Pimping Ain’t Easy (links to the good stuff)

Actually, strike that. It’s supremely simple. Ahhhh yeah. Who loves you?

Read about fantasy here: http://fantasy-faction.com/
Talk about it here: http://fantasy-faction.com/forum/
All things cult and genre: http://www.pornokitsch.com/
Provide encouragement and support to another aspiring writer: http://thewritewaytotype.blogspot.com/
Buy things from same aspiring writer: http://www.etsy.com/shop/Autumn2May (which I shall be doing, just as soon as my credit card stops whimpering and crying from the beating it took at Christmas. I have my eye on the beehive pincushion.)
He keeps being more talented and prolific than me, but I’ll still link to him in the hope I can cling to his coattails when he makes it big ;): http://jaykayel.wordpress.com/ & http://themasterofhisdomain.wordpress.com/
Laugh your arse off: http://www.smbc-comics.com/
Snigger and be grateful you aren’t a baker: http://cakewrecks.blogspot.com/
Another aspiring writer (we tend to cluster together, like penguins): http://loquaciouscoyote.wordpress.com/
A very talented artist indeed, hopefully one with a big future: http://icanplaythetimewarponukulele.wordpress.com/

That’s right, Daddy loves you… Now go make Daddy some money!

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In Praise of Sandwiches

Sandwiches are really lovely, aren’t they? I like bacon, mushroom and onion ones best of all; which is another way of saying “I’ve got nothing”. See you tomorrow with a Northumberland Folklore piece and a linky post, ‘cos it’s been far too long since I pimped* anyone.

In the meantime, here are some things I’ve learned:

Primus: Boohbah is the scariest program ever put on television.
b: Despite what popular conception tells you, string does not make an adequate makeshift belt. It will snap. Your trousers will fall down.
3: Activating a talking Puss in Boots from Shrek toy as the cat sniffs at it once, will elicit a hilarious backwards jumping and fluffing of the tail. Trying it a second time will result in that same cat attempting to amputate your face. (Probably deservedly so, I admit)
iiii: There appears to be no moral low to which I will not stoop in pursuit of cake. Assassination for cake hasn’t arisen yet, but if it does, I’m not responsible for my actions. Just so you know…
: Putting your mouth over the cold water tap and turning the lever all the way to full blast as fast as you can, results in a passable impersonation of a fountain cherub. There’s also a mild choking hazard, but the risk of appearing on the Darwin Awards shortlist is well worth it.
Finally: When life gives you lemons, the correct response is to squeeze the juice into life’s eyes, punch it in the throat while it’s temporarily blind, then stamp on its groin when it falls to the ground choking. If anyone tries telling you it’s “make lemonade”, squeeze lemon juice in their eyes, punch them in the throa- you know where I’m going with this.

More bloggage tomorrow. TTFN

* WARNING! If I pimp you out, I want my cut dammit! My pimp hand is strong

The Joy of Sects

It’s a bit of a literary fetish of mine, but I love stories that feature clubs and secret societies. I’ve never been able to figure out why, but I go all gooey when I read one. Whether it’s the ultra cheesy pulp adventure of Dennis Wheatley and his Duke de Richleau stories, the hints and references to occult societies in the work of H.P. Lovecraft, the bizarre secret society in Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld, the many different cults and societies in China Miéville’s Kraken as well as countless other stories and novels, which are far too many to list here.

I think what I enjoy most about stories with cults, clubs and secret societies in them is that, the other Dan Brown’s novels excepted, you almost feel like part of a secret society or club yourself when you find them. The stories are strange, esoteric, and often quaintly outdated – in modern examples, deliberately so. This appeals to me greatly, in this age of over sharing and putting more of yourself into the public domain than ever before.

Make sure to check out the below example of a secret society in action.

Northumberland Folklore: The Simonside Dwarfs

This is the first in an occasional series of posts I’ll be making about the myth and folklore of the region I love, the place I was born and still live today, Northumberland.

Not far from Rothbury lies one of the most starkly beautiful and fabled areas of Northumberland, the Simonside Hills. Rightly famed amongst walkers and photographers for their stunning vistas, the hills of Simonside hold another piece of, largely obscure, notoriety; one that any dice based fantasy gamers amongst you might be familiar with. Duergar!

