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2017-07-21 12:15 pm

Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, and Doctor Who. Third post in this series

And so we come to War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest in what now seems to be an ongoing series of films rather than merely a trilogy. We see where events since the last movie have led us, as man’s arrogance encompasses his own downfall. Will the unexpected consequences of bio-technology offer other primates a chance at the top slot?

Technologically, the film is a tour de force. What motion capture and CGI can do is astonishing – you really cannot see where reality stops and special effects start. So far, so increasingly common these days. But great special effects are not enough, as rather too many movies fail to realise. A film like this must also have sufficiently strong central performances to make it a drama, not merely a spectacle. Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson deliver absolutely what’s needed. The dynamic between Caesar, leader of the apes, and Colonel McCullough, commanding an embattled remnant of humanity, is tense and compelling from start to finish.

Mankind’s inhumanity to man is front and centre, compared and contrasting with the apes’ mutually supportive culture. All Caesar and his kind want is to be left alone. Colonel McCullough needs an enemy to fight though, and unable to attack the virus that’s been humanity’s downfall, finds the scapegoats he needs in the apes.

As a war film, the movie wears its influences unashamedly on its sleeve, most obviously, though not exclusively films exploring the Vietnam War. It can absolutely and legitimately be called Ape-ocalypse Now. This is not merely retreading those footsteps though. Such echoes, and other references such as the slang names for servile apes, serve to tie this dystopian future to our own reality. There’s also the inescapable fact that the Vietnam War proved the hollowness of the American doctrine of ‘peace through superior firepower’. That undercurrent continually runs beneath our viewing of events where armed men seem to have an inescapable whip hand over apes with severely limited abilities to fight back. Beware assumptions.

Issues of gender in this movie are more complex than they might first appear, certainly as far as I am concerned. I’m using words like ‘man’ and ‘him’ advisedly because this is very male-gaze apocalypse. Not however, one where masculinity-under-threat-in-this-modern-liberal-world can finally come good, with its guns and its manly men taking charge of helpless women and children to save the day.

This is a story about the dead-end destructiveness of arrogant white male masculinity so used to solving everything with aggression that it's incapable of thinking outside that self-defeating box. That influences my response to the widespread online comment about the complete absence of female voices in the dialogue (apart from possibly one female soldier’s scream?) The one significant human female role is mute and childlike in the most literal sense, and while a couple of female apes have things to say, they do so through sign language. Could one view the lack of female voices as a feature rather than a bug, if one were prepared to squint a bit...? Then there’s the almost-gender-neutral appearance of the apes apart from the females’ apparent (and to my mind inexplicable) inclination to unflattering central partings and rustic ear decoration. I think there’s more to be discussed about the absence of female characters here than might be first apparent. Is that very absence what permits masculinity to turn so toxic?

Not that this excuses the use of perhaps the laziest motivate-your-male-protagonist cliche in the first act of the movie. There are other script-writing choices I can quibble with, most notably some utterly bone-headed human tactics as the film rushes to its conclusion.

A fourth movie is reportedly under discussion, or development, depending on what you read. I’ll be very interested to see it, provided that the writers can offer something more than man and ape in conflict. These films have done that, and done it well, but the story needs to move on. In my head at least, there must be other corners of this world where the post-apocalypse is working out differently, with male and female voices contributing equally to co-operation rather than conflict. I’d like to see how that’s working out, given so many challenges will still remain to drive a story.
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2017-07-21 10:51 am

1st Chapter Friday – Southern Fire

After the holiday-and-other-stuff hiatus, here's where you can find the opening chapter of Southern Fire, Book 1 of The Aldabreshin Compass.
I've mentioned before that I am always determined not to rewrite the last book each time I start a new one. This time round, I was absolutely determined to write a very different series.

Meet Daish Kheda, absolute ruler and warlord, unquestioned master of all he surveys. Of course that means when trouble arrives, absolutely everyone is looking back at him, expecting him to have all the answers. That's a problem when the trouble that's turned up is invaders backed by violent sorcery, and all Aldabreshin law and custom bans magic on pain of death...



Southern Fire - Artwork by Ben Baldwin
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2017-07-20 11:00 am

Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, and Doctor Who. Second post in this series.

Spiderman: Homecoming continues to build on, and expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While, and oh, thank heavens, it’s not another Spiderman origin story retread, it does an excellent job of refocusing the character on its original appeal at the same time as updating and integrating the High School Hero into the modern day. As a decades-long fan of the comic, I’m thrilled to see a young, nerdy Peter Parker, while also very much appreciating a younger, more modern, far more relatable Aunt May rather than a grey-haired granny stereotype.

With its smaller scale and 80s-teen-movie vibe, the film is in many ways lighter in tone than other recent and forthcoming MCU movies. A story feels much less oppressive when the oncoming disaster is humiliation at a teenage party rather than global annihilation by aliens or android armies. On the other hand, that tighter focus and scenario simultaneously makes this story far more personal. We can empathise far more readily with the reality of that situation whereas we could only ever be onlookers in need of rescue from Ultron or the Chitauri. When a shop which Peter regularly visits, where we know he chats with the owner, becomes collateral damage - that has an emotional impact which can sometimes be lacking in the CGI-spectacular destruction of faceless hordes.

