Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Epic Fantasy - how I fell out of love

It's Robert Jordan's fault really.

Let me explain.

I discovered fantasy fiction at the tender age of six, when my Grampy leant me his copy of the Hobbit. Two  years later I read Lord of the Rings, in a weekend, and I was pretty much lost to the world of realism from that point on. I'd already devoured books of myths and, as I come from a family of readers, trips to the library were common. I worked my way through the Green Smoke books, Rosemary Sutcliffe's historical novels and other books, but I always returned to fantasy and science fiction. This early deluge may be why, when my other Grandfather, who lived further away and seldom saw us, gave me Ladybird versions of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Hound of the Baskervilles they were digested and found to be somewhat disappointing. In retrospect it was the fact he told me my spine would break free of my body crawl across the floor... which it didn't, because they were Ladybird books.

This may be why I have a strange sense of how quickly people learn to read too, it feels odd that children aren't ready for the books I read at the age I was even now.

Back to Fantasy. I spent my teen years reading pretty much nothing but fantasy fiction, devouring everything from David Eddings and D&D novels to the weird heights of Michael Moorcock and Tad Williams. It wasn't until I went to university that I moved on in any significant fashion, and then not far, only to urban fantasy and horror. A big part of the move away from fantasy was that I'd overfaced myself, read myself raw. I was becoming jaded by scullions and farm boys that just so happened to be the long lost heir to the throne and somehow became real kings, not puppet rulers. I was tired of magic swords and what I suppose Twitter would call #fantasyworldproblems.

A big part of this was to do with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. It is a huge, thirteen book series that took something like twenty years to write, publish and develop and during which the author had a heart attack and would eventually die before it's completion. It is truly epic in every sense of the word and it hits just about every cliche under the sun. Poor boys with great destinies, check. Princesses in need, check. Hideous monsters in service to an undying evil, check. You get the picture. The teenage me enjoyed the books anyway, delighting in the power fantasy they represented. Every battle, every new piece of weirdness and sorcery was carefully treasured for about nine books or so. Even the Aes Sedai, Jordan's witches with their agendas and guile were cool when I was a teenager (to balance things, Elric of Melnibone seems a lot cooler when I was a teenager too).

Ultimately the series was too long, too involved and eventually too insulting for me to continue. My girlfriend (now my wife) pointed out how many women got spanked and how many of them were cardboard thin, caricature bitches, with few redeeming qualities and I started to feel uncomfortable with that - in the same way that I've become uncomfortable with orcs, unless they have a context outside of 'barbarous evil people who exist only to harass the heroes'. Even Tolkien added in context eventually, making the orcs twisted, brutalised elves.

So by and large I gave up on the genre. I read a little, mostly Deverry and tried to read Tad Williams' Shadowmarch series, but I didn't really enjoy it. I did enjoy things like the Lankhmar books and Poul Anderson's books, still Fantasy but on a very different scale and tapping into a very different atmosphere. Chiefly I enjoyed the new ideas and, Deverry aside, the fact that one book was one book: I didn't have to read a huge load in order to follow the story. Where there were sequels they also stood alone: Heaven!

Its only in the last couple of years that I've come back to Fantasy in any real sense.What swung it was actually going to FantasyCon and listening to writers talk about their work. Hearing Juliet McKenna and Adrian Tchaikovsky and others talk about their work was enough to pique my interest, as was the fact that, honestly, Fantasy has moved on. Elves and orcs have fallen out of fashion, as have wizards and for the first time I remember not only had Fantasy swung free of Tolkien's Shadow but also the shadow of the Cold War. A more republican feeling, of all things, has sprung up. The stories aren't of lost princes and pale princesses but thieves and spies, revolutionaries and slaves. I'm sure there are Fantasy books about the nobility (Game of Thrones for one), though a lot of that feeling seems to have gone to Steampunk, but the stuff I've read has been firmly grounded in other places and time. It feels as if the Medievalism of the 80s and 90s has been jettisoned in favour of something more in line with the here and now. Whither Tolkien's dark technocratic future in books like Shadows of the Apt with the Apt races' war machines and air ships, or in Lies of Lock Lamora's strange gizmos? Whither the king's return? If anything Fantasy seems to have adopted the same strategy as SF, holding a mirror up to the world wherever it can, something I welcome.

This isn't to say I'm entirely sold. I'm still going slowly, frightened that this blushing love of mine will sour. For the moment I'm going softly, reading slowly and savouring what I read.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Hidden Treasures: The Books Only You Seem To Have Read

I think we all have them, books we love that nobody else seems to have read, or even heard of. I was honestly taken aback to see a friend mention the White Crow books by Mary Gentle on Twitter the other day, if only because most people don't even seem to know who she is, let alone remember gems like Rats and Gargoyles.

It got me thinking, what other books are there that nobody else I know seems to have read?

And so I made a little list...

1 Silk by Caitlin R Kiernan

Kiernan's first novel was a heady mixture of Lovecraftian horror and the Goth scene and established her voice as a genuine outsider, something that shoots through her work. I came to read it as a result of her her work on the Dreaming, and the chronicle of Spider Baxter's strange transformation and the legacy it left seemed strange and wonderful.

2 The White Crow novels by Mary Gentle

Beautifully written and esoteric, the first of the books, Rats and Gargoyles introduced me to a completely different type of fantasy, jettisoning a lot of the familiar stuff that mired Fantasy in the early 1990s. There were no young farm boys or scullions waiting for the quest to reveal their true identities, no good Gods warring with the evil outcast in a sub Tolkienesque world. Instead there were machines, rats and the Fane... It was heavy, literary and wonderful.

3 Lovely Biscuits by Grant Morrison

A collection of short stories that sum up so much of Morrison's work and which are by turns, strange, disturbing and breathless. Whether its the homage to Sherlock Holmes in the Room Where Love Lives or the sheer odd weight of Lovecraft in Heaven, Lovely Biscuits marks the road that Morrison has walked extremely well.

4 Jago by Kim Newman

Newman is probably most popular for his marvellous Anno Dracula stories, but Jago is the novel which disturbs me most, mixing Millennium Fever, psychic power and time travel in a heady, horrific mix rivalled only the Quorum.

5 The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

Beautifully wrought, this novel traces an artist's encounters with the spirits of the Arizona desert as she seeks her muse. It's full of lovely images and has a deeply moving plot. Again, its one of the books I found in the 1990s after I moved away from epic Fantasy and onto the more Contemporary variety. In this case I'd read Blood Red, Snow White and was intrigued by the idea of the Wood Wife. It seemed very much in line with my interests.

All these books remain firm favourites of mine, though they don't get read as much as I'd like because of time constraints.

What are yours?

Communication

Something that's been rolling about in my head for a while is how weird communication is. We live in a world that's replete with ways to talk to each other but it only seems to make it more tenuous.

Most of us have probably sent emails that we feel are urgent, only to receive the inbox version of a tumble weed. We do it with texts too, letting them sit on our phones, unanswered. I suppose we do it because they lack the immediacy of a phone call; they're static things that don't complain they're neglected, in direct contrast to the nagging tone of the telephone. Even if the person who sent them is going frantic because the lack of response looks and feels galling, we can just ignore them: the object is divorced from emotion, and from time.

Social media seems to have the same timeless feeling. Something I tweeted ages ago (which went through to Facebook) sat untouched on my feed for ages. I expect that sort of  reaction with Twitter because, to be honest, I barely use it and I'm a novice there. Posting the same thing direct to Facebook over a month later, brought more responses but it looks as if people are still finding it. In some ways that's rather lovely, like having a tiny little surprise hidden on my timeline but it seems odd at the same time. It makes time feel chopped up, rather than linear.

You can be a time traveller at a click of a button, even if it is only in cyberspace (though that arguably applies to the whole internet).

To an extent this tendency to ignore the written is natural, most of what suggests communication is urgent relies on visual things, on things hardwired into body language; not a little red flag or sound effect.The rest of it is in the voice, not the words but the pitch, tone etc.