Great Stell Crag, Simonside Hills

The dwarfs of Simonside are said to delight in leading travellers astray, particularly after nightfall. Lighting their torches, they would stay ahead of the confused walker, leading them deeper and deeper into the unlit Northumberland wilderness, until they fell into a bog or plunged from a precipice to their death. Legend doesn’t make clear exactly what the Duergar actually do with the corpses they acquire in this way, but it’s fair to speculate that their love of, and talent for, magic means that parts of a murder victim’s corpse are never going to go to waste. Of course, the moors can be a barren and forbidding place, where fresh meat is hard to come by…

Credit for the stunning photograph above goes to Andrew Curtis, along with my thanks for licensing that image for reuse under a creative Commons license. Please visit his geograph.org.uk profile, linked below in the CC attribution, to see some truly gorgeous shots of rural Northumberland in all its glory.

Great Stell Crag, Simonside Hills (Andrew Curtis) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Brian and Me: A memoir of Redwall

In memorial of Brian Jacques, 1939-2011

I shan’t enter a biography here, wikipedia has a far more comprehensive one than I can offer, simply a reflection on the effect the man’s work had on a young mind which had far too much on it, very little of it good.

In 1990 I was more than a little mixed up; in fact, it’s fair to say I was a complete mess. I didn’t fit in very well at school, coming from an extremely poor family but living in the first generation of working class British children to whom appearances were the sole defining factor of social standing. An ill judged admission of something horrendous from my infancy to the wrong person led to being ostracised by my former friends away from school. The trouble at school, which of course led to chronic truancy, caused trouble at home. My parents were not only struggling financially, but my father was fighting to come to terms with being disabled at a very young age, so even the very slightest of transgressions from me resulted in terrifying rages and often disproportionate punishment. All of this, combined with a school who refused point blank to admit that any bullying could possibly be taking place there, added up to a depressed 11 year old who had nowhere, and no-one, to turn to.

Like so many children in that position before me, I turned to books. I quickly burned through the small collection of paperbacks we kept in the house, so turned to the school library; a room I’d been in several times before, but never truly noticed until I was at my lowest ebb. I read volume after volume of ponderous, well meaning, but ultimately patronising, crap about kids who were going through similar things to me. I read a lot of very cosy sci-fi about middle class, popular lads with names like “Chad” and “Nathaniel” who got wrapped up in some mystery or other which always ended up being about a crashed spacecraft or a time traveller. I read the books, but none of it really sunk in. I wanted neither “someone like me”, nor a “role model” to aspire to. What I wanted was something I only know in hindsight.

One fateful afternoon during that one day a fortnight when a teacher could be bothered to unlock the library and let whoever wanted one borrow a book, I saw something unusual, something with a cover like nothing I’d previously seen on the school shelves, although it must have been there all along as it was fearsomely battered and dog-eared; I saw a faintly washed out image of a cart full of rats, careening down a country lane with one rather scary looking rat at the front of the cart, wearing the skull of another animal and carrying an enormous spear, while flames tore at the very cart he rode on.

Captivating image, isn’t it? The blurb on the back intrigued me even further, so I took the book home. I don’t think I so much read the story, as inhaled it directly from the page. I remember reading it at least four times during the period I had it on loan, then borrowed it again so I could read it some more. It spoke to me on a level far deeper than all of those oh-so-condescending, touchy-feely, it’s-ok-to-have-issues, worthier-than-thou novels combined. Not because any of the characters were monochrome reflections of what the writer thought I must be going through and not because any of the situations mirrored the things going on in my life. The book gave me something far more important than that; it gave me an escape from all of that rubbish. It gave me a window on a world where good and evil were clearly delineated.

There’s no way to underestimate how vital that was to me at that point in my young life.

