Saturday, December 17, 2011

Write What You Know: Death

Death is a part of life[1]. It is an ending, and with it a new beginning[2]. Oaths, of course, only hold until death. They are considered fulfilled with the death of the oathmaker. My narrator says:
Oaths that bind us. Oaths to serve. Oaths to protect. We swear and swear and at the end we find ourselves bound in a web of promises with no way out. But in their mercy the gods give us death, that there may be an end to oaths, an end to dishonour and failure. Death, the final answer to every promise.
Later though his opinion is threatened. There is a suggestion that death is not the end. But let's not go down that route. Instead, let's consider; if we live long enough we can't keep all our promises. Eventually circumstances will force us to break one or more. In a feudal society, this is a threat. To a feudal society with immortals this is a major problem. Oaths will be broken. Then you must live forever with the consequences.

[1] Wittgenstein disagreed in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but he's dead, and also changed his mind.
[2] "Transformation" Tarot readers interpret the card as. To which I misquote Ragged Robin, and ask exactly what kind of transformation is symbolised by a scary skeleton with a scythe on it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Man Who Cheated Death

A self-contained story from my novel, provisionally named An End To Oaths. It has a rude word in it so it can be found below the fold.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Novel: Brain Frazzled Lessons

So 45 days and 83,000 odd words later it's finished. Working title is An End To Oaths. It's supposed to be a gritty low fantasy swords-and-a-bit-of-sorcery thing. It sort of is! There are seven dragons in it though.

This means the first draft exists to be read. HOWEVER:

1. I'm not making it generally available, especially to random strangers off the internet.
2. It is inelegant and in some cases broken. An early section doesn't work at all. The manuscript changes tense all the time. Characters appear, change name, and wander off, then new characters who fill the exact same role appear. A city changed name a couple of times. I've redrawn the map three times and I'm not sure anything that happens is geographically possible. When I couldn't find the name I'd previously given someone or something they just became "the scarred man" "the frightened woman" "the envoy". (I actually like that quite a lot, but it ought to be consistent). Things that happen at the end don't tie in to the beginning, and things that happen at the beginning don't pay off properly at the end.
3. That said, all the coolest stuff I hoped for is there, but in many cases improperly set up. So they will be, to coin a phrase, spoiled if read in their current state.
4. Anyone who gets a draft will be requested to spot errors, problems, mistakes, inconsistencies etc.
5. Stephen King suggests leaving it for six weeks before going over it again. Well, in your face King, I'm going to print out the first section tomorrow and go over it with a red pen and a notebook to spot what needs fixing. In other words I hope to have a second draft within a reasonable timescale, And that draft should be an actual novel rather than just a bunch of related chapters.

All that said, if anyone wants a copy of the first draft, let me know when I'm feeling self-confident and I'll e-mail it over. Also, probably tomorrow I'll stick another excerpt out on the blog.

So what lessons have I learned, and can remember sitting here two hours after typing the last line[1]? Firstly it's not all that hard. Just come up with the outline for a story, visualise the scene, and force it out the brain and down to the fingertips and it appears on the screen. Easy!

Secondly - this is hard work! Starting scenes isn't too bad - a character arrives, a fight starts, someone wakes up. Finishing them is a bitch. The first five hundred words a day are not too bad. Unless I'm really caught up in what's happening, each section after that is harder.

Thirdly, I either need a better plan, or I need to be better prepared for when things go off track. Extra chapters appeared between me and the end several times. Stories I expected to appear in a couple of days and so had plenty of time to think about started to spill half-formed from characters lips. I found myself looking up swordsmithing, galleys, PTSD and pregnancy amongst other things at various times when the story made me realise I didn't know enough about those topics to make up convenient details.

I'm pretty sure there are other lessons. I'm a bit too frazzled to figure out what they are though. More post mortem later as I process what happened.

[1] "Promise me you'll kill the son of a bitch who did this to me."

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Write What You Know: Feudalism

In a feudal setting the greatest crime is to betray your lord[1]. Failure is nearly as bad. So what happens when you're the sworn guard to your lord, and he dies? When you get home and face his widow and family, what then? Even if they forgive you, you've still failed. Your oath has been broken. How do you pick yourself after that?

If I need an excuse for a broken, fanatic killing machine of a protagonist, suffering from PTSD, determined that he will not fail again, or at least he won't outlive failure this time, here it is. Of course this links to some other themes - death and family. Which by some coincidence come next on my list of Write What You Know.

[1] Unfairly treating your vassal is equally bad. However as the rights and privileges increase as you move up the ziggurat, and the responsibilities increase as you move down, plus judging it happens at the top, for some reason it rarely happens that way. Who would have thought?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Butchery and Lost Horses

Reading Tamerlane by Justin Marozzi, a biography of Timur. Later will come an actual review. Here's an excerpt:
Husayn's death, when it came, bordered on the farcical. Doubting Temur's promises of quarter, he first hid inside a minaret until he was discovered by a soldier who had climbed the tower in an effort to find his lost horse.
No, you're not going to find your horse up there. I suppose, if this had been slightly better phrased  I'd instead assume he was going to look out for his horse, but seriously? In the middle of a sack you're going to spot your horse from the tower, climb down and catch it? Here is an important mystery - what was the soldier doing in the tower? Clearly I will have to read on to find out.

Next, our author goes to Uzbekistan to visit Shakhrisabsz, site of Timur's palace and visits the market.
Butchers with huge cleavers chop away at cuts of meat that would be consigned to the rubbish bin in wealthier countries.
Has anyone ever told him what goes into sausages and burgers? Or, for that matter, has he ever been to a kitchen of a proper restaurant where the meat that can't be sold gets used for stock. Anyway, hoping for more mystery horses and butchery wrongness as I progress.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Novel: An Excerpt

 An excerpt from my still untitled novel, currently 33,000 words of slightly disjointed swearing, fighting and storytelling. This is the first draft, so may be changed at no notice and conceivably may be deleted entirely.
A week later we were well inside Dead Tiger Shi’s domain. My lady was taking advantage of the flat terrain to ride in her carriage. Lady Alixa and her brother took advantage of her being in the carriage to talk to one of the lower orders.
“Did he really spend five minutes praising her backside?”
Kell tried out his Stennish. “Hey! Listen up! Hear me talk about these buttocks of goodness, this fine looking rear end, this saddle cushion of loveliness.”
“Stop that.” I said. Alixa looked a little surprised at my tone. “Firstly, you’re telling Dead Tiger Shi’s men you speak Stennish. If they think you are ignorant of it, his court may speak more freely about you.”
They looked at me, impressed by this reasoning. “Secondly, you’re absolutely murdering the opening of their epics. Where did you hear that?”
“Graves and Heart Break Kau were talking three nights ago, and each began in the same way. Later I heard the bard saying the same thing.”
“What epic is that the opening to?” asked Alixa.
“All of them,” I said, “The Stennish are a very traditional people.”
“You’ve disappointed her. She wanted you to tell her a story.” She punched her brother in the shoulder.
I looked at them, then out at the large expanses of pasture and the small fields clustered around the ragged villages. Nothing to see for miles.
“A story. The Stennish are a strange people and their stories have a different shape to the ones we have and expect. So you may find this disappointing.
“Still, it will be good practice, and you may learn something of how they think.”

