Tag Archives: Star Wars

2016: A Year in Review

Hmmm, what to say about 2016…

It’s pretty widely acknowledged that this year was not the best, for a great many reasons. For me there was a tragedy in my extended family near the start of the year, like the rest of you a cavalcade of deaths of celebrities I admired, the US election result, and then it ended with more bad news for good friends of mine.

So perhaps F-U 2016 is the best response. Good Riddance.

fu-2016

Image from this article (which was written before we lost Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds)

Which is not to say there were no positives (for pop-culture, the resurgence of Star Wars through both Force Awakens and Rogue One, and the return of Spidey to the MCU) but, yeah… not a year for the highlights reel.

As a writer, this year was a tough one. I had my first short published in 2014, in a tiny token-payment magazine which is now defunct. In 2015 I had a story in one of Australia’s most significant SFF magazines, and felt like I was making progress. In 2016, no shorts published. I did have a greater focus on novel writing between late 2015 and now, but there were a few short stories I put out there, without any of them getting published. Hit the second round on a few magazines, including one major Hugo-award-winning international magazine. I’m taking that as a sign of progress in the quality of what I’m putting out there, but near-misses are still misses.

Novel-wise, well, ups-and-downs. I started well, in February completing a manuscript of a sequel to my novel ‘Rakan’. That makes the third full-length novel manuscript I’ve written, and I’m definitely feeling the improvement in understanding the process and in getting the work done. I’ve had some success with ‘Rakan’, some full-requests and some great feedback on what it does well. Still querying and still waiting on some decisions, so that’s in a bit of a holding-pattern. Watch-this-space. After finishing the Rakan sequel and mapping out the third of the trilogy I have shifted focus, experimenting with several novel ideas without really committing to any until late in the year. Now I’m committed to ‘Biotropolis’, which is at about the 30,000 word mark and looking like it’ll get to somewhere between 70 and 80k.

As a reader, I’ve shifted through a few genres. The year started with a classic: ‘The Big Sleep‘, by Raymond Chandler, which helped me a great deal in understanding Crime Noir’s origins and the value of a tight, well-paced plot. Road Brothers is Mark Lawrence’s collection of short stories based on characters from his Broken Empire trilogy, and a good example of character-driven Fantasy (Grimdark?) shorts. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson was Hard SF, harder than I’d normally read but I really enjoyed his science, moreso than his characters. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, was much different Sci=Fi, a sharp little novella full of ideas and alien images. I enjoyed the focus on communication, rather than conflict. 2016 was also a year where I read more YA, and Aussie YA at that. Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight was a Fantasy revenge tale of a young girl honed into a master assassin. The first of a trilogy, it was more violent and sexual than I’d expected from a YA novel. Also by Kristoff, co-authored with Amie Kaufman, ‘Illuminae’ was a highlight. A Sci-FI adventure narrative cobbled together from transcripts, emails, message boards and other non-standard narrative forms. I’m currently reading the sequel, ‘Gemina’ which is as good and features illustrations by Marie Lu. The release of ‘Gemina’ interrupted my reading of Ninefox Gambit’ by Yoon Ha Lee, which had an intriguing start and which should be right up my alley, being space-opera with weird and mathematics mixed in. I’m looking forward to returning to once ‘Gemina’ is finished.

For short stories, I enjoyed Brooke Bolander’s harpy revenge story, Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies, published in Uncanny, and Cassandra Khaw’s dark mermaid horror, And In Our Daughters, We Find A Voice, published in The Dark Magazine.

In other media, the Star Wars films were a highlight, as I said. ‘Captain America: Civil War’ was also great (team Cap!). ‘Zootopia’ and ‘Finding Dory’ were good fun with the kids. ‘Jason Bourne’ was a disappointment. We don’t get many chances to go to the movies, and that was one wasted. We missed a few I want to see as well. I did discover the most excellent movies channel on YouTube: ‘Movies With Mikey’ which is amazing and wonderful.

