Sunday, 18 October 2009

Child of Fire

The front cover of Harry Connolly's Child of Fire has a recommendation by Jim Butcher and superficially it does read a bit like Butcher's Dresden files crossed with a Dean Koontz small town (not weird enough for one of Stephen King's Maine townships) and with a bit of F Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack thrown in for good measure.

I'd say describing that way perhaps does it a disservice, but I'd consider that a pretty decent mix - and rather than being a pale imitation of those writers, Connolly manages to put together a nicely crafted tale that, despite the comparisons, definitely feels like its own entity. Combining the urban fantasy genre with the small-town-America-horror genre gives Child of Fire a fairly unique flavour.

In terms of where it sits on the scale of urban fantasy, it's not up to the standards of Butcher - but I'd say there's little that is. It is better than most of the rest of the market though and considering it's a first novel, that's no mean feat. I've already recommended without reservation to one friend and have no hesitation in doing so again. I'm also looking forward to the follow-up novel and hope that we're going to get more of a glimpse into the world that's being set up in CoF as so far there's only been a fairly limited introduction to it - but what has been shown is certainly enough to peak my interest.

Definitely a series worth watching.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Exploring Story Worlds

I recently read Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (turned into a film with Brendan Frazer), which has a great hook of people who can read characters out of books and into the real world.

There's so much potential with that story - you can just imagine the possibilities: famous fictional characters, fantastic creations entering the real world, maybe the heroes even reading themselves into a book and seeing what life is like on the other side of the pages.

Unfortunately we don't get any of that. Instead the fictional characters in the story belong to a book made up specially for the novel. The novel within the novel that they're from is also called Inkheart and it's a fantasy story depicting a world where all sorts of fantastic creatures exist.

But we don't really get any of those - instead we have a juggler who's very good at playing with fire, a villain who's main goal in life is to make the people with the ability to read things into the real world to read him lots of gold and a few of his henchmen.

We do get a couple of characters from 'real' fiction who have a fantasy twinge to them. There's Tinkerbell, who doesn't have much to do at all. We have the Brave Tin Soldier from the Hans Christian Anderson, who gets to come out of a book and then be read back into it (albeit with a happier ending) - and then there's a kid from the Arabian Nights stories who seems to have been in the Ali Baba tale, but is a non-entity in terms of the story (and may have just been made up by Cornelia Funke).

At the climax of the book we do get a few more fantastical creatures, but they're very much there as an afterthought. The rest of it is filled with fairly mundane villainy.

Now there are another two stories in the trilogy, so there may be more of an exploration of this world of people who can read fiction to life, but the first in the trilogy in no way fulfills the potential for the created world. This seems to be a problem that keeps cropping up again and again in novels and films - a good idea poorly mined.

It's very easy to point to stories that manage to mine the potential of their worlds - they're usually the ones that people like a lot. The Harry Potter series of books - love them or loathe them you'd be lying if you said that they don't get stuck into the universe that Rowling has created. The world is practically dripping with magic.

Pirates of the Caribbean - opening with a ship at sea in the fog and the telling of a ghost story and then throwing pretty much every possible piratey thing at the screen rarely misses out on a trick when it delves into its story world.

Star Wars - again a universe that feels well-lived in - it's not the regular world with a few science fiction things bolted on.

Steven Gould's Jumper novel (NOT the film). This is the regular world, so no cramming every corner with some weird and wonderful thing, but he takes the initial concept of a teenager who can teleport and runs with it, fully exploring the idea and what it means.

Those four examples were stories that I thoroughly enjoyed, that I've recommended to friends and that I'd happily go back for more with (and in all those cases I've gone and read or watched the sequel(s). Inkheart I'm not so sure - I was left feeling fairly unsatisfied after finishing reading it and thought I could have come up with better ideas than the author - largely because she hardly seemed to come up with any at all.

Still, it's a fairly popular novel series - so what do I know?

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Buffy without Joss

News is that there is a new Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie on the cards, apparently with the involvement of the original movie's producers. As of this time of writing there seems to be no involvement from Joss Whedon - which as any fan will be able to tell you is completely inconceivable.

It's just nonsense thinking anyone else could possibly play the part:

I think a letter writing campaign may be in order.


Two episodes in and I have to confess that I'm liking this a lot more than the critical response indicates that I should. I do find that the missions Echo is being sent on are a bit yawnsome (how many times can US TV remake The Most Dangerous Game?), although they're still watchable enough, but more importantly Helo's ... sorry, Ballard's investigation and all the background shenanigans at the Dollhouse seem to be laying down some interesting foundations. I also think some of the complaints I've read about the ickiness of the whole meat-dolls/slavery/programmed-prostitution are a bit misplaced as it's clearly meant to be A Bad Thing. But maybe I'm over-simplifying the issues people have with it.

I'm not entirely convinced that it's going to have enough steam to keep going for more than a season without dragging things on too long, unless we see some sort of format-altering twist, but so far I think this has been getting a bit of a rough ride. The news that it's been renewed for a second season gives me some hope that I'm not the only one.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Characters Arcs Redux

John Rogers blogging on character arcs. Very nicely made points, although he still uses the hated term. But the difference between transformation character arcs and revelatory ones is an important one - although perhaps it's not taking it quite far enough for me.

When it comes to character change, I'm a firm believer that people don't fundamentally change. I think there are core parts of our personality that will always remain set and which will affect how we normally react to a given situation. Equally though, I don't believe that this means that reaction will always be the same.

Two people could be control freaks. One of them tries to take over the whole world, the other gets all the trains to run on time. Alternatively, the person who tries to take over the world might through experience come to realise what a bad idea that is and reapply that trait in order to make the trains run on time - which is after all a much more useful endeavour.

I believe people's actions are affected by personality, by circumstance and by experience. That's what I look for in characters. If their personality changes totally then I'm not going to believe it (unless they have major brain damage or a complete memory swap). If they manage to redirect that personality though then I think that's going to be much more true to life. And if they chart exactly the same course at the end of the story as the one that they were on in the beginning then really I don't have much of a problem with that either.

I don't expect to see someone do something that is not within their makeup from the start - circumstance followed by action should reveal character, not alter it.

Even Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the most obvious choices to illustrate a character arc, does not have a character-altering encounter with his three ghosts - if you look at who Scrooge used to be, as revealled by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the story seems to be about his return to that personality, not a creation of a new one. Scrooge makes different choices as a result of the events of the story, his character does not magically transform into something completely different.

I think most writers understand this and I'm probably pointing out the obvious - but as with all the 'rules' of writing, I think people can sometimes get the wrong end of the stick and assume that all characters must transform and that a transformation is a personality change rather than a shifting of perspective/purpose based within the parameters of the character's established persona.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

I don't really need to say anything nice about this book, the back cover of my copy is plastered with seven complimentary quotes from reviewers, the inside front cover has a further six the inside back cover another six and the first three pages of the book have twelve more.

I feel as if I'm being bullied into liking this book.

The thing is, I did quite enjoy the read, short as it was. There are almost more words in the reviews dedicated to the book than there are in the book itself. At a rough estimate, I'd put the word count somewhere in the region of 50-60 thousand words. That's little more than the introduction if you're looking at a Stephen King novel. Really the book should stretch to around 150 pages, except my copy runs at 300 due to an awful lot of page space being taken up by a nice large font, never mind the large stretches of minimalist dialogue that could destroy rainforests with a few conversations.

The story itself is nothing new if you've read enough science fiction books. For the literary reviewers who turn their noses up at such genre fare though, I can imagine it came as something of a revelation. It's certainly an easy to read book - incredibly bleak in outlook but a palatable walk through despair rather than being a complete wallow. It does fall into a repetitive pattern of boy and father are hungry, boy and father find a source of food, boy and father eat food until it runs out, boy and father are hungry again, punctuated by boy and father try to avoid contact with people who might want to eat them. However, it's a decently told repetition and from a human perspective it feels quite truthful.

Stylistically it's quite sparse - sentences run on and on without a pause for breath, particularly when describing the actions of the characters, creating a mundane feel to their quest for survival. The dialogue is absent speech marks and in most cases attribution, but for that is easy enough to follow. Descriptions of the bleak environment are more poetic in nature, suggesting that it is here that the author's real interest lies. The best thing about The Road is watching the scenery out of the window.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Shakespeare's Star Trek (a bit more)

Scene II
The Enterprise - Spock's Chambers.

Enter Spock and Christine

Spock: What is this thou dares to lay before me?
Out, out, prying harridan. Shouldst I be
In need of thy soup, ask for it I would.

Enter Kirk. Exit Christine.

Spock: Captain, I present my request to thee.
To Vulcan I bid thee fly. Divergence
From our present bearing would be no more
A loss of distance travel'd by stars' light
Within the passage of two point eight days
And two point eight nights.

Kirk: Spock, what devils drive thee to make of me
Such a request?

Spock: My case I have stated and all I say,
Thine answer I require. Yea, or nay.

Kirk: Let us hear it. Thy manner perplexes.

Spock: If a woman be honest dignity
Requires she not wait upon a man
Not given to her in troth.

Kirk: Thine petition peaks curiousity
More than thy want to hurl soup against walls.

Spock: In faith I have serv'd your voice and your call
For years uncounted. My plea I have made.
Grantest thou or not.

Kirk: Since almost striplings you and I both were
Never hav'st thou sought elsewhere than my side
Refused my calls to seek a balmy shore
Whenever proffered by my hand. Why now?

Spock: Captain, in time thou surely owes enough
Such as my request not be meritless.

Kirk: Aye, but the question remains unanswered
Perchance the cause lies with thy family
A sickening?

Spock: The nature of my request lies elsewhere.

Kirk: The ship makes her heading for Altair Six
Excellent in facilities it be.

Spock: No I must take my leave upon Vulcan.

Kirk: Spock, I ask again. What troubles thee?

Spock: The call of duty wears heavy on me
I may speak no more.

Kirk: Bridge, thy captain speaks.

Sulu: [off] I await thy bidding, my lord.

Kirk: Make heading for Vulcan. Warp factor four.

Sulu: [off] Aye, aye, sir.

Spock: I thank you, captain.

Kirk: Tis oft overlook'd that even Vulcans
Be not form'd from impenetrable steel.

Spock: [Aside] No we are not.


Scene III
Enterprise - Bridge.

Officers of the ship in attendance. Enter Kirk, Spock and Chekov.

Kirk: [Aside] Three three seven two point seven by how
The firmament's spheres measure passing ages
Our course has been fix'd upon Altair Six
By way of Vulcan. First Officer Spock
Inconsistent in temperament be.
Ship's surgeon McCoy regards him with care.

Enter Uhura

Uhura: Captain, a message from Starfleet hast come.
Mark'd as urgent dost it appear to be.

Kirk: Speak, Uhura.

Uhura: To Captain of U.S.S. Enterprise
From Admiral Komack in Sector Nine
Ceremonies held upon Altair Six
Advanced to seven days hence have been.
Thou art commanded to hasten forthwith.

Kirk: Lieutenant Uhura, pen this reply.
Message acknowledged.

Uhura: Aye, aye, sir.

Kirk: Mister Chekov, set forth by the stars.

Chekov: On time's arrow we fly. Vulcan must wait.

Kirk: Make haste for Altair Six, tarry dare not.
The luck of Neptune's passengers have we.
Mr Spock. Our dial fixed to the orbits
Of kingly whims. Altair six's ruler
Makes haste so hasten we. Promise you this
When done with duty to Vulcan we speed.

Spock: My understanding I profess.


Saturday, 23 May 2009

William Shakespeare's Star Trek

Having seen the new movie, I've been going back to the old Star Trek TV series (well the remastered version of the old Star Trek TV series) - and one of the first things I noticed was how stagy the whole thing seemed. Which in turn led me to remember the over-zealous fans of the series who declared that if Shakespeare were alive in the 20th century he would have been writing episodes of Star Trek.

So I just had to have a bit of a go:



KIRK, a Captain, in the service of Starfleet
SPOCK, his lieutenant and a Gentleman of Vulcan
MCCOY, a doctor
CHEKOV, a Navigator
STONN, a Gentleman of Vulcan

T'PRING, bethrothed to SPOCK
T'PAU, a lady of Vulcan
CHRISTINE, a nurse
UHURA, a messenger

Scene I
The Enterprise - A Corridor

Enter Kirk and McCoy

McCoy: Oh Captain, hast thou a minute?