The Tale of Black Livered Ho and the Iron Men

Listen to me child, for I have something to say.
I will talk of the first steppe lords, the riders of the wind, the ancestors of the free men. Their names ring across the plains, are known along the curve of the world, will be remembered until time dies it’s long death. They were horse tamers, god hunters, man killers, arrow shooters, lance stabbers, net stranglers. It was the earliest age, the time when all was new, the days when men were what they were meant to be.
I will talk of Ho, Black Livered Ho, Strong Back Ho, Wolf Killer Ho. Ho who wrestled giants, hunted dragons, stole the secrets of the iron men. Ho, whose arrows would pass through three men and prick the flesh of a fourth. Ho, whose skin shed blows like water. Ho, whose lance made a hundred widows.
In their wanderings the iron men had come to a ford in the golden river. They settled there and built their tents of mud and wood, planted their grains and their greens. The free men came against them in the night to take their women and their goods and their lives. Their lances broke against the grey metal coats, their arrows bounced from the ferrous helms, and their horses blood slaked the thirst of the iron spears.
In his high summer camp by the holy mountain, Ho heard of this. “What is this?” he queried the taletellers. “Is the courage of the free men gone? Are the steppe lords broken men? The southerners are no true men, mere slave fodder before the nets and clubs of the riders of the wind. How do they now hold the ford on the golden river against all comers?”
“They have sorcery,” said the taletellers. “Their swords cut through our limbs like a spoon through mare’s milk. Blows struck on their harness simply bounce off. They stand as close together as bushes, and our horses cannot find a way through.”
Ho thought on this. The steppe was wide and long. A man could ride it his whole life, gathering wood and flint in the north in the summer, wintering in the south with his herds, and never need to cross the golden river. The iron men were no threat to him.
Three times the seasons made their circuit. Three times warlords took their followers against the iron men. Three times the iron men cut down the riders of the wind, spilling their blood, taking their horses. Any who wished to cross the golden river had to pay a tribute in gold or cattle or horses, and submit to being disarmed. Raiders had to cross at night, far upstream or down, and carry only what could be swum across. Ho heard of this and thought more.
The fifth spring came. The holymen, historyspeakers and clantallymen called for a meeting of the steppe lords, market and contest and prayer gathering. And they called for warlords to come and talk of the iron men who defied the free men and blocked them from the traditional raiding lands of the south.
Ho, Silent Thinker Ho, Black Livered Ho stayed with his herds in the north. His bondsmen who went to the gathering told him of the deeds that were done, the milk-beer that was drunk, the duels that were fought. They told him of the oaths that were sworn, the clans who sent warriors and the great warband of braves that went to fight the iron men, a warband of every tribe of the steppe. The hill men of the east sent lancers, the fish men of the west sent archers. Even the goat men, barely human, sent their axe men on their tiny ponies. 
The ford was taken. The mud fort cast down. The iron men were slain. The warband set off south, on a great raid.
The news came with the autumn rains. The iron men had come back. An army as numberless as the stalks of grass had risen from their stone camps and defeated the warband. The scattered remnants had fled to the steppe and the southerners had retaken the ford.
Ho thought more. At last he spoke. “The iron men desire the world. They will never stop. Like locusts or marmosets or dragons they will overrun the world and eat it, and shit out their burrows. They do not know the curve of the world was given to the free men. They do not respect the authority of the horse lords over mankind. The iron on their bodies is nothing to the iron of their minds, which has shut out the rightful order of things.”
He turned to his followers, retainers, bondsmen and kinsmen. “Who here will kill for me?” They all cheered their willingness. “Who here will die for me?” More cheers from the young men, grunts and shrugs of resignation from the veterans.”
“Who will give up their honour? Who will get down on their belly and cower like a dog? Who will surrender to my enemies, break oaths, rebel against their master, spy on my enemies?”
Silence swept across the camp. Then spoke up Rabbit Hat Moh, Wolf Killer Ho’s cousin. “All my honour comes from my lord. If he requires it I can only give it up with a glad heart that I have had the keeping of it for a time.”
So Rabbit Hat Moh was taken down to the ford in the golden river, and sold into slavery there. He laboured in the dark cave of the forge, shovelling the black rock, pumping the bellows, burning in the heat. All winter he dwelt in the dark heart of the enemy. In the spring Faithful Cousin Ho came for him. The guards were covered in metal from their head to their feet. Ho twisted off their heads. The guards had swords that could cut through necks. Ho struck them as they nodded in the dark of night. The guards were many. Ho fought them so silently that they never knew he was there.
Moh and Ho united in the forge. Moh broke his chains with the tools made to forge them. They plundered the forge, taking the smiths with them as they left.
In the domain to the north Moh found iron rock. He made the smiths teach them the secrets of their craft, until the spears of Ho and his horde gleamed like a forest when the sun comes out after a rainstorm.
Their lances struck the iron men and were not deflected. Their arrows found their targets. Iron armour protected their hearts and heads and horses. The ford on the golden river was opened again.
Black Livered Ho and Slave Killer Moh learnt all they could from the iron men smiths. Then remembering the deeds of Moh, they killed them all, and built a cairn that guards the ford on the golden river to this day, and all the days until time dies it’s long death.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Write What You Know: The Ends of the Earth

I started this before I began writing the novel and never finished. There are more Ends of the Earth - for a start I live within walking distance of the sea and you can see the continent from the coast. Here it is, unfinished.
Flee to the Ends of the Earth is one of my favourite phrases. Here's some places I've been that vaguely fit that definition.

- Port Arthur, Tasmania. It's on a peninsula in the South East of Tasmania. Many people who visit Australia miss Tasmania entirely because it's kind of small and not on the way to anywhere. Port Arthur was delibrately isolated from the rest of Tasmania as it was a penal colony.

Tasmania was intersting - temparate rather than the subtropical I'd been in Sydney. I went up Mount Wellington and it snowed; down the bottom it was raining, then the next day was showers and the day after was gorgeous warm sunshine. Almost like home, except with a huge mountain behind it and the enormous Southern Ocean swells. And all the Australians, obviously.

- The Orkney Islands. Here I've written about the weirdness that went down there as I was coming down with something nasty and here the stuff that went on in concensual reality. Also on my way there I went through John O'Groats, the least attractive tourist spot I've ever visited. If it weren't for the tacky rubbish it'd be an interesting little harbour though. A big hill and a castle and we've got a setting for an outpost at the edge of civilised lands - sounds good!

- Stewart Island, New Zealand. "Go to New Zealand. Head south to the end of South Island. On the road from Invercargill to Bluff is a ferry, which will take you 17 km south to Stewart Island." Following these instructions lead me to what the hostel manager in Invercargill claimed was the southernmost pub in the world. He may be right, but only because he's not counting any cantinas in Tierra Del Fuego as pubs, as is his right. South is onlt Antarctica[1]

Bluff is also an End of the Earth in that it has one of those signposts to everywhere and a novelty sculpture, in this case a big anchor chain to stop South island drifting away.

[1] In the Southland museum in Invercargill I learned about the sub-antarctic islands, which have no permanant inhabitants. One set of them was on the route from Australia to Cape Horn, and unsurprisingly people kept getting shipwrecked on them. In order to help them out the put sheep on the island, which lead to it becoming a nice closely trimmed lawn, and incidnetally wiping out most of the bird life. What with improvements in navigations and communication, the sheep have been removed[2] allowing the island's ecosystem to begin recovery.
[2] Well, some were removed as some of the characteristics they'd developed were of interest. The rest were shot.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Writing a Novel: 2 Weeks In

This is day 14 of my attempt at NaNoWriMo; a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days that I have talked about before I started here. What have I learnt so far?

1. The first 500 words of the day are easy (exception day 3, which went wrong for a variety of reasons, and the morning I had just the slightest edge of a hangover). I've typed more than the 1 666 ⅔ words that are the quota every day, although in some cases it's taken me from morning to evening to squeeze them out in hundred word bursts. In other words I can probably do this.

2. I am explicitly writing a first draft. In previous projects I've noted that something is wrong and gone back and fixed it. None of them have ever gone over 30 pages as I get bogged down rewriting the same broken scenes over and over until I am sick of them and abandon it. Not on this one! Instead I make a note, usually a simple "Fix in 2nd Draft". In this way I won't get sick of rewriting the same scenes! At least not in the first draft. Rather than 30 pages of broken fiction I'll have 100 pages of broken fiction to deal with.

3. I expected my poorly planned story to run to about 60,000 words, which would be 6 December according to the quota. I'm now anticipating 75,000 words, 12 December by current writing rate.

4. It has slowed down my reading. I've finished 4 books this month, rather than the 6-8 I normally would read in a fortnight. On a related note, writing 1700-2000 words a day doesn't seem to interfere with writing status updates and comments, but does make it difficult to write anything longer, like blog posts. Partly this is due to the time commitment, but there's also a strain to changing mental gears.

5. I have been describing my novel on facebook. It is all lies. Every day I describe a novel concept, either a bad idea that sounds like a good idea or a bad idea that sounds like a good idea. After 14 days, I may be running out of stupid novel ideas. This surprised me too. Here they are:

- What if Sherlock Holmes were a circus clown?
- What if Shakspeare's plays were written by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu?
Romeo and Juliet, but the Capulets are Robots and the Montagues are Dinosaurs.
- Gritty intrigue as two hatmakers feud in 18th Century London.
- A deep psychological exploration of the mind of an unemployed guy who spends his days writing a novel about magical rabbits who fight for truth and justice in roman empire that never was, but should have been.
- An undead coroner must investigate his own death. His best friend is a vampire parrot.
- An alternate history in which it is discovered that the Moon is actually made of cheese.[1]
- An amnesiac patient and his nurse fall in love, marry and adopt a houseful of wartime orphans. Then they discover that he was already married! Also he's Hitler.
- A mystery writer discovers that crimes based on her stories are being committed. She teams up with a romance writer who then discovers that someone is recreating the sex scenes from his novels.
- 6 couples from very different backgrounds meet for a dinner party, and while waiting for the 13th guest discover how their pasts have intersected. The thirteenth guest turns out to be Godzilla.
- Carstairs and Topper meet their nemesis, who is a philosophy professor with a smoking jacket, or perhaps a Prussian aristocrat with a monocle, or maybe an attractive young lady with a parasol, I don't know.
- A cheesemaker ignores the War of the Austrian Succession, despite all the most famous personages of the 18th century tramping through his workshop, in favour of his quest for the perfect Stilton.
- Moby Dick, but with less metaphor and powerful descriptions of sailing, and more chapters taken from a whaling manual. Also, rather than hunting whales, they're clubbing baby seals.
- A recipe notebook charts the decline of a marriage and the stuttering attempts to repair it.[2]

6. This I already knew, but have relearned over and over - the only way to find the problems is to write your way into them and then write your way out. I can plan cool bits, although sometimes it's better to let them emerge. Also constraints are your friend. Day 3's writing went wrong when I shifted away from my original point of view. The hell with that. Let's stick with one narrator (after all, I like his voice; he narrates a lot like me) and find ways to stick him into the action. As I already have people telling stories for a lot of the text, I'll stick a few more in of people telling him stuff when he can't be present.

