Category Archives: Writing

Losing the Losers’ Club – Why ‘IT’ just didn’t work for me.

Fair warning; if you have not seