Archive for Rambling

Superhero fiction: the next big thing?

There is an old writing adage worth paying attention to: don’t write for the market. What’s hot now may not be hot next year, and considering a book may take two to three years to come out after being picked up by a publisher – and that’s not counting the time it takes to actually write and sell the thing – deciding to jump on the current trend is not a good idea. This probably applies more to specific concepts rather than genres as a whole. For example, while zombies, vampires and werewolves are currently ruling the roost, horror as a general genre is also experiencing something of a resurgence. So although writing a paranormal vampire romance is not the best idea (unless you have something unique and/or amazing), writing something in the horror field might be a good bet, as a genre trend might have a longer cycle of popularity and decline.


Predicting trends is also pretty much impossible. Although you can spot signs here and there, a scene will have pretty much established itself already before anyone notices, and it’s only in retrospect that you can more clearly identify the key titles and writers responsible. Many publishers will try to pick a trend anyway, and some will even rush-release titles to cash in. You can usually tell which books these are, and I really have no idea if it works as a method of generating a quick buck. Bully for them if it does.

So far, so good. Two facts: don’t write for a trend, and trends are impossible to predict anyway. Got it? Got it. So whatever you do, don’t ask me what the Next Big Thing in genre fiction will be, because I don’t know, and if I did know I probably wouldn’t tell you.

But… maybe it’s superhero fiction.  I said maybe.

Superhero prose fiction has been around for as long as its comicbook equivalent of course, but has been paid far less attention than the original material for an obvious reason: superheroes are visual. They wore bright costumes in the late 1930s because the bold colours really stood out amidst the monotonous gray of the corner news stand. They caught the eye, and what better way to show Superman lifting a car over his head than to show Superman lifting a car over his head.

But prose is different. Everything takes place in the reader’s head, and what they see will undoubtedly be completely different to how the writer pictured it, even if he or she goes crazy with description. That’s how prose works and what makes it so brilliant. But this may explain why superhero fiction, while enjoying a modest level of popularity over the years, has never really caught on. In fact, I’ve met a lot of people who raise an eyebrow when I mention that I’ve written superhero prose fiction, so ingrained is the notion that superheroes are for comics and comics are a visual medium.

The most notable recent example of superhero fiction that had a slightly higher profile among the public was Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. When this novel was released in 2007, public telephone boxes in the UK were transformed with wraparound advertising, playing on the traditional cliché of Superman. The book isn’t bad either, although it’s probably more important as an example of how superhero fiction can work outside of a visual medium.

Unfortunately, the momentum of Soon I Will Be Invincible was quickly lost – just last month the author updated his blog to say that he has some more books scheduled for 2011, but that’s a gap of nearly four years since Invincible came out, and in the interim trends in science fiction, fantasy, and everything genre have changed. Another notable entry is From The Notebooks of Dr. Brain, by Minister Faust, also from 2007, but while this comedy novel gained something of a cult following, like Invincible it perhaps arrived too early.

Why then am I breaking one of the golden rules and predicting an upswing in superhero fiction? Well, my friends, there are signs.

Superheroes have always been popular material for film adaptation, more so now than ever. I think this is because of all media, film (especially big budget film) is the one that can match the visual spectacle of comics. And just look at the line-up of comicbook adaptations coming in 2011 and beyond: Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3… the list goes on.

But all of these are adaptations of existing properties. This is logical, of course – with the gargantuan amounts of money spent on Hollywood productions it makes sense to stick to the tried and true, and it’s also a good way for publishers like DC and Marvel to get their characters and stories to a wider audience. Off the top of my head I don’t recall an original superhero concept on the big screen, except for Pixar’s The Incredibles, and Megamind from Dreamworks, both of which are CG animation. Hancock, starring Will Smith, might be the only live-action original superhero film of recent times, but its not exactly a shining example of the genre.

More interesting than film – and possibly more indicative of a growing trend – is the explosion of superhero television shows, specifically original superhero shows. Heroes was the first, but after a spectacular first season it floundered terribly and was ultimately canned. Currently we have No Ordinary Family, a drama series about a family of four who gain superpowers after surviving a plane crash in South America, and the forthcoming The Cape, about an ex-cop framed for murder who joins a circus and, erm, gains superpowers and stars Summer Glau as a…*cough* investigative blogger. Actually, it looks better than it sounds. The SyFy network is also developing Three Inches, a series about superheroes with rather pathetic powers (cover your ears, Mur!), and Alphas, a series about… actually, nobody seems to know. Of note, The Cape appears to be the only example so far of series about costumed superheroes, and even in this case they have a rationale for it (the cape in question being a circus costume). Surely I wasn’t the only one wishing that the characters that populated Heroes would just cut to the chase and form a spandex-clad crime-fighting league?

Anyone? Moving on…

The most interesting superhero television series comes not from the US but from the UK. Misfits is about five delinquent youths sentenced to community service for a variety of small crimes. Caught in a bizarre electrical storm, they are each gifted a power, and over two series (the second of which has almost finished screening here in the UK) become embroiled in an increasingly bizarre sequence of events which include murder and lot of sex (although not always at the same time). It is easily the best written British television series at the moment and is a dynamite subversion of the superhero genre and concepts.

Really, it’s genius. If you can see it, see it.

So what of books then? What signs are there that superheroes are about to become something big? Firstly, there’s the Masked anthology, edited by Lou Anders, which features short fiction from a number of comic writers and well-known novelists. Angry Robot Books is set to release The Damned Busters by Mathew Hughes later in 2011, in which an office worker summons a demon who grants him his greatest wish, to be a superhero.