I also like the way that Peter’s school and classmates are portrayed. He’s attending a specialist science and technology school, where being intelligent is the norm, not a reason for ridicule. Yes, he has a bullying nemesis, in keeping with the High School vibe, but that lad doesn’t mock Peter’s brains, rather he’s jealous of his place on the Academic Decathlon team. Yes, there’s a roly-poly, nerdy sidekick, but he’s extremely bright and capable when it comes to playing his own vital role in the plot. Success in the Academic Decathlon is presented as a worthwhile victory to strive for. All of which might be merely worthy if it wasn’t for the presence of Tony Stark. We all know Tony’s off-the-scale-brilliant but one thing his involvement in these events highlights is the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Tony doesn’t listen, he’s arrogant, and he shrugs off what doesn’t interest him. That sets the tone that his employees adopt. It’s Peter who learns the lessons that result from the consequences of Tony’s mistakes – as well as his own teenage missteps, of course.

Michael Keaton is a stellar villain whose coherent motivation is so much more convincing and complex than mere motiveless malignity. Beneath the patent injustice and/or callousness that sparks his initial grievance, there are also a good few questions posed about the roles of big business and government and what happens to ordinary people when politicians and billionaires organise the world to suit themselves. With great power, comes great responsibility. Someone should remind them of that. Which is not to say Adrian Toombs is some misunderstood and wronged individual who warrants our sympathy. He has made his own choices, consciously and deliberately for years now, and as we see, is utterly ruthless in pursuit of his goals. We can believe that Peter is in very real danger, thanks to Michael Keaton’s performance and the personal nature of their conflict.

So far, so good, however ... there’s still no getting away from the most abiding and persistent problem of superhero movies based on characters with a decades-long back story. Yes, I mean the roles for women, drawn from source material written when very different cultural archetypes went unquestioned. Once again, the girls are peripheral to the male-focused action, only present in the stereotypical roles of objects of desire, domestic helpmeets and damsels in distress. The writers and actors make heroic efforts to lift the female characters above such clichés but even with the appearance of Mary Beth Lacey, apparent now working for Homeland Security or some such, there’s only so much they can do here. I can only hope that the hints of more and better to come in the next movie are fulfilled, from Michelle in particular – as long as they can do that without mangling the essence of the friendly neighbourhood Spiderman whom we know and love. I’ve had quite enough of that sort of thing with DC turning Superman supposedly dark and edgy and in the process erasing so much of his core character.

Oh hey, how about some more female-led superhero movies? That would work to elevate women and to offer girls their own role models, without eradicating the men. How about we stop looking at this as a zero sum game?
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2017-07-19 09:28 am

Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, and Doctor Who. First of a series.

It’s been an interesting last little while in the SFF genre, notably for those of us keeping a watching brief on gender issues alongside our uncomplicated enjoyment of superheroes and the fantastic. But rather than demand your time and attention for an extended read on them all at once, here’s the first in a series of related (and hopefully not too spoilery) posts.

Wonder Woman was good fun. I most definitely appreciated seeing strong, athletic women taking charge of their own destiny on Themiscyra, and wearing costumes that drew far more on classical Mediterranean leather armour than on lingerie. Putting Diana into Great War London and seeing the clash of cultures that followed worked well, both in terms of the film, and incidentally to highlight today’s obdurate misogyny. Lucy Davis as Etta Candy gives a performance that’s central to exploring those particular themes all the more effectively through humour. I thought Chris Pine gives a good account of himself, and personally I didn’t feel his presence turned the film into All About Steve. Mind you, there really should be a law against anyone called Steve flying off alone a plane in a superhero movie now. There’s no telling what will follow...

Is this an particularly feminist movie? Not to my mind. Let’s not forget, Diana’s plot ultimately revolves around a response to male aggression. So far, so predictably defining a woman’s role as reactive to a man’s. On the other hand, there are some thoughtful asides on the causes of war and no over-soft-pedalling the dire practical and psychological consequences for men and women alike. Having a female villain in Doctor Poison was a good choice, though let’s not forget she is subservient to a man. But then again, this is set in 1918 ... so ... would a female villain with more overt agency have been anachronistic? There are arguments on both sides. Not least because a more overtly feminist movie would have offered endless ammunition to those primed to attack it as ‘message fiction’ long before they’d seen the opening credits.

All told, I felt Sameer and Napi were badly underused which meant their contribution ended up as primarily ‘see how prejudice extends to race as well as gender?’ rather than having that assuredly valid point made incidentally to more rounded roles for those particular characters. That said, making such roles meatier would mean extending a film with a run time that’s already well over two hours. Oh, here’s a thought? Maybe dial back the extended CGI-spectacular scenes just a bit here and there? Use those saved minutes for more interesting character exploration?

The film did drive a galloping coach and horses through established Greek myth, as I observed as we left the cinema. ‘I thought Greek myths had all sorts of variations?’ remarked one son. ‘That’s your biggest problem with a story set in a universe where a man dresses up as a giant bat to fight crime?’ queried the other. Well, yes, fair comment, both. The unexpected appearance of Spud from Trainspotting did also distract me. Just like my flashback to Renton’s toilet-dive when I watched Obi Wan Kenobi et al visit the underwater city in The Phantom Menace. But that’s probably just me...