I like it, myself, but that's because my brain remembers things I read far more efficiently than things I hear. I appreciate the clean lines of it too, the fact that to use it properly you almost have to unpack what you're saying is something I find helpful as it lets me understand my point better. I do understand why other people aren't comfortable with it. I'm trying to cut back on the amount of email I send but I also think its important to understand there's a difference between saying, briefly, that you would like to discuss it face to face and just ignoring it. For one thing one opens up the experience of communication and the other is, to my mind, just rude (if inevitable).

I don't know what the solution is and obviously I'm not saying that you should answer all email, especially if the sender's offering you amazing deals on enlarging your penis or the chance to get lots of money from Nigeria. Those are definitely things to stay away from. I suppose I'm just noting the strangeness of it and the time twisting nature of the 'net and offering a plea to respond to emails or (safe) things you find on the 'web. There's someone else on the end of that email, waiting for your response after all.


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Ten Favourite Books by Ten Favourite Authors (who Happen to be Women)

This isn't the snappiest title in the shop, and I'm shamelessly stealing the idea from one of Juliet E Mckenna's recent tweets, where she said she'd love to see something like this in print (well, what else are you going to do?). With my act of daring theft done, I started to put this list together. It feels a bit odd, I'm conscious that I'm a man, and as such this may seem patronising, which isn't my intent here at all. I'm trying to approach it as a reader rather than being defined by anything else.

I don't know that there's a particular order to the books, mostly I've just put them down as they occurred to me.

1) Storm Constantine: The Monstrous Regiment

One of the Constantine's first novels, Monstrous Regiment depicts a matriarchy on an alien planet and it pulls no punches. It strips the fairytale or golden age elements from the idea of this system of government in favour of a full bore assault, reflecting the idea that power corrupts, and power corrupts absolutely. Is that in anyway indicative of the time the novel was written, when Mrs Thatcher was in power and being disowned by feminists left, right and centre? Perhaps but the fact remains that Monstrous Regiment is powerful and hard hitting.




2) Lauren Beukes: Zoo City

The first Beukes I read, shortly after FantasyCon in... ooh 2010 I think. The subject is fascinating and the
novel provides a window into a different culture, one that is a curious mix of Western and African. The ideas in the book pop and left me wanting more - if only to get an explanation of why the animal spirits had emerged in the first place, why they chose the people they did and what the purpose of it all was. The characters are vibrant and exciting, Sloth in particular made me smile.
3) Margaret Atwood: Year of the Flood

To my shame I haven't read Atwood's most famous novel yet (I have it on my Kindle, waiting). Year of the Flood really impressed me though, the story it tells is strong, apposite and (whisper it) good science fiction. The world is well told and feels as if it might happen in a few decades' time, which is rare. The action of the novel feels apocalyptic all the way through and the way the plot develops illustrates not only the destructive way capitalism undermines society and community but the dangers of fringe religions.





4) Poppy Z Brite: Liquor

The first of Brite's non horror novels, Liquor focuses on two gay chefs setting up their own restaurant where
everything is alcohol related. It's well written and was a good move away from her horror books, essentially she reinvented herself through the book. The book is coarse and shallow, wonderfully so and the characters jump off the page. Brite does not pull her punches, choosing to let her creation breathe and flow, throwing little jokes; the book is more human than her horror novels.





5) Caitlin R Kiernan: The Red Tree

One of my favourite writers, Caitlin's work reaches out to the dispossessed and the lost. The Red Tree is a particularly strong example, focusing on an author who takes a house on Rhode Island in an effort to get her mojo flowing again by cutting the world away and in doing so opens a Pandora's Box of terrifying events with a singular tree as the central motif. The work taps into many sources, from Lovecraft to New England's folklore and creates a scarier, nastier feeling to the closest thing I can think of (in this case, Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood)







6) Juliet E McKenna: Darkening Skies

This book slew me. Not in a funny way, but in the way it presented a realistic slice of fantasy fiction and
forced me to think about how different a medieval culture would be to the one we have now. The characters are well rendered, the action well written. The relationships between men and women are strikingly drawn, leaving no doubt what lies at the heart of the novel beyond the concept of 'what if wizards went to war'. I remain of the opinion that McKenna is one of the writers doing the most not only to write good fantasy but to attach it to some sort of reality and use it to comment on the real world.





7) Freda Warrington: Dark Cathedral

I read this during the 1990s and only once. That's not to say it's not a favourite, it is well written and gripping
and a good read. But its quite nasty in a very human way and once experienced I found I did not really want to go back to it. Warrington makes good points about the fringe of Christianity, the churches that are more cult than congregation and about the nature of the faith itself, underscoring it with a good foundation of Pagan thought. At times it does peter off into cliche but the plot keeps moving and I'd recommend it to anyone. Just only read it once.






8) Sam Stone: Zombies of New York and Other Stories

Sam is definitely a unique voice in the horror and, whilst she's an acquired taste, this book of short stories is
fantastic, especially when the stories move from her vampire fiction to more general horror tales. She writes lushly, illustrating her tales with enough detail to unsettle but not enough to sicken, even in the Toy Maker's House. The book is a lovely little collection of stories that demonstrate the range the author has, tackling killer clowns, Jack the Ripper and other subjects in all their grisly glory.






9) Emma Newman: Between Two Thorns

Another author I rave about, Emma Newman's work is vibrant and passionate. The Split Worlds series is brilliant in that it confronts our obsession with the past (in British culture at least) and pretty ruthlessly comparies it with the lot of people who aren't members of the upper classes. The books, which are in part 'pure feminist rage' in the author's own words make a nice parable for the modern age, where so much of the time we're told that battles have been won and now things can be allowed to progress 'naturally'.

This underlines for me one of the great things about the genre, the fact it can call out things about the world we live in and discuss them.


10) Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber

A beautiful collection of fairy tales, written from a feminist perspective, the Bloody Chamber does a lot to
break the image of women as pale, pure victims of circumstance to being protagonists in their own right - it explores the idea that there's a 'beast in woman too'. Carter's voice is powerful and intelligent, compassionate and wise.

And that's the lot!

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The View From Here

It's a funny thing time, I'm never sure if it goes too slowly or too fast.

Half way up my mountain, it seems as if this semester has gone in a blur of the other currency, and that I've been struggling to keep up. I'm doing Screenwriting this term and, if I'm honest, I've found it hard. Film doesn't feel like my natural language, I like film but I struggle to watch anything for too long; people who know me know that I'm not one for telly. I can only really settle to watching something when I'm at the cinema or what I'm watching is animated. Otherwise, if I'm honest, just sitting watching feels too passive, I prefer the more active, intimate, experience of reading. And I'm picky anyway, there are huge swathes of films I've not watched just because they have 'that guy' in them (asking me to remember actors' names is like asking me to do nuclear physics - doomed from the start, unless it's someone like Edward Woodward or Christopher Lee).

I wanted to do the module though in part because I think being able to write screen plays is a very useful skill to have, in part because it will hopefully make it easier to craft things like radio plays, comics and other non novel and prose shaped objects. It feels very versatile and like something I could use a great deal.

It's just not my natural way of telling stories.

Despite that, I think I'm getting there - it's just the work load feels heavier this term than it did in the spring. My novel work has stalled (again) in favour of mastering the new technique and the 'finish by Christmas' dream is well and truly popped. I hope to get some more of it done at the Christmas break but we'll have to see. On the plus side the people I farmed out what I've already written have all pretty much given me good feedback, which makes me happy.

I got my proposal for my Final Project in yesterday, which is gratifying (and I hope they take it because otherwise I'm at a loss as to what to do). The idea for the piece is a book of short stories in the world of one of my unpublished stories, Sacrifices. What I want to do is tell a set of stories which meld myth, fairy tale and folklore with fantasy fiction, making stories which explore female archetypes in fantastic settings with a snifter of feminism on the side. The genesis of the project actually lies with Sam Stone, who read Sacrifices in the summer and suggested that I expand the world and add more stories to flesh out the other characters.

I've mentioned authors like Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Juliet E McKenna and Emma Newman as being inspirations and touchstones for what I want to do; hopefully getting a balance between the various elements. Weirdly, my undergraduate dissertation was a political pieces about representation of gender in science fiction, largely coming down on the side that generally SF tows the line by sidelining female characters into traditional roles. Nearly twenty years later, I'm doing another piece that again focuses on gender, its just that this time the political angle is nowhere to be seen (or perhaps is relegated to third position, as I don't believe it's possible to talk about anything without some sort of political angle creeping in... )

Beyond that, it's just more climbing up the mountain.