On TV, I finally discovered Black Mirror, I enjoyed the crazy/horror/comedy/gorefest nostalgia of Ash Vs Evil Dead, and the Marvel TV Shows. Liked the Punisher storyline in Daredevil S2, but was less interested in the Elektra and ninjas and all the rest. Jessica Jones was great, but sometimes very difficult to watch. Luke Cage was stylish and cool and excellent while Cottonmouth was around, and spiraled hard toward a disappointing finale when he wasn’t. The Brazilian sci-fi 3% was pretty interesting, even through the bad dubbing. The Expanse started pretty well but for some reason failed to keep me hooked. Netflix has me watching more than I used to, but there’s still not a great deal of time for TV. Game of Thrones, always an exception.

I got stuck playing ‘Fallout 4′, in Survival Mode, slowly rebuilding the wasteland with comfortable beds and dining areas for all my multitudinous Minute-Men-loyal settlers. I got the remastered ‘Skyrim’ too, and sometimes I just go and walk by the lake I can see from the manor I built, just enjoying the way the water moves and fending off the occasional threat.

And what will 2017 bring? Who knows. There’s an unpredictable geo-politic at play and a sense that things will get tougher before they get better, (near-future sci-fi will be difficult to write, as the ridiculousness of our reality outpaces it), but there is no way out but through and the rewards will come to those who keep working for them. Persistence and progress. It can feel like a tough slog at times, and each hard-fought inch of forward motion can sap our energy, but ever-onward. Write the thing, submit the thing, write the next thing. Keep writing, keep submitting. Keep reading, keep learning.

Keep going…

My reading/writing goals for 2017:

Read 12 novels (one per month)
Read 50 Short stories (approx one per week)
Finish ‘Biotropolis’ by mid year
Finish at least the full first draft of another novel
Keep querying with ‘Rakan’
Start querying with ‘Biotropolis’
Write 6 short stories
Keep on submitting…

All the best for 2017, you guys. Thanks for stopping by and reading, and thanks for giving me an audience while I shout out into the void.

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Another milestone

Well, thanks to all of you who have visited my site I have just pushed past the 2,500 views (in the 11 months or so since I started the venture). That’s averaging over 200 views a month!

So to mark the occasion I give you some of the more unusual Google searches by which people have found their way to me:

The gayness of Joe Abercrombie, or his characters, seems to lead down my path. Several people used variants on this theme, including:
“joe abercrombie the heroes gay characters”, “joe abercrombie gay characters” and “joe abercrombie gay.”

Someone was evidently looking for the “gaiman mieville ghetto”. A scary sounding place indeed.

Someone was hoping for a “midichlorian triumph”

I’m not sure the person who typed in “pet monkey climbing nets” really got much help from my website. Likewise the person who wanted to know “how to summoning the jinni” was probably in the wrong part of the internet.

And then there’s the inexplicable:
“new vw commercial starts with children laughing then adults laughing then elderly laughing”
“short story the toyota with characters,setting,conflict,resolution and theme”
“how does empress wu zetian relate to the disempowerment of women”
“jar jar stretched tongue”

and… drum role please…

“mike tyson gender change”

How the hell did ‘Mike Tyson gender change’ get people to come here? I don’t know. If that was you please comment below. I can’t figure that one out, but they count to the 2,500 views. Hopefully the whole process is interesting enough to keep you cooming back and pushing me toward and beyond 5,000 in 2013.


Fact in Fiction

This morning something happened to me which was so trite and clichéd I would have been embarrassed to have written it.

Just near my house a car sped through an intersection, the passenger door swung open and a woman inside half flung herself out screaming “Help me please! Somebody help me!”. The car pulled over and I went to help, and interrupted an apparent situation of domestic violence. I convinced the driver to let the lady out of the car and he drove off. For her part, once she was out of the car, she wanted nothing from me but to get away and offers of hospitality or kindness or further assistance were declined. She went on her way and I had the sense that the situation was unresolved. I warned her he could easily come back, and sure enough when she was half a block away he did. There was no more violence and he spoke to her briefly before driving off again and she walked away. I called the police but they couldn’t do much without her reporting the incident or making a complaint against him.

I post this here because once the adrenaline had died down and my head was returning to normality my first reaction was: there’s a story in this.

Perhaps that is the life of the writer: that all the events we observe become fodder for our craft, grist for our mill.

