A Flash of Nuance in The Revenant’s Wake

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This isn’t a review, but still, spoilers abound.


I had the unusual pleasure of watching The Revenant last night. I say unusual because it’s essentially grimdark and something of an ordeal to experience. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Leonardo di Caprio and Tom Hardy, it follows Glass, a tracker who embarks on a monomaniacal quest for revenge after being left for dead following a terrifying bear attack. The performances are excellent and the film is, grimness aside, astonishingly beautiful – you might even say it achieves something spiritual, if you’re that way inclined (I’m not… but it stirred something, that’s for sure).

But this isn’t a review. I think everybody praised the film when it was released so by now you know it’s great, right? I wanted to talk about a specific moment which astonished me and got me thinking about depth and richness of character, about that special nuance that makes characters interesting, as opposed to simple archetypes and caricatures. Now this is a movie, not a literary work (although the film is based on a novel that in turn was based on a poem) but I still felt that I’d either learned something as a writer, or had an opinion validated, through watching it.

The film is full of stand-out scenes, but as if so often the case, the one that made my brain light up the most was something quiet and almost thrown away. Two thirds through the film, when Glass has rescued a Native American from a band of rapacious mercenarial traders, one of the survivors manages to find his way to the settlement where the rest of Glass’s original band are based. After listening to the man’s story, and after finding on his person a canteen that was left with Glass when he was abandoned, they realise that the hardy frontiersman is still alive and they prepare a rescue party.

The survivor sits down opposite Fitzgerald, the man who abandoned Glass and also killed his son. Fitzgerald, having assumed that Glass was long dead by now, is obviously alarmed at the turn of events. The camera is fixated on the whites of his eyes and you can see the wheels desperately turning as he strives to work out how he might extricate himself from the situation. As this is happening, marginally in frame, you see Fitzgerald slide his half-eaten plate of food across the table to the survivor.

Why do I love this moment so much? Because Fitzgerald is the ‘dark lord’ of the film. He’s the monster, the villain. The film stops just short of putting any real weight behind the idea that he was forced to kill Glass’s son, or that he was motivated by genuine fear of another attack by members of the Arikara tribe, but some flecks of grey are certainly present in the gloomy darkness at the heart of the character. Nevertheless, he’s the bad guy in this story and Glass wants him dead. So do we.

Yet in this moment of cold dread, when he knows the game is up, Fitzgerald pushes his plate towards the shivering, traumatised survivor. Perhaps he’s lost his appetite, but he doesn’t get up and leave as we might expect. Is this some adherence to a code of conduct? Is that a chink of light in that heart of darkness? Nothing is clear, and this is precisely what I love about the moment.

Iñárritu doesn’t even pass comment. As I say, the plate is barely in the frame. But it certainly slides across the table, silently, guided by Fitzgerald’s hand. It’s a piece of subtle magic that provides an extra level of depth to what is already a well-drawn character. We’re left to ruminate on it, unsure as to what the message of the shot actually is. Unless we missed it altogether, which is easy to do and part of the incident’s charm.

This, in a nutshell, is what gets me. We’re drilled to write everything for a reason, to delineate our characters and keep things clear. If someone does something, there should be a reason, and it should all cohere. It should be neat, so unlike the universe we live in. But these little moments, these sparks of magic and mystery, that little off-note that makes us furrow our brow and not quite get it can have as much power as the most clearly-written passage. At least, that’s how it is to me.

I can’t pretend there’s a solid lesson here, but I’m a sucker for nuance. Offer me a Dark Lord who wants to take over the world because, well, he’s the Dark Lord, and I could care less. Give me a brutal and remorseless killer who makes the effort to slide his meal over to a complete stranger and I feel like the story (movie, novel, whatever) has connected me to the actual universe, with all its messy and convoluted strands, grey areas and puzzles. Sometimes this is exactly what I want from a story.

Sometimes, I suppose, we achieve authenticity through chaos rather than clarity. Mystery rather than truth.

C.

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Time’s Torment

Time's Torment 2018 Summer Branding Mini

‘Here is all you need to know about this world.

It’s dark.

It’s devious.

And its foul and rancid heart is bloated with an endlessly churning malice.

Still, an adventure could be fun, no?’

My new novel, Time’s Torment, is available now in ebook format. If you have access to Kindle Unlimited or the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library you can read it for free. Although it’s a standalone tale, it’s also the first in a series of adventures focusing on two rather unique characters and their bizarre entourage. I should say here that it contains some bad language. There are also several scenes of mild peril, but these tend to be sandwiched between moments of extreme danger.

UK readers can get it here.
US readers should go here instead.

To download a free sample, click here.

I hope you enjoy it.

C.

 

Will This Be Just Another Day?

Waking up to news of the Parkland high-school shooting.

I don’t like to talk about politics here. Not because I don’t care about current affairs but because I would much rather discuss philosophy than policy. From experience, I think it’s more constructive to explore various ideas (the role of the state, the legacy of empire, the viability of military interventionism, etc) through writing than it is to grab someone by the scruff of the neck and shout at them, which is sadly what most political discourse is these days. Get people to think, get people to confront their own ideals, get people to engage and you have a more constructive process.

But there comes a point when this feels dishonest. As a writer I’ve always struggled with the aspect of professionalism that requires one to be diplomatic and, to an extent, emotionally distant. Eventually, I knew the veil would fall and I’d have to wade in on one side or the other. It’s inevitable, right? Especially in an increasingly polarised world.

