Sunday, 23 February 2014

Questing on the Wind: Fantasy Novel Ideas

Growing out of the return of Game of Thrones and what I'm starting to call Waterstonesgate because they've made a very stupid mistake (see here,; one I hope they'll take steps to rectify as quickly as possible, my mind has turned to the fantasy series I want to write. I thought I'd throw the basic pitches up on here  (for my fantasy books at least).

A lot of these ideas have grown out of something I've always wondered about, what happens to the heroes of the grand series once the monster or god is defeated and they've gone back to their 'ordinary world'? Despite what so many series tell us, most of the heroes are barely qualified to rule (as really killing a dragon or whatever, doesn't prepare you for statecraft). The idea of fallout is fascinating to me, something I'd love to capture is the way things fall apart as the consequence of one action (actually this is a pretty big part of Fatal Thirst).

The novels are still pretty rough and need a lot of work (I'll need to get to grips with that). I find ideas easy, everything else is a lot tougher.

The Ogre: Probably the only one that stands alone, the Ogre is the story of Thalric, a thane who rose to
power after slaying an ogre (shockingly). As he recounts a (heavily edited) version of his feat, the reader will, hopefully, get the sense that something is terribly wrong. The darkness and horror should grow throughout the book until someone finally calls his bluff.

In the Garden of Snakes: The high concept for this is 'West Wing meets High Fantasy'. Taking place after a conquest, the novel focuses on the tensions between the newly installed rulers as they adjust to their new position and the natives. What I want to avoid is black and white morality but I also want to steer clear of the 'grimdark blokes in cloaks' idea to present something more realistic. Of course there'll be problems and issues and not everything will be happy, happy, joy, joy (or I'd not be calling it 'In the Garden of Snakes').

Crown of Clouds: An Asian fantasy game, based on the idea that the Mandate of Heaven has been granted
to a family who's authority has been established by the stilling of storms and bringing the peace to grow food (a full belly being more conducive to peace than all the fine words in the world). As time has gone on the imperial family has developed a tradition; the children are taken away at birth and grow up as peasants. They only learn their true identities once the old Emperor has died and it is time for them to return to the Imperial city.

The actual novel takes place at this point, but there's a problem. The Emperor's widow has decided that one of her children in particular will inherit the throne. The protagonists must avoid assassins, soldiers and revolutionaries as well as the attentions of the dragons that caused the storms so long ago.

The Tribute of Ghosts: A few years ago I started creating a roleplaying setting called Carraddine. The idea was to make a steampunk style city modeled on Venice but with influences from Perdido Street Station and Rats and Gargoyles as well. As time's gone on I've wanted to set a novel there.

The novel would follow a gang of thieves who are hired for the most dangerous job in the city - to enter the forbidden island of the mad king Tilesco and recover the book he used to summon his otherworldy lovers. Of course once they have the book... that's when things get really interesting.

The King's Shadow: Another 'after the monster is slain' novel. Tyric was a farm boy with a drop of royal blood in his veins. He was recruited to defeat his family's ancient enemy, a Draugr lord woken by an
unfortunate accident which breached his barrow. After that the clans had no choice but to unite and make Tyric king...

But there's a problem, for all his ancestry Tyric is no king, his advisers are manipulating him and the Draugr might not be as gone as they seem.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Ten Thoughts: Possession by A.S. Byatt

This is one of the set texts for the Reading into Writing module. I figured I might as well get a blog post out of it...

The novel is about two academics discovering a link between two prominent, if fictional, Victorian poets. The plot deepens and eventually comes to a head when their secret is discovered.

Which doesn't really tell you very much but more exposition would probably just confuse things.

1) The novel's characters scoff at feminism but this is very much a feminist book. One of the central themes of the book is the need for women to find fulfillment, rather than being trapped as drudges.

2) Christabel LaMotte is so obviously based on Christina Rosetti it's almost painful. (Byatt seems to have had fun plundering the lives of Victorian poets for inspiration - the exhumation of Ash's body to get to his papers is obviously inspired by Dante Rosetti's exhumation of his dead wife to retrieve his unpublished poetry).

