Villains (part one) (15/3/2015)

Posted in Critical Failures | Temp

About the author: Her Holiness the Dragon Queen Zafir, Speaker of the Nine Realms, has played both pro- and antagonist roles in her career as a fictional character. She is either the aloof fist of authority to be respected and feared, a liberator of the oppressed and enslaved, or a dragon-riding genocidal psychotic tyrant bitch-queen from hell, depending on your point of view.

splintered gods cover

The Villain with a Thousand Faces (Part One)

There’s been a lot of talk and discussion in these halls over the last months and years about the evolution of the fantasy hero, anti-hero, thing, whatever is the protagonist-du-jour. It’s all very interesting. There’s no doubt that a good story of any genre needs, almost without exception, a good central character or cast.

The protagonists, generally speaking, need to be characters the reader can cheer or boo for. They are, by definition, the champion or advocate of some cause which ought to be readily identifiable. Many protagonists are heroes, but not all. Some are out-and-out villains and gleefully so; but I’m not really here to talk about heroes and villains in some sort of moral sense, more to blow the trumpet for the oft-overlooked foil to the main character’s quest.

The thwarter of dreams, the denier of ambition, whether those dreams are of avarice or altruism. The antagonist. The one(s) who stand against. The obstacles to the hero getting the girl (yawn) or establishing her dominion over all she surveys (much better). It is true, I’m afraid, that most antagonists are also cast as villains, while most protagonists are cast as heroes; and I put it to you that this is the voice of history rearing its ugly head. Whoever she is, the protagonist is the hero of her own story, and the villains, frankly, are whoever get in the way. Write your motives as pure or base as you like, that’s still what it comes down to. In my story, I am the hero. In many others, I am the villain; and for the purposes of the rest of all of this, I’m going to talk about heroes and villains instead of pro- and antagonists, because “hero” and “villain” are much blunter words and I like them.

The Cardboard Cut-Out Shrub With No Soul

Villains, then. Let’s start with the easiest: The Cardboard Cut-Out Shrub With No Soul, also often referred to as the cartoon villain or sometimes the comic-book villain (a disservice to many comic books). The cartoon villain is easily recognisable. He has no personality, no discernible motivations or desires except the one that makes him the villain. There is no nuance, no subtlety, no particular effort at rationale or explanation. He is simply the villain, doing bad things, against which the heroine or heroines must pit themselves and overcome. At this point, some of you will no doubt be ready to laugh and scoff and point and jeer at the idea of an utterly shallow and two-dimensional villain. You couldn’t get away with writing a hero like that, after all.

But really? Bite back your shameful cackling and remember this: a villain serves a different purpose. A villain is there to provide obstacles to the heroine. To some extent, the depth of the heroine’s resolve is revealed only by the villainy of the villain, by his strength and power, not by how much backstory he has. Writers use these cookie-cutter villains all the time. Guardians of the Galaxy: Ronan the Accuser and Thanos. Cardboard Cut-Out Shrubs With No Soul, both of them. A lot of super-hero movies, in fact (the better villains get some personality, but we’ll come to that later). Many action stories, war stories, cardboard cut-out villains are used all over the place, all the time, by good competent writers, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them. They can’t carry much weight in a story, but that’s sort of the point: if you want as much time and focus on the protagonists as possible, a complex villain only gets in the way. So don’t be afraid to use the cardboard cut-out shrub. I can even find one in Game of Thrones if you like (Gregor Clegane), so note that even the great Martin, antithesis of cardboard cut-out characters, still uses them now and then.

There’s a possibly apocryphal story of a convention panel where one of the panellists got a bit sniffy about the Lord of the Rings, pointing out that at least his/her villains had some sort of reason / motivation / backstory, only to be given a righteous smackdown by the rest of the panel. I don’t know if it’s true, but if anyone has any doubts as to the potential of the cardboard cut-out villain, I give you two of the most widely recognised fantasy villains: Smaug and Sauron. Free from personality and backstory [2], but do they work as villains? Hell yes. And are you going to tell me that the Terminator wasn’t a good villain? Are you going to tell me he was anything but one-dimensional? Being one-dimensional was his whole point, wasn’t it?

Yes, a story with a cardboard cut-out hero or heroine is likely to be pretty lame, but a cardboard cut-out villain can work just fine. It’s both a pitfall and a strength of this villain is that they’re black and white. Their opposition to the goals of the heroine needs to be direct and straightforward and instantly recognisable, something a reader can easily understand. The heroine must carry all the drama of the story through how she overcomes the challenges, internal, external, whatever, necessary to force a final confrontation of some sort and then either fail or prevail.

Cardboard cut-outs don’t leave much wriggle room for twists at the end – they can’t suddenly be persuaded or redeemed because things like that (to be done well, at least) require foreshadowing and some crack in their armour or beliefs into which the heroine can insert a lever, and to make that work they need to have a little more depth. Darth Vader is arguably a cardboard cut-out villain in Star Wars, but the story moves him well away from that long before the end of Return of the Jedi, and rightly so. Nevertheless, if you want a story heavily focussed on the character of the hero or heroine, you might do better to ask “why not?” than “why?” when it comes to the cardboard cut-out villain.

The Cardboard Cut-Out Avatar of The Big Bad

I was a little cheaty with my examples before. Live with it. Villains cheat, lie, and twist the truth. So do heroes, but they try to pretend they’re better than us. None of my examples were actually human, and that leads me on to another kind of villain – the inexplicable thing that threatens the heroine (or her society, culture, beliefs, blah blah whatever, just as long as we’re all clear that threatening can be anything from poking a knife at me to refusing to accept my dominion of all I survey – and from the back of a dragon I can survey a long damn way). No one considers attempting to argue or debate or negotiate with Sauron because Sauron simply IS the Big Bad. I can’t think of a better example of this sort of villain than the Terminator: it’s here to kill you, it cannot be reasoned with, bargained with, and it absolutely will not stop until one of you is dead.

The Big Bad can be aliens, supernatural forces, you can go all the way with this to volcanoes, a virus or mutating neutrinos if you like, although some of these are more or less likely to have a some form of avatar as a focal point of their villain-ness. The point is that the Big Bad is coming from somewhere so different that effective communication, even if anyone wanted to, isn’t viable, and the avatar reflects exactly that (doubts or inner conflict push our villain out of the cardboard cut-out collection and into the more complex sort I’ll witter about some other time). To make this sort of villain work well it helps for the Big Bad to be integrated into the fabric of the setting.

Sauron is a distant implacable villain, but the history of his presence throughout the world is felt, deeply ingrained and permeates almost everything. He is a part of Middle Earth’s history. He belongs there, and that’s why he works. Further, even if the Big Bad is an implacable alien force, its avatar can still have a human face and the conflict can still be personal. Cthulhu’s priests might want to take over the world, but they can also kidnap and sacrifice the heroine’s boyfriend while they’re at it [3].

I come back to the Terminator, which executes this villain perfectly: the movie is quickly and unswervingly centred around the premise of a time-travelling killer; although the Big Bad is an AI that hasn’t even been built yet, it’s avatar Arnie is both a nigh unstoppable force that cannot be reasoned with and has a human [4] face; and best of all the conflict is made as simple and personal as a conflict can possibly be. Sarah Conner is battling for the fate of the world, true, but what makes the Terminator so visceral is that as far as she’s concerned she’s battling for her own survival. One of them has to die and there’s no other way.

Cardboard Cut-Out Avatar of Some Other Ideology

There’s another variant that I don’t see much in fantasy, which is the Cardboard Cut-Out Avatar of Some Other Ideology. Particularly in genre writing, ideological conflicts (and thus villains) are fairly well represented, but if the story is about ideological differences then its villains are unlikely to manage to stay properly two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, and nor should they.

Elsewhere the story is different. Anything with Nazis, for example. Robert Redford in The Winter Soldier (and if that’s a spoiler, I don’t care. Psychotic bitch-queen from hell, remember?). I’ll come to more complex ideological villains some other time, but for the simple cardboard ones work The Ideology works much the same way as the Big Bad. You just need it to be an ideology that’s easily recognisable and be prepared to cast it as the Big Bad without much thought.

That’s it for this instalment; but before you go back to Twitter, carry this thought with you. Complex villains might sound great, but 95% [5] of story villains are cardboard cut-outs and FOR GOOD REASON: the stories in which they appear aren’t about them, they’re about the hero or the heroine, and every second of page-time spent turning your villain into something more is page-time you could have spent on the person your story is supposedly about.

This article first appeared on Fantasy Faction back in Autumn last year. The penultimate chapter in Zafir’s story, The Splintered Gods is out in paperback now. The last volume, The Silver Kings will be published by Gollancz in June/July.

Wait, what? I’m supposed to give a book away? I’m not giving away one of mine – you can damn well buy it because I’m worth it. You can have that loser Falkland and his silly civil war stuff if you like, but only if you promise to review it and say pretty things on Amazon and Goodreads and all that. About me, not about him.