7. Breaks are good. I'm something of an irregular break person. Hydration and caffination are both good for this. What with the slowly reducing daylight hours, it's good to get outside during the middle of the day, even if I haven't finished my quota of words for the day.

8. My subconscious (unconscious?) mind is my friend. Things that drag and seem hard to write fix themselves between closing the word processor in the afternoon and firing it up in the morning. Partly this is thinking them through and scribbling or sketching in my notebook[3], but a lot of it is sleeping on it.

There are other lessons, but I'm falling behind my typing schedule! I have scattered notes for some more of the Write What You Know series, and will dump them up here later, as well as other lessons that come to mind.

[1] Part One: Search for the Space Cow. Part 2: The Church of God-really-likes-cheese. Part 3: Dairygeddon
[2] This is not inherently a bad idea, which makes me wonder if it's a real book I've heard of but not read. Alternatively, it could very well be from a dream, especially if I'd been listening to Women's Hour on Radio 4 who regularly juxtapose recipes and books about marriage breakups.
[3] Yes, pen and paper. DON'T JUDGE ME!

Friday, October 28, 2011

I Read Books: The Lost Fleet: Beyond The Frontier: Dreadnaught

1. Spoilers
This review spoils the six books in the original Lost Fleet sequence, which I reviewed here. Indeed the very existence of a sequel series to The Lost Fleet could be said to spoil the ending; some kind of resolution to the fleet's status has occurred, and even if it is still lost, it must nevertheless have stabilised it's position in some way. Nevertheless, consider yourself warned. Despite my most earnest wishes and the fact it would neatly tie this review together, I will not be spoiling the end of Dreadnaught. You can go to Wikipedia for that, or, perhaps better, read the damn book yourself.

2. Nitpicks unrelated to the content
John G Hemry, writing as Jack Campbell, has had great, and deserved, success with his Lost Fleet series. Amongst the positive results of this are timely publication of his books in this country and the re-issuing[1] of his earlier novels the Stark series and the forthcoming JAG in Space series (originally the Paul Sinclair series). Thank you Titan books.

However the renaming of the Sinclair series to describe it brings me to my nitpick[2]. This is a follow-on to the Lost Fleet series, but the publishers don't want me to be confused about this; it's still Black Jack Geary, still the Alliance Fleet, so they name the series The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, and as each novel in the sequence is named after a (capital) ship in the fleet, the novel's full name is The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught[3]. Which is biggest on the cover? The Lost Fleet. Or rather the LOST FLEET.

I'm beginning to wonder if I'm actually in the target audience for these novels, as the insistence that "Yes, this really is a continuation of The Lost Fleet" slightly annoys me.  I know it is!  It's by Jack Campbell and the blurb on the back cover make it clear!  Why not use that space to say "Beyond the Frontier:  Black Jack Geary and the veterans of the Lost Fleet (also available from Titan Books) face a mysterious new enemy!"

Also, as my current title format for book reviews is "I Read Books: [Insert Book Name Here]" this means I have 3 colons in the title which just looks odd.  Anyway, I have wasted more words on this issue than it deserves, which is probably none.  This is superior military space opera - well thought out and morally nuanced but at the end of the day heroics will be performed and ships will be exploded - so expecting the marketing to be subtle and clever is silly of me.

3. Momentum
Dreadnaught's big problem is getting the story moving.  The first 5 Lost Fleet books all open with the fleet in the middle of enemy territory, and with time, space, logistics, enemy action and internal conflict all requiring action.  With so many constraints, any time things threatened to slow down, the next one reared up; if they avoided the Syndics then the internal divisions in the fleet flared up; if they fought the Syndics they needed supplies to repair and replace the losses etc.  The last one, Victorious, begins with the Fleet returned, but wars still to fight; it nearly bogs down in the politics at the start but then gets moving.

Dreadnaught starts similarly.  The transition from war to peace has revealed many fractures in Alliance society.  As Geary returns to duty with an interview with the political leaders of the Alliance, Fleet Headquarters does something very silly, which nearly causes a mutiny.  This attempt to kickstart the story doesn't quite work for me as the solutions seem obvious.  Geary is very popular in the Alliance, which worries politicians; those who don't know him worry he would be a dictator and those who do worry that someone will perform a coup in his name.  They make a deal with Geary; he and the veterans of the Lost Fleet will go and find out what's going on with the enigma aliens who we almost saw in Victorious.  Then we get a couple of chapters where Geary does the administrative dance with distant headquarters; interesting but saps momentum again.

4. To the Frontier... and Beyond!
After one last bureaucratic attempt to sabotage the mission, they get underway[4] and from there the story doesn't let up.  Some of the captains cause trouble, as always, and a detour to rescue prisoners of war is problematic in several different ways.  As they cross the frontier, the enigma aliens get more and more mysterious, an excellent choice by Hemry.  Everything the fleet learns makes them question what they think they know!  Unless Hemry pulls something really unexpected out of his writing bag mysterious aliens who try to hide everything are much cooler than weirdos with a privacy taboo that we know all about anyway. 

Meanwhile clues seem to show that not everyone in the Alliance wants or expects Geary and the fleet to return.  The ships - wartime builds in a war that had horrific casualty rates - are beginning to fall apart after a handful of years of (admittedly hard) use and the last order from Fleet HQ was to strip the fleet of half it's repair ships (Geary finessed this and left before any queries could return).  Finally we get a big battle and a new mystery.  What will happen? We have to wait until May 2012 for the release of The Lost Fleet: Follow-on Series One: Beyond the Frontier: Maybe That Should Be Beyond The Frontiers: Invincible.

Read This: If you liked the Lost Fleet series; it gives enough information to stand alone, but if you enjoy this, why not start from the beginning?
Don't Read This: If Old-School Space Opera is not your thing, even if it's been polished to a fine modern chrome-steel sheen.
Final Nitpick: Geary and Desjani are married but regulations mean they have to maintain a professional relationship on board ship, even when off duty and no one blinks an eyelid at this situation?  What what what?

[1] This may be the first time they've been published in this country. I don't know.
[2] To be consistent they should have renamed the Stark novels as Broken American Military Mutinies On The Moon series, although I've only read the first one.
[3] I'm okay with the alternative spelling as it differentiates this novel from the recent Cherie Priest steampunk novel Dreadnought.
[4] Or underweigh?  As in weigh anchor?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Write What You Know: Unreliable Narrator

Show me a reliable narrator and I have a Nigerian Prince with a cashflow problem I'd like you to meet.

I have a somewhat broader view of unreliable narrator than literary (etc.) criticism usually uses[1]. Without going so far as to say that all fiction is a lie, so all narrators are unreliable, I might note that no one is omniscient; that all narratives are edited; everyone has biases; and radical honesty is not popular or commonplace. Omission from a narrative is at least as important as what is actually said. My second drafts usually lose about a quarter of the sentences, although I then replace about half of the removed word count either within sentences or adding new ones (often brief bridging sentences replacing fully descriptive passages). What I cut out is just as necessary as what I leave in.

[1] Their definition is, of course, narrow enough to be useful for their purposes. Mine is broader for my purposes; story options.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Never forget what Villeneuve said before the battle:

What? Half my fleet is Spanish, we've been at sea for five months crossing the Atlantic twice, our best officers were killed in the revolution and we've barely had any sea-time to train new ones. We're up against a guy that beat me once before, and has only one eye, one arm and one leg[1]. On top of that, we're probably too late to clear the channel for an invasion of England.

This boss fight is bullshit.

[1] This is the clean, and incorrect[2], version of why 111 is known as Nelson's number. It is considered unlucky in cricket, and if following the lead of David Shepard, one should stand on one leg while a team has that score to avert it.
[2] Nelson never lost a leg.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Write What You Know: Food

As I see it my food options are:

1. Just make stuff up. Rename grains, beans, the animals with fantasy versions that do the same job. Frankly, this seems silly. I'm pretty much a full on Gygaxian naturalist; I like things to make sense, or at least follow rules. If I make up an animal, it takes the niche of another animal, or I have to construct a new niche for it. The second sounds like hard work and ends up a bit silly ("The Yakox, a small six-legged horned hairy herbivore spends autumns in the forest eating the nectapples, an apple that tastes like a nectarine and is bright pink.") If it fills the same niche, why change the name? Instead, fantasise it up in the details ("The Norland cattle are long legged with a black and white striped hide.")

2. Just use regular food. In this way I can bring all my cooking knowledge. I don't cook classical or medieval or renaissance style, but you know, faking it is easy, right? Instead of using a food processor, press everything through a sieve, and instead of using a sieve crush everything in a pestle and mortar. Instead of a nice cast iron ceramic pot, use a copper one, or a tin one, or a pottery bowl. Instead of the electric oven, use a cast iron stove, and instead of a stove use a clay oven, and instead of an oven use an open fire. It all comes out the same in the end doesn't it?

As I hope is clear, this is okay[1] if you don't spend too much time in the kitchens. Who cares if your fantasy Romans are using tomatoes and potatoes and chillies and other new world ingredients, and preparing them in ways that would require hours of back breaking labour. If we're in a castle, that's what the servants are for. If we're not in a castle we'll eat stew[2].

3. Restrict to Old World ingredients[3], and generally old school cooking. Since I want to maximise writing and minimise research for the first draft, I'm thinking basically North European. So lots of pepper, beef, apples, honey for feasts. Fish and Fowl as well. The rest of the time we're mostly eating porridge with vegetables and some sort of meat broth (because our heroes aren't going to do great deeds if they're half starved all the time). Imported luxuries include citrus fruits and spices. The further north you get the harder it is to make salt, so fat and ice cellars will be used as preservatives.

3a. Fantasy world! So why not have New World ingredients as magical stuff from far away? Chillies and tomatoes as exotic flavours, potatoes as magically nutritious foodstuffs[4] (also bananas). Sounds pretty good.

[1] Okay is not high praise from me.
[2] It's always stew. This is because when we're on our world spanning quest to find the Mighty Axe of Kloblock we need food that is light and lasts, which means dried. If we have a cooking pot, then with firewood and a supply of water we can cook our dried meat and beans and make something edible. It's always stew and always will be.
[3] Or New World ingredients if I fancy a challenge.
[4] Liking the idea of Elves having their own version of Three Sisters agriculture.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Write What You Know: Dragons

Dragons, I think, work best when they're in the far background, as a distant threat[1]. They have a tendency to hog the limelight if allowed on stage. This is okay if your novel is all about dragons. But I want to do something else, so dragons will do better as myths legends and travellers tales.

Dragons, as we all know, live on that bit of the map you've not been to, but your uncle's trading partner did. None of you ever saw a dragon, but that grizzled veteran who spends all day in the alehouse fought one in the war, although as he never tells that story without several drinks, which war and where is unclear. Dragons used to live here - after all Old Loggins dug up some dragon bones when he dug his new root cellar - but not any more. The last was killed by King Eros, or Cham the Mighty, or maybe Fal the Wightslayer.

Also, from fossil evidence dragons -> dinosaurs, which arguably gives us giants -> Gigantopithecus and orcs -> Neanderthals.

[1] Or promise

Monday, October 17, 2011

Write What You Know: Dark Lords

If I was going to write extruded fantasy product, I'd have to write it from the point of view of the young lad growing up with poor but honest folks somewhere in middle earth who discovers that he's destined to grow up to be the Dark Lord, overthrow the established order, and start a revolution.
- Charles Stross

As I've previously noted, and Charlie goes on to explain in his post, the problem is not Dark lords, it's having any lords.

At the time Charlie's agent said this was going to alienate his readers. However 10 years have passed since then, and fantasy is dark and gritty and the new weird is being overtaken by the new swords and sorcery[1]. Some authors have begun approaching this idea. The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan seems to be heading this way at the end (and it's publication date is around now, I type this so maybe we'll find out! Book Tralier here). K J Parker's novels are more tragedies, but from a certain point of view her protagonists who are so obsessed with their goals that they will tear down the world could be Dark Lords[2].

A really interesting one is in Well of Darkness, the first in the Sovereign Stone Trilogy by Tracey Hickman and Margaret Weis. It has interesting twists on regular fantasy tropes (Japanese Elves, Horse Nomad Dwarves, Seagoing Orcs) and a clear and smart turning to the dark side of the protagonist. It all turns crap in the second novel, and I never finished it. Something similar happened to this reviewer.

A Dark Lord is a fantasy supervillain. Supervillains tend to have the problem of motivation. Here though, that's easy. Nobles are bad. Even good ones. Magicians keep secrets, secrets that could benefit everyone. Elves tell us they're better than us, and when we ask for help, they tell us we can never be good enough. The king fights his war against the orcs, and we do most of the dying, but when we go home, he goes to a palace to hear songs of his deeds, and we go home to find we've missed the harvest, and taxes have been raised to pay for the war, and rebuilding the city. "If you do what we say, we will protect you" they say. And we do what they say, and we do all the work of protecting, and when we get home the village has been burnt by raiders and it turns out what we've been protecting is the nobles.

I think I'm on to something here.

[1] Probably not. But The New Swords and Sorcery is the subtitle of Swords and Dark Magic, an excellent anthology of stories from this subgenre.
[2] The real difference is that most of them aren't doing it because they think it's the right thing to do, as heroes do. Rather than gloss over the fact that saving the city will require the deaths of an entire nation doesn't matter, because they're just orcs, Parker's characters will acknowledge that these are real people and go ahead and kill them anyway. AND IT WON'T SAVE THE CITY.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Family Stories

During the war my Grandfather worked on the railways. However he was also a special constable[1]. Most of his job as a special constable was guiding convoys on his motorbike - getting lost being a serious concern when navigating at night in blacked out countryside with all the signposts removed to confuse Nazi invaders or saboteurs. Many of the convoys were Americans heading to or from Long Marston Airfield, adding an extra layer of possible confusion.

However my Grandfather, a very tall man[2], was occasionally called on by the local constable, a somewhat smaller man, to be the quiet threat in tricky situations. One day some travellers, probably referred to as gypsies at the time, set up camp in a field near the airfield. The Constable called on my grandfather to loom in the background. Arriving at the site, he pulled out his notebook, looked around, then spoke to the men watching him. "Well Gentlemen, I'll be back tomorrow to check on you vehicle and dog licenses."

The next morning they left. Different times.

[1] A lot of this kind of thing went on. With a large number of the country's men in uniform there were a lot of extra jobs that needed filling. Dad's Army gives a flavour of that, with the men of the platoon coming from their day jobs to drill with the Home Guard, and ARP Warden Hodges being the Greengrocer by day. As well as doing needed work, it turns out that being a special constable gets you a fuel allowance, something not to be sniffed at in heavily fuel-rationed Britain.
[2] How tall? I'm not sure. He seemed pretty tall when I knew him, but I was much shorter at the time.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Write What You Know: Immortality

As I noted at the end of this non-descriptively named post classic writing advice is "write what you know"[1]. So the first element I'm interested in including in my novel is immortality. No not immorality. Stop that. I'm just going to throw words and ideas at the screen to see what happens so this doesn't really have a conclusion.

1. Excluding old age and disease, human life expectancy seems to be about 600-800 years. So death would not be unknown in a community of immortal-but-human people. However with accident, natural disaster and violence being the main causes of death I'd expect those deaths to cluster, and for there to be a really long tail giving a significant population of multi-millenarians[2].

2. Elves. Sodding Elves.

Here's an interesting thought from this guy's D&D campaign. Immortal Elves have a horror of death. As they age however, their diet becomes more and more exotic. When they have to give up their vegan diet they move from the Summer court to the Winter court. As they age in the Winter court they eventually become undead. Of course this ignores my statistical stuff above, but that's okay because these are Elves out of legend rather than naturalistic Elves. I don't really see a way of using this but it's interesting and makes the elves closer to folkloric and mythical roots rather than sub-Tolkienien pretty guys with pointy ears[3].

In one or other of the extended versions of The Lord of The Rings films, there's a scene where Elrond describes what happened at the end of the Siege of Barad-dûr[4], and he has the same haircut as he does 3000 years later. Brilliant! The only thing better would be if he took a scar during the War of The Last Alliance and still had it at the end of The Third Age.

Galadrial is even older. I don't recall exactly, but I think she's born during the Years of The Trees, before the sun or moon are created. Sadly no elves are awakened during the Years of the Lamps, when the world was still flat and everything lit by two giant lamp posts. No really. But nevertheless she's lived through a change of the entire cosmology, seen evil rise, and fall, seen kingdoms of Men rise and fall and generally a whole lot of history. Middle Earth's history is a fall from a golden age, so she probably sees each new battle as more petty and grubby than the one before.

3. What do you do with all of time before you? Back to sodding Elves, or in this case, sodding Space Elves, I recall in one version of Warhammer 40000 the Eldar followed paths for a time. So you might spend a century as an artist, then apprentice as a pilot or engineer until you master it, and then, it being a wargame, spend time as a warrior. Some got lost on the paths becoming Exarchs, Masters of the Path, who were simultaneously honoured for their mastery and pitied for losing their way and becoming obsessed with it. Interestingly, when ordinary Eldar formed Guardian squads as a militia, their leaders were those who had previously walked the Path of the Warrior and left it, using the experience gained in their previous career.

Ordinary ambitions do seem to fade a bit with all of time ahead. After a century you'd probably master any skill you had an aptitude for. Would you move on, or would you keep on, obsessively trying to creep towards perfection? Political objectives might be more durable, but then again there's this from my thoughts on Supervillains - having gained power, what then? An immortal ruler, no matter how revolutionary they are to begin with would eventually create a perfect conservative (small c) state, with change carefully controlled to preserve the state for the long term. No matter how pleasant it would be like one of those perfect utopias just ripe for Captain Kirk to smash with a speech about self-reliance and freedom of choice.

4. Vampires. Heh. I like the idea of vampires-as-immortals. They have a reason to hide their immortality - several in fact[5]. They exist parallel with, but not separate from human society. There's something to work with here.

