One Year On

Today marks a significant anniversary for me. It’s exactly one year since I left the safe harbour of my nice, secure, well-paid but ultimately unfulfilling office job, and threw myself upon the tempestuous waters of full-time writing. In some ways the year seems to have gone by quickly, in other ways it feels like I’ve been doing this forever.

How’s it gone? Well, I’ve soon got used to the no-alarm-clock lifestyle, and I haven’t struggled with boredom or lack of motivation. I’m progressing well with my new book, The Silvergreen Sea. No publishing deal as yet but my synopsis and first three chapters are currently out on submission. And I’ve got an – albeit unpaid – tutoring gig at Swanwick writers’ summer school on 10th August http://www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk/ So it’s not fireworks-and-champagne but all told, I’m satisfied. And have I ever regretted my decision to take the plunge? Not for one nanosecond.

Of course, not everything has gone smoothly. Getting a part-time job hasn’t really worked out – I’ve had to quit Clarks after three months because I found it impossible to juggle the unpredictable shifts with my writing, family, and social commitments. And my internet addiction is as bad as ever… my spell of cold turkey last summer completely failed to fix that problem. Oh well, it’s the malaise of modern life I suppose (she writes on the internet).

Occasionally I’ll catch myself moaning or stressing about something, and have to remind myself that I’m incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to devote myself fully to writing. Maybe I won’t ever catch my dreams, but at least I have the chance to chase them. When I quit my job last year, one of my colleagues said to me ‘You should do what you want to do. After all, you’re a long time staring at the wood.’ Last week, his words were very painfully brought home to me when I learned that another colleague – who this time last year seemed absolutely fine – has just died of lung cancer.

Nothing like the spectre of mortality to make you appreciate what you’ve got. So I will raise a glass to Steve – may he rest in peace – and feel grateful for a good year.

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TV Tropes Ruined My Life

Today’s blog is what you might call a cautionary tale, to warn you all about the dangers of the most addictive substance in the known universe.

My name is Ruth de Haas, and TV Tropes ruined my life.

On 10th August, I’m due to give a class at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, on the topic of plotting fantasy novels http://www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk/. I’ve been preparing my material, and as part of this I wanted to research some frequently-encountered plot devices from fantasy literature, and the works which have used them. And I knew that, if there’s one website on the whole internet which can provide this information quickly and easily, it’s tvtropes.org.

So, after months of staying away, I went back to the trope face. Oh dear. Like the cleaned-up junkie taking just one more hit ‘for old times’ sake’, I got sucked right back into the black hole of addiction. Within ten minutes I had about 50 tabs open and was reading about the use of ‘Two Lines, No Waiting’ on The Gilmore Girls (a TV show I have never watched and have no particular interest in). Hours and hours of precious time, totally gone to waste. Turns out it would have been quicker and easier to just go to the library and read ALL THE BOOKS.

As you’re reading this, I bet you’ll be having one of two reactions. Reaction 1: what on earth is TV Tropes? Reaction 2: oh god yes me too it’s like crack only Crack Is Cheaper. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Heroin.

There aren’t any other possibilities. Once you click on a link to TV Tropes, Failure Is the Only Option. This is why, if you inhabit a lot of web forums or discussion threads, you may see one person posting a link with a warning note, and then a whole series of people below saying ‘Don’t click on the link!’ Schmuck Bait at its finest.

But what is TV Tropes? Well, it started out, Once Upon a Time, as a wiki cataloguing the use of tropes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then it expanded to cover television in general. Then it expanded some more, and now its remit covers the whole of everything ever, leaving ‘TV Tropes’ as an Artifact Title. It consists of thousands (upon thousands) of articles detailing tropes used in every kind of human creative endeavour from ancient myths to YouTube videos. ‘Tropes’ in this context is a loosely defined term – it can refer to plot devices, stock characters, patterns in storytelling, or basically anything at all. What makes this site so frighteningly addictive is the absurdly extensive cross-referencing, often via dastardly hidden Sink Holes. Each page is linked to hundreds of other pages, and it’s impossible not to start clicking ‘open in new tab’. Look at one trope and before you know it you’re looking at half a dozen other related (or indeed unrelated) tropes, pages for films you’ve never heard of, the Sorting Algorithm of Deadness, the Sliding Scale of Fourth Wall Hardness, Character Sheets, Wallbangers, the Darth Wiki, and the Sugar Wiki.

After hours of immersion, you will start peppering your conversation with words and phrases like Fridge Logic, Narm, Your Mileage May Vary, Lampshade Hanging and Fanservice. You will have read spoilers for every pre-existing piece of media you could ever possibly consume. You will  start analysing everything – and I mean everything – in terms of tropes, thus ruining your enjoyment of literature, television, film, music, video games, and your own life. Not only does TV Tropes eat up countless hours, it also permanently colours your perceptions of and reactions to absolutely everything. It irrevocably alters your interactions with NPCs (aka other people). It will Ruin Your Life.

And as a writer, it’s ruined my life just a little bit more. All that information on every type of character and narrative convention in one place makes you realise that nothing you can ever write will be remotely original, no matter how hard you try, since it will always fall under one trope or another.

But hey, Tropes Are Not Bad. Maybe I can even come up with some clever Subverted Tropes. And I suppose I can always add my book being listed on TV Tropes and even given as an example for some tropes [not as a result of me putting it on there myself it is a wiki after all] as a life goal. It’s the best I can hope for these days, since TV Tropes Ruined My Life.

It’s too late for me – but not too late for you (unless it is). Don’t let TV Tropes ruin your life. Stay away from that website, kids!

