Do Stories Matter?

This blog post contains spoilers for the Captain America comics, and Game of Thrones (sort-of).

I’m having a busy year. I’ve finished the final draft of one book and the first draft of another. Today, I reached the 25,000 word mark on my latest work-in-progress, The Only Thing That Never Burns In Hell. It’s the story of a young woman who, desperate for a job and unable to find one anywhere else, ends up accepting a role as the Librarian of Hell. It’s a bit of a departure from my usual stuff – less epic fantasy, more urban fantasy, laced with satire and dark humour, and it’s been fun to write so far.

Writing stories can be fun, but it can also be frustrating, and I’m sometimes nagged by the question: does what I’m doing actually matter? Obviously, I enjoy it – but will it ever matter to anybody else? Well, I hope so. And, looking around the parts of the internet I frequent, I see that stories obviously matter a lot, to a lot of people.
The Marvel character Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, has had focus on him lately. After the release of the film Captain America: Civil War, there’s been a Twitter campaign to #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend (I have to confess I had a moment of confusion at that hashtag, until I remembered that apparently some people still think Steve and Bucky are Just Really Good Friends).

Marvel’s response to this was not to give Captain America a boyfriend, but to make him a Nazi. Yep, you read that right. The latest issue of the Captain America comic outs him as a member of Hydra – the fictional uber-Nazi evil cult he’s been fighting since the 1940s.

Some people are quite upset about this, and I can see why. Captain America, after all, is the brainchild of two Jewish creators and was punching Hitler in the face long before Pearl Harbor. Making him into a Nazi for some cheap shock-value publicity is therefore… insensitive. For many people, he’s not just a super-hero, he’s a hero they can identify with, and making him evil feels like a personal betrayal.

The very first Captain America comic, published in December 1940 - a year before the US entered WW2.

The very first Captain America comic, published in December 1940 – a year before the US entered WW2.

On a more positive note, and delving into the world of fantasy fiction, we’ve this week seen one of George RR Martin’s key reveals from A Song of Ice and Fire adapted onto television before the book has come out. Unlike the ‘shock’ twist described above, this plot development is both devastating and fully convincing within the story’s context. If you want to make a Game of Thrones fan cry, just sneak up behind them and yell ‘Hold the door!’

Stories can be incredibly powerful. They might not be real, but the emotions they rouse – whether rage, sorrow, joy, terror, or anything else – certainly are. As I weave my own tales, I can dream of one day rousing a fraction of these passions.

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Dreams of Adaptation

After a few weeks off sick, I’m now getting stuck back in to writing my novel The Silvergreen Sea, trying to unpick a plot knot I’ve been tangled in for a while. It’s going… ok, I guess? Having lost all my previous momentum, it’s now taking a while for me to build up my steam again, and of course the downside of being self-employed is I have to provide all my own motivation.

A good source of motivation/pointless indulgence is always daydreams about eventual success: buying a brand new Alfa Romeo, reading letters from adoring fans, that kind of thing. One dream popular with many writers is of course the idea of your book being turned into a film or TV show. This particular fantasy, shiny with Hollywood glamour, is especially brilliant because it’s got so many different facets. You can imagine which actors you’d cast, how your favourite scenes will play out on the big screen, what outfit you’d wear to the Oscars.

What I’m going to say next definitely comes under the heading of problems-I-would-love-to-have, or even problems-I-daydream-about-having (a special kind of fantasy). The impression I get from reading about some writers’ experience of adaptation is that the book-into-movie dream might become an example of Be Careful What You Wish For. While a few hyper-successful writers are exceptions – witness EL James’ notorious meddling with the production of the Fifty Shades of Grey film – most writers have to accept that when they sell their soul – er sorry I meant film rights – they surrender creative control, and the resulting adaptation might end up more travesty than triumph.