Numerous online magazines and fiction sites have also sprung up, extolling the virtues of superhero fiction – Superhero Novels, A Thousand Faces and Beta City, to name but three.

Perhaps an even bigger sign that Something Is Coming is the fact that comic writer Bill Willingham is the guest of honour at WorldCon 2011, being held in Reno, Nevada, a convention traditionally tied very strongly to science fiction and fantasy literature (ie, prose fiction).

Will 2011 be the year of superhero fiction? Maybe. The signs are there. If the superhero genre does explode, I’ll be very happy indeed, as I love superheroes and have written a lot of superhero fiction. If that bandwagon is a-comin’ to town, I’ll be jumping right aboard (and thus breaking rule number one. Le sigh.).

Am I right? What are your picks for superhero fiction, and what other signs have I missed? Or is this all for nothing, and you really can’t predict forthcoming trends? I’d love to hear your comments!

Super Mario Brothers (and other genre games): the Next Generation

Video games are science fiction, right?

Well, at least, they can be. Metroid, Einhander, Portal, even Space Quest.

They can also be horror — Parasite Eve, Phantasmagoria, and Resident Evil. And they can be fantasy.

I mean, how much more fantastical do you get than an overweight, moustached plumber jumping on turtles and anthropomorphized mushrooms in an attempt to save a princess who’s been kidnapped by a cross between a dragon, a stegosaurus, Morla, and Michael Savage?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Super Mario Brothers lately. I have a story that’s been perennially submitted that sort of retells the origin of SMB. I’ve been playing the game since the NES — and even remember the extra-tough arcade version at the skating rink in Davie, Fla., where I grew up. And now, with the Wii, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of New Super Mario Bros Wii.

As has my four-year-old daughter.

Not at all unexpectedly, she’s been interested in video games for quite some time already — her first love was Mega Man, and you haven’t lived until your child has interrupted a dance demonstration to show you off by telling a story about how you and she play video games together — and for months we’d sit together and I’d play while she made up stories. But recently, on a suggestion from my friend Chrome, I put a controller in her hands and taught her how to play.

She hasn’t looked back. We play Mario quite a bit now, and she’s not terrible at it. She loves riding Yoshi and imitating the voices of the characters. She gets a major kick out of defeating me (I try to let her win, but she’s surprisingly adept at not collecting coins). And even her imaginary friends are now Mario-related — Bowser, Princess Peach, Koopa Jr, Wendy O. Koopa, and Ludvig Von Koopa.

And when we discovered the old Super Mario Brothers Super Show! on Netflix, well… she was just thrilled.

What she hasn’t done yet, though, is try to act like the actual characters in the game. That is, to try and jump on bad guys or break bricks. But at least one person has: this guy, who hacked his Kinect to show just how tough it would be to really play SMB.

It’s kind of cool to watch how much difficulty he has just trying to get the first super mushroom in 1-1 of the original SMB. Not in a schadenfreude way, but in a “wow, that should be so simple” kind of way.

Makes me not want a Kinect. At all. (Sorry, Microsoft; if you want to advertise here, we’ll still take your money, we promise.)

I wonder how many of us got our start in sci-fi or fantasy as young kids with video game systems, jumping on mushrooms and ducking into pipes, collecting coins and power-ups, and defeating Bowser over and over, only to be told the princess was in another castle. How many of us ran through our houses or our backyards, jumping on imaginary bad guys — or real toys, like soccer balls and pool floats — and flinging imaginary fireballs — or ping-pong balls, or tennis balls, or even baseballs?

The video games we played when we were young — at least, if you’re my age (that is, in elementary school in the 80s) — have a profound effect on what we like now, I think. And I think it’s because we had to use our imaginations. When I played Combat with my dad, I had to fill in the details. At age four, I vaguely knew what tanks were… but I definitely knew what a fighter plane looked like, and in my mind my fighter planes were totally getting blown to smithereens by my dad’s. When I finally got a Nintendo and started playing Super Mario Brothers, 8-bit graphics were awesome… but I still had to use my imagination a little. As games got better, and I got better at them, I used my imagination less and less.

Nowadays, my daughter knows exactly what her favorite video game characters look like. I wonder if, in 20 years, she’ll still hold as fond a place in her heart for the Super Mario Brothers as I do for Combat and the other Atari 2600 games I used to play (and the shows I used to watch with my dad when I was between four and ten — Star Trek, the A-Team, Knight Rider, WCW Wrestling). I wonder if my attempts to indoctrinate her in the things I like — video games, sci-fi (on a limited basis), Miami Dolphins football, thinking farts are hilarious — will stick as well as my dad’s stuck with me.

Just… not too sticky. The last thing I need is this playing at her wedding.

Apocalypse now

So, you like The Walking Dead, huh? It’s neat, right? An ongoing post-apocalyptic TV series about zombies, based on an award-winning comic. What’s not to love? And fortunately, they’ve done a mighty fine job on the adaptation. This viewer is pleased. Zombies are popular at the moment, cresting at the top of one of those unpredictable waves of fashion. The Walking Dead has come at exactly the right time, whether by design or accident, and all power to it.

But this series fits into another genre, that of the post-apocalyptic. And this is where I have a confession to make.

I don’t like post-apocalyptic. Post-apocalyptic is predictable, formulaic, and easy. There, I’ve said it.