Kirk: A minute, for what purpose good doctor?

McCoy: Thy right hand, Spock. Strange behaviours have thy

Kirk: No good doctor, why dost thou ask?

McCoy: Tis nought a finger I could place upon,
Yet suffering of strange maladies dost
He appear to be. For that he were not
Of Vulcan, his mind might seem unquiet.
And for three days hence he appears not to
Have supp'd.

Kirk: In contemplative phase perhaps he be.
Would not be uncommon for Spock.

Enter Christine

McCoy: Good nurse, Miss Chapel, come hither.

Christine: Good morrow sir doctor, captain.

McCoy: What steaming elixir carries thou?

Christine: This bowl?

McCoy: Tis plomeek soup, a dish of Vulcan. Made
I wouldst venture by thy fair hand. Holdst thou
Ever hope's flickering candle within
Thy bosom.

Christine: Perchance I noticed. Spock, he eats not.

Kirk: Prithee continue thy business, good nurse.

Exit Christine

Kirk: Sawbones, my clock is winged.

McCoy: Jim, when I did suggest to Spock that his
Exam was overdue, thy first officer
In whose skull passionless logic resides
Turn'd to me and spake "Thy will cease to
Pry into behaviours personal to
Me, doctor, else I shall be most certain
To break thy neck."

Kirk: Tis hard to fathom such words from the ever
Sturdy Spock.


Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Star Trek

I went to see this last night with a couple of friends from work. Neither of them were familiar with any of the various TV incarnations - beyond the pop culture knowledge of the basics. I on the other hand went along having seen just about every incarnation of the show and almost every single episode (except for a number of the animated ones) and having read any number of the books. Unlike some of the fans I thought the reboot idea was a great one, but I'd been looking forward to the film with a large degree of trepidation.

Fortunately, plot coincidences aside, I loved it. So too did my two friends. t wasn't a perfect movie, but with the amount of stuff that they did get right, I was more than happy with it. For the sheer enjoyment factor it might even be my favourite of the films, but I'll leave that call for later once I've got a bit of perspective on the matter. It's certainly a much better film than the last two, holds up well with Khan and First Contact (my previous two favourites) and managed to push even more geek buttons than seeing Star Trek the Motion Picture for the first time did.

On the plotting side I still maintain that the alternate timeline angle is inspired. While the writers could have gone with a straight reboot, I think this very neatly avoids the trap of having to fit in with the expectations of the story conforming to Trek continuity, while at the same time conforming to Trek continuity - brilliant! A couple of franchise-induced shocks really kicked that one home - and it did create a sense that when it comes to the inevitable next movie, anything could happen.

And the other thing they got absolutely right - using Alexander Courage's original theme at the end - the films have previously just used the opening fanfare - the full orchestra version of the 60s theme was long overdue.

I like where they've gone with this - and perhaps more importantly I like where they're going. And my two non-fan friends agree - which is a healthy sign for the once beleaguered franchise.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Mr Weston and the Ironing

For the uninitiated, Mr Weston and the Ironing is a popular beat combo and nothing to do with a gentleman and his pressed clothing. The Mr Weston of the group is a friend and work colleague of mine. I've known him for most of the time I've been at the BBC (19 years and counting), but Tuesday night was the first time I'd been to hear his band.

I've been meaning to go for ages, but usually his gigs are at pubs in awkward parts of London at awkward times of the day (well awkward for me anyway), but as he was playing at the BBC Club in Great Portland Street, which is very handy for me catching my train home, I didn't really have an excuse not to go this time.

I always have a certain amount of trepidation when going to see someone do something musically. I'm cursed with an over-honest nature, which means that I'm not good at lying, even when it is for the common good. So when I go to these things I always dread that I'm not going to be able to find something nice to say. Fortunately in this case he was bloody good, so no qualms about being positive. Easily the best performance that evening (although I only heard one other, but everyone who was there all the time informs me that my unwarranted belief is in fact correct).

Their next gig (according to their MySpace page) is on the 28th of the month at Cross Kings in Islington, in the unlikely event that anyone reading this is in the area on that day. They'll also be playing at the Eastbourne Lammas Festival (I always thought Lammas were camel-like animals that spit, but they don't have any of those on the south coast that I'm aware of) in August.

Or you could just visit them on MySpace and listen to a couple of their songs.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Every time I think I'm finished ...

There always seems to be one little loose end that I need to tie up. This one's part of the denouement. What I'd written was a brief little summary of all the things that had happened off-stage while the heroes were busy fighting the bad guy. Only then I decided that it was a bit too easy and I needed to dramatise the scene a bit more. Which is more difficult than I first thought - but I think that's probably more because I keep distracting myself than because the scene is particularly tough to write.

In other words, time to stop blogging and get back to some real writing.

Monday, 27 April 2009

First Chapter

Daniel Smith was a sickly-looking boy. His pasty complexion suggested he was more likely related to a family of mushrooms than to his own parents, to whom he bore no resemblance whatsoever. He had even questioned his parentage on one occasion during a particular row.

Oddly enough he had never seen his mother as panicked before or since. She had even gone to the trouble of digging out the recording made of him being born, forcing Daniel to sit through the whole thing.

By the time it ended, Daniel was left knowing more about childbirth than he had ever wanted. He had also been left in no doubt that not only had his mother given birth to him, but that it had been one of the most unpleasant events of her life, judging by the screaming and cursing during the event and her complete disinterest in her newborn baby when the nurses tried to show it to her.

In a way it was a shame: while he had been uncertain about being related to them, he had held onto the hope that someday his true parents would come along and take him away from his life with the Smiths.

Unfortunately there would be no such fairy tale endings for him.
Despite his sickly-looking complexion, Daniel actually suffered from unusually good health. The term suffered was appropriate because it seemed the reasons for his good health could potentially kill him. Daniel’s immune system was capable of fighting off all illnesses and ailments at the drop of a hat. No sooner had he sniffled the first sniffle of a cold than it was over.

This unusual resistance to ill-health, according to the family physician, Dr Largo, was due to an excess of white blood cells being created by Daniel's body. Left unchecked, this would prove fatal, so every month Dr Largo would insert his thick needle into a vein and remove the excess blood.

