My experiences at Eastercon 2012

I’ve made the title of this post specific to me on purpose as not everyone had as enjoyable time at Eastercon 2012. I missed out on some of the controversy as I was elsewhere attending other panels or I was out to dinner at one point, but I’m sure other people will go into detail about the bad. In general though the feedback has been very good and the event was a huge success as it sold out for the first time in many years. Given that the good outweighed the bad from my point of view, I’ll start with the bad and then end on a much more positive note.

For me there were a few problems with one or two of the panelists and some of the audience members. Being specific, no matter the nature of the panel and the tagline, they were determined to make the panel about something else entirely. They sometimes asked very leading questions or irrelevant questions in an attempt to get the panel to discuss the topic they wanted. This ruined a few panels for me. The moderators valiantly tried to steer the discussion back on topic and they were successful on some occasions, but not always. One of the positives this year was the variety of panels over the four days, so there were plenty of opportunities to discuss many subjects. The organisers provided a daily opportunity for feedback and there were also opportunities before the event to submit ideas and suggestions for panels. I appreciate the programme was not posted until two weeks before the event, but even so it was still being tweaked up to the last minute. So if there was a gap they should have raised it with the organisers instead of trying to derail other panels. I found it really annoying and disrespectful that some people were so incredibly selfish and I was very disappointed by a couple of panelists for the same reason.

Moving on to the good. I managed to meet several authors whose work I admire in person and I chatted to them about all sorts of stuff from writing to archery to role playing to all sorts of nonsense. These included, Mike Shevdon, Elspeth Cooper, Suzanne McLeod (again! – *wave*), Anne Lyle and I met a bunch of shiny and new authors whose books are due out imminently. These are authors with Strange Chemistry, the YA Imprint of Angry Robot Books. I had a lovely dinner one evening with Kim Curran, Laura Lam, Natasha from Voyager, Amanda from Strange Chemistry and my mate Adrian Faulkner.

Over the course of the weekend we also invented several harmless games to keep ourselves amused including Author Cosplay and Author Wave. Adrian has all of the details about the games over on his blog here, as well as a third game Pitch! which we discussed but didn’t dare try in person. I think I was ahead by the end on Author Wave as one of the guests of honour, George RR Martin, himself waved at me. I also received confused and puzzled waves from a few other people but didn’t get any points. It was just interesting to test their memory or their eyesight to see if they were able to read my badge and then work out if they knew me after all or not.

I went to a lot more panels this year than last and even though there were some I was not interested in, I’m sure they were to some who enjoyed them, so we all had a piece of the pie. Despite contracting flu during the latter part of the event (I blame being very tired and run down, plus late nights and early mornings) I came away with a renewed sense of purpose. I said this in my previous post, some days I wake up and think every word I’ve written is awful and other days I don’t think it’s half bad. Eastercon was good for many things but it rekindled the fire in my belly and turned up the hungry dial from 9 to 10. As I said before, the final decision is not in my hands, but being knocked back isn’t going to stop me and it hasn’t stopped me this far. I should point out that my current novel is not my first, or second, or even third or fourth novel. I don’t know if you need to have written 10,000 words or a 100,000 words of crap before you get to the good. Some people make it on the first book, some after 13 years of submitting like Ian McDonald, and as John Jarrold pointed out he’s not a ‘bad little writer’. I almost didn’t go to the panel on how to get published but the new faces on the panel won me over and I was glad I did. I made copious notes, some of which I already knew, but it’s good for reinforcement and there were some interesting comments. The short version is, it’s a long-shot, it’s a crap shoot. If they don’t say wow in the first few pages they (the agent then the publisher) will say no. One audience member was struggling with his story which really kicked off in chapter 8 and the short answer again was, page 1 doesn’t have to be a murder, a car crash, an explosion. It can start slow, but it needs to be your voice, have you written all over it, be distinct and special, and it can be poetic and beautiful or blunt and visceral but it can’t just be run of the mill. Revise and revise and then revise again. Then get other people to look at it. Then give it to someone who hates you and listen to their feedback. Then revise it some more. Ok, perhaps not someone who hates you, but I’m sure you can see why. My mum will always say she likes it and is proud of me (probably) but this isn’t a competition where everyone gets an award for taking part (and what is that about! Don’t get me started) you only get one for first place.

The only person who can let you down, is you, be it because of bad grammar, punctuation, not reading the submission guidelines, printing it on red paper, or writing it by hand. They are looking for a reason to put it down, not because they are evil but simply because every day they get 30 or 50 and have to get through them because tomorrow there will be 30 more. That sounds harsh and cruel and cut-throat, but if you get all of the basics right, and they actually sit down to read your double spaced (lines not between words!) submission, then the full weight rests on your story and your style, which is what it should rest on. Also, read the genre guidelines. If they say no romance and you submit it to an agent who only does SFF, don’t think they will give you a chance because your book is special. They won’t. They don’t have time. Revise. Read. Do your research. You’ll never be 100% happy with it but be as close to 100% as you can be and don’t think, oh well cleaning it up is for the agent and the publisher to do, my job is to create Art and I don’t deal with the small details! That’s someone else’s job! Wrong. It is your job.

Anyway, coming back to the event in more general terms I had a great time. I think George RR Martin helped sell out the event, I met some great authors and had a number of very interesting discussions over drinks and dinner, and I was able to spend some time and socialise with some friends that I don’t seem more than once a year. I also met several new and interesting people. I’m not sure if I will be attending next year, it depends on so many factors, but it is closer to where I live, which does make it appealing. I’ll decide closer to the time as I did this year but I believe that despite some issues and controversy, Eastercon 2012 was a big success. I’ve definitely forgotten to mention some stuff, but it’s the end of a busy first week in a new job and I’m still brain addled with the flu, so apologies to anyone I missed. Don’t forget to wave at your author!

Changes

So there have been a few changes here in the last few weeks. On the day job front I said good bye to one job and a group of people that I really enjoyed working with. Like any job it had its challenges and low points, but overall I’ve come away feeling fairly positive about the experience and working there led me to my new job. It’s a new role in a small company where I’ve met most of the people and I know what kind of work they expect me to do, so I’m not going in blind at all. I’m nervous of course, but that’s just normal new-job nerves, not anything else. But before then I have some time off to rest, recuperate and relax. Sounds easy, but it’s becoming increasingly hard for me to do which sounds weird.

I was pushing myself quite hard towards the end of my last job, burning the candle at both ends as they say, which is probably why I then got sick and was knocked on my arse for a week with bad flu. I’m almost over it now but am still coughing a fair bit. It was also my birthday in the middle of all this. For the last few years I’ve not looked forward to my birthday. On the one hand it’s always nice, people spoil me, I get to feel special for a day and I am the centre of attention, which I loathe for the other 364 days of the year. On the other hand it’s another nail in the coffin, another milestone on the road and so on. I’m 35 now and like some people with burning ambitions a birthday becomes a day where I look back at the year and think about what I’ve accomplished, or not as the case may be, and what I wish I had done differently with that time.

I’ve moved beyond childish goals of – I want to be doing this by the time I’m 30, and this by the time I’m 40 years old – because life isn’t like that, you can’t make those kind of plans and life itself will get in the way. Achieving any ambition requires sacrifices of one kind or another and I’m making them, such as sleep, or time I’d rather spend doing fun stuff I enjoy like reading books, comics, watching TV, or playing computer games. There are some amazing games out at the moment like Skyrim, or Star Wars the Old Republic, the newest MMORPG. It would be so easy for me to buy one of those and sink a hundred hours or more into it. I’d love every minute, I’d enjoy myself and I would not think about how much time I was clocking up until the game loses its shine and I stop playing or my birthday rolls around again. Then I would regret those 100 hours and wish I had spent them writing or planning, or making notes or something. But equally it can’t be me sat at a desk writing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week because I need to earn a living to pay the bills, spend time with my family, eat, sleep, and relax a little, because you need some of that too for the creative process. Finding the right balance is the thing and I guess I’m still struggling with it, hence the getting ill from doing too much.

I’m not going to claim that this is going to be my year, because no matter how good I think my stuff is, and it might be great or awful, that decision is ultimately not one I get to decide. But, I am feeling much better and stronger than I have in a few years. I’ve matured, I’ve become more comfortable with myself and and am settled with my life. I’ve found someone that makes me happy and who ultimately understands me and my weird ambitions to write stories and keep writing long into the night.

I’ve also moved beyond the idea of just writing and seeing where it goes and have found what works for me after years of experimentation. Everyone is different and everyone has their own ideas about writing, where it should be done, how it should be done (gardners vs architects), how often it should be done, but no matter how many books and articles you read, or lectures and classes you attend, the only way to know is to actually do it. Put your bum in the chair and write. Some people I know can get up at 4am or 5am and write before work. Some people tell me their best hours are from 10am to midnight. Others write at lunch time. Others write in short chunks and some can write for hours at a time. Then there are all the posts about daily word counts and targets and so on. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, you need to find what works for you. By all means you should read those articles to understand what other people are doing and what you might want to try if you haven’t found ‘it’ yet, but at some point reading them just becomes another delay tactic. So, I guess that’s a long way of me saying that I’ve found my right place and right time for writing. I’m not going to shun all advice from now on and cut myself off from new ideas, but I’ve found what works for me at this point in my life.