This is, of course, not true. Post-apocalyptic is also hugely popular and always has been, not just with the general public but with discerning genre fans like you and I. It seems that wiping out humanity in some global catastrophe is something that, maybe, we all secretly wish for. I mean, if we were among the lucky survivors, it’d be free reign, right? No work, no more need for money. No more cruelty and tyranny, no more pollution, overpopulation or war.

And of course no people, no family, no friends, no loved ones, and the beginning of a huge struggle for survival against impossible odds in a situation likely to psychologically traumatise even the most hardened survivalist.

So okay, not so neat.

I said I don’t like post-apocalyptic, and that bit is true. Post-apocalyptic is formulaic, simply because the scale of the situation is such that any fiction set after the disaster must follow similar plot lines. The survivors are isolated, and then eventually find each other. Cities are empty or full of the dead (or the walking dead). There is no power, no medicine. Every manmade resource is suddenly very finite indeed. And so on, and so on. Plotwise, most post-apocalyptic stories are more or less the same.

I should point out here that I’m no expert. I have friends who are very dedicated followers of end-of-the-world stories, and no doubt about now they’re ready to put their keyboards through the computer screen in frustration. But hear me out. Post-apocalyptic may suck, plotwise, but where it really shines is in characterisation. Possibly more than any other genre, post-apocalyptic depends upon strong characterisation. Because if all the plots are the same, or similar (and I’m talking pure plot here, which is different to story and situation), then all you have left are the survivors. And it is how the survivors act in their new environment that makes the story. I’m not saying that characterisation is unique to the post-apocalypse, far from it, but I am saying that if you’re about to write an epic tale of an empty world, you’ve got to be prepared to engage the reader with some very, very powerful players.

With that in mind, and as a self-confessed post-apocalyptic skeptic, here’s my list of five tales that, to me, are among the best examples of the post-apocalyptic. I’m not just going to regurgitate a list from Wikipedia (and, my heavens, there is quite a list on there), these are personal choices that I think are either great examples of either characterisation or perhaps an unusual or uncommon take on the post-apocalyptic plot. Having just slated the genre for being formulaic, let’s see if there are any stories which break the mould.

Before I continue, there’s also an important distinction to make here between those stories which are genuinely post-apocalyptic, and those which are really apocalyptic. Post-apocalypse, by definition, implies that the menace, threat, disaster, alien invasion, plague, etc, have been and gone. What we are left with is the world and the people left afterwards. Stories like the recent film Skyline, or 2012, or great classics like The War of the Worlds take place while the disaster is unfolding. While the aftermath may be considered post-apocalyptic (although probably not in the case of The War of the Worlds), we don’t see that bit. I’ll admit here I’m going to cheat on one entry in my list below, but only because I think it’s a particularly fine and relatively unknown example.

The Quiet Earth

I’m really sure how well known New Zealand cinema of the early 80s is outside of that country, but The Quiet Earth is well worth tracking down. It tells the story of a man who wakes up one morning to find the world empty − whatever the apocalypse was (I shall reveal nothing), it actually physically removed the world’s population, so our hero (played by the wonderful Bruno Lawrence) finds himself genuinely alone. With a completely deserted Earth, not even a single corpse in sight, Lawrence carries the majority of the film on his own. It’s a remarkable performance as his character goes from confusion, to exhilaration (with nobody around the world is his oyster… if he wants to drive a giant earthmover through a gas station to see what happens, why not?) and finally to total paranoia and delusion. And after all, if you were the only human being left on the planet, wouldn’t you start to think you were special? The Quiet Earth is out on DVD and I’d recommend you grab it.

The Stand

The grand-daddy of all post-apocalyptic stories, Stephen King’s 1978 tale of the survivors of a super flu which wipes out most of the human population is rightly considered a classic. At an eye-watering 1300 pages, this book is a perfect example of character over plot. Of course, King is known for this, but while the concept of a superflu (one engineered by the military as a biological weapon that is released accidentally) was old hat when King wrote it, the journey of the survivors as they find each other and come to terms with their new world is brilliant. Although the central plot eventually reveals itself − that of the survivor’s journey to Las Vegas to make their stand against an evil that has arisen − how the characters react and cope is what makes this whopping tome a real page-turner. If you haven’t read any King, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Afficiandos think that this is his best work; while I personally prefer ‘Salem’s Lot, if you have any doubts about the post-apocalyptic genre, this will set your mind at rest, as it did mine.

Earth Abides

Twenty-nine years before The Stand was published, academic George R. Stewart wrote his single novel which might be called “genre”. Earth Abides is another that follows the standard post-apocalyptic formula − a super-sickness kills everyone, leaving only those immune to the disease alive − but you can forgive Stewart for this given that it was probably a newer story concept back in the 1940s. Earth Abides might be that one book that I’d take to a desert island, should I be so abandoned. It’s beautiful, moving and sad, and sticks in the mind not just because of the human characters and their journey but because of Stewart’s depiction of the world itself. In Earth Abides, the Earth itself is a character. Rid of destructive humans, it begins to regenerate, reclaiming itself and returning to an earlier pre-industrial (you might even say ‘default’) state. Stewart conveys this in a striking way, with a key motif being the silence of the world. Without humans and their cars, planes, factories and technology, the Earth is mostly silent, the loudest sound being that of a thunderclap. In this quiet Earth, the survivors gather and attempt to reconstruct society but ultimately they fail, instead regressing to a more primitive level of society. This only reinforces the central theme of the book. The Earth abides; humanity does not.