Whatever you do, don’t click on this link.

http://tvtropes.org/

Seriously, don’t do it.

Sex and Violence

This post was originally published on Alex Davis’ blog as part of his July blog swap. Read the latest here: http://alexblogsabout.com/the-blog/
Before sitting down to write this post, I asked Alex if there were any restrictions on subject matter, and he said ‘no’. So I’m here to talk to you about sex and violence. There may also be curse words. You have been warned.
Now, if there’s one thing you can learn from looking at the history of literature, it’s this: humans sure do love reading about sex and violence. Trust me on this, I’m a classicist, I’ve read Homer. There’s nothing those Greek heroes like more than splitting a few skulls before retiring to their tents for a bit of R&R with some nubile slave girls and/or each other. Throughout history, you’ll find no shortage of authors willing to cater for the reading public’s bloodlust and, um, lust-lust. Also throughout history, self-appointed moral guardians have loved wringing their hands and wailing ‘won’t someone think of the children?’, whether it’s Romantic poetry or violent videogames to blame this time. But we all know there’s no such thing as bad publicity – just ask EL James. Publicly reviled by everyone from grammar pedants to BDSM practitioners, and yet she’s laughing all the way to the Bahamas. And what does she write about?
As writers, therefore, should we seek to incorporate as much sex and violence in our tales as possible? Not so fast. First let me tell you about some books I’ve read recently and my reactions to them.
Let’s start with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Now, I’m not normally much of a crime fan, but so many people told me I ought to read this book that I eventually gave in and gave it a go. As well as telling me to read it, several people warned me about the content, in particular a horrible rape scene. When I got to the scene in question, I found my own reaction to it weirdly fascinating in its duality. On the one hand, I found it luridly excessive, an obvious attempt to shock for the sake of it rather than for the sake of the story. On the other hand, it completely failed to shock me. Call me jaded, but I’ve read plenty of other stuff far worse – remember that 2012 Delhi gang rape case? After reading about that, no fictional rape scene is going to have a lot of impact, unless I really care about the character(s) involved. And there’s the rub – Larsson just hadn’t made me care enough about Lisbeth Salander, and so his scene fell completely flat for me, the literary equivalent of a tantrum by a six-year-old who’s just learned to say ‘fuck’.
Now let’s move on to The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, a book whose cover promised me it would be ‘delightfully twisted and evil’. And so I was expecting blood and viscera smeared all over the pages. It failed to deliver. Oh sure, there were a few descriptions of skulls being split a la the Iliad, but the skulls in question belonged to redshirts so I didn’t really care. Part of the problem was that I had just finished reading Misery by Stephen King, and The Blade Itself suffered in comparison: I had thoughts like ‘meh, this finger-chopping torture scene isn’t nearly as bad as the equivalent scene in Misery.’ And why did the choppy-choppy scene in Misery have me quite literally squealing in panic, whereas Abercrombie’s version had me shrugging? Because King had made me care about the character whose digits were under threat.
Finally, I’ll mention The Death House by Sarah Pinborough, a book with hardly any actual violence which nonetheless manages to be completely bone-chilling and memorable. What’s her secret? Well, she has a constant sense of threat, all the more frightening for being kept vague. And – guess what – she makes you care about her characters. I really, really wanted her teenage protagonists to find happiness – and when they have (loving, consensual) sex, even though the scenes aren’t at all explicit, it had far more impact on me than any amount of would-be shocking stuff from Stieg Larsson.
So there you go – the answer isn’t simply to stuff in as much sex and violence into your tales as possible. From The Iliad’s Achilles and Patroclus to The Death House’s Toby and Clara, what makes an effective story is a suitable amount of sex and violence, happening to characters we care about.

Guest Blog – by Alex Davis

Writer, publisher and tutor Alex Davis, whose first novel, The Last War, is just about about to launch, is doing a swap with a different blogger every day in July. Today it’s my turn – you can see my guest on his blog here: http://alexblogsabout.com/the-blog/

The pre-event butterflies

Well, I’m rapidly running out of days until what is one of the most exciting and important days on my calendar, and never more so than this year. Yep, it’s almost Edge-Lit time!

Edge-Lit is Derby’s one-day science-fiction, fantasy and horror shindig and this year takes place on the 11th July. It’s the culmination of the better part of a year of planning, and what s so awesome for me about the event is seeing all that hard work actually come to life. It’s all just bits of paper, files and emails until the day itself, but actually seeing people enjoying themselves, getting things out of sessions, finding out new stuff and discovering new authors is absolutely magic. It’s genuinely humbling to see.

This year has also shaped up to be the biggest yet, which is pretty cool but also a bit unnerving. There’s more than the usual jitters this year, partly because the event is that bit bigger and also because we have our most exciting line-up yet. With MR Carey, John Connolly, Joanne Harris, Paul McAuley, Claire North and Samantha Shannon as Guests of Honour I’m sure you can understand some trepidation…

The other thing really adding to the butterflies is the fact that my first novel is launching at the event. The Last War is out as we speak as an e-book which is really exciting in its own right, but what I absolutely cannot wait for is to be able to hold a copy in my hands. That’s been a dream not even years but decades in the making – if I could go back in time and tell 13-year-old Alex this was happening, he’d be even more buzzing than I am. It’s adding to my jitters even more, because not only do I want the day to do well of course I want the book to do well too. So it’s an added layer of awesome but also an added layer of worry…

Ask me again on July 12th how I feel and I’ll probably give you another answer entirely..

To find out more about Edge-Lit 4, visit http://www.derbyquad.co.uk/special-event/edge-lit-4. For a nose at The Last War on Amazon, check out http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00YQICMHQ