Usual deal – comment on this post in some way before Sunday 23rd March and I’ll randomly select a lucky victim for a free copy of The Royalist. No one has complained (so far) about how long it takes me to get to the post office and post things, but it can take a while and if you live abroad then it can take even longer. Sorry about that, but they do get there eventually. Well, so far. Am currently up to date with posting things.

[1] or food, if your point of view is that of a dragon, but they think that about everyone.

[2] Dear pedants, yes, I realise there is more in what I shall call the secondary material. Writing a lengthy biography of your villain as supplementary material and sticking it on the internet doesn’t count.

[3] For the sake of the story, she’s pissed about this.

[4] ish…

[5] This is a guess but I have a dragon so it’s also right and shut up.

Giveaway: Something Coming Through (22/2/2015)

Posted in Critical Failures

This week, at the same time as giving away a copy of some poor bugger’s book, I’m going to do something a bit different. We have an election coming in a few months (please do vote if you’re able), and with that in mind it seemed appropriate for this blog to adopt a more serious tone and start addressing more significant political issues than George Lucus’s radicalisation of the Care Bears. So here today are the official policies of the five main national parties in the event of an impending asteroid strike:

The Conservative Party has no official policy, but will issue bunker access passes to anyone based on how much tax they should have paid but managed not to. This is based on the post-apocalyptic social policy of natural selection: only fittest will survive, and only the biggest bastards will survive to rule.

The Labour Party refused to be railroaded in issuing a policy statement of any sort, but nodded lots at the suggestion that it would basically be exactly the same policy as the Conservatives backed up by vastly noisy denials and assertions that their policy will be something entirely different and much nicer, even while they’re quietly issuing the same passes.

The Liberal Democrats were too surprised to find someone interested in something they might have to say to actually say anything. Whihc probably doesn’t matter because no one would believe them anyway. Off the record one party member suggested they might try to form a coalition with the asteroid on the grounds that it would briefly be the one thing even more hated than them, but that strikes me mostly as wishful thinking.

UKIP didn’t have a policy at all, as usual, but after brainstorming with a few beers down the pub have settled on a plan to strap rockets to the backs of immigrants and launch them into the upper troposphere to create a human shield.

The Green Party take the view that an asteroid strike causing the extinction of the human race is part of the natural order of things and probably no bad thing, and state that it would be “irresponsible” to try and do anything about it.

No, I don’t the first fucking clue who to vote for either. But I do have a book to give away. This week it’s Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley, chosen because politics made me think of Empires: Extraction and that made me think of aliens. And having read a little, I think this might give The Death House a run for its money to climb to the top of the TBR pile. Here’s an extract from the author’s blog:

Something Coming Through isn’t about explaining away the alien: it’s about the difficulty of understanding it. The Jackaroo step in to give aid to humanity at a moment of global crisis. They are, they say, here to help. But they’re also wilfully enigmatic. They appear only as humanoid avatars. They deflect all questions about what they are, where they come from, why they are helping humanity, and what the endpoint of that help might be

Usual deal – comment on this post before Sunday 1st March and I’ll randomly select a lucky victim for a free copy. If you have any other genre questions for our politicos, leave those in the comments too and I’ll see if I can get an answer – next week the five main party’s will address their plans for a zombie apocalypse.

No one has complained (so far) about how long it takes me to get to the post office and post things, but it can take a while and if you live abroad then it can take even longer. Sorry about that, but they do get there eventually. Well, so far. Am currently up to date with posting things.

Ed Cox Giveaway and Why Gavin Smith is Wrong About Ewoks (15/2/2015)

Posted in Critical Failures

Apologies first of all that there wasn’t a giveaway last week, this being on account of an unusually severe attack of the snots. Apologies second of all that this week’s planned article (an insightful interview with the main parties contending the May general election as to their policies for coping with the inevitable eventuality of a major asteroid strike) will now have to be deferred until next week, but there are some things that need to be said about my Elite/Empires co-author Gavin Smith and his recent downright prejudiced comments about ewoks.

I’d like to begin with an extract from Empires – a pair of books which, I should point out, we WROTE TOGETHER[1]

What about Ewoks?’ asked Stanton. They were in the back of a V-22 Osprey. Somewhere out there was another Osprey and a pack of angry F/A-18 Hornets there to give shit to any Libyans who decided it wasn’t okay for the United States to send a pack of armed-to-the-teeth Special Forces types into the back-arse of their country without bothering to ask nicely first.

We shoot Ewoks,’ said one of the SEALs. As best Roche could tell, both Ospreys were loaded almost with their full complement of twenty-four soldiers and a Growler Fast Attack Vehicle. The Specialist Support Team was in the other Osprey. Roche, Woods, Stanton and Rees found themselves with two squads of SEALs and their lieutenant for company. There was the usual bit of trans-Atlantic ribbing.

Ewoks are bad-ass,’ said Woods. Roche raised an eyebrow at that. Woods was the last person he’d imagined having an opinion about Ewoks, one way or the other.

Bad-ass?’ The seal laughed. ‘Fucking teddy bears.’ They’d crossed the Libyan coast a while back and no one had tried to shoot them down. This far out over the desert, Roche supposed that no one much cared. There probably wasn’t even any air traffic control coverage. People were starting to relax.

Fucking teddy bears who take out AT-STs with rocks and bits of tree,’ said Woods. ‘You see an angry Ewok, you best run, because that Ewok he’s going to go psycho on your arse and send you running home to mama.’

Ewoks are badass. Sorry, Gav, but they just are. Armed with sticks and stones, and with no advance planning whatsoever, they take on the most advanced mechanised infantry in the galaxy and they win.

The argument that the esteemed Mister Smith immediately levels against this is that stormtroopers might indeed, technically speaking, be the most advanced mechanised infantry in the galaxy, but if so that’s because they’re also the only mechanised infantry in the galaxy, and they’re also the most rubbish, the most unable to shoot anything they even remotely try to aim at, and their AT-STs are made of cardboard and old bakolite that’s been left sitting in the Endor sun for far, far too long. Add to that that the ewoks had the advantages both of surprise and of being intimately familiar with the terrain and even a battalion of well trained attack-hamsters could have won.

Maybe so. Poorly armed insurgencies have triumphed against technically far superior enemies in the real world when the advantages of surprise, terrain and incompetence on the part of the opposition have been in play. That puts the ewoks in the same boat as the likes of the Viet Cong and the Mujahadeen, hardly bands of pussycats either of them, but that argument misses the point. Just how rubbish the imperial stormtroopers are really has nothing to do with this.

Let’s have a little think over what actually happens. The ewoks capture Luke, Han, Leia etc. and their natural response is, apparently, to boil the intruders and eat them. Right from the off, it’s quite clear that ewoks, despite appearances, are not in the least bit cute, but in fact are murderously bloodthirsty. They then decide that C3PO is a god, although – and this is important – the point at which they start respecting their new god and doing what it says instead of what they damn well felt like doing is when their new god gets angry and start issuing threats and exhibiting mysterious floating-across-the-room powers. This language of violence is clearly the only language that ewoks understand. Beneath their cuddly exterior, ewoks are anything but.

Driven by their god, the ewoks take up arms against the empire. They have no qualms about this, but embrace it with vigour. No matter how incompetent the imperial stormtroopers might be, no matter how their AT-STs are actually made of cardboard glued together with stormtrooper snot, the ewoks don’t know this when they commit themselves. They are prepared to go up against an enemy with vastly better weaponry, with tanks and speeder bikes and heavy blasters (and, let’s not forget, a fucking great DEATH STAR right there in the sky overhead), and they do this without hesitation. Whether or not the ewoks of Endor are badass for winning that fight, they are absolutely terrifying for committing to it in the first place. They are bloodthirsty murderous zealots who give little to no thought to the preservation either of themselves as individuals or of their families or society. Driven by a god they’ve had for about twelve hours they fight with utter and absolute conviction, heedless of consequence. Maybe badass isn’t a strong enough word for a race of creatures who commit to what is effectively a jihad at the drop of a hat – ewoks are utterly fucking terrifying. And let’s not forget what happens at the end, either. That feast? There is a xylophone-thing made of storm trooper helmets and chest plates, so they clearly stripped the dead, but what, exactly, are they eating? What exactly are they celebrating? The pretty lights in the sky as the Death Star explodes? The victory of the rebellion? I don’t think so. The ewoks aren’t celebrating Freedom, or the death of the Empire. They haven’t the first clue about anything outside of their forest. No, they’re just happy stuffing their little furry faces with roast dead human.

Badass? Ewoks would hunt xenomorphs for fun. That hapless stormtrooper at the start of the teaser for Star Wars VII? He looks that scared because he knows the furry ones are coming.

Anyway . . .