So I’ve no idea if any of the projects I’m currently working on will bear fruit this year but I believe that they will succeed and I’m hopeful and that is a very good thing. Hope is normally a candle easily snuffed out and tomorrow I might fall into a fit of depression and believe everything I’ve written is crap, but right now, today, the candle is going to be one of those irritating trick ones that just won’t blow out.

Urban Fantasy

I’ve written about this a couple of other times in the past on other blogs, but after a few new discoveries I thought it was worth writing about it again. I really struggle to find good urban fantasy. I should clarify, by good urban fantasy I mean books within that specific sub-genre that I enjoy. I didn’t think I was particularly picky, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that perhaps I am because I’ve been underwhelmed or very disappointed by several high profile authors. I’ll come on to character in a bit, but for me there needs to be the right balance of humour in a book. If it doesn’t take itself too seriously, if it is written for laughs then I’m just not interested, I won’t connect or care about the characters and their fate. Equally if it is the most depressing and horrific read ever with no levity, I won’t read it as that isn’t why I read urban fantasy.

There are a lot of UF books out there and it is a genre that definitely seems to be growing, which is great, as it means it becomes increasingly likely that with every year I will find another author or two that I can add to my list of people to follow. I’m not going to name any authors or books in particular that I didn’t enjoy because it would be petty and pointless as many other people enjoy those books. Some of the books are so popular that there are several in the series, so people are buying, reading and enjoying them. My opinion is no more valid than anyone else’s and I think the internet is already choking with too much negativity. So, I’m going to try to make this a positive post about good urban fantasy books and why I enjoy them.

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
This series is one of my favourites of all time across all genres. It is also the longest series of books I have ever read. I know there are series of novels out there with more books than the Dresden Files, but I’ve not read them or enjoyed them enough that I felt compelled to keep reading. Writing one great book is hard. Writing twelve is actually kind of a miracle. I’m not going to claim that all of them are perfect, but I had a lot of fun reading every single one of them. I’ve also read and listened to interviews where Butcher talks about his process for building the stories and I respect the amount of effort he puts into each. The Dresden Files started from a very small corner and over the course of the series it has grown it into a rich supernatural world that is full of remarkable wonders and terrors. His characterisation is also incredibly strong which makes it easier to buy into some of the amazing things that happen because there is always a seed of disbelief or shock. This is still my favourite urban fantasy series and for once I really don’t want it to end. I know it has to but I’m dreading the day when Butcher announces that his next Dresden Files will be the last.

Felix Castor series by Mike Carey
These books are much darker than the Dresden Files and are set in London rather than Chicago. They’re almost gothic horror in some places and although there is magic and supernatural beings, it’s all handled in such a no-nonsense British fashion, it somehow seems more realistic. They have a real dirty, seedy feel to them and part of this comes from the main character who is very grey and definitely not a white hat. I’m not someone who needs or wants every aspect of magic explained to me, but Carey has done something quite unique and special with how it is handled in this series. Finding out about the mechanics was interesting but I would not have complained if he had not included this. There are five books in the series so far and I believe a sixth to wrap it up is planned. Something larger has been building behind the scenes for some time and the final book will go partway to explaining the mystery. I’m eagerly awaiting the conclusion of this series and really enjoy the broodiness and dark humour that prevent it from being a depressing read.

Morris and Chastain series by Justin Gustainis
Unlike the previous two this series has several links to real world events as well as fictional historic events and characters from literature. This gives the series and characters a very different taste and feel. Without giving away too much, I only need to mention Salem and Van Helsing and you get an idea about part of it. The magic in the series is also less overt than Dresden. It is also in keeping with the principal of magic being a force than can be used for good or bad by the practitioner, which is inline with ‘real’ magic, if you believe in such things. There is also a certain bluntness to the books that I enjoy. The style of writing is pared down, it’s tight and fast, but the author does not sacrifice character moments for pace and plot. Also his peripheral characters feel very real and distinct from one another so you always know who is speaking.

As with the other two series the decisions characters make are not always the right ones, but they are realistic. I’ve previously thrown books across the room for being ridiculous where people suddenly act out of character in order to serve the plot or to titillate. I don’t have to agree with a character’s decisions and choices, but if can’t understand them, respect or relate to them in some way, especially if they are the main character, I will put a book down and never go back. I don’t have to like every aspect of a character, but personally I have to find something in them that I can relate to or understand. Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay, is a serial killer. He is a brutal murderer which is something I just can’t get my head around or relate to, but I can understand a little of what made the character the way he is, such as his upbringing, scars from his childhood, sibling relationships, and so on.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a rant, but I think this is one of the critical elements about why I’ve really disliked some urban fantasy series. Some readers are fine with reading about awful people with whom they have nothing in common, but I’m not one of them. I can’t read a story about a character who is a wet flanel with no backbone. Someone who is used and abused  by everyone in the story as they stumble from one disaster to another and yet somehow I’m supposed to support and like this person. Equally I can’t read about a murdering psychopath who carves up people for fun or his own amusement, twirling his moustache as he goes. The story might be very strong, but I need more than that, or else I will put it down and walk away.

Courts of the Feyre by Mike Shevdon
I’ve come to this series late but have been very pleasantly surprised and I really enjoyed it. So far I’ve only read Sixty-One Nails, the first in the series from Angry Robot, and it is steeped in a blend of real world history, ritual, English customs and folklore. There was a lovely freshness to this series, which sounds odd, but when you read a couple of UF novels in a year, even a few months apart, they can sometimes feel very similar. Shevdon’s approach to UF is as unique as all of the others I’ve mentioned which meant I couldn’t be a lazy reader. Lazy reading breeds odd and pointless questions and comments such as ‘That’s not what an elf/faerie/troll etc looks or acts like.’ or ‘How does the magic system work?’. It’s perfectly natural to want to know more about an aspect of a story, be it magic or the Feyre Courts, but it is something else to expect or demand the author to explain every detail just because in another UF book it was laid out in great detail.

Reading Sixty One Nails meant I had to slouch off my preconceptions about what an UF book should be. Anything I was carrying in my head from other series about magic, wizards, Fey, and so on had to be shoved to one side and ignored. This initially makes it more challenging but equally more rewarding when I did find out about magic and the Feyre in this series. It shouldn’t be compared like for like because it’s a totally different world and is not connected in any way to a UF novel by a different author. I’ll stop there because that’s a much bigger discussion and a bigger rant.

New stuff – Fated
A new book that was just released this March is Fated by Benedict Jacka from Orbit Books. As I mentioned I’m always keen to try new urban fantasy authors and this has a cover quote from Jim Butcher, so now I have two reasons to read it. Butcher also provided a quote for Gustainis, so it is an encouraging sign that I might like it.

What else is good?
So, given all of the above, the tone of the stories, the style of the writing, characterisation and so on, can anyone recommend something similar I might enjoy but might have missed?

General Projects Update

For the last few months I’ve been really busy working on various writing projects so now that I’ve overcome some hurdles I thought it was time for another update. A large chunk, perhaps 80% of the work for hire project is done. I emailed the latest version off tonight so now I can take my foot off the pedal with that project slightly and take a little breather. Other people now have to do their part and I hope to see an early version, a prototype if you will, in the next few weeks. I’m still being quite vague but only because I have to at the moment. Once I get the thumbs up I can start showing a lot more and being a lot more specific. On that note actually I’m attending the Eastercon event this year in Heathrow in April and if the stars align I might have a version with me there to show people.

On the comics side the co-writing project with Pete Rogers is going great. As I predicted we ironed out the remaining bumps and kicked the story back and forth several times until we got it to a place where we were both happy with it. I’m still certain that I could not have written this by myself. We’ve both kept pushing each other to do better, to make it work, to not write the obvious or easy option and the story is much stronger for it and I feel much more confident about it now.

The Empyre with Adam is still moving forward slowly. He has been tied up with other projects, but we have kept in touch and I’ve gone back and revisited the material several times in the last few months. I still think it’s a good idea. I was worried that perhaps time away would allow me to look at it with fresh eyes and then realise that it was, in fact, not an idea worth pursuing. I still feel it. A buzz when reading it. It’s very possible that it is just me and when pitched the editors don’t like it, but I can’t go in with something unless I believe in it. I’m prepared for a no thanks and this is not my first time pitching ideas that have been shot down for a variety of reasons.

I’ve also picked up a third project I had previously shelved because I couldn’t work out the end. Ok, not the actual end, but some of the events leading up to that final moment. There again time away has given me fresh eyes and I’ve gone through it with a big sword and cut out whole chunks. I’ve gutted it, added in fresh meat, then done it all over several times more until I’ve ended up with a totally different monster. I also realised in some ways I was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so I’ve just let go of some of the stuff I thought was important or had to be there and now it’s flowing much better. It’s not done yet but it’s getting there.

The last thing I’m working on is a longshot comic book OGN pitch. The actual idea itself, the overview breakdown, the main beats, even the first third of the script, is written and done although it needs another draft. I think it has a lot of potential and is actually my strongest idea after the project with Pete. The longshot part is not the idea, but how to get it to market. It’s going to take something special given the nature of the story and the structure, but I’ve tried. I’ve reached out to someone and there is a good chance this person will say no, but it’s totally worth the risk and I lose nothing by trying. I’m not a person who takes risks. I don’t like them. They’re dangerous. But on this occasion the risk is small and the rewards are great and I’ve come to a point, mentally, where I have to try some things. I have to. Maybe it’s an early mid-life crisis, who knows, but I’m giving it a go. Maybe it’s because my next birthday is just around the corner. Whatever the reason I’m glad that I’ve tried. I’ll probably be weeping and beating my own chest in a few days and be miserable but hey, right now it feels good.

Given all of this writing my reading has slowed down tremendously so in some ways I’m glad I am no longer doing book reviews regularly for a blog. My current choice is a surprise and a delight and I don’t want it to be over. In fact, with a big chunk of the main project out of the way I’m going to stop typing and read some more as it helps fuel my brain. I believe reading is vital for writing. You just have to. More news when I have it.

Geek News Radio

Last year I came up with a cunning plan. Well, it seemed like a cunning plan a the time. I’ve been podcasting for four and a half years and since I started the number of podcasts has doubled and then probably tripled again. On the one hand it’s great, as there is a lot of free and interesting content out there to prevent me from going mad whilst driving two hours every day to and from work. On the other hand it can be very difficult to find good shows and quite often you have to wade through lots of dull shows to find the good ones. So how do you find good shows? The answer is often with great difficulty. I wanted to create a place where people could listen to a range of good podcasts across a wide range of subjects connected to geek culture.

I should say I know there are people out there with longer commutes than me, and people who have to work in tedious jobs where mercifully they can listen to music during the day to stop them going insane, so I’m not hosting a pity party for myself about my two hours of driving every day.

So my plan was to bring together a group of podcasts and form the equivalent of a radio station, but one completely devoted to geek news and reviews. The only thing I wanted to do was make sure all of the shows brought something different to the table, so it didn’t end up being twelve podcasts about TV, or Marvel comics. There is always going to be some overlap, and that’s fine, but I wanted there to be a range of shows covering a broad spectrum of material from independent comics, to movies, to TV, to mainstream comics, to SFF publishing, to dark fiction, to geek discussions, to computer and videos games.

Last night we launched Geek News Radio with a series of live podcasts. It ran from 4pm (UK time) to 11pm and several of the 12 podcasts that initially form GNR took part in the live event. Overall it was a huge success, everyone who did a live podcast got a real buzz from broadcasting live and getting instant feedback from listeners. It had been incredibly difficult to organise and pin people down to a specific date and then a time slot, but in the end I think it was worth it.

In the future I am sure we will add more podcasts to GNR, but there again I want to add shows with their own edge, so that if someone were crazy enough to listen to all of the latest episodes from all podcasts on the network back to back, they would not have 12 hours of different people digesting and discussing the same material.

So, what next? Well, GNR is up and running, it’s being broadcast 24x7x365 on Stitcher. The website for the lastest episodes from everyone is all set up here and it lists all twelve of the podcasts that initially make up GNR. I think we’ll do some more live podcasts in the future, definitely individually and perhaps as a group at a later date, perhaps when we add some new podcasts to GNR.

On that last point, if anyone out there reading this has their own podcast and they would like to see it added to GNR, then get in touch. The only rules are that the podcast has to be something that is produced fairly regularly and consistently, and the show should not focus on a topic already covered by one or more of the current line up.

Things and stuff

I haven’t posted in a while because not a lot has really changed. Work is still incredibly busy and I’m secure in my current role until the end of March, however, things are happening that I can’t talk about yet, but on the whole 2012 is starting out well in that respect.

Creatively, I’m just snowed under too. Working hard and grinding away on the work for hire project. It’s exciting and I can’t wait to start talking about it in more than vague generalisations. It’s a fantastic opportunity, and I am enjoying it, but it is difficult to fit it in around work at the moment with it being so busy. I’m making progress though, chipping away at the mountain of ice and it’s gradually starting to resemble a story. I’m also hopeful that this project might open some other doors in the future but I guess it’s another wait and see depening on how this one goes.

Comics wise, my co-writing project with Pete went through a few bumps, we had one stumbling block in the story which I cracked with a real eureka moment while sat on the floor of my office stroking a cat like Blofeld from the Bond movies. Of course at the time I couldn’t leap up and shout it as my legs were numb from sitting on the carpet in one position for too long, and I didn’t want to wake the dozing kitten, but still, it was a breakthrough. We’ve hit another speedbump but there again I’m not worried and I think between the two of us we’ve cracked it already. This co-writing business is proving to be a lot of fun. It’s great to have someone to sanity check your wacky brainstorms, to bounce ideas off and get an immediate knee-jerk reaction.