You know what I’m talking about. There’s been another shooting in a US school and several kids are dead. America, once again, is in mourning. I don’t know when the last period of mourning ended, and by now it feels like a constant thing, a vast and incessant parade of public agony, but now the news anchors are weeping and people are calling for better gun control. Once again, people across the pond are lecturing you on how to run your own country.

Now, I know that the philosophy of ferocious individualism runs deep in American culture. You don’t like outsiders telling you what to do, and many of you like to think that you have enough firepower in your basement to take on drones, battleship-mounted railguns and Navy SEALS if the government decides to go full Stalin. You like to stand alone. You like to say ‘don’t tread on me’ instead of ‘don’t tread on us’ because solidarity sounds like communism to you. Decades of libertarian dogma can’t be deprogrammed in a heartbeat. But the US is also a country in which the spirit of community looms large. The first three words of your constitution are not “I the Individual” but “We the People”. And as one, you can change things. Individuals can stand together without losing their independence of thought, without losing their own little chunk of the American Dream. So when I say that, on gun violence, Europe is with you, the UK is with you, don’t be threatened by that. This isn’t some call for you to put on overalls and overthrow capitalism. It’s a message of unity. We feel your sadness. We don’t want to see parents in tears and their kids in the ground. We don’t want these sorts of wasteful, miserable, gut-twisting acts of slaughter to happen again. Anywhere.

So who does this three-eighths-Irish Brit think he is, poking his nose in your business? Well, despite my lack of geographical proximity I’ve got a stake in this too. I love the US. Growing up, my favourite TV shows were American. My favourite comedy show of all time is Seinfeld (Only Fools and Horses runs a close second). My favourite band is Smashing Pumpkins. My favourite poetry came out of the Modernist period, which involved Americans coming over here to show us how to get our mojo back. So many of my favourite movies and plays are American. I can’t count how many hours, how many years of joy your nation has given me. So when I say all of this, it comes from the heart. It comes from somebody who absolutely and categorically gives a shit. Somebody who, many times in his life, the lowest and most difficult times I’ve ever had, found kinship and solace in the work of American artists. Someone who might not have made it through his teens had it not been for Billy Corgan, a libertarian from Chicago. Believe me when I say that I have a vested interest in your country healing itself.

You stood up to the British Empire when it subjugated you. In 1941 you stood up to the Axis when it threatened to overpower the whole world. I’m pretty sure you can stand up to a handful of middle-aged men who run the NRA and the politicians nestling in their pockets.

I have faith in you. You’ve never given in to powerlessness and inertia before. Don’t start now.

C.

Invincible, Inviolable or Just Plain Invulnerable?

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There’s a tendency in many writers to reach for the word that sounds right, that fits the deportment of the sentence and the flow of the writing, instead of the word most suitable in terms of meaning. I catch myself doing this a fair bit. Alongside more ‘highfalutin’ novels I also consume a fair amount of pulp. It’s accessible, which I think is important, and it’s fun, which I think is essential. But it’s often lazy, full of received wisdom, second-hand concepts and terms borrowed from elsewhere that do not precisely mean what the author thinks they mean.

This is all forgivable. When you’re consuming something for sheer entertainment, knowing that this is precisely the intended function of the text, it’s unreasonable to expect it to measure up to what we call literary fiction in terms of the employment of language. But those of us that also write should probably be careful that we don’t find ourselves falling too much under the influence. We should, in short, take care that we always try to use the right word.

The Modernists, who by and large took these things seriously, had a term for this: le mot juste. It simply means, the correct or exact word. It’s a term you might have encountered in college or university, probably when studying Eliot’s The Waste Land. Or you might have come across it on a writing forum or in a creative writing class. It’s concept that’s always in the popular consciousness amongst writers and poets because it’s a concept that should never be forgotten.

So I’m going to look at three terms which are used in fantasy (or pulp SF) a fair bit, and are treated as though they are interchangeable. If we dig deeper, we’ll see that they’re actually charged with unique meaning. These words are Invincible, Inviolable and Invulnerable.

Invincible

I’m invincible!”
“You’re a loony.”

          Monty Python and the Holy Grail

This is a really common word, right? Last night my son came across it in a school book about Norse Mythology and had to query what it meant. I’ve seen it used to mean indestructible or impervious to damage. It doesn’t mean this but I suppose, if we’re being generous, it’s pretty close. But le mot juste isn’t about being generous. It’s about being a heartless, nit-picking bastard.

So, invincible actually describes something that cannot be conquered or subjugated, something that cannot be overcome. It’s root is in the Latin vincere which means to conquer. So if someone zaps your hero’s shaceship with an energy beam, but the armour repels the beam, this isn’t invincibility (especially when the enemy changes tactics and teleports onto the ship’s bridge, capturing it). When your dragon blasts an enemy knight but his armour turns the flame aside, requiring your sorceror to bind the knight in magical chains instead, he wasn’t invincibility either, since in both cases the thing being described has eventually been conquered by other means. But if an enemy city is under siege for 10,000 years but still isn’t close to falling, or a hero keeps being assailed by, and keeps defeating, villain after villain, I reckon you can go ahead and slap them with the label invincible.

