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New eBook Release: When Ai Met Yu

After being published in five parts on my own blog, it's time for this story to come to a wider audience. My first attempts at both a re...

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.

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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.