Creativity Within Constraints

Over the weekend, I read Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. This is one of The Austen Project books, wherein half a dozen very fine writers are (re)writing contemporary versions of Jane Austen’s novels.

I don’t mind saying my first reaction on hearing this was ‘but why?’ What could possibly be the point? The original books are there, readily available for reading, and by general consensus, are some of the finest writing in the English language.

Well, okay, not according to my stepfather. As a schoolboy in the steel and coal communities of South Yorkshire in the 1950s, being made to study Pride & Prejudice for O Level left him with a lifelong loathing of Jane Austen, the Regency, Bath – pretty much anything tangentially linked to a fiction that was so far removed from anything in his own daily life to that point and his primary interests in science. No, he’s not dumb – he went on to get a doctorate in Chemistry and more besides. The book just wasn’t for him.

So is that the point? Would a modern version be more relevant to him – or his current equivalent – and somehow get Jane Austen’s genius for unpicking human relationships in under the radar? Maybe so, but what’s in it for the likes of me, who’ve known and loved the originals for decades? I simply couldn’t see it, and honestly, only picked up Northanger Abbey because I’m such a great admirer of Val McDermid’s work. I started reading mostly in hopes of finding out what could possibly have convinced her to do this.

Wouldn’t it be just like one of those pointless shot-by-shot remakes of a popular TV show? For instance, I cannot see what’s to be gained by remaking Broadchurch as Gracepoint, even up to the point of using David Tennant with an American accent? Where’s the creativity in that? Though I’m equally down on remakes that diverge from their source material. I watched the first dozen episodes of The Killing and the further it diverged from the original which had held me so enthralled, the crosser I became. If they wanted to tell a completely different story, why not do something properly new?

On the other hand… I’ve watched both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish and English, and enjoyed them very much in different ways, while being very familiar with the book as well. Each production followed the source material closely, adapting it intelligently for visual rather than written story-telling, while the variations in performances did bring out different nuances and explore different aspects of that original. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s the world that got the ideal version with Daniel Craig and Noomi Rapace…

Besides that, I know for myself that finding the room for creativity within constraints can be great fun, as well as a worthwhile test of a writer’s skills. I’ve written a couple of short stories for licensed properties; Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. Those projects come with huge amounts of established detail and guidelines which you absolutely cannot break as an author. The challenge of doing something genuinely, satisfyingly new within those boundaries of characterisation, tone, background etc, is considerable – and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

The fun of working within the constraints of a theme is one reason why I’ve been involved in anthologies from Tales of the Ur-Bar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, Legends – just to name a few. It’s why I’m really hoping Temporally Out of Order reaches the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, so I can write up my idea… I’m also really pleased that open-submission slots are available for that anthology, because working within these sorts of boundaries can often be a valuable learning experience for new writers.

Well, I won’t spoil this new version of Northanger Abbey for potential readers. I will just say that my reading time was emphatically very well spent. This retelling is great fun and so well crafted on many levels. A reader won’t need the least acquaintance with Miss Austen to thoroughly enjoy an excellent contemporary story. Most impressive of all for me, there are twists to surprise even those of us familiar with all the ins and outs of the original.

Language problems for time travellers – the ones we don’t see.

I’ve been thinking about time travel, in particular questions of communication. This is something we’re used to seeing glossed over for the most part. Occasionally someone turns up from Elizabethan England saying things like ‘forsooth, varlet!’ but that’s about as much of a nod as it gets. This has always irritated me, after having studied Chaucer in the original at school. Drop me in 14th Century England and I’d be reduced to communicating by writing things down in Latin, always assuming I could find someone who could read Latin.

On the other hand, there are obvious issues for storytellers, where being accurate about linguistic barriers is going to throw massive obstacles in the way of smooth narrative. I’m reminded of the TV series, Stargate SG-1, where they did try to avoid the whole ‘universal translator’ cliche in the early series, thanks to the polyglot Dr Daniel Jackson. That faded away pretty soon, I’m guessing as script writers, actors and directors alike simply found it too unwieldy.

The thing is though, this wouldn’t be the whole story by any means. Even if people are conversing in mutually recognisable English (or any other language), there are still going to be misunderstandings around slang and pop-culture references. Here’s an example. A few years ago now, I was sitting in the lounge, reading a book. There was some music playing and a son came into the room. We had the following conversation.

Recognising the music, but not quite able to place it, Son: ‘Who wrote that?’

Mostly concentrating on my book, Me: ‘Elgar. Nimrod.’

Mildly indignant Son: ‘Okay, I only asked. No need to be rude.’

Looking up, slightly bemused, Me: ‘Sorry, what? You asked about the music and I told you. Elgar wrote it. It’s called ‘Nimrod’.’

Incredulous Son: ‘He called a piece of music, ‘Nimrod’?’

Now definitely confused, Me: ‘Yes, Nimrod, the mighty hunter.’

Curious Son: ‘So how did it come to mean ‘stupid person?’

Closing my book, Me: ‘It means what?’

Okay, we subsequently established that, at least according to the Internet, ‘nimrod’ became a term of derision thanks to Bugs Bunny. That’s what he repeatedly calls Elmer Fudd, in ironic fashion but presumably younger cartoon viewers didn’t get the literary, Biblical reference and simply went with the insult. Which does make me wonder what happened in the RAF, since that was the name of one of their planes through the 70s and 80s. In my experience, aircrew are much more likely to be familiar with Looney Tunes than the Book of Chronicles. But I digress.

I’ve been trying to think if I’ve seen this sort of thing ever covered in SF&F. The closest I can come up with is Janet Edward’s ‘Earth Girl’ trilogy (highly recommended YA SF) which isn’t about time travel at all but is set in the future where linguistic shift has seen ‘butt’ become a taboo swearword.

Oh and I think there may have been a few one-liners in the TV series ‘Quantum Leap’ but it’s so long since I watched that I may well be misremembering.

Can anyone else flag up a book, TV programme or film that’s tackled this sort of thing, well or badly?

At least this wouldn’t be a problem for gadgets finding themselves Temporally Out of Order. Or could it be? I wonder if we’ll see any stories along those lines in the anthology we’re hoping to write. Excuse me while I go and see how well the Kickstarter’s getting on today.

Where did I get my ‘Temporally Out of Order’ idea?

So we’re halfway through the Kickstarter today and at time of writing this, we’re a hair under 80% funded. Hopefully by the time you’re reading this, we’ll have passed that milestone and be well on our way to fully funded and better yet, the stretch goals.

I really want to see us hit those stretch goals. Because I really want to read those extra stories. Yes, I really want to write one of them, because I’ve got an awfully good idea… Would you like to know a little about the puzzle that’s prompted it?

Let me tell you something that my younger son has discovered. He’s eighteen and being very musical, he and a similarly talented pal go busking in Oxford. We all live within striking distance of the city and the lads are properly licensed by the local authority and obey all the relevant regulations. On a good day, especially in the tourist season, they can do very nicely, thank you. Even on a quiet day, they’ll earn more that they would spending their time stacking shelves in a supermarket on minimum wage.

One of the entertaining things as we count and bag up the money for banking is spotting the foreign coins. They’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and have amassed a couple of dollars in US quarters from various states, along with one Sacagawea dollar and some nickels and dimes. They get a few Euro coins and coppers each month so that all goes in the family travel fund. Other coins have come from Egypt, China, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ukraine, Finland, Norway, Hungary, India. They can’t cash such small amounts of coin but that’s not a problem. They’re interesting in their own right, to show how far folk travel to visit Oxford, and the gesture of appreciation for the lads’ music is, well, appreciated.

Then there are the old coins, and they’re a real curiosity. Every so often, we’ll find a coin that’s no longer legal tender here in the UK. Outsized ten and fifty pence coins that were withdrawn from circulation years ago. Even older, pre-decimal coins. Half crowns. Sixpences. We’ve even had some from Europe; pre-Euro francs and centimes and a couple of Deutschmarks. Here’s a picture of the latest; a 1962 old penny. That’s older than me!

1962 Penny

Who goes out, let alone on holiday, with a pocketful of outdated small change and gives it to buskers? Why?

No, that’s not what my story’s going to be about. Not directly, anyway. But you can’t expect a puzzle like this not to get a writer’s imagination working…

So if you want to read the story, and haven’t yet backed the Kickstarter? Well, over to you.

Why that Facebook ‘Ten Book Challenge’ was impossible for me…

I’m sure you’ve seen it, and mostly likely been tagged – and unsurprisingly it turns out that was in service of Facebook generating a ‘news’ story. Which is harmless enough, as far as it goes. I didn’t not respond by way of any principled stand against being manipulated or exploited or anything. I just didn’t get round to writing a list because every time I tried, my brain just stalled. Hung. Locked up. Needed a firm ctrl-alt-delete.

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. They do not have to be the ‘right’ books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.”

I don’t have to take a minute to come up with twenty or thirty titles. A couple of minutes? Then I’ll have a hundred and then I’ll realise that I’ve still left out a vast chunk of my lifetime’s reading experience. There’ll be crime and SFF and historical – but no literary fiction, no comedy… And what about non-fiction? Biography? Memoir and diaries? Some of those have made a great impression.

Looking at the bookcases here was no help. Seeing one title would instantly remind me of five others just as memorable in their own and differing ways. I simply could not dash off a superficial selection without instantly regretting it.

On the other hand, I have found reading other people’s lists very interesting, by way of insight into them and their work, offering some surprises along the way. And being tagged by people doing that, it does seem a little rude not to respond in kind.

So I have come up with a list of books that have stayed with me – not any sort of definitive list, not the most memorable books in my life or even the most significant. For a start, I’ve limited myself to fiction. But these are ten books which have a significance for me and my own reading and writing, where each one is an exemplar for any number of similar works.

(and yes, this is consciously gender balanced list because what possible justification could there be for it not being so, given the thousands of books I’ve read in my life thus far?)

The Horse and his Boy – CS Lewis – the first Narnia book I read on my own with themes of being true to one’s own self that will still draw me into a book today.

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – for an introduction to epic grandeur which never loses sight of the human (or halfling or dwarven) costs of heroism.

The Ogre Downstairs – Diana Wynne Jones – for child-centered drama acknowledging that life isn’t fair, that everyone, old and young, makes mistakes and the only thing to do is tackle all that and move on. Also magical chemistry set!

Something Fresh – PG Wodehouse – for an introduction to the insights into the human condition that can be so very effectively conveyed through comedy.

Warrior Scarlet – Rosemary Sutcliffe – showing me that the past is a different country and they do things differently there, thus inspiring me to learn more about history while exploring how far the essentials of life and love stay the same.

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – introducing me to the popular fiction of decades gone by. Reading needs depth as well as breadth.

Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey – an introduction to just how much a crime/mystery novel can offer beyond the puzzle of Whodunnit.

Dragon Prince – Melanie Rawn – my personal favourite of the game changers writing epic fantasy in the 80’s, showing just what the genre could now address.

Vanishing Point – Val McDermid – showing how a genre novel can equal the very best of so-called ‘literary fiction’ and then go far beyond it in commenting on contemporary society.

Intrusion – Ken Macleod - informed, engaged, political, thought-provoking, giving the lie to any notion of SFF as ‘mere escapism’.

And now I’m going to hit ‘post’ before I start arguing with myself again about ones I’ve left off, but how am I supposed to choose which of these ten to chuck over the side…?

Ctrl-alt-delete!

Learn more about the ‘Temporally Out of Order’ Authors (and try their work)

When you’re buying an anthology, whether that’s by backing a Kickstarter (like Temporally Out of Order), or after picking it up in a shop, what often seals the purchase is seeing a story listed by one of your favourite authors. It’s one reason why I like anthologies; seeing something new by a valued writer or getting a sidelight on a novel or characters of their’s that I’ve loved.

As an extra bonus, I also find anthologies a good way to find new authors to read, as I work my way through the rest of the stories. And yes, as a writer, that’s one reason why I like to be part of these projects. I love getting those emails from folk new to my books, who say they first came across my work in an anthology where another author was the main draw. Trust me, I don’t mind that in the least!