So overall I thought it was a good, fun film rather than a great, deeply-meaningful one. I mean, compared to ... oh, wait, there are no other female-led superhero movies to compare it to, are there? So let’s not get hypercritical here. As a foundation to build on, and as a film that proves that a female superhero can light up the box office with a good, fun, adventure story that everyone can enjoy, it’s exactly what we need at the moment.
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2017-07-03 10:46 am

"The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and Other Obstacles in SF&F



Here's something that should be of interest to those of you who've been following my writing on Equality in SFF. Last year, Luna Press put out a call for papers, with a view to publishing a non-fiction volume on 'Gender Identity and Sexuality in Fantasy and Science Fiction'. You can now pre-order this wide-ranging collection of papers exploring ways in which speculative fiction in all its forms is dealing with current issues and debates relating to gender identity and sexuality.

I decided to pursue my interest in exploring reasons for the persistent under-representation of, and lack of visibility for, women authors and writers of colour, gay and non-binary writers.

In particular I decided to test that comfortable assumption that as women and others enter writing careers in equal numbers to the established white western men, those diverse authors with sufficient talent will naturally rise to the top. The far less palatable flip side to this being of course, that if such writers don't rise up the ranks, well... they're just not up to it, self-evidently...

The thing is though, this idea that parity of entry will naturally lead to equality of opportunity and representation at all levels has been tested and found badly lacking over the past twenty, thirty years, for women and others in the law, medicine, academia, banking and a whole host of other professions as well as careers in STEM fields. Why should SF&F be any different?

Crucially legislation has made it impossible for those responsible for recruitment and retention in those areas to simply shrug and say well, they tried and it's a shame but what can be done? Research and analysis has identified successive barriers to equality of opportunity which are remarkably consistent across those professions and careers mentioned above. There are Gate Keepers, there is the challenge of The Sticky Floor, and then The Leaky Pipe. Only those determined enough to defeat such obstacles can face the final challenge of Breaking the Glass Ceiling.

All of which sounds remarkably like an epic fantasy quest to me - but I digress.

So I decided to take a good look at the evidence from such research in other fields, to see what might be applicable to the ongoing issue of lack of diversity in genre publishing, and to see what factors might be specific to SF&F. Because if we're to tackle this problem in any meaningful fashion, the more thoroughly we understand it, the better our chances will be.
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2017-06-09 10:55 am

1st Chapter Friday - The Assassin's Edge

Oops, forgot to crosspost this last week, as I was rushing around to get to the Nerd East convention at Durham University on Saturday. Which was great fun, incidentally.

So anyway, here's the opening chapter of The Assassin's Edge!

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2017-06-08 11:50 am

Time Machines; the past, the future and how stories take us there - exhibition in Durham



One of the highlights of my trip to Durham for NerdEast was visiting the 'Time Machines' exhibition at the Palace Green Library, which you can find between the castle and the cathedral. I heartily recommend going to find it, and not just to SF&Fantasy fans. Anyone interested in the ways in which time travel stories and literature have intersected for generations, even centuries, will find it rewarding.

The displays have been curated by the library staff and the English department, and look at how humanity has measured time, from the earliest water clocks etc, through to modern technology. It looks at the ways in which concepts of time changed with Victorian scientific explorations of the age of the Earth and with theories such as evolution. It looks at time travel stories as a means of political debate, and you will find all the familiar, well respected names in our genre represented, from H.G.Wells to Heinlein. The displays in cases are well laid out and there are also some excellent audio-visual elements.

Also, and oh, this is so important, the exhibitions gives equal weight and visibility to the ways in which writers of colour and women have used time travel stories to explore and imagine better futures, different futures, and to interrogate the abuses and complexities of the past, specifically as it affects them. You'll find the familiar names, like Atwood and Le Guin, alongside writers like Marge Piercy and Octavia Butler through to writers doing excellent work today, such as Nalo Hopkinson and Naomi Alderman - who has just won the Baileys Prize with her novel 'The Power'.



Here's a quick snap I took of the box of books available for browsing in the 'why not have a sit down and a think?' space at the end of the exhbition. That shows the depth and breadth of the thinking underpinning this project.

So if you're anywhere near Durham, this exhibition is definitely worth visiting. It's on until the 3rd September, so spread the word!
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2017-05-26 10:23 am

1st Chapter Friday - The Warrior's Bond

Here we are again, and here's the first chapter of The Warrior's Bond, the fourth Tale of Einarinn. Enjoy.

This was a fun book to write. One of the things I was determined to do in this first series, was to never rewrite the book I'd just written, if that makes sense. I can't remember if it was one of the editorial team at Orbit who offered that as advice to me as a new writer, or a fellow author, given that was twenty years or so ago. Either way, it made perfect sense, as I recall, then and now, my own disappointment when a much-loved book is followed by far too much of the same.

So when I was looking at the plot ideas stemming from the previous Tales, I searched for the ones which offered me a chance to do something different and challenging. Here this meant writing a novel where all the action happens essentially over five days, in an epic fantasy kingdom's capital city. There's no endless trekking over wilderness here. Instead, you'll learn all about the mean streets of Toremal.

Something else I love about this particular book is the way two different artists illustrated the very same scene from the story in the UK and the US. Comparing them is fascinating, with intriguing hints to the different traditions each artist chose to draw on. That was Geoff Taylor in the UK, but the US artist isn't credited anywhere that I can find. If anyone recognises the work and style, do get in touch.



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2017-05-19 10:39 am

Thoughts on writing and publishing, from me and others.



I've had a productive week writing and while I've been doing that, a couple of guest posts by me have appeared elsewhere.