So is the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail invincible? Well, he refuses to surrender, so he has that going for him. One thing’s for sure though, he’s neither of the following things…

Inviolable

Here’s a good one. It’s more unusual, but you still see it thrown around. The kind of word writers use when they’re not so afraid of being misunderstood, or branded pretentious. But it’s also a word that we see being used incorrectly.

I wanted to describe a character as inviolable because they had been through all manner of misery and emerged intact and fearsome. But the trouble was, that’s not what this word denotes. If something is inviolable, it is incapable of being infringed upon, corrupted, violated. So a character who has endured some sort of catharsis cannot be said to be inviolable. In fact, you have to be violable in order to be able to experience catharsis, because of the purging and invasive nature of the cathartic process. You can’t be shoved through an emotional wringer if you’re too resilient for the mechanism.

Invulnerable

This is another common one, of course. We probably see it treated as a synonym for Invincible. But again it’s quite different. As the word suggests, it’s the opposite of vulnerable. It implies a lack of weak points. So an invulnerable character can still be captured and incarcerated. They can still lose battles, just as long as the defeat didn’t require them to be harmed or damaged. An invulnerable foe can be defeated simply by trapping them on an island or firing them into space on a rocket. Just don’t try and hit them with sticks or run them through with a sword, because that’s not going to work.

To a lot of you, this will seem elementary. But I’m deep in the editing process right now (with the light now visible at the end of the tunnel) and this is the sort of thing that’s keeping me awake at night.

The Dangers!

Searching for the right word can lead you down some dark alleys. I asked someone close to me what they thought of the word ‘uninterrogable’ as a description of a deep pit and they visually recoiled. It’s a very cool word (to me) and means that something cannot be interrogated. You can learn nothing from it, there’s no way to study and glean from it any truth or fact. Sure, some readers are flat-out going to hate the word, but others will enjoy it (if I like it, there must be someone else out there, surely?). So I went ahead and used it, despite my test audience’s reaction. It appealed to the Lovecraft reader in me.

So I guess my advice is, if the only word you can find is one that some people will hate (there’s a large number of readers who really don’t like encountering words they haven’t already encountered) and you choose nevertheless to make use of it, don’t expect every reader to thank you. But at least you will be saying what you mean, which as we all know is quite important.

Keep writing and being awesome.

C.

The Last Jedi Lights It Up

A spoiler-free review (I’m 99% sure…) of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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No balls were dropped during the making of this movie.

The Force Awakens seemed an odd fit in an era of genre fandom obsessed with the badass and the dark. It shone, twinkled and joked its way through a story that leaned too heavily on J.J. Abrams’ trademark mystery box for its dramatic hooks, almost asking us to focus more on the secret of Snoke’s identity, or that of Rey’s parents, than on the incidents that took place on-screen.

Though punctuated with some momentous scenes (Han’s fate, for instance) it felt like a story about what lay behind the characters more than what occurred in front of them, and for that reason it felt incomplete to me. That’s the problem with mysteries that span multiple movies, of course; you have to wait for the next instalment to put your mind at rest.

But for all that, I had enjoyed it. There were some who found Rey’s force-grab of the lightsaber predictable, but this was Star Wars. They’ve always been, ultimately, predictable movies. You get the pay-off eventually, and that particular moment still, after several viewings, makes me grin. That’s the magic that these films have, and if you change that, you wreck the entire universe (I won’t say franchise. I grew up with these films. That word cheapens them).

Going into The Last Jedi, I had reservations. Will it have the same slightly hollow feel to it, as we are forced (sorry) to wait for the follow-up for our questions to be answered? Will Luke be mishandled, as we’ve seen Batman, Superman and the Transformers mishandled? Will it fail to give me that glow that Star Wars always gives me, even in the prequels? Will the worst of all scenarios occur, and I come out of the cinema having seen something that’s just, well, average?

I had prayers that I wanted answered. I didn’t want any more mystery boxes. I wanted the drama to come from the characters clashing, events unfolding, the cards being on the table, not hidden behind the back of the director. I wanted it to feel like a big deal, too, and to not waste these characters into which we had so much invested. It was all a big ask. So, as I sit here, 16 minutes after leaving the cinema, how did it measure up?

I’ll start with the negatives, because there are a couple. First – and I felt the same way when I saw The Force Awakens – I’m tired of the blaring orchestra and the yellow train of exposition that starts every Star Wars movie. It feels redundant to me. I would have been happy without any of it, especially since very little has changed between this movie and the finale of The Force Awakens. It’s a bit like an old friend who has a habit that was once endearing, but now just has to be endured if you want him to stick around (which you do, because he’s awesome, but damn that habit’s tired).

The other negative is that it contains a little bit of Disney Nonsense™. There are cute creatures, which are funny only if you fight against that sense of cynicism which separates grown-ups from their innocent child-selves, and maybe one or two bonkers sequences in which physics no longer seems to apply, one involving a sprinting, half-decapitated war-machine. Now these are precisely the sort of things that sunk* the prequel trilogy. So does it hurt The Last Jedi?

Categorically nope. The scant few moments that pushed the envelope too far in terms of space critter kawaii and theme-park ride/videogame cutscene craziness were completely forgivable because they come wrapped in several layers of lean storytelling and perfectly-executed action. The mysteries that made the first film sluggish are not quite jettisoned, but are instead touched upon with an almost ruthless desire to streamline the story in favour of what lies ahead, rather than behind the characters. New relationships are formed in the spinning wreckage of battle and the duels we all wanted to see are either provided, though cleverly subverted, or transform before our eyes into something superior to what we were hoping to witness, to the point where you find yourself hoping that what you’re seeing unfold isn’t some force-induced hallucination.