Over the next few years, as a troubled childhood became a disturbed adolescence and my grip on what constituted being happy gradually eroded due to the tremendous weight of pressure I was under, the tales of Redwall Abbey, Loamhedge, Salamandastron and the good creatures who lived there were my life preserver, the things that gave me release and something to cling to in times of trouble, which unfortunately were almost never ending during my teens. No matter how rough things got, the anger of my father, the disappointment of my mother, the bullying from the other children or the complete indifference of my teachers to my problems, no matter how much I tried to impress on them how seriously I was struggling to cope with what was happening, I could disappear into a Redwall novel and for that brief period, all was calm, all was well and I could drown out the welter of emotions I was too young and inexperienced to process.

In short, at a time when I could have either gone off the rails entirely, or else stark staring mad through the storm raging inside me, Brian Jacques gave that storm a calm and soothing eye.

Eventually, I grew out of the Redwall novels. There came a time when I didn’t need them any more, when that calm, soothing voice was no longer needed. I had become an adult, at last, and the books both read and felt childish to me, a relic of a time when I read only for comfort and escape. When that day came, I placed all of the books in a bag and bade them fond farewell. They didn’t go to a charity shop, or to a jumble sale. After all they’d done for me, they deserved far better than that. They went to my niece, a charming and intelligent girl who I hope can read the stories for their excitement, adventure, good humour and good nature. I only hope she enjoys them as much as I did, without needing to cling to them quite so hard or for the same reasons.

Rest in peace, Mr Jacques. The man I am held you in high regard and the boy I was owes you far more than I can adequately express.

y carnt danyul rite?

I’ve managed to reaffirm something I secretly knew all along, during my absence from the internet while I tried to work on an idea I had for a swords & sorcery novel. I can’t write fantasy fiction for toffee. I’m not sure why this should be the case, since every other style of story I attempt, I at least make a readable hash out of, if not an actual worthwhile story (See Redcap for evidence of such). For no good reason I can figure out, when I try to write swords & sorcery-style fantasy, my brain turns to mulch and everything I write is, well, terrible.

Now understand, this isn’t a crisis of confidence or a novice writer’s natural doubt. I play the self deprecation card often enough in my blogging, but I’m also self aware enough to know that on my best days I’m good. My best work will stand up favourably against a surprising number of published writers, I simply lack the consistency that comes with experience. One day, with enough hard work, I’ll get there. The plain, simple, unavoidable fact, is that when I try to write secondary world fantasy everything falls apart. Every tool I’ve picked up stops working, every trick I’ve learned fails miserably and my natural ability to just keep banging the keyboard until something worthwhile appears deserts me. No matter how many words I grind out, the result is uniformly terrible and no amount of rewriting can make it into a readable piece of fiction. As the old saying goes, you can’t polish a turd. (Whatever Mythbusters might say to the contrary)

Why can’t I write secondary world fantasy? This isn’t because I don’t understand the territory, goodness knows I read enough of it. It isn’t because I don’t appreciate the genre, since I’m of the firm belief that fantasy fiction in the past decade has undergone a renaissance and is now producing some of the most exciting and interesting fiction to come about in the genre for a couple of decades. I’d even go so far as to say that I think the genre is entering something of a golden age. It isn’t because I’ve failed to do my preparation, since I’ve had the secondary world I intend to use built for at least ten years now. Geography, history, politics, economy, demographics, population densities, the whole kit and caboodle. So far as I can tell, it’s for no other reason than I’m simply not cut out for it. This is extremely frustrating, since usually when a particular style of writing is troubling me I can figure out the root cause of that trouble, then work on improving it.

Anyways, long story short. Novel is dead. Working on a short piece of sexy urban fantasy (what? What? I can’t try something outside my comfort zone as a reader, now and again?), complete with hard boiled dialogue and the re-tooling of a very special guest appearance which was initially pencilled into chapter eight of the abortive attempt at a swords & sorcery novel.

Back soon, and with an experimental short story to throw at the internet and see if it sticks.

A Few Things That I Don’t Understand

I’m not going to lie to you all and pretend I’m some kind of Stephen Fry-esque genius, the kind of person who knows a at least a little bit of something about damned near everything. Some things just bug me, though. The kind of weird, niggly, gaps in my knowledge that I’d be too embarrassed to ask an expert about. Here are some of them. If you happen to stumble across this and actually are an expert in one the things I’m baffled by, then by all means and for the love of all that’s good and holy leave an answer in the comments.

