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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, 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.