Daniel often wondered if Dr Largo took too much blood. He usually felt weak for several days after the blood-letting and he was sure that his unusually pale complexion was no coincidence. However, Dr Largo said it was perfectly safe and, as far as Daniel's parents were concerned, what Dr Largo said was the end to all debate.

The one time Daniel had meekly suggested that a second opinion might be useful was the time his parents decided he could go without food for a couple of days for his impertinence.

It was not the first time they had imposed such a punishment, unfortunately this time it coincided with one of his bleeding sessions and before Dr Largo had finished, Daniel collapsed.

The doctor fixed up a glucose drip and, assuming Daniel was still asleep, rounded on his parents. However, Daniel had regained a hazy form of consciousness when the drip had been inserted, and heard every word.

“Do you have any idea how close you idiots came to jeopardising everything?”

Daniel’s father raised his voice, indignant in his response. “He was asking for a second opinion. He doesn’t trust yours any longer. We couldn’t just let that go.”

“Let him have his second opinion,” Dr Largo replied. “If it will put his mind at rest.”

Daniel wondered how he could have doubted Dr Largo. While he was thinking the doctor’s medical practices might be less than sound, here Dr Largo was demonstrating that he only had his patient's best interests at heart. Daniel made up his mind that he didn’t need another doctor’s opinion.

What he heard next though completely reversed his decision.

“How can we let him see another doctor?” his mother asked. “They’d know there was something wrong.”

Daniel felt his heart quicken. What did she mean?

“They certainly didn’t pick you two for your intelligence,” Dr Largo said.

Daniel almost laughed at that, but instead found himself wondering what his parents had been picked to do.

“If he sees another doctor,” Dr Largo continued. “It will be someone we set up. Not just the first name picked out of the telephone directory.”

Daniel’s heart was pounding so hard now that he wondered how they could possibly avoid hearing it on the other side of the curtain separating the recovery bed from the rest of the surgery.

“He is asleep, isn’t he?” Daniel’s father suddenly asked.

Daniel shut his eyes and willed himself to relax.

Go to sleep. Go to sleep, he repeated over and over to himself.

Strangely enough, despite his sense of panic, the instant Dr Largo’s hand twitched open the curtain, Daniel fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The following day, with Daniel well on his way to recovery, his parents insisted on taking him to see a doctor in the neighbouring town of Merchester. Despite telling them that he had changed his mind, Daniel still found himself in the back of the family’s aging Citroen as his parents and he made the ten-mile trip.
Dr Dafur, an elderly Indian man with a thick accent, asked Daniel to sit up on a table as he performed his examination.

“How old are you, Daniel?” he asked as he held one end of a cold stethoscope to Daniel’s chest.

“Fourteen,” Daniel replied.

He knew he was smaller than average for his age: he had looked up the figures on the Internet. His parents had all sorts of filters on their computers, supposedly to prevent Daniel looking at age inappropriate material. In reality they seemed more interested in preventing him from accessing any site where he could do anything more than play kids’ games.

Unknown to his parents, Daniel had been able to bypass the filters since he was ten. He probably would have managed to do so long before then, but it had only been after his tenth birthday that he was finally left alone in the same room as the computer long enough to reprogram it.

Dr Dafur nodded, making no mention of Daniel’s physical development.

“And you’ve had this condition ...?”

“Since he was born,” Daniel’s mother answered.

Dr Dafur consulted the medical file on his desk.

“And your doctor had been taking blood every month?”

“That’s right.” Daniel’s father answered this time.

“Hmm,” Dr Dafur pondered, flipping through the pages. Daniel wondered how long he would keep up the pretence before announcing that he completely agreed with Dr Largo’s diagnosis.

“I’m not sure I quite agree with this treatment,” Dr Dafur said.

Daniel almost fell off his chair in astonishment. This was not how he expected the session to go. Dr Dafur should have been dismissing Daniel’s concerns, not agreeing with them. He wondered if his parents had somehow taken him to the wrong doctor.

“Dr Largo appears to be a little more aggressive in his therapy than I think is warranted,” Dr Dafur told Daniel‘s parents. “My recommendation would be to reduce the exsanguination sessions to period of one every six weeks. Of course you would also need to keep close watch on him.”

Daniel pondered the result of the visit to Dr Dafur on the journey home. His parents had agreed to the revised timetable for his treatments. However, it wasn’t exactly as if Dr Dafur had been in violent disagreement with Dr Largo. Daniel was sure it was a ruse to placate him.

It was possible the reduction in the frequency of the treatments was a response to his earlier collapse. Whatever else, he was certain that his visit to Dr Dafur had gone exactly according to the plan formulated by his parents and Dr Largo.

At the next opportunity, Daniel logged onto the Internet to look up blood disorders. He wondered why it had taken him so long. Perhaps, he admitted to himself, he had not wanted to believe that he was being lied to by his parents.

Although he hated them most of the time, although they rarely had a kind word to say to him, although they often treated him cruelly, they were still his parents. He had to believe that despite appearances, they had his best interests at heart. That belief was rapidly being eroded.

The information he found on the Internet completely demolished any remainder of his belief in them. He found his symptoms on line: the production of excess white blood cells. He had even heard of the illness before, although he hadn’t ever known to put the symptoms and the name together. If what he was reading was correct, he was suffering from leukaemia.

It didn’t make sense to him. For a start the treatment for leukaemia was radiation therapy. Taking blood was used to treat other diseases, not leukaemia. Also, although white blood cells did play a role in combating illness, the over-production of them would not have the effect of making Daniel the most disease-resistant boy in the world.

Which left Daniel with two questions: if he did have leukaemia then why was he receiving the wrong treatment? If he didn’t have it then what exactly was he being treated for?

As a consequence of his condition, whatever it might be, Daniel’s schooling had been decidedly erratic. Up until his tenth birthday he had been bussed to a school in Merchester. Then his illness had been discovered, or invented, effectively putting an end to his time at school.

On the days following his treatment sessions, he was often too weak to leave his bed, let alone go to school. It had been agreed between the school, Daniel’s parents and Dr Largo, that Daniel would be home educated.