But I went through a vampire phase 10-15 years ago and frankly had enough[6]. I'm also getting in the ring with Stephanie Meyer and behind her is a line of great Horror writers 114 years long. So, no.

However, for idiosyncratic reasons I tend to put Highlander if not in the vampire-genre niche, sitting next to it. Secret immortals, who can be killed by decapitation[7], with a mysterious and secret destiny[8].

5. Well, no conclusion here. I like the idea of secret immortals with an unknown agenda. Add to this rumours, legends, fakes and con men claiming to be these immortals and we've got something interesting, but not enough to build a story on. In fact I'd want to keep them in the shadows as much as possible because they would be much cooler that way. So I need more ingredients, which means more Write What You Know posts.

[1] "You write what you know because — like there's another choice? The trick is to try and know as much as possible."
— Lois McMaster Bujold
[2] Suicide would be the other big killer, but that would tend to occur in discrete cases.
[3] Ironically since I'm looking for human immortals this ought to be a better match, but frankly most of this type of Elves are just guys who live a few hundred years, you know, and love trees and all living beings man, except trespassers who must be arrowshot like a rack of kebabs.
[4] Elrond is already 3000 years old at the end of the Second Age.
[5] There's the blood-drinking thing. There's the consorting-with-dark-powers thing (usually these two aren't disentangled). There's the vulnerability during the daytime thing. And there's the people wanting immortality thing (including in this set people who want to study vampires because it's never for the benefit of the vampire).
[6] Which is not to say that I've gone cold turkey. This year I've read Anno Dracula and also watched Vampires Suck, an entertaining parody of the Twilight films which has several good jokes in. I especially like that the theme for the prom, [SPOILERS].
[7] The Kurgan seems to be driving the quest towards there being only one. It's not clear why the rest of them can't just get along. Supposedly the last one will be given power over all mankind, but, they're immortal, so why?
[8] Which we never find out because there was never a sequel. What's that? La la la, I can't hear you!

Friday, October 14, 2011


Scott Lynch is the author of two Fantasy Novels[1]. The reason he's not the author of three or four fantasy novels is due to depression, anxiety attacks and the break up of his marriage. He wrote about it with the skill of a professional writer and the bit that connected for me was this:

The worst aspect of my depression is what I've come to think of as "black dog time," when my enthusiasm for anything takes an Acapulco cliff-dive. It's a hard state of mind to describe-- in fact, it's a hard state of mind to even detect, and even once you have detected it it's hard to give a damn because you're, well, depressed. It's a mental cloud in which one remains perfectly capable of taking action, but primarily obsessive action, self-centered action. Not caring, conscientious, or constructive action. A depressive is supremely skilled at entertaining themselves now because now is all depression ever lets you have. It sharply retracts your chronological horizon. Now is everything, even if, to parahprase Patton Oswalt, now is consumed by sitting in bed and watching The Princess Bride 17 times in a row.

Yeah, I recognise that all right.

The whole thing is here.

[1] The essential The Lies of Locke Lamora, a con/heist/revenge novel and Red Seas Under Red Skies which is more of the same, but with pirates, more egregious cliffhangers and a plot that makes slightly less sense. The recommendation: Read Lies, and if you like it try RSURS.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fifty Thousand Words

Every November an event called National Novel Writing Month[1] takes place. The challenge is to write a novel of 50 000 words in the month, which works out to 1 666 ⅔ words a day[2]. I'm planning on having a go, if only to finish something. Firstly though, here's what I won't be writing:

1. Novelised versions of any of the stuff on this blog

Frankly none of them have the legs to be longer stories, which is why they got finished in their current form and stuck on the blog! Also:

ROBOT DEATH TANK - is a one trick pony.[3]

Carstairs and Topper runs into the problem of Topper - is he just a tophat, or is he actually Carstairs' partner? Or what? I prefer not to answer that question. It'd be like tracking down Bill Watterson and asking him if Hobbes is real or a figment of Calvin's imagination[4]. Also, I'd have to work out a mystery plot of some sort, and making that watertight is a good way of NOT writing a novel[5].

Professor Lovebody is a no because I am Steampunked out at the moment[6].

Major Squick could work, but would probably be a sub-standard comedy Flashman. Also researching the 19th century British Empire is a great way of NOT writing a novel. Just go and read Flashman and sequels. I can't lend you all of them as someone has wandered off with some of them. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

The Ravenswood stories have some potential. On the other hand they're just me taking folk stories, folk history, apocryphal stories, fairy tales etc. giving them a bit of a twist and plonking them down in the Ravenswood. I don't object to a novel set in a folktale nowhere/everywhere place but it's a bit limiting as the people aren't characters but stereotypes and the events don't occur but have always occurred.

2. That fantasy novel I always intended to write more than 30 pages of

I've had this great idea of using Xenophon's Anabasis as the basis of a fantasy novel for years and years. An army of Greek Mercenaries marches into the heart of the Persian Empire, win the battle but lose the war, are betrayed and have to march back. Xenophon has prophetic dreams and everything[7]. It's hardly original, but I thought a modern gritty twist might lift it a bit. Also the sequel is a Fantasy Alexander[8] which almost writes itself.

It's such a good idea that I suggest you go and read The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney which has a fantasy Anabasis[9], and also a sequel Corvus that sets things up for a Fantasy Alexander. It's modern and gritty[10]! Damn it.

3. Supervillains

I've been thinking about Supervillains for at least three years now. I have a plot and characters and everything. Unfortunately it has Nazi human experimentation in the first act which is kind of harrowing to research, and frankly after reading about it I stop writing and just flop around in a grey haze for a couple of days. I could make it up, but that's going to be one or more of a. trivialising; b. disrespectful; c. disturbing in it's own right; d. disturbing on another level entirely.

4. A big modern talky novel

One problem with this is it tends to be about relationships and personal problems[11]. When writing I get bogged down in conversations and explanations and descriptions and so forth. The way to break out of this is to introduce some urgency; an emerging situation that requires at least the attention of the characters and usually some action by them[12]. In a non-genre novel this kind of thing can be easily overused, swiftly resembling a soap opera style lurching from car crash to affair to break in to house fire to children running away from home. Better to write a genre novel where these things are not just accepted, but expected.

5. Technothriller / Historical Adventure

These fall straight into the target area defined above. Unfortunately to do properly they require lots of research to work. It would be entirely possible to write a first draft and find that reality made the entire plot risible[13]. No, I need a genre where making stuff up is a positive attribute.

6. Science Fiction / Horror / Romance

Naah. Making stuff up for SF ties me in knots of research / plausibility / coolness / rinse-and-repeat. I'm not such a fan of horror or romance that I want to spend 30 days building a plot.

Classically, writing advice begins with "write what you know"[14]. So it's clear that I should write a nice fat fantasy novel. Or, as I'm aiming for 50,000 words, a nice slim one. Good work everyone! Now to come up with some stuff to go in it.

Next: Things that interest me to write about.

[1] With the hideous abbreviation NaNoWriMo
[2] Tempting! But my personal rule will be to write an integer number of words a day, unless quoting or reporting partial words in dialogue.
[3] Actual Robot Death Tank stories exist. I suggest checking out Keith Laumer's Bolo stories for an example.
[4] The answer is "Yes".
[5] A long-form Carstairs and Topper would mash together two Sherlock Holmes stories to make A Study in Bohemia, or unless it turned out to be a bit racy in which case it would be A Scandal in Scarlet.
[6] You can find Steampunk novels all over the place - Waterstones had a display of it a couple of months back. As noted I've had enough for a while so will not be recommending here.
[7] Socrates interprets it for him, and tells him off for asking the wrong question in the first place.
[8] Hardly original as two of David Gemmell's best novels follow just that template.
[9] Also a Katabasis. Hey, look it up if you can't keep up.
[10] Probably a bit grimmer than I would make it. The Ten Thousand make their way through by endurance and willpower, while mine would have been all about sudden forced marches, clever strategies, seizing forts and bridges by surprise and things like that. Something a little like the Chain of Dogs in Steven Erikson's Deadhouse Gates.
[11] Ugh!
[12] Hereafter referred to as an emergency.
[13] This hasn't always stopped other people.
[14] In Junior School they'd say "No aliens, magic, spies, gangsters, ghosts..." and list everything I wanted to write about, so all my stories were about going on nice walks and finding dead animals, or funny shaped trees or seeing ships and aeroplanes, except one time when they left spies out of the list by accident.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

ROBOT DEATH TANK: Carstairs and Topper

It's the inevitable crossover between the two most "popular" fiction series I've created this year! Not available in 3D.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm sure you have guessed the reason for calling you all here. This crime has rocked our country house party, and I'm sure that we all want this cleared up before the storm that has isolated us blows over."

"You're right!" said Major Bellows. "The reputation of us all - indeed the reputation of the house itself - is in danger! If the good name of Little Hampton is besmirched I doubt I will be able to find a trout stream as good as this that will have me as even a weekend guest."

"Quite," said Lady Peabody, "I'm sure Major Bellows speaks for all of us."

"I began my investigation by trying to determine when the crime occurred and what everyone in the house was doing at that time."