My next reaction though was that it was too unrealistic – too clichéd! Are we supposed to believe our narrator just happens to be at that intersection, at that time? Are we supposed to believe the antagonist just drives off? That the ‘damsel’ rejects her rescuer as quickly as she rejected her attacker? And what kind of ending does this story provide. In the denouement does she return to the abusive relationship? Is the climactic intervention of our protagonist entirely pointless, merely a temporary disruption to the status quo?

It occurred to me that if this tale were to make good fiction it would need some serious amendments and revisions – perhaps some heavy re-writes.

So what role does fact have in fiction? and how beholden are we as creators of fiction to fact?

China Mieville populates his world with living cacti, scarab-headed beauties and trans-dimensional spider-gods, they move amid forests of frozen lightning, clouds of gaseous rock and cities polluted by thaumaturgic effluent, and yet they work because there are some facts that make them relatable. People are greedy and kind and nasty and brutal and selfless and contradictory, exactly as we know them to be. They behave factually in the most fictitious setting. Lord of the Rings works for the same reason (though despite Tolkein’s objections it is easier to read as a bucolic allegory of post-industrialism). Star Wars likewise: inter-stellar travel, alien races and an inexplicable Force (midichlorians be damned – The Force should not have to be explained) but amidst that a relatable human story (boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes smuggler, Wookie misses out on a medal, boy is trained by a muppet backpack, boy and girl are siblings… the usual).

Conversely “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” opened this week. If I type ‘Abraham’ into Google the auto-search function has ‘Abraham Lincoln’ as top suggestion, and ‘Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter’ second. Here the setting is ostensibly (in that Steam-punk / Alt-history way) a factual one. Real historical figures at a real point in history, acting out a plot of pure fiction. To what extent then do the writers owe us a ‘factual’ Lincoln. I suspect to no extent whatsoever.

And what then of the cases on the indistinct borders of these realms. What of the ‘based on an extraordinary true story films/ Films like ‘The Blindside‘ for instance, which presents the story of Sandra Bullock pulling Michael Oher out of ghetto-crack-oblivion, teaching him to play football, giving him Kathy Bates to lift his GPA and basically providing him with professional sporting success. A great story of heart-warming selflessness and triumph over adversity. To what extent did this film owe us such facts as Michael Oher’s recognised success in football pre-existing the intervention of Sandra Bullock’s character (he had achieved all-state selection and was rated 5th best lineman prospect in the country a year before he met Leigh Anne Tuohy), or that he lifted his GPA by taking online courses through Brigham Young University; scoring As in English to replace the Ds and Fs he was awarded in school?

Is the story not better if he comes into her care hopeless and becomes exceptional? Doesn’t that work better as a narrative arc? Isn’t it better fiction if his sudden success can be traced to a single inspirational speech rather than a montage of repetitive training? I think undoubtedly so.

So perhaps I will use my experience for a short story. It will be ridiculously over the top and require a great suspension of disbelief… and you will know those are the factual bits.

As TVTropes point out, reality is unrealistic, and as a famous Australian children’s author once said: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn”.


Characters

So I’ve put up the second character profile for my new project. She’s obviously markedly different from the protagonist of the piece, but then narrative is conflict I suppose.

Now in both these cases the character profiles are quite extensive. As these will be the two main characters so there’s a fair bit of extra work put into giving them a back-story and motivations that will make sense of their decisions and actions in the plot.

So I figured I talk a little today about what I think makes a good character in a narrative. There’s plenty of web resources covering this topic, but here’s my 2 cents:

Make them flawed.

Think of all the most popular characters in fiction and you won’t have to think for long to find their flaws. There’s whole blogs to be filled with the flaws of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, Leer and Shakespeare’s creations, so too the Greek tragedies, but let’s, for the sake of brevity, confine our discussion to the last couple of decades. Humbert Humbert was a pedophile, Leopold Bloom couldn’t keep his thoughts in order, Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict (and almost certainly insufferable company), Yossarian was insane (but not insane enough), Randle McMurphy was too sane, Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time, Kurtz was a megalomaniac and a murderer, Winston Smith was old and weak and pathetic, Atticus Finch… well there’s always an exception.

Seriously though it’s the flaws that we as readers want to see. Even in non-realistic narratives. Superman gets a lot more interesting if there’s kryptonite about. Batman is the best superhero character because he is the most flawed. Harry Potter is flawed because (spoiler alert) he has part of Voldemort’s soul in him. We watch Star Wars because of Darth Vader (who’s evil) and Han Solo (who’s a ‘rogue’). I doubt the films would have been so popular if they were all about Luke going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.