Most impressive was the pace of the film. It has it’s placid moments, most of them taking place on Luke’s island, but there’s a lovely pathos to these sequences as Luke ends up being less, yet also more, than we hoped. As a thrilling hunt begins to dominate the narrative, the audience is treated to a sequence of stunning set-pieces, each of which feels like a climactic battle, only to feed into another fracas, the palette cleansed by a costume-change of weapons, characters and location.

The sound isn’t quite as fierce as it was in The Force Awakens. Lightsabers don’t fizz and crackle with that distorted roar, and the ‘force moments’ lack the same, dominant thrumming bass that underpinned the mind-duel between Kylo Ren and Rey in the interrogation room, for example. But the sound is fine. It’s just less invasive.

In terms of visual grit, it follows the lead of Rogue One. Heavy laser blasts from swooping TIE fighters batter ground positions with double-bass drum potency and artillery chews up trench lines, tossing soldiers through the air. Despatched foes topple into generators and are shredded into confetti. Goodness knows how many fools are taken down with creative employment of lightsabers. Burgeoning fireballs consume countless minor characters (as well as some you could actually name). There’s an overwhelming amount of fighting and it’s all done with a grace that allows new characters to be introduced, enjoy a sweet arc and then perish without it feeling rushed, something we see less of in this age of workshopped-to-death screenplays produced in the heat of duels between studios and directors. Indeed, it’s partly the poor execution of other big-budget films that makes The Last Jedi seem more of a triumph, perhaps, than it is. But that’s hitting the wrong note; this isn’t a film that feels good because it doesn’t make as many mistakes as other big movies do. It’s a film that feels good because it is good. So good, that it takes you aback.

Is it the sci-fi film of the year? Well, I didn’t come out of it emotionally wrung out as I did when I emerged from Blade Runner 2049, a movie that dazzled me beyond words. But it’s very strong, well put together, leaner than its predecessor and full of hopeful messages we can all get behind, including a criticism of free-market capitalism which gels perfectly with the attitude of the Resistance and also makes the film feel politically relevant. C-3P0 gets plenty of metaphorical sand kicked in his face, Luke is wonderful, Hux is a properly-hissable space-fascist, Finn is brimming with agency, the ships are well-designed and the story of Rey and Kylo Ren takes centre-stage in thunderously engaging fashion.

Also, this isn’t as safe a film as I expected. Chances are taken in ways that we usually see in DC:EU movies with storyline twists that the safer (and more successful) Marvel universe tends to avoid in favour of playing it safe and getting the ball over the line. But here, the chances pay off. You hope they get Luke right, and they do. You hope something amazing happens in Snoke’s throne room, and it does. You hope to see the Falcon’s shadow carve across a landscape illuminated by the blaze of lasers, and you do. There’s even a nice nod to those of us too jaded to love the cute critters when one of them, hitching a ride on an iconic vessel, is slammed face-first into the glass when the vessel pulls a spin. Some of the jokes are a little flat (it’s not wholly inaccurate to say that Luke’s wink at C-3PO, which is amazing by the way, is as close as this movie gets to TFA’s “You’re cold?!”) but they serve the characters and the tone well enough.

So yeah, that’s my spoiler-free (I think) review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I really liked it. I’m relieved that they didn’t drop the ball with Luke. I like that they gave Leia a jaw-dropping force moment, which she should have had ages ago. Good job, people. Good job.

Rian-Johnson

Rian Johnson, ladies and gentlemen. If you see him, buy him a beer. 

*The story the prequels told was good. The way it told that story was, for the most part, not good. That’s as much as I want to say about that here, except that Hayden Christensen deserves none of the blame, people. None. Of. The. Blame.

 

 

Worldbuilding, One Bridge At A Time.

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The cover art for Katharine Kerr’s Daggerspell, by Keith Parkinson

Worldbuilding is an art in itself, a process that requires us to think about a range of different topics from geography to economics. We often find ourselves concocting detailed timelines showing the various wars, famines, necromancy-aided zombie outbreaks, dragon attacks, royal successions, orc invasions and other major incidents, and sketching out maps of the entire globe, with even the most far-flung nation states named and their kings, queens, customs and preferred methods of warfare carefully outlined. The reader might never even glimpse these places, or find them mentioned in the story, but that’s often the way with worldbuilding. Most of the hard work is hidden behind the text, never to be seen.

But sometimes we can overlook the simplest and most evocative method or worldbuilding: the exploration of the immediate world. It’s the struggle between the grand and the granular vision; do we peer into the distance and dream of what might lie beyond those gleaming, sun-clad peaks, or do we instead choose to describe how the hero’s wizened guide picks his teeth with what looks like an arrowhead which hangs fixed from his wrinkled neck on a filthy leather band?