The Road

I’m cheating here. I’m not talking about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel, one which dominated the responses on Twitter when I put out a call for recommendations. I’m talking about Quatermass creator and master of British science fiction Nigel Kneale‘s one-off BBC television drama from 1963, now sadly lost from the archives and only surviving in script form plus, it seems, one manky photo. Also, it’s not really post-apocalyptic. In fact, it is really pre-apocalyptic. In the 18th century, the inhabitants of an English village shun the road that runs through the nearby woods, for the woods are haunted and people have heard terrible things. As the story reaches the climax, it is revealed that the manifestations on the road are the echo of people fleeing an atomic explosion in the present day, somehow riverberating back in time. The juxtaposition of modern − police sirens, recognisably modern people running in abject terror for their lives − with the old, with the 18th century characters cowering in terror, completely unable to comprehend the sound which we, the viewer, recognise all too well, must have been both brilliant and chilling when it was first shown.


I can’t make this list, self-confessed archive television nut that I am, without mentioning Terry Nation’s BBC TV series, Survivors. Again, the scenario is pure post-apocalypse cliche. Humanity is mostly wiped out by a plague, strongly implied to be deliberately engineered and released by accident. Over three seasons between 1975 and 1979, Survivors charted the journey of the survivors as they found each other and ultimately formed a community. Critics often bemoan the transformation from gritty science fiction survival story to “soap opera”, but I think they’re confusing soap opera with character-driven drama, and this is where Survivors shows its real strength (characterisation, see?). Survivors was remade for a modern audience over two seasons in 2008 and 2010, but here the tired nature of the premise was in full effect, rendering the remake flat and pointless. Survivors should be experienced in all its 70s glory.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth

A sixth entry, mainly because Nigel Kneale’s The Road doesn’t quite count. The Dalek Invasion of Earth was the second appearance of the Daleks in Doctor Who, and was broadcast in six episodes from November 21 to December 26, 1964. Despite the title, this isn’t about an alien invasion. By the time the Doctor and company arrive in a deserted, dilapidated London, the Daleks have been the masters of the Earth for a decade or more. Here we discover that the Daleks first employed a virus to weaken society before arriving in force, and years late the surviving humans are either enslaved or gathered in disparate resistance groups.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth is Doctor Who‘s first foray into alien invasion and one of the rare occasions it featured a genuinely post-apocalyptic story. Extensive location work around London makes this story something of a small-screen epic, and to this day it is regarded as one of the best stories of the show’s early years.

There are many more that are worth of this list − as already mentioned, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but also Wall-E, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (perhaps a rare example of post-apocalyptic confined to a very specific place, namely the walled city of Seattle). UK genre publisher Abaddon has a entire ongoing post-apocalyptic series, The Afterblight Chronicles, which are well worth checking out. Like I said I’m not post-apocalyptic scholar so please, nominate your own prime examples of the genre in the comments and teach me a lesson.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have the next episode of The Walking Dead to watch.

The Perils of Timely Fiction

About two years ago, I was flying with my family and I noticed that, when we landed, all I could hear was the sound of everyone’s cell phone booting up.

A month later, I had a 9000-word short-story about airport security. Taking place about 50 years in the future, it’s about a man traveling to Los Angeles to see his daughter and the rigmarole he has to go through.

It has yet to sell. I’ve cut down the word count, I’ve revised several times, I’ve sent it to a couple dozen publications… and no dice. No one seems to want it. (It almost made it to the top at Andromeda Spaceways, and the readers gave me good feedback, but they didn’t publish it.) I’m pretty sure it’s not getting bought because nothing actually happens — a man flies to Los Angeles to see his daughter – and editors I guess want stories where there’s action.

But that’s neither here nor there. Not at the moment.

Last Monday, as I sat at my desk at work watching post after post about security theater pass by on Tweetdeck, I felt a little spark of hope that my story might soon find a home.

Unfortunately, it often takes months for stories to get from the slush pile to the editorial desk.

I understand that. I really do. And I’m very patient – I follow the submission guidelines to the best of my ability, I never bother editors unless the official response time has passed by more than a full week, and I don’t complain about form rejections. The reality of writing is that there’s a metric buttload of us and a relatively small number of editors and markets.

Still, now that I’ve exhausted most of the long-story markets, it’s going to be harder for me to find a home for my story. I predict a long couple of nights of rewriting, followed by sending out the story… and waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

Just like every other burgeoning author.

Thing is, by the time my story gets to the top of the slush pile, the timeliness of it will probably be moot. All this hullabaloo about scanners that don’t detect bombs in body cavities, scanners that show screeners your naked body, fines being levied against people who refuse to be body-scanned and don’t want your hands on their junk… it’ll all be over in three, six, nine, or 12 months (or whenever the story eventually is read by an editor who wants it). Then it’ll be another three to 18 months until it actually sees print. At that point, we’ll have moved onto another cause celebre. Twitter will be complaining about the next Apple tablet that doesn’t do That One Thing Everyone Likes, or a politician who said That One Thing Everyone Thought Was Idiotic, or the fact that people without That One Smartphone are technological luddites who don’t deserve to pray at the altars of their mighty cellphone providers.

I’m okay with that. I really am. But it makes me wonder if I should mention in my cover letter that I wrote the story in response to airline security woes. Usually my cover letters are very simple: here is my story, I hope you like it and choose to publish it, thank you. (Soon they will include the location of my first professional publication, but until I have a contract in hand I’m not revealing it to a wider audience.) Would saying why I wrote a story help much? Would it give the slush reader the impetus to nudge it a little higher in the “stories for the editor to read” pile (provided the slush reader likes it enough to pass it on, of course)?