Occasionally though, there’ll be an anthology where I’ve read none of the names. I’ll doubtless know of them from the Internet or conventions or bookshops but for some reason or other, I’ve never got round to trying their work. Hurrah for the Internet and authors willing to share a taste of their work for free, along with the writerly advice and pictures of cats and all the other stuff that writers put up on their websites.

So here’s a few links if you’re curious to know more about some of the ‘Temporally Out of Order’ team

– editors

Joshua Palmatier’s Throne of Amenkor series (including free chapters)

Patricia Bray’s website by way of a link to her podcast ‘Everything I know about writing a series’

– core authors

David B Coe (and his alter ego D.B. Jackson)

Laura Anne Gilman, a woman of many talents and now several names.

Faith Hunter and her Jane Yellowrock series

Gini Koch’s Blah, Blah, Blah blog

Stephen Leigh (whose First 400 Backer Extra is still available!)

Seanan McGuire (who is also Mira Grant)

Laura Resnick’s website – a work in progress, lots of good stuff to find in the left hand links.

– and my fellow stretch goal authors –

Jean Marie Ward, via her page of free reading

Jack Campbell, via a full novelette he’s made available online!

That should give you some idea of why this project is so well worth backing.

Kickstarter 2/3rds funded after a week? Time to relax! Er, no, it isn’t…

Crowd-funding’s a new, wonderful and truly weird thing. I’ve been involved in a couple of these now, though I’ve yet to dare try one on my own, for fear of so very publicly coming unstuck if a project didn’t meet its target. Some writer friends like C.E.Murphy and Laura Anne Gilman have more courage than me, so I’ve watched their experiences as well. The peaks and troughs and ebbs and flows in the way people sign up really is fascinating. I know there are folk out there keenly analysing the patterns, with conversations that almost certainly include the word ‘algorithm’.

Well, all I know is there’s never a time to be complacent, from Day One to Day Thirty. So if you’ve been looking at the ‘Temporally Out of Order’ Kickstarter and thinking, ‘Ooh, that sounds like a really good read,’ and now you’re seeing we’re two-thirds there, you’re thinking, ‘oh, they’ll be fine, I’ll just pick up the book later on,’… please consider backing us now. Because if we don’t meet that target, there won’t be a book later…

And yes, obviously, I have a horse in this race. As a stretch goal author, I really, really want to be involved! I’ve got such a fine idea… and I’ll tell you all about that next Monday, by which time I really hope that first target will be met, the first stretch goal will be secure and we’ll be on our way to my story, Jean Marie Ward’s and Jack Campbell’s.

Meantime, if you’ve come to this website for the first time thanks to this Kickstarter, hello and welcome.

If you’re wondering what my writing is like, you can read the opening chapters of my novels and also download the free ebook of my short story The Wizard’s Coming.

If you’re curious to see a little of what I write other than epic fiction, I’ve collected together a couple of short stories for free reading here.

Enjoy!

While I go and see where you can find a taste of my anthology stable-mates’ writing.

Meantime, let’s see how the project is going?

“Don’t Do What’s New, Do What Never Gets Old.” Is This Good Advice For Writers?

I came across this while reading a book called ‘Rhinos on the Lawn’. It’s about the history of The Cotswold Wildlife Park which is well worth a visit if you find yourself within striking distance of Burford, Oxfordshire.

My first thought was, ‘ooh, that’s good advice for writers too’, swiftly followed (in Granny Weatherwax approved fashion) by second thoughts. ‘Hang on. Is it really?’

Because as many writers know from firsthand experience, myself included, you’re not going to get anywhere writing a book that simply ticks all the expected boxes. Like many others, I tried that with the Definitive Blockbuster Fantasy Masterwork – aka my first novel which thankfully sank without trace beneath the weight of agently and editorial indifference to a youth-leaves-home-rites-of-passage tale. As one said at the time ‘there’s nothing to distinguish this from the half-dozen perfectly competent fantasy novels which cross my desk each week’. It wasn’t until I found something new and original to weave a story around that I wrote something warranting publication.