Let’s think about the arrowhead. Perhaps our hero is erudite enough to know the history of this part of our world. She astutely judges the guide to be some years shy of sixty, though his hard life has made him seem decades older. From this, she deduces that he might have been around when the kingdom was attacked by the Gorrokhin Flood, a horde of warped creatures in the sway of a cabal of mad sorcerers. She might also know that the Gorrokhin were beaten back not by the celebrated Greatswords of the King’s Own, or by the well-armed militias, but by a large band of local huntsmen who placed themselves in harm’s way, completely unarmoured, with only their bows and arrows to protect them. At this moment, she sees the crooked guide in a different light. Pities him perhaps, that his glorious courage had not been better rewarded. That most – but not her, not now – might see him as a mere peasant offering to lead travellers through the countryside for a few copper pieces.

This tiny detail lets us peek into the history of the immediate world. Not the globe, with its distant power brokers, pensive empires and fabulous beasts, but the people around the protagonists. Their history, their pathos. By paying this kind of attention, we end up crafting a lived-in world, a place that feels authentic.

The Road Itself

I was clearing out some old books recently – a pretty gruelling experience in which I discovered not only the frightening number of books I purchased in recent years, but how many of them I hadn’t managed to read – and came across English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages. Published by J. J. Jusserand, it’s precisely the kind of charming old book in which wisdom is expressed in that archaic and convoluted way that we might call flowery and ‘very much of its time’. I can’t judge this too harshly, of course; it was published in 1889… and besides, that’s how I write now, so how can I point fingers at good old Triple-J?

Flicking through it, I found a lot of stuff that resonated with me, beavering away as I am beneath the mantle of fantasy writer. Things I would have found tedious before seem vitally important now. Take, for instance, the focus of the very first chapter: roads and bridges.

Now this is what I mean by the immediate world, the granular detail rather than the grand vista. What could be more commonplace, more emblematic of a fantasy world, than a battered old bridge over a trickling stream in the depths of the darkest forest? We can already hear the staccato clacking of the horse as it tentatively picks its way across the stones, unsure of its footing. Will the bridge hold? It’s sure to tumble down one day. Perhaps today?

But this bit of mild peril isn’t the point. I’m interested here in what our bridge might tell us about the world in which it finds itself. Jusserand’s book talks of the trinoda necessitas, the three obligations of the King’s subjects, one of these being the repairing of bridges. Now, most worlds we build are much like our own. They are shaped by three things: gods, gold and greed. The building and maintenance of bridges in England was seen as “pious and meritorious work”; it’s no coincidence that the word Pontiff means bridge-builder.

Bridges allowed the lifeblood of the nation to flow. And this lifeblood was of course labour, and therefore money. Jusserand tells us of the unscrupulous Godfrey Pratt who installed iron bars and a toll, charging travellers for the right to cross his bridge, but allowing nobility to cross for free (since they had the power to censure him). He was eventually removed from duty by an abbot who swiftly abolished the toll. Now there was a bridge with a story to tell.

We can unpack all of this. The drama tells us that the church had a great deal of power, as did the nobility. In this society money is exchanged for services. There must also be reasonable enforcement of the law, too, since Pratt wasn’t caved in with a mace for daring to try and extort money from wayfarers.

It’s not just the bridges that tell a story about the society that produced them. Jusserand also details how the Romans constructed their roads.

  1. Pavimentum, or foundation, fine earth, hard beaten in.

  2. Statumen, or bed of the road, composed of large stones, sometimes mixed with mortar.

  3. Ruderatio, or small stones well mixed with mortar.

  4. Nucleus, formed by mixing lime, chalk, pounded brick or tile; or gravel, sand, and lime mixed with clay.

  5. Upon this was laid the surface of the paved road, technically called the summum dorsum.

Not only is this interesting (if you’re into that kind of thing) but we can start to see how even the roads beneath a traveller’s feet can reveal a violent history of invasion, domination, rebellion and overthrow. The people who built these roads are no longer present, their empire no longer in command. But the roads themselves remain, and are absolutely essential to the function of the nation.

Dipping into Jusserand’s book helped to crystallise those ideas I was having about the importance of small details and perhaps from now on I’ll try to pay more attention to the immediate environment in my worldbuilding. I’ll think not only about the distant past, the loftiest peaks and the greatest wars, but also of the charms around the necks of vagrants, the old bridges and the roads that run from city to city over which tradesmen travel in horse and cart, without themselves looking down at the rich history beneath hoof and wheel.

Sure, we want to dream big. We want to show the reader how vast our world is and what wonders await later in our series. But we should never forget how the simplest, smallest details – those things that are closest, rather than hugely distant – can bring a world to life.

C.

 

Chris O’Mara is a fantasy writer. His novel Healer’s Ruin is available on Amazon in ebook and paperback format. You can read it for free with Amazon Prime.

FB mini Healer's Ruin Winter Edition Cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sitrep! Or, where’s the next novel, loser?

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Because it’s not all coffee, real ale and Netflix. Occasionally, there’s writing.

Hey everyone, hope you’re all doing well. Its been a little while since I published anything and I wanted to take a moment to let you know what’s going down in O’Maratown (except for my income, obviously).

The good news is, there are two projects nearing completion. The first is a fantasy novel that has been in the works since Healer’s Ruin was first published. Originally intended to be another short tome, it mushroomed into a much larger story. The plan to publish in April 2017 looks like it might have to be abandoned (you like books with endings, right?) with June looking more realistic. This June. Probably.

It’s a little darker than Healer’s Ruin, with a few more characters and multiple threads. This one will be a standalone narrative, so won’t be continuing on from that first novel. Sorry to those who’ve been asking for Healer’s Ruin 2: The Return of Happy Endings. You might have a longer wait for that.