I don’t know. I’m not an editor. But I do know this: regardless of what happens with the story I’ve just been blogging about, I’m going to keep writing timely fiction, and if it gets published too late… well, I don’t think I’ll care, because it will get published.


The story is king

A friend pointed out to me on Twitter just the other day that as of this week, it is exactly one year since I picked up my first Stephen King book and started reading. That book was Under the Dome, which came out in November 2009, and I was utterly enthralled from beginning to end. As soon as I had finished I set myself the task of reading all of his work, in publication order. A year later and I have only reached The Stand – hey, it was a busy year – but I’m still loving every single word.

As a genre reader and writer, it might sound surprising that I came so late to King’s work. While his career has had high points and low, he is generally considered a master of science fiction, horror, and just plain writing, ably treading the line between vast commercial success and quality content.

But the reason I only came to his gigantic body of work with his latest novel is that prior to this, I was a King snob. Commercial success on such a scale usually meant – so I thought – very poor writing. This is often the case, but it was that foray Under the Dome last November that taught me a very good lesson indeed, one that is second only to the pants* rule.

It’s slightly oblique but I’ll try to explain. That lesson was: everything is about ‘the story’.

Okay? Hold tight. Here we go.

Currently we are continually bombarded with bad news about the publishing industry – about how publishing is on a downward slide, book sales are floundering while editors at the big houses flap to catch the next big trend or play it safe with unadventurous, unoriginal content. The industry is being shaken up by digital publishing and ebooks, while opportunities for new writers trying to get a break are shrinking more and more.

It would be easy, with all of this, to take a very bleak view, and certainly I’m not suggesting that the bad news is not true. If you were of a pessimistic nature you could lament the death of books and of writing as you sob into your cocoa in front of the TV. But there is one thing to remember amid this doom and gloom.

Writing and “the story”, to use some quasi-mystical catch-all, is all around us. Take a look at what you do during the day – strip out the day job (unless you actually make a living writing), the chores, the laundry, brushing your teeth, and look at what you do for entertainment, and what entertains you. I’m willing to bet that most of it, maybe 90%, is “the story”. And “the story” means writing.

There are more TV shows and films now than ever, and certainly in recent years a stonkingly good selection of exceptionally high-quality ones. It’s all “the story” – fiction, written by writers. And everything that surrounds it – special effects, marketing and merchandising, even the actors, producers, directors, crew, etc – are all there to deliver “the story” to us. The world of books is just one tiny facet – there are comics, television programmes, films, and games (video or otherwise). It’s all writing. It’s all “the story”.

Two things really crystalized this for me. Firstly, a couple of years ago I went to a comic convention which featured a host of writers and artists from DC Comics, including their commander-in-chief, Dan DiDio. During a weekend of panels and discussions, one thing became very clear. The DC universe is one giant story, a tale so big and sprawling that it literally covers the walls of several offices in New York. The job of DC is to deliver this to us, and to continue its development before passing the baton to the next batch of creators and producers. The same can be said of Marvel, or Image, or 2000AD, or any comic publisher or endeavour. The scale of it was quite frankly mind-blowing, and I came away from that con with my first suspicions about “the story” and how it impacted practically everything I did and was interested in and did.

The second moment of realisation came earlier this week, when I was fortunate enough to attend a small gathering of Doctor Who fans who were hosting an informal interview and Q&A with Daphne Ashbrook, co-star of the 1996 US/UK TV movie with Paul McGann, currently visiting the UK. I’m a Doctor Who fan, I’m happy to admit, but I’ve always had difficulty with the TV Movie. This ‘difficulty’ has evolved from outright denial and upset (hey, I was a sensitive teenager in 1996) through to grudging acceptance of the production, so long as I didn’t actually have to watch it. So driving for an hour to see a co-star I wasn’t particularly interested in talk about a production I didn’t particularly care for seemed, beforehand at least, a bit of a chore. But, what the hell. When was this opportunity going to come up again.

Of course, it was a marvellous evening. Daphne was a delight, and kept us entertained for close to two hours on the ins and outs of her impressive career (come on, forget Doctor Who, she was in Knight Rider, The A-Team, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; hell, even Murder, She Wrote). It was a revelation, especially when I realised that large parts of her lively discussion were her relaying to us the plot of these various shows, so we could have a better understanding of the role she played in each.

There it was. “The Story”. As an experienced actor, Daphne’s job is to deliver “the story” to us.  And “the story” means writing, plain and simple. Storytelling. Writing. Same thing.

So what’s the magic advice I distilled from all of this? Give up on the novel and try a screenplay? Not at all.

My advice is to realise that “the story” is everywhere, and like the guys from Pixar keep saying, “the story is king”. With this in mind, and knowing that writing is a never-ending quest to get better, it’s our job as writers to absorb as much of “the story” as we can. This means reading outside of our comfort zones and genres as well as within them – if I didn’t decide to try Stephen King I would never have discovered his extensive, and quite wonderful, back catalogue. When I was prepping to write a detective noir novel, I decided to bite the bullet and read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Whammo, the whole world of pulp detective fiction was opened to me.