On the other hand, I was reminded over Loncon3 of something I said a good few years ago, when someone retweeted Patrick Nielsen Hayden saying on a panel ‘A trope is a cliché with PR’. He promptly and courteously acknowledged he remembered me saying that in Dublin in 2006. Thinking back, as I recall, my precise words were ‘A classic is often just a cliché with good PR.’

Which is the same thing in some contexts, and subtly different from other perspectives, so I think Patrick’s words stand on their own merit as well. Crucially thinking about that reminds me of something I heard from a commissioning editor at the very first St Hilda’s Crime & Mystery Conference, back in 1996. ‘What we’re always looking for in publishing,’ she said, ‘is “the same but different”.’

Because there are common features to both the classic tales and to the new stories that seize a reader’s interest with original characters and fresh perspectives while still revisiting tales of heroes, jeopardy, quests, defiance (doomed or successful), rivalry, vengeance, good men (and women) in opposition etc etc. This stuff really never gets old.

On the other hand, once something has been a great success, from Harry Potter to Sookie Stackhouse and any number of other examples besides, there’s only so much time before the market for similar books is saturated. Given the lead times in publishing, most of those books will probably already be in production by the time you read one of those exemplars. So the writer starting out with a fresh blank page really does need to find their own ‘same but different’ instead of ‘just doing what’s new’.

Which brings me to something else I’ve had lingering in the back of my mind since Loncon3. Scott Lynch said something memorable, when we were both on a panel about writing professionally. Talking about ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ (if you haven’t read it, do!) he said ‘I wrote the book I didn’t see on the shelves’. In one of those light bulb moments, I realised that’s exactly what I did with ‘The Thief’s Gamble’: putting an independently minded solo female protagonist into a high fantasy setting.

Is that one way to find ‘the same but different?’ Maybe, maybe not. When I tweeted that, someone came back with the entirely reasonable point ‘maybe that book’s not on the shelves because it won’t sell.’ Which reminded me of something I heard Michael Marshall Smith say at a convention in Derby a few years back, so I’m guessing it was an early Edge Lit.

Paraphrasing because I can’t recall his precise example, when discussing how far you have to write what the market wants, he said, ‘You might write the definitive unicorn vampire serial killer novel. You might sell it to each and every fan of unicorn vampire serial killer novels in the world. But if there are only five hundred of those particular fans in the entire world, that’s not going to sustain a writing career.’

In other words, too different is none too good either. Incidentally, this is why every agent says how hard it is to sell crossover novels to publishers and every editor says how hard it is to successfully pitch crossover novels to booksellers. Not least because every bookseller has stories of the truly weird places where crossover novels get shelved by confused staff, to the further confusion of readers and to the detriment of the book’s sales.

So how do you write the book you don’t see on the shelves while telling your story in a way that’s the same but different?

How about this?

“Don’t go chasing after the latest new thing just to copy it.
Read it in hopes that it will inspire a fresh idea of your own.
Test that new idea against the classic elements which never get old in stories.”

Not as snappy but more nuanced.

(And incidentally, all this does show how and why I have always found it so useful going to hear writers, editors, agents etc talk at conventions, library events and literary festivals.)

‘Temporally Out of Order’ – how can you resist this new anthology via Kickstarter?

A while ago, I got an email from Joshua Palmatier (a fine writer, do check out his books) proposing a new anthology project for the small press , to be edited by Joshua himself, along with Patricia Bray (another fine writer).

Now, I’m always interested in any project which these two are proposing. I’ve written stories for them before, in After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar and for The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity. Not only did I find them excellent editors to work with on a personal level, these anthologies proved to be fascinating reads as a whole, with an excellent mix of stories from a very interesting range of writers.

The only reason I didn’t submit anything for their next project Steampunk Universe: Clockwork versus Aliens was lack of time due to other commitments – but you may be certain I followed the progress of that Kickstarter with keen interest. As you’ll see they ran a very professional, successful fundraiser and that anthology’s now available for Kindle, Nook etc, as you prefer (like the earlier titles).

