing since my late teens. Silly, I know. A true writer never forgets, they only need to find the write story or subject, and the words will fly from the typewriter at mach speed. I also need to be aware of the strain to my fingers. Being susceptible to RSI (repetitive strain injury) means that fingers flying across the keyboard can result in the finger joints aching or even hurting if I really push myself. Because of that, I need to watch myself. I've even given myself sore fingertips from a really long session of keyboard crunching to finish a chapter when I set myself a deadline.

Breaks are wonderful and terrible. They give your mind the chance to relax after too long contemplating fictional scenarios, while they also leave you vulnerable to the various negative influences of the world around you and make you realise just how much writing is a part of your life. Either way, breaks are a necessary part of a writer's life. Without breaks, you will burn out, or turn to means of staying active that are more than repulsive to anyone wanting to live a full and healthy life.

To those who are on break, and those who are writing, I have this to say; keep writing, and keep taking the breaks you need. And above all, enjoy what you do.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Reapers are a Writer's Best Friend; Part 5 - My Take

Let's face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It's the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people's lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story.

In previous posts, I introduced my plan, then went on to look at deaths in books, movies, television and video games. This week, I'll be putting forward my own views on character death and how it can be used and abused, with reflection on my influences. Some of the work I'll be mentioning is currently published, while others are not. Please bear with me.

Crystal and Sin, my science fiction story focusing on the clashes of five individuals with wildly varying personalities, features several instances of death. These include side characters and secondary protagonist and antagonists, many of whom drive the plot forward through the events which in turn lead to their deaths. Assassin Jirou faces her father - who trained her as a child soldier in the Mars Wars - and abandons her capture mission to kill him. She succeeds, defying his psychological abuse, but finding out things about him and make her deed harder to bear. Main character Aiden Jonas is slightly different; portrayed as a sociopath, a flashback reveals that he watched the woman he loved cut to ribbons, and his then-unstable mind focused on killing those responsible, resulting in a notorious killing spree and his reputation as a psychopath. One element of death that is not overly emphasised is the origins of main heroine Crystal; as she was essentially a cloned version of the daughter her 'father' never had before his wife's natural death, it was only through the creation and disposal of multiple early failures that he created Crystal. This process also saw the creation of main antagonist the Empress of Sin, who is technically Crystal's older twin and seeks revenge against Crystal's creator for his actions.

In The Leviathan Chronicle, my recently completed fantasy story, the tone is considerably darker and death appears in more unsettling forms. The massacre of Astarte's family, which sets her on her path of vengeance, is one of the milder things there. Elathan's guilt over the death of his lover Paimon forms the core of his personal development. The burden of death upon her is the central drama of Uriel's crisis of faith concerning her role as "Sinbearer". The theme of death and how people respond to it also forms a core part of the overall story. There is also the irony that the gift of Concord, a magical contract made by the god-like Powers with many of the main characters, is triggered when people are on the edge of death. It also shows how futile and pathetic death can be in the middle of a war where everyone thinks they're in the right.

In my current adventure project - working title Helena - my titular heroine is brought into the fold of events by two things; the murder of her close friend Nariv, and how this connects to the death of her father when she was young. Her father remains a powerful influence on her life, reflecting her choice to uncover the past and face off against the mysterious organisation that attempts to stop her. She also follows a trail of clues left by her father to ancient sites across the world, unpicking the riddle he left for her piece by piece. In this case, the death of Helena's father is not only a catalyst for what she does in the story, but also how she was formed as a character, and gives her a deeper reason to continue pursuing the mystery in the hope of finding answers.

It's still pretty early in my writing career, so the number of variations on death I've experimented with is limited. But those I have used are types I found appealing; death as a meaningful demonstration of what the story is about, how the characters can change in the face of trauma, and what death can mean for others.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Reapers are a Writer's Best Friend; Part 4 - Video Games

Let's face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It's the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people's lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I'll be looking at how death plays a role in the interactive world of video games.

Oh, and since we're delving into character deaths, I'll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. Also, I'll be counting permanent deaths only.

Now I know this may be going way off topic for what I do, but bear with me. Video games as an effective storytelling medium are still little more than babes, but already they draw on lessons from books, movies and television when creating their narratives. And as with any dramatic narratives, there are deaths. Including yours. Yes, you - the player character - are probably going to die at some point in the vast majority of games that have ever or will ever be made. And in a large proportion of them, you're probably going to be killing as well. Some games and franchises, such as the Drakengard/Nier series or some very select shooters such as Spec Ops: The Line, use the mechanic of the player killing enemies to deconstruct the very nature of many video games; someone finds rewards in killing in the real world is considered insane, so why shouldn't game protagonists with that same mentality and motivation likewise be insane. While still in the minority, it's worth tracking down those few video games which criticise the player for the very act of playing such a violent experience for fun.

Choice is something that is typically associated with role-playing, with the role-playing books that offer different scenario paths being the origin of the famous branching narratives adopted by many prominent video game developers including CD Project Red, Ion Storm and later Eidos Montreal, and perhaps most notably Atlus. Choice plays into what deaths can take place. In the vast majority of Atlus' titles, an element of morally ambiguous dialogue and gameplay choices means that you will lose people, with their Megami Tensei series being the best example. There are very few games throughout the Megami Tensei franchise that do not involve a character dying because of differences in loyalty or goal directly generated by the player's choices. CD Project Red's seminal adaptation of The Witcher book series takes this to new heights, with none of the choices made by you as Geralt of Rivia being unilaterally good or evil, but a fusion of the two that is unsettlingly similar to real life. Ion Storm and Eidos Montreal's Dues Ex games put choice and consequence at their core, even extending to whether you sneak and talk your way through or blast everything before you into oblivion with your cybernetic or nanotechnological Augmentations.

The death of a companion can also have an impact on gameplay. Permanent death (commonly abbreviated to permadeath) is a feature many people can find infuriating, but with a story justification it can be quite something. The first two Fallout games and the entire Fire Emblem series use permanent death as both a gameplay mechanic and a story element. BioWare's story-driven role-playing games use this mechanic too, with their long-running stories carrying the consequences of character death into subsequent entries. The most notorious permanent death in video game history is undoubtedly Aerith Gainsborough from Final Fantasy VII, a death which multiple critics hailed as one of the most shocking in the genre's history, and a key turning point for the story with lasting impact on later narrative expansions. One of the most emotional deaths I've ever encountered was in Dawn of Mana; after striving the entire game to save his beloved Ritzia, protagonist Keldric is forced to kill her to end the cycle of destruction plaguing their land, leaving both himself and us as the player heartbroken.

One of the things several people will often be shocked by is the main protagonist's own death. While it is quite common in fiction, it still strikes hard for video game players; you yourself have been embodying this character, and now that character is dead. Of course, death can be subjective due to either story or gameplay, but there are some games where the death is certain. Noctis Lucis Caelum in Final Fantasy XV is particularly hard to watch due to the fact that he was chosen for a role ending in death since his childhood; some paths taken in Heavy Rain result in the player characters dying; death forms a central part of both Odin Sphere and Muramasa, with player characters often dying in one of their many endings; and in a unique twist, Drakengard 3 heroine Zero dies in every single timeline, with varying degrees of impact.

Some people might say that death in video games is frequently cheapened due to respawn mechanics and such, but it can be just as relevant as in other storytelling media. In other media you are carried along as an observer, but in video games you are an active participant by design, with more narrative-driven titles often having the option of allowing you to cause the deaths of those close to you. Quite often modern games don't give you the option to save everyone, reflecting the real world. In a medium where the consequences for dying are often just being dropped at the last checkpoint, the gravity of death as a narrative device has come to the fore. Whether it follows the same rules as other storytelling media or strikes out, death is important to the interactive storytelling of video games. Just remember to save so you can see those other outcomes.

Next week, I'll be talking about how I approach the task of working death into my fiction. It has to be solid, dramatic, impactful, not at all contrived, foreshadowed without being blatantly obvious. I enjoy handling deaths, and as my skill in writing has improved, so has my portrayal and handling of death.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Reapers are a Writer's Best Friend; Part 3 - Television

Let's face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It's the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people's lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I'll be looking at how death is portrayed in a variety of television series.