Marie Brennan is asking various authors about that moment when a book idea really ignites. This Must Be Kept A Secret is my contribution to her ongoing Spark of Life blog series, looking at the rather different experience I had with Shadow Histories, compared to the Einarinn novels. Incidentally, if you haven't already come across Marie's 'Lady Trent' books, do take a look. I adore them.

In other writing related posts I've spotted this week

Fantasy Author Robin Hobb on Saying Goodbye to Beloved Characters and Those GRRM Comparisons

Jacey Bedford on writing and being edited from the writer's perspective. Another writer whose books you should check out.

Craig Leyenaar (Assistant Editor, Gollancz) on the process of turning a manuscript into a book from the editor's point of view.

Looking at the business side of the book trade, I wrote a guest post for Sarah Ash's blog. The Bugbear of the ‘Breakout Book’ for Readers and Writers alike – Juliet E. McKenna

I also noted this piece by Danuta Kean - not another 'self-publish and get rich quick' piece but an interesting look at another facet of the changing book trade, including the pitfalls for the naive author. 'Show me the money!': the self-published authors being snapped up by Hollywood

Okay, that should keep you in tea or coffee break reading to be going on with.
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2017-05-12 12:16 pm

1stChapterFriday and Nerd East News

Okay after last week's trial run, we're going to go with #1stChapterFriday - that's singular, no 's' - on the interests of disambiguation. We'll also see how we get on with that hashtag on Facebook as well as Twitter.

And for sake of completeness and for those who don't use either of those platforms, here's my link to the first chapter of The Swordsman's Oath, free for you to read, your friends and family etc.

In other news, I'm very much looking forward to a trip to Durham for the 3rd of June where I will be a guest at Nerd East, the North East's original Roleplay and Gaming mini-convention, running since 2010.

Nerd East 2017 will be runing on the aforementioned Saturday 3rd June in Durham Students' Union, New Elvet, Durham, DH1 3AN. I'll be talking about books, games, film, TV and how they all relate to each other in current SF&Fantasy culture. Plus, y'know, whatever other interesting things come up for discussion. Did I mention I'm looking forward to this?

For those within striking distance, click here for the Nerd East website.

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2017-05-08 12:51 pm

Reasons to watch “Show Me A Hero” – the HBO/David Simon miniseries.



We watched this over the weekend, being fans of David Simon’s other work, notably The Wire and Tremé. It’s based on the book of the same name* by Lisa Belkin, focusing on events in the city of Yonkers, New York, between 1987 and 1993, following a Federal court ruling that public housing must be distributed throughout the city to end de-facto racial segregation. Local opposition was vociferous and ferocious, fearing that the spread of crime and disorder would see property values in ‘good’ neighbourhoods plummet.

Nick Wasicsko was the young politician who initially saw a route to power by supporting appeals against this ruling, though in fact he saw the new housing projects as both inevitable and desirable, according to this series at least, and let’s bear mind that his former wife was a consultant on the project. Anyway, he soon found himself dealing with the aforementioned local residents’ opposition, with other politicians out to serve their own interests by posturing over the issue, and with outside groups keen to use this conflict to advance their own agendas. Oscar Isaac, now perhaps better known as Poe Dameron, is outstanding in this central role, and the cast overall is a stellar one, with actors like Alfred Molina and Winona Ryder ensuring that supporting roles have a major impact on the story and on the screen. Oh, and it’s nice to see Jon Bernthal with hair for a change.

The miniseries is well worth watching as a drama, bearing in mind that the title comes from F Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy’. It’s also a compelling exploration of the deeply rooted and multifaceted divisions and complications in American society and politics~. The drama shows valid concerns as well as unconsidered prejudices on both sides together with systemic problems both in public policy and political structures. This is all the more thought-provoking when you consider that the book was written in 1999 and the series first broadcast in 2015. It showed us how the attitudes which have put President Trump in the White House didn’t spring up out of nowhere in 2016.

However, and equally, if not even more importantly, the series shows that such apparently intractable situations can be resolved. We see that given chances and choices, those disadvantaged in life from the outset by poverty and poor education can still succeed. Some of them at least. Others will never see beyond their limited horizons. We see that integration and information enables those initially fearful of unfamiliar racial communities to understand that more unites humanity than divides us. Some of them at least. Others will never abandon inherited, unexamined bias. And on both sides, there will always be those ready and waiting to exploit such situations for personal gain.

We need stories like this more than ever at the moment, to counter the seductive, deceptive narrative of easy solutions and handy scapegoats being peddled by politicians all around the world.

* I have just bought the book and look forward to reading it.
~ We in the UK have no cause for complacency. The flaws in our own political systems may be different but they should be as great a cause for concern.
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2017-04-21 02:04 pm
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Let’s talk about second and third tier characters.

Here are some thoughts prompted by discussing a pal’s work in progress. This particular story is developing from the core outwards, by which I mean the central characters’ narratives are coming nicely into focus, with their personalities both being forged by events and shaping their reactions to events, driving the story on. All good so far, and this is an entirely valid way to write. Everyone’s process is different, after all.

What this does mean is that just at the moment, these secondary characters are purely serving their plot functions in their interactions with the central characters and events. Beyond that, there’s not much to distinguish them apart from their names. They’re certainly not fully rounded individuals in their own right. As for the tertiary characters, those people who come and go, to populate a novel’s world by providing atmosphere and context, they’re currently nameless placeholders. As I say, this is a work in progress.