So what’s the new anthology going to be about? Well, here’s what Joshua had to say in his initial email –

While sitting at the airport waiting for a flight, I saw a phone booth with a note reading “Temporally Out of Order.” Obviously it was a typo, but the mistake takes on a whole new meaning when viewed from a science fiction/fantasy frame of mind. This anthology will take on the challenge of interpreting what “temporally out of order” could mean for modern day—or perhaps not so modern—gadgets, such as the cell phone, laptop, television, radio, iPod, or even that microwave or refrigerator!

Doesn’t that sound intriguing? I can’t wait to see what the other authors involved come up with and have been musing on ideas of my own ever since.

But wait, there’s more! For the first time, as part of a Kickstarter, I’m a Stretch Goal! I’ll be contributing once the total raised reaches $15,000. There’ll also be the chance to get yourself into my story at that point, or at very least your (or some lucky friend’s) name, by means of a Tuckerisation – something I’ve never actually done before, so this will be another first :)

That’s by no means the only incentive on offer. All backers of $15 or more in the first 24 hours will be getting a free ebook called FOUR FOR MORE (with four short stories) from Jean Marie Ward. She’s another stretch goal author, along with myself and Jack Campbell (aka John Hemry).

There are a few limited pledge levels, such as tuckerizations in some of the authors’ stories, a “missed out on the first kickstarter for CLOCKWORK UNIVERSE, but I want to catch up” reward level, and a few other limited items, so get there early if you want those. The anchor authors for this anthology are: Seanan McGuire, Gini Koch, David B. Coe, Faith Hunter, Laura Anne Gilman, Stephen Leigh, and Laura Resnick (in no particular order because, honestly, how could you rank them against each other?).

Do you fancy seeing your own name on a Table of Contents alongside those authors? Once the project is funded, the remaining slots (a minimum of 7) not being filled by anchor or stretch goal authors will be filled by an OPEN CALL for submissions. Yes, ANYONE will be able to submit a story for a chance to be part of the anthology!

Excited? I am and you should be. So click on through, get a better look at that fabulous artwork, and get involved!

A quick Fantasycon update

I’ll be heading up to York tomorrow for the UK Fantasycon, where I’m really keen to hear Guests of Honour Kate Elliott and Charlaine Harris talking about their lives and writing. Not to forget Toby Whithouse who’s written fine genre TV drama notably but not limited to Being Human, and artist Larry Rostant whose artwork brings fresh vision to classic fantasy book cover themes. I look forward to learning more about their creative process and inspiration and its similarities and differences to my own.

There’ll be lots of other writers there, working across the spectrum of speculative fantasy, from epic to horror and every variation in between. So there’ll be plenty of chances to sit and listen to them on panels and in readings and generally chat and socialise with like-minded folk.

My own programme is discussing Doctor Who, Classic and New, at 3pm on Friday afternoon, along with Joanne Harris, Guy Adams, Mark Morris and Jon Oliver. I’ll also be available to sign books at 5pm on Friday, so if you’d like a signature on a book, in your programme or simply want to say hello, stop by.

On Saturday morning at 11am I’ll be on a panel discussing the Pen vs the Sword, specifically the realities of sword fighting compared to what we read on the page or see on the screen. That’ll be me, Marc Aplin, Fran Terminiello, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Clifford Beale. Between us we have a range of skills and experience in different styles of sword fighting.

After that, I’ll spend the rest of the day between time with pals and the excellent convention programme, full details here.

After the convention, Husband and I will be staying on in Yorkshire for the rest of the week, since this month sees our 25th wedding anniversary and we spent our honeymoon in the county so we plan on revisiting a few places and seeing some new sights. It’ll be interesting to see how clean and tidy (or otherwise) the house is when we get home, after the sons spend the week here fending for themselves…

After that, I have assorted short stories to write and some longer term projects to plan.

Off to Worldcon in London. If you’re there too, feel free to say hello!

That’s pretty much it, really. I’ve had ideas for various posts these past couple of weeks but not found any time to write them up. The last week of July was spent in rural Ireland with no internet access (bliss!) and since then I’ve been getting all sorts of things done before Worldcon – and realistically, things won’t let up before the first weekend in September, when I’m in York for the UK’s Fantasycon. So if you see me there, feel free to say hello as well. :)