A recent example of this would be World War Z. The original book by Max Brooks is part horror, part scabrous political satire, told as a series of loosely-connected short stories set in the aftermath of a worldwide zombie apocalypse. The unusual narrative structure meant it was always going to be difficult to turn into a movie, but at least the film-makers had plenty of juicy material to work with. I mean, the book has lots of different stories, any one of which, with a bit of fleshing out, would have made a pretty good film in its own right. But after years of wrangling with the script, what eventually arrived in the cinemas bore almost no resemblance to any part of Brooks’ book and was, let’s be honest, Not Very Good. I’d give it at best 7/10, and I love both zombie films and Brad Pitt’s pretty pretty face. For anyone less keen on the undead and/or the delectable Mr Pitt, it’s more of a 4/10 movie.
And that’s just the way it goes. For every hugely successful and widely praised TV adaptation like Game of Thrones, there’s at least one Dresden Files – a TV show which mucked around with Jim Butcher’s books, got cancelled after only one season, and sank without trace. Not to mention the countless adaptations which never even make it that far. As a writer, you’ve just got to take the money and run, and hope the film-makers’ decision to re-imagine your elderly, disease-ridden protagonist who lives on a council estate in Wolverhampton as a 19-year-old supermodel who lives in Malibu doesn’t turn out too disastrously.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep writing, and keep dreaming that one day I’ll get to complain at length to anyone who’ll listen about how that multi-million dollar movie series completely trashed the purity of my vision no matter how many Oscars it might win and yes that is a new Alfa Romeo on my driveway but anyway the point is they should never have cast Leonardo diCaprio…

The Plotting of Perils and the Perils of Plotting

Swanwick Writers’ Summer School is an annual week long residential course for writers of all kinds, featuring workshops, speakers, various other events, and large quantities of pie. I’ve been there several times and it’s how I met my agent. This year, for the first time, I graduated from pupil to teacher, and delivered an hour-long session on how to plot fantasy novels. It seemed to go pretty well – my timing was spot-on, nobody fell asleep, and some of the attendees came up with really good ideas. I celebrated with a cup of tea and some more pie.

Now you lucky people get to enjoy a condensed version of my session. Here we go:

The Plotting of Perils and the Perils of Plotting

The great thing about writing fantasy is that you can do whatever you like – dragons! Goblins! Wizards! Elves! Magic! Did I mention dragons?!

The problem with writing fantasy is that, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. The existence of things like magic in your setting shouldn’t be an excuse to let basic story logic and decent characterisation slide. Sadly, some fantasy books fall back on lazy cliches and ‘A Wizard Did It’ style explanations for plot discrepancies. Here are a few examples:

*spoiler warnings for the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, the Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb, and the Black Magician by Trudi Canavan. All of which are recommended texts.*

The Dark Lord

A primal force of evil who lives in a dark tower and wants to take over the world because he’s evil. Usually has magical, evil powers like necromancy and likes to dress in black spiky outfits. Sauron from Lord of the Rings is the classic example. While evil plans to take over the world are cool and all, maybe ‘for the evulz’ isn’t the strongest or most believable motivation.

An excellent example of a subversion is the Lord Ruler in the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. These books explore the idea ‘what if the Dark Lord won?’ The first book starts in a world which has essentially become Mordor after a thousand years under the thumb of the immortal and despotic Lord Ruler. Then, after he’s defeated, we understand why he did what he did – and the characters have to then deal with the same problems he faced.

The Magician

A powerful wizard – usually with a long beard, pointy hat, and a magic staff – who aids the protagonist, dispenses wisdom, and controls things from behind the scenes. Gandalf, Dumbledore etc. Very convenient for the author to explain bits of backstory and get the main characters out of scrapes. A bit too convenient.

Akkarin from the Black Magician trilogy by Trudi Canavan is a subversion of both the Magician and the Dark Lord. The High Lord of the magician’s guild, supposedly a great and wise magician, he’s revealed to be using dark powers

– and then revealed to be doing so for very good reasons. He also becomes the love interest and tragic hero. This trilogy in general shows the elder magicians as being just as faction-riven and human as anyone else – and they are very much not in control all the time.

Plot Coupons

These are the magic whatsits that must be collected and/or destroyed by the protagonists to defeat the Dark Lord. A handy way to set characters off on a quest to find them in various locations – but arguably lazy storytelling. The Horcruxes from Harry Potter are an example, while The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper is full of them.

