Sherlock Who?

Saturday, 8. February 2014 10:46 | Author:

Having now watched all of the third season of Sherlock, I’m beginning to see two things that annoyed me in the recent seasons of Dr. Who creeping into this show too, and I am freshly annoyed – annoyed enough to make my first blog post in seven months.

Away we go, then.

 

Annoying Thing One – It’s A Small World After All

The founding principles of both the Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes franchises are very similar, they are both about superhumanly intelligent individuals with sidekicks who go around helping people in trouble. Remove all the trappings of genre and what you’ve got is a simple, serial formula in which each episode introduces the victim, their problem, and their antagonist, and then the hero swoops in, solves the problem and defeats the villain with some witty, out-of-the-box thinking before moving on, leaving the victim grateful and bedazzled.

This is not a very innovative formula – it has been used in one form or another for just about every detective show ever, from Colombo to Foyle’s War to Miss Marple – but it is a very satisfying, comforting one.

It also has another virtue – it adds novelty to every episode by bringing new people and new situations into the story. This in turn does several other important things.

1 – It gives the audience more realistic people and problems to identify with. We may not all be time lords or high functioning sociopaths with hyper-articulate supervillains hunting us down, but we have all been at the mercy of forces greater than we can handle, and we have all wished that someone smarter and more powerful than us would come along and solve our insoluble problems for us.

2 – Merely by being human, those more realistic people provide the contrast which allows the audience to see how superhumanly intelligent our hero is by comparison.

3 – It allows the stories to be about anything, from high finance, to sports, to high school drama, to war, to romance, to court intrigue, and on and on. Because the victim is unconnected to the hero except by the fact that they have asked him or her for help, their world doesn’t have to reflect the hero’s world in any way, and this variety allows to series remain fresh and open. It makes the world the heroes live in larger.

Both Dr. Who and Sherlock have lately begun to drift from this formula, and I think it has weakened them.

Have you noticed in both shows, that rather than saving other people, the stories have become more and more about saving the Doctor and Sherlock, or their immediate associates?

In the whole of this latest series of Sherlock, as far as I can remember, he only takes two clients who are not people he already knows, and he has a face-to-face scene with only one of those. All the rest of the drama and danger is directed at him, his immediate friends or family, or their friends and family. There is a world of crime out there, but the show closes that world down to Sherlock, John, Mary, Mycroft, and Mrs. Hudson. In the first episode, there isn’t even an on-screen villain. In the second the villain gets two or three lines at the most. In the last episode, we never see the person whose case Sherlock has supposedly taken in a scene together.

The same contraction happened in the last season of Dr. Who. Where the stories increasingly became about the Doctor’s problems and the problems of his friends, than those of anybody else. Indeed, as if to drive this fact home, four out of the last five shows of the last series (including minis and specials) were titled The Name of the Doctor, The Night of the Doctor, The Day of the Doctor, and The Time of the Doctor. It’s a great big universe, but the only people who matter are the doctor and his friends.

An example of this is the Christmas special, where the Doctor goes to a planet called Christmas and saves it, but only three or four people on the planet get lines, and only one of them is even given a name. It may be a story about saving a planet full of people, but it’s clear that the only important person in the story is the Doctor. The folks he’s saving are ciphers.

To me, this myopic focus on the Doctor and his problems, or on Sherlock and his problems, makes both of them – and their shows – weaker. The personal troubles of an immortal time traveler and a infallible detective are not enough to carry a series, and too much focus on them waters down the core concepts of the shows. Sherlock is a detective. He should solve cases – not be the focus of them. The doctor is – when you remove all the timey-wimey bells and whistles – a conflict resolution specialist. He should resolve conflicts – not be the focus of them.

Character arcs are not necessary for these characters. Sherlock and the Doctor have always been static characters – catalysts that change the lives of others, but do not change themselves. Their function in every story is to be the enigmatic deus ex machina, and if they cease to be enigmas, if they cease to do their jobs, then they cease to be interesting.

 

Annoying Thing Two – Cool Character, Bro

Another founding principle of both shows – and basically any show, book, or comic that has a single character’s name for a title – is that the title character is the only one who can do the thing they can do. Sherlock can deduce facts from the smallest details, the Doctor can solve problems with techno-babble and nine hundred years of experience, other detectives and heroes have their own unique gifts. What gives them power and longevity as heroes and brand names is that uniqueness. If everybody in his world is invulnerable and can fly, then Superman is just an ordinary Joe. If everybody can kick ass in a cowl and cape, then Batman is just another guy with insomnia.

So it goes with the Doctor and Sherlock. When other characters are shown to be as good or better than them at the things they specialize in, they become weaker and less singular by comparison.

If, for instance, Captain Jack Harkness not only has adventures in time and space and is immortal, but is also better looking than the Doctor and a hit with both the ladies and the gentlemen, of if River Song flies the Tardis better than the Doctor does, and reveals that the signature sound that the Tardis makes is the parking brake, which the doctor always forgets to take off, these things rub away a little of the Doctor’s uniqueness and make what he does seem less extraordinary.

If, for another instance, Sherlock acquires a cockney apprentice who makes brilliant, on-the-fly deductions in the same way he does, his best friend’s wife is a former assassin for the CIA, his brother is a master of accent and disguise in addition to being the “second most powerful man in the land”, and his landlady was once the wife of the leader of a drug cartel, then almost everyone he knows has special skills and an over the top back-story, lessening his skills and back story because of the diminished contrast.