The second project is a novella about two adventurers. It’s fun and violent, full of dark magic and mild (alright, extreme) peril, and will be the first of many forays for these quirky mercenaries. This book should be available by the end of May. Which is really exciting. Eeeeeek!

Artwork has been sorted out for both books and beta-readers will be invited pretty soon (although soon is, as you know, an elastic concept in O’Maratown) so give me a follow on Twitter and I can keep you informed of my misadventures.

I’m also doing a few chapter surgeries, in which writers send me a chapter of their work, and I give them notes. This is great fun, and humbling. There are a lot of really talented people out there. I really must do better.

So, that’s me. How are you doing? Well, I hope!

Stay cool,

C.

Founder or Flounder?

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OK, I’m going to deal with this. For as long as I can remember, I have been cursed with the inability to remember the difference between founder and flounder. I’ve just hit a point in my WIP when one main character is drowning, and another ploughs headlong into the water to save him, and I found myself yet again trying to remember which of these two words I’m looking for.

So, in an attempt to make this stick in my brain once and for all, I’m going to write this down and publish it on the blog. It might not be the most informative, helpful or entertaining thing I’ve ever written, but maybe it will help me retain this piece of information. Maybe there are other ditzy Cancerians out there who might benefit from this kind of granular shit, too.

Right, let’s do this properly, and make a game of it. Here’s our scenario.

The priest is drowning. He’s just been deposited in a strange ocean, with very little warning. The tide is drawing him away from an island dominated by strange black rocks. He gasps as water fills his mouth, his arms already becoming tired. He continues to flail, heart hammering. The water is very cold. Something vast circles around him in the water, a dark shadow, like a noose slowly drawing taut. He begins to sink.

So, what do you think? Does the priest founder or flounder?

Take your pick!

Now, let’s see if you were right. What were the names of the two contenders, again?

Well, in the blue corner, we have Founder. This word can mean either ‘to fill with water and sink,’ just like the Titanic, or it can mean ‘to falter, fail or collapse.’ Apparently – and I didn’t know this – it can also mean ‘to get sick after eating too much.’ So if you chose this one, you were wrong. Unlucky.

In the red corner, we have Flounder. This word generally means ‘to struggle to no avail,’ especially in water. If you sat down to take a test and hadn’t done any revision, you might flounder. If you were asked, “Which of Lenin’s words moved you the most?” you might flounder too (not me, though; I love I Am The Walrus)*. If you chose this option, you were right. Go you!

So the priest is in the water, arms flailing, half-way drowned. He is a textbook flounderer. If he had been a passenger on a ship, and the ship had sprung a leak, and he had jumped overboard, he would be floundering and the ship would be foundering.

But wait, these words are almost exactly the same. How on earth am I going to remember this, and make sure I use the right word going forward?

Well, I have a plan. The word founder contains the word found. The meaning of this word is to sink, fail, etc. so you could say that it has ‘found’ its resting place. A foundered ship has found the bottom of the ocean; a foundered horse has found the ground.

As for flounder, it shares more in common with flail than founder does; a person who flounders is going to be flailing, if he or she is doing it properly (and if you fail at floundering, that means you’re swimming, I suppose… which means you’re pretty much safe… until you get into the shore and founder through sheer exhaustion, at which point you get pulled out to sea again, and flounder. There’s no escape).

So the ship sank and found the bottom of the ocean… it foundered.

The heroine falls into the sea and flails in a panic… she’s floundering.

This might just help me remember the difference.

C.

*If I can fit a Big Lebowski reference into three blog posts in a row, I win a bowling ball.

NSFW: How much swearing is too much?

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The Big Lebowski is a fine film in which the word ‘fuck’ is used 260 times.*

“Bollocks,” said Aragorn, spitting into the frozen midden, the winter’s chill harsh against his cheek. “We’d have been fine if it wasn’t for all these fucking orcs.”

Now, you’re unlikely to remember this line of dialogue from The Lord of the Rings. Back when Tolkein was writing, this sort of language didn’t appear in mainstream fiction all that much, if at all. But today, writers of fantasy and science fiction can feel free to pepper their dialogue with profanities.

Horror, I believe, set the trend for this. But then, horror didn’t really have the same obsession with romantic heroism and lofty human ideals that fantasy and science fiction did, so was always in a better position to open those particular floodgates of shitfuckery. Nowadays, even popular videogames contain swearing. You’ll find it in poetry, too, and hear it at the theatre. Profanity is ubiquitous and it’s here to stay.

This doesn’t mean that it has free reign, though.

In popular culture, there are techniques that enable TV and film makers to employ swear-words without really having done so. In the popular drama House, for example, the main character is routinely referred to as an “ass”. We know they really mean “asshole”, but by using the alternative, they not only convey precisely what they need to, they do it without stepping over the boundaries set by the broadcasters and channel executives. We know what they mean… and that’s what matters.

This happens in translations, too. In the Japanese dub of Die Hard, our hero John McClane drops an improvised explosive down a lift-shaft and says, “Yippee kay-yay, motherfucker.” When this film was dubbed for the Japanese market, the insult became “you country bumpkin” instead. It’s offensive, in the context of Japanese culture, but not as offensive as the original dialogue.

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“Goodness me, but this situation vexes me no end!”