One often-quoted piece of writing advice is to not just turn off your television, but to get rid of it entirely. Stephen King himself goes off on this in On Writing. A lot of writers follow this advice to the letter and do very well indeed. But personally I think this is missing the point, because between the inane loops of twenty-four hour news, reality shows and quizzes, the blowhards that King describes so well in his memoir of the craft, there is some damn good stuff on, be it a television series (old or new) or a film (old or new). So if “the story” is about writing, then by picking and choosing carefully and by not letting it become a time-sink (and that really is where the danger lies and the advice stems from, I think), you can watch, enjoy, and learn from some very, very good examples of the craft.

“The story” is everywhere, and where the story is, you’ll find writing. That will never, ever go away, no matter what weekly slice of negativity comes from the traditional publishing industry. The world needs writers and always will, because our whole lives are based around storytelling.

Read books. Watch TV. Go to the movies. But importantly, read something you might not have thought you’d like, and watch a film that isn’t quite the genre you are interested in. At worst, you’ll absorb another little slice of “the story” that you wouldn’t have otherwise and you’ll learn something from it. At best, you’ll discover something new and wonderful and whole news worlds will instantly become available.

And then think about it, and learn from it, and write.

* The pants rule is pretty simple and surprisingly effective: when writing comes up on your schedule, make sure you are up and doing and dressed. Don’t write in your pyjamas, don’t write in your slippers, no matter how appealing or comfortable it may sound. By “pants”, I mean trousers (not, as British people use it, as underpants… stop sniggering at the back there!), but that’s just a metaphor for being prepared and ready to write. The more prepped you are – showered, shaved, dressed, in a nice pair of shoes – the better your writing. If you want writing to be your job then act like it. Put on a nice shirt, or skirt, not just your comfy “at home” clothes. You can put those on when you’ve finished your job. In fact, the more formal you make it, the better you tend to feel (although I can’t imagine what happens to your writing if you turn up at your desk in full evening wear or a ball gown… I must give that a go sometime). Try it. It works!

NaNoWriMo for thee, but not for me

Like many writers, I’m not very good at making time to write. My days are, well, packed. I’m up at 5:15 to go to the gym, on the road at 7:20 to commute to work, at my desk by 8:30, back on the road between 5:30 and 6:00, home by 6:45 if I’m lucky, having dinner and spending time with the kid, then after she goes to bed I have to pack my stuff for the next day, make lunches, and am lucky to have half an hour to myself before going up to bed between 9:15 and 9:30. There I read for 15 minutes to unwind my brain, and then lights out.

It’s amazing that I manage to write anything, given that crazy schedule.

A friend of mine said that if I love writing, I shouldn’t give it up to exercise, but if you’ve seen me, you know I need it. I accept that. It’s why I joined the gym in the first place.

But I do write. A little, here and there. Sometimes at work, sometimes in the evenings, sometimes on the weekends (which are consumed by family time for the most part). I remember reading somewhere that David Mack, when he started out, would write for a few hours at night, giving up sleep in favor of writing*. I tried that too. The thing is, I’m not one of those people who can just sit down and start writing, especially if I’m in the middle of a story. I need to be in the zone — reread a little bit, get back into the characters, remember what I wanted to do next, and then actually be able to do the writing (and have enough time to do it, like people who write on their lunch breaks).

Why am I telling you all this?

Because I’m jealous. I’m extremely jealous, in fact.

NaNoWriMo is this month, and I’m not doing it.


I’m jealous of people who have the commitment and the drive and above all else the ability to make time to write 50,000 words in a month. Which isn’t to say I can’t do it — I wrote a 17,000-word novella in a couple of weeks, back in early 2009. But right now isn’t my time. Nor was last year. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. And so on. I accept that.

But do you follow any writers on Twitter? Because if you follow folks like Nobilis, or Void Munashii, or Inkhaven, or your favorite fanfic writer (a lot of them do it), you’re seeing word counts, status updates, messages of joy as your writer friends reach milestones… and the bad stuff too: “I didn’t write today.” “My plot isn’t working out.” “This story sucks, but I have to finish it.” “I lost all my saved files.”

I like my writer friends, don’t get me wrong, but reading their progress reports just makes me sad. As a writer without the time or the ability to make said time, all I can do is look on and occasionally offer congratulatory or sympathetic messages. And I can tell myself, “maybe next year.”

I’ve been telling myself that for five years now. Might as well keep up the tradition in 2011, too.

And now, your reward for reading my self-indulgent whining: a music video for “The Nanowrimo Song” by All Caps. Enjoy.

* This may be apocryphal**, but I’m sure Mack isn’t the only writer to ever do this.

** As Mack noted in the comments, this is indeed true. I should’ve said I might be misremembering — totally my bad on the incorrect use of “apocryphal”. Sorry about that.

Halloween Redux – Some Just Aren’t That Into It

As a writer and consumer of genre fiction, now should be the perfect time of year for me, right? After all, Halloween is just around the corner* [Ed note: Mur was very bad in getting this up, so consider Halloween having just passed us by…] and every sci-fi blog, podcast, and show is extolling the virtues of Halloween.

To me, though, Halloween… just doesn’t matter.

Now, maybe when my daughter is a little older and she starts going door-to-door asking for donations of unhealthy food** while wearing an amusing costume, I might care a little more. I might also care more if more trick-or-treaters came to my door, but I think we get an average of five per year. I’ve taken to putting out a bowl and being done with the matter.

Halloween holds no special place in my heart. Which is weird, because I write some pretty dark, disturbing fiction when the mood strikes. But I don’t care about costumes, decorations, scary movies being more relevant now than in February or June, candy (except Nerds Rope, which is awesome), or parties. I don’t dress up (I might wear a funny wig to work), I don’t gorge myself on sweets, I don’t watch The Ring or listen to a reading of “The Cask of Amontillado”. This year I’ll probably be asleep before the trick-or-treaters even arrive because I have to be at work before 6am the next day.

