Brian Ruckley's News & Views

Thursday, December 17, 2009

MPoaF: Trailer Time

I have a confession to make. I don't know if this disqualifies me from my membership of geekdom or something, but ... The Dark Knight wasn't my favourite superhero movie experience of 2008. Shocking, I know. Just shocking. I liked it well enough, and obviously thought bits of it (mostly Joker-related bits, I suppose) were brilliant. But I'm pretty sure I derived more simple enjoyment from ... Iron Man. It was a straightforward, slick, pretty confection that didn't really try to be anything more than what it was, and as far as I was concerned it succeeded pretty triumphantly. Which is not in any sense damning with faint praise: I seriously think it's an impressively well put together package, with the directing, acting, scripting and effects all working in near-perfect harmony towards a clear and shared goal. Sure, it's some way from being perfect, but I left the cinema wearing the dumb smile of the satiated seeker of eye candy.

Dark Knight, by contrast, was an altogether more complicated and ambitious beast. And perhaps because I'd fallen for the pre-release hype, it seemed to me to come up just short of the lofty targets it set for itself - aside, as I said, for some passages of seriously accomplished film-making. It's clearly the more interesting film of the two, but it just didn't deliver quite the entertainment kick to me that Iron Man did.

All of which is a convoluted (and believe me, I could go on and on, making it more and more convoluted, because I've thought about this particular compare and contrast exercise far more than is healthy) ... anyway, all of this is a convoluted way of saying that of all the big budget, sfx-heavy films promising to grace our cinema screens in 2010, this is probably the one that tickles my fancy most of all:

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Monday, December 14, 2009

A Kerfuffle Aspiring Writers Might Want to Pay Attention To

Not for the first time the inimitable John Scalzi kicked off a bit of an internet fuss recently. The particular feline lobbed unceremoniously into the pigeon house on this occasion was this post laying into a new short story publisher for offering dismally tiny payments to writers. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth in various bits of the internet (both for and against his views), a nice sample of which can be found in this post, and particularly the lengthy comments thread attached thereunto.

Perhaps the most fruitful outcome of the whole kerfuffle - that I've seen, anyway - is a couple of livejournal posts by Anne Leckie that are, I think, well worth the attention of any aspiring writers out there. Especially writers of short fiction, but wannabe novelists as well. The first explains why getting your short stories published in certain types of venues will not help your nascent writing career, is such a thing is your goal; the second delves into the much more nebulous question of what makes for good fiction. Both are worth a read: there is a good deal of stuff in there that I think aspiring authors (and published ones like yours truly, too) could profitably ponder, whether they agree with it or not.

Much of what's discussed in the links above made me think about where my head was at when I was actively writing and submitting short stories to magazines (note that what follows is decidedly not advice; my route through the thicket of obstacles facing the aspiring writer was my own, and does not remotely constitute a generally applicable map).

Back then, I was just starting to take the idea of one day being a professional writer seriously - i.e. thinking about what was involved in getting there, rather than just daydreaming about it. The crux of it, to my simple and innocent brain, seemed straightforward: if I wanted to be a professional writer, I had to be able to write to a professional standard.

So I worked on some stories - most of which were never submitted anywhere because I was never quite satisfied with them - and sent a few out to magazines. I only sent them to what I thought of as professional-standard magazines, i.e. those paying towards the upper end of the general scale for stories, or those that were clearly high profile and respectable and publishing stories of a certain quality.

I didn't try to place stories with non-paying markets, or obscure magazines making token payments; not because I've got anything in particular against such publications, but because I had a project, and it wasn't a 'get a story published anywhere' project. It was a 'learn how to write to a professional standard' project. So I was only interested in the judgement of those - the editors and publishers - who set that standard by their acquisition decisions. To paraphrase Anne Leckie: I was interested in being a pro, so I aimed for the pros. Aiming lower, I reasoned, would only teach me how to miss my chosen target, not how to hit it.

Now things worked out OK for me, because I did sell a couple of stories in the 90s (which sounds hopeless, but actually wasn't a bad hit rate, because I only ever sent out a handful). But just to prove that mine is not necessarily the example to follow, having tasted that tiny little bit of success, I stopped trying to write and sell the things entirely. Why? Because I'm nuts? Not entirely, though it's arguable. (As it happens, I do often wish I'd held onto the short story habit a bit more firmly. It's got a lot to recommend it.).

No, I stopped for my own, possibly rather eccentric, reasons. The second story I sold (to what was then called The Third Alternative and is now Black Static), was one that, before I sent it out, I was pretty sure was good enough to be publishable in the kind of markets I was interested in. For the first time, I felt I could instinctively identify a piece of my own writing as meeting a basic professional standard. Turned out, I was right.