"You don't mean to say you suspect one of us?" said Standish, monocle dropping from his eye socket.

Carstairs gave him an incredulous glance, then continued. "Topper determined the time as 12.07, yet the chambermaid heard a suspicious noise at 12.21, and I deduced that the latest the crime could have been committed was 11.54. A conudnrum indeed!"

"There was a ruby stolen as well?" asked Benson. "No, a conundrum, not a corundum," muttered Mrs Benson.

"I then attempted to determine who had a motive. Unfortunately like all house parties we are over supplied with them, ranging from jealousy, envy, revenge, blackmail, fear of blackmail, envy, greed, unrequited love, concealing another crime, worship of the elder gods, political ambition, madness and complete blithering incompetence."

"Also incompetence," said Duff-Johnson.

"Indeed. Topper even uncovered a ring of smugglers using the sub-cellars, but we left the rounding up to the children on holiday in the cottage. So having got nowhere on motive or opportunity, we examined the means by which the crime was committed. It became clear that the perpetrator would have to know many details about the house, including being able to collect a particular bottle from the wine cellar in the dark; have military experience on both the North West Frontier and in South Africa; speak fluent Japanese; be able to clean ladies boots to a fine sheen in a mere jiffy, or perhaps even faster; to stuff three birds inside one another, then serve it for dinner; to be able to handle a yak and make butter from it's milk; to be able to dance the merengue, and perhaps also play La Cucaracha; and have a familiarity with methods of putting down the undead. After hours of painstaking analysis, I have come to conclusion that only one person, other than Topper, fulfills all these requirements, and thus is the criminal. And that person is..."

"I say Carstairs - look at that!"

"For God's sake Duff-Johnson!" said Carstairs, picking the revolver off the mantlepiece. "Will you shut up for a moment? Do you want the butler to get away with it?"

"No look! Out the window! It's ROBOT DEATH TANK!"

They looked out the window and saw ROBOT DEATH TANK. They fled.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

ROBOT DEATH TANK: The Colonel and The Lieutenant

As the door closed the Colonel spoke. "Now listen to me girl. Up there you're a hotshot flyboy, and those kids piss their pants when they hear the callsign FudgeDragon. But down here, you're plain Lieutenant Martin and you will obey orders dammit! Am I makin' myself clear?"

"Yes Sir!"

"So enough of these hotdoggin' stunts. No more Split S landings. No more buzzin' the strip clubs. No more practical jokes. Do you know how long it's goin' to take to clean up your avocado strafin' run?"

"No Sir."

"Well you're goin' to find out, because you're grounded until the General's quarters are sparkly clean. You're on the maintenance detachment until it's done. Is that clear?"

Before the Lieutenant could answer the door burst open. "Not now Sergeant! I told you I didn' want to be disturbed!"

"But sir," gasped the Sergeant, "look out the window! ROBOT DEATH TANK!"

They looked out the window and there was ROBOT DEATH TANK. They fled.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

ROBOT DEATH TANK: Gerald and Marjorie

"Gerald. We need to talk."

"Marjorie!" He turned and switched on the kitchen light. "I thought you'd be in bed."

"This can't go on Gerald. You come in late, you leave before the children get up, you're in the office all weekend and on top of that you go on business trips. We never talk. I never see you. We never see you."

"It's late. I'm tired. You're tired. Can this wait until the morning?"

"When you have a breakfast meeting to go to?"

"Hush darling. Hush. We're... it's just a bad patch. We'll get through it. I'll make it up..."

"Mummy Mummy!" cried a voice.

"Bobby? What are you... go back to bed."

"No Mummy! Look! ROBOT DEATH TANK!"

Looking out the window they could see ROBOT DEATH TANK. They fled.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Perils of Fictive Relatives

Who is your relative and what that relationship means differs between cultures (and sub-cultures). But there are always rules, and with all rules there are exceptions. The typical one in English-speaking cultures is an adult who is not a relative by blood or marriage who is referred to as Aunt or Uncle[1].

Anthropologists refer to this as fictive kinship. I've done a bit of this, most recently when I decided that my uncle's partner was my aunt. Nice and neat, right? Anyway this has opened a new can of worms, as does this mean I've just gained a veritable hatload of fictive cousins, some of which I've never met? More relatives! Or just people related to my aunt? I don't know.

[1] Godparents get this quite a bit.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Space Oddity

Comics Alliance has put up a comic of David Bowie's Space Oddity drawn as a childens book here. It has the music as well. I suggest going there, playing the song and reading the comic. Do it! It's good. And will only use upp 5 minutes of your valuable time.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Choose Your Own Napoleonic War

From my abortive run through the online version of the Lone Wolf books it's clear that hyperlinks were what gamebooks were groping towards. However in an age of sexy graphics, first person shooters and really stupid plots, does anyone really want a text based adventure with limited choices? Other than me, obviously.

Enter Choice of Games who make this very type of game and allow you to play them on their website. My favourite of their games is Choice of Broadsides in which you begin as a midshipman in the Royal Navy of Albion locked in a death grapple with Republican Gaul. Essentially this is the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic war and you get to be Hornblower, or Aubrey or Bolitho. At the start you make some choices about your background - will you have plenty of influence to smooth your career, be a brilliant sailor or a highly skilled swordsman who closes at every opportunity. If you're smart and play to your strengths you may rise swiftly through the ranks, but if, for example, you're rubbish at gunnery and keep trying to engage the enemy from long range you'll undoubtedly lose. The game is fairly forgiving, at least up until the climactic battle, but victories lead to early promotion and probably make you more attractive to the opposite sex whilst on shore.

I say you start as a midshipman but the game is designed to be as inclusive as possible, so an early question says:

This game is set in a fictional world, similar to our own but with some differences.

For example, perhaps the ships are crewed by women. You are a young and gallant officer, but are you a young gentleman or a young lady?

and if you're a midshipwoman it replies:

The place for a man is domestic, rearing the children and making a pleasant home for his wife. We put men up on a pedestal so that they do not need to face the hardships that women are more constitutionally suited to bear.

This begins as hilariously straightfaced, but as you go on the gender-swapped regency world highlights some of the strangeness.

All in all I enjoyed this. It has some replay value - I did pretty well as a highly skilled officer with little influence or charm, then turned around and made a big hash of things as the son of a peer with immense charm who always got away with things. I only wish we had an opposite rival, so the poor but brilliant officer would be one step behind the influential guy, and a player with connections would be annoyed that some unworthy oik who happened to be a good sailor kept hogging the glory. There are a couple of good characters, although the common sailors are generally undistinguished.

Play This: If you want to have an amusing hour or two being a literary naval officer and like the whole gamebook thing.
Don't Play This: If the Napoleonic wars aren't your thing, or think that choose your own adventure is stupid.
Also: Choice of Games has three (or four) other games: Choice of Dragon, Choice of Vampire, and Choice of Romance and it's sequel Choice of Intrigue.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

What Do They have Against Hampton Wick Anyway?

"Who is in charge of updating Cockney Rhyming Slang?" was Stan's question. With outdated references such as syrup of figs[1] (although someone's grandmother apparently swore by it) for wig, Ruby Murray[2] for curry and even Alan Whickers for knickers, sometimes Rhyming Slang seems to be from my grandparents' generation. But it's part of a living dialect and does get updated. It's a good question, which I will now fail to answer several times.

1. No one

It just happens. One day flares are referred to as Lionels. The next, some bloke becomes Prime Minister and they're Tonys. Popular things that rhyme are obvious and just get made up all over the place. Because they're obvious everyone who uses the slang figures it out and picks it up. End of story.

This version of events ignores several factors, including why it's known as Cockney rhyming slang.

2. The population within the sound of the Bow Bells

The traditional definition of a Cockney is someone born within sound of the Bow Bells of St Mary-le-Bow[3]. More usually it refers to working class East End Londoners, who speak with a distinctive accent and feature rhyming slang.

Under either definition Rhyming slang begins in East London, presumably in the pubs and workplaces. There, the classic cheeky cockneys with their cliched wit and eye for the main chance while away the hours trying out new slang on each other, always trying to keep their dialect one step more confusing to those not so blessed as to be born in London.

A problem with this is the interconnectedness of modern life. In earlier times many references obvious to Cockneys would be obscure to outsiders (and vice versa). Many modern slang words reference events and people that are nationally and internationally famous, so rhyming slang is not so much obscure as an affection. Of course this may have always been the case. However with the rise of working class cool over the last 50 years, it's an affection that has spread beyond it's origins, which is why this site allows you to rate slang as classic, modern and "mockney".

(The pub theory does help to explain why there are so many rhyming slang words and phrase for urination.)

3. Mockneys and Estuary English

As a nice boy brought up in a secure and comfortable middle class family in a small town in the home counties, I obviously attempted to ape working class urban speech as much as possible. London being the closest metropolis my accent is probably closest to Estuary English. As might be expected, when I lived in London I picked up quite a bit of cockney slang[4] making me that most despicable of creatures, the Mockney.