And it’s not just being old and crotchety. I’ve never crocheted in my life. In college, I didn’t make it a point to go to Halloween parties. When I was a kid, I trick-or-treated, but I wasn’t one of those who kept it up as a teenager. I stopped dressing up at about age 11, and that was that.

I just don’t see the point of making such a big deal out of a holiday that you don’t even get off of work or school. Maybe that makes me weird, or an outcast in the community, but I can’t be the only genre person who doesn’t care that October 31 is supposed to mean candy, costumes, parties, and scary media — I think we were all really sick of ER‘s Halloween episodes after a couple of seasons.

These days, sadly, Halloween exists to sell stuff, and so the media can trot out their “razor blade in the candy” and “check over your kid’s trick-or-treat bag” stories that they’ve been brushing off for the past few decades. Good space fillers. Good ways to sell things people don’t really need to eat. Good for kids (unless their parents object to the holiday, which kind of makes “write your favorite Halloween memory in your writing journal today” assignments pretty hard).

I’m sorry. I don’t get it.

Go and have your fun this Halloween. Enjoy your movies, and your candy, and your parties, and dressing up like Sexy Elmo, or Sexy Avatar Blue Person, or Sexy Chilean Miner’s Wife, or just your average angel or devil. Spend your money, consume your media, enjoy the hell out of it.

I’ll be sleeping.

* Or, at least, it was when I wrote this. I’ve been woefully delinquent lately.

** Come to think of it, most canned food collected in food drives is absurdly high in sodium, which isn’t good for you either.

Book Review: I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

The world of genre fiction was dealt a serious blow when author Terry Pratchett announced that he suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It didn’t stop him from writing, but it may have moved up the end of his writing career. His previous Discworld novel, “Unseen Academicals”, was – to my mind, anyway – full of plots and ideas that Pratchett may have wanted to cover in future novels but was afraid he wouldn’t be able to. I thought it made the book suffer.

Not so much with “I Shall Wear Midnight”, the latest – and possibly the last, depending upon the progress of Pratchett’s illness – Tiffany Aching novel.

“Midnight” begins when Tiffany is 16, and has taken on the mantle of the witch of the Chalk, a land in Discworld relatively close to Lancre. She does all the mucky jobs witches do – birthing babies, seeing to the sick, laying out the dead, and generally living and working near the edge. Early on, we are shown just how well Tiffany has learned her craft from Granny Weatherwax, “the most highly regarded of the leaders [witches] didn’t have” (“Wyrd Sisters”) when she has to deal with Seth Petty, who has beaten his pregnant teenage daughter so severely that she lost the baby.

And there we have the first insight that “Midnight”, while being a YA novel and shelved as such in many bookstores, is not for the immature. The thing is, after having read the book, that sequence is the most graphic and adult in the novel. To me it served a similar purpose to Shepherd Book’s death in “Serenity” – a character will be killed off, to show how serious this is. There’s a scene or two later in the book that reminds us, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what Seth Petty did.

I think we needed it, too, because the novel’s main villain, the Cunning Man – the spirit of a long-dead priest of Omnianism, a religion established in “Small Gods” and referred to many times throughout the series – is somewhat hard to wrap one’s head around. We’re told he comes back every few hundred years, and he fights the witches, and the witches generally win. He came back this time because Tiffany kissed the Wintersmith (in the book of the same name) and drew enough attention to herself.

The Cunning Man is the kind of villain that works well for a YA audience because it makes people do things they normally wouldn’t, against their will – similar to the hiver in “A Hat Full of Sky” – but it makes the book a little difficult to follow when it comes to the main plot. It’s like “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”: Harry has the Dursleys, school, Quidditch, the Voldemort War, being in love with Ginny, and he has to deal with the whole Voldemort thing… but that last one gets lost in the shuffle amid all the other story arcs. The same with “Midnight” – Tiffany has to handle a lot of things in this book besides the Cunning Man, including caring for the people of the Chalk, the imminent marriage of her friend Roland (son of the Baron), the Duchess’s treatment of her people, and Amber Petty (Seth’s daughter), who seems to really like the Nac Mac Feegle.

Oh, yes. The Feegles are back – Rob Anybody, Jeannie the Kelda, and fan favorite, Daft Wullie. Rob even puts aside his Feegle nature for a moment when the Baron’s men threaten their mound. It’s quite a moment. And speaking of people who are back, one of the best parts of the book is when Tiffany meets Granny Weatherwax’s other successful apprentice.

“Midnight” brings us all our favorite witches – Granny, Nanny, and even Magrat, along with mentions of Tiffany’s friends Petulia and Anagramma, and her teacher Miss Tick – as well as introducing Mrs. Proust, who has a very surprising connection to Boffo (see “Wintersmith”). Tiffany also meets Captains Carrot and Angua (glad to see she’s finally gotten that promotion), Constable Haddock, and the inimitable Commander Vimes. But the book takes place on the Chalk, for the most part, and despite the attendance of the senior witches – one of whom (and you can easily guess which) has fought the Cunning Man before – it’s Tiffany who must save the day.