More importantly, if I'm remembering things rightly, I submitted one further story after that sale. And it was rejected. At which point I basically stopped writing and submitting short stories. Not because I was discouraged, but because I had known, in my heart of hearts, before I sent it out, that that last story was not quite up to the necessary standard. It was OK, with some nice ideas and passages, but it didn't have that feel. Turned out, once again, that I was right.

That was good enough for me. I'd more or less learned what I wanted to. I could, at least on occasion, write to a professionally publishable standard; and I could identify the necessary quality - and its absence - in my stories before the editors passed their own judgement. (Yes, two is a ridiculously small sample size to base such sweeping conclusions on, and I was building on some very dodgy foundations there, but I did say mine wasn't an example to follow). What does that quality consist of? Ah, well ... that's a whole other, decidedly complicated story, and one I'd need a whole other post to even start picking away at. But I do think Anne Leckie's second post offers much food for thought on the subject.

And I will say this - and I guess this, despite what I said earlier about not giving advice, is advice of a sort: irrespective of what mysterious bricks that 'quality' is built from, one of the most important skills anyone who wants to turn their writing into a career can acquire is that of recognising its presence, or absence, in their own work. And the only way you do that is by writing for, submitting to, and probably being rejected by, the markets which define the level of quality you aspire to.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

MPoaF: The Cryptozoological Edition

I've got a passing interest in cryptozoology. Not in the sense that I actually believe there are dinosaurs living wild in the Congo, or hairy hominids roaming the North American continent, or plesiosaurs splashing around in a certain well known body of water not too far from where I currently sit (even though I am apparently blind to the evidence provided by Google Earth itself in that last case).

No, it's more a case that I would like to believe all that stuff, and find those who do, the stories they tell and the quests and investigations they undertake interesting and vaguely appealing. There's a certain romantic instinct - a sort of longing for mystery and strangeness in the world - that seems to be part of the mindset, and I think that's a very basic human attribute. A very high proportion of us are drawn in one way or another to the mysterious and the strange, and we find our own personal ways of bringing those elements of the world into our lives. The search for unexpected wildlife fits the bill in a lot of respects.

And although I dismissed the plausibility of some of the most famous cryptozoological icons right at the start, there are several other cases that I tend to think of as 'semi-cryptozoological' that appeal much more strongly to both my heart and my head. For example, there's the possibility of big cats living wild in the UK, eating our sheep.

Or, and here we get to the thing that really captures my imagination, and even moves me, there's the thylacine. Could there be, somewhere in Tasmania, or even mainland Australia or New Guinea, a surviving population of the largest modern marsupial carnivore? Living in the wildest places it can find, skirting the fringes of human awareness and imagination? I would be utterly delighted if that one day proved to be true, not least because it's humanity's fault that the poor old Tasmanian Tiger disappeared in the first place.

I think part of the reason the thylacine has a hold on my imagination, and that of many other people, is that we have film of what may well have been the last individual of the species. Call me a big softy if you like (my excuse is that I'm a wildlife fan by instinct and by education) but I find this clip really quite moving. Was this animal, at the time it was filmed, the very last of its kind on the whole planet, thanks to us:

Probably. But not necessarily, if you climb aboard the cryptozoology wagon. There have been heaps of alleged thylacine sightings, and even some films, including one from this very year that's now drawing to a close.

Not exactly conclusive, huh? Unless you were after proof that there are mangy-looking dogs and foxes running around the Antipodes, in which case - well, make your own judgement.

But this, out of all the cryptozoological tales, is the one I want to be true. I reckon it'd be wonderful if in one of those clips we were looking at an animal that had survived, hidden, despite humanity's best efforts - both intentional and otherwise - to rid the world of it. If I was a multi-millionaire with time on my hands, I wouldn't be remotely tempted to embark on expeditions in search of the yeti or the sasquatch; but the thylacine ... yes, I could spare a fraction of my vast wealth to mount a quest in the wilds of Tasmania. Guess I'm just a romantic at heart.

(Though if I did find something out there, whether or not I'd tell anyone, I'm not sure. If anything deserves a bit of privacy, a bit of human-free peace and quiet, it's the thylacine.)

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Monday, December 07, 2009

A Random Name Generator in Disguise

One of the things I occasionally get asked is how I make up names for my characters. To which the answer, if you're talking about secondary world fantasy like The Godless World, is: mostly I just make them up, playing around with sounds and letters in my head until something vaguely plausible (and roughly consistent with the other names I've already used) volunteers itself.