Interestingly, when movies are translated the other way, the opposite happens. Japanese films, especially anime, often have swearwords added. Baka, which simply means idiot or fool, usually becomes something much more adult when dubbed for the Western market, because a hard-boiled cop doesn’t say, “I’m going to kill you, idiot,” in Western culture. He says, “I’m going to kill you, asshole.” The former just doesn’t make sense to us. It doesn’t feel authentic.

Put simply, if someone wrote Lord of the Rings today, you could bet that at some point someone would utter the word ‘fuck’… and we wouldn’t bat an eyelid, because in the midst of all that drama and violence, we would expect people to lose their rag a little.

So should my characters swear?

There’s no reason not to, as long as your judgement is sound. If you’re writing a YA novel, it’s probably not a good idea to be too crude. Otherwise, feel free. Just make sure it’s in character. The High Elf Prince is unlikely to tell someone to “piss off”, and the grizzled soldier is unlikely to shout “fiddlesticks!” when he loses an ear in a duel. But with a little taste and a feel for what’s right you can ensure that if there is swearing, it at least comes out of the right mouth.

There are going to be those who don’t like to swear too much in their writing. Now, my characters swear a little, but not too often. They swear less than is realistic, in all honesty, considering what I put them through. But I like to use bad language sparingly, rather than cram as much in as possible, mainly because it can come across as juvenile if you do it too much, as if you’re simply trying to shock like some nihilistic internet troll. That gets old very, very quickly.

So how do we get around the issue of authenticity? For instance, how do we recount discussions between hardened soldiers without using hundreds of expletives?

Many moons ago, I took a linguistics course at the University of Kent. As you might expect, this often involved phonetically transcribing recorded speech. The one thing I took from this is that human beings do not say what they think they say. Let’s put this into context: say I ask a friend how she is, and she replies, “I, uh, well, you know, I think I’m, yeah, I’m fine, I suppose.” If I was writing this as dialogue in a book, her reply would have been recorded as, “I think I’m fine,” or “I’m fine, I suppose.” It conveys the same thing.

Notice in most novels people speak very clearly. They say what they mean. They don’t jumble their words. In reality, they wouldn’t speak with the same clarity, but fiction isn’t reality. In many ways, it’s an idealised version of reality, in which people enunciate perfectly all the time. Writers often take this further. In The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, a character makes a long-winded philosophical speech whilst duelling, something which is pretty much impossible (although there is a sense of irony to the scene). But we forgive this, don’t we? This is because we subconsciously accept, I would say, that the writer is giving us an approximation of what would actually have been said. When two thieves meet and discuss their plan, we accept that the writing doesn’t convey all of their slang, or their dialect. For the sake of the reader’s comprehension, the writer has to sacrifice a certain amount of realism, and we accept it without question.

We do the same with swearing. Throw some never-do-wells together, and have them talk about cutting throats and stealing coinpurses, and your reader will imagine the sort of people who might well swear every other word. If you actually do this, your text may come across as boring and a little tasteless. Slip the odd “shit” in there, and the reader will get just enough of a hint of the character of these individuals to accept the dialogue as authentic.

What if I don’t want to swear?

If you don’t want to swear, you don’t have to. Seriously, you just don’t.

As a kid, I read 2000 AD comics. In this, they had their own swear-words. Characters would shout “Stomm!” if a laser blast arced past their head. In Judge Dredd, people say “Drokk!” In the magnificent RPG Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, the most popular insult you’ll hear is “Swit!” which actually sounds dirty. In the TV series Firefly, they used Chinese insults. If you want some funnier examples, there’s a Fry and Laurie sketch in which they invent new expletives to avoid censorship, including “Prunk” and “Pim-hole.” They sound filthy, but they’re not. There’s also an episode of King of the Hill in which a character invents his own swear-word and gets in trouble with his teachers when he is confronted with something that displeases him and declares, “this womps!”

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Now, if you’re writing fantasy or science-fiction, there’s no reason why you can’t invent your own swear-words. You don’t even have to explain what they mean. If you’re clever, you can come up with something that sounds offensive (“swit” is just brilliant; you could start a fight in a pub calling someone that, even if they don’t get it). So go ahead, be creative. Then you can swear all you like, and people will think you’re a genius, too.

To conclude, these days swearing is fine, unless you’re writing for kids. It can help to sharpen the jagged edge of a gritty scene, or convey authenticity and character. But if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. And if you want to include swearing, but without actually swearing, that is also possible.

As with everything, whatever we do, we should it for a reason, and do it in a way that makes sense.

Thanks for reading, and keep fucking writing,

C.

*The Big Lewbowski is also one of my favourite films. As I’m sure many of you will remember, The Dude’s deadly-serious response to this question, is “what the fuck you talking about?”

Should we give the audience what they want?

star-warsyOften, climactic scenes can be predictable… but is this really a problem?

I recently finished a popular science fiction novel in which all the heroes’ hopes were dashed, they lost their spacecraft, thousands of sleeping humans were dumped into high orbit in vast cells presumably until the batteries of their cryo-tubes ran out and the galaxy was eaten by robots. I think some of the main characters survived, after a fashion.

It was brilliant.

It was also devastating. Having become emotionally involved in the narrative, and having invested a reasonable amount of time following the team’s misadventures, to see it all unravel at the last minute made me feel a little cheated. No matter how much I told myself that the author had no responsibility to make me feel good by page 400, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he had somehow sidestepped me and shivved me in the kidney. Backstab, critical hit.