Piss Shivers: Just after taking a whizz, my whole body will judder and I’ll make an involuntary – and startlingly loud – noise. Something like “Bwmnghnnngghur!” Not only do I not know why my body does this, but I can’t even think of a legitimate reason for it to do this. Bodies usually know what they’re doing, even if the brain doesn’t have a god-damned clue about what’s going on. This just strikes me as weird. I mean picture the scene… You’re a paleolithic era hunter-gatherer, stalking through the North European landscape hunting for deer. You stop to take a leak, carefully choosing somewhere your scent won’t carry to any prey in the area. You’re mostly finished, but as the last few drops squeeze out… “BWANGAHURRRGTHRP!” With that baffling cry, every bit of prey within two square miles takes to its heels and you starve to death during the winter. Where is this good evolutionary strategy?

Askmen.com: Seriously, I’ve looked at that site and for the life of me I don’t know who the hell it’s aimed at. Have you seen it yet? Go and have a look at it now, I’ll wait for you to come back before I continue… Ah, you’re back! Is it meant to be ironic humour? Serious advice for confused men? A huge, complicated, practical joke at the expense of the kind of dickwad who takes that shit seriously? I mean, come on! Smoking a pipe is a manly ritual that should be brought back? Smoking, and bear in mind I say this as someone who smokes like the chimney of an industrial revolution era factory, is something that should never be recommended to anyone, except maybe suicidal people who intend to go through a long bucket list first. Then die horribly as gasping, wheezing, cancerous, emphysema racked,  shells of their former selves. (Yes, yes. I should quit. I know that. Let’s accept that fact and move on)

“Lateral Thinking” Puzzles: I hate that shit. You know the kind of thing, “A man is eating in a restaurant, receives the bill, pays for his dinner and thanks the waitress, then goes outside and kills a taxi driver. Why?” then the answer ends up being something ridiculous like “The taxi driver sexually abused him when he was four years old” What I hate most about it, is that it is supposed to encourage lateral thought, but all it really encourages is wild guessing until you hit on the exactly specified “answer”. To make matters even worse, the idiot posing this as a puzzle will look at/listen to sometimes dozens of wrong answers, before smugly trotting out the right one as if you’re all idiots for not having the key piece of knowledge missing from the original question. This crap doesn’t make you smarter than me, just a fuckload more annoying. And I’m someone who picks my nose and wipes the snot on the undersides of coffee tables.

Coffee tables: Their existence doesn’t confuse me. They’re useful and practical items of furniture, handy repositories for magazines, ashtrays, paperback novels, laptop computers, unpaid bills and – as mentioned above – the undersides are a great place to stash recently mined nostril gold. What baffles me about them is their name. “Coffee tables” implies that these things were specifically made to put down your cup of coffee. But we live in Britain, renowned all over the world as a tea drinking culture, even more so when these little tables became the latest must-have bit of furniture, so why name them for the nation’s second favourite hot beverage?

Painful extrusion of digestive gases through the rectum: Also known (at least amongst my friends and acquaintances) as “Thorny Wind”. Let’s not be coy about this, we all fart. Whether it’s the loud raspy one when we’re at home, the quiet squelchy one in the lift that smells like a dead badger and leaves you praying no-one else gets on before you reach your floor, the one-cheek-sneak on the bus or in the queue in the bank, this is all perfectly normal. However, sometimes your rectum bowls you a googly. Everything proceeds as normal, then BAM! Your rectum feels as if some miniature sadist crept up behind you and hammered a nine-inch nail up your back passage. I’ve checked this with several people and those who’ve answered my question (mostly men, you won’t be surprised to hear) have experienced this and find it as painful and baffling as I do. No-one likes to be caught out farting in public, so being caught out by leaping into the air, clutching yourself and shouting “SWEET ZOMBIE JESUS! PHONE AN AMBULANCE, I THINK MY ARSE IS BROKEN!” is just downright humiliating, plus it’s a terrible reason to get barred from your local branch of M&S.

That’s all for now, but these are the things that prey on mind. I’m going to stop now, before you all think I’m some kind of (even bigger) weirdo, but I will round off this almost one thousand word rant by posing one question: What irritating gaps are there in your knowledge?