At first Daniel had dreaded the idea of spending more time with his parents. However, it seemed that in their eyes, home education meant giving him a book and telling him to get on with it. Grudgingly they had even given him access to the Internet, albeit with all the filters preventing him seeing ... well, almost anything.

He soon discovered that his parents hands-off approach to education gave him unparalleled freedom. He spent much of his time in the local library, a ramshackle affair of a couple of dozen bookcases holding books that were all at least ten years out of print.

Somehow it had been overlooked by the local council when it came to shutting down services. It was probably only the library’s isolated location that had enabled it to survive the periodic cull of such establishments, given that most councillors probably didn’t realise it existed, let alone that they could close it down.
It was barely used by the other villagers; often the whole day would go by and the only other person Daniel would see in there was the librarian, Miss Dryleaf. She was an elderly spinster, with a penchant for beige cardigans, who wandered aimlessly around the shelves in a cloud of what smelled like eau-de-cat-wee.

Despite the olfactory challenges Miss Dryleaf presented, which Daniel solved by never inhaling when he was downwind of her, the library remained one of Daniel’s favourite refuges.

The only days he would not be found there were Sundays, when it wasn’t open; the three days a month when he was recovering from his blood letting; or those sunny days of the year when he decided to take a walk in the woods.

Daniel had the perfect excuse when it came to hiking off into the woods. “It’s for biology,” he would tell his parents. He even suggested that they might want to come with him while he hunted for woodland fungi to draw. Unsurprisingly they both declined and left him alone to wander the woods by himself.

“Just don’t get up to anything dangerous,” his father instructed him in a rare moment of parental concern.

Daniel sometimes wondered if his parents didn’t see him so much as a son than as some form of resource that needed to be guarded from accidental damage. Occasionally he would imagine that the blood extracted from him was being used to solve the global energy crisis, somehow being used as an ecologically-friendly replacement for oil.

Certainly they must have taken enough from him over the last few years to keep his parents’ car running for a good length of time.

It had been raining for a week before, and three days following, Daniel’s appointment with Dr Dafur. On the fourth day Daniel woke up to a face full of sunshine and decided to go for a walk.

There was a freshness in the air born of the previous days’ rainfall. In places untouched by the direct sunlight, the soil was still sodden, threatening to suck down Daniel’s shoes. For the most part though, the heat of the sun had dried out the woods, making it pleasant going.

Daniel had no real purpose in the woods. He had long ago catalogued all the different species of flora, having exercise books full of drawings, as well as pressed samples of many of the plants. Today was just about enjoying nature.

It was not long before fate put a crimp in his plans when he trod on a patch of slippery mud untouched by the sun’s rays. His foot skidded out from under him, threatening to spill him over. His arms windmilled as he tried to keep himself upright. His efforts had almost succeeded, when his heel caught against an errant tree root.

He came crashing down onto his back.

Daniel lay there for a couple of moments, his body tensed as he refused to accept the pain. Unable to hold it off any longer, he opened himself up to receiving sensations once more.

To his surprise it didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. It was more a dull ache spread across the bottom of his back rather than the sharp pain he had been expecting.

He stared up at the overhead tree branches, wondering if he should remain where he was for the rest of the day, or get back up and chance something else going wrong. While on the face of it remaining still seemed the preferable choice, he wasn’t sure that it was sustainable in the long term.

He put out his hands to push up from the ground. His right hand came into contact with something hard, something made of metal. He pulled his hand back sharply, an instinctive reaction to feeling something that shouldn‘t have been there.
Rolling onto one side and ignoring any protests from his bruised back, he took a look at the metal object.

It was mostly covered by vegetation that had grown up around it, but there was enough of the object showing for Daniel to be able to tell what it was supposed to be. It was a hand.

Daniel scrambled to his feet, completely forgetting that he had injured his back. In the process of forgetting his injury, he also failed to realise that it no longer hurt at all.

He pulled away the plants surrounding the hand to reveal an arm attached to it. Further inspection revealed the arm to be protruding from an old tree stump, so overgrown with plant-life that Daniel had taken it for a bush.

Daniel tore away the plants with his hands. He made short work of them, releasing the tree stump from its green bondage. The find was better than Daniel could have ever hoped. He recognised what he had discovered straight away.

Tucked into the hollow tree stump was an honest-to-goodness robot.

Perhaps if he had been a normal boy with normal parents, Daniel might have run home to tell them exactly what he had found in the woods. However, with Daniel’s family being far from normal, he instead did the next best thing: he looked for an on-switch.

He had done no more than touch the robot’s metal body when its eyes began to glow a faint green. Daniel snatched his hand back, dangerously close to falling over again as he overbalanced with the sudden movement.

The robot shifted its head, its dimly lit eyes unseeing. A sound, like a metal coughing, emanated from the robot’s head. Daniel backed away, ready to run if the machine looked as if it might be dangerous.

The robot’s metal cough barked once more, then it was silent. Daniel wondered if the machine had been running an automatic response, the final vestiges of power being spent.

The robot moved again, its eyes brightening.

“Memory error,” it said. “Corrupted sectors. Recommend reinstallation of operating system.”

Daniel blinked, not sure what to make of this.

The robot swivelled its head, its green flowing eyes focusing on him.

“I must complete my mission,” it told him.

Daniel gaped, unsure of how he should respond. His mind had been racing through the possibilities of where this robot had come from. Three options seemed more likely to him than any others: a research laboratory, the military, or an alien planet. The use of the word mission suggested it was not a laboratory.

Daniel screwed up his face. “You’re not from outer-space are you?” he asked, just to make sure.

He was almost certain that a confused alien robot would not be talking English, no matter what the old science fiction films might have taught him.

“No,” the robot replied. It paused for a moment. Daniel almost expected to hear its hard drive whirring. “At least I don’t think so. My memory doesn’t contain those details.”

The robot’s voice had softened, becoming less mechanical and more ... human.
A nasty thought occurred to Daniel. “This isn’t some kind of wind-up, is it?”

The robot tilted its head at a slight angle, considering Daniel’s words.

“No,” it finally answered. “I do not believe that it is. My memory may not be fully functional, but there is no data to suggest that I am part of a ‘wind-up’. I am on a mission and ...” The robot tried to move. It lifted an arm, but that was as much as it could manage. “... I am unable to proceed.”