3) The whole thing is set up around mirrors, reflection and echoes - Maud and Christabel live the same kind of life before masulinity intrudes on their cloistered existences.

4) All the men are big kids, doing whatever they can to avoid the real world and acting on their obsessions. All the women are frustrated and trapped (either by circumstance or physically in one case), with the exception of Leonora, who is sort of a proxy man, especially when it comes to sex.

5) Melusina is a paradox, at once a revolutionary figure and a conformist one. She presents us with the potential in all people (even if the focus is women here) but at the same time she is literally a home maker or builder and a guardian of the home.

6) The poem Melusina is written at the point in Christabel's life when she is at once at her most conformist and most transgressive - it's implied she has a lesbian relationship with Blanche but her 'greatest' (or should that be most accepted?) work is written when she's having an affair with a man.

7) It's full of classical elements but especially earth and water.

8) There isn't much love in this novel but there is an awful lot of longing. It really made me think of the Fields of the Nephilim lyrics, 'Come in from the cold, I'll owe you my heart, Be my shelter, Be my refuge tonight.'

9) To an extent another theme seems to be that there has been an illusion of change with regards to women's status and their lives but that's all.

10) Randolph Ash really is a pretentious, philandering, arse.

Not particularly deep I know, but these are my first impressions.

The next step is to work out where my impressions take me in terms of reading and what connections I make to other books. For me the themes are, broadly, feminism, the illusion of change, faerie and old stories and secret histories. The obvious books to go to are things like Christina Rosetti's Goblin Market for the faerie connection and because Byatt has so strongly identified LaMotte with her. After that it gets a bit more dicey.

Faerie leads me to Neil Gaiman and, initially, Stardust but the link doesn't feel very strong; they just happen to exist in the same corner of the fiction universe. In fact I can't think of a faerie based book that really forges a strong link to Possession, even though so many of the poems in the novel are based on myth and folklore. Perhaps its because the Victorian period saw so much of that culture diluted, dumbed down to make it fit only for children. If anything that makes me want to react to the insipid character of Victorian fairy tales by reaching for Snow White Blood Red, a collection where horror writers spin their own versions of those classic stories.

The secret history aspect makes me think of Tim Powers and the way he takes historical figures and weaves the odd things that happened to them into a fantasy. Because of the Victorian connection I would go to Hide Me Amongst the Graves... except I don't own it and haven't read it. The next obvious option is The Stress of Her Regard, which centres on the Romantic Poets. As Dr Polidori (Byron's physician) was Christina Rosetti's uncle there's a definite historical link there. In addition it feels as if there's a neat reversal here, Powers takes real characters and uses fiction to explain the strange things in their lives, whilst Byatt takes events and peppers the lives of her fictional poets with them.

In terms of the feminist angle, I'm a little wary. Mary Wollstencraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women seems like a good place to go to, but it's not fiction or even creative non fiction so I doubt its appropriate The lives the women live remind me of the Handmaid's Tale but that feels like hyperbole if only because Possession is not dominated by the starkness of the oppression Atwood envisages. Another option might be Emma Newman's Split World novels, where as Adrian Tchaikovsky put it 'it's always 1800 and never Christmas'. The hedging in of female characters by tradition and what feel like ultimately pointless tasks may be something that translates well but I'm not sure. Little Women (which I've heard not read) may be the right sort of ground.

It needs more thinking about.

One of the more obscure connections I've made is that is that the way Christabel describes her ethos in the letters she sends to Randolph Ash really reminded me of William Morris' way of seeing the world and of his untopian socialism. That in turn makes me think of News from Nowhere, his novel/travelogue of an Arts and Crafts Communist Britain (which is lovely if blinkered by an overly sunny attitude towards humanity).

I obviously need to perculate this a little more and see what I come up with. It's very much a work in progress.

Monday, 17 February 2014


Last week I got the mark for my Screenwriting module, a good mark of 63. I'm very happy with it because I feared I was going to fail the course.

As things stand at present all three of my marks have been in the 60s; unless I crash and burn horribly with the Final Project and Reading into Writing I think I should be leaving the MA with a commendation.

