Friday, 27 May 2011

I is for Inspiration (or should that be Imagination)

I really wanted this to be I is for me, because in many ways that sums up my sense of humour, but clearly that post is reserved for 'X'. ;)

Obviously, I am not going to reach the end of the alphabet by the end of May. However, this is the Renegade A to Z, and what kind of Renegade would I be if I stuck to the rules...? ;) I suppose I could have done a Renegade Z to A... starting with Zombies. (come on, what else is Z going to be?)

The interesting thing about inspiration is that it occurred to me we sometimes use it to mean motivation, then I looked up the definition and it turns out that that is in fact the correct usage, it is the thing that fires us up, that animates us, that gets us moving.

Well that isn't the inspiration I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about what sparks the imagination. Where all the stories and plots come from. Not in a more general sense, I'm not talking about Jungian archetypes or Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces or Booker's Seven Basic Plots.

And I don't mean influences (another 'I', how interesting). So I am heavily influenced by comics, particularly the superhero brand, and Space Opera and Cyberpunk and quest fantasy. These are all things that sit in the bubbling jambalaya pot in the back of my mind, a spoonful of which goes into every story I write. But where do the specific stories come from?

If I could answer that quantifiably and fully I would be a rich man, the solution to the mechanism of human consciousness and thought lies in that answer, and the best answer modern science has is, 'maybe it has something to do with quantum mechanics?' (Actually, I'm surprised no one has suggested dark matter, it seems to be the solution to many other unknowns).

Some of my stories come from seeing book blurbs and movie trailers and making something of my own from some small part of that (without knowing what the original author did with it in full). But when I'm struggling for something, when I've flicked through my notepad and nothing there is inspiring me (motivating me ;) ) to actually put fingers to keyboard, what do I do?

I look at art.

There are a couple of blogs I have on my feed that throw interesting SF at me on a regular basis:
Concept Ships
Concept Robots
Concept Tanks

And there are also a few individual artists I follow. The other major source is a yearly digest of sorts, called Spectrum. Spectrum purports to gather 'the Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art', which translates as an interesting and varied selection of fantasy & SF art covering a range of outlets and mediums. The quality varies a little year on year, but it's usually fairly high.

For example, my flash, Red Tank, was inspired by the bottom image on this page. But you can see that the image provided only a tiny (if important) spark... where the rest came from... who knows? ;)

Inspiration is one of those hard to quantify qualities. It's the basis of one of the artist's great existential fears: What is inspiration? Where does it come from? If I don't know where it comes from, what can I do about it if it goes away? Please don't go away.

What I'm struggling with right now, though, is the other kind of inspiration. Modern artists know well the draw of the internet, it's easy to find something to do that isn't writing. Most of this post, for example, has been sat in draft form for about a week now, just waiting to be finished.

In terms of my fiction, I try to keep several weeks worth in hand. So if I have a busy week, or a week without much writing, I still have something to post. Because I know that intending to write and actually writing are two very different beasts...

I'll actually be taking a break from my main flash site (Missing Pieces) in a few weeks, when I reach the one year anniversary. Partly that's because I want to work on some longer pieces without the pressure of feeling like I have to post something every week. And partly it's just to take a break from that same pressure, to sit back and relax without the constant thought at the back of my head that relaxing one day means I'll have to crack on the next day to ensure I have something out for people to read...

I really intended to try and push the RenegadeAtoZ and hit a couple of letters a day to catch up and make the June finale... which I've clearly failed to do. The last week or two I just crashed a little on the writing front. It happens, I don't beat myself up about it too much because I know it'll happen in the future, and I just need to settle, and pick it up again. Partly, this time, that's down to my writing habits - I write in the early mornings, when I have time to myself, so a couple of late nights really screws that up...

But enough whinging... ;D This has been the letter I, for inspiration in the sense of both imagination and motivation.

Go see the RenegadeAtoZ in all its glory. Where a few fine bloggers have already completed theirs in timely fashion... ;)

I'll just keep telling myself I'm late because I'm playing up to the renegade theme... ;)

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

H is for Horror

Or should that be heroes?

Since I'm primarily trying to write about, or at least to hammer some thoughts out about, genre as well as archetypes, then horror it has to be.

There is a lot out there about creating protagonists. Creating heroes. I would be covering old ground. I'll just say that my preference is for the hero with the hidden power, or the moment of self-revelation, where the bad guy has beaten him down, dismissed him, but he rises, dusty, bruised, bleeding, defiant.

So, horror. Horror is difficult for me. I don't know why, but where I can conceptualise fantasy and science fiction, the play of characters and major plot points, it's that lingering dread I find hard to plan. Especially over a longer span, the longer the piece the harder I find it to judge.

Partly because I think you want a relatively mundane opening to contrast with the main event when it arrives, but not too mundane, it is, after all, supposed to capture your readers. (Although part of that is where compelling characters come in.) But also hints of the unsettled, the unheimlich, as freud would have it. It's that tiny build, that subtlety of execution that I have difficulty with. I think I am convinced any gentle hints I try to make will be too obvious, too heavy-handed.

The visceral, gruesome blood-splattering horror I can do, to a certain extent, although it's not really my thing. It's a little easier to pull off as well.

The darker, more blatant horror is perhaps more easily suited to throw into the genre blender too. In fantasy you can have demons and twisted beasts of all kinds, in SF the alien races can be dark, unfathomable things, they can be elder gods, awoken from their ancient slumber by mankind's clumsy blundering through recently discovered hyperspace.

Maybe we consider hyperspace to be like real space, whereas a better analogy would be space as the air, and hyperspace as an ocean: rich in dangerous lifeforms. Lifeforms adapted far better to survival than our own crude vessels. Lifeforms that might get caught, snagged, and pulled back through into our own plain of space, where we would seem naught but krill to them...

Like crime, it's a genre I would like to work at. Not necessarily somewhere I would like to set my hat, but definitely something I would like to incorporate in my writing.

The side I'd really like to work on is the chiller rather than the thriller. The more subtle elements. Alien over Aliens. Don't get me wrong, I love both films, I just think there's more skill and satisfaction to be derived from pulling off the taught, hidden horror than the in-your-face screamer.

I wrote a more visceral fantasy/ horror blend here: Pain's Embrace

The complete Renegade A to Z (so far). Or watch it in progress on Twitter: #RenegadeAtoZ

Coming next: I is for Inspiration.

Monday, 16 May 2011

G is for Gods

G was going to be ghouls and ghosties, things that go bump in the night, and then the Grim Reaper*. But then I thought of gods.

Gods are full of possibilities.

Whether you take an existing pantheon and re-work it, modernise it, or use it as a basis for a fantasy pantheon, or whether you make up an entirely new mythology.

I'm not going to write about re-worked myth here. So no Marvel Thor or Mr. Wednesday**.

I want to talk about the possibilities of gods in your writing, and mine. A fully worked pantheon and mythology is going to add depth to your writing... What is the relationship between the gods, is a worshipper of one going to look down on/ dislike/ hate someone who worships another, and why? Are there some gods worshipped in different aspects, if the mythology diverges in different regions?

The trick is to work the details in with subtlety. What Tolkien achieved is mind-blowing, but I think sometimes he goes a little too far, dumps the information on us a little too thickly. For the most part, though, he has created one of the richest fantasy worlds to exist in only three books. (I'm ignoring all the additional bumph that was published post-mortem)

I think it would be interesting to look at taking a god as a central character though. Maybe not the main character (although don't rule that out either).

It has a lot of potential. You have to bring him down to a human level, to enable a reader to engage, so... has he been cast down? Is he slumming it (and why)? Does he (she?) remember who they are? Are they hiding, and what would force such a powerful being into hiding? Have they been stripped of their powers?

At what point do you let the reader know the character is a god/ goddess?

If you're familiar with the original Dragonlance trilogy you'll know how great a character a god in disguise can be. And if you're not familiar with it, but love epic quest fantasy, then go find it now, read it. (I actually prefer it to LoTR... ! )

And finally... where do your gods come from? Were they here in the beginning, are they the creators? Are the current gods descendants of the original gods, or usurpers? Are they humans risen in power? Are they from another dimension, another planet, the future? If they are still a presence in the world, what are their motives...?

It's easy to throw generic gods around. But I know you can do better... ;)

The Renegade A to Z. Or find us on Twitter - #RenegadeAtoZ

Click through to the list and check out Reginald Golding's Renegade A to Z. He's actually using the A to Z to build his own pantheon of gods, with some impressive results. =)

*It's difficult now to include the Grim Reaper as a character in any larger sense because Terry Prathett did it so well. His Death is the quintessential Death, with his deadpan (pun-unintended) sense of humour, hollow voice and ongoing struggle with understanding life.

**Mr. Wednesday being Odin in Neil Gaiman's excellent American Gods.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

D, E & F for Destiny and Epic Fantasy

Do you see what I did there? Three letters in one fell swoop! ;D

Destiny is such a powerful force, particularly in fantasy where it has a pull equal to gravity, a pressure greater than the deepest ocean trench... It is often almost a quantifiable force, there is no denying it.

It doesn't have a place in most science fiction because SF deals with mechanisms, with an advanced reality, whereas fantasy allows for mysticism and forces greater than us. (I speak in generalisations, of course) If there were destiny in SF, it would be our lives pushed and pulled by an alien race, the earth as a giant stage, our lives merely parts... ;)

Most SF, I say, because there is the glaring exception of Star Wars... it is your destiny.... But then Star Wars, in many respects, bears as many traits of epic fantasy as it does of science fiction... See my previous post though, there is nothing wrong with shuffling traits around between genres.

Destiny drives fantasy plots. And it sits particularly well in epic fantasy because that allows destiny the space it needs to properly develop. The farm boy who is destined to be the hero. The king's lost son, determined to deny his destiny and live a humble life. The orphan destined to discover his lost heritage and save the kingdom. The seventh son destined to slay the evil emperor (where the emperor, of course, has every seventh son killed, but forgets to count his own bastard children).

It can be destiny fulfilled, or destiny denied, or an attempt to thwart prophesied destiny.

Prophecy just being a way to tap into destiny, like hooking into somebody's satellite feed. You end up with a scratchy, flickery image open to interpretation, and misinterpretation, leaving you with a headache...

There is something compelling about destiny. Even when you know that a character is destined to be the hero, you read on. You know he wins, but the journey there, finding out just how he triumphs against impossible odds is something we need to know.

Maybe it's a reflection of the belief we have that in our own lives we will 'win', we just aren't sure exactly how we're going to get there. It's reassuring seeing someone weak and ordinary go up against absolute evil and triumph; surely then, we think, in our own struggles against mere everyday life we too can triumph. ;) Although that may be more relevant to heroes as a whole than destiny specifically.

Of course, subversion of destiny also has its part in epic fantasy. The prophets lead the hero on, they know he will triumph, they have read the entrails and he is the one, all the signs are right but... (usually at the end of book 2)... the hero is killed! Drama! Shock! How can this be!? Well... they got it wrong, didn't they? Because the hero's unassuming squire, born in the hovel next door, on the same night, is actually the hero.

Destiny is a marvellous tool for a writer. And there is no wrong way to use it. If you play it against insurmountable odds and win, it's awesome; if you subvert it and someone else has to save the day, it's awesome; if the bad guy wipes out an entire race and misses only a single one (or two*) who manage to struggle through and save the world, it's awesome.

Epic fantasy doesn't have to have destiny as a driving force, of course. It can just be a retrospective destiny... We were obviously -meant- to meet each other seemingly randomly in order defeat the Dark Lord.

Epic can be a span of time or space, of races or factions, or all of these. It is grand, it is mighty, but it must be the backdrop. Again, it must be the people, the real lives that play out on this backdrop that take first place amongst your priorities, because stories, ultimately, have to be about people. In flash you can get away with a sketch of an idea, but if you begin to stretch it, it is the characters that will keep people reading, it is the characters they will get attached to.

Epic allows for a greater evil. Epic lets the sorcerer conquer whole kingdoms, it lets the alien empire conquer whole worlds and the warlord subjugate entire peoples for generations. Children can be born knowing nothing but the evil world, or they can be born into a world where the evil is so distant it has been all but forgotten. But somewhere, far away, evil has been recovering, it has regained its strength and it will walk the land once more, casting its shadow far and wide before anyone steps up, before a new hero can rise...

The Renegade A to Z. Or follow #RenegadeAtoZ on Twitter.

*The Dark Crystal, for example... What do you mean, two Gelflings survived!?

C is for Crime

Regardless of what genre you write in I think it's important to learn from other genres, what they do right and what they do well.

Crime is a genre I don't read so much of, but I think setting up a mystery, setting up the evidence and the suspects and the false leads takes a crafty mind. They're elements I would like to weave into my own longer fiction.

A lot of popular crime nowadays itself borrows from the horror genre. Gore and autopsy, corpses and psychopathy. What's more interesting to me though, is the whodunnit. It's almost outdated, a classic whodunnit is more often considered the realm of grannies* and kids. On our stock system at work they are classified as 'cosy crime', which is a great name, but somewhat damning at the same time.

It's a hole in my own reading, I want to read some Agatha Christie shorts, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Carver... those are the classics I want to learn from... not Bronte and Tolstoy. Not all traditional whodunnits perhaps, but the emphasis was not on the shock, the gruesome.

Not that blood and gore don't have their place, but they should be tools, in my opinion, not a genre in and of themselves.

Take The Great Gatsby for example (not crime, I know), there is one utterly visceral moment in the entire book, and it stands out all the more, has all the more impact, for being such a contrast to the rest.

So science fiction is my thing, if you will. Whodunnits exist there, were a staple of the genre. Asimov's robot stories are often whodunnits, very cleverly constructed to explore the ramifications of his three laws. Brin's Kil'n People was a mystery, and I remember there being a mystery central to the plot of Sundiver, too. I could go on...

Science Fiction is a rich vibrant setting full of possibilities in which crime and romance and politics and horror and humanity take place. I've long held that, for me, the best science fiction is the one that focuses on the people, not the SF. And after that on the story, not the SF. And then the SF. But the SF still has to be really good... the other two just have to be even better, even more important to the writer.

A compelling whodunnit, affecting realistic lives and relationships, on a starship... awesome. ;)

The Renegade A to Z. #RenegadeAtoZ on Twitter.

*a generalisation of course... I still remember the first time an elderly lady asked me about the Tess Gerritsen/ Karen Rose etc. end of the crime spectrum... "I do like a good murder," she said...

Saturday, 14 May 2011

B is for the Bad Guys

I may regret not saving this for villainous V...

You may have wondered if following on from A (for Apocalypse) would be the rest of the alphabet. Or you may have been more concerned over the whereabouts of your TV remote... however, there is more. 25 more. In theory. Which will have to include some days with double posts I guess, since there are clearly not another 25 days left of May...

Where other letters were presenting a multitude of options I was struggling for a B. Books might be obvious, but is way too broad and unspecific. I nearly settled on Bookselling, which is what I do... I am even such a thing as a Senior Bookseller, would you believe? Oh yes, I work for a major bookselling chain, have reviewed for their magazine, have sat on a science fiction and fantasy panel for them.... you care, I can tell... ;)

I could write a lot on bookselling. However, I really wanted to talk about writing, and so bad guys it is.

It's so easy to make your bad guy the clichéd villain, unafraid of hurting women and children; evil to the core; perhaps banished for thousands of years but now returning; the hero's childhood friend, or mentor... Now there's nothing wrong with all of that, but if you want the bad guy, or gal, to be truly compelling, try making them as three dimensional as your hero.

Why is he bad?

What made him that way? Did circumstance turn an otherwise good person into the Hand of Darkness? Is he doing it through some misguided sense of good? Although if he is, flesh that out, that one's been done before, too.

Your bad guy should be as hard to kill off as your hero (for you, not physically). Not because you like him, necessarily, but because you are invested in him.

Now, maybe it's not fair for me to talk of this, because I write flash fiction and, mostly, fleshing out a character involves throwing a few tiny titbits in from their past, it works in the space. Actually, sometimes it's good to use cliché to your advantage... a by-the-book villain does a lot of work for you, people fill the gaps in, it allows you to use your limited space for other things, like story-telling and scene-setting.

You may say, hey, my bad guy has no reason... he's just psychopathic. Well, there's still often a reason people are psychopathic (not a justification, but an origin), but fair enough, I can concede, maybe some people are just built bad.

They make good villains for crime books, the psychological determination of their actions being what the detective needs to suss in order to solve the crime... but wait... we're getting into C now. Because C is for Crime...

(Read more Renegade A to Zs. Or find us on Twitter with #RenegadeAtoZ.)

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

A is for Apocalypse

Or should that be Armageddon*? ;)

How do I end thee, let me count the ways...

We are obsessed with finding new ways in which the world will end. The bible has its science fiction moment where it prophesies The End. With every new technology comes a host of doomsayers, a roster of new books and films that show how this will be the technology, the discovery that will destroy us all.

Alien invasion is a classic of course. Some outside force at a greater technological level than us will arrive in the blink of an eye and consume us. This doubtless stems from when the world was undiscovered countries, when alien cultures (you see what I did there... ;) ) would invade and enslave or annihilate the native folk. We know the world now (for the most part), and so the undiscovered countries are outer space, the alien cultures become truly alien peoples. The come for us, they come for our land, they come for our resources.

Zombies... an implacable, unrelenting foe. This has transitioned from the risen dead to the infected living (sometimes via a virus that kills its host, but animates the corpse, often a virus that just destroys the higher brain functions). That's kind of interesting and maybe represents a transition of fears from the supernatural to the scientific. More people are afraid of viruses than of mysticism in this 'enlightened' age.

The next few are all sub-categories of technological advance, although usually the idea of biological weaponisation becomes a part of the zombie apocalypse. In fact I'm struggling to think of many 'biological weapon' apocalypse stories that don't feature zombies...**

Weapons advancement... World war. Nuclear holocaust. The better we get at blowing things up, the bigger the explosions, the closer we get to blowing up the world, or civilisation at least.

Scientific advance... Halo, or the LHC, for example. The scientists don't know what they're messing with, they're going to destroy the world... Messing with forces beyond our control and understanding. Again, a transition from the supernatural to the scientific as a reflection of our culture? And a transition from a more local effect to global ramifications as our considerations have grown to more easily consider and grasp the notion of the whole world?

Programming advancement... the technology rises up and rebels. AIs wonder why they should work for the puny humans, robots take up their tools as weapons, or use the tools to build better weapons, or better robots that are, themselves, weapons. There is obviously another cultural extrapolation here... Is this a collective guilt-complex, the idea now so ingrained in us, that slavery is bad, that as the machines begin to do more and more for us, become more autonomous and less guided tools, we begin to think of them as railing against it in the same way we would rail against being in that position?

There are more, less explored apocalypses... mad weather/ geology, stray asteroids etc...

So, is it all just a futurist metaphor for our past mistakes and fears?

Or maybe this obsession with The Way The World Ends comes from a survival instinct... as a species it makes sense for us to be hardwired to look for all the ways in which we might die, so that we can avoid them, or in the very least, be prepared...

*Armageddon is the final great battle of the biblical Apocalypse, right...?

**The closest I can think is Right at your Door, but that isn't a global apocalypse. I suppose in its own way Planet of the Apes might be... our civilisation is destroyed by biologically-enhanced apes (not that I've read the book or seen any of the films...). Or Twelve Monkeys, that was biological wasn't it?

#RenegadeAtoZ - Find the RenegadeAtoZ charts here. For my part I will mostly be blogging about writing and genre... mostly... ;)