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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, 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.