This Christmas I asked for a lot more comic books instead of novels I can read them faster and in small chunks, plus my to read pile is still hideous. So, since Christmas I’ve read some great comics and made slow progress on my current book which I am enjoying but it’s hard to sit down and dedicate an hour to it at the moment. Some interesting comic book reads recently – Morning Glories Vol 2, Locke and Key Vols 2 & 3, The Sixth Gun Vol 2, The Walking Dead vol 15 (yes 15!!), Ex Machina Vol 10 which wraps it up, Chew Vol 4, Essex County, Batman The Black Mirror. Still got a few great comics to read and at some point I might do a few brief reviews, although I’m more likely to discuss them on the podcast. We’re still doing that too, although with both Scott and myself so busy we’ve moved to a fortnightly schedule. No one has complained so we’ll stick to that for the time being until things quieten down, if they ever do.

So, a bit of a rambly post, can’t say too much yet, but when I know more about the job situation and the work for hire project I will write about and then soon after people will be sick of hearing about it.

A roundup of 2011

More and more I find myself sounding a lot like Arkwright from Open All Hours, both in terms of being a grumpy old git, but also because he used to say ‘It’s been a funny old day’ quite frequently. Well, it’s been a funny old year. Like the last five years really, my job situation has been unstable and uncertain. I realise this is not something that is unique to me, and in fact the whole country (and the world) is going through a vast raft of problems, but I’m going to be selfish for a bit since this is my personal blog.

So, I’ve had a funny year in terms of jobs once again. My last contract ended and I was on the dole for a little while before I found something else. A former employer got in contact and it was both a step into the past and a step forward as new opportunities have opened up. The future in terms of my job situation is still not clear, which is disheartening and taxing, it means I can never completely rest and always have one eye on the calendar, one foot out the door of any place I work, but there’s not much I can do except knuckle down and get on with it. I’m sure another job will turn up, I just hope it’s sooner this time rather than later.

Job stuff aside, it’s been an interesting year in terms of my creative output. One comic book project continues to chug on slowly, but I also started a brand new comic book partnership. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time but only made steps to implement very recently. Why I didn’t do it sooner I have no idea, and now I wish I had. Pete Rogers and I have been co-writing something and whether or not this particular comic project is a success I think we both want to work on something else together in the future.

My work on the latest novel continues but this year has helped bring a certain level of clarity to it which I think was previously lacking. I’m more certain what my book is about. That sounds kind of obvious, and surely I should know what it’s about if I wrote it, but as a friend of mine said, there’s the story and then there’s what the book is about. I know what I need to do to finish the first draft and I’ve already drawn up a list of corrections for one of the many polishes, although now I’ve seeing them more as clarifying what I originally meant, or added specific details to make it clearer. After that and a few more polishes are complete, I’m going to give to a small group of close friends to read. I’m also not going to put a time limit on when I think the book will be finished and ready to submit to an agent. This is probably the hardest thing about the whole process for me, as I want this book out there, want to get on the road, want to be moving forward, but I think I have something special and need to make sure I’m 99% happy with it before I show it to an agent. I’m never going to be 100% happy with it. There will always be bits I want to tweak endlessly but I’m still a long way from reaching that point.

I’ve also started work on another creative project in a more professional capacity, but I’ve signed a bit of paper that means I can’t talk about it much. This will change in the first quarter of next year, so I look forward to being able to give a few more details, but at the moment it’s another iron in the fire, it’s another opportunity for me that could blossom into something else. I’ve definitely got more eggs in more baskets going forward into next year and I just hope that one of them pays off so I can spend more time doing something I love. I would love to be one of those lucky people where their passion is also their job.

Bits and pieces

Bit of a general round up post of some recent stuff I’ve been involved with. As part of the podcast we do a SFF book club and looking back we’ve been going now for two years. We’ve covered a whole bunch of different books, both classic works of fiction including The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, Slaughterhouse 5, Stranger in a Strange Land, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I Am Legend, The Caves of Steel and we’ve looked at some modern SFF including Empire in Black and Gold, The City and The City, Zoo City, American Gods, Masked, The Winter King, Horns, and The Dresden Files. We’ve been lucky enough to speak to some of the authors of these great books and have interviewed China Mieville, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Lou Anders and Lauren Beukes.

Our most recent selection is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card which is under the popular spotlight at the moment because a movie adaptation seems to be moving ahead. Our discussion proved to be really interesting as Scott and I came down on different sides with the novel and the author attracts a fair amount of controversy because of his views. A quick internet search will tell you more about that. Our current book club selection is a debut novelist, Mazarkis Williams, and his first book The Emperor’s Knife is being published by Joe Fletcher books, someone who is very well known in the SFF publishing business. So, if you’ve got some time over the holidays or beyond that in the months ahead and want to listen to some discussion of SFF books, check out The Book Club blog where we post new episodes.