The traditional East End Working Class roots of rhyming slang acknowledged, modern versions acquire their references from popular culture. Those of us who have grown up speaking a cockney influenced language and are equally part of the popular culture make up our own slang terms. In addition, Cockney culture is now part of popular culture (and arguably has been since Dickens, and certainly from My Fair Lady) with one of the most watched TV programs being Eastenders.

But wait! Am I really arguing that rhyming slang is being invented on television, like here from the 1 minute mark? I've clearly gone a bit Pete Tong.

4.All of the above, maybe

I may know more than when I started, but I'm at least as ignorant of the actual answer when I started. Like many things in language and popular culture, even if you can identify a particular starting point, the way it spreads and how it becomes accepted is unclear. So Stan, if you want to update rhyming slang I guess you'll have to get on your Dick Van Dyke and have a go yourself.

[1] A laxative, still available but out of fashion.
[2] A famous singer of the 50s. Here she is singing a Johnny Cash song, which kind of surprised me when I discovered it. It turns out this was when Cash's career was taking off and Murray's was slowly declining. Also, it was still the period when the song was as important as the particular recording, so British and Irish singers would often pick up American songs (and vice versa) and make them part of their act.
[3] Referenced in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons
[4] Also some Mancunian leading to such horrific constructs as "Let's have a butchers, our kid".

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Boil me a Bagel!

Bread, as we all know, is baked. Boiling bread would just be weird! Except, maybe dumplings, which are bread-like and boiled. Although they're more like a pudding, right?

Anyway, bagels are boiled before they're baked. This probably answers all the boiled bread-related questions that came up in the pub. I don't really have anything more to say on this, so here's some stuff grabbed off the internet:

The BBC Brunch Bagel recipe if you feel like making your own. I have not tried it.

Here's a video of a bloke boiling, then draining bagels.

A longer video that shows all stages and is essentially an advert for the Seattle Bagel Bakery is here.

I have to say I am unconvinced by bagels. Not the texture or flavour, but the shape. If you try to fill it with something you either have to make an annular filling or it drops out the hole. I don't know, am I missing something?

Stan brought up pretzels (the big bready ones) and it seems in Germany these are dipped in lye (sodium hydroxide) solution, sometimes boiling, before baking. This sounds much more dangerous (and this bloke, who has a good grasp of the scientific method agrees) so I will stick to bagels for the moment.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Conversation of the Day

Dad: Hey!
Me: Yes?
Dad: First you were over here, now you're over there.
Me: Yes! I changed my location over time using a process I call "movement".

If you want to model "movement" you could do worse than considering the following equation:

ds/dt = v

s = position
v = velocity
t = time
and ds/dt is the first order vector differential of position with respect to time.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Another Crime Fighting Duo

Clara decorates cakes. Jack is a part-time coroner. Together they fight crime! Not a true story.

The Adventure of the Mysterious Murder

Clara: There's been a murder!
Jack: I'll be the judge of that.

[Several weeks pass]

Jack: Misadventure.
Clara: Damn it.

Retitled: The Case of the Straightforward Verdict.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Conversation of the Day

Me: It's... bendy?
Dad: If it's bendy then hatred is... onion?
Me: Hatred is onion? No, onion is hatred! They've got it the wrong way round.

If you're interested, bendy was actually bumpy making hatred odium.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Martian Mash-ups

What with a (new) film of John Carter of Mars scheduled for early next year and me having had a recent touch of Edgar Rice Burroughs then it's time to recycle his collaborations with Frank Herbert which I previously discussed on another site in 2008:

Muab'dib of the Apes - After his parents are killed, Muab'dib is brought up by desert apes and leads them on a jihad to reclaim his birthright as Lord Atreides.

A Princess of Dune - I'm a bit hazy on this one, but don't confuse it with the film and book The Princess Bride of Dune.

As might be expected everyone remembered The Princess Bride of Dune, especially Paul Duncanson:

"Hello. My name is Paul Muad'Dib Atreides. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

To which I had to respond:

And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Crime Fighting Teen Detectives

Teen detectives are great protagonists. Teens are curious, unhampered by pre-formed opinions, clearsighted, close to their education and mentors. Sometimes they are troubled, often ignored by adults, but they are idealists who believe in and seek out truth, justice and the American way happy endings. But what if you had the wrong sort of teens - the slackers, the drinkers and smokers, the ones who'd rather sit around calling each other dude?

Kate Beaton is a Canadian cartoonist best know for history comics and Canadian comics. But she's also tackled this important question. Her Mystery Solving Teens have "taken on" several cases. I've failed to tell you before because, well, you know, I should maybe write a blogpost about every comic on the web I like? It doesn't say "Webcomic Review" at the top of the page or anything. But I've been broken out of my apathy by the introduction of a new character, Vanessa the Girl Reporter. Being part of the Mystery-Solving-Teen-verse her self published "newspaper" is called "The Shit Talker" and - look just read the whole series okay? Work Warning: there's some swearing because, you know, they're those sort of Teens, right? Anyway if your work is cool with you looking at webcomics, I don't see why they should get uptight about a bit of profanity but then that's why I'm not your boss.

The Docks Mystery.
The Ghost in the Library.
The Snow Mystery.
The Principal's Office.
Boy Detectives, Girl Reporter. (Be sure to check out the sketches below this one).

Some other Kate Beaton stuff I like: A bunch of comics, Charlie and the Turnip Factory, Sexy Batman. Or maybe just read her whole site! It's not like you were going to get any work done today.

For actual mystery solving non-teen* comics, may I suggest John Allison's Bad Machinery.

* They're tweens. I cringe writing that word.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Weekend before last I was on the train reading Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds, which the back cover describes as "a snarling, drooling, crazy-eyed mongrel of a book, equal parts steampunk, western, planetary romance and far-future SF"[1]. It begins in Spearpoint, the last city on Earth, an atmosphere-piercing spire. Then on page 106 our protagonist Quillon has a look at a map:
The other side of the map was not much of an improvement, but at least he recognised more of the landmarks. Soul’s Rest was the largest community anywhere on Earth, with the exception of Spearpoint, and that really was halfway around the world. It lay far to the west, beyond the Daughters, the three mountains punched in a sloping line with the regularity of bullet holes, beyond even the Mother Goddess, the tallest of all mountains, so tall and wide that from its footslopes it no longer seemed a mountain, but merely a gentle steepening of the ground. It lay west of the shrunken waters of the Long Gash and the Old Sea - marked in black on the map, although he had a suspicion that the waters had retreated even further since the map was drawn.

I recognise this terrain and it's not Earth. It also casts light on this later description of a character - "In his thirties, certainly - perhaps even his forties, but with the vigour of a man a third his age." - and some other passages.

Which of course leads me to wonder, when did I become so familiar with the distinctive features of another planet that I can pick them out from a brief description, the day after a quite savage stag night?

[1] This could describe my journey home, except replacing "far-future SF" with "near-future SF" and "book" with "rail journey".

Monday, July 18, 2011

Conversation of the Stag Weekend

Me: Do you want a paracetamol?
Stan: No thanks.
Me: Go on! All the cool kids are taking them!

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Last Thing I Have To Say About Harry Potter

Here's my brief summary of the Harry Potter series for those of you who've forgotten.

Harry Potter and the Stone Philosopher

Harry discovers a talking statue of Wittgenstein. Harry is unable to understand what it says.

Harry Potter and the Secret of Chambers

Harry thinks Statue of Wittgenstein is telling him information about a suite of rooms. Eventually he gets them assigned to him and discovers a secret!

Harry Potter and the Ass Cabana Prison

Following the events in Secret, Harry is sent to a tropical island and is made a guard at a traditionally built jail for donkeys. There he uncovers more secrets and engineers a daring jailbreak!

Harry Potter and the Fire of Goblets

Clues from Statue of Wittgenstein, the Chamber and the Magic Donkey has lead Harry to the obvious conclusion; he must gather lots of wooden beakers and burn them, before Voldemort gets his hands on them!

Harry Potter and the Phoenix of Order

Rising from the flames, the Phoenix of Order has put Voldemort to flight. But regrouping, they are more dangerous than ever. The Phoenix leaves some cryptic clues to Harry's next quest!

Harry Potter and the Prince Half-Blood

Thanks to the Phoenix of Order, Harry and his friends have corrected the imbalance in magic and restored it to it's true power. It is still at risk, unless the lost heir to magic royalty can be found. Can they find the last prince before Voldemort?

Harry Potter and the Hallowed Death

Harry is the True Heir, the King Who Was Promised. But he is also the Sacrifice Who Goes Willingly; as king, he must be willing to lay down his life for his people. Will he do it? Or will Voldemort steal his death, make Harry immortal breaking the compact and destroy the line of kings forever?

Conversation of the Day

Mum: We're just waiting on You-Know-Who.
Me: I don't know who. Is it Voldemort?
Mum: Yes!
Me: No it isn't. He's fictional. And as the last film comes out today he's definitely dead.
Mum: Oh.
Me: Oh, right, spoilers.

I should note that Mum is not a fan.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

I Read Books: Tarzan of the Apes

I am not in love with origin stories. When you introduce me to your hero I want you to tell me something worth hearing. It should be the most interesting, the most awesome, the most important, maybe the most horrible or the funniest thing that happened to them. It should be their best[1] story. If not why are you wasting my time? "Wait a minute" you say. "I need to tell you where my hero comes from to make the story worth hearing!" Sometimes this is true. But sometimes you begin at the beginning for the sake of beginning at the beginning. YOU ARE WASTING MY TIME.