Oh, and since we're delving into character deaths, I'll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Mystery stories are too numerous to name in a single article without it turning into a list, and they all have something in common; a death provides the catalyst for the story's action and central mystery. While the most noteworthy are adaptations of the most famous works of mystery writers - whether faithful to the text or replete with creative alterations - there are several original productions of note. Silent Witness focuses on the forensic side of the crime, the surreal Collision shows more of the investigatory side a massive car crash, Colombo flips things on their head by showing the entire murder before showing how the titular detective solves the crime, Person of Interest puts a science fiction twist on investigation, and NCIS mixes the crime-solving with a strong focus on personality to prevent the show from going stale. In such long-running series, it is more shocking to see characters die - more often it is the character "retiring" or "moving on" that is used to explain the actor or actress moving on to new roles. Notable deaths in long-running series include Warrick Brown from the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Kaitlyn Todd and Ziva David from NCIS, and John Reese from Person of Interest.

In Doctor Who, the very long-running television series, death is actually cheated multiple times. Due to the format of the show and the creative decisions made over the years, they solved the necessity of the lead actor moving on - have each character's "death" be a transitional phase through a pseudo-magical-scientific mechanism unique to his race. Despite the main character cheating death, many supporting characters have met their ends over the course of the story, sometimes in quite unpleasant ways - the many character deaths in series as varied as The Seeds of Death back to Tomb of the Cybermen and forward to Warrior's Gate, the tragic massacres of The Curse of Fenric and Logopolis, the basic premise of The Talons of Weng Chiang, and the unexpectedly mature narratives of Inferno and The Deadly Assassin. I could go on. The thing lacking from the series is companion deaths; the first and one of the most shocking is the death of Adric in the 1982 serial Earthshock. Take into account that this was before the near-pessimistic attitude growing into the revives series of 2005 onward, when the series was still aimed squarely at a younger audience.

Death as an artistic and stylistic expression is nearly unheard of in any non-interactive medium, at least in the sense that the death of a key character forms a recurring concept. I mean, death is final. Isn't it? Well, not in the universe of Aeon Flux. The black-haired, leather-clad, acrobat assassin has been lingering in the public imagination since the 1990s, following a successful series of animated shorts on MTV, culminating in ten half-hour episodes which moved into more conventional territory. A recurring feature of the shorts was that the titular heroine would end up dying in some way. Whether shot, garroted by a cable, killed by a lethal fall, or attacked by an inhuman monster, she met an often grisly end at each short episode's climax. This makes the series stand out from the crowd - what other universe kills its titular protagonist in every single entry? Well, barring the half-hour episodes and later movie adaptation. The movie's tie-in video game did something to rectify that, as a recurring element was each story sequence or mission ending with Aeon's death. This use of death falls within the series' bold experimental style, and helps Aeon stand out as not only one of the most enduring, but one of the clumsiest heroines in science fiction.

Now obviously there are too many television series or one-off specials in existence to count, and those listed above are a very general selection from my own limited experience. But there is a recurring theme I've seen as a writer examining stories. The episodic format of many a television series turns death into something with more impact than often possible in movies; unless it's end of series, the rest of the cast need to move on without that character. In movies, you normally have around two hours with the likelihood of another death down the line. In television, you can have as long as sensibly or even idiotically possible. Of course the quality of that death, as with all things, relies on the quality of the show. For example, character deaths in Primeval resonate far less than those in Sons of Anarchy. This is a rule that applies to all forms of storytelling, but people can be especially critical for television series.

Next week, we dive into the realm of video games. Sharing stories with other mediums, video games have the advantage of being an interactive medium. This enables games with stories of incredible complexity, in addition to turning death into a whole mechanic, and even an element of player choice narrative.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Reapers are a Writer's Best Friend; Part 2 - Movies

Let's face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It's the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people's lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I'll be looking at how a death can advance a story in movies.