This week we’re also recording the last Comic Book Outsiders episode of 2011 and we will take a longer break over the holidays and be back in January. I’ll end up with about two weeks off work, but I’m going to be busy with family and then I’ve got to get my teeth into some writing projects that have been put to one side in recent weeks because work has kept me very busy, away from home, and made me very tired.

I’m not one for making new year’s resolutions but I am looking forward to next year with a renewed sense of hope. Some creative projects that have been slowly gestating are starting to bear some fruit and the increased momentum is getting me excited about writing in a way that I’ve not been for a while. I think next year is going to be an interesting and creatively rich and rewarding year. So while I’m not keen to wish away the rest of December, I am looking forward to seeing what happens next.

 

DC Comics 52 relaunch – Something is missing

Just some further thoughts on DC comics new 52 relaunch. Now that some of the dust has settled and issue 3 of most titles has come out, people are starting to find out which titles they really love and settle into various camps such as Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Horror (Swamp Thing, Animal Man), Teen, and so on. I’ve recently been watching some of the Young Justice animated series and it made me think about what I think is missing from the 52 relaunch. It’s mentors and teachers. It’s books about young people learning how to be heroes from the start.

Fantasy books are full of farm boys and stable boys growing up to become great warriors and heroes. They feature an epic journey where the fresh faced nobody must overcome numerous impossible obstacles and eventually they succeed and are stronger for it. Over a long period of time they become someone other boys with dreams look up to; an icon and hero in their own right. So far I’ve not seen this from DC which is very surprising given some of their popular successes.

Peering across the street, Marvel has a school for gifted youngsters, now the Jean Grey school, where some of the most dangerous and famous X-men as now the teachers, including Wolverine. They’ve also had the extremely popular X-Men movie franchise. Just so we’re clear, this is not me being negative about DC at all because right now I’m buying more DC books than ever before and very few Marvel books. I just think there is still room for new titles from DC comics that could potentially cover areas not currently being explored.

Think about the Christopher Nolan Batman films and put to one side the actors, directors, special effects and so on. If you focus on what made the films really interesting and enjoyable, then for me it’s the story and the heart of that adventure. It’s the journey of Bruce Wayne from naïve wounded puppy to seriously dangerous and extremely threatening and scary menace of the underworld. I loved seeing him learn different skills from a wide range of different Masters. Be they low criminals and thieves, crime bosses, leaders of ancient cults or dangerous psychopaths like the Joker. I loved seeing him absorb all of those skills and all of that knowledge, learn from his mistakes, sift through the information and shape it into a weapon that he could use for his mission. Something that would bring together all of his new skills together with his fear of bats. He didn’t start out as someone who was born to that way of life, nor was he gifted with special powers, nor did he come from another planet or gain superpowers in some freak accident. This is something he chose. Something inside him broke when his parents died and the only way he knew how to cope (I’m not saying it’s a healthy or recommended way of dealing with loss!) was to become something terrifying and fight an endless war on crime.

If you look at all of the new 52 titles you could argue that Bruce Wayne is training and mentoring Damian, his son. But let’s be honest, Damian was trained practically from the second he was conceived. He is already a devious and extremely dangerous evil genius who was left to fend for himself in some of the most hideous ways imaginable. In some ways Bruce is trying to teach Damian how to be a real human being and to care rather than let him develop into an evil megalomaniac like his grandfather. So Damian is not just a kid off the street like Jason was a long time ago. He’s not even like Dick or Tim, both of who had no formal training at the start in being a crime fighter. They were trained over many year by many masters, including Batman, before each became a hero in their own right.

The new Teen Titans comic is not about the youngsters learning how to be heroes like the animated adventures, and in Batgirl she is already someone who has been trained and is coming back to the cowl after some time away. The closest I can probably find is Bette Kane, who in the pages of Batwoman, is being trained by her cousin. She is not given a proper costume and is being tutored by Kate, but it’s not exactly the same thing. The book is very much focused on Kate not Bette.

Some of the other titles feature young heroes but they are either accidental heroes who have to learn what they are how it all works (Blue Beetle), aliens who have crash landed and are the stranger in a strange land (Supergirl) or experiments (Superboy) being programmed to be a weapon at someone else’s behest. One of my biggest complaints about the TV series Smallville was that Clark whinged all the time. Every single episode he probably made at least one comment about wanting to be normal and he never seemed to enjoy his powers and what they allowed him to do. What I’m talking about is someone who wants to be a hero or crime fighter, who has sought it out and is pushing themselves beyond normal human limits because they have a driving need and urge that is not quenched by a normal life.