So what are the next steps? For those secondary characters, let’s remember that all the same things have shaped them, which have shaped the people a story’s focused on. Where these secondary characters have lived, what they’ve done, what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned from their parents and their culture. All these things will determine their wants and needs and fears and bias, because everyone is the sum of their experiences, one way or another.

Now, you don’t have to put all this into the story – indeed, you won’t want to, because the focus on the main narrative will become unhelpfully blurred. But by knowing these things, the writer can get double or even triple value from such a character’s presence. Then these secondary characters won’t merely advance the plot, they’ll also show the reader more about this world, and may well show us facets of the central characters which we won’t get from the protagonist themselves.

An example? Hank Schrader, in Breaking Bad comes to mind for me. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the series, and I won’t spoil it for you here. All you need to know is this character’s role in that narrative is, first and foremost, functional. Because Hank’s a DEA agent, what we see him do gives the viewer the key counterpoint to the protagonist, Walter White’s story. We learn things about the drug trade and its complications, which Walter’s unaware of, foreshadowing possible outcomes and raising tensions. So far, so plot-structural.

But there’s so much more to Hank than this. He’s a man with hobbies, primarily home-brewing beer. In his established work environment, he’s astute and effective, but when he gets into unfamiliar territory, not so much. He masks his insecurities with bluff bravado, and politically incorrect jokes, but when a family crisis strikes, he does all he can to help, sometimes clumsily but always trying, even if that’s only by checking a water heater.

The key thing here is, the more three-dimensional and multifaceted Hank becomes, the more his involvement ties non-Walt-but-plot-crucial events into the main narrative through the viewers’ emotional investment in Hank as a person in his own right. We also see more facets of Walter White thanks to Hank, and not only directly through their interactions. When we see Hank interacting with Walt’s son, Flynn, there are some very revealing responses from Walt. All of which serves to broaden and enrich this fictional world.

So don’t sell secondary characters short. Use the same key elements that strengthen characterisation in those people who your story’s actually about. Think about all those old sayings about character. “You give yourself away every time you open your mouth.” What people say tells about us who they are. “Actions speak louder than words.” How they do things often tells us still more. “Do what I say, not what I do.” Contradictions can give still more clues to personality. Proverbs like these endure because they’re useful in life as well as in writing.

The same applies to third tier characters, to make them more than your space opera’s red-shirted Ensign Expendables or featureless arrow/sword/spear fodder in your sword and sorcery epic. And if they are going to die, making them real people becomes even more important. Because if someone’s fate doesn’t matter to the reader, then bluntly, it doesn’t count and those words on that page are a waste of everyone’s time. The challenge here is you’ll have even less time and space to give these tertiary people who come and go to further plot and atmosphere, never to be seen again. You must still avoid overburdening your story with irrelevant detail.

So how to make them memorable? Starting with their appearance can often help in making them distinctive. Though I don’t recommend staring at a blank screen until sheer desperation makes you introduce a one-legged red-head on a unicycle serving the drinks. Unless you’re writing a book where they’d fit right in, of course. If not, go and look for inspiration in visual references, on the Internet or in reference books. Don’t limit yourself to whatever historical period or technological scenario you’re working with. Look at portraits, photographic and painted, in magazines and newspaper articles.

Consider the common stereotypes for people in these all too common roles, from downtrodden maidservant to broad-shouldered starship captain and find ways to flip them into something new. Something that plays against a reader’s unconscious expectations will catch their attention, even in a character who’s only there for half a page. Look for the telling detail, in speech, in action, reaction or appearance that will lift this character up into the limelight just for a moment, to convince the reader that they’re more than a cardboard cut-out. Look for ways to use these necessary but otherwise mundane interactions between second and third tier characters to convey something that the principles in this story don’t yet know, to intrigue, or to worry your readers

A recent example for me is the crew of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy ship, The Donnager, in the TV series, The Expanse. Again, don’t worry if you haven’t seen it. What you need to know is that these characters are vivid in their personalities and distinctive in appearance. All their interactions, with each other just as much as with the story’s main characters, convinces the viewer of their military hierarchy, of their motivations, of their training and discipline. All of which makes the whole episode that involves them so much more grounded in plausible reality – even when this is SF set out in the Asteroid Belt.

That’s enough to be going on with for the moment. Feel free to flag up particularly effective instances of second and third tier characters in comments, from viewing or reading. I’ve cited examples from TV because more people are likely to be familiar with them, but there are just as many similarly effective instances to be found in written fiction.

And now that I’ve managed to focus on something other than our bloody General Election, maybe I’ll be able to get back to some writing of my own.
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2017-04-19 10:33 am
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My take on the UK's snap General Election - my only post about it because ... headdesk

EU responses since Article 50 was triggered make it absolutely clear that Theresa May can’t have a Hard Brexit to satisfy UKIP and the Bigot Vote as well as single market access, keeping the customs union and a whole lot of other things vital to the UK economy.

NB I am not saying *all* Leave voters = Bigots. I have had enough discussions with those whose Referendum vote I disagree with but can respect as thoughtful people holding a considered view. Just so we're clear on that.

Big business was firmly for staying in the EU. They will not stand for the loss of the UK's financial sector, free movement for key staff etc and they are the Tory Party's paymasters. Do not forget this.

If Theresa May wants to keep them happy, her current majority is far too small and vulnerable to Hard Brexit die-hards in the parliamentary Tory Party & selfish chancers like Boris, David Davis et al troublemaking for their own short term, personal gain.