I’ll be honest: I really didn’t care for “The Wee Free Men”, but the rest of the Aching books have been good, solid stories, and if this one meandered a bit and did contain a tad too much additional plot (Miss Smith, the Duchess and Leticia, Tiffany Goes to Ankh-Morpork – which really felt shoehorned in there), Pratchett is still a good enough storyteller to tie it up neatly at the end. If “I Shall Wear Midnight” turns out to be the final Tiffany Aching novel, then I for one am satisfied with how her arc ends.

Besides, that means we can get back to the business of making Vimes the next Patrician*.

* Oh, come on, you know that’s how the Discworld series will end.

Comic Review: Superior

Issue 1
Written by Mark Millar
Drawn by Leinil Francis Yu
Inks by Gerry Alanguilan
Colors by Dave McCaig
Lettering by VC’s Clayton Cowles
Edited by John Barber
Published by Marvel (Icon)
Out now

Simon Pooni has multiple sclerosis, a body that’s rebelling against him and exactly one friend, Chris. Every week they go and see a movie, every week they chat and every week Simon gets a little sicker, a little further away. What matters though is that for two hours he’s somewhere else, transported away from his body and into the film.

Then he meets Ormon, a monkey wearing a spacesuit, who makes him an offer…

Superior is the latest title from Mark Millar, write of Kick-Ass, Nemesis and numerous other titles and, like every Millar comic, it’s surrounded by a corona of hype and bile that resembles nothing more than a circus tent being set alight by an angry crowd who are paying for the privilege of doing so. Millar is a controversial writer, certainly, but this review isn’t about Millar, it’s about Superior and the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s about that moment of escape where pop culture grabs you and holds you and takes you away with it. That’s the moment the circuit closes, the moment everything is a little brighter, the moment the guitars kick in. Everyone has countless variations on that moment and for me, they’ve included President Bartlet’s first appearance in The West Wing, the final line in Daredevil and Liz Lemon rolling her eyes and yelling ‘Son of a MOTHER!;’ Everyone is different, everyone is right.

Simon’s moment comes when he looks at the movie version of Superior (Endearingly, they’re watching Superior 5) and doesn’t see the old fashioned heroics, hackneyed plots and CGI that Chris does. Instead, Simon sees someone who is strong, upright, capable where he’s not, free where he’s restrained. Superior is everything Simon isn’t and everything he desperately wants to be. What happens when he’s given everything he wants and how it affects his world remains to be seen.

Millar’s script is expansive and decompressed but there’s a sense of weight here, as we deftly get Simon and Chris’ friendship, Simon’s past, his relationship with his mother and Superior’s place in the world neatly established. It feels a little like a movie treatment but that’s more in the subject matter than the delivery and Millar takes to this sort of expansive, almost universal storytelling remarkably well. The art team are on top form, Leinil Francis Yu’s sharp, beefy lines expressive, fast but always detailed and with real weight, all neatly grounded by Dave McCaig’s colours.

All in all, Superior looks beautiful, feels confident and assured and is about as good as first issues come. It’s a good story, well told and that’s all that matters when it comes down to it. Well, that and the spacesuited monkey, that’s the icing on the cake.

Just The Doctor, Thanks

It doesn’t take much of an excuse for me to want to Talk About Doctor Who. Really, it doesn’t. But this is quite a nice love letter to the series from James Parker over at The Atlantic, and I’ll take the chance it presents —

This is all meat and drink to the 21st-century viewer, who has no idea who he is either. We are now entering the era of post-secular television—of Lost and Heroes, of time loops, unearthly powers, chaotic entrances into parallel dimensions—and the Doctor and his wheezing sci-fi are, finally, bang up-to-date.

— to talk about the latest kerfuffle in the Whoverse.

On its face it’s not the worse thing to befall speculative fiction that the Doctor is immortal. On a purely production level, a show that’s been going off and on for about a half century doesn’t seem like it would be tripped up by a little thing like losing the main character (Ahem), but reaction to the change in canon (oddly made in the CBBC’s Sarah Jane Adventures) has been mainly critical on story grounds.

Which seems odd to me, after all it’s not like english literature doesn’t have its fair share of immortal characters dotted across the landscape. The show even has its own character who is, for all intents and purposes, immortal. Perhaps the Doctor will come upon the day where life really does begin to seem like butter over too much bread. In the last season he certainly made it clear that the TARDIS has let him skip the boring days, and that he would have a difficult time living a normal life, without the Daleks to defeat and silences to break. Maybe someday the Daleks’ latest invasion of the galaxy at l won’t be quite interesting enough to stop and he’ll go west, but having the character’s end be of his own choosing or the tragedy of a too-quick death won’t dispel the magic of the story.

That said, it does seem to run counter to the arc of the last few Doctors since the restart, who, despite being on the younger end of the Doctor-Actor range spectrum, have increasingly noted their age and general universe-weariness (though, really, given that Doctor #1 was 950ish, and Doctor #11 is still 950ish, I’m not sure how much he’s actually aged, except possibly emotionally). Perhaps the closest match to an immortal Doctor would be Dream of the Endless (though, let’s face it, in terms of cool-factor he’s probably a bit more of a Death). Immortal characters still have arcs, and given the relatively short time frames of most works of literature it’s hardly like a character’s oncoming death is a critical motivator of plots. For the Doctor, life has always been about constant movement, especially since the loss of Gallifrey.

The focus on the character’s final death misses the fact, entrenched in series since the reboot, that each regeneration is really a death in and of itself. Look at the anguish of Ten’s last few episodes, or the quiet sadness that met the regeneration of Nine. To see the Doctor’s final death as the only real one for the purposes of the story is missing the trees for the forest.

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