This week’s giveaway is The Relic Guild by Edward Cox. I’ve not read it, but Ed and Gav have both been annoying me on Twitter of late by not agreeing with everything I say, so I thought I’d give one of Ed’s books away and deprive him of a sale. I’m nothing if not petty.

Usual deal – comment on this post before Sunday February 22nd and I’ll randomly select a lucky victim for a free copy. No special game this week, just wave and say hi to enter the draw, although I do encourage you to pitch in on the whole ewok debate or suggest some other alien species that have been sorely mis-represented. No no one has complained (so far) about how long it takes me to get to the post office and post things, but it can take a while and if you live abroad then it can take even longer. Sorry about that, but they do get there eventually. Well, so far. Am currently up to date with posting things.

[1] except for this bit, which I snuck in while Gavin wasn’t looking.

Barricade, by Jon Wallace (28/6/2014)

Posted in Critical Failures

Declaration of vested interest: Jon Wallace is a Gollancz novelist. Barricade was published earlier this month. We share a publisher (although not an editor) and I was sent a courtesy copy prior to publication.

Declaration of being irritated at willy-waving from my elders and better.

The blurb:

Kenstibec was genetically engineered to build a new world, but the apocalypse forced a career change. These days he drives a taxi instead. A fast-paced, droll and disturbing novel, BARRICADE is a savage road trip across the dystopian landscape of post-apocalypse Britain; narrated by the cold-blooded yet magnetic antihero, Kenstibec.

Continue reading “Barricade, by Jon Wallace (28/6/2014)”

Middle Earth v. Westeros matchcast commentary

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A couple of weeks ago when England played Italy I tweeted commentary of a fictional match between Middle Earth and Westeros. You can find the pre-match buildup on the Gollancz blog here. It seemed to irritate about as many people as it amused, judging from the responses; but for anyone who wants it, here it is in less irritating form. It’s pretty much the commentary that went out but I did edit a couple of tweets on the fly and add one or two. Enjoy or not, as the case may be. It’s quite long and probably doesn’t make much sense unless you a) watch football fairly often and b) have watched the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies and Game of Thrones. Continue reading “Middle Earth v. Westeros matchcast commentary”

Ignorance, Bigotry and a Free Book (5/5/2014)

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It’s been a busy couple of weeks, so please excuse the lack of more free books. It’s been dragons and dragons and more dragons as well as some work on some proposals for what might come after dragons. I might post something about the benign annoyance of proposal-writing one day. But mostly it’s been about getting The Silver Kings knocked into shape before Summer, and it’s getting there, and another thing I might post about is how a character can come out of the background and take over what will ultimately be 700k words of prose. Thanks, Zafir. I think.

Usually I skip on to the free book about here. If that’s what you want to do then that’s find – scroll down past the cover art picture and you can skip to the end, but for the rest of this post I’m going to digress and rant a bit about top-ten lists and the difference between ignorance and bigotry, and it’s going to start with my own top-ten list of the greatest explorers of all time. Here goes (in no particular order): Continue reading “Ignorance, Bigotry and a Free Book (5/5/2014)”

Grammarly: A not-bad grammar checking tool (30/8/2013)

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Grammarly: A grammar checking tool

So what follows here is slightly unusual fare for this blog but it’s writing related and turned out to be a bit more of an interesting experiment than I initially thought. So . . . a few months back I was invited to play with a grammar checking tool and, for some reason I still don’t understand, imagined this would come complete with an extra day tucked into the week somewhere in which to play with it. Still, it was an interesting exercise in the end. Continue reading “Grammarly: A not-bad grammar checking tool (30/8/2013)”

A Lazy Life of Sex and Mojitos (26/7/2013)

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I signed a new contract a couple of weeks back. I’ve got another one to sign right in front of me. I’ve got an offer on the table for some more. The last few weeks have been one big sigh of a long-held breath of thank-fuck-for-that. Because things have, for a while, been a little tense.

Now and then, when people ask what I do for a living and I tell them I write books, they act as though this is some amazing thing that makes me somehow immensely special. I’ve taken to simply rolling with that. I’m not sure I buy it. I think what I used to do was actually more challenging and took more training and more skill. For some reason it doesn’t strike me as all that clever that I write books. In part, I think, that stems from the sense of having pulled some great con trick on life so I get to do this thing that I largely greatly enjoy and somehow scrape a living out of it.

Now and then I also meet people who assume that being a writer equates with being rich. I’d laugh except it still hurts too much (stupid infection)

So far this year, then, work has consisted of the following:

  • Copy-editing and proof-reading various manuscripts coming out this year. Totally about 550k words.

  • Two proposals (unpaid) written for series of novellas / short stories. One has turned into a contract, one hasn’t and probably won’t.

  • Editorial revision of a ghost-written piece of about 100k words

  • Manuscript delivered for editing (The Splintered Gods, 210k words)

  • Speculative manuscript delivered (title TBA historical fiction, 80k words – kinda hopeful this one will sell)

  • Speculative manuscript delivered (SF, 100k words – no idea if this will sell)

  • Half a manuscript delivered for editing (BigSekkrit SF, 40k words)

So that’s 430k words delivered so far this year. For reference that’s about equivalent to A Storm of Swords.

The rest of the year is going to consist of:

  • Another manuscript delivery (Empires: Extraction 80k words)

  • Two novellas delivered (announcement soon, 30k words each)

  • Editing The Splintered Gods and BigSekkrit

  • One more speculative manuscript bashed into shape for delivery of about 120k

  • Starting work The Silver Kings or something else.

Which will bring the word count up to about 700k for the year, consisting effectively of three contracted novels and three speculative ones. In order to make ends meet this year, one of those speculative ones needs to sell for something more than a bottom-of-the-range advance. That’s to keep a family of four going who have fairly low overheads but with a penchant for an occasional extravagance.I guess if I was single without dependents I could get by on half that. And then it’s a different game again, I suppose, if you have a second income from somewhere.

In order to do this, I’m sat in front of a laptop working for 5-6 hours of almost every day of the year.

Don’t take this as a gripe in any way – I work a fairly average number of hours every week, I get to do it wherever I can take a laptop at whatever time of day I feel like and I’m largely beholden to no one doing a job that I largely enjoy. My point – my only point – is that for most of us, it’s not the lazy life of sex and mojitos that some people seem to think, dammit.

Isms (27/6/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures | Temp

I should be writing a book right now. My writing partner is going to cry because I’m not. But it’s turned into one of those days where I mostly just want to kill myself[1] and I haven’t got the Bock[2] for wrangling with the personal problems of two women from the thirty-fourth century right now. So here’s a story about lions and zebras instead.

One upon a time on the Serengeti there lived herds and herds of zebras and pride after pride of lions. There also lived all sorts of other animals but for the purposes of this story their relevance is precisely as an excuse for the numbers of zebras and lions to be about the same. Yeah, take that ecology and damn did those lions eat a lot of wildebeest. And for a long time there was a sort of steady situation in which lions ate zebras any time they felt like it and zebras basically felt pretty shit about life but on the whole they didn’t make a fuss and kept quiet about it because it generally wasn’t a good idea to stand out from the herd when there were always a hungry lion about the place. But as time went by, they slowly got more antsy about it. Some baboons took surveys of the zebras, asking them how they felt about the general state of affairs. Significant disenchantment was noted. The zebras started talking about making some changes. Continue reading “Isms (27/6/2013)”

Let me Crush Your Dreams For You (7/3/2013)

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“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.”

Someone said that on Twitter this morning and it kicked off a little bit of a shit-storm among the dragons here. In fact, it kicked up enough of a shit-storm that I couldn’t find any time to write today, even when I should, because I was too busy debating the rights and wrongs of a statement like this. So now I’m late on a deadline and pissed off.

So anyway, on a superficial level it’s obviously bullshit. I can’t find any time to learn to play the guitar but I still want to be a rock-star. I can’t find any time to get onto the ice rink but I still want to be an Olympic ice-hockey player. I can’t find the time to get out into the garden and have at it with a spade and shears but I still want a garden that’s slightly more penetrable than a mangrove swamp. It’s perfectly possible to want something and not invest a single second of your life in achieving it. I’ll hazard a guess that almost everyone wants something that they don’t even try to get (author of the above statement included). It’s not necessarily a bad thing and it’s not even delusional provided there’s no expectation of actually getting it. [And can we pass quickly by any pedantry over the use of any in the above – if you can't find any time in your entire life to spend a second of it typing a word on a page then you're not a writer? Well duh. Can we just agree that that interpretation is so patently both obvious and useless as a statement that it's not worth the silicon atoms it takes to record for posterity? Please can we? Because arguing over that would make me want to scratch out my own tongue].