Generally speaking, I reckon it's worth sticking with the idea of inventing your own names, even when the creative juices are flowing sluggishly, just because names are - or should be - a pretty important element of a story. They're more than just badges: they can convey mood and character and cultural affiliation; they can create expectations in the reader's mind that you can then confirm or subvert; they can carry symbolic and metaphorical weight.

Sometimes, though, I guess a little bit of external inspiration might help, and there's a ridiculously large amount of it available.

You can just go the direct route and press a few buttons on a purpose-designed fantasy name generator (though with this, and all other methods I'll mention, I'd suggest still tweaking any results to take proper 'ownership' of the names and make sure they fit your setting and story and intent).

Or if you're looting real world cultures for a fantasy milieu, you can mine the rich and varied strata of baby name lists. They come in all flavours, whether you're looking for Celtic influenced names, or Native American.

Or you could make the quest for names a rewarding and educational process in itself and immerse yourself in some weighty historical tomes. Personally, I'd recommend trying some Byzantine history, since it covers in excess of a thousand years and a whole load of different cultures, from Roman and Greek through Turkish and Armenian and Arabic. There're some very fine names buried in there, let me tell you.

Or, and here we get to the thing that made me think about all this in the first place, you could put your faith in a weirder approach. I noticed a while back that the anti-spam comment filtering process on this, and presumably all other Blogger blogs, had subtly changed (unless it was always like this and I'd never noticed). When the software shows you some wobbly letters and asks you to repeat them back to it, those letters have started displaying a strange and appealing coherence. They are no longer random; instead, they're clearly psuedo-words. Or, more relevantly, wannabe names.

Just by hitting the refresh button repeatedly, I harvested (amongst a few clearly unuseable tongue-twisters) the following list of what looks to me a lot like name seeds for fantasy characters: phathea, miculap, porev, potlycos, sches, speres, cysedi, incia. Now these are weird fantasy names, admittedly, but there's potential there. I particularly like Porev, Sches and Cysedi as starting points for some name play, myself.

Not what the designers had in mind, obviously, but I've no doubt the cockles of their heart are warmed by the thought that they might unintentionally offer aid to the desperate and despairing fantasy writer in his or her hour of name-blocked need.


Friday, December 04, 2009

MPoaF: On the Subject of Writing

Earlier this week I spent a pleasant hour or two in the company of the students who make up Strathclyde University's Writers' Society, inflicting upon them some of my experiences, views and prejudices regarding the whole writing thing. I've done this kind of thing a handful of times now, and so far it's always proved enjoyable. I can report that our nation's students - at least the aspiring writers amongst them - are a fine body of folk. (But when did they get to be so young? More to the point, when did I get to be so old? Surely it was only a year or two ago that I was a student myself ... oh, wait. Maybe it was rather longer than that ... don't think about it. Ignore the harsh realities of time's passing. If you don't pay it any attention, it's not really happening ...)

Some universities, it has to be said, benefit from the wisdom of writers rather more ... well, rather more consequential than me. Here, for your Friday viewing pleasure is a whole half hour of a speculative fiction legend talking about his craft at Point Loma Nazarene University. Take it away, Ray Bradbury:

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Robert Holdstock

I was surprised and greatly saddened to hear of the death of Robert Holdstock this past weekend. With his Mythago Wood series, he produced one of the most singular and significant bodies of work in British fantasy of the late 20th century. His central vision of folklore given physical form is amongst the most memorable, resonant and elegantly presented themes I've encountered in speculative fiction, and I've never forgotten what it felt like to read those books for the first time and be aware that I was experiencing something special.

I met him at the David Gemmell Legend Awards ceremony in London earlier this year. We spoke relatively briefly, about inconsequential things, and he was friendly and full of enthusiasm. But I was not on top form, and more than a little starstruck. I was introduced to him as a fellow writer, but felt entirely unworthy of such a status: I was a fan, meeting someone whose achievements I was somewhat in awe of, and was a little flummoxed as a result.

I should have told him, but did not - or certainly not emphatically enough, just how much I liked and valued his work. I should have told him, but did not, that the first story I sold to a magazine was published in an issue that included one of his own co-written works; and how much that simple fact meant to me at the time, to be appearing in print alongside a name that had so much weight and importance in my eyes.

It's nothing compared to the loss now experienced by his family and close friends, of course, but thousands of readers suffered a loss this weekend too: a creator of wonderful fictions, dying too young, with, no doubt, too many stories still untold.