Did I mention dragons?

Dragon Eggs

The protagonist finds, or is given a dragon’s egg. Which duly hatches into a dragon which imprints on the main character – who then becomes a badass Dragon Rider. Might seem very specific – but this trope crops up more often than you might think, with Game of Thrones the most prominent recent example. The whole idea is subverted/deconstructed to hell and back by Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, in which it turns out that the objects humans had thought were logs – and have been cutting up and making into ships – are actually the cocoons of the now-extinct dragons. When one dragon is born alive, she’s not very happy.

The challenge I set for my eager pupils was to think of ways to avoid, subvert, twist, deconstruct, or otherwise play around with these overused tropes. And they did well at it, with some cool ideas in just the few who read out at the end of the ten-minute writing segments. I’m hoping one day I’ll pick up a fantasy novel and see myself credited in the acknowledgements as providing inspiration.

I’m calling that a roaring success. More pie!

Death, where is thy sting?

I’m posting this slightly ahead of schedule as I have Friday designated as a shopping day to acquire a new writers’ wardrobe. Wearing pyjamas and onesies to write is comfortable, but not great if I want to go to the corner shop or take a stroll through the park, and I have it on good authority that the best combination of comfort and style for the modern lady writer is the dress-over-leggings-lifehack. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Before we get stuck in, please note that this blog entry contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Harry Potter series, and A Song of Ice and Fire.

I’m currently wrestling with the plot of my novel The Silvergreen Sea, in particular trying to work out how to depict death and the afterlife. As ever, the freedom of the fantasy genre can be both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, you can invent your own version of an afterlife, ghosts, resurrection, revenants, whatever you feel like. But if you make it too easy to come back, or to communicate with the dead, then you can blunt the impact of character deaths and end up ruining your own story.

I saw a good example of this when relaxing with a movie (a writer is never entirely off duty…). On Monday night, I brought myself fully up to date with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was pretty good, although not quite what I was expecting: it’s less a comic-book superhero movie, more a paranoid spy thriller which wouldn’t feel out of place in the Bourne series.

But one very comic-book thing about the film is its flippant approach to death. Hundreds of nameless and apparently bloodless soldiers are killed in a ‘gun goes bang bad guy goes down’ fashion. The only death treated as if it’s of any significance is that of Nick Fury (played by Samuel L Jackson), who bleeds a bit, and even gets a tombstone engraved with a quotation from Ezekiel 25:17. But then he pops up again, apparently fine, despite being pretty comprehensively shot up by the eponymous Winter Soldier. And, frankly, I felt disappointed.

The Winter Soldier in one of his more friendly moods

The Winter Soldier in one of his more friendly moods

Why? Did I hate the character? Not at all. I just felt cheated that the film tried to have both cake and death, yanking on our emotions by killing him off, but still keeping him alive for the sequel. This isn’t an isolated incident. Superhero comics are so notorious for doing this that ‘comic book death’ has its own Wikipedia page, which notes that apparently the only permanent deaths in comics are Bucky and Uncle Ben. Except that the Winter Soldier turns out to be a somehow-still-alive Bucky (the Captain’s WWII buddy). So I guess it’s just Uncle Ben.

Comic books aren’t the only medium to pull this trick, of course: George RR Martin, for all his bloodiness, has resurrected or fake-killed so many characters that it’s no surprise most fans are dubious that, despite being thoroughly stabbed in A Dance With Dragons, Jon Snow is actually dead, or at any rate will stay dead.

In my view, it’s a thoroughly problematic trope: it cheapens death within the story, and it’s unkind on bereaved readers who could share characters’ grief and gain catharsis through it, but don’t have access to a handy resurrection spell. One of the most affecting parts of the Harry Potter series, imho, comes at the end of The Order of the Phoenix when Harry realises that, whatever he does, he can’t bring Sirius back, or talk to him ‘beyond the veil’. That’s something that resonates with an audience. As an author, you need get your readers in the gut, and putting some death in your tale is an excellent way to reach some of the most powerful human feelings – but not if you pull its sting with your fantasy shenanigans.