I suppose it’s clear enough that a superficial interpretation isn’t what was intended. It’s an old sentiment expressed in many subtly different ways (“writers write” being most succinct). I guess (note guessing) the intended meaning is something along the lines of “Hey, if you can’t find the time to sit down and write reasonably often – even if not for very long – and reasonably regularly, you don’t really want to be a writer enough to. . .” Enough to what I’m not sure. Deserve it? Make it? Finish a novel that no one will ever see? What? What does “a writer” actually mean? Different things to different people.

There’s a truth in the statement nevertheless, for all I’m about to rip it apart. I consider myself to be a writer by pretty much any reasonable definition. It’s my full-time job. I depend on it to pay all the bills for my family. We have no other income source. I have several novels being published each year. I take on ghost-writing work when that doesn’t pay the bills. At the moment I work 40+ hours a week as a writer. I don’t have writer’s block because it’s a luxury I can’t afford. I have to be able to sit down and write whenever and whenever. I write on trains, tubes, in coffee-shops, sitting next to my kids while they watch TV. There are a lot of things I don’t do because it’s more important to write and often there are times when I’d rather do those other things, but I can’t afford to allow myself the hours they ask for [1]. I have deadlines, lots of them. People expect me to meet them. There are consequences if I don’t, largely to do with not getting paid. Stories have to be written in a certain time whether they want to be written or not. Sometimes they come easy, sometimes they come kicking and screaming but they have to come, whatever mood I’m in, whether I or anyone around me is sick or well. Through births, deaths, divorces, marriages, house-moves, you name it, they have to come. So if your dream is to be a full-time professional writer, and you struggle to find a way to sit in front of a keyboard and write, maybe that’s not the career for you. I guess that’s a part of the underlying meaning of that statement (note still “I guess”).


It wasn’t always like that. I’ve been writing on and off for twenty-five years. In that time there were fallow times, years long, were I didn’t work on my stories at all. Was I a writer then? Not sure. Did I want to be? Yes. Should I have given up? Apparently not. And anyway, is that the only way it has to be? Of course not; and who’s to say what happens after you get your first story published. If confidence is an issue, maybe being published blows that issue away and you suddenly can’t stop. Maybe the opposite happens. Maybe you clam up. Who knows? More to the point, who am I or anyone else who doesn’t know you to tell you how its going to be?

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.”

Writers write. As a statement that’s hard to argue against. Anyone who does want to be a writer, yes, obviously you do have to actually write to actually become one. Trying to find the time might be hard but doesn’t happen by itself. It’s good advice, I think, to try and make time almost every day, even if it’s only half an hour, to write if you want that dream to come true, but if you don’t, I’d still say you should slap me for telling you what you should or shouldn’t want. You have a right to want to be anything. I might not take you very seriously, but they’re your dreams, not mine and who am I or anyone else to come along and tell you they’re not valid. For some people maybe time really is a crushing issue. For a lot of aspiring writers, I’d suggest perhaps confidence is more the problem than time. Well maybe now it is. Maybe things will be different in six months or maybe not. Maybe never. A dream is still a dream and we’re all poorer without them. I can think of several people who wanted to be rock stars long ago. Now they live ordinary lives and play in little bands that do pubs and weddings for pocket change and that’s still for them a wonderful thing. I will never be an Olympic Ice-hockey player. I might, in a couple of years, play in a small team of incompetent amateurs and have a huge amount of fun. Many aspiring authors will never publish best-sellers but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. It doesn’t mean that a not-yet-expressed idea should be killed dead here and now. Maybe that novel never happens, but maybe out of the dream of it something unexpected grows instead.

If you want to be a writer, try and find a little time most days to write. Or make some notes or something to inch forward. At least do something about it. Good advice? Yes.

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.” An insidious dream-killing cage of a statement. An authoritarian devourer of possibilities. Probably not meant as it comes across. Definitely ill-conceived. Don’t piss on my dreams, people and I won’t piss on yours.

[1] If that makes it sound like, gee, any other salary-slave job then yes, there are a lot of similarities. Do I wish I was doing something else? Hell no.

The Medusa Myth – Evan Style (25/1/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

Yes, this is a proud-parent post. You have been warned…

A couple of years ago, number one sithling wrote his first story and I put it up because it had knights and dragons in it and also hog-roast, and you can’t say no to hog-roast. Number two sithling has a story too that he’d like to share. So here it is:

The Medusa Myth – Evan Style

by Evan

Age 7

Long ago, there lived a boy called Evan how was living with his mother. During a visit to Rome the Emperor falls in love with Evan’s mother  and kidnaps her. Evan is furious and sends a message to the Emperor demanding for his mother back. The Emperor said: NO! Only if you bring me the head of the fiercest lion in all of Rome. Evan goes to an island in a chariot and meets the goddess Diana who gives him a shield and a magic sword and flying sandals. Evan travels to another island to meet the three sisters who tell him where to find the great beast. The lion lives in a tunnel underneath an old amphitheatre in Rome. Evan uses his flying sandals again to get to Rome quickly and finds the lion in one of the tunnels. During a big long fight,Evan chops off the lion’s head and kills him. He puts the lion’s head in a bag and takes it to the Emperor. The Emperor is very surprised and agrees to let Evan’s mother go.

I believe I may have a synopsis for a short story…

I Have Nothing To Say So Here’s A Cat Picture (10/1/13)

Posted in Critical Failures | Temp

The Ferg

The Meaning of Life (4/1/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

So this is a bit of a counterpoint to last week’s gloom about dementia and the inevitability of people you love coming to an end. This is about wonder.

Number two sithling is a bit of a charmer and a bit of a fireball. He’s seven and lives entirely in the moment. Not all children are like this. Certainly number one was more measured even at that age, but for number two the world is either one vast apocalyptic calamity as far as the eye can see or else it’s a single massive candy-park entirely made of awesome. I rather envy him how everything is all right here, right now. He’s also disgustingly cute, with big brown eyes and the sort of lashes that women kill for and dimples when he smiles that annihilate all cynical thought within fifty paces.

It is entirely possible that some degree of parental bias crept into that last sentence.

Anyway, the sithlings and I went and found one of these leisure centre swimming pools with windy-bendy waterslides. Number one sithling has much love for waterslides and so do I, but number two was scared of them, and since he’s too young to leave on his own that’s always been the end of that. This time we showed up to find the place half empty. We could see right away that the queues were going to be really short. It took a while but eventually we persuaded number two to at least climb the tower so number one could slide. He wasn’t much impressed, but it was obvious what was going to happen next, because when you’re a younger sibling, there’s no way in hell your big brother can be allowed to be better at anything. So we watch number one sithling vanish into a tunnel and number two sithling asks if maybe he and I can slide together, and I say OK, and do we get up to give it a go, only as we’re about to slide, he lets go without me and he’s off, and I hesitate and then I know that if I follow now, he’s going to be floundering in the water right there at the exit and I’m going to hit him like an express train and it’ll be all kinds of bad. So I wait, ears pricked for the terrified wails coming out of the tunnel. Nothing. As soon as it’s safe, I dive in. At the bottom I find him waiting by the splash-pool with a bemused look on his face. No sad-clown face at least (he can still do the sad-clown face when he’s really upset) but I’m fully expecting to take both barrels of parental guilt as he demands to know why I didn’t do what I said and slide with him and keep him safe.

Instead I get the big wide eyes and the baffled what-the-hell-just-happened look, and everything hangs in the balance.

“You OK?” I ask. He nods, so bite the bullet. “How was it.”

And that’s the moment. The moment when his face lights up and a huge grin rips across his face with all three dimples turned up to ten. “It was awesome.”

We spend the rest of the of the afternoon running up the tower and sliding down. And it was, indeed, awesome, but what I still carry with me is the moment he lit up. The moment of discovery when what was forbidden or barred or too frightening to approach suddenly snap-changes into a whole new world of possibility. When I was younger, I used to think the meaning of life lay in those moments, in crossing the boundaries of my own fears, but now I think I only had it half right. It lies, truly, in watching someone else take to the wing and knowing you had a part in showing them their possibilities.

We should give each other wings, not cages. And water-slides too. Because water-slides are indeed awesome.

Depression, Dementia and Death (27/12/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

My dad is, was and always has been, for me, the definition of how to live a good life. My opinion is probably biased. Fact is, I didn’t know him at all for the first half of his life and now I have children of my own, I can be damn sure that the father they know isn’t the same person I was before they were born. That person apparently skied off a cliff and floated down a mountainside with a parachute. This person barely remembers. I’m told it happened. I dimly, if pushed, remember that it probably did and can dredge up a hazy recollection of some floundering in the snow beforehand. That’s not dementia, that’s just a life stuffed full of, well, stuff and leaking badly at the edges. Pretty much like anyone in their middle years, I suppose, although I don’t know. Anyway, point being that my kids will never know I did this because they weren’t there and I barely remember myself. I was a different person then and frankly their existence had a lot to do with the change. I don’t claim either me was better than the other, only that the person my children remember when they grow up won’t be the person I was before they were born. There are whole tranches of me that they’ll never see or know and so I have to suppose that the same is true of my own parents. Sometimes I wonder who they were before I came along and then my brother and we quietly pinned them to the wheel of raising a family.