“What’s your mission?” Daniel asked.

“I am to retrieve a canister and return it to .. The robot paused.

“Return it where?”

“That memory sector is unavailable,” the robot answered.

“How can you complete your mission if you don’t know what it is?”

The robot moved its still-operative arm. “That matter is irrelevant. I cannot complete my mission until I am functional again. Priority is to become mobile first. Recovery of the damaged memory sectors is secondary.”

The robot looked away for a moment before refocusing its attention on Daniel.

“Perhaps you can assist me with repairs.”

Daniel thought about it for a while. The idea of working to repair the robot was a tempting one. It would be the type of science project that would make other kids jealous ... well, at least those kids who appreciated the inherent coolness in owning their very own robot.

On the other hand, Daniel wasn’t completely naive. He knew enough about the world to know that people had all sorts of hidden agendas and if people did then so could robots.

“What’ll happen if I repair you?” he asked.

“I will seek to complete my mission,” the robot replied. “I will retrieve the stolen container and attempt to restore the memory sectors that hide the rest of my mission data.”

“Will you hurt anyone?” Daniel asked. “As part of your mission I mean?”

The robot considered the question, presumably searching among the corrupted sectors of its memory to see if the answer was retrievable. Finally, it answered.

“I am to carry out the mission with minimal contact with any people. However, should I be in a position where I am required to defend myself, I am allowed the use of non-lethal force.”

The robot may have been lying, but Daniel was reassured to a large extent by the completeness of the answer.

“What do you need for repairs?” he asked.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Liam Sharp's God Killers

I'll state up front that I know Liam personally, so you can read this review in light of that bias. However, I will say that my bias only extends to the point that if I thought the book was a piece of crap, I wouldn't have reviewed it at all.

God Killers by Liam Sharp

An ambitious first novel that succeeds more often than it fails. Sharp's Machivarius Point, the main story (at 200 pages) in the book is what might have resulted if Robert E Howard and China Mieville had produced some strange offspring through eldritch means.

The main characters of Sharp's novel occupy the fictional space somewhere between David Gemmell's Druss and Ian Graham's Ballas. Much less heroic than Gemmell's flawed protagonists, Sharp's creations manage to be much more appealing than Graham's, both in terms of likability and with regard to the complexity of the characters.

Never short of ideas, possibly the biggest weakness of the story is that the rich tapestry Sharp weaves is not as fully explored as it could be. On the flip side, the narrative approach he has taken forces the reader to engage with the book on a more intellectual level and to that extent what might be a flaw according to traditional storytelling is perhaps a fascinating and not unsuccessful approach to bring a different approach to constructing a heroic fantasy saga.

At times a thoughtful meditation on the horrors of war, while simultaneously being a testosterone-fueled barbarian saga, the writing manages to transcend the apparent limitations of its genre and is one of the more literary approaches to this type of subject matter that I've read. Definitely not for the squeamish though, as should be expected from something with such a clear message that violence is not a pleasant business and certainly not a heroic one.

The remaining stories that take up the final part of the book continue to showcase Sharp's literary ability and range from the broad comedy of Death and the Myrmidon to the M John Harrison-inspired weirdness of Metawhal Alpha.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Finished Again

So that's the ending rewritten with something I'm much happier about. Now I need to shift around earlier parts of the story so that everything fits - fortunately it's not too much, but I think a little more set-up in a couple of places could probably take the randomness out of later events.

I'm also debating whether to change the hero's name. On the plus side, if I choose to use it as part of the title then it'll be more distinctive than what I've got at the moment. On the negative side ...

Actually there isn't much of a negative side - as long as I manage to change every single occurrence. I've changed characters' names in the past and on the odd occasion missed one or two alterations. Fortunately it's always been picked up by my readers, so I don't think I've ever embarrassed myself by sending anything out with the wrong names.

It might also be time that I started looking at possibilities for publication. There's already one potential avenue open, so perhaps it's time I sent off an email ...

Sunday, 5 April 2009

A Better Ending

Over the last week I've finally figured out the climax of my novel. I'd already written it once, had a couple of people read it as it was and neither of them seemed to mind it (I had comments about the denouement - but that was a different matter).

I wasn't comfortable with it though. Not enough really happened compared to previous parts of the book, the hero's solution was both passive and relied a bit too much on luck and the setting was king of boring.

So I went back and changed some details about the location - it used to be a small, fairly dull village in the middle of some woods that's home to the bad guys, now it's a coastal village with a history of smuggling and a darker look to it.

I also decided that rather than have my heroes captured by the villains, which is what happens in the original version, I'd have them actively sneak into the village (and I even managed to come up with a good explanation of why they needed to on top of that).

So far it was better. I had a mission for the heroes, I'd eliminated the coincidence factor and I'd made a more interesting setting where I could stick some sort of climactic battle. I'd even come up with my main protagonist's solution to the problem - I was going to give him a force field that he cleverly invents/repairs.

Writing it proved to be a slightly different matter. First part worked fine. Then came the mission to stop the bad guys.

Halfway through I had an idea - about a secret part of the town - and that seemed a cool idea.

Then writing that, I had a better idea of what to do with the force field. I'd also introduced two other super science gadgets - just on a whim - and suddenly I figured out how to use one of those and the force field to create a neat solution to one of the heroes' problem.

And then while trying to figure out how to make a revelation about the ultimate villain of the piece less anticlimactic than it was, I realised that I was making a huge mistake in again providing a passive solution. I had an idea of setting something up for a future novel (assuming I ever finish with this one) and while it made sense, it wasn't a very dramatic resolution. And in solving that problem, I created an even better climax than I'd originally anticipated.

Plus the third of my gadgets miraculously provided the solution to that final battle. In fact it couldn't have been a neater solution than if I'd planned it.

Only it was a bit too neat. So I've had to make it even harder for my protagonist by breaking the gadget.

I'm much happier with the revised ending - at least I will be once I finish writing it. But I never would have come up with it if I hadn't been my own worse critic.

Even when other people think you've done a good job, it doesn't mean that you can't push yourself to do better.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009


Quick question: in the Star Wars universe where folk are smart enough to build spacecraft that can travel faster than the speed of light, where they've created laser guns and lightsabres, where children create cognitive robots and pod-racers in their spare time, why is it that the most powerful organisation in the galaxy can't create a hologram with decent resolution?