Film Review: Tekken

Tekken, based on the popular series of beat ’em up video games, is the latest in a long line of game to film adaptations. Keeping to the traditions of said adaptations, Tekken is uniformly awful. Before I go on, or you read any further into this review (i.e. rant), let me tell you that there are plot spoilers involved ( for a given value of the word “plot”). Let me also tell you that this means nothing significant, since the film is barely coherent to begin with. More after the cut…

Continue reading

A beginners guide to reading fantasy fiction

Being a small list of stories for the novice fantasy reader to sink their teeth into, before heading off into the choppier waters of the more modern, or even post-modern fantasy out there.

First of all, the recognisably “real world” approach to fantasy…

Chase the Morning – Michael Scott Rohan A gentle introduction to the fiction of the fantastic. It’s rooted firmly in the modern world, although it veers off rapidly into a realm of magic based on the span of human history, travel, folklore and trade. The “secondary world” element of the novel is a shadow world where all of history and myth can be reached by anyone willing to travel far enough and for long enough.

Age of Misrule – Mark Chadbourn A trilogy of novels, about what happens to the modern world when the technology stops working and the old Celtic magic and creatures of folklore come back. Fine novels, with a good blend of action, intrigue and emotional kick. any novel in which a group of heroes try to outrun the Wild Hunt in a transit van has to be worth a look, right?

American Gods – Neil Gaiman You can get away with this one by telling yourself it’s Literature (big L my emphasis). A dark, complex, multi-layered tale of con tricks, coin tricks, dying Gods, a young nation’s borrowed folklore and the impact of the modern world on belief in the supernatural – and vice versa. It also has snappy dialogue and a very kinky sex scene.

Watership Down – Richard Adams A secondary world fantasy in all but name, this book has achieved classic status with some considerable degree of merit, don’t let the fact that it’s about little fluffy bunnies fool you. By turns dark, brutal, haunting, complex, deeply emotional and downright scary in places, this is required reading for anyone who’s genuinely looking to get into fantastic fiction. You won’t regret it.

A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle Is it fantasy? Is it Sci-fi? Is it a children’s book? All three questions get a resounding yes for their answer, but just because a book is marketed as being for children, doesn’t mean it has nothing in there for adults to take away from it, even it’s only a sense of awe at the size of the author’s imagination. Find a copy, read it, then be surprised at the complexity and emotional resonance and honesty in a book aimed at children.

And now, for the books which fall into the category of “High” or “Epic” fantasy, as well as “Swords & Sorcery”

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien You don’t have to finish it, it took me three attempts to get through it for the first time and I love this kind of thing, but you should certainly give it a really good go. There has still never been a more fully realised secondary world built in all of fantasy fiction. Almost all of the criticisms levelled at it are true; it’s dry in places, the characters can be one-dimensional, the morality is very black and white, if you don’t skim over them the poems in it can wear you down, the approach to class, race, sex and social standing in the book can seem anachronistic to modern sensibilities and the dialogue is, well, downright laughable in places. It’s also on an epic scale in a way that few stories have managed before or since, sweeping in scope, unparalleled in imaginative achievement and in places the writing is genuinely beautiful, far more often than the occasional clunky sentence or paragraph that the book’s loudest critics always pounce on (the same few examples of such, mostly). What’s more, almost every secondary world fantasy since LotR has been a reaction against, a response to, or an imitation of this book. It helps you to see the genre more clearly, if you have at least a nodding acquaintance with its roots.

A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin One of the first secondary world fantasies to achieve major success after Tolkien, the Earthsea novels are a strange and wonderful mix of earthly, and earthy, characters and high magic. Le Guin has a far better feel for characterisation than Tolkien and while the story burns more slowly, it takes a deeper root into the subconscious of the reader. Less of an adventure story (although there’s plenty of that too) and more of a character study of a young man with great power. Well worth seeking out.

Swords /* – Fritz Leiber “/*” meaning any one of “Against Deviltry”, “Against Death”, “in the Mist”, “Against Wizardry” or “of Lankhmar”. These collections of short stories represent some of the best “Swords & Sorcery” adventure to be had. Away from Tolkien’s “High Fantasy”, in America there was already a booming trade in down and dirty, sword swinging, thieving and womanising adventures and Leiber as good as cornered the market in them back in the old pulp magazine days. If you like your stories fast paced, action packed and filled with dashing heroes, desperate fights, monsters and buxom maidens, then these are the stories for you.