Oh, and since we're delving into character deaths, I'll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Movies have a distinct disadvantage against books; they have time limits, and are based on visual elements more than description. Live-action movies also have the issue of the basic restrictions of reality on their characters. This means that many deaths in movies can come off as fairly pedestrian. Sometimes this pedestrian quality can itself be dramatic. An example is the final sequence of events of the gangster movie The Departed, a Westernised remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs. The final scene is a stark contrast to the hectic massacre that precedes it. Main protagonist Colin Sullivan has been responsible for killing his former handler Costello, undercover cop Costigan, and another mole in his department. He is hailed, but he is also miserable; he has destroyed both his own life and the lives of many others. Returning to his apartment, he is faced by ex-cop Sean Digman. Without music or fanfare, preceded by only a single hollow expletive, Sullivan is shot through the head and left on the floor. This hollow ending for the movie's main protagonist is sudden and flat, but that actually makes sense within the story's context. Considering all he has been through and all he has done, such a weak ending is perfectly suited to his character.

From protagonists to antagonists, we turn to the despicable personage of Hori, who is arguably the main antagonist of The Hidden Blade. A theme throughout the movie is how the honour and traditions of the samurai are beginning to come under threat during the 1860s, the last years of the Edo period. Main protagonist Munezo Katagiri is forced to watch the life of his friend Yaichiro Hazama twisted and ruined by the corrupt Edo elite, represented by Hori. Hori is shown to be truly repulsive, showing no respect to Katagiri and trying to force him to compromise the samurai code. He then arranges Hazama's dishonourable death, lies to Hazama's wife to receive sexual favours for the promise of Hazama's survival, then all but laughs even after her suicide. Katagiri is the man who whose unbending fealty to his clan meant the killing of his fallen friend, but when faced with Hori's horrific actions, he acts as Hazama's avenging angel. Using a secret style, Katagiri punctures Hori's heart, fatally wounding him. This is a richly-deserved death; for Westerners we seen a plain old horrible man, for Japanese viewers this is a man who soils treasured samurai traditions. His death is also quite apt; destroyed by the very man he forced to influence, with a technique he could never hope to understand, on behalf of the memories of those he condemned to death.

Death is not just a singular event, but can be the thematic foundation of a story. An example of this can be found within Star Trek Generations. Death, the end of things and the meaning of one's life form a recurring theme in the movie. Main villain Soren's obsession with reaching the blissful extra-dimensional Nexus partially stems from the death of his family at the Borg's hands; Picard's brother and nephew are reported dead, leaving Picard as the last of the line; and the movie itself opens with original protagonist James Kirk apparently dying saving the Enterprise-B from the Nexus ribbon. The movie ends with Picard and Kirk ironically using the Nexus itself to foil Soren's plans, but this results in Kirk's true death. Kirk's death alone would be shocking enough to long-term fans of the series, but the movie's real strength is that it uses death and endings as a recurring theme, even if many of the deaths seen during the story are reversed. This lends the movie a far greater weight than if it had been just one death.

In books, words are used to describe nearly everything, even when illustrations help. This can result in death scenes becoming clunky if handled wrong. In the visual arts, particularly in movies, a death can be illustrated in a fraction of the time it might take a book. It can also leave a more vivid impression, as the scene is exactly that; visual. As humans, we respond better to visual inputs, we see and we assimilate through seeing. Seeing death makes it that much more real; thus seeing death in movies, in all its subtle and gory forms, makes it more real to us.

Next week, we dive into the realm of television. While sharing many similarities to the workings of movies and more frequently bound by the rules of the real world, they also have the ability to tell longer stories and a greater freedom of expression.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Reapers are a Writer's Best Friend; Part 1 - Books

Let's face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It's the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people's lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I'll be looking at how a death can advance a story in books.