Saturday, 16 November 2013

Gaming: A Sorta Manifesto

One of my distractions at the moment is gaming. Not actually doing it (I'm hoping to start an all female game of Night's Black Agents, which  I must confess I'm really looking forward to; but for my main group I'm still on a break), but just thinking about it.

This has taken a few different modes, first realising that I've been far too conciliatory on some levels. I've given ground on games I like and really want to play in the name of getting some sort of game which all the players can grasp, even to the extent of taking a 'high concept only' route at one point to ease the way. If I couldn't explain a game's concept in 25 words or fewer I simply didn't pitch it... not ideal when I really want games about urban magic and conspiracies not only to control the world but to bind its imagination in webs so tight that aberrant thoughts become near to impossible. This has been coupled with a black mood where I worry that going back to my gaming group means having to accept that playing games focused on fighting and really simple concepts is the only way I'm going to get to game, leaving me wondering what to do with regards to this. Running Night's Black Agents is going to be fun, but it's a stop gap, not a solution. Sooner or later I have to deal; either I need to change, to find a new gaming group or find a way to make what I want mainstream for my old group.

I flashback to something one of my players said about Yggdrasil, 'that will be different' and find myself asking 'how?' - wishing for something to change doesn't make it so, unfortunately, and the games I've played recently really make me feel like bashing stuff is the only game in town. Also, as I've commented in the past, I feel as if my taste in genres and what I want to
run is out of step with everyone else, which is creating a problem for me. I did find myself wondering about buying FFG's Deathwatch game just to run as a straight forward combat simulator, but even before I got it I was thinking that it wouldn't take, its not in my nature to run something like that - poisoned histories, grail quests and the Knights Templar filled my imagination. I'm still not sure, I might get it, but it seems unlikely.

Increasingly though, I'm trying to express what I do want in a game, to build a manifesto for my gaming (yeah I know, how '80s) and put things into context. I work best in the written form so that's why I'm trying to do this, and I figured I'd put it up here, with justifications for each part.

1) Talk to the players before the game starts to establish common ground and focus, be that fighting, intrigue, socialising, exploration or what have you. Partly this is here because there's no point letting someone design a detective if your games going to be all ass kicking and fights. Likewise there's no point letting someone build a fighter if most of your game will take the player characters to soirees and balls to learn secrets. As a GM I feel quite strongly (possibly as a result of previous GMs approving what seemed to turn out to be fifth wheel PCs, my recent Face in Shadowrun being one of them - without wanting to sound bitter, but when most of a session is fighting, being the guy whose main skill set lets him convince elf gangers they've won a tater tots promotion kind of feels like a stupid choice) that there needs to be a strong guide on what's needed, even for 'entry level' games like D&D and Shadowrun. The old 7th Sea game had a table for this kind of thing, dividing the game into a number of focus areas (combat, intrigue, exploration and romance were the main ones as far as I remember) and I'm wondering about bringing it back.

This would also allow for a discussion of genre - having played in 7th Sea and seen players neither take risks (okay that's partially because the mechanics were a bit wonky) nor operate according to the 'only the big villain gets killed, everyone else gets knocked out' trope and in a silver age supers game where two of the heroes were intent on being killers, I don't think it's possible to undersell how important this kind of discussion is. Most genres are so broad that they've become suggestions rather than prescriptions. A space opera game could be in line with Star Wars, Star Trek, Farscape, Firefly or Iain Banks' Culture novels (personally I'd like to play something akin to Charles Stross' Saturn's Children with the characters being robots in a post human universe). Other genres have similar issues with breadth which convinces me that they've almost become a lazy way of signposting intention.

The other side of this is, that with a few exceptions, I really don't think the GM should generate everything for a campaign; players have to take a turn, especially if we want to break away 'frustrated novelist' stuff but have games that aren't just dungeon crawling and beating up guys for having different colour skin or bad employment choices. White Wolf used to call this 'open campaign planning' and it's become more and more appealing as time's gone by. The problem here of course is that there's a strongly ingrained culture in gaming of a) the GM and players are opponents and b) the player's job is to turn up and play, and nothing else and this idea challenges that, even after twenty years of games trying erode it.

2) Get a number of 'facts' for each character, I think three or five would be best. These can be anything from 'likes cinnamon buns' to 'killed his father as a child to stop him beating his mother up', anything that lets the character come to life is fine. A huge history isn't necessary, one thing that's cool about Numenera are the tables to create connections to other characters and fill in background without it becoming overwhelming. In the same way that FATE's character gen gives just enough history without filling in every little piece: that's what you need for a book character, not an RPG one. For everything else 3 or 5 facts feel like the happy medium.

3) Keep it social. I don't really care about the context but I like it if the characters can sit down somewhere and socialise, that they have peers and connections who aren't all job related. Think about Elysium in the Vampire games or the Caern in Werewolf the Apocalypse, it's not just a place to get plots moving, but a
place where the player characters can be themselves without being on edge; that's important. The opposite, where the characters exist in a perfect bubble with nobody else in their social circle except for the other PCs and job related NPCs, feels false. I'll concede that in the past I've gone too far the other way, trying to build worlds in the background with no real expectation that the players try to engage (because real life doesn't work like that and I like immersion). Nowadays I try to fight the urge to overfill the setting with plots unless I'm serious about people following them.

4) Try to play around with adventure structures as much as possible, always starting at the beginning can get boring whereas in media res and using flashbacks feels more natural and interesting to break the game up. Nothing is more fun than variation.

As an addendum I'd also add limiting the number of subplots player characters can carry at any one time, a game of Legend of the Five Rings I ran ended up with one player dominating the game because his character was so busy poking his nose into things; eventually he was dominating the game so much that it felt like the rest of the players might as well not have bothered turning up and he was just stressing me out. So, I think I'm going to limit subplots to three per player and asking them to pick one they want to focus on rather than just trying to keep all the balls in the air.

5) I also want to get away as much as possible from the trope of 'group x are bad guys', where that means blurring into what feels like quasi racist or elitist roles. I know it's stupid, on one level we're talking about fiction and make believe so it doesn't matter what they are. On the other hand it leaves a bad taste in my
mouth unless there's a strong reason in game behind it - if there are Orcs for instance then it's fine if they were corrupted by an evil god or something; a Victorianesque idea of them being evil because they're savage and uncivilised is offensive though. I feel the same about corp security in cyberpunk games, why should they get the metaphorical red shirt simply because they have to work for a mega corporation?

Here I should explain, I'm happy to use cults and villainous groups of mean people in games, especially if they're full of people who have either made a free choice or been brainwashed into going along with the mean people's plan. If the bulk of the cult's members are willing participants, happy to support a plan to resurrect Akhenaten because it will make them fabulously rich and powerful? Hell yeah, bring your guns and explosives, administer a nitro glycerin enema and do star jumps for I care. They made their choice and went along with something evil.

Brainwashed dupes present another issue, but one that I hope would dealt with sensitively.

Pointing at a bunch of people who are green and barbarous (as is the case of Warhammer's Orcs) and saying 'evil' comes across a completely different level and as signed up bleeding heart liberal pinko scum, I'm uncomfortable with that.

6) Reward creativity, keep combat to quick fights that don't bog down the session and try to encourage the players to be creative in combat - too often it seems that it bogs down to 'I hit him' or 'I shoot him', which is dull, dull, dull. I really like Exalted's stunt system for that, it gives players a reason to push further and do some grandstanding with a set of mechanics to back them up. Added to this though is a desire to get conflicts resolved more peacefully, through negotiation rather than just by violence. I was really heartened when my friend Bert told me that his group had defeated an encounter with giants by talking to them rather than reaching for their swords. This is what I'd like in my games.

7) It's not what you fight, it's what you fight for: this credo, taken from the Mouseguard comic, underscores my last point, which relates to game structure in general. I've grown quite tired of the trope of characters being a group of plucky adventurers who wander the land taking jobs. It feels false (especially in a fantasy game where the ability to travel would likely be restricted, how many villeins took holidays or even went on pilgrimages?) and cuts down on the dramatic possibilities of a game quite a lot - most drama comes from social interaction and conflicting drives; you can't have that if you're constantly on the road and you're not likely to come back that way again. In addition to this, having something to fight for lets the characters aspire to something greater than just loot.