With my dad, I’ll never know. He doesn’t remember any more and it was always shrouded in mystery even when I was little. He was a chemist and it was often something to do with explosives. For three years before I was born, he was assigned to the British embassy in Washington as a scientific adviser of some sort. It was all a bit Official Secrets Act and not something to be talked about. It all sounds desperately interesting and if a younger me had known about all this then younger me would have hounded him mercilessly to find out all about it. But younger me didn’t. What I do know, because I remember, is that he was sharper, smarter and kinder than I’ll ever be. He taught me chess and quantum physics, and there was always a quiet gleeful joy to growing up in a house filled with books on how to make things explode. He had a quiet strength and willingly gave himself up for the rest of us, as I suppose many parents do. It was one of those solid lives that no one ever remarks upon and has no apparent significance in the greater scheme of things and yet form, in the sum of them, the foundation on which civilisation stands. I can guess and I can imagine who he was before I was old enough to see and measure it for myself, but I can never know. Rather like skiing off a mountainside, perhaps the true story is rather less glorious than the imagined one, but that’s OK. I’ll stick with the imagined one on both counts.

I noticed, years ago, that he was losing that sharpness. Chess wasn’t any fun any more, and then pointless to even try. But he was still there, still my dad. It seemed as though he was simply happy to sit back and rest on his mental laurels, content with what he’d done with his life and pretty happy with the way most of it had turned out and pleased not to have anyone make him think too hard any more because thanks but he was done with that. I kind of quietly said goodbye to him then, told him what I thought of him, how great he’d been, how I’d always looked up to him, how he was the quiet role model and hero of my life. Here and now I’m glad I did that back when I had the chance to see him appreciate it. One of the few unequivocally smart and good things I ever did, for both of us.

Last year he started losing his memory. Badly. Not Altzheimers but some other form of dementia that might as well be. In hindsight I wonder whether the first symptoms of this was what I was seeing, years and years ago, but it doesn’t really make a difference one way or the other. It could be worse. He doesn’t really understand what’s happening to him and seems largely happy enough. I know there are people with Altzheimers who are exquisitely aware of their own fading and live in near-constant terror at their own deconstruction. I can only try to imagine what that must be like. Blissful ignorance seems so much better.

A couple of days ago we picked some vastly overripe tomatoes together. Managing that much was an achievement and I felt a little proud that we’d actually done something, and done it together. Sorting the moldy ones from the rest was a challenge too far, but that didn’t really matter. At the rate things are going, he probably won’t remember my name six months from now.

Losing those we love is inevitable. I’ve had death and I’ve had depression come sit very close by. But fuck you, dementia. In many ways I like you least of all.

COMING SOON (20/12/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

I’ve noted in previous posts that I’ve spent some of the last few months working on a new and ultra-secret project; now, finally, with the ink dried and all three manuscripts off on their way to the copy-edit, I can finally reveal my next foray into into fantasy literature and the pseudonym under which I’ll be working:


A new adventure in Heroic Fantasy by Jack D’Awe

Calling upon the ghosts of heroes past such as Conan, Druss and The Grey Mouser, mixed with the raisins of  contemporary grit, Skone will satisfy the appetite of all fantasy lovers longing for a return to the simple bread-and-jam values of heroic fantasy.


For years, Skone fought in the armies of King Dubius the Great [1]. When the war was done, the great axe-wielding warrior settled in the lands he conquered for his king, starting a family and plying his trade as a baker. BUT NOW a new enemy has arisen! The hordes of the Waffeln are marching behind the unstoppable standard of the unholy Sword of Kake. Reluctant to return to his old ways, Skone stays at home and bakes, but destiny is not prepared to leave him alone. An old friend seeks shelter and is pursued by hunters. When Skone skewers a Waffeln soldier through the eye with a stale baguette, he knows he cannot refuse his calling.

The king’s army is broken, but under the banner of the king’s son, Prince Cniva [2], Skone leads an expedition to a far-off land, seeking the fable Girdle of Darkness, the only power that can stand against the relentless force of Kake.

In the final confrontation, Skone will face his greatest challenge. Can Skone defeat the Waffeln? Can the Girdle of Darkness really contain so much Kake? And coming in later in 2013. . .


[1] That’s a good visigoth name, I’ll have you know.
[2] Another good visigoth name :-p

What’s It Got In Its Cinemases? (14/12/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

The Hobbit. So this isn’t so much a review as a series of observations which I’ll try to make as non-spoilery as possible but quietly assume you’ve read the book. Purists beware: your source material has been messed with quite considerably although this isn’t necessarily all a bad thing.

The Dwarves: The dwarves come across as something between a gang of Klingons and a bunch of children. Despite all coming from one place originally, they have accents that cover a wide chunk of Europe. They have a similarly absurd range of beards and prosthetics and some of their horses have been to the same rug-manufacturer that George Lucas used for Chewbacca. Despite all this, they worked perfectly well for me. They fit my memory of the book well enough and so does the humour. What I don’t remember is the apparent fact that the dwarves are all 20th level fighters under AD&D rules (20d6 maximum damage irrespective of distance fallen) and also made of rubber and Jell-O and can thus can be dropped from pretty much any damn height you like over and over again without ever picking up any kind of injury. There’s a bit where they find themselves trapped at the edge of a cliff and by then I was thinking: just jump, for pity’s sake. It’s only a mile straight down. You’ll be OK…

Length: I’ve heard it said the movie is too long and they take too long to get out of the Shire. It did feel too long but not for that reason. There’s too much pointless fighting in the second half. Which leads on to…

The White Orc: I get, I think, why this was added. It gives Thorin back-story some of which I think is true to the book and I’m guessing the white orc will become the focal bad-guy for when we eventually get to the Battle of the Five Armies. Doubtless there will be a climactic fight with Thorin that tips the battle and wins the day (I am quietly rolling my eyes). I understand the need to give that enemy a face and thus bring him in in the first movie, but he could have been a) much better, and b) much less present. One encounter with orcs and a back-at-orc-HQ scene would have been enough. Also, since when did orcs live for bloody ages too? And isn’t he a bit Voldemort?

Radegast and Saruman: The other extra material worked for me, even Radegast and his absurd transport system. Incredibly twee, yes, but it felt a part of the world (which is incredibly twee in place), though I haven’t read the relevant source material to see how its accuracy stands up. Radegast and the changes to what happens in Rivendell seemed to me to be about making the six movies into a coherent whole. Not terribly necessary, perhaps, given the first three movies are done and everyone in the world and space has seen them, but the OCD-driven story-teller in me would have done the same.

The Hobbit himself: Grumble. There are a couple of significant scenes (escaping the trolls and escaping the goblin king) where the the events from the book as I remember them are changed in a way that lessens Bilbo’s contribution. Yes, it’s more cinematic for Gandalf to show up and do his GAAANDAAALFFF!!! thing but it takes away from the Hobbit himself. Most of all, these changes felt unnecessary. I found the movie to be largely exquisitely gorgeous and I don’t think it  needs nearly as many ‘big moments’ as it thinks it does. As a consequence, in order to big-up his part in the company, Bilbo does something at the end which seems a unlikely, especially given that none of the battle-hardened dwarves do it first. Shame about that.

There’s a lot more humour than in The Lord of the Rings and it verges on slapstick. Mostly it worked for me. Mostly. Gollum is in the movie for ten minutes maybe and totally steals it. A good half hour of material was, I suspect, sneakily inserted by the New Zealand Tourist Board. I’d have been very happy to have had more of that and fewer CGI wargs. The whole thing was lovely to watch (in 2D at 24 frames/second anyway) – shame about the unnecessary added fighting and GAAANDAAALFF!!! moments.

Oppression, Addiction, Depression and Death (22/7/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

This is one of those thoughtful posts. Sorry.

Right: in the last few years I’ve seen various arguments go back and forth about the “new” fantasy, grim and gritty and dirty and a bit nasty. Or possibly a lot nasty. I’ve seen the argument, presented in many different guises, of “but that’s how it was,” and I’ve seen the argument back of “how WHAT was, exactly” and “but isn’t that the point of fantasy – to NOT be how it was?” and I have sympathy for all three points. I’ve seen what I reckon is my favourite: “but that’s how it IS,” which I take to be an allusion to the world being an uncaring and fundamentally hostile place. Well I’m not sure it is, but it does often seem that way. One argument in particular has lingered – that the message heroic fantasy sends is that if you try and try and try and try and work really really hard to do something, you will ultimately succeed, and that’s not how the world works and to be taught that heroic fantasy message simply leads to hopelessly unrealistic expectation. I largely buy that argument but not its conclusion. I’m not going to go into it here because I’ve covered it before.