George Martin understands this better than most. So too do Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan. Tolkein probably didn’t.

Allow readers to relate to them

Characters aren’t really people. Although you want them to be realistic you need some room for the reader to wriggle in and make themself part of the narrative. This is where Luke Skywalker comes in, and Frodo, and Charles Marlowe, and Harry Potter in the first few books (we only find out about his flaw after several increasingly large volumes), and so many others.

I wasn’t raised by my uncle and aunt on tatooine, but I know what it’s like to have too many chores and to wish my life could mean something more than just working on the family farm. I’ve never had a magic ring but I know what it’s like to feel over-burdened and crushed by responsibility. I’ve never been to Africa but I know what it’s like to be in a strange place where the cultural rules you know don’t count for much and you’re trapped on a journey to a task you don’t really want to do. I’ve never been to Hogwarts but a new school and I’m an outcast… I could go on.

The best example of this rule (but possibly the worst example of every other rule) is Bella from Twilight. Now I’m basing this on the films because I’ve seen two of those but  haven’t read any of the books. Bella is a shell. She’s utterly empty and devoid of any personality, will or individuality. This makes her the perfect vessel for the reader. You can pick up Twilight and start reading and in your imagination you’re imagining yourself having to choose between the perfect (but dead) Edward and the perfect (but not Edward) Jacob. *swoon*

Give them a purpose of their own

Not just their purpose for your story, but a purpose to their own being. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, but it has to make sense to them. There’s still a pantomime thrill in having a character do something you, the reader, know is dumb. If it seems to them that it’s the best thing to do but the reader knows something they don’t then no worries. Of course if they’re basing their action or decision on something we know but the character doesn’t you have a problem.

When we do something we vary rarely (Plato and Aristotle would argue basically never) do it for its own sake. We always have some other goal, or end, in mind. I don’t go to the gym because I have a really massive desire to pick up iron and put it back down where I found it. I don’t go for a run because of the run itself. I do these things because I believe that if I do I will be fitter and healthier. I want to be fitter and healthier because I believe it will bring me a happier, longer life. I want a long life because I want to spend more time with my family and see my boys grow up. I want to be there when they grow up so I can help them to be good people and live good lives (whatever that means).

My point is that characters will have these long-term motivations too. As a writer you need to balance the short-term and the long term motivations and create a pattern of actions which make sense. Of course there’s room to create a capricious or unpredictable character, but even they will want to achieve something in the end.

Make them grow

Maybe growth is a loaded term, but make them change at least. Maybe not every character, and maybe not a lot, but over the course of your story someone or someones need to change.

There’s examples in Harry Potter and Star Wars again (think of Luke Skywalker, or Harry himslef, or better yet the many changes of Snape, or the vast change in Neville). In the Game of Thrones (spoiler alert) Robert bemoans his own transformation from warrior hero to fat alcoholic, Arya goes from nobleman’s daughter to a criminal boy (even if it is a disguise).  Think of the reversal in Macbeth – initially he’s unsure and tending to loyalty even if it is through guilt, she’s egging him on, taunting him for his weakness. By the final act Macbeth is mad with bloodlust and Lady Macbeth overcome with guilt. This is what we wanted to see. How do people change? How are they affected by what’s happening to them, by the things they do or which are done to them?

Now there are exceptions. Call it ‘The Simpsons’ phenomenon (though it’s been around a lot longer than that). Bart will always be an underachiever. Homer will never learn. Lisa will always wear those pearls. But The Simpsons and the like are narrative McDonalds: we know it’s not really good for us but it’s comfortable, familiar, you know what you’re going to get from it.

Narrative force is in change, and it takes both character and plot development (more on that later) to make it happen.


What Fantasy Fiction means (to me)

So I’ve posted a couple of short stories which I have tagged as fantasy. They are stories I submitted to spec-fic ezines as ‘fantasy’ pieces, but I think the term requires a little investigation.

Inevitably this discussion will have to deal with “the ghetto of genre”, but I like to think this is less an issue now than in the recent past. Where once, no so long ago, genre-fiction was something enjoyed by niche readerships it seems now that broad audiences are more accepting of genre-fiction. This manifests in two ways.