Those things look like the holograms that used to be sold in Athena back in the 80s.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Copyright Notice

In light of my previous post about copyright on the net, I came across author Karen Traviss's copyright notice on her website.

Well written in plain, easy to understand and despite what she's telling people, quite friendly language. Probably still won't make a huge difference, but at least you can't say you haven't had fair warning when the letters from the lawyers come around.

In fact it was such a good notice warning about stealing intellectual property I was tempted to reproduce it in its entirity for my site.

Now where's my emoticon for irony?

Monday, 16 March 2009

Copyright and the Internet

An interesting analysis on why the newspaper industry is doomed.

Obviously file-sharing and free distribution of copyright material if taken to its extreme will mean that there's no money to be made in copyrighted works (unless those works can be produced in a format that prevents copying and free re-distributions (such as sculptures - I'd like to see one of those on Pirate Bay)).

Which will leave us with only the enthusiastic amateurs able to produce work - or the publicly funded bodies such as the BBC (assuming the licence fee hasn't been abolished by then).

In the short term, the convenience of the portability of books and newspapers (until/if ever e-readers take off in a big way) and the spectacle of big screen projection (until home cinema can match it) give a certain amount of protection to written works and film - and the fact that not all of the world's book/music/film consuming population practices file sharing. But as the technology continues to expand and as file sharing continues to gain in popularity, the current models for rewarding the creators of copyrighted works are going to become less and less effective.

So what are the options?

More public funding following the BBC model - perhaps some sort of entertainment tax - if you own a computer/digital reader/DCD burner you have to pay a licence fee to pay for the creation of content to watch? That was after all how the BBC's licence fee came about - to pay for programming on that newfangled device, the radio.

Plenty of problems evident with that model, but I do think it's a good argument for not abolishing the BBC's current funding just yet.

More product placement - or films entirely sponsored by companies. Certainly one way to increase the amount of commercial interference with art - and if the economic model is viable, I can certainly see this happening. It already has with various mini films produced for the Internet - so why not full length commercials with the likes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of McDonalds, or Star Wars VII: Attack of the iPhones?

An increased interest from artists in live shows. Although you can record theatre, concerts, etc, you can't reproduce the experience (yet). As a writer isn't it better if I earn a fee per performance of my play rather than getting no royalties from the illegal sharing of my book?

Public sponsorship - you want the next JK Rowling - well she's not going to publish it until enough people pay her upfront for it. Similar to the BBC licence fee, except here the money's going direct to the creator of the work. There will still be people getting it for free, but those who really want to read it (who would have bought the book in a non-file sharing world), will presumably still be willing to part with the cash. Of course this relies on having a significant enough readership in the first place.

Artists don't get rewarded and only create works of art for the sheer joy of it. Which means a lot less stuff from your favourite author who now has to work at the local supermarket to put bread on the table rather than being able to devote the whole working day to producing the next Discworld/Kay Scarpetta/Jack Ryan book.

None of those are solutions that I'd be happy with as they're either putting the patronage of the arts within the control of an even smaller group of people than we have currently, or they're introducing a fairly severe form of artistic Darwinism that selects work that best appeals to the lowest common denominator, not that necessarily encourages good work (although the two are not necessarily different).

I think it'll probably take much smarter people than me to come up with something that works. The fact is that as file-sharing increases, we're probably going to see an awful lot of different models tested. Most of them won't work. Some will, but we won't like them. Eventually we will find a new equilibrium, but without a doubt we're going to see sustaining a career in the arts become more difficult than it is now.

Why couldn't I have just wanted to become a plumber?

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Star Wars Marathon

Over the last couple of days I've sat down and watched (as opposed to standing up and watching) the Star Wars prequels again and a couple of episodes of the Clone Wars CGI cartoon.

I've noticed that I've started to wince a little less at some of the dialogue in the prequels. I think repeated viewings have helped me build up a tolerance to it. Or perhaps it was because I was also rewriting part of my novel at the same time (don't worry, I've made sure there's no bleed over) and I wasn't paying any attention.

There were a couple of things I thought (or perhaps re-thought) while I was watching:

Not all of the dialogue is bad. If you squint at the screen, plug up one ear and hum along with the Imperial March, it doesn't all sound that bad. Actually, there was even one romantic scene (or part of a scene) where I almost believed the dialogue between the two characters. Which was then spoiled by the bit that followed immediately after. It's like that all the way through - there are little gems of dialogue struggling to get through, but they're swamped by all the crap.

It still looks absolutely fantastic. As a visual director I think Lucas is superb - he's just very bad at directing actors, decent characterisation and writing dialogue. All the character stuff basically. The action scenes when no one is talking are superb. And he's continued to create (with a lot of visual designers helping) a fascinating universe. Naboo and Coruscant (which I know was created before the prequels, but it was the first time on film that it was properly explored) easily hold their own with the likes of Bespin and Tatooine.

The music easily holds its own with the first trilogy. The Otog Gunga themes are perfect old-school science fiction and the main themes Williams has invented for the three films (Duel of the Fates being the only one I can name off the top of my head) are brilliant. This is the John Williams who should be composing for the movies - not the guy who scored War of the Worlds.

Half the problems I have with the films would be solved if Anakin had been half a decade older in The Phantom Menace. It would certainly make the love story in Attack of the Clones more believable - not to mention allowing for the final battle to be more than 'oops'. There are a whole bunch of other things that I think could be changed in the films that would still leave the story intact, but would present it in a much better way. That's the thing that makes the prequel trilogy so frustrating to me - a few relatively easy fixes and it could have been so much better.

Still, it's easy to backseat drive - and even easier to fix the problems with someone else's story than it is to write one of your own.

Clone Wars cartoon on the other hand I have no complaints about - except that I would have liked to hear a few more of the actors from the films providing voices. Anakin (despite sounding quite a bit different) and Padme are fine as they are - but Ian McDiarmid had such a distinctive voice as Palpatine that it's a shame he wasn't used. Oh and I'm still not sure about the end theme - I like the way it starts, but I'd have preferred they went with a different tune rather than the disco version of Williams' theme that's been used.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Internet v Legitimate Media is one of my favourite websites. If you haven't come across it yet, it takes various rumours, urband legends and chain-email claims and tries to validate those that are authentic, or debunk those that are not. Here's an example about the evils of aspartame.