I’ve also changed my work patterns lately. This is just one of those things – every few months I take to working in a different way. It’s not even a conscious choice, more a fitting work around the rest of life in a different way as the rest of life constantly warps and mutates and changes (and it does, if you have children, by the way, because what they’re like no isn’t what they’ll be like in six months, not will it ever be that way again. It’s a constant adaptation to their constant adaptation, and it would terribly nice if I ever in any way saw the next change coming with more clarity that it’s simple probability. But that’s by the by). The long and the short is that I now work out now and then, often enough to make a “workout” playlist of stuff to listen to. Thumping stuff to get the blood moving, that sort of thing. And even if I then go and listen to Berlioz or podcasts, it’s the contents of that playlist that got me thinking. There’s some newer music in it, a few tracks that I’ve grown to like in my middle years but most of it turned out to be stuff I used to listen to decades ago and it’s all angry angry stuff (good for workouts) with a subtext of addiction and depression and powerlessness and death and you knew I was a goth, right? Oh and also quite a lot of Motorhead, which doesn’t really fit at all but then maybe I was more of an awkwardly angry hippy than a goth and…

Oh never mind. Because the world may be fundamentally hostile or uncaring but it’s also fundamentally ridiculous and sometimes you have to revel in the simple sensation of being alive by listening to Killed By Death very very loudly several times.

And it got me thinking, that playlist, of who I used to be a long time ago before I knew who I was, and also that the message of heroic fantasy, of which I read a lot at the time) – try and try and try, try long and try hard and don’t give up and in the end you’ll get a cookie, well it might not really work for our exterior struggles, but for most people who have much opportunity to read for pleasure in the first place (and I say most knowing there are people for whom this generalisation will be starkly false), perhaps the struggles that matter most aren’t the ones we have with the outside world but the ones we have with ourselves, with our own inner contradictions. In those battles, we are our own champions, like it or not, and everyone else is the plucky sidekick. Maybe that’s where stories of heroes have their worth. I can try and try and try all I want to be the best son/dad/husband/wife/writer/singer/poet/lover/ninja/muse/pigeon-whispering particle physicist/whatever in the world and with seven billion other people out there there’s a good chance I’ll never get good enough to be worthy of remark. But in my head it’s just me and my demons, no billions of other people. And maybe I can try and try and try to be happy with merely being quite good at some of those things, and maybe it’s because of all those stories of bloody-minded heroes who never give up despite the odds that I can believe that one day those might converge.

So I’ll still keep my heroes, thanks, and I might even write some when I’m done with dragons.

Scary Joyless Beardy Men in Swimming Pools (14/7/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

I never used to like swimming very much as a kid. Partly because I wasn’t much good at it. I actually can’t remember anyone teaching me very much either, although I suppose they must have done. I remember not wanting to be able to swim for a long time because being able to actually not sink meant having to go and do swimming in the big pool where the water was way, WAY too cold when you were used to the little pool.

Still, despite my petulant reluctance, the ability to swim arrived like an unwanted government, born from an ugly union of the relentless force of The System and colossal indifference. For reasons I never quite understood at the time, some of my friends even liked going to the pool and even viewed it as a treat (why? And where was the appeal? Five minutes in and I’d swum half a width, touched the bottom, done a mushroom float, been splashed in my face and then I was bored because the only thing left to do was pee in the water). I never got it and rarely went, but on those few occasions that we went to a swimming pool for “fun” I remember the phenomena of Scary Joyless Beardy Men. See, half or maybe two thirds of the pool was for the likes of me to tit about in, and then there was the dreaded Line of Orange Floats that carried every bit as much weight as the Berlin Wall and for much the same reasons: over on my side was a place of laughing and splashing and playful games. Over There was a place of relentless work, back and forth, up and down, on and on without rest or sleep. The home of the Scary Joyless Beardy Men. I don’t know why I only ever noticed the men or why they generally had beards, but they were clearly Joyless because who the hell with an ounce of fun left in them would spent any of their time just swimming up and down, back and forth, on and on when they could have been doing almost anything else. And Scary partly because they were big and relentless and had beards and partly because they didn’t half get grumpy if you crossed into their Zone Of No Fun and accidentally got in the way but mostly because they were so utterly incomprehensible. WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT? WHY? They were what I thought East Germany was like, only they were in my swimming pool (I also quietly resented them for using up a portion of the pool so that I couldn’t swim widths. Lengths meant going into the deep bit and that was scary in an entirely Here-Lurks-Great-Cthulhu-Within-The-Fathomless-Depths sort of way).

I’d forgotten all of that when I started swimming a couple of months back, until I caught sight of myself in the mirror and there he was, a vision from my childhood: Scary Joyless Beardy Man. Only this time it was me, and so now I know that all the Scary Joyless Beardy Men that I remember maybe weren’t joyless at all. Maybe they were just thinking of far-away places and far-off worlds instead.

On Burning Bankers (1/7/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Once upon a time there were a bunch of bankers who had made themselves very, very rich. Granted special privileges by the highest authorities in their sphere of influence, they were frequently exempt from local laws and taxes. Over time they developed a goodly number of tricks to avoid even the laws to which they were expected to comply, mostly by doing exactly the thing they weren’t supposed to and calling it something else. Distrusted by the population at large for their mysterious and secretive ways, they made themselves indispensable to the rulers of their time, though the states they ruled were destitute with population taxed to the point of open revolt.

As a result of Barclays’s admission of its misconduct, its extraordinary cooperation, its remediation efforts and certain mitigating and other factors, the department agreed not to prosecute Barclays for providing false LIBOR and EURIBOR contributions, provided that Barclays satisfies its ongoing obligations under the agreement for a period of two years. The non-prosecution agreement applies only to Barclays and not to any employees or officers of Barclays or any other individuals.

In the case of the Templars, when Philip IV turned on them, a lot of bankers were burned at the stake. Just quietly noting that interesting fact. Not that Philip IV was any better, all things considered. The “great treasure” of the Templars was supposedly shipped in secret to Nova Scotia. This is obviously a daft notion – clearly they took it to the Cayman Islands.

Sponsorship (29/6/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures


Very quietly, very gently, this has been getting on my tits for a very long time and I think I’m not alone, in fact I’m sure I’m not alone, but so far I’ve met a lot of people who are in my situation but almost no one brave enough to talk about it.

So look, here it is: I really don’t like sponsoring anyone to do anything that I consider to be fun and pretending it has anything much to do with raising money for charity. I don’t even like being asked. If  someone wants to raise money for charity, they can come round with a collection cup. If someone wants me to subsidise their ascent of K2, they can come round with a very good reason why I should pay for them to go instead of them paying for me, because that actually sounds like a fine way to spend a month or so of my time. Nor will I subsidisesponsor anyone for any of the following:

  • Walking, running, cycling, swimming etc. Because I like walking, cycling and swimming. Unless you’re going to be tied to an angry tree or doused in honey by random spectators and then attacked by bees or chased by tigers. OK, fine, fine, if it’s just walking round a field for some local good cause, but no, definitely not if  the proposed route happens be the Silk Road or the Milford Track or the length of the Great Wall of China. No no no no. Indeed…
  • Going anywhere abroad for almost any reason whatsoever[1].
  • Climbing any sort of mountain for any reason unless it’s in the Himalayas and I can sponsor you by how many hours you wear a yeti costume.
  • Jumping out a plane with a perfectly good working parachute unless I can sponsor you according to the number of bones you break [2].
  • Pub crawls. I mean, really? Why do people even think that works?

I’m a small man, sometimes a petty one, and if I’m going to give money to charity only to have some of it siphoned off to subsidise someone’s fun, I need to see a reason. Pain and humiliation are a good start. I might sponsorsubsidise a friend to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that they can’t afford any other way. That’s what friends do, but let’s not pretend it’s for some good cause beyond that friendship.

I will, however, consider sponsoring people to eat marmite because marmite is so utterly disgusting.


Just ask for money for what it’s really for.

[1] Unless it’s to the US and you’re being sponsored by how many hours you can be held by immigration because of what you wrote on your immigration form and yet still get allowed in.

[2] Your own bones, Smithy. You know who you are.

Chlorophone (27/7/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Just so we’re clear and no one else needs to conduct those experiments we all secretly want to do but know we really shouldn’t:

  1. iPhones are not waterproof. They do not take well to going swimming.
  2. In fact, when immersed in chlorinated water for a long time, they get remarkably hot.
  3. They then cease to work.
  4. Possibly this happens in unchlorinated water too.
  5. This is what the inside of an iPhone looks like. Please send money.

borkedactually this bit still works

very borkedtotally borked

For reasons of wailing and gnashing of teeth, this week’s giveaway is being extended until Friday.

Look, No Hands (16/6/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

The Gemmell awards were held last night at the Magic Circle in London, and while I’m sure there are plenty of people who’ll be talking all about them, the venue has reminded me of a magic trick. Or sort of a magic trick anyway.