Oddly that seems to be all I can think of, making the manifesto conveniently short. I don't think any of the things I've put are unreasonable and to be honest I'm baffled as to why they aren't standard practice for  gamers, perhaps they are. I'm conscious that a lot of what I'm suggesting are more cinematic or novel like fixes for things and would take things away from the traditional shape of most games. I'm actually pretty happy about that.



Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Remembrance

I'm late to the party with this, mostly because I get my news second hand these days (I stopped paying attention when it became clear the game was over and we live in a elected dictatorship where the only things that change are the faces, not the policies). Putting my bitter, cynical shell aside for the moment (if I can, I mean it's really tasty); when I found out about this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24440923, through Charles Stross' site I felt I should say something (honestly, I think we should).

It seem fairly typical of our Prime Minister that he would try to co-opt the centenary of the First World War for his own ends (and why are we celebrating the start, should we not mark the end instead?). It fits with so much of what he's done during his tenure of the position; from the bread and circuses of the Diamond Jubilee and the Royal Wedding to the historical stumble that put Britain in a supporting role during World War 2 during a visit to the USA, this is a man who favours a sideshow and has no grasp of history.

I wouldn't dispute that remembrance is important, but the idea of celebrating the war in any form is one I find bizarre, given the cost in human lives. In fact I'd say that to even use the word is disrespectful and the idea that the Great War was in someway linked to freedom and democracy (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/08/poppy-last-time-remembrance-harry-leslie-smith) one that is just damn insulting, unless its to say 'yeah thanks to this we got some' even if that was more a reaction to the Russian Revolution than the war itself. This is an event that was a watershed moment for the world, the beginning of the end of Europe's imperial dreams, and the rise of the USA into some sort of prominence. In many ways those four years were the most important in the entire 20th Century. Without them we would probably live in a world the resembled that of the Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock, abandoned by scientific development and lost to democracy. Without them most of Europe would be ruled by tin pot hereditary dictatorships and Britain would never have become a true democracy. It's absolutely right that we take a moment to reflect on that and on the lives lost in this most inane and horrific of wars, and why things have scarcely got better a century on.

On another level, for the British it was a crumbling of the stiff upper lip and the end of the Victorian certainties that had so defined their worlds. It was the loss of confidence that being British meant something; economically and politically it left the empire spent. The war's legacy left a long shadow in the form of shell shock and injured men. Red poppies replaced white feathers, the last hurrah of confidence - 'it will all be over by Christmas' - was a view espoused by a population that was out of step with technology; even the military didn't understand the new face of war (echoes of that resound even now). Field Marshal Haig tried to use cavalry on the fields of northern France: they were cut to ribbons by maxim guns. In this sense it feels, to me, like trotting out a huge celebration would not only be inappropriate but an attempt to resurrect something that's been dead a century. There's a lot of that about at the moment, a real sense of 'the rich man in his parlour, the poor man at his gate'. It sticks in my craw frankly, is this what our ancestors fought for?

Remembrance Day's meaning has changed for me over the past few years. I used to wear a red poppy but in recent years I've started to buy white ones instead. To me the red poppy has become a jingoistic symbol; something that glorifies the war rather than remembers the damage it wrought and the lives it shattered both in Britain and across the Commonwealth (not to mention in France, America, Germany, Austria... you get the idea). The photo of the Royal British Legion's Poppy Day in Manchester shows a girl in a tee shirt with 'future soldier' on it, which seems a far cry from the 'War to End All Wars' that I grew up with.http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/news-events/news/poppy-appeal/manchester-celebrates-fundraising-success-for-our-armed-forces. I'm uncomfortable with the sentiment, it implies we've given up on the idea of not going to war, even though there's nobody to really threaten us (outside of terrorists and, frankly armies and wars seem to breed more not fewer of those), which in turn implies that like TV or video games, war has become another distraction, another way to keep the population quiet. That isn't anything new of course, arguably the USA has been doing it since World War 2 ended and its a trick that goes back to the Ancient World. Perhaps its just that a century is a long time and the people who fought in it are largely dead; its been repurposed for a new age: as a lodestone of national identity in a society where globalised capitalism is rapidly rendering such things meaningless.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Halloween Hijinks

Last night was a brilliant one, for a number of reasons.

Firstly it was my wedding anniversary yesterday, my wife and I have been married five years and I feel blessed that she sticks with me through everything. We exchanged gifts but spent most of the day asleep because we were both tired.

In the evening, we went out to a night of horror readings, organised by the marvellous Fringeworks/Darkside Press. We had readings from Theresa Derwin, Jasper Bark and many others. All the stories and readers were brilliant. It was great too to see some other folks, Catherine and Laurence from Crafty Miss Kitty were there for instance and its always great to see them.

RPGs: things I like

As mentioned a while ago I've stopped playing RPGs for the time being.

What I'm doing instead is reading and thinking about games and what I want to get out of them.

I've been particularly taken with FATE and some of its bolt ons (that's rude in the Isle of Man apparently, which means I'll be using it as often as possible). Specifically I like the game creation idea in the core rulebook, the idea that the players and GM decide the setting together is something I've been chasing for a long time. I love the idea of a game where everyone chips in details and ideas equally and you all develop it together.

In the light of this, Diaspora's cluster generation system seems particularly good and I've had some fun mucking around with generating worlds and their relationships. I like the fact that even though Diaspora is a hard SF game (for hard SF read, no gravity drives, no psionics, no real alien races and so on) the cluster generation system is clearly portable and could be used to make islands for an archipelago game or even towns in a weird west or fantasy setting, simply by changing some words. I love this; its quite elegant and clever. It allows everyone to pitch in (the idea is that everyone creates the setting, echoing the sentiment in the new core rulebook, the only difference is that there's some systemisation and slightly less spitballing).

The other thing I love about FATE addresses something one of the guys I play with has raised, that character
history is often neglected for the sake of having an effective game piece and he often feels he doesn't know who his character is. My fear here has always been that I'll be presented with an immense history that I then have to navigate my way around to get characters involved in the game. FATE encourages some sketching out of history but channels it into Aspects (statements that players can use in the game or that the GM can tag to compell them to do things). There's also a group building element here, there's no chance of 'you're in a pub and an old man approaches you with a treasure map' because the chareacdters should all have histories that mix, creating a party with shared history from the very beginning. It seems to offer the best of both worlds; effective character history with enough detail but not so much as to make the character unplayable!


Another game I've been enjoying reading and hope to have a go at is Numenera. Here the attraction is in the way that XP is handled. The focus of the game is exploration and the XP system goes out to reward that, along with rewarding the players for accepting set backs and difficulties. Whilst the former takes the form of being given points for finding cool stuff (or terrible stuff, or old stuff) the latter works on the idea of 'GM Intrusions', which sounds like something to do with the Manx bolt on. Actually what it means is that if the GM makes life difficult for a player - say someone who's sneaking through a house treads on a squeaky floorboard, or a soldier with sweaty hands loses their grip on their sword - the player gets a couple of XP, or can spend an XP to knock the complication back. The thing I really like is that if they accept the intrusion they have to share their reward with another player, theoretically encouraging a more communal style of play where people cooperate more. This is something I like, if only because frequently PvP is a pain the proverbial.

Essentially I think I'm pushing towards something more cooperative with the GM seen not as an enemy but as someone to work with and where the mechanics support more group play. Next up I'll be reading Gumshoe games I think.





Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Three Wishes

If you could make three wishes, what would they be?

I started thinking about this partly because of the Split Worlds books, where the protagonist, Cathy, is granted three wishes and wastes two of them almost immediately. The third, turns out to be the truly defining moment for the character in one of those 'wishes versus work' sorts of ways that are so prevalent in modern fairy tales.Admittedly I finished reading those a couple of weeks ago and I've only just throught of doing this post... the wheels of my brain must grind slow.

The other thing that made me wonder is the Museum of Curiousities, the BBC radio show that's currently on (and had both Amanda Palmer and Andrew O'Neill on in a brilliant episode, if you can find it have a listen). It prompted me to remember that both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman contributing devices concerning time, or the lack of it.