Having an assortment of bad-ass characters with special skills and interesting backgrounds works wonderfully in an ensemble story, like Leverage or the Avengers, but when the main character’s name is the title of the show, they should not be upstaged.

 

Deductions

So who is responsible for these annoying things, and why are they happening? Well, since both series have the same executive producer, the first part of that question is easy to answer – Steven Moffat is the culprit. “Why” is a more difficult question, and since I’m no detective, I’m going to have to rely on theory, conjecture, and personal prejudice, like every other blogger on the internet.

I will admit up front that Mr. Moffat drives me a little bit mad. Before he was executive producer on Doctor Who, he wrote some of my favorite shows of the new series – The Empty Child, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, and Silence in the Library, and when I heard he was going to take over the show, I expected great things. I expected every show to be a perfect self-contained jewel of storytelling like those episodes were.

This has not happened. Instead of focusing on neatly crafted short stories that use the doctor as the enigmatic catalyst for their resolution – like the afore-mentioned episodes – he has created season-long, and sometimes multi-season-long arcs that have often ended up leaving the Doctor written into convoluted corners and diminished as a character. He has also introduced, as I said earlier, side characters that seem to be vying with the Doctor – and now with Sherlock – to be the coolest character in the show.

Why has he done this? My guess is that he secretly wishes he was writing his own series about his own lead character, and is a bit peeved that he’s working on characters who both had long and storied histories before he came along. Not only does he seem to want to put his stamp on both characters, so that they are remembered as Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, he can’t, at the same time, seem to resist having his pet characters prove they are the heroes’ equals, who most certainly should have their own shows.

I know very well this temptation. I too have written series characters who I did not create, and have been tempted to put my own stamp on those heroes and elevate my own pet characters to their level. What can you expect from a writer? It would be impossible, after all, for someone to write a story of any kind without some of their personality and prejudice coming through. And I admit that I did occasionally let too much of my personality and prejudice come through in some of the franchises I worked on.

Fortunately though, I had vigilant editors who generally caught me when I strayed, and stopped me from going too far. I am grateful for that, because I believe that a writer writing a character not-his-own has a responsibility to as much as possible make the character the star, and to make himself disappear.

Naturally this doesn’t pertain to a writer’s original characters and series. With those he can do what he wants, but when working in someone else’s world, the writer should remember that they are a guest, and aren’t going to be the last writer to use the character, so try to leave it in as good or better shape than when you were given it.

So there!

Category:Movies, Writing | Comments (4)

A Finger in the Eye

Tuesday, 2. July 2013 10:36 | Author:

 Note. This post is adapted from the introduction I wrote for the Blackhearts Omnibus, for Black Library’s Warhammer Universe. Though originally specific to that book, it remains the best summation I’ve managed to write about my philosophy of heroes and heroic fiction.

The Blackhearts Omnibus

When I moved out to Hollywood twenty five years ago, my “big idea” was to write traditional action movies with non-traditional heroes. I loved action movies – still do – but I got tired of the heroes. Too many of them were big, square-jawed white guys who ran around like they owned the place and solved all their problems with their fists or their guns – James Bond, Dirty Harry, Commando, Rambo, Batman, Robo-Cop. They were always the biggest, toughest – and here’s the important one – the least human characters in the movie.

True, there were exceptions, and it was the exceptions that I loved the best. Aliens, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, The Road Warrior, Southern Comfort – all starred heroes that had at least some flaws and a few scraps of humanity.

I wanted to take that notion further. I wanted my heroes to be people of average ability but above-average heart – working men, house wives, punk rockers, beat cops, common soldiers, small time hoods – who were swept up in an extraordinary situation and, because they weren’t the best fighters or athletes, and because they didn’t have the biggest guns or biceps, had to use their guts and their brains to stay alive and save the day.

Needless to say, I didn’t sell too many scripts, but when Black Library asked me to write a novel for them… well, I thought I’d give my ‘big idea’ another shot.

In his introduction to The Founding, the first Gaunt’s Ghosts omnibus, Dan Abnett talked about choosing to write about the grunts of the Imperial Guard because he couldn’t relate to the ‘too perfect’ space marines. I had the same problem with Warhammer Fantasy. I loved the grim horror and grimy patina of the Old World, but I didn’t want to write about the noble knights of the Empire. I couldn’t get inside their heads. To me, they were the same big, square-jawed white guys who bored me to tears in the movies.

How could anyone care about men so brave, and so certain in their beliefs, that they never have a moment of fear or doubt. I don’t believe these people exist, and if they do, I don’t want to know them. They’re dangerous to be around and they’re boring to talk to at parties. If you have no fear of the enemy and don’t think twice about running into burning buildings to save dewy-eyed children, you’re not a hero, you’re an idiot. A hero, at least in my mind, is the guy who pees his pants when he thinks about the enemy, is terrified of burning, and yet, when faced with the choice of fleeing or doing the right thing, overcomes his fears and runs into the fire.