The story goes like this: once upon a time there was a writer who was writing a trilogy of stories, and in this trilogy of stories there was going to be a hero and a villain and a something-in-between. And in the first story the hero and the villain would fight, and in the second it would be the hero and the something-in-between and in the third story, it would be the hero and the villain again. And the writer was quite pleased with his three characters that stood at the heart of these stories and had started to think of them as people he knew.

There was a back-story to these characters too, one fairly relevant to the the events that would later happen. They’d all been young and foolish once. They’d done something they shouldn’t and they’d been caught. One of them fled. One of them got away. One of them was caught, and to the one that was caught, bad things happened. The other two ran away to war, the hero and the villain, but the villain lost his hand in the fighting fairly early on and came home again. That was all in the past, mind, none of it relevant to the story.

In the first book, the hero and the villain found one another again and danced around each other until at last they came to blows, and in the fight between them, the hero cut off the villain’s other hand and was then torn away before their fight could finish, but there was something of a poetic symmetry to the way things turned out and all was good.

In the second book, the hero got on with other things and the villain was only present as a distant figure in the background, and all was good.

It was in the third story that matters began to go awry. The writer quickly saw that the grand climax finale between the villain and the hero was going to lack some sparkle with the villain having no hands. It wasn’t really going to be much of a fight. The writer knew that his villain had to have at least one hand and so he started to look at how the story might be changed. He looked at the end of the first story and whether maybe the hero could chop something else off the villain instead, but that brought other problems. So he looked at the world he’d imagined into being and sought out a place and a means for the villain to have new hands. Star Wars did it after all . . . And he found a place too, a loophole in his own world that he could exploit to give his villain new hands, and so he did, and got on with writing his third story. He didn’t much like where this new loophole was taking him, but he soldiered on anyway because that’s what you do with first drafts, until he got almost to the end, and knew that these hands had changed the world into one that was different from his first imaginings and made a lesser thing as a result.

New hands didn’t work. No hands didn’t work. Saving the hand lost in the first story didn’t work. And it took this writer an inordinate length of time to finally spot the obvious that was staring him in the face right from the start. Change the back-story. Problem solved. Easy as that. Hardly a word needed to change anywhere until it matters. The writer stared at this, bewildered by how easy it was, but bewildered more by how he hadn’t seen it for such a ridiculously long time.

Characters will do that to you sometimes. They become so alive that they have to do things even when you don’t want them to, or do things you really wish they wouldn’t, because that’s who they are. And sometimes (often) a character becomes so real that to change them into someone else is unthinkable. It’s very hard, when that happens, to remember that you just made them up, that there’s not a thing about them you can’t change however you like, from their favourite colour to how many hands they have. You just have to think of a way for fate or luck or destiny to do it to them.

Next book giveaway coming up shortly.

Avengers Assemble – Director’s Cut (18/5/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Iron Man: Right, this bit goes here and this clearly goes there.

Thor: I-Kee-A? What is this demonic pantheon?

Iron Man: And then this here . . .

Captain America: Hey, Iron man, this bit of paper you screwed up and threw in the bin, are these the instructions?

Iron Man; Yeah, yeah . . .

Black Widow: Flat-pack furniture? I’m out of here.

Hulk: Hulk too. Flat-pack furniture bad for hulk’s self-control.

Iron man: Hey, wait a minute there big guy, this needs more than one person with a brain.

Thor: Hey!

Captain America: They are the instructions!

Hulk: Hulk not think this bit fit right.

Iron Man: Trust me, it fits. And if it doesn’t fit, make it fit.

Thor (picking up Allen key): What’s this?

Arrow shooty guy: An Allen key.

Hulk (peering over Captain America’s shoulder): But Hulk not find screw A13? Why nut B26 too big for bolt D3?

Thor (picks up hammer): In Asgard we have hammers. And nails. Hammers and nails. This is how wardrobes are made.

Iron Man: And this bit here and we’re done . . . Not. It’s a penguin. We made a penguin.

Captain America: I really think you should have read this first.

Arrow shooty guy: (Shoots penguin) I’ll be with Black Widow (leaves).


Iron Man: I think it’s the penguin’s beak.


Thor: Loki! Only Loki  could be behind something so fiendish.

Iron Man: Behind the penguin? Because I don’t think he is. I think if you look you’ll find that’s Hulk.


Iron Man (after a long pause): Well I still think it was a penguin.

(exeunt to pub)

Try Try Try (28/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Here’s an out-of-context part-of-a-comment take off the web.

“Depicting strong women, ‘magic exemptions,’ simply fuels the boot-strapping illusion that is strangling contemporary feminism: the assumption that the individual can overcome their social circumstances if they try-try-try and believe-believe-believe, and thus the tendency to hold the individual responsible for their exploitation.”

The author is R Scott Bakker. I don’t intend to link to the thread directly because it’s a very specific discussion and in a way quite personal to the author’s books, which appear to have provoked some rather, ah, strong views. I can’t comment on that because I haven’t read any of his books. There is a lot of context to this quote which I haven’t presented here. For all you know, without reading the entire source material, the author might be arguing the exact opposite of this. He isn’t, but he might be. You only have my word for that, after all. I don’t intend to comment on his specific views except to say that I have sympathy for a great deal of his analysis yet differ in my ultimate conclusion.

I found this statement very thought-provoking for both the truth inherent in most of it and for the way there seemed  to me to be something very poisonous lurking at its heart. Again, I consider the statement on its own, without thought to the author’s intentions or motives. The sense of truth and poison are both my own sentiments. Whether they were meant or not, I have no idea.

For the purposes of dissection, I’m going to reword this statement into something that I think has exactly the same sense and meaning:

Depicting strong women, ‘magic exemptions,’ simply fuels the assumption that the individual can overcome their social circumstances if they try-try-try and believe-believe-believe, and thus the tendency to hold the individual responsible for their exploitation. This assumption fuels the boot-strapping illusion that is strangling contemporary feminism.

I’m going to ditch the last sentence – it was relevant to the source discussion but not particularly to my own thoughts and I’m in no way sufficiently informed to say what is or isn’t strangling contemporary feminism or whether the first sentence describes something that fits said description. This assumption is a bad thing will do for my purposes. I assume the original author considered it to be a bad thing, at least. While we’re at it, I’ll generalise further and replace Depicting strong women, ‘magic exemptions,’ with Depicting exceptional people, since I don’t see why either my own thoughts on the subject (or the original for that matter) are specifically and only applicable to strong women. Could be any exceptions to the prevailing social environment.

Depicting exceptional people simply fuels the assumption that the individual can overcome their social circumstances if they try-try-try and believe-believe-believe, and thus the tendency to hold the individual responsible for their exploitation. This is a bad thing.

Does this change the meaning of the original statement aside from generalising it from the specific issue of the portrayal of women in fantasy to the depiction of any exceptional person in any fictional setting? I don’t think it does but you’re welcome to disagree. And I do believe there’s a lot of truth to this statement. The effort and belief of one individual, no matter how vigorously and relentlessly applied, will often fail. We are all single individuals in a vast multitude, and that simply can’t be discounted. And yes, I do think there is a tendency for people to blame the failures of others on they didn’t try hard enough. They didn’t believe in themselves enough. I am certainly very guilty of that sort of thinking. It has a sense to it. A self-empowerment is implied – it wouldn’t have been like that for me. If that’s what I’d wanted, I would have tried harder and succeeded. Ultimately, if I really want to be, unlike you I am in control of my destiny. Because it’s a pretty frightening thing to have to confront the reality that actually no, you’re not.

A somewhat trite but nevertheless relevant example: My six-year old wants to play football for Barcelona in the Champions’ League one day. Maybe, if he were to dedicate his entire life to achieving that end, maybe he could achieve that.  However, there is a clear (if a little fuzzy) limit on the number of six-year olds who can one day achieve that ambition no matter how hard they try. Other things will come into play over which they have no control. Luck. Who they know. Where they live. Their parents wealth and support. Many other things. Ultimately, simple genetics. I can see that in my own family. None of the rest of us  could, no matter what we did. I won’t. I could never have the necessary speed and stamina ever again. Failure is inevitable. I’m fairly sure that no one single person, no matter how hard they try and how much they believe, can single-handedly end bigotry, racism, sexism, any kind of -ism you like.

So I’ll buy a couple of things as being truth here: the tendency to hold the individual responsible for their exploitation is a bad thing. Yes. Yes it is when you can try as hard as you like to get out of a situation and still fail through circumstances over which you have no whit of control. That can happen. I think it happens a lot. And even if they haven’t tried as hard as they possibly could, I will argue that it’s still a bad thing. I would suggest, as a general rule that is might be better to aim any assumption of responsibility at the exploiters than at the exploited until evidence to the contrary is received. It can be, I accept, surprisingly difficult sometimes.