That's my starting point I have to admit: I wish I had more time.  In between work, commuting and all the rest of it, time seems to be in short supply especially as it looks like I may have to spend more time at work and commuting (honestly Birmingham's roads just get stupid around this time of year, commutes stretch up to over an hour some mornings). Losing an hour to a long commute (as has happened twice this week) sends me into a tizz, how can I claw back the time? It means working late, that means getting back home late and then playing catch up with other things. It seems to have a knock on effect, I honestly thought, and hoped, it was Thursday today.

Time is a sort of currency in itself, "the minute in your pocket" (as Terry Pratchett's put it) has value whether you acknowledge it or not. Weirdly it seems to operate in direct opposition to the amount of money you earn: the more you earn the less time you have (well officially) and vice versa. Perhaps that's why, at heart, we don't value time as a currency, you can't buy anything with it but hard work, dreams and good memories.

Related to this is wish number 2: I wish I had more energy. I want to write in the evenings and at weekends, but often I feel so tired out that all I can do is sit and stare at the 'net for a while. It's got better than it was in the past, I get something written everyday these days, even if its only a slice of fiction rather than the full 2000 words I want to reach. All the same, I hate the feeling that after a day's work I'm effectively useless, good for nothing but reading and listening to the radio (this is one of my problems with the way capitalism is constructed, it seems to me that by insisting on long hours, unless you can express yourself via your work, you're not likely to because you'll be too tired. There's a reason why television and the internet are so popular, you don't have to go out to use them and they don't really require much effort).

I really need to look at the way I eat and work things out to make sure I get more energy in the evenings. Perhaps doing some sort of stretching exercise would help? I admit I shy away from exercise, ironically because it always seems to be a case of the 'you need to do at least twenty minutes', which with warm ups, cool downs and so on, transforms into... over an hour, which doesn't fit my lifestyle (up at 6.00, out of the door before 7.30, out of work at 5.00, home to cook by 6.00 and the day being done and dusted by 7.30 or 8.00 so I can write or work on my coursework and in bed by 11.00).

My third wish would be...for my wife to be pain free and healthy.

Of course those are sensible wishes (and arguably in reverse order now that I think about it). My silly wishes would probably be quite different - I just can't think of anything at the moment.

What would yours be?



Monday, 21 October 2013

Cold Turkey

So... Things have changed.

A few weeks ago I withdrew from my gaming group. There were a few reasons, partially the fact that I want to focus on writing meant that having a day off during the week really disrupted the flow of the book, making it harder to get back into it. Given that I often have to force myself to write and fight off the distractions, I felt I was struggling to get anything done.

The other reason was similar to the one my friend mentioned when he quit - though in my case it wasn't that it felt like we couldn't get a long game out of it but that in many ways it feels like all the games we play have become, 'bash things and get loot'. In some ways it feels like the first gaming I did, back in Uni, was more grown up and I miss the feeling of 'stretch' that came from playing games like Mage. It also makes games feel predictable, it 's just a matter of counting the minutes to guns being pulled out, swords drawn and the tedium that is combat in most RPG systems being unleashed (how many ways can there be to say 'I hit him'?).

There were a few other problems, it felt like everything we played had slipped into a continuum of 'summer blockbuster' gaming, partly linked to the overdependence on combat but also, frankly, on what seems to be an ever lower level of player buy in - it doesn't feel like a group where something like Mage or Nobilis can be pitched without it causing lots of problems; in fact it feels like anything that operates outside of 'you're a group of mercenaries, working for hire' is a bit of a struggle - even Call of Cthulhu and its derivatives seem like they'd be too much effort somehow.

Given that one of the things I look for in an RPG is a dimension of social roleplay (I came into the hobby with Vampire the Masquerade and it's sort of stuck), and I value the feeling of atmosphere and genre, it was leaving me a sad bunny. I came to the conclusion that the sort of gaming I like, and the genres I like, have fallen out of favour with the other players.

I suspect that this is one of the 'real life' gets in the way moments but I also suspect that its an indication of how tastes change and how much we've diverged. Where I'm loving books series like Split Worlds, Shadows of the Apt and the Merchant Princes - I'm now trying to keep the idea of combining the three out of my head - and playing games like Wind Waker or Last Story, most of the other gamers in the group are enamoured with Game of Thrones*, Dragon Age and other things, often on the telly, which passes me by as I don't watch, well anything. I'm not even sure if most of the players would have heard of the things I adore,  though that's probably more of a statement about me than them truth be told, I've been falling off the face of the world for years now.

Despite the post title, I haven't gone entirely cold turkey, I'm playing with character generation for Numenera (the new Monte Cooke Science Fantasy game) and considering kicking in for The Strange Kickstarter if only because parallel universes are a secret weakness of mine (making Fringe one of the few TV shows I'm considering watching). If I were to run anything it would be one of them in a style that focused on the exploration and discovery of a new world, with as little combat as possible. I guess you need some but I'd rather it was small and quick, a speed bump and nothing more. As I'm considering gaming in theory, as it were, I'm also toying with concepts like handing out experience points for peaceful or clever solutions to problems though I'm not sure if Numenera's specific 'GM Intrusion' method of giving out XP will allow for that.

I'm also looking at the vast amount of games that are earmarked for getting rid of and reclaiming some of them... acknowledging that I was going to get rid of them because the group seems unlikely to play them (not intended as a 'grrr bad people harshing my fun, but as a statement of sadness that the options feel so closed off that I was planning to get rid of things simply because they were likely to stay on the shelf). I'm still going to sell a lot of books it's just that I'm taking the opportunity to work out what I want and when I go back... I'll be taking that knowledge with me.

*I think I've mentioned this before but anyway, I'm afraid Games of Thrones doesn't float my boat, neither does Joe Abercrombie's stuff - I think they're both "Grimdark" but could be wrong. If they are, I'm forced to conclude that that's something I'm allergic to.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Reading

Hey,

Its been quiet in my neck of the woods, there's been the Birmingham Literature Festival, but I only went to two events, Rosie Garland's book launch and the New Voices which featured Emma Newman. Beyond that I'm back at Uni, studying Screenwriting this time (and torn between doing a Viking Vengeance plot or a weird thing inside the head of a woman in a coma which is very Matrix/Inception like in my head). I've abandoned at least two ideas for my dissertation and it now looks as if I'm going to be doing a book of short stories spinning out of Sacrifices which I hope will allow me to have something to take to market once the course is over - I'm sort of terrified of having wasted two years.

I'm ploughing on with Fatal Thirst and getting somewhere with it, albeit more slowly than I'd like. I'm sure it'll get there, but writing this post is making me glad that I've decided to drop gaming for a while as it's making me realise how much I have to do.

Reading-wise, I've just finished off All is Fair by Emma Newman and I've nearly reached the end of the Trader's War, book two of the Merchant Princes by Charles Stross - reading both has been odd as I've realised that despite the separation of genres the two narratives are very similar in many respects.

Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes has been good so far (I started it last week, because my Kindle ran out of power and I couldn't be bothered to charge it), but does run the danger of being abandoned if the dog getting hurt is too traumatic as that's a hot button issue for me. The way its constructed is hard to read, and I imagine it was hard to write too so I admire Lauren for managing to get the book done at all (pesky nonlinear plots). Anyway, I'm saving it for after I've finished Trader's War (and maybe Defiant Peaks as finishing the Hadrumal Crisis is well overdue).

I've bought so many books over the last month or so I'm going to have to force myself to stop for a while just to catch up on my reading and I'm pondering doing a round up at the end of the year...

Oh and I've been listening to way too much Amanda Palmer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ea18wSkrK5g

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Grossed Out and Narked Off

I saw this on my friend Cara's blog (http://ohwedo.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/grossed-out.html) and thought I'd throw together my own list. I'm not sure if these are things that really make me grossed out or just grumpy, but I think some of Cara's were possibly more in that vein than things that make her feel ill.

I've tried for nine, but in all honesty I found it a bit hard to get a full list, so I'm not sure what that says about me. So I ended up with 7.