Oh, and since we're delving into character deaths, I'll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

To take an example of death being a multilayered story catalyst, let's look at the death of Boromir from Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, the first volume of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. While not exactly foreshadowing, Boromir is constantly shown to be the weak link in the Fellowship, as his will is being easily suborned by the Ring's baleful influence. Events come to a head when he tried to force Frodo to hand over the Ring, an act which ultimately breaks his madness. Aragorn offers him a chance to redeem himself by protecting Merry and Pippin. Boromir is ultimately slain by orc arrows, redeeming himself by giving his life in defense of the remaining Hobbits and proving his worth despite the Ring's temptation. Boromir's fall and death serves a three-fold purpose in the narrative; it shows the full corrupting force of the Ring as Boromir is otherwise a noble and true man, it allows the character to find redemption and regain reader sympathy after being an ambiguous to antagonistic force, and symbolises the shattering of the Fellowship that has endured since Gandalf's fall and presumed death in Moria. This is an example of a potent story death, as it drives home plot points and evolves the plot beyond the initial volume, giving readers an extra hook to continue following the story.

Heroic deaths are as common as they can be in general fiction, so it's difficult to pick out any one death that fits this trope while doing a good job of it. The death I'm choosing for this next piece is from Jonathan Stroud's final original Bartemaeus novel Ptolemy's Gate. This novel is the culmination of plot threads scattered through the length of the trilogy, whose hidden main theme is the unequal relationship between magicians, their magical servants, and the people they rule through fear and ignorance. After the spirits of magicians are liberated through forcefully possessing their masters to destroy humanity, the two main protagonists - Bartimaeus and his master Nathaneal - are forced to undergo a similar merge while working cooperatively to destroy the abominations born from the rebellion. It culminates in Nathaneal breaking the powerful staff he has been using to destroy the powerful Nouda, an act that would kill both himself and Bartimaeus. Going against all their interactions up to this point, Nathaneal releases Bartimaeus before his death, sacrificing himself but freeing his servant. Through his death Nathaneal saved both London and humanity in general, but through releasing Bartimaeus he overcame the precepts of being a Magician that were drilled into his otherwise kindly self.

Death forms a core part of many of the most famous mysteries within crime fiction. Wilkie Collin's seminal The Moonstone focuses on theft far more than death despite being classed as the first true detective story, but there's no denying death is the central theme of crime and mystery novels from the Victorian era onward. Historian Lucy Worsley, in her book and television series A Very British Murder traced a line of public fascination with murder going back into the early 1800s that influenced the trend in fiction. When used in detective or mystery fiction, the murder is the focal point of the plot. Your protagonist seeks to discover the truth behind the murder whether the reason be simplistic, complicated, farcical or tragic. Everything else about the story can be seen as incidental to the central murder. Of course in some stories, such as At Bertram's Hotel, a murder only occurs fairly late in the story and is almost entirely separate from the main mystery.

The deaths of people otherwise unconnected with the flow of the story up to a certain point can seem odd and jarring, but there are several works that use it to great effect. One of the most forceful uses I've ever experienced is Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Much of this story concerns Professor Aronnax's journeys with the enigmatic Captain Nemo around the oceans, seeing its wonders and dangers while getting to know his captor/host better. But the story started with a monster attacking ships, and it would begin its conclusion with that. A mysterious ship appears that enrages Nemo, prompting him to imprison his guests and attack the ship. Aronnax becomes witness to the aftermath - the ship sinks into the abyss with all hands as Nemo watches every detail and Aronnax watches with him in stunned silence. These people and the ship has never appeared in the book to this point, but Nemo's merciless action and the sequel Aronnax observes acts as the book's emotional crescendo, and a turning point leading to the final escape and the apparent loss of Nemo's ship to the Maelstrom whirlpool.

A recurring element within novels is that individual and widespread depictions of death are frequently well-described, or at least given a substantial amount of description and dialogue. This is due to the ever more relaxed restrictions on word usage in various genres despite continued expectations of certain lengths being attached to certain genres. You could be detailed and gruesome about a single corpse, or place sweeping descriptions of widespread carnage. It's something unique to novels - the ability to tell through words, leaving a lot up to the imagination while also giving more detail than many visual media can accomplish.

Next week, we dive into the realm of movies. Functioning on similar yet differing rules, death is portrayed differently from novels, turning it into an alternately thrilling and gratuitous experience unlike any other.