Magician – Raymond E. Feist Another epic fantasy, this time of a slightly different nature. This one borrows heavily from the American swords and sorcery tradition and marries it to the epic style of Tolkien. Other books had tried it before and many more have done so since, but few have done it with such ease and readability as the first novel in the Riftwar saga. A thoroughly enjoyable page turner and worth a couple of quid of anyone’s money.

The First Law – Joe Abercrombie Now that you’ve read the other novels (you have read them all, right?), it’s time to see where modern fantasy lies. It lies in a bloody mess on the floor, where Abercrombie’s characters stabbed it in the testicles and took its money pouch. The First Law is the first series of novels to truly place characters who  feel genuinely real into a story of epic quests and high stakes with the whole world hanging in the balance. Littered with memorable characters, including a corrupt and self-serving torturer, a mass murderer, a spoiled lordling and a woman beater with a murderous temper as the heroes of the story, then you have some notion of what the book is like. Only a notion though. It’s far more brutal, exciting, morally ambiguous and funny than I make it sound.

Now, go forth and read. Hopefully enjoy, too. These books should amuse, delight and enthuse most readers. If nothing else, there’s some serious weight of paper amongst them, so you’ll never be short of a doorstop if the books don’t engage you the way I think they will.

Announcement!

Remember when I wrote a little while ago that I thought it was time I wrote something in novel length? Well, that time is upon me. I’ve gone very quiet so far as the internet goes over the last few weeks, while I figure out in my head what I’m going to be doing. I’m not going to be writing this novel for attempted professional publication. It’s a well established fact that first attempts at writing novels are almost entirely made out of suckium – the same element that most airport thrillers are made from – so I’m just going to throw it at the internet under a Creative Commons license to see if any of it sticks. The main reasons for doing this, are that I lack test readers, like feedback and genuinely want to see if I have what it takes to write long form fiction. If I think I have the chops for it (i.e. I actually finish it and universal opinion isn’t of the “Your story sucks monkey balls” variety), future attempts at novel length works will be heading off to agents and/or publishing houses.

Now, what kind of story will I be telling? It’ll be a Swords & Sorcery, pulp style, adventure novel with a secondary world setting and multiple viewpoints. I’m doing this because I’ve got a worrying tendency to write angsty protagonists and I fear that sticking with the horror genre I feel comfortable in will ensure I fall into this trap again. There’ll probably be dark magic and cosmic horrors in the story as well, after all Swords & Sorcery virtually runs on this trope, but it won’t be of the “Mortal man was not meant to look upon such things” and the hero goes insane, type of endings. At least, I don’t think it will; stories always change between the planning stage and the actual writing.

I won’t be putting myself under any kind of self enforced deadline on this. I’ve got a life away from the keyboard and sometimes that takes priority – especially when all of my writing is of the I’m-not-getting-paid-for-this variety – but, all things being equal, it should end up completed at some unspecified point in 2011. I’m a “wrestle the words onto the page” kind of writer, not a “words flow freely from my lightning quick blister-fingers” kind of writer. That’s just how I roll.

P.S. Expect a few “edits to add” while I get one or two other things sorted out.

Edit to Add: I’m going to be keeping a diary of the actual writing process as I go along. I won’t be keeping it here, though. I’ve decided, wisely or not, to keep the writing diary in separate place to Stuff & Nonsense, which I now intend to use as a repository for things I’ve actually thought out first. Completed thoughts, rants, finished stories and chapters, reviews of things I find interesting (or really rubbish), links to things you might enjoy (like this!) and so on. Stuff & Nonsense is where the finished stuff goes, the newly formed “I Slap Raptors” (did you hear that faint rumbling noise? Somewhere, a volcano erupted as Mother Nature sought to punctuate such an awesome journal name appropriately) over on Livejournal is where I do the writerly pontificating about process and so on. That stuff is only of interest other writerly types and there’s no sense clogging up Stuff & Nonsense with it.