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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...

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Me and Tolkien - A Love-Hate Relationship

I know that above title sound more than a little strange, but it's the truth about what I feel about Tolkien's work as a writer. He is one of my key inspirations for why I pursue a career in writing, but it's also a kind of writing that I'm trying not to emulate beyond some very basic framework.

I first encountered Tolkien in a major way when I watched the first part of Peter Jackson's movie trilogy "Fellowship of the Ring", first part of the author's seminal The Lord of the Rings. I was utterly overwhelmed by the grand sweep of the story and locations, and even by the (as I saw it at the time) mystic Elven language. It's even better when you're watching the extended cut. After that, I experienced the next two movies, a reading on cassette tape of The Hobbit, and even a full-cast BBC radio dramatisation which I think ranks among the greatest radio productions in the history of the medium. I got to know a lot about the world of Middle Earth, and I greatly enjoyed the versions of the story I encountered. I even give a positive nod to Jackson for successfully adapting one of the most far-reaching narratives into a form that doesn't give itself easily to multi-thread storytelling.

But then something clicked in my mind. I realised that I didn't like the majority of the world that Tolkien had created. I found his writing style boring, overly grandiose, and even rambling. I didn't like how he all but forgot any portrayal of how the orc society existed under Sauron's rule, how simple most of the interactions between races seemed to become, how many of his key plot points seemed to come out of nowhere or seem contrived (Eowyn and Faramir's romance for one, which is just one of the clumsiest 'love at first sight' scenarios I've ever seen). Most of all, in the original work, I didn't like how he placed women mostly in the background, with none of them forming part of the Fellowship or (with the notable one-time exception of Eowyn) doing anything really active that made a difference to the world. If you actually look at surviving stories from the Norse and Germanic tales that provided his inspiration for Middle Earth, you find plenty of female figures who were powerful, standing the equal or superior of men. Even Galadriel didn't feature much in the original story beyond the first book, where she acted more as a rather vague guide, and even showed a weakness that I'd have expected her to master through all her millennia as a Ringbearer... The films did their best to rectified these last points, but the rest sadly stands.

But aside from faults-to-be in my own work, I saw how much of a grip it had on many other authors' work. Some are unconsciously influenced by his work, while others such as Eragon and its sequels are blatantly imitating it. Because of this, I try to steer away from his style. I keep it entirely focused on characters, work to keep description within its boundaries, and I also focus a large amount of my text on what might be called the 'villains'. Heck, I try to blur the distinction between 'heroes' and 'villains' to the point where it's just two side of a conflict with clashing yet understandable views, like any conflict in real life. No Ming and Flash Gordon scenario in my novels and stories; only showing how Ming is trying to rectify a broken system, and (perhaps) how Flash commissioned that campy film as propaganda to justify a human takeover. My, that would be a film to see.

The above text may seem clumsily worded or expressed, but the fact is that my feelings towards Tolkien can't be easily described in print or in speech. I appreciate and admire the grand scope of his world and the amount of depth he put into it, but I don't like either the writing itself or how it's pushed future generations into unconscious or conscious imitation. It's like my feelings for Lovecraft: I appreciate his scope and creative imagination, but his overly complex writing style and racist views put me off reading his stuff a lot of the time these days. I appreciate both Tolkien and Lovecraft, and they pushed me towards my career as a writer. But I consciously try to avoid their styles, and I consider myself better for it.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

To Salvage a Project

As a writer, you are bound to come up with any amount of ideas. To paraphrase a certain game released within the last few years - "There are countless storylines and ideas, as numerous as the stars themselves". This is very true, and all too often these ideas can become lost in a deep mire of doubt and confusion, even becoming lost forever in the infinite chasms of your mind. Even for those you begin to put to paper, it's not always safe. You can find that, at some early or even advanced stage, you are presented with terrible problems which force you to shelve it. There are three fates awaiting such a work: recycling, deletion, or salvaging.

Recycling is a concept where some ideas from a project was rescued, but much of the narrative and even some of the characters you created around those ideas are lost. This is what happened with Crystal and Sin. I had an idea, of a group of five people heading into a ruined city to confront a mysterious power figure at the heart of a terrible cataclysm. This concept became the first two "chapters/episodes" of Crystal and Sin. But in the first draft, there were also elements such as the entire story taking place in that one location, Crystal and Sin themselves having psionic powers, and another female character with similar gifts also being with the party. In the end, this fifth main protagonist was dropped, and all references to anything remotely supernatural hit the cutting room floor - never to be recovered - and the storyline greatly expanded in scope. I had spent a month on the first draft, and after leaving alone for about two months last year, how to save it finally struck home, and I began again in haste.