I think all of the tools and pieces are already there for a comic like the one I’ve described which is focused on a student and mentor relationship. All it requires is that DC dust off certain toys currently sat in their box and wrap them up in new clothing as they’ve done with a lot of characters in the new 52. Maybe something like this will be coming in the second wave of titles from them. I certainly hope so, because if not, I think DC are missing a trick, especially given how popular such themes are across the street in comics and at the movies.

Coming of Age

Last week SFF publisher Angry Robot announced they are setting up a YA imprint, Strange Chemistry, and Amanda Rutter, has been appointed as the editor. I am totally thrilled and delighted for Amanda because for as long as I’ve known her she has always been extremely enthusiastic and vocal about the joys of YA fiction. They could not have picked a better person for the job. This, combined with reading my first YA book, Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan, made me think back to when I was the right age for YA books and what was available.
 
When I was in primary school the only SFF books available were those to help you read which contained lots of colourful pictures and not many words. After that I jumped to books of Myths and Legends which often had beautiful paintings and sketches of the monsters like Grendal or the Green Knight from the story about Sir Gawain. After that I had to jump to borrowing my brother’s books, which were the Belgariad by David Eddings, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis and there’s another series I’ve completely forgotten but will come back to me later. LOTR was a bit beyond me and at that age I quickly grew bored and was bogged down with it, but the Belgariad was probably closer to what we might call YA today. No such segment existed back then, there was just one small and quite repetitive SFF segment in my local bookshop for SFF and it was dominated by the likes of Stephen King (too old and weird for me back then), Clive Barker (far too scary) with the occasional Terry Brooks or Eddings thrown in. Once I had exhausted the Belgariad, and the Mallorian was not yet in print, I went through all of Brooks’ Shannara books.
 
The first time I read the Belgariad series I was probably ten or eleven as I distinctly remember sitting on a bench at lunch times in Middle School reading Pawn of Prophecy while other boys ran around playing football. This could explain why I never got into football and don’t support a football team. Anyway, I picked up most of the content in the Belgariad, probably missed some of the nuances but that was all right, I absorbed enough to know what was going on and who all of the characters were. I was already in love with the genre by that point and without knowing it, this was my first brush with a coming of age story which I would later read over and over again. The story was about a boy named Garion who grew up to discover he had a destiny that could not be avoided and like Luke Skywalker, and a host of other orphans, farm boys, scullions and stable hands, he discovered the kindly old man with the white beard who was always so nice to him was actually a powerful Sorcerer.
 
I’ve gone back and read the Belgariad since and on subsequent readings it has had far less of an impact. I can see what is going to happen next, I know the main character will always do the right thing and that in the end the heroes will always win. It’s a comfortable read and without meaning to sound patronising, it’s a much simpler book than I remember.

So some of that was in the back of my mind when earlier this year I read Glow, my first proper YA book and to my relief it was a totally different animal. Some adult issues were referred to in passing, or they took place off the page, so perhaps that is one of the minor differences between YA and other fiction, but apart from that I didn’t notice anything in particular. It was a SF story and like the SF I enjoy the most, it focused more on the characters and it used the SF elements as background and structure, the technology did not become the whole story. As someone in his thirties I know it was not written for me and therefore there were certain elements I felt were missing, but it didn’t prevent it from being an enjoyable read.

I was recently listening to an episode of the SF Signal podcast where they had a panel discussion on YA. One of the panellists said in their experience there are typically two types of YA. The stories that can be read and enjoyed by anyone of any age, and the teen focused stories which centre around particular issues they might be struggling with, such as eating disorders, image issues and personal confidence, social conformity and so on. They’re never spelled out that overtly, but at their core that’s what the stories are about. I haven’t read much YA so I can’t comment on that so I will defer to her knowledge.

I think an adult could read and enjoy a novel in the latter category, but personally I would probably want the heart of the story to be focused on something else. My angst days are a long time ago. Glow probably straddled the two categories but I can definitely see it appealing more to a YA audience as it is all about searching for answers and searching for yourself. I think it was about the main characters believing they would grow up to be one thing and then events didn’t go as they had anticipated and they had to adapt in order to survive. By the end of the book they were totally different people and they looked back on their younger selves as naïve. It was never patronising, there were no easy answers and unlike the Belgariad the characters didn’t always do the right thing. There were plenty of grey in Glow and at the end of the book it was not all tied up neatly in a little bow. I would definitely read another YA book, but right now there are so many other books I desperately want to read and don’t have enough time, so perhaps I will revisit YA when my to read pile is more manageable.