So, I wrote about my kind of heroes – the Blackhearts -  a noble second son turned failed student and professional gambler, a pair of sly farm boys, a field surgeon with nasty habits, a larcenous mercenary, a construction engineer, a fencing instructor, a quartermaster, a student of botany, and a handful of low ranking professional soldiers, and many others. There wasn’t a square-jawed hero among them. Of course they had the occasional heroic impulse, but those were surrounded by episodes of villainy, cowardice, self-doubt, self-loathing, self-interest, and plain old stupidity. And they rarely won with their swords. They won with guts, determination and brains – crapping themselves all the while. And, when left to my own devices, I have followed them with characters of similar stripe, a noblewoman turned vampire whose every heroic action is bracketed by fits of teenaged tantrums, a biker chick who is willing to let murderous revenge trump loyalty, friendship, and honor, and there are more to come, I hope. Many more.

There is a precedent for my sort of hero. There was a time in popular culture when the big guy with the big muscles and the big gun who beat everybody up was the bad guy, and the little guy who stood up to him and fought back with brains and heart and guts was the good guy. Those little guys are my idols – Charlie Chaplin outwitting the Keystone Kops, Robin Hood tricking the Sheriff of Nottingham, Bugs Bunny getting the better of Elmer Fudd, Jackie Chan running circles around an army of gangsters, the Marx Brothers talking circles around an army of bureaucrats, David knocking out Goliath with nothing but a rock and a leather strap.

The Blackhearts, Ulrika, Jane Carver, they’re the scrappy descendants of these little guys – hard-luck losers trapped in a world of monolithic armor-clad behemoths that care not one whit for the survival of the mere mortals scrambling desperately to stay alive beneath their enormous, iron-shod feet. I wanted the stories of my heroes to be a reminder that, no matter what insignia the behemoths may wear, or what philosophy they may spout, a bully is a bully, and no matter how much they beat you down, as long as you’ve got one finger left, you can still poke the bastards in the eye.

Category:Jane Carver, Movies, Warhammer, Writing | Comments (2)

Singular First Person

Sunday, 2. June 2013 16:44 | Author:

brokenlanceI love books told in first person. I love the conceit of someone telling you a story, directly, like you were sitting in a bar with a loquacious stranger. I love it for the intimacy and immediacy, for the personality and the limited point of view.

Some of my favorite writers have worked best when they worked in first person – George MacDonald Fraser with Flashman, P. G. Wodehouse with Bertie Wooster, Kazuo Ishiguro with Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Emma Bull with Orient in her novel, Finder, and I have always found it a very comfortable to write that way myself.

So, how do you write first person well? I’ll give it to you in one word – voice.

In a third person novel, a character’s character can by revealed in several ways – by what others say about her, by their reactions to her, by her reactions to them, and to what happens to her and around her. When the writer turns to other subjects, however, the character building often stops. The descriptions of the world, of the situation, of the action, are in the writer’s voice, and often reflect the writer’s personality, rather than the character’s.

But with first person, a writer has the opportunity to reveal his protagonist’s character not just when they’re the subject of the scene, but in every single word, because every single thing that happens in the story is told in the protagonist’s voice – every description of what others say about her, their reactions to her, what happens to her and around her, of the world, the situation, the action – all are filtered through her unique perceptions, and thus reveal what she thinks about these things. The character’s personality is showcased on the page, rather than the writer’s.

It’s important then, to find a good and entertaining voice to showcase. Some people work out detailed character sketches before getting started, figuring out who their protagonist is, what they believe, and how they would react. Lazy bastard that I am, I tend to do it the other way around. I start writing in what I feel is an entertaining voice, and let it start to tell me who the character is, and what’s right or wrong for them. After a chapter or two of that, I’ll have a pretty good idea if the voice is going to be interesting enough to carry a whole novel, or if I need to trash it and come up with something else.

And once I have a good one, the voice tells me everything I need to know about what the character would or wouldn’t say in a given situation, how they would react, how they see the world and other people. All of a sudden I have a fully fledged character without really trying, and the second hardest part of writing – after plotting – is all taken care of, and I can just get on with telling the story – coloring it with my main character’s voice.

Category:Warhammer, Writing | Comments (1)

Angels and Pins

Sunday, 19. May 2013 13:00 | Author:

Gotrek-and-Felix-4-C-formatThis column was originally a Night Bazaar weekly topic that asked all the Night Shade authors to examine the following topic: “Lightspeed vs. Landlock – Intergalactic Travel vs Mundane Fantasy.” I wasn’t honestly sure if I was supposed to contrast these two things, pick one over the other, or what, so I just ran with my first impression and made some shit up.

The first thing the topic called to mind was my time writing tie-in fiction for the Warhammer table-top battle games. Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the games, but Warhammer comes in exactly two flavors. You have Warhammer Fantasy, which is basically humans, elves, dwarfs, orcs and gribbly chaos beasties all running around in a fantasy version of early renaissance Germany, or you have Warhammer 40,000, which is basically humans, elves, orcs and gribbly chaos beasties (no dwarfs – for some reason the poor wee bastards never made it off planet) all running around in a gothic, Imperial Rome meets the thousand-year-reich version of space opera.

I always wrote on the fantasy side of the Warhammer coin. I’m just more at home with swords and spells than with bolt guns and spaceships, but I loved the lore of 40k (as they call it) just as much as I did Warhammer Fantasy. The fans of Warhammer fiction, however, were constantly arguing in the forums over which setting was better. This is fairly standard forum behavior, and I generally paid it no mind, but one of the arguments the 40k guys wielded against the Fantasy guys struck me as sillier than average.

“Fantasy is too limited!” they would say. “It’s just one world! In 40k there is an entire galaxy to explore, with thousands of worlds. Millions!”