And finally the poison. the assumption that the individual can overcome their social circumstances if they try-try-try and believe-believe-believe is a bad thing. Yes. I’ll accept that as a truth. The assumption is a bad thing, because endless trying will often still fail and no amount of simple believing in anything will achieve very much. Huge applications of effort and belief will still mostly fail to change the world and there’s nothing we can do about it because that world is big and there’s a great deal over which we simply have no influence or control. But the poison is the never-stated implication that try-try-try and believe-believe-believe are bad things in themselves. No. The assumption that success is inevitable with enough effort, that it is likely or even possible, that’s bad. Blaming people for their own circumstances because they didn’t try hard enough? Also bad. But the trying and the believing themselves are not, and for two reasons I can think of. Allow me to cast this statement another way by inverting it:

the possibility that the individual can overcome their social circumstances if they try-try-try and believe-believe-believe is a good thing

Surely! If we can acknowledge and accept that mostly we will fail through no lack of our own effort, surely it’s still better for even a mere handful to succeed? Shall we all meekly take our lot in life as given to us at birth and none of us strive for something better? I choose not. And the second thing this sentiment fails to acknowledge is the power of numbers. There are many things that one person alone simply cannot change, but if everyone tried at once then it would be easy. Yet if no one tries, what then? Nothing changes.

If I have a personal philosophy of life, it’s been to shoot for the moon as often as I can and to accept that I will miss every single time and to shoot anyway and be pleased by how far my arrows actually reach.It’s worked out well enough up to now. And this could be about feminism, as the original source was, or it could be about sitting down and writing that book that you can’t quite settle to. It could be about changing the world or changing yourself. Either way, the point remains the same.

Accept that there are many things you probably can’t change no matter how hard you try. Seriously get your head around that immutable probability because that’s what the world is like. Then try anyway.

Worldbuilding (part 6: Glaciers and Fjords) (19/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Strictly I supposed glaciers and fjords are a subset of rivers – what passes for rivers in places where the water never really thaws. Like Slatibartfast, I have a fondness for fjords. Basic fjords? Mountainous coasts that were once covered in ice for a long time (to make the glaciers that carved the valleys that become the fjords). Fjords generally have very steep sides and deep water and are a fine place for siting Impenetrable Fortresses Of Doom, since it’s pretty hard to negociate a coastline full of fjords without doing it by sea. They can reach a good long way inland too.

Wikipedia tells you more on glaciers and fjords than you need to know for most world-building purposes, but  really, the point here are the pictures. Look at pictures of fjords and then try to imagine building a world without them? Not possible, right? Absolutely NOT possible.

Here’s a less than perfect fjord picture. The point, really, is HOW THE HELL DO YOU TRAVEL THIS LANDSCAPE WITHOUT A FLY SPELL? This is why Fortresses Of Doom like to live in fjords.

Doubtful Sound

And here’s a picture of a glacial lake. Just because. First person to name the mountain in the background right in the middle wins a copy of King of the Crags and Order of the Scales.

Photoshop lake

How to do an Audio Book Right (16/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

I’ve heard some good books ruined by characterless narration of the audio version and I’ve heard mediocre books made good by good narration. This is possibly the best narration of a kids’ audio book I’ve ever heard (although it’s close between this and David Tennant doing How to Train Your Dragon). And the book underneath is, I think, rather a good one too.

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Narrated by Jason Hughes

Listen and weep. With laughter. It’s touching and totally hectic!

Exocets (14/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

Apparenty, if you follow the chain of corporate ownership long and far enough, I am and have been working for the same people as make Exocets.

This is what Exocets do. Arguably dragons do much the same, only thing is this: dragons aren’t real, right.

HMS Sheffield after Exocet hitUSS Stark after Exocet hit

After the number of years I once spent trying to make Exocets pointless, this is actually pretty depressing.

“His knuckles clenched” (13/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

All us writers have our quirks. I think mine might be clenching things. I’ve begun to notice that a lot of clenching goes on. Fists are clenched. Jaws are clenched. I might even have clenched some toes, although thankfully I appear to have self-edited that out. No buttocks, I think.

Here are the summed stats for a couple of novels of mine whose titles I shall keep jealously to myself.

First draft: 26 clenches
Second draft: 33 clenches
Before the edit: 29 clenches
After the edit: 26 clenches
Final draft: 20 clenches

This is the sort of thing that you start to notice (if you’re lucky) when you read your work aloud, and I’ve been doing a lot of that of late. Is this a lot of clenching? Maybe it isn’t, but I feel it might be. I think a few of my characters have my copy-editor to thank for not having serious impacted molars and possible tendonitis in their knuckles by the end of their stories. Admittedly, many of them have bigger problems to worry about by then.

Contrast this to eyebrow raising from the same two novels:

First draft: 10 eyebrows raised
Second draft: 4 eyebrows raised
Before the edit: 4 eyebrows raised
After the edit: 5 eyebrows raised
Final draft: 5 eyebrows raised

Admittedly, the two novels in question are more knuckle-clenching than eyebrow raising in nature, but see how the eyebrows get self-edited out at an early stage, while the clenching goes up instead of down and needs an editor to get under control? Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with a bit of clenching, but judging from conversations at Eastercon, I reckon most writers either have or had a blind spot somewhere.

“The author, having become aware at last of one blind-spot whose mere existence greatly raised the likelihood of others, felt a familiar tension. A frustration born of his own imperfections. He clenched his fists.”

And this, ladies and gentlemen, among many other things, is why we have editors and copy-editors.

Worldbuilding (Part 5: Rivers 101) (11/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

By now, the world has oceans and mountains and some climate and weather patterns. I look at rivers next because I want to know where the water is going to be, because generally water means life and the more water there is, the more life there is, and how much water there is controls how much life there is (glibly, but then all of this is glib, and temperature and sunlight have a big influence too – provided there’s water). Rivers also have another purpose though, because rivers can flow through places where there is little rainfall and yet be the basis of civilisation (ancient Egypt revolved around the Nile, and other early civilisations of the middle east revolved around the Tigris and Euphrates). Rivers are also a means of navigation, a relatively easy way to get from one place to another through what might otherwise be hostile territory, be it dense forest or desert.

This may sound stupidly, obvious, but I’ve see maps that fail to obey all of the following simple rules: Rivers flow from high places to low ones. They tend to get bigger and slower as they move from mountains to the sea. In places where the incline is steep, rivers flow fast and tend to be in steep-sided valleys, gorges or even canyons. Rapids and waterfalls are more likely to appear in such places (but some of the world’s largest waterfalls don’t). Rivers merge together rather than diverge, the exception being deltas. In places where the gradient is steep, the course of a river is determined by the topography; in places where the gradient is shallow, rivers flow slowly and have wide gentle valleys and/or floodplains and are likely to meander. Map your rivers with these in mind, but also considering that rivers in warm places will likely be the arteries of the early civilisations of your world.

As usual, when it comes to basic geography, the simple way of finding out how stuff works it to look it up on wikipedia :-)

Wikipedia on rivers. More basic river formation articles here and here. Also Deltas, Canyons and Valleys

Next maybe something on glaciers and fjords, because I like them. And then ecologies and the tricky stuff starts…

Vampires and Werewolves and Witches, Oh My (4/4/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

The random jottings on world-building had got as far as where rain falls and was about to get on to rivers. Then something about living things and ecologies and eventually I might have gotten around to to some humans and cultures and histories and social structures and all that sort of thing. But a blurb I had read to me today makes me want to just zip ahead for a moment, just for a moment, for the benefit of those for whom world-building seems (apparently) to be an utterly pointless exercise.

If anyone who reads this is thinking, even a little bit, about writing a story with a contemporary setting with vampires, werewolves or witches in it, please please please for the love of all things supernatural, give at least SOME thought as to the impact and interactions such creatures will have on society at large. I can think of so many examples where this has been done and done well, to the point of being the dominant theme of the book, but even paying some simple lip-service to the idea that the fact that witches/vampires/werewolves exist might mean something more than having a touch of supernatural to add to ones feisty go-getter heroine or tall dark mysterious hero is probably a really good idea. Or am I missing something. Is it just a guy thing to wonder why vampires burn in the hidious light of the day-star but seem to be just fine in – and in fact positively enjoy -  the reflected hidious light of the day-star that is otherwise known as the full moon. Or indeed in the hideous light of the night-stars which is basically exactly the same. Or to wonder what an immortal super-powered creature might do over the centuries to protect themselves and their interests and how they might do it, and how they might struggle (or not) with the advance of technology. Or wonder what their lives might have been like for the last four hundred years? Or to watch a typical werewolf transformation scene and even before the inevitable nope, special effects still can’t make this not look stupid, think hey, that violated the law of conservation of mass!

Is it just a guy thing to think that creatures such as vampires and werewolves and witches should carry more meaning than merely character with dark yet sexy allure.

It’s just me, isn’t it.

I’ll get me coat.


Oh, and your fairies too.

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