1) Interrupting - This is something I just think is rude to be honest and it makes me really annoyed, especially if I'm trying to get a point across. There's a point where I just stop caring what the other person has to say because they can't actually give me the courtesy of letting me finish my sentence. This is one thing I like about media like email or letters, they allow me to say my piece and then respond to what other people say without being talked over and made to feel like my point was actually, uh, pointless.

2) Slugs - Oh I hate these things, I don't care if they're nature's marvels or the next species that'll ascend to top dog or whatever; they freak me out and make my skin crawl. I've had the misfortune to touch them in the past - usually by treading on them, though I did once manage to put my hand on one that was lingering on the clean crockery (yeuch).

3) "It's been done" - definitely one for the narked off box, the tendency of some people to dismiss stories and concepts as having been done before (with the inference being that you might as well not bother because what you're thinking about already exists). This misses the point of any creativity, which is to put forward something that exists from your perspective, which will render it different to what already exists by its very nature (if you do it right).

4) Political Tribalism - this might seem like an odd one but there's something about the 'true believer' that never fails to vex, especially if they won't even concede that there's an alternate point of view. This is annoying no matter what the other person's point of view is or their political, economic or social creed, because it's not about their creed but about their lack of willingness to listen and communicate.

5) 3D Cinema - Another strange one, but there's something about 3D that makes me feel ill a lot of the time.

Sorry, erm that's it. 

6) Zombies - Something I've grown to hate over the past few years. Partially this is because they've been everywhere and I'm tired of them and the memes they've gathered - the reality is that if zombies could exist (they can't by the way) the vast majority of us would not be tough little soldiers, we'd be dead. The other reason is that I can't quite shake the feeling that zombie fever is just another form of snobbery - nice middle class people don't turn zombies, only poor people do that. 

7) Medical Stuff - doesn't matter what it is really (though my levels of squeamishness vary vastly depending on what the medical thing is), by and large if there's a medical thing that's going on I'm likely to feel physically sick. I've always been wired like this, one of my memories of school is the world taking on a green tinge because we were learning about the respiratory system and I felt sick and wobbly. Later, when I started dating Eve we visited the Natural History Museum's human biology section and I had a similar episode when we got to the bit about the brain.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Novelising: an Update

I've been working away at Fatal Thirst for the last week or so, trying to make it my top priority whilst I wait for course stuff to start happening.

It's been interesting, as I've been ploughing through the part of the novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo two years ago taking the opportunity to expand pieces of it to add what I hope are more depth and flavour. Its giving me a chance to explain how things work and think through the consequences. I'm revisiting many of the characters - part of what I'm doing with the manuscript (it feels odd to call it that, when it only exists in digital format) is fleshing out the other character arcs in the book to make them fuller.

Its quite gratifying one one level to see that the stuff I wrote two years ago isn't entirely rubbish, but it has needed a fair amount of tweaking and reading it back I find that questions arise - why did x happen, how does y effect the fall out? All of which suggests I need to do more planning and development before I commit too many more words to... screen, though that said I'd like to get what I have down and established so that I can focus on the next part.

I'm pleased to say I've largely managed to get writing done every day - last Thursday was a bust because of migraine and I ended up focusing on other work over the weekend (foolish boy that I am I managed to leave my data stick at work) but otherwise I've done something each day and whilst I'm not at the full 2000 words per day yet ala Stephen King, I'm also not at the James Joyce level of 11 words and wondering what order they go in.

So... stuff is happening at least.

Friday, 27 September 2013

What I've been Reading

I have a pile of posts waiting for me to complete them, but little time so I thought I'd do a quick round up of what I've been reading (mostly on the way to work).

My main reading material at the moment is Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series, an epic fantasy series that's fascinating to read and has a host of brilliant ideas in it. The novels are well conceived and established (though it's a bit of a shock going from two very fat books to a much thinner third volume). There are a number of volumes in the house, since I've managed to convert Emma (she who is Fueled by Tea) to them soon after I'd finished Empire in Black and Gold). Em's raced ahead and has got 5 book under her belt to my three; I'm going slow because I don't want to burn out on them.

I'm a bit of an urban fantasy fan (though I'm picky with it) and recently discovered the Split Worlds trilogy by Emma Newman, which I love, and I'm getting book 3 tonight. Also on that front I discovered Tad Williams' Dirty Streets of Heaven, a noir tinged story set in the never ending cold war between Heaven and Hell. It was an interesting book, with a stronger mythos than I expected and pleasantly flawed characters on both sides. There was just enough nebulousness (is that a word - it should be) to cut any preachy feeling it might engendered and the feeling that the protagonists were down in the trenches whilst the Dukes and Archangels were living it large on the efforts of their subordinates gave it a true street level feel.

Charles Stross is a favourite author of mine but I'd never read the Merchant Princes. That's changed a little now as I've completed the Bloodline Feud. A good book but with an achingly slow start, once the book picks up it gets very interesting and has a lot of good ideas in it (I'm a sucker for world hopping stories though so that might just be me).

Currently I'm reading Gaie Sebold's Babylon Steel and finding it refreshingly mad. It's well written and has a good sense of place. It's urban fantasy in the sense that it takes place in a city, but apart from that I'd put it in a sort of sword and sorcery camp, with a liberal smear of sex to go with it. I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out and will be getting the sequel.

Gaming wise I'm reading Numenera (well, I'm flipping through it and fiddling with bits of it but there's no point doing anything more than that until I'm in a position to run the game). It's a brilliant idea and draws on lots of SF I enjoy; though part of me wants to throw out the setting and do something more in line with Moorcock's Runestaff books.

Aside from that, I have three screenwriting books to be reading...

Next up is going to be book 4 of Shadows of the Apt and the start of the Sally Lockhart books by Philip Pullman.

What are you reading?

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Decisions

Right, that's it. I've come to a decision.

You should probably put that in your diaries or something.

Anyway, as I've said I've come to a decision. To whit, I've decided to have a huge push at my novel, Fatal Thirst (now on the docket to be the first in the Tantalus Trilogy) in addition to the work for University. I've decided to do this because I think I need long form work finished and ready for the time I complete my course and am subsequently casting about for stuff to do. Having something finished and ready to be published would be a really good position to be in at that point I think. My goal is to finish the rough of book one by Christmas. I think I only have about 50 or 70 thousand more words to write to get that done so it should be doable. I just have to focus and stop fannying about and letting myself get distracted.

This means that I need to adopt a more stringent approach to work than I have had - I need to start applying Heinlein's first law rather vigorously in fact. To this end I'm probably going to be clearing the decks of everything I can to make headway, sorting out my writing space (again - sigh) and just getting on with it. Which probably means my already sporadic posting record here is likely to get worse, though I'll try to put something up at least once a week.

I do have short stories to write, which is mostly going to be the Forest Women anthology I'm hoping to pitch to a small press next year some Markov stories and some attempts to work out what Urban Fantasy Birmingham's like (amongst others - the number of shorts I have to write is just silly to be honest), but the novel has to be the focus now. At least I have an idea of what needs to happen to deepen the plot and make it a more compelling read.

In the meantime I'm going to be at Andromeda One this Saturday (it's a writing event, I'm allowed out for those); so if anybody who reads the blog is likely to be there then hopefully I'll see you there!

Monday, 16 September 2013

RPGs: A Question of Structure

As I think has been established, I'm a roleplayer (I have a largely defunct gaming blog at Hastur's Hamster but I've sort of given up on it in favour of this blog - might as well as do everything in one place).

One issue we've had in our gaming group is a question over structure. It's something that first arose because one of the players entered a profession that requires her to do shift work; so she isn't always available on gaming nights. Another player is an academic and consequently isn't always around either, which rather extends the problem. Recently the issue came up again because another friend has become fed up with the fact that the games we play don't last very long - we have three GMs in a group of seven people so it's not really an ideal situation. There are a few reasons our games don't last that long, sometimes if I'm running something (and I should say that it feels like an age since I actually sat down to run a 'proper' game rather than fill ins, one shots or short runs) I get annoyed with the system - I'm not hugely good at maths and find the mechanical side of gaming a chore at times. At the same time I like to have a system rather than plunging head first into free form gaming because that feels a bit too wild and woolly. The scheduling issue remains a problem - I tried running a game of the Laundry over the summer and found that I had to drop huge chunks of my plans because people just couldn't make the game. It's difficult to build enough flexibility into the game to keep everyone happy and roll with the punches sufficiently.