Shows you shouldn't trust anything you read on emails or the Internet. Which is why having legitimate journalists ferreting out the truth about things is so important and why newspapers and broadcast media are so much more reliable if you want the straight facts.

Or not.

Second time in two postings that I've referenced Charles Stross - I'm really getting lazy.

The link, for those even lazier than me who can't be bothered to click on it, is about a recent widely reported story about the cancer-inducing effects of tiny amounts of alcohol on women. At the time it sounded a little screwy to me and Mr Stross, who has bothered to do a little bit more research than I could, has highlighted several things wrong with the story. Which the reporters couldn't be bothered to check.

Of course if they had then they wouldn't have had the scare-mongering headlines they could use to sell their papers.

There are a couple of books that deal with this misreporting - Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner covers the misuse of statistics, usually caused by a lack of understanding about what they're actually telling you (or not as the case may be). My Trade by Andrew Marr looks mostly at newspaper journalism and gives a journalist/editor's view on the background behind the stories.

And the lesson in all of this is: you can't trust anyone to tell you the truth. You have to find it yourself.

I should have gone into writing greetings cards.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Being Late

Charles Stross commenting on George RR Martin's late delivery of the latest volume of his forest-endangering fantasy epic.

It's just as well I'm not published yet because it's taking me months to rewrite the final chapters of my novel. Although instead of writer's block or conflicting commitments, I've only got my own laziness to blame. And the fact that writing this thing has gone from being very easy to incredibly hard. If I had fans, I'm sure they'd end up vilifying me too.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Also ...

For those who don't know where the blog title came from and for those who ended up here looking for Firefly stuff (sorry but this is about as much as you'll get).

From "Trash" written by Ben Edlund and José Molina.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Political Correctness and Character

I think it's all too easy to bash political correctness as a bad thing. Certainly it keeps the tabloid papers going on slow news days, so for that reason alone we should perhaps be grateful. Beyond that though, I think the quest to avoid using language to denigrate people because they are different from the perceived norm is not an unworthy one.

However, in this attempt to avoid giving offense and to make sure that people are treated as equal, we've clearly lost the plot (which will be no news to followers of aforementioned tabloid publications). This isn't because it's no longer kosher to use racial slurs, derogatory terms for disabled people (or should that be differently abled (note my spell check is telling me that abled isn't even a word, which shows where politically correct language can get a bit too far up its own backside)), but because it seems that the behaviour arising from it has stopped treating those groups as real people.

Case in point (and the reason I started this post): there's been a recent poll conducted on behalf of the BBC and Channel 4 to look at how disabled people felt about their portrayal on television.

Shockingly the survey came up with the following findings:

Disabled people wanted to be portrayed realistically by programme makers - warts and all.

They wanted to see less targeted programmes - they found programmes focusing on disability to be a turn off.

They wanted to see more disabled people in regular programmes.

The fact that we need a survey to point out the bleeding obvious suggests how far we've yet to come. Unfortunately those trying to follow the politically correct line often still fail to see the real person behind the disability or the differently coloured skin.

In terms of writing I think it's important to consider characters in this light. Writing tends to swing from negative stereotypes to positive stereotypes. Both betray the truth and both fail to properly meet the requirements of the audience and of the minority group being portrayed.

Of course if we could get away from thinking about creating characters who represent a minority group and start thinking of them as characters who represent people then I think we'd be some way along the road to finding the right balance.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Why not writing is sometimes the best course of action

I've been sitting on my (allegedly) finished novel for a while now. Although I'd written the thing, been through every single word to check for errors and rewritten the end, I still didn't feel as if it was ready.

So I waited.

While I was waiting, I struggled to figure out what I was expecting from the wait. After all I had a good idea of where it went wrong and I had a few ideas about how I could fix it. But something in me balked at the idea.

I was probably just being lazy, not wanting to face writing any more words for the story. After all it took me weeks (months?) before I wrote the epilogue chapter that it so desperately needed. However, a couple of days ago I realised that I was wrong with my idea of where the story went wrong. It actually went wrong about a chapter before the place I though needed rewriting. At least if I start the rewrite at that earlier point, the alteration to the story should flow a lot easier.

And that was what I'd been waiting for. The reason I've been sitting doing nothing about sorting out the story was because I was making it too hard for myself. Rewriting at the later point would have been more effort for less reward.

Sometimes it's good to be lazy.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Plot Points and Character Arcs

Brief anecdote: several years ago when I was still using online sites to get feedback on my writing one of the people reviewing a script of mine congratulated me for hitting the first pinch point on exactly the right page. He then proceeded to take me to task for not getting all the other points on the right pages.

One of the things I could have pointed out to him at the time was that due to my funky formatting, what he was taking as page 27 was probably closer to being page 25, so I missed the initial pinch point too. I didn't bother to mention it though.

A recent thread on Wordplay has been concerned over a different screenwriting term - whether there's a need to have a character arc in every story. I'd like to question whether there's a need to use the term 'character arc' at all, let alone have one.

There's a lot of terminology that gets thrown about regarding screenwriting especially, other writing not so much. Much of it seems to derive from self-help books that are more often written by screenwriting analysts rather than successful screenwriters.

As a result I'd put much of it on the Helpful to Writers Scale at somewhere around 3/10. Character arcs, plot points, pinch points, or whatever new terms the latest writing guru has created to sell his/her book are all useful if applied AFTER the screenplay has been finished and taken with a pinch of salt when doing so.

And that's only if you know you have a problem with the story but can't quite put your finger on what's wrong. Although frankly if that's the case then I'd suggest ditching the script and starting on your next one because you probably either need distance or more experience to solve the problem.

Where all these wonderful terms should be ignored (I'd say must, but that starts to sound like I'm inventing rules instead) is in actually writing the story. It's certainly important to understand how to pace a story, how to create compelling characters and so on - but slavishly ensuring that you tick off every single box in the Screenwriter's Workbook is not going to guarantee anything more than the appreciation of the other terminology slaves.