This then, is the question I’m currently trying to resolve: in my setting, the (non-hellish) afterlife is definitely real, so how do I keep the sting in death? Tricky. But it turns out that The Winter Soldier, as well as showing the problem, shows the solution. We see glimpses of how Bucky is brainwashed into a ruthless killing machine; and it doesn’t look pleasant.* It’s the same solution Martin used for Theon Greyjoy, and what JK Rowling did to Neville Longbottom’s parents.

It’s quite a simple solution, really: if killing a character isn’t quite going to do the job, just subject them to a fate worse than death. Problem solved. So that’s my way forward as an author: as soon as I’ve bought a couple of new frocks, it’s time to think up some horrific fates-worse-than-death and then inflict them on my imaginary friends. What a great job.

*I’ve also been reading an excellent if rather harrowing fan fiction which imagines the process in detail: http://archiveofourown.org/works/1815529/chapters/3897427 (trigger warnings for violence, rape, torture, attempted suicide, mental illness, brainwashing, everything really).

Game Theory

It’s the middle of cold, grey, January, I’m firmly back in the work trench (reached 80,000 words on the first draft of The Silvergreen Sea yesterday and celebrated with a cup of tea), and the Christmas board game season already feels a long time ago. Now, I love board games, although I sometimes struggle to find the time and willing participants. Or the patience to deal with some of my slower friends, who feel the need to over-analyse every possible combination of moves and dice rolls (if you’re reading this, you know who you are). Part of the problem is that, for too many people,  board games are soured by childhood recollections: repeated losses at chess, over-competitive older siblings, blazing rows over the Monopoly board. It’s a sad irony that, while board games have improved tremendously over the last few decades and there are now available countless different options suitable for every taste, the most popular games – and the ones most people think of when ‘board games’ are mentioned – remain those of yesteryear. Monopoly. Scrabble. Risk. Cluedo. Trivial Pursuit. What all these games have in common, besides the fact that they’ve been around for decades, is that they’re utterly terrible.

 
What makes them so very bad? Well, it varies. In the case of Trivial Pursuit, it’s the awful quality of the questions – trust me, as a former question-writing professional, I know of what I speak, and there’s no way those questions would pass muster on The Weakest Link. Oh, and the endless bloody dice-rolling. With Cluedo, it’s the fact that every single time, you guess the weapon and murderer quickly, then spend ages trooping across the board to get to the next room, only to get pulled into the %$£&ing billiards room just when you’re almost there. Scrabble – at least when I play it – degenerates into people trying to block off the triple word score and arguments over whether ‘xi’ and ‘qi’ are permissable words (they TOTALLY are). Monopoly and Risk both have that you-get-eliminated-early-then-the-game-goes-on-forever quality. Yet despite their terribleness, these games continue stumbling on like zombies that just won’t die, spawning endless special editions themed as Sherlock or Star Wars or – appropriately – The Walking Dead.

 
What games, then, are better? Well, one game I’ve played a lot this season, and which I unhesitatingly recommend to anyone, however scarred by that round of Diplomacy (‘The game of interminable backstabbing!’), is Ticket to Ride. It’s fun, it’s simple, and you get to build steam trains to Constantinople. It’s a perfect ‘gateway game’ as boardgamegeek.com would put it. As a fantasy writer and reader, however, I always like to check out games based on created worlds. I’ve had some issues with Tolkien-based games in the past, and the game of Game of Thrones sounds a bit too much like Diplomacy for my liking, but I absolutely love the Ankh-Morpork game, hiding my secret identity as Vimes or Vetinari whilst playing cards like Rosie Palms and Death (‘HELLO’). This Christmas I got to try its sequel, the Witches game, which sadly, wasn’t quite so good, not least because you don’t get to be either Granny Weatherwax or Nanny Ogg. The game features a rule – which my husband decried as ‘stupid’ – that, if there’s ever 3 elf tokens on the board at once, everybody immediately loses. This rule didn’t make much sense to me either, and I realised this must be because I hadn’t actually read the appropriate book (‘Lords and Ladies’) – so I did, immediately, and a fantastic read it is too, one of Pratchett’s best imho. And now the elf rule makes sense.