There have been other issues as well - the friend who's recently quit gaming ran a fantasy campaign where he effectively removed the players' choices and stumbled into referencing some bad stuff that had happened in one of the other player's past. Given that the arc focused on her completely it was unfortunate and I'm sure it was a mistake rather than anything. But the damage was done and she was rather upset that the changes had been introduced.

I suspect, from the perspective of a writer this simply underlines the truism that writing and gaming are different beasts. They may look similar but they have different pedigrees, methods and strategies. A book needs to be deeper and requires more thought than a game, which needs to be a lot more flexible than a novel, or even a short story. Gaming requires a hell of a lot more communication than writing ever did - because in truth the GM is just helping the players to create the game; it's a role of stage manager mingled with being a director in an occasionally hellish mixture. Where a writer handles everything, the GM really only sets the stage, provides the problem and then spends the rest of the time reacting to what the players do.

Our awesome Shadowrun game is moving from the realm of a collection of one shots and shorts to being an actual campaign. It may not have a big plot but there's enough going on to make it more than just random adventures. The character's have pasts, which have actually been developed through play and contacts based on what we've done in game - rather than being mandated by the players.  I feel very strongly that no matter how much you set things up to run in the long term, in a very real sense only what you do in the game actually counts. Even if you sit down to run a classic campaign like Masks of Nyarlethotep (which I won't be doing - my long standing love of the Cthulhu Mythos is slipping down into disgust I'm afraid), it only becomes a campaign through play - otherwise it's just a book.

This leads me, in a round about fashion to what passes for my point. Next year, once the MA is done, I'm hoping to run a game of Yggdrasil - a Norse set game with lots mythology and pathos set a few centuries before the Norsemen started to spread out into the British Isles and northern France. I'd like to make the game a long one (if only to prove my friend wrong) but circumstances dictate that it be carved into bite size chunks so that the focus can swing around a lot - allowing for a lot of spotlighting - and to allow for flexibility. My thought on this is to have one plot that chugs along and rises up as 'chapters' interpersed with a lot of smaller, more directed plots to spread out the characters' lives and create supporting casts and so on. I hope to do this to partly drive the other plot too, weaving the ideas in and out in the hopes of making the game more interesting.

To this end I've decided to set the characters up in the city of Klepp on the Norwegian coast, start them off in a boat where they'll (hopefully) go on a quest to recover a Maguffin (in this case a six year old girl called Osk, who seems to have an uncanny gift to know other people's secrets). After the initial arc of finding the mean people who've taken her and returning to Klepp the player characters will get individual plots and once those are solved we'll swirl back to Osk and the problem of more meanies who have nefarious designs on her. Once that's sorted there'll be more individual plots - rinse, repeat, rinse and repeat.

At the moment I'm trying to work out the plot regarding Osk and the first wave of smaller plots (which at the moment involve a gang of bullies, wolves, giants and a mysterious potion that the Jarl's wife drinks nightly), in the hopes of stealing a march on time and getting things nailed down. I'd probably have more if I knew what more of the characters are likely to be - at present I know I'm likely to get a skald and a travelling blacksmith but nothing more than that (to be fair I think it's a bit early to ask).

What I'm hoping from this is to get the best of both worlds, a campaign sized plot with the flexibility of short adventures and the ability to spot light characters to make sure nobody feels left out. No idea if it'll work, but I've got to try right?



Sunday, 15 September 2013

A Disappointment

A few weeks ago I contacted my MP about the proposed plans to introduce an opt in clause for internet usage in the UK. I'm pretty sure you can Google for more details of the legislation, but I read what was proposed and had some questions, specifically:

What does 'esoteric materials' mean in the context of this legislation?
Given that LGBTQQ information will almost certainly be caught under this legislation will there be a push to develop informative web content to provide information and support for people in those sectors of society to help avoid alienation and bullying?
Can the government offer assurances that this legislation will not cover politically sensitive items in the news (so for instance that if a riot police officer were filmed beating up a peace protester the footage would not be censored)?
Can they assure us that there will be no function creep?
Can they assure us that the information stored will not be used as a  'suss law' to create lists of suspects in situations of sexual assault, rape etc (i.e. the first thing the police do is check the internet records of the ISPs and start rounding people who have accessed similar web content)?
Will there be a shift in sexual education in the UK to actually cover the social and relationship aspects, since the vast majority of sex ed in this country deals with the mechanics, which leaves teens in a situation where they know very little and turn to the 'net for actual information?

Lastly could you please ask them to explain how it will work in practice, there seems to be an attitude that computers are 'magic' which is extremely unhelpful.

As an additional question I asked if it would affect my work as a writer - so much is online now that it's hard to see how it wouldn't.

I got a reply on Thursday and I'm sad to say it was pretty much a large amount of cant, which did nothing to address my questions and, I regret, convinced me that this move has very little to do with protecting people and everything to do with trying to 'tame' the internet.


Urban Fantasy and the Riddle of Britain

Urban Fantasy is one of the fastest growing sub genres of fantasy, one that's allied with steampunk, horror and paranormal romance (and arguably crime fiction) in recent years to create a distinctly different flavour to swords and sorcery stylings of much of the genres out put. Largely existing outside of Tolkien's Shadow, these are stories that exist in the modern world, usually in cities (hence the urban part of the name) and often in slightly noir styled surroundings. There have been a number of successful series that support the sub genre, often falling into 'magical detective' or 'cute girl that kicks arse' as stereotypes.

The attraction lies in a number of places. Partly I suspect that its the strength of women in these stories that gives them that kick. You can have legitimate arse kickers without bending backwards to take account of differences in culture or historical facts about knights. It feels less incongruous to have a female vampire killer in modern day New York or London than it would at the court of Versailles or Ancient Rome. There's also the influence of Buffy and Charmed here, and the idea that in some respects Urban Fantasy taps into the same root idea as the superhero. I suspect that, like Steampunk, there's such a strong cross genre element at play that almost anything can be fitted into an Urban Fantasy setting.

So many of us are urbanites (and likely our families have been for a few generations) which adds to the sense of importance of the urban setting. We're familiar with cities in a way that we aren't with the countryside any more; that's become a place we visit, not somewhere we live. The genre is so popular because it connects to the world we know, on the other it allows us to take that world and recreate it; putting the wonder back into the urban landscape that becomes staid and stale through its familiarity. It allows us to re imagine our world in a more powerful fashion.

The other reason I suspect Urban Fantasy has become so popular is that it allows us to read about traditional monsters like vampires in a modern setting and without all that Victorian nonsense about virgins and wickedness. It casts them into another light entirely, as antagonists, allies or even love interests if you fancy a bit of free range necrophilia. What's more you can mesh them into the world, using the monsters to spice up urban spaces or add a threat to other, seemingly banal places. That dodgy club becomes a front for a vampire coven who use the patrons as easy prey. The kid who hangs out on the corner is suddenly not a potential thug but someone who sees things beyond the measure of the mundane world.

A lot of authors cast their world with huge arrays of monsters in a style I associate with White Wolf's World of Darkness. There's nothing wrong with this but I admit I find it a little tiresome, because it makes the world feel too full. If I hold up the Anita Blake universe and compare it with the Felix Castor one I do prefer the latter because there's only one source of the supernatural and whilst there might be lots of manifestations of the same thing it feels less crowded and less like the world and his wife has turned supernatural. I, hesitantly, would go further and say that my absolute favourite worlds are ones which are not only strange but where that strangeness is largely undiluted - the worlds of Neil Gaiman's American Gods or Tim Powers' Declare. The world's have a neatness that's pleasing and with the supernatural held at arms length they allow the mortal, mundane things to speak for themselves.

In the UK the growth of Urban Fantasy seems to have inevitably led to the creation of a lot of series set in London. I say inevitably because, realistically, London is at the heart of Britain's culture and is the one of most recognisable places on Earth, let alone the UK. There's a chance to instantly connect with your readers if you mention a landmark or a place, other parts of the country don't have this advantage, they're less well known and perhaps as a result largely unexplored by Urban Fantatists. Would books set in Birmingham or Manchester sell overseas? A friend of mine, Loz, complained about this a few years ago but hasn't taken it upon himself to do anything about it (he's not a writer so fair play to him really).