Oh, and let's not forget those 30 seats where Tory election spending illegalities could trigger by-elections and wipe out that majority.

An election now offers May the chance of getting a significantly increased majority by hoovering up the Bigot Vote before Brexit price rises and job losses etc really start to bite.

As well as by benefitting from the current perception/media portrayal that Labour couldn’t win an arse-kicking contest with a one-legged man, with UKIP still a shambles & other parties starting from a point of having so few MPs - other than the SNP who can't expand beyond Scotland.

If May gets an increased Tory majority, she can ram through a Brexit to satisfy the City & Big Business before Bigot Voters realise their dreams of Empire 2.0, closed borders and cultural purity etc simply won’t happen - and there'll be sod all they can do about it.

With the added Tory Idealogue bonus of gaining the unfettered ability to now shaft the NHS, see themselves and their pals get rich off education & health care for profit, and to make hay with exploitative labour laws, tax breaks for the super-rich etc. etc.
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2017-04-14 01:44 pm

Not at a SF&F convention this weekend? You can still enjoy some genre chat and debate



It's a busy weekend for conventions, from the UK to Australia and many points in between. Well, if you happen to be at home, you can still enjoy some SF&F chat by listening to the 'Breaking the Glass Slipper' podcast, where I am discussing women warriors and fight scenes with the team. We had great fun, as you'll easily be able to tell :)

While you're there, do bookmark the podcast for regular listening.

Another discussion that's going on in various places is the intricacy of writing effective characters in your fiction. Aliette de Bodard is on a blog tour at the moment, what with her new novel, The House of Binding Thorns just out. Do take a look at what she's saying here and elsewhere.

Beyond the Cliché Shelf: Making Characters Vibrant and Unexpected - at Skiffy and Fanty

The Fallacy of Agency: on Power, Community, and Erasure - at Uncanny Magazine

Likeable characters, interesting characters, and the frankly terrible ones - on her own website.

This is also Women in SF&F Month over at Fantasy Cafe. There's already an array of interesting posts by authors worth looking out for, plus pertinent observations from fans and reviewers, and more to come. Enjoy!
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2017-04-10 12:38 pm

Update and links and daffodils

I was quite surprised when a pal pointed out it's been a month since my last blogpost. Really? Surely it's only been couple of weeks of doing all sorts of other things? Oh, yes...

I'm working on revising one book while continuing to send out another to agents. I've read Cory Doctorow's "Walkaway" and written a review of that for Interzone. I'm writing a guest post for Marie Brennan and I spent a lovely hour and more chatting with the women of the "Breaking the Glass Slipper" podcast, and that will be available shortly. I checked over the edits for a paper I've written for Luna Press's forthcoming book "Gender identity and sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction: do we have a problem?"

Plus there's been a whole load of domestic and business administrative stuff hereabouts, none of which would make for remotely interesting blogpost material but which gets incredibly time consuming.

Best of all, we've been on holiday, and that was great. We headed for the Lake District, and got a very different view of the landscapes, compared to our previous visits, with the trees not yet in leaf and the undergrowth yet to start burgeoning. We also saw lots of sheep and the early lambs and the Husband became fascinated by just how different the shapes of sheep's heads can be, when you start comparing breed with breed. We visited Penrith, and Acorn Bank, and Holker Hall, and the Lakeland Motor Museum which is highly recommended for those with even a passing interest in cars, motorbikes and cycles. The collection is very well displayed and has some real rarities and oddities. And yes, there are an awful lot of daffodils in the Lake District if you're there at the right season.

By way of light relief, I've watched Marvel's "Iron Fist" on Netflix... well, let's just say that I am left with one question above all others... Who was that seeker of ancient truth and wisdom, who travelled all the way to the high Himalayas, and taught the monks of K'un Lun to speak English with a broad Stockport accent? That's a story I'd really like to see told...

While we were on holiday we watched the first season of "The Expanse" in the evenings, and that was very good indeed. As are the books, though now I have to decide if I want to read on after the first three that I've already enjoyed, or wait, so I'm not spoiled for the TV adaptation plot..

Meantime, the Internet has been offering a whole lot of interesting things, so here are some links to pieces that have particularly caught my eye.

Six Things I Learned in My First Month of Using Patreon - Tobias Buckell. Thought-provoking reading for those who think crowd-funding can support the arts.

Mary Beard has a few things to say about the shared metaphors used to describe female access to power. And there's a transcript if you prefer reading to watching the video.

An article about Josephine Tey "60 years after her death, the greatest mystery Tey created still may be herself"

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a feminist parable for everyone – including me" by Anthony Stewart Head (Twenty years ago?! I feel old...)

Martha Wells highlights a great selection of new books on her blog.

And lastly, to be going on with, some daffodils!

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2017-04-05 10:06 pm

Migrating from LJ

Yes, me too. The new user agreement from LJ is not for me.

I'll be attempting to rebuild my flist over here, and do wave a hand to say 'Hi' if you want to reconnect hereabouts.