Deletion, as the word suggests, is where something is just completely unworkable. No matter how many times you approach it, it's not going to work. Those are the moments when you need to step back, realize that this isn't the right thing to be doing. This happened a lot with my early work due to much of it being highly derivative. The work that springs to mind is a storyline that was called "Marduk's Redemption". Following a Mage facing against their former apprentice after they have turned into a Warlock, it was basically a fusion of elements from Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the anime film "Tales from Earthsea". Once I'd gotten to the 14th or 15th chapter, I realized that this wasn't the way to go. It was kind of an awakening for me, as I began making a special effort to move away from such derivative work. This means that, while the basic concept may still exist somewhere, "Marduk's Redemption" will never see the light of day.

Salvaging is the best possible solution for a work, but certain circumstances apply. The story has to be very strong, you may need to be quite early in development before you reach the point where you put the story down as with recycling or deletion. Salvaging, in its purest form, is where the story and concept are resurrected after a period of time where a previous form of the story proved unworkable. This is similar to recycling, but whereas recycling results in the greater majority of a story's original form is discarded, salvaging means that the greater majority of the story has been saved. The story that this applies to is "Calabaja", a science fiction picaresque novel. I tried to get this story of the ground twice before, and both times something prevented it. The main problem was that it was slipping into the "superhero" genre, a genre I don't like and can't work with. It's only with this third attempt that it's beginning to work, although that's only with me staying strenuously clear of stuff related to the superhero genre. And it appears to be working, so far.

Update - 08-10-2016: I've since decided that the above story is too similar to Crystal and Sin for me to continue working on it in good faith. I'm therefor returning it to store. A shame, but unavoidable.

These things are the kind of thing that people don't seem to communicate very well in other blog posts. I hope this will help other potential authors with these usual circumstances that can strike even the best-flowing work.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Context and Creativity - How Religious Events Become a Stunning Story

This post was inspired today while I was listening to the second episode of a radio dramatisation of Lew Wallace's "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ". While I'm not strongly connected to Abrahamic beliefs, I do enjoy listening to various way in which that framework is used, whether it's pasted directly over established text or using its thematic and religious framework in an otherwise unconnected setting. I've done it for one of my own recently-completed works, but today I'm focusing on other people's take on it.

The most obvious usage is setting a story within Abrahamic context, either using their mythical framework as inspiration or using the setting itself. This isn't directly retelling the story, but instead using it as a backdrop for another story, as with Wallace's book. For "Ben-Hur", the period of Christ's journey through adulthood to the crucifixion is the backdrop for a morale tale surrounding the titular protagonist Judah Ben-Hur. His quest for revenge, and his eventual disenchantment with the idea, mirror Christ's message as recorded in canon texts, in addition to being a medium for wider (yet unfortunately often forgotten) ideas in Abrahamic traditions of forgiveness and tolerance. The lack of tolerance and how it destroys people is demonstrated through the characters of Messala and Iras. "Ben-Hur" is the only one I'm really familiar with, but I've certainly got vague memories in the back of my mind of other stories which used Biblical events as the backdrop for stories that might otherwise lack suitable gravitas.

The opposite end of the scale is creating something that can act as a criticism of that framework, or a parody of it. A prime example of this in English is Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Don't be fooled by the movie they based on the first book, which criminally bowdlerises the religious criticism and thematic relations to both Milton's "Paradise Lost" and the concept of original sin. In Pullman's trilogy, the framework of the divine order as represented by the Angels and their fallen compatriots is turned on its head to amazing effect, turning original sin into a boon for human free will. This opposing usage is more common, or at least more widely accepted and publicised, outside its sphere of influence in the West. Examples are most commonly found in Japan: "Berserk", "Neon Genesis Evengelion", and even video game franchises such as "Megami Tensei", "Xeno" and "Drakengard" all feature usage of Abrahamic elements that either put a more cynical interpretation on or outright reverse traditional beliefs and symbolism. (You can probably tell that I enjoyed writing this paragraph more)

These are, of course, just a few examples within one belief system. Every single system of belief that's ever existed has had similar approaches taken, with varying degrees of faithfulness or parody. Another good example would be Greek mythology - many adaptations of them exist, which have both altered the characters and deities to fall more in line with later post-Abrahamic traditions to stayed true to the ambiguous natures of the originals. It's a shock to admit it, but "God of War" was slightly truer to the mythic brutality and moral disconnect between man and deity that many other examples in media. But that's a whole other post.

Whatever your beliefs may be, it's fascinating seeing how them and others are used by other authors in constructive or even deconstructive ways. And what's even better is doing something like that for yourself.