There have been a few books set outside the capital, Emma Newman's Split Worlds novels take in Bath and are partly set in Manchester as well as London, whilst Lou Morgan's Angel books take place in an unnamed metropolis that could well be Brighton. The bulk of British UF is doggedly London based though. A convention taking place next weekend is having an Urban Fantasy walking tour of Digbeth which sounds amazing and I'm looking forward to it a great deal, if only because its a step towards taking the sub genre north to other parts of the country. It also feels in a weird way like a psycho-geography exercise, stamping new meaning on part of the city, which is brilliant.

Another issue is that Birmingham, certainly, seems to do its damnedest to throw its past away. Parts of history are willingly sacrificed to push the place forward. It sometimes feels like the past is irrelevant in a way that it doesn't in London. I suspect that's partially because of the scramble after the mythical 'Second City' status and partially the desire to keep up economically. It just makes it a little bit harder to build a setting that fits the place, the way that Neverwhere fits London. Perhaps other places are the same, (I don't know - how do you feel about it?) It makes me think that, where my hometown is concerned, a slightly different strategy is needed. If Birmingham is so set upon the future then perhaps there's a plot there after all. Beyond that it feels like any urban magic is hidden among the streets, which is arguably where it should be.



To that end, this weekend I decided to start an occasional thing on the blog - grabbing pictures of Birmingham and trying to put together pieces of flash fiction to inject them with the fantastic. It won't be anything I do regularly (too much to do to do it regularly) and it's at least an excuse to do some urban walking and see more of the city.

Friday, 13 September 2013

More on Whispers of the Flame

So I didn't win the Reader's Poll after all.

I was a little confused by the fact that I got an email this morning saying that Fiction Vortex wanted to know where to send my prize... Looking at the site, I found this: http://www.fictionvortex.com/2013/09/winners-of-the-august-2013-fiction-contest/ which is amazing and... Honestly I was a bit taken aback when they took the story as it had been around for so long (I first wrote it in 2009 and just kept tinkering with it)... Now that it's won something I'm even more shocked and all I can say is thank you to Fiction Vortex for publishing Whispers and for deeming it worthy of a prize and thank you to the people who voted for the story.

I'm truly touched, (probably in the head but that's another story) and think its amazing that I won.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Writing: A Quandary

I don't usually like to put up stuff that's too much in the real world, partly because my real life is quite dull (one thing about writing is that it takes time and that cuts away from the time you could spend bungee jumping, delivering mysterious boxes of chocolates and having torrid affairs). As a result my quandary is actually writing related and is this...

I'm unsure of whether I should push ahead with completing my trilogy of novels and see if I can find an agent (or pay for a professional editor and the self publish via Amazon or Smashwords or something like that) or if I should build up a good set of short stories that I can then turn to an agent when the trilogy's done knowing I'm in a position to say that I've had work in magazines x, y and z and am known and therefore hopefully it's more likely that my longer work will be picked up.

I'm not sure who reads my blog but all the same, if you've got any answers, I'd love to hear them. :)

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Yet More Distortions

Writing is an odd thing at the best of times and there are occasions where what you're working on turns round and just tells you that you've got stuff wrong.

In the past few weeks I've had one of those turns of events. The novel I've been working on, tinkering on, whatever you want to call it (the important thing I think is that its still unfinished) for ooh the past two years turned around and made it known that the amount of space I'd allocated to create it wasn't enough and it needed to be at least double the length. Now, bearing in mind that it's already 150,000 words, that really means I've got a trilogy on my hands.

Part of this has been because I realised that there were plot threads that were just not going to get to a good place if I stuck with one book; in fact I wasn't giving myself space to explore all the pieces I had in place thoroughly. That didn't satisfy me as a writer, so I guess that the reader would find it frustrating as well. The other issue was that the plot I have, which is essentially a conspiracy/rebellion story, didn't feel like a one book deal and the more I thought about it the less it felt like something that I should think of as a 'do this book and come back to write different plots in the same setting' sort of deal. Once you have that sort of story in place, anything that follows it is probably going to feel disappointing - like starting off with the end of the world and then spending a book talking about the aftermath (I can see this working in some places but not in horror/science fantasy which is the niche that I'm working in for this story). Like it or not most fantasy series that consist of single book stories escalate the threats over time, allowing the heroes to grow to meet the threats more effectively. They don't start with a chance of Ragnarok.

So, a trilogy it is then. The lines are drawn, boundaries set. I know where the volumes end and I think I have about half of each book, although there's going to have to be some extensive rewriting. I even have names; to be specific the name I have for it at present is the Tantalus Trilogy, after Eve suggested the name this morning. Tantalus was a figure trapped in Tartarus in Greek myth after he tried to serve his son up to the gods as a meal, it seems an appropriate description for the more powerful members of my society. I'm still working on the individual book names but the original title, "A Fatal Thirst" is definitely going to be book one. I suspect the others will follow that line.

Of course the other thing that's great and annoying at the same time is that allowing myself a larger canvas to work with means I start thinking about things in a slightly different way. New connections are drawn as I start to work out the other stories that weave through the larger narrative. Suddenly I realise that of course one character will be doing x and y and that as a result z will happen and another, more independent line of story springs to life. Elsewhere I note that another character's desire for recognition means I have to show that they're treated shabbily by their peers and another section of book is born.  This is good, because I need these sections but also fills me with trepidation because it feels like I have a long way to go and because it feels as if I'll never finish the damn thing. In a sense I'm really hoping that this is it and I can complete the first volume by the end of the year. That probably means my Facebook break needs to extend until at least the start of 2014, which is good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

When I started Fatal Thirst for NaNoWriMo I was pretty much pantsing it and that's something that's pretty much continued. Now, I can see the patterns and things I need to add so I can put into the story to complete it. I can see the plots I need to integrate to make it a satisfying read - so that's my challenge for the near future and my priority.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Under the Trees

Under the Trees

I found you under the trees
Hidden amongst the grass
A jewel nested amongst
Dew laden blades of green.
A nest with a precious cargo
Lost from sight and memory

And the world disappeared
The traffic, urgent and loud
Fell quiet as I found you
Amongst silent sentinels
Their roots buried deep
Beneath the city streets

I breathed, let go the weight
That dogged my shoulders
Sitting on a picnic table
Listening to boys playing
Birds calling up in the trees

Let life fill me up to the brim
Dragging torpor from my bones
There in the early morning
I let the peace sink in and thoughts
Slip away, until I was empty

Ready to face the day.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Five Favourites: Novel Covers

1) Stormbringer

One of my favourite novels from my teen years, the cover just screams 'epic' and looks like a heavy metal album cover.



2) Halting State

This cover is just so odd and in keeping with the novel it's a cover for that it's charming.



3) American Gods

This is just so iconic, the road with the lightning strike.




4) Perdido Street Station

Whilst I do love the new covers for China's novels this image is just so strong. It's a beautifully wrought snapshot of an industrial fantasy city.




5) The Fire Sea

The fourth cover from the Death Gate Cycle, this now looks a bit dated and 'D&D'. Still there's something very iconic the dragon rising from the lava.





Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Fiction Vortex Reader's Choice Poll

My story Whispers in the Flame was published at this site at the start of August. The site has a poll of favourite fiction, and whilst it seems a bit cheeky... could you head over and vote please?

http://www.fictionvortex.com/2013/08/readers-choice-poll-for-august-2013/

Norsemen, Norsemen Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

So we chatted about gaming last night, just to check where things were with the group and decided to keep playing Shadowrun and keep to our current structure - short adventures with call backs that link things together. Our Shadowrun GM has plans to spirit the group off to Europe and UCAS (not the admissions service) for a while whilst the heat dies down.

I asked the players to look at the games I had on my list and they decided to play Yggdrasil, so I have a year to tilt at that windmill and build something awesome. Unsurprisingly I already have ideas about the game, its just a matter of getting everything down on paper and statted up, but that should be fun in itself. Its something I'll be doing very slowly because of my course and plotting and planning to do a PhD.


So far my plans involve a mcguffin, some breathtaking scenery and as much skullduggery, monster hunting and low cunning as you can shake a stick at. Oh and much drinking of ale and mead too.