Tarzan of the Apes is the first Tarzan novel, and is, of course, his origin story. You know this story, of how Lord and Lady Greystoke are marooned on the coast of Africa, they die and their son is brought up by anthropoid apes, how he becomes the most fearsome killer in the jungle and then saves a group of Americans[2] and is introduced to civilisation. So why am I wasting your time with this review?

Mostly because this is not quite the origin story you know. Tarzan, as it turns out is a superhero[3]. After some experimentation, his standard method of lion-killing involves a noose and a hunting knife[4], but at one point he gets one in a wrestling hold and unable to let it go, for obvious reasons, breaks it's neck. He can also swing through the trees, (from branch to branch rather than pendulum-like on vines as in films) with a full grown man over his shoulder. His athleticism is not the most extraordinary thing however.

Brought up by ape-men, he learns their language. When he discovers his parents' cabin, he then teaches himself to read and write English from the illustrated dictionary and other children's primers and books. This despite being unable speak English. Having the shyness of a wild beast, he rescues various Americans and Europeans, but as he cannot understand them leaves them notes[5]. This makes them think there are two men in the forest; one the silent "Forest Lord" and Tarzan of the Apes, a literate but invisible man.

Eventually they are rescued by a French cruiser and leave, while Tarzan is caring for a French Officer who has been injured by a local tribe. This officer teaches Tarzan to speak, although he teaches him French. They return to civilisation, leading eventually to Tarzan rescuing Jane, his love[6], first from a forest fire in Wisconsin, then from marrying a man who her father owes a debt of honour. Jane, scared by her feelings, then decides to marry William Clayton, Lord Greystoke. At this moment evidence arrives proving Tarzan is the son of John Clayton, which makes William Clayton his cousin and Tarzan Lord Greystoke. And so Tarzan...

Says nothing and tells no one and the book ends.

Tarzan's life as a beast is fascinating. He has no introspection, and exists in the moment and hardly knows what he is doing, let alone why. The other characters are less interesting. The comic relief comes from Professor Archimedes Q Porter (Jane's father) who is an absent minded professor and Esmeralda (Jane's servant/companion) a "Negress" who weighs 280 pounds, is sure they'll all be killed[7], speaks in slang and "hilariously" mispronounces words. It is not very funny. The mutineers and blacks who provide the villains are mostly undistinguished, and are the scum of the earth and savage cannibals respectively.

Jane Porter, the love interest is not entirely passive - when left behind by the men and a lioness tries to invade the cabin she tries to shoot it, and then decides to shoot Esmeralda and herself - but mostly exists to be rescued and loved. D'Arnot, the Frenchman who Tarzan rescues and then teaches Tarzan to be civilised, is little more developed.

If the novel has a moral it is an old fashioned one - breeding will out. Tarzan is tempted to eat a (black) man he kills, but doesn't because he is the son of an English Lord. Jane is kidnapped by an ape and will suffer a fate "a thousand times worse than death" and is rescued by Tarzan who is then overwhelmed by feelings he "barely understood". He then builds a bower for her and, to assuage her fears gives her his knife and sleeps outside as a guard with the chivalry of an English Lord.

So it is old-fashioned, and exciting, and has many bad characters, and a really good character who is almost characterless, and is full of incident, and tells us that the status quo is good and true, and we have a hero who is undefeatable, who gives away the only things he wants. This is not a great novel, but it is a good one, and an entertaining one, and an interesting one. It is not a waste of my time.

Read This: If you want to read an old-fashioned tale of adventure with the original character who popularised the tension between savagery and civilisation.
Don't read this: If casual racism, sexism and classism offends you, or you have no interest in ape-men and rescues and all that.
More Tarzanry on Night of the Hats - in which I criticise one passage in The Beasts of Tarzan, the third novel in the series.

[1] Or most filmic if you are making a film.
[2] And an English lord.
[3] He is referred to as a "Forest God" and the captain of the French cruiser uses the term "super-man" to describe him. Clearly a fan of Nietzsche.
[4] Which he stabs into the (savage) breast a dozen time. This is his standard method of dispatching dangerous animals. Frankly most of the time he ought to cut their throat; one or two slashes ought to do it.
[5] Signed Tarzan of the Apes. He can't speak English and doesn't know what it sounds like, but still manages to spell his name (meaning "White-skin" in Ape language). This is the not mere impossibility of other events in the novel, but a logical paradox.
[6] And not coincidentally the first white woman he has ever seen. Mere days before meeting her Tarzan takes to wearing a breechcloth, because it's fine to be nude for the first 20 years of your life as long a white woman doesn't see your tackle.
[7] They've been marooned by mutineers on the uninhabited coast of West Africa. It is not unreasonable to be afraid.

Friday, July 01, 2011

I Read Books: Signal Catastrophe

Signal Catastrophe: The British Retreat From Kabul, 1842 by Patrick Macrory, 1966

1. This is the 1967 History Book Club edition. The same book was published in the United States under the title Retreat from Kabul: The Catastrophic British Defeat in Afghanistan, 1842. Due to some confusion on this issue, my brother managed to order both the edition I'm reviewing and the 2002 American edition. As the newer one is smaller and lighter being in paperback, that's the one he took with him, leaving this one to me.

2. This was sent by Rothwell and Dunworth Ltd, Antiquarian Booksellers. I can say that these people know how to pack books. No shove it in a jiffy bag for them. The book was placed in a paper bag which was folded tightly around it and taped shut. Then a well fitting cardboard form was folded around it and again taped. Finally it was wrapped and sealed. The old fashioned compliments slip was a nice touch, and is currently holding out well as a bookmark.

3. George MacDonald Fraser referenced this in his novel Flashman which covered most of the events of this history. He was very complimentary. However I can't find the wording as someone has half-inched my copy.

4. Written in 1966, it's in clear modern language and is easy to follow. However it feels very old school as a history. We're well into Great Man theory of history (or, in this case, Great Pillock) territory. Concentrating almost entirely on written sources we get a good view of the upper ranks of the Army of the Indus, but the view from ground level is minimal. It's also anglocentric as most of the records consulted were in English.

This is not entirely a bad thing - it's about the British Retreat From Kabul rather than a broader history, so it should emphasise the British point of view. Some Afghan sources are referenced, and, indeed, Macrory notes that historians asking Afghans about the war got stories that matched up well with the historical record. However there was the interesting tendency to mix up incidents from the First Anglo-Afghan War with events from the Second and even the Third. A little more documentation from the Afghan point of view would not have hurt the book.

5. Who is to blame? Like everyone else, this book blames Elphinstone. He was too old, too tired and too ill and so made bad decisions, no decisions and changed his decisions from bad to appalling depending on whoever spoke to him last. Elphinstone apparently tried to refuse the command, but not hard enough. 19th century ideas of honour, reputation and patronage did not allow him to resign because to do so would have marked him as a coward and simultaneously destroyed any influence he might have had.

That said, a 21st century professional army would probably have retired Elphinstone rather than send him to Kabul. If by some mischance he did end up in command there, he would have been relieved before the disaster was complete. Of course part of that is because of modern communications. Until reliable telegraphy became widespread commanders in the field had an immense amount of authority and discretion. For this reason it was impossible for officers junior to Elphinstone to alleviate the situation and, as he had been appointed by the Governor-General, he was independent of the civilian authority of Macnaghten.

Several factors leading to the British position becoming untenable came into being before Elphinstone took over; the decision to garrison the army outside the city in cantonment; the poor positioning and design of the cantonments; the storage of supplies and ammunition outside the cantonments. Nevertheless Elphinstone made no attempt to improve the situation. His second-in-command Brigadier Shelton was unhelpful and uninterested in Elphinstone's problems; his aggressive and straightforward suggestions would probably not have improved the situation, but frankly any decision would have been better than Elphinstone's dithering.

6. The British response to the massacre was pretty brutal, but in the end they retreated from Afghanistan. By this time, it had become clear that the country was not about to become a Russian puppet state, so there was no longer any reason to remain. This happy state of affairs continued until the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War.

7. I enjoyed it. It is, of course, a tragedy, although not a classical one. Elphinstone is not brought down by his pride or his strengths, but by his illness, his lack of grasp on the situation, his indecisiveness and his appalling choices of who to put his trust in. And he brings down the whole army with him, which brings down vengeance onto the whole Afghan nation. The worst of it is that, as Pollock proved when he forced the Khyber pass in the aftermath, even after the decision to leave the cantonments is made, a swift and decisive march to Jallabad might just have made it. Instead they started late, stopped early, waited for escorts from the Afghans - the list of errors goes on and on.

8. Read this book: If you want to know about the British retreat from Kabul in a light and, if you'll forgive the word, entertaining manner.
Don't read this book: If you have no interest in the topic or prefer your history to concentrate on ground level foot soldiers.
Note: In Signal Catastrophe, the name of the book, signal is not a verb, but an adjective, meaning serious or extraordinary.