Getting back into studying in a classroom has been fun and frustrating at the same time. It's great to be surrounded by fellow students but the need to break off and hurry to class has been tough. So far we've had
a few sessions on Gawain and the Green Knight and I'm aiming to do something quite punk for the creative piece of the Reading into Writing assessment. I love the image of a punk with a big green mohican and arms covered with golden and green tattoos. Doing a punk focused urban fantasy story would also allow me to do something with the idea of 'losing your head' - I wonder if the whole thing could be a drug trip which for the most part suggests the quest part of the whole affair takes place in the protagonist's head. At which point I need to look at the drugs that were taken by Punks and what their effects were. Perhaps lazily, I associate Punk with 'closing down' drugs like cocaine and speed rather than more psychedelic, 'opening up' drugs like marajuana. This could prove a problem in that my protagonist will suddenly not be having visions but experiencing other effects, getting tough and mean and not feeling at all (though I'm taking my impressions from fiction, I've never even smoked a spliff). I guess something like magic mushrooms might be a better plan and would tie in nicely with the Faerie origins of the Green Knight (who surely is anything but a local).

This would leave my other piece, the research essay, to be based on Possession. I'm worried that its reaching but I've asked if something about Victorian time travel is possible, because of the comments Christabel Lamotte makes in the novel about the honest toil of the artist, a sentiment that to me feels very like the philosophy espoused by William Morris and which was explored in News from Nowhere. So it seems like a good place to start and hopefully its not too tangential.

Update (as this is is a work in progress) the tutor's said that's fine because I can show the leap in my thinking. Yay, go brains!

I had my first meeting with my tutor for the Final Project (the Forest Brides) and have started working out the beats of the various stories and what they're all about. Part of the challenge is to find a way to write stories that are grounded in the low fantasy or sword and sorcery tradition and at the same time tap into the creations of Neil Gaiman or Angela Carter. Also, as I'm tapping into myth, I'm struck that in many respects I need to consider what Joseph Campbell said, ‘Women don’t need to make the journey, they are the place that everyone is trying to get to.'

This seems a bit false (and creepy) to me, and also denies the power of goddess and heroine archetypes across the world. One book I have, the Heroine's Journey by Maureen Murdock, sets out to address the journeys that women face but does unfortunately come across as a bit New Age, though that may be a symptom of the general area we're talking about rather than anything specific about the arc she's laid out. The issue for me is, can I use it to tell compelling stories about the women in the Forest Brides or would I be better off using another structure? Only time will tell.

The stories I have are attempting to address ideas like women as tamers of savage beasts, women as the arbiters of death and journeying into the underworld (literally). I also want to write about women in war, which is a dicey area but at the same time lets me tap into modern sword and sorcery characters like Red Sonja and Jirel of Joirey.

There are a lot of strands for me to play with. In addition to myth, sword and sorcery and other types of fantasy, I want to touch on African and Mesopatamian legend and it's hard to deny that Princess Mononoke is a big influence (not just on my Final Project but in general). On top of that, as I was working out the arcs of the stories I realised that Lovecraft was going to influence at least one of the stories; as ever its impossible to escape the Mythos.

One thing I am looking for is a female trickster archetype. Most, if not all, are male, and one of the stories is about deception and illusion (as well as death) so I'd like to twist the archetype if I can. I could use Loki but that feels like a cop out so I'm looking for something else, which seems to mean looking outside European myth and legend.

The thing that's really playing on my mind is what I do after the MA. I don't mind the job I'm in now but it's not what I really want to do long term as I'm growing increasingly distrustful of authority and I want to use the MA as a springboard to... something. I'm just not sure what. Obviously my main interest is getting novels and so on written but perilous few authors make a living from their work so I feel I need something else in the pot, just help make ends meet (and at this point I'm incredibly glad I have cats not children).  I'm pondering trying to go freelance but that seems like a hard way to make a living. A PhD might be an option but the cost seems prohibitive and I'm still working out what a thesis for a Creative Writing PhD might look like (really I need to get my butt to Birmingham University and have look there). I have what's essentially a novel plan but not the other side of it; the critical element, so that's not much help to be honest. The other thing that gives me pause is that even with a PhD under my belt I may not be able to find a good job... Whilst Creative Writing is a growth area I'm still concerned that I might end up just wasting my time.