Incidentally, if anyone knows a good way to crosspost automatically from my WordPress website/blog, do let me know :)
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2013-02-25 04:48 pm

Aethernet – The Magazine of Serial Fiction

On 30th March, a new ebook magazine will be launched, offering you the first instalments of stories from an intriguingly varied handful of science fiction and fantasy writers. There will be ‘Gela’s Ring’ by Chris Beckett, the sequel to his 2012 novel Dark Eden, which has attracted much well-deserved praise. Philip Palmer is writing ‘Murder of the Heart’; a contemporary and spooky tale, and that sounds intriguing since his versatility as a writer includes detective fiction for radio and screen alongside his SF novels. ‘Spiderlight’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky promises a completely new epic fantasy, humorous in places, deadly serious in others, by way of a deconstruction of the traditional prophecy-journey-dark lord narrative.


Ian Whates is contributing ‘The Smallest of Things’ while I’m offering ‘The Ties That Bind’, an extended story set in the River Kingdom where I’ve written three (or possibly four) short stories in the past few years. Subsequent editions will see the start of ‘Bartholomew Burns versus the Brain Invaders’ by Eric Brown and ‘Cosmopolitan Predators!’ by Tony Ballantyne, who has set this whole enterprise in motion. You see, not all the stories will have the same number of episodes. Some will be longer, some will be shorter but all aim to prompt pleasurable suspense as you wait in between instalments to see how a story unfolds, to learn if your expectations will be fulfilled or confounded, to see if the characters you’re learning to love or to hate will face triumph or disaster.


Aethernet Magazine will run for 12 issues. The first issue will go on sale on 30th March 2013, and subsequent issues will be on sale on the first of the month from May 2013 onwards. Individual issues will cost £3 and a full year’s subscription for all 12 issues will cost £20.


So why did I have a good long think and then say, ‘Okay, interesting, yes, count me in,’ when Tony Ballantyne contacted me? Firstly, that’s a roster of authors with whom I’ll be very proud to share a Table of Contents. Secondly, serial fiction isn’t something I’ve written before, and I’ve lost count of the authors over the years who I have heard advise never passing up the chance to do something new. Constantly challenging ourselves as writers is how we avoid stagnating.


Thirdly, as a reader, I’ve always really enjoyed serial fiction. When Tony Ballantyne first explained the plan, like most bookish types, my thoughts immediately turned to Sherlock Holmes’s adventures in The Strand Magazine, and to Charles Dickens’s novels first appearing in various Victorian periodicals which no one but Dickensian devotees can now name. More recently, some of SF’s greatest names from Asimov to Clarke, Le Guin to McCaffrey published serial fiction in genre magazines such as Analog and Astounding Stories. And let’s not forget that this tradition of episodic story telling woven around cliff-hangers and tantalising anticipation goes all the way back to Schehezerade and The One Thousand and One Nights, one of the foundations of our epic fantasy tradition.


At the same time as those classic pulp SF magazines were on the news-stands, Buster Crabbe was on cinema screens as the original Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in those wonderful black-and-white space adventures with rocket ships apparently driven by sparklers and stories driven onwards by weekly last-minute betrayals and revelations. With a wonderful sense of the wheel turning full circle while moving forward, the advent of the DVD boxset and online streaming has seen TV drama return to serial formats after years of weekly reset-button writing, now that missing a scheduled broadcast isn’t the disaster for an ongoing narrative which it was in pre-VHS days.


In similar circular yet progressive fashion, ebook technology now offers us, readers and writers alike, new opportunities to enjoy the varied and shorter forms of fiction so popular in the past which the current costs and logistics of hard copy publication and distribution now make unfeasible for the most part. Not entirely, mind you. It’s worth noting that Alexander McCall Smith first publishes his ‘Scotland Street’ novels as daily serials in The Scotsman newspaper. Daily? How on earth…?


That would be a challenge too far for me to contemplate but the notion of putting together a story over eight monthly episodes is an intriguing prospect. Not least because once an episode is in print (or pixels, in this case) I am committed. There will be no going back to the beginning and rewriting, as there is with a novel, until the final draft is delivered. How will that work out? At the moment, it’s an unknown quantity, especially since I’ve already found my ideas changing between my first episode’s draft outline and putting fingers to keyboard. On the other hand, I will have the chance to adapt what I have planned for subsequent instalments in response to far more immediate feedback. Dickens used to do that a lot, apparently. Will I? I honestly don’t know. For one thing that will depend on what feedback is forthcoming.


So have a look, have a think, and if you’re as intrigued as I am, sign up at www.aethernetmag.com

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2013-02-05 12:38 pm

The Swordsman’s Oath. ‘Oh, it’s not Livak telling the story!’ No, and here’s why.

Today sees the ebook publication of The Swordsman’s Oath, thanks to the dedication and endeavors of my partners in this project, Wizard’s Tower Press and Antimatter ePress.

I’ve decided to mark the occasion by considering the most frequent comment by people coming new to The Tales of Einarinn when they open The Thief’s Gamble’s sequel. So why didn’t I simply continue writing this unfolding narrative from Livak’s point of view? There are several interlocking answers.

As I devised the plot for The Swordsman’s Oath, I was conscious of the infamous Second Novel Hurdle. Having been disappointed as a reader when I’d found follow-ups to debut novels lacking, I really, really wanted to avoid retreading the same story. I wanted to go further, both in story and scope. Fortunately I had plenty of promising leads thanks to questions left unanswered at the end of The Thief’s Gamble. What exactly had happened in Tormalin recently, to prompt the noble D’Olbriot family’s suspicions? Come to that, what had really happened in the last days of the Old Tormalin Empire? How could anyone, wizard or thief, find the truth about events so long ago, lost in myth and chaos?