We expect happy endings, don’t we? This is why so many writers choose to give us miserable ones. They play with our expectations and raise our hopes only to drop them from a great height. Sometimes, there’s a point to this; we’re reminded that in real life, things often don’t work out the way we wish they would, and in order to achieve a sense of authenticity, the writer has opted to go out with a whimper instead of a bang. Or just with the wrong sort of bang (the good guy’s spaceship going bang instead of the bad guy’s, for example).

Other times, the rug is pulled out from under our feet for reasons that seem cheap. I remember watching a very good film called Tzameti about a poor kid who plays a suicide game with other desperate people in order to make money. It hit home with some clever points about capitalism and competition, and the price of human life. However, at the end (spoiler alert), while he tries to process the devastation he’s feeling, the kid is killed by a robber on the train. So the whole thing ends up feeling completely futile and pointless.

Experiences like this make me think about what I want from stories, be they in book or movie form. Do I want the rug to be pulled out from under me at the last moment, or do I want to enjoy a straightforward arc that ends in satisfactory fashion? And what do I mean by satisfactory?

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Not the ending(s) I wanted. But an amazing ride nonetheless.

Well, I’m a big fan of American Horror Story, but in order to enjoy it without reservation I had to come to terms with the fact that the narrative would take ninety-degree turns without warning and the narratives that ran through each series would probably not end in the way I was expecting, or the way I wanted. In the end, I enjoyed the show more for its performances and sheer bravado than its capability at telling a good tale. Because it did some things so well, I could ignore the curious lack of satisfaction I felt when it was all over.

Do I want my work in progress to feel like that? Well, no. I want to surprise the readers, sure, and I want their opinions to change towards the characters as they discover more about them, but above all I want the ending to land like an atom bomb and for every reader to feel that sense of exhilaration and relief that comes after every cathartic moment. I want those last 30 pages to be an ordeal, in the same way that the last season of Breaking Bad was an ordeal, or Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates. But I want the residual feeling to be one of satisfaction; things must end in a way that feels right (and in those two examples, this is precisely what happened).

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I made it. Phew!

I don’t know if I got that right with my first book, Healer’s Ruin. The ending felt right to me, at least. In fact, the ending was the first image I had in my head, before I’d even written a word of it, and the original title of the book was going to be Army of Ghosts. But even as I worked on the book, I couldn’t imagine it ending any differently. With my current WIP, it’s different. There are many ways it could end, because it’s a bigger book, and there are more protagonists and threads, and I can afford some happy endings and some miserable ones. I can even afford to have one thread end in the most bizarre way possible (I probably won’t do this… but you never know).

The challenge is predictability. We can’t afford just to let things run through the most obvious of motions.

Or can we?

I remember watching The Force Awakens in the cinema (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it). My favourite moment was when Kylo Ren, bristling with arrogance, reaches for the discarded lightsaber. It shudders, moves incrementally slowly, and then suddenly bursts out and flies towards his outstretched hand… only to whistle past him and land in Rey’s grasp. I loved this whole sequence. It sent a thrill down my spine. It was a pitch-perfect ‘Star Wars’ moment.

But a lot of people moaned about it, calling the scene ‘predictable’. Strangely, I agreed, but when I watched the film a second time, I still loved that moment. Predictable isn’t always a bad thing if it feels right. How contrived would it have felt if something completely left-field had happened? We’d be saying, ‘way to drop the ball!’ or ‘they only did that to be clever.’ We’d feel cheated.

So I suppose what I’m getting at is that there’s a real challenge to writing the end of a novel. As avid readers, writers usually have a good sense of what the reader is going to expect, especially in genre fiction where straight stories in clear prose are very popular indeed. We know the tropes and the clichés. We know how to play with the reader a little, tease them with one possiblity and then deliver something wholly unexpected. But the ending is a very delicate time (to steal a phrase from Dune); you can’t afford to fuck it up. It has to deliver something to make the act of reading the book worthwhile.

Perhaps this is my conclusion, then. The ending must satisfy and it should also surprise. But the surprise element is not as important as we think it is. Readers (and we know this because we’re all readers, aren’t we?) want to feel clever enough to have spotted the foreshadowing; they want to see the characters they hate get some sort of punishment and those they love get some sort of reward. They want to see a balance restored or a revolution succeed. But they also want something unexpected to occur in the midst of all the feel-good.

If we writers are as clever as we think we are, we can give them all of this in essence, just with an edge of verisimilitude. The heroes can achieve their goals, but feel hollow when they discover the true cost of their victory. The villain can fail, but in that last moment reveal the truth behind his malice, a truth that produces a pang of compassion in the readers – just as they get their wish and see him skewered (make those puritanical readers feel guilty!). The monster hunt can end with the beast killing the hunter, as we see that the hunter was the real monster. In essence, we’re being predictable. Evil is failing, Good is winning, Prey is turning on Predator, Rebellion is overturning Empire, and so on. But we are redefining what these terms mean in order to deliver something new along the way.

In short, the formula stays the same, but we define the elements that make it.

So what are your thoughts on predicable endings, and how to tie a story up in a satisfactory way? Do you want a straight story with an ending you can see from space, or do you want to be sucker-punched? Let me know your opinions, people!

Keep writing, stay amazing,

Chris.