I've set myself up on Ideas Tap and Autharium and have Skills Pages and LinkedIn to complete or, in the case of the latter, rebuild, in the hopes they'll help me get some commercial work and I can start building up my pieces and contacts a bit more.

One thing I'd like to do is start getting a couple of new blogs set up to write about specific subjects after seeing the guidelines for getting work with the Guardian, but I'm not sure where to begin or what to focus on. The obvious place would be politics, but I'm very much a theoretician and there's a slight problem with any sort of politics writing: it's so damn tribal. Other options would be history, Forteana, a more subculture based blog, gaming, comics and so on. At the moment I just don't know - the only things I know I don't want to write about are sex and zombies.

So that's the view from the mountain at the moment. I feel like I've got up to the next stage, even though it feels like I have a load more stuff to juggle with. If I can keep going, I'm hopeful that things will shape up okay. Either way there's only one way to go: onward.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Caught in the Shadow of Love

Eep, a day late... I meant to post this yesterday as a Valentine's Day version of the Friday Night to do the Goth thing and... avoid the subject completely (I kid, I kid).

Anyway, let's do it this morning instead.

The problem is that most Goth bands don't sing love songs in a conventional sense. They sing about love or about obsession. Sometimes there are songs about love from beyond the grave but there are precious few songs, as far as I know, that do the whole 'ooh I like you and want to be yours'. That might be because Punk didn't go in for that sort of thing very much either, and also, let's be honest, the mainstream has that sort of song has it covered pretty well. Where the more lovey dovey songs exist, they tend to be covers.

A lot of bands don't really get close to the L word at all, I think the closest Fields of the Nephilim get is on the Elysium where they sing 'Come in from the cold, I'll owe you my heart, Be my shelter, Be my refuge tonight'. Even that is more full of terrible longing and unadulterated need, rather than puppies, hearts and fluffy handcuffs.

The Sisters of Mercy get a bit closer but their most famous song (arguably), Temple of Love is hardly the most loved up song and of the big 80s band, only the Mission and All About Eve ever really got close to the conventional ideas of love and romance (and even then it was bittersweet).

New Model Army: Queen of my Heart

It was a toss up between this and Love Song and this one feels far more appropriate to my life... Take of that what you will. Anyway, this does sort of prove my point, there are tones of the conventional ballad here but there's also a sense that this is not a new relationship, but one that's existed for a long time (something we'll come back to later with the Bad Seeds). It's a bitter sweet song, grounded in knowledge and perhaps even failure...

The Mission: Sea of Love

Ah, horny Wayne Hussey. Perhaps its not surprise that he's one of the main long song creators in the Goth scene. The man has, after all, written songs with lyrics about how he's tired of masturbation and playing with himself.

Regardless, this track has energy and poise. It shows a mixture of longing and love whilst being very much a Goth track, wrapped up in images from legend and mythology.

The Damned: The Shadow of Love

Well, it had to be here didn't it? Again, this isn't really a love song and love is presented as a dark, difficult thing rather than a cause of jubilation.

All About Eve: She Moved Through the Fair

A traditional Irish air, She Moved through the Fair is one of those 'love from beyond the grave' songs. It's a haunting affair both in its subject and in the way it sounds.

Voltaire: Caught a Lite Sneeze

Voltaire has actually recorded a couple of conventional love songs, but the vast majority of his output in this area tends to be sarcastic. This cover is the most mainstream thing that comes to mind.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Bring it On... erm Sorrowful Wife

Well I was going to post the video for Bring it On, which is a beautiful song about dedication and the desire to overcome obstacles in an already existing relationship, which is a neglected part of the song market (since the 12th Century when love songs and Romance became a thing because Muslim ideas came north from Moorish Spain, love songs have been about new love not the dedication to keep a relationship going). But I remembered the video has a girls in gold lame hot pants and frankly I chickened out.

Instead I've gone with the Sorrowful Wife, a song about love and failure and the ability to admit you were wrong... which is a pretty big thing in any relationship...

This isn't an exhaustive list by any means and it's possibly a touch eclectic (and there are people who'd argue that three of the bands aren't actually Goth - I think they are or at least they're close enough to count).

What would you choose?