I already knew a good many answers, even before I wrote The Thief’s Gamble. I had been working on the background for the world of Einarinn for a good few years. I’d previously written a massively detailed heroic epic which I now refer to The Definitive Blockbuster Fantasy Masterwork, with irony as heavy as the laboriously dot-matrix-printed manuscript which went the rounds of agents and editors to garner a file of rejection slips. No one is more grateful than me that it never got published and I’m even more indebted for the professional feedback which showed me what I was doing wrong and how I could capitalize on the strengths elsewhere in my writing.

As I considered how to draw on that material for The Swordsman’s Oath, it soon became clear that telling the Tormalin side of this story from Livak’s point of view simply wouldn’t work. Having Ryshad tell her about events, recent and long past, would mean an awful lot of explanatory, static conversations which threatened to be as dull to write as they would be to read. That wasn’t the only problem. I’d already decided to tell the Old Tormalin story through someone directly involved, after blending two narratives together had proved so useful in The Thief’s Gamble. But Livak’s outlook simply wouldn’t mesh with the second viewpoint I had in mind. She’s an independent woman relying on her quick wits, with no allegiance beyond her close friends, whose motives for pursuing a quest are a world away from any clichéd epic fantasy battle between Dark and Light. The story of the Old Empire’s fall was going to focus on Temar who’d been the DBFM’s youthful protagonist; privileged, naïve and idealistic with the greatest tests of his character still to come.

But now I had Ryshad to work with, the confident, well-established swordsman who’d found himself caught up in Livak’s adventure. He would make an excellent counterpart to Temar while their common Tormalin heritage would give the overall story a far deeper coherence and unity. Better yet, I could now focus on Temar’s youthful inadequacies rather than trying to brush them aside; doing that had caused the most significant flaws in the DBFM. Between them, these two characters could uncover many more facets of being a hero, to further the exploration which I’d begun with Livak, a female hero rather than a heroine essentially defined by her relationships with men.

What sort of hero is Ryshad? He’s an honourable man with responsibilities and obligations which he is determined to abide by. So he’s definitely a good guy, and that’s a particularly interesting writing challenge. Villains and anti-heroes can be much easier for the author. The lure of the ‘bad boy’ is long established in fact and fiction while virtue is so often, unfortunately, rather dull. Consider Han Solo’s appeal compared to Luke Skywalker.

But was the anti-hero going too far, in the increasingly brutal protagonists I was seeing in film, books and TV? Is a man really a hero if his success depends simply on becoming more violent and more brutal than the bad guys? Some might let slip a troubled vulnerability afterwards, but that never stops them beating the next bad guy into a pulp. Then and now this rings false, set against my experiences of real life, in particular of the martial arts I’ve observed and studied. The strongest men I’ve met, physically and mentally, are comfortable in their own skins, much preferring to think their way through problems rather than battering opponents into submission. Such men only resort to violence when all other routes to a solution have been blocked, and then only use the necessary force, swiftly and efficiently. My bookshelves hold biographies and autobiographies telling plenty of such real-life heroes’ stories. These men are anything but dull, particularly under pressure and in peril. I wanted to offer readers a hero like that.

Telling the story from Ryshad’s point of view also set me the challenge of writing in an authentically masculine first-person voice, and keeping that voice and perspective distinctly different to Livak’s outlook. It also offered me the opportunity to see Livak herself from another person’s perspective, along with Ryshad’s opinions of her friends and allies like Halice. Wasn’t that an intriguing prospect? It’s hard to be certain, fifteen years down the road, but I think that may have been the clincher. I can be quite sure that he was definitely the right choice.
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2013-01-26 12:05 pm

How and Why Test-Readers/Copy-Editors/Any Fresh, Thoughtful Eyes Improve Creative Writing

This is really interesting. If you look back at the short story I posted yesterday, you’ll see that I have now edited one word. I have changed the line in question to:

"...noting which pupils could now usefully be directed towards reading Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey."

Because in the comments on my main blog, a reader wondered why only girls should be directed towards those books, as the initial text implied. That’s a very good question and the quick answer is self-evident. There is no good reason why only girls should read Austen and the Brontes. Indeed there are many good reasons why boys should read the full range of such classic literature.

The longer answer is more complex and more revealing. Writing this story, I was drawing on my own memories of A Level English, where, yes, we studied Keats. This is particularly the case because that first impulse to write this story was prompted by a friend I have known since that very class. It was her helpful phone that turned ‘varifocal’ into ‘verifcation’. We went to the same girls’ grammar school, so in my mind’s eye, the class I’m recalling is entirely female.

Then there’s the Twilight angle which you’ll see in the story. Again, I’m drawing on my own experiences going into schools these days and teaching creative writing. It’s invariably a dreamy-eyed girl who askes me if I’ve read Twilight. (To which my answer is always,’No, I haven’t got round to it yet, but I do read Kelley Armstrong and Patricia Briggs and now you’ve read all the Twilight books, why not give them a try’.) So once again, in that particular paragraph, my writerly subconsious is full of girls.

The key thing here is that while the longer answer is very illuminating, the shorter answer is the one that counts. Because there is no good reason why this line should only refer to girls. In fact, changing the word to ‘pupils’ actively improves the story in several subtle ways.

So there you go. A real-life, real-time example of the editing process and what it contributes to the books we read. Isn’t that great?