Firstly works of genre-fiction are more successful and reach larger audiences. The obvious examples here are “Harry Potter” (Magic Fantasy), “Twilight” (Supernatural Romance Fantasy) and “Hunger Games” (Post-Apolcolyptic Sci-Fi). “Game of Thrones” (Epic Fantasy*) could be added to that in terms of the NY Best-sellers list, and the Showcase adaptation is broadening the exposure still further.

Historically it has been harder for Fantasy to reach such audiences. “The Lord of the Rings” is of course the prototype of the popular Fantasy story, but its readership always carried something of a social stigma, until the success of the Peter Jackson adaptations opened its appeal to a new generation audience.

The enduring appeal of comic-book super-heroism is successful Fantasy, but until recently ‘comics’ were considered childish at best and geek at worst, perhaps (despite the Pulitzer won by “Maus” and the Hugo by “Watchmen”) they still are.

Further back we have the success of “Star Trek” (Soft Sci-Fi) and of course “Star Wars” (Sci-Fi / Fantasy), again with accompanying social stigma being recently reduced, in the first case by the grittier JJ Abrams re-boot and the latter by the prequels.

There was of course a time before genre so defined a text, so we have the canonical status of the speculative fantasies of traditional story-telling; Grimm’s tales for instance, “Gulliver’s Travels”, “Wonderland” the Gothic fantasies of Poe, the incipient Science-Fiction of Mary Shelley and R.L. Stevenson, whereas the weird fantasies of Lovecraft and Kafka, and the Golden Age Sci-Fi of Asimov, Clarke, P.K. Dick and Heinlein have achieved comparable respect only within their ‘ghetto’.

Secondly we see the breaking down of genre barriers so that genres are combined, created, morphed, mangled and ignored by authors. China Mieville famously called Tolkein “The wen on the arse of Fantasy literature” (though he has tempered that rage a little more recently) before going on to define the genres of “New Weird” and “Urban Fantasy”.  He wasn’t the only one to criticise Tolkein’s influence on Fantasy (and the influences of other conservative writers – Lewis springs immediately to mind). Perhaps as a result of shaking off the ‘stultifying influence’ of “Rings” (and others), contemporary authors are exploring the limits of what ‘Fantasy’ can encompass (or challenging the value of genres all-together).

Seth Grahame Smith has found a new use for classic literature. Diana Gabaldon uses the Sci-Fi trope of time-travel to create a bare-chested  Romance set against a Low Fantasy milieu.  Neil Gaiman brings myth to the strip-malls and freeways of the American road-trip.  Richard K Morgan creates Noir Sci-fi and an Epic Fantasy (which may actually be a Sci-Fi) complete with magical swords, non-human races, magic… and protaganists who are by turns gay, drug-abusing, sociopathic and decidedly anti-heroic. Joe Abercrombie drags his ‘heroes’ through a formulaic Quest Fantasy… torturing them and any other character that takes his interest along the way and finally depositing them in the most unexpected places.

How then do we define ‘fantasy’?

Tzvetan Todorov identified two modes of story-telling within ‘the fantastic’: ‘the marvellous’, and ‘the uncanny’.

He first defines ‘the fantastic’ as “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” He differentiates ‘the marvellous’ from ‘the uncanny’ by how they explain this event.

In ‘the uncanny’ the events can be explained within the laws of nature, perhaps through some fault of the character (or the reader) in understanding them.

In ‘the marvellous’ the events cannot be explained within the laws of physics, and are therefore accepted (b the character and presumably the readers) as supernatural.

I would like to think that my Fantasy writing avoids both the uncanny and the marvelous, or is perhaps different things to different readers.  As a writer I would like to keep my reader in that state of hesitation, in Todorov’s ‘fantastic’, for as long as the inevitable winnowing of narrative progress allows.

And so what does all this mean for me, the aspiring writer with a love of Fantasy Fiction?

I think it means what I want it to mean. I think it means freedom. Genre is not the ghetto it once was, or was once feared to be… Fantasy is a rich landscape in which I’m free to explore and perhaps even claim my own little plot of land, and to build upon it whatever structure I like.