Which leads me to the allusion I make in the title of this post. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How many villages can you fit into an imaginary country? How many caves can you fit into a fictitious mountain range? How many unexplored cellars can you fit into an invented medieval city? How many taverns? How many secret cults? How many heroes and villains?

The answer is, of course, as many as you want – an infinite amount. I invented new towns and new locations for every Warhammer book I wrote. I invented what I needed, and found a place to squeeze it all in around the already existing bits. The point, of course, is that scale in science fiction and fantasy is just frosting, just like the difference between swords and blasters or magic and high tech. Lightyears equal years. Planets equal countries. Vast, starless voids equal vast, trackless mountain ranges. Spaceport bars equal village taverns. The worlds of fantasy and science fiction are equally infinite, equally capable of accommodating any size story. And if you want some proof of the elasticity of an apparently contained setting, have a look at literary fiction.

Twenty centuries on, and the clever fucks who write that stuff still haven’t run out of stories to tell set on that one tiny little planet they call Earth.

Category:Warhammer, Writing | Comments (3)

Light Bulb Moments

Monday, 29. April 2013 9:37 | Author:

This week’s post is about  ”Light Bulb Moments” by which I mean, moments when something about writing clicked for me, and I learned something. Sadly, I haven’t learned very much, so this will likely be a short post…

Here we go anyway.

Like most writers, I have learned quite a lot of the craft of writing by reading. I learned what I liked. What I didn’t like. The kind of writing I wanted to emulate, and the kind I wanted nothing to do with, and these moments of discovering what my taste was were certainly light bulb moments. For instance, even though I loved the Lord of the Rings, after reading it a few times, and then trying to read a lot of the folks who attempted to follow in JRR’s footsteps, I learned that I didn’t have the patience for epic fantasy. All the family trees and stories that took place over decades and sometimes centuries. It was too much work to read, and too much work to write. What I liked were stories about a guy, or a couple of guys, or a couple of girls, or one of each maybe, faced with an immediate problem which gave them a hell of a bad time all at once, but which they either solved – or failed to solve if it was a tragedy – in a few days. You know, stories like Romeo and Juliette, Ill Met in Lankhmar, or The Tell Tale Heart. Thrillers rather than epics, basically.

Another thing I discovered I liked while reading was sex. Sorry, I don’t mean sex while reading. You’d lose your place. What I mean is, I liked sex in the stories I read. And I don’t mean porn. I liked when people had complete lives. When the there were scenes in the book that didn’t take place either on the battlefield or the throne room. People in Tolkien and a lot of other sci-fi and fantasy books didn’t seem to have lives below the waist. They didn’t shit, piss, or fuck. So, grit was another thing I looked for, and apparently wanted to embrace. Realism, or at least a nod to it. Leiber, John D. MacDonald, George MacDonald Frasier, Phillip Jose Farmer, Michael Shae, etc.

So, that’s preferences taken care of. But when I actually started writing I found out a lot of things that reading along just didn’t prepare me for. For instance, did you know that writing a novel is impossible? It is. Completely. You can’t hold that much info in your head at one time, and I despaired of ever managing it, until I had the epiphany that, though it was impossible to write a novel, it was possible to write a chapter, and then another, and another, until, without knowing it, a novel had accreted around you.

Another thing I learned, which is connected to the whole chapter-by-chapter thing, is that structure is as powerful a tool as character, voice, theme or moral. If you’ve got the structure wrong, if the chapters don’t flow in a way the feels natural to the reader and carries them along, all those other things will fall flat. If you wait too long to reveal your protagonist’s character, you lose the reader. If you have no pacing, voice won’t save you, no matter how engaging. If you bury the theme or bungle the payoff at the end, the reader might miss the moral, or fail to feel the emotional punch you were hoping to bring him to tears with.

Hmmm. Are there any others? Oh, yeah! A big one! Proper channels don’t work. Sending unsolicited manuscripts to a publisher, writing cold query letters to agents, all a complete waste of time. For years I believed that I should let my writing do the talking, and that anything else was somehow cheating. I would write things,  put them in the mail, and never hear anything forever and ever. On the other hand, once I actively made a point of meeting fellow writers, introducing myself to agents and publishers, stepping out of my ivory tower, and actually getting involved in the community I wanted to be a part of, things turned around, and that kind of reprehensible behavior has gotten me almost every job and sale I’ve ever had.

Okay, falling asleep now, so I guess that’s all you get. Sorry it’s more disjointed than usual. Maybe in a minute or two a light bulb will go off and I’ll realize that proper planning and time management are another key to success.

But probably not.

Category:Writing | Comment (0)

Love Will Tear Us Apart

Sunday, 14. April 2013 21:31 | Author:

bloodforgedMaybe it’s because I cut my writing teeth in Hollywood, where no movie is complete without a dollop of “boy meets girl,” but there is always a love interest in my stories. Even in my Warhammer books, where the testosterone levels were so high that I had to shave twice as often while writing them, I still slipped in a little romance. Yes, even in a world of gore-caked battle axes and deathless demons of destruction, love blossoms.

Or maybe it is because romance is the greatest conflict generator of all time. A feud between two rival families in Italy? Boring. But what if a boy from one family and a girl from another love each other? Instant intrigue. A princess has second thoughts about assuming her throne? Dull. But if she meets an American reporter in Rome and has to chose between him and her crown? All at once we want to know what happens.

Romance adds human emotion to any situation, and therefore human interest. The tug between love and honour, love and duty, love and loyalty, love and cultural mores, has been grist for conflict since the days of Greek drama, and since fantasy fiction is already a very romantic genre, a genre about the triumph of spirit and emotion, about irrational hope winning out over cold reality just because it should, Romance with a capital R is a perfect fit. It gives heroes a reason to fight and strive. It gives villians a reason to be jealous. It makes tragedies deeper and happy endings more joyful.

It also works very well to personalize a broader conflict. Last year’s prize for best journalistic photograph went to a picture of a mother holding her wounded son after a battle. Why is this more powerful than a photo of a hundred wounded men laid out side by side? Because it shows love. It allows the viewer to identify with the pain of the mother who does not know if her son will live or die. Do you want your reader to feel the conflict you have created? Don’t tell them about the movements of armies. Tell them about a wife searching for her husband amongst the stream of refugees fleeing a battle. Tell them about the soldier forced to go to war against his lover’s country. Tell them about a pair of lovers who steal money to buy passage out of the warzone and end up jailed seperately.

Some may deride romance as cheap melodrama, but I say if it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. It is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s toolbox. Learn to use it well, and you will live – or at least write – happily ever after.

Category:Warhammer, Writing | Comments (2)

How to Build a World

Monday, 1. April 2013 20:11 | Author:

How to do it?

1 – Start with the kind of story you want to tell, the mood of it, the point of it, then shape all the things that make up a world – the geography, the economies, the cultures, the politics, the religions, the peoples, the flora and fauna – so that they reinforce the story.

2 – Remember that world is slave to the story, and not the other way around.

Why to do it?

I’m not so sure.

I have a world. It’s called Ehre. A few years ago I spent an incredible amount of time and energy building it from the ground up. I bought a program called Fractal Terrain Pro so that I could make a realistic globe, with rivers and mountain ranges that made geological sense, and from the simulations it created drew world maps and named countries and cities and peoples. I invented seven thousand years of history, the pantheons of several different religions, a system of magic, numerous forms of government, a number of currencies, the naming conventions of half a dozen cultures, some social hierarchies, a few different slangs and cants, the rules for a gambling game, and a detailed map of the city in which I intended most of my stories to take place.

I did all this because I only wanted to do it once. I figured, if I was going to write fantasy, I would set all my fantasy novels in the same world so that I wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time I started a new book. That would be the smart, efficient thing to do.

Anyway, like always happens with this sort of thing, I ran out of steam after about half a year, and decided I would use what I had to write a novel set in my shiny new world.

I had a lot of fun writing that novel, lacing it with all the lore and culture that I had spent so much time and effort creating, and I was very pleased with the end result. Unfortunately nobody else was. It got turned down by two big publishers, and my regular readers had their reservations as well. Everybody hated my main character. That’s all they ever talked about. They didn’t take any notice of all the effort I put into creating the world.

Cut to last year. I sold Jane Carver of Waar, my ten year old first novel, to Night Shade Books.

When I wrote Jane I literally made the world up as I went along. If I needed a god or a monster for the next scene, I’d come up with one on the spot. If I needed a town, or a race, or some little detail to bring a scene to life, I wrote it on the fly. In fact I still did that as wrote the second book. For instance, there are Seven Gods on Waar, but I’ve only bothered naming two of them – the ones I needed for the plot. The rest are still a mystery to me.

Nobody who’s read Jane has ever commented on how little effort I put into creating the world, but everybody loves Jane. That’s all they ever talk about.

So, by all means, build worlds if you like to. I had a blast doing it, but remember that, no matter how often people pin the map of middle earth to their wall – like I did when I was a kid – they wouldn’t have fallen in love with that world if they hadn’t liked Frodo and Bilbo enough to follow them through it.

Category:Jane Carver, Reading, Writing | Comments (6)

Without Whom

Sunday, 24. March 2013 17:29 | Author:

This week I’m going to talk about my favorite genre and non-genre writers, and their influence, for good or ill, upon me and my writing. These are the writers, in other words, without whom I would not be the ink-stained wretch who stands before you today. Let us take them in the order in which I discovered them, shall we?

Fritz Leiber – Believable Heroes and Lyrical Mischief

Scouring my local used bookstore for more fantasy after I had devoured the Lord of the Rings, my twelve-year-old self discovered a book called Swords and Deviltry. In it I found a pair of heroes who were not martyrs to hopeless quests, who did not have great destinies, and who thought as often with their privates as often as they did with their heads. I was seduced, utterly.

As much as I liked the epic story and noble emotions of the Lord of the Rings, the mixture of the fantastic and the mundane that I found in Fritz Leiber’s work felt true to me like Tolkien’s never did. Fafhrd and Grey Mouser were people I knew, no different than the dreamers and big talkers I hung out with, the “get rich quick” pals you had to bail out after every failed scheme. These were people whose motivations and emotions I understood. If I met Aragorn in the Prancing Pony we’d be out of things to talk about in five minutes. I’d be bullshitting with Fafhrd and Grey Mouser in the Silver Eel all night.

At the same time, these two regular guys lived in a fantastic world of swords, sorcerers, towers, demons, jewels, skulls, and dangerous, delicious women – all the pulpy fantasy trappings that my perpetually adolescent heart craves. It was the best of both worlds, and described with the delirious, dizzying prose poetry of a man drunk on words. No other writer I have read has put pictures of his places and people in my mind with such wit and painterly grace.

Because of Leiber, my heroes are more human than iconic, and my prose sometimes a little tipsy.

P.G. Wodehouse – Comic Complications and a Limited Palette

You would think that the kid who wanted more blood and sex and believable heroes wouldn’t have much interest in a world where even couples rarely kiss, where a cartoon knock on the head is as violent as it gets, and the characters are more comic archetype than real people, but I did.

Blame it on Monty Python. Those guys turned me into an Anglophile, and while searching for more British humor, I found Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, and fell in love. P.G. Wodehouse was every bit a fantasy writer. His world of butlers, country houses, gentlemen’s clubs, conniving aunts, terrifying fiancés, and useless young men in spats never really existed. All the elements might have had basis in real life, but his stylization and distillation of them was as imagined as Lewis’s Narnia, and as proscribed and artificial as the set of a sitcom – and served the same purpose.

Using only a short list of stock characters and locations, Wodehouse managed to spin thousands of farce plots and comic situations, and always came up with fresh and funny ways to pay them off. Add to that a flair for comic banter and a light touch with the foibles of human nature and his books become jewels of minimalist comic genius.

Wodehouse taught me that tried and true tropes – in his case upper-class twits and trysts, in my case lower class swords and sorcerers – are not the walls of a prison, but instead a set of infinitely reusable building blocks, with which you can build any kind of story you want.

Raphael Sabatini – High Adventure and Clockwork Plotting

To my mind, Raphael Sabatini is the exact middle of the tree that has as its roots Alexander Dumas, Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and as its branches everything from regency romance to espionage thrillers to Indiana Jones to, yes, sword and sorcery. Sabatini was not a literary novelist like Scott or Stevenson, nor a pulp writer like Robert E. Howard or Johnston McCulley – the guy who wrote Zorro. He was a popular novelist who wrote middle-brow books for middle-brow people, but he did it with such skill and style that I return to his books again and again, both for pleasure and for lessons in craft.

Sabatini’s genius was in honing the sprawling genre of historical fiction down to the highly stylized and much more focused genre of the swashbuckler. A historical novel is about history, and uses the characters to personalize a place, time and set of events. A swashbuckler is about nothing except the hero, and uses history only as a colorful backdrop to highlight his story. For example, Scaramouche isn’t about the French revolution, it’s about Scaramouche. The revolution is just a convenient machine for making things difficult for him.

Like Wodehouse, Sabatini used a small set of tropes – sword play, moonlight chases, divided lovers, daring rescues, hairsbreadth escapes – to tell an infinite number of stories, and he used them with such precision and pace that the novels hold you from the beginning in that most delicious tension of knowing that a happy ending must be coming (since they’re all that kind of novel) yet finding yourself unable to see how it will be accomplished until, impossibly, on the very last page, all is finally resolved.

Because of Sabatini, my stories are about their heroes first, plot second, and everything else after. He also taught me that it as important in storymaking as it is in songwriting to end with a resolving chord.

George MacDonald Fraser – Low Adventure and Exposed Hypocrisy

George MacDonald Fraser is Raphael Sabatini turned on his head. His Flashman novels are cut from the same hero-centric historical mold, and feature the same set of swashbuckling tropes, but instead of a stalwart, square-jawed hero, they star an utter bastard of an anti-hero who would kill his own grandmother to escape the desperate situations he finds himself in.

Fraser grew up reading and loving Sabatini and other adventure writers, but a cynical world view and a dirty mind wouldn’t allow him to play it straight, and so Flashman was born – a cad, coward, and soldier of the British Empire, who runs, shitting himself in fear, though every major military disaster of the Victorian Age.

But it isn’t all scatological shenanigans. Fraser takes pains to point out in every book that, as bad as Flashman is, his oh-so-noble superiors are often worse, and that a fellow who stabs another fellow in the back isn’t even in the same league as a fellow who sends entire brigades of lancers to their deaths out of laziness or stupidity. It is this that won me to Flashman for life. The moral outrage hidden in the villains’ tale, the highlighting of the crimes of the powerful against the weak, the belief that the lowly soldier often has more honor than the guy with the tassel on his hat.

From Fraser I learned that skullduggery can be fun, and that poking the rich and powerful and corrupt with sharp sticks is my life’s work.

Yes, I call it Sabrepunk for a reason.

Category:Reading, Writing | Comment (0)

Nerd Bull Session #1046

Sunday, 10. March 2013 1:33 | Author:

D – God, that movie sucked!

K – Seriously! How does the same boring Australian get cast in both Avatar and Clash of the Titans? He’s the least interesting person in both movies! They should have made Mads Mikkelson Perseus. That would have rocked!

N – I liked the Kraken.

K – Yeah, Long, you would. Man, what a turd! Are there any fantasy or sci-fi movies that are better than the books they’re based on? Any at all?

D – Hmmmmmm. Good one.

N – Wait. So, do I have to have read the book too?

K – Well, duh. How are you gonna compare if you haven’t?

N – Yeesh. That’s gonna narrow it down some. Let me think.

D – Blade Runner? Two Thousand One?

K – Have you actually read either of those?

D – Well, no, but…

K – What did we just say?

N – Okay, I got one. I saw the first Harry Potter and read the first book. But, uh, didn’t care for either of them enough to continue. Hmmm.

D – Dune! No, never mind. That was terrible. Man. This is harder than it looks.

N – I know! Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!

K – What? Come on, dude. Pick a grown-up movie.

N – I’m serious. It’s a great movie. I don’t know if it’s better than the book, but it’s as good. It stands on its own, and, yeah, I would say it’s a grown-up movie. There’s a lot of social satire in there – Mike TV and all that – that would go right over kids’ heads. Plus there’s that whole layer of creepy psychedelia laid on top of it all. That tunnel scene is still scarier than most horror movies.

K – Okay, fine. Now pick an adult movie.

N – But, but they’re all terrible. There isn’t a single– Oh wait! A Clockwork Orange. That was great.

D – And you read the book? Really?

N – I did. In high school. I don’t honestly remember that much about it. It was good, though, I remember that – a nasty little satire of British values, with a lot of linguistic candy thrown in just for fun. The movie, though, it just fucks with you. You’re going along, blown away by the look of it and kinda horrified by the violence, then you end up rooting for the bad guy, this complete psychopath, because the authorities are worse. It’s amazing. Completely makes you question yourself and your values.

K – Alright. I’ll give you that one. Clockwork Orange was brilliant. No argument. Anything else?

D – Wait. Hang on a second. Let’s turn it around. If all movies based on fantasy and sci-fi novels are shit–

N - Most movies.

D – Okay, if most movies based on fantasy and sci-fi novels are shit, then what genre novels would you like to see made into movies?

K – And have them turned into shit? No thanks.

D – No no. Best case scenario. Best screenwriter. Best director. Best. Cast. Ever. What books?

N – Easy. I’ve got three, right off the top of my head.

K – Of course you do. Let me guess, Long. These are books you, personally, want to make into movies. I bet you already have scripts written and everything.

N – I do not. Well, treatments, yes. Scripts, no. Whaddaya want from a screenwriter?

D – Okay okay, let’s hear ‘em.

N – Right. Well, the first one’s pretty obvious, at least if you know me. I’ve always wanted to do a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser movie. Or a series, maybe. I’ve never understood why nobody’s ever done it. They’re perfect for movies. An easier fit than most fantasy.

D – Why? Aside from them being your favorites.

N – Well, look. You got Conan, right. He’s the silent, brooding type. You gotta bring in a lot of extra characters just so there’s some dialog now and then. And he’s a little too super for my taste. Nobody’s tougher than Conan, which kinda kills the tension. Then you’ve got Elric. He’s broody too. Worse. And when he does talk, it’s all serious and shit. Hollywood can’t do serious fantasy. It ends up sounding like bad Shakespeare. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser on the other hand, they’re more like average guys. They’re a fantasy buddy movie waiting to happen. It would be like Lethal Weapon with swords.

B – You say that like it’d be a good thing.

N – It would if I wrote it. Lots of fights and snappy repartee, desperate situations, evil priests, big monsters, sexy swordswomen, skulls, towers, jewels. How could it go wrong?

K – This is Hollywood, remember. They’d find a way. What’s number two?

Okay, this one’s pretty obscure. It’s called House of Stairs, by William Sleator. It’s about these five orphan kids who are put into a kind of a Skinner Box labyrinth with no food or–

K – Wait a minute. Kids? Is this another YA? What is it with you and kids books? Did you stop reading when you were twelve?

N – Uh, I’m sorry, how many times have you seen the Captain America movie? Anyway, there’s a machine in the middle of the labyrinth, right? And when the lights on the machine start flashing food and water comes out. At least it does at first. After a while, the machine only give out food after they’ve done something, like dance, or do a trick, or fight each other. Some of the kids will do anything to get the food, but two of them rebel. They… well, it’s all about individualism versus conformity, and it really hit me hard when I was a kid. My image of myself as an outsider, all that punk rock pride I used to have. A lot of it comes from this book, and in this day and age, a movie about that kind of stuff could really–

D – Oh my god, he’s preaching! Next! Next!

N – Aw, fuck you guys. It would be good. Okay, okay. Next. You know who Tim Powers is? Or is he over your reading level? The Stress of Her Regard? The Anubis Gates?

K – You mean the guy who wrote the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie?

N – That’s all you know him from? That’s just sad. He’s, like, the best writer on the planet. Anyway, I’ve always wanted to see his book Last Call as a movie. That’s the one about the guy who loses his soul in a poker game and finds out he’s a pawn in a big game of supernatural power politics that’s all wrapped up in tarot cards and who gets to be the Year King of the West. Great characters, a great story, and a kind of noir fantasy that you almost never see on screen. You want grown-up fantasy with real people and real emotions? Call somebody famous and get ‘em to make that movie.

D - You call somebody. You’re the Hollywood screenwriter.

N – Yeah, I wrote Guyver Two. That and four bucks will get you a cappuccino in this town. Aw, forget it. Change the subject. What are we watching next?

K – Uh, let’s see. Oh, this is gonna be epic. We got Solomon Kane, or the new Conan movie. Your pick.

N – Aw, dude. You’re killing me!

Category:Movies, Reading, Writing | Comments (1)

Dragon or Spaceship

Sunday, 3. March 2013 14:40 | Author:

I have been neglecting this blog for too long, so, starting this week, I’ll be posting a new blog post every Sunday. Woo!

(Full disclosure – these posts all originally appeared on Night Shade Books’ Night Bazaar Blog, but I don’t think too many people saw them there, so I’m taking the liberty of republishing them here.)

Right. Here’s the first one. Enjoy!

A SILLY STORY ABOUT GENRE BOUNDARIES

I once worked part time in a friend’s bookstore, and one day she gave me a box of used books she’d just purchased and told me to shelve them while she went to lunch. No problem, I said, but when I looked through the box, I found myself in a quandary. They were all paranormal-ish, with covers full of brooding, half-shadowed guys and tough chicks with swords and knowing looks, but I wasn’t quite sure where to shelve them.

Well, I didn’t want to be a pest and call the boss while she was eating, so I took the initiative and tried to decide for myself. Did they go in fantasy, because they all featured werewolves and vampires and travels to magical lands? Or did they go in Romance, because they featured strong love stories?

In the end I picked a completely arbitrary, but I thought pretty safe, indicator and used it as my guide. If the books had men’s abs on the cover they went into Romance. If they didn’t, they went into Fantasy. Boom. I was done in five minutes.

A NOT QUITE SO SILLY STORY ABOUT GENRE BOUNDARIES

JaneCarverofWaar_CoverHaving sold Jane Carver of Waar to Night Shade Books, my agent asked me what else I had lying around that he could read. I sent him a novel I’d written a few years back about an ex-cop who is asked by the ghost of his dead ex-partner to solve her murder. He read it in a weekend and wrote back to tell me he loved it, it was a really great story, but… he wasn’t sure how to sell it.

Why? It wasn’t scary enough to be Horror. It wasn’t romantic enough to be Romance. It didn’t have vampires or werewolves or a kick-ass female paranormal investigator, so even though it was an urban fantasy, it didn’t fit this year’s definition of Urban Fantasy. And it wasn’t straight enough to be Crime Fiction.

Yeah. He’s still working on it.

ART AND COMMERCE

So, there you go. I’ve been on the bookseller’s side, and I’ve been on the writer’s side, and I sympathize with both.

The bookseller just wants to know where the book goes. Defining what category a book fits into is vital to sales. She can’t sell a mystery if she hides it in the fantasy section, and she can’t just lump everything into general fiction. It would all be a mish-mosh and nobody would be able to find what they wanted at a glance.

The writer just wants to be true to his muse and tell the story he has in his head – at least he does if he’s the naïve kind of writer I was back when I wrote that novel – and he doesn’t worry about what category of story it is until after he’s written it. (Which drives his agent crazy.)

Of course an older, wiser writer is aware of this problem, and begins to tailor his stories to the market. If someone says to him, “I’ll take a look at anything you got as long as I can put a dragon or a space ship on the cover,” he goes home and comes up with a story that fits the bill.

But that’s kinda sad, isn’t it? That kinda guarantees that we will all work in a very safe, homogenous genre. It doesn’t allow for wider, wilder flights of fantasy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m okay with writing inside the lines. I’ve been writing gaming tie-in fiction for the past six years. Have laptop. Will travel. That’s me. I’m the last guy to say that one must be true to one’s art, and that commerce has no part in deciding what to write next. I’d sure as hell rather write to measure than spend eight hours a day in a cubicle farm so I can maintain my high ideals.

But sometimes even a hack like myself comes up with a story that doesn’t fit one of the preset genre pigeon holes. Sometimes he has an idea for a fantasy with no magic in it. Sometimes he wants to write a science-fiction story that features a pair of star-crossed lovers. Sometimes he comes up with an idea that defies the standard “It’s X meets Y meets Z” pitch. And sometimes he can’t ignore it. Labels be damned, he has to write it.

What I’m saying is, that once he’s written it, there should be a way for publishers to accommodate it, and for marketing departments to sell it.

And maybe, now that we live in the future and all, there is.

#INBETWEEN

Cross-genre fiction’s problem with brick and mortar stores is sections – the Romance section, the Mystery section, the Fantasy section. On-line booksellers, aping their predecessors, have adopted this model too, with sub-menus that read just like the section headers in a store.

But there are other ways of discovering books on those pages as well. There is the “customers who bought this book also bought…” list. There is the list of tags or keywords that can be used to describe the book. There are links to author pages. There are store-hosted forums where buyers can discuss books of all genres. And away from booksellers’ sites, there are all the social media hubs, blogs, message boards, fan forums and youtube channels where readers can share book recommendations.

All of these are ways to alert potential readers to books they might not find if they only searched through the genres they’re familiar with. They are the word-of-mouth and hand-selling of the digital age.

A well-tagged book, with keywords highlighting all its potential hooks – two-fisted heroines for example – might lure someone from romance to mystery, from fantasy to historical, from science fiction to thriller, or from any genre to a book that has elements of one or two, yet fits none. A word in the right forum or a review from the right blogger can get people talking about the story of the book – or the heroine – rather than its category, and maybe make it something people will cross borders to read.

And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To make potential readers aware of the stories we tell. That’s what I think this new #tag model of categorizing will do for the genre-breakers among us. It’s not as neat and tidy a system as shelves and sections, it’s harder work for publisher and author, and it’s kinda amorphous and intimidating to people used to the old way, but I think it just might save us. I think it just might be the thing that makes a book’s story more of a selling point than the dragon or space ship on the cover.

Category:Jane Carver, Life, Reading, Warhammer, Writing | Comment (0)