 

arkham horror game

The Arkham Horror board game in action. Set up for 1 player (no, really). Picture from boardgamegeek.com

Eldritch beings which cause everybody to lose suddenly are the main feature of another game based on a fantasy world, Arkham Horror. This game is quite immersive in the world of HP Lovecraft, but it’s definitely a whatever-is-the-opposite-of-a-gateway-game. There are Sanity Tokens which look like little brains. You fight monsters and the Doom track advances. Then Azathoth awakens and destroys the world, which means everyone automatically loses. Or you could play against Cthulhu instead, in which case you fight for a couple of rounds and then he devours everyone (this also means you lose). It’s a co-operative game, so inevitably, you all lose together. Supposedly the game does have victory conditions, but I’ve not seen much evidence of them in action.

 
Although I’ve yet to encounter a board game in which there actually isn’t any victory condition, many video games have a ‘Survival Mode’ where you just keep going until you die – and I’m old enough to remember when all video games were like that. I commented at my writers’ group that this is, of course, how it works in real life. ‘Life – the game with no victory condition’ – a very January sort of sentiment. Then one of my writerly friends came up with the more optimistic view that you can define your own life victory conditions, which got me thinking. Maybe one day – if I keep writing, and get lucky with those unseen dice rolls – I’ll be able to play a board game based on a fantasy world I’ve created myself. And If that ain’t a victory condition, I don’t know what is.

A Roundup of Randomness

It’s been quite a tiring couple of weeks. After almost 5 months of severe back pain, my activities largely restricted to walking round the park, drinking cups of tea, and watching old music videos and Game of Thrones teasers on YouTube, last Monday I finally went back to work. The pain hasn’t gone, but it’s sufficiently under control to start a phased return to the office, trying to remember what on earth I’m supposed to be doing (something to do with overhaul of jet engines, I think). I’ve been doing just two hours a day so far, but it’s astonishing how drained I feel afterwards. Still, this week was much better than last week, so it’s progress, and I was genuinely touched by how happy all my colleagues are to see me back. So, in the absence of more significant inspiration, I figure it’s time for a quick roundup of my latest thoughts and deeds.

1) Game of Thrones season 4 has started. This is, quite literally, the most exciting thing to happen to me in the last six months. My favourite bit – apart from Arya and The Hound, obvs – is the opening credits: although I have to confess that my heart sank just a little bit when Meereen showed up, I do love the way they’ve made The Dreadfort look like meat tenderisers. The Dreadfort, for those who don’t have the same encyclopaedic knowledge of Westeros as me, is the seat of Roose Bolton, who isn’t a terribly nice guy, even by GoT’s bloodthirsty standards. Incidentally, he looks just like Vladimir Putin.

2) I’ve been listening to a lot of Team Rock Radio lately, a station which promises no adverts, although it does spend a lot of time telling you all about what’s in the latest issue of Classic Rock Magazine. Clearly an underhand marketing tactic which won’t work on me. So in the latest issue, I’ve been reading all about KISS. God, they’re rubbish. But I salute their stroke of genius in adopting that crazy face-paint look back in the 70s, thus ensuring that: a) nobody would find out how ugly they all were; b) nobody would recognise them off-stage; c) they could replace band members without anyone noticing; and d) in forty years’ time, when their pretty-boy rivals’ faces had all melted, they would still look exactly the same.

3) Last Christmas I decided that my 2013 reading challenge would be ‘In Search of Lost Time’. I managed about half of it, so I’ve decided it’s actually a 2013 and 2014 reading challenge, and I’m currently working my way – slowly – through volume 4, ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’. I’ve also baked some madeleines, which I think counts as further progress.

4) On Monday evening I jointly led a session at my writing group, Derby Scribes, on the topic of submissions to agencies, magazines, and anthologies. At one point the discussion turned to font choices, and it struck me that you can always tell a true writer by how impassioned they are on the topic of serifs vs sans, Courier vs Times New Roman, or Verdana vs Calibri. We even had a couple of people sticking up for that most reviled of all fonts, Comic Sans. FWIW, my personal font of choice is Palatino Linotype.

5) My friend Tamsin has roped me into doing a 10k walk, starting at 10pm, to raise money for Treetops Hospice. It’s called the Moonlight Walk, but it’s actually scheduled for the night of the new moon, so clearly we need all the help we can get. Our team is called The Tea Ladies, and if we make our donations target, I’ll do the walk wearing my English breakfast tea cosy on my head. http://www.justgiving.com/the-tea-ladies/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=fundraisingpage&utm_content=the-tea-ladies&utm_campaign=pfp-share

Image

I will wear this on my head if you donate enough money to our cause

 

The Trouble with Targaryens

This blog post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So my novel writing hasn’t quite been proceeding at the pace I would ideally like, and HBO is to blame. I am currently in a froth of excitement about Game of Thrones season 3, and have been spending a lot of precious time in re-watching the first two series on DVD to bring myself back up to speed with events – since it boasts a plot of such Byzantine complexity that even someone who has already read the books (twice) can struggle to keep up with who everyone is and what they are all doing. I have been enjoying the show more second time around, perhaps because I had forgotten a lot of the details of the books, so I am less bothered about things like the precise identity of all the members of the Kingsguard. It has some flaws, admittedly – the most distracting one being the large amount of ‘sexposition’, leaving Ros the pros the best-informed woman in Westeros. But overall it is very well scripted, acted and filmed. And I love the credit sequence showing the locations as little clockwork machines.

Many fans reckon they are actually aunt and nephew. But hey, don't they look hot together?

Many fans reckon they are actually aunt and nephew. But hey, don’t they look hot together?

But, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I have to admit that the best thing about the television show is the prospect that it might plausibly catch up with the fantasy book series on which it is based. A Song of Ice and Fire has been going for about two decades now and shows no signs of ending any time soon. Author George R. R. Martin (nothing to do with The Beatles) has claimed there will be seven books in total, of which he’s currently writing the sixth, but since he previously claimed it would be a trilogy, and then revised that to a pentalogy before settling on the heptalogy, I’m not entirely convinced that it won’t end up as a dodecalogy. Given his age and corpulence, there has been a lot of fear in geekdom that he will ‘pull a Robert Jordan’ and expire before the book series is finished. Quite a few fans are worried that they will never find out who ends up ruling the Seven Kingdoms, and if Jon Snow really is the bastard son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. Leaving aside the question of how pressing a concern this really is, the good news is that if HBO re-commission the show enough times, sooner or later the screenwriters will have to come up with an ending: whether it’s based on the books, based on Martin’s notes, or made up out of whole cloth.

Not only will they have to finish it off, I’m also hoping that they may speed things up a bit. The gaps between books in the real world have lengthened exponentially even as in-universe time has slowed to the pace of a dead snail. Martin seems to have great difficulty in ever tying off any of his myriad plot strands, preferring instead to just keep on weaving in new ones, until it feels like he won’t be happy until he has told the whole life story of every single person in his imaginary world. At this rate, it is going to take approximately forever for the ice zombies to reach King’s Landing, and even longer for Daenerys to show up, zap them with her dragons, then marry her own long-lost nephews*. With any luck, impatient viewers and executives will dictate a snappier pace for television. Okay, so the events of the third book, A Storm of Swords, are being told across two seasons of the show, rather than the one-season-per-book format used up to now. But if you’ve read it, you’ll know that most of the best characters get killed at various weddings. Then nothing very much happens in the fourth and fifth books, so really, the show could probably just cut straight from Joffrey’s death-rattle to the zombie-toasting (via a bit of sexposition) and everyone would be happy.

For all I complain about the tedious pacing of Martin’s more recent books, there’s no denying that he has created a compelling world, and that every aspiring fantasy writer today has to consider his legacy and influence, in the same way that a previous generation looked to J.R.R. Tolkien (note to self: need to incorporate double-R initials in pen name). I just hope we get to find out how it ends, one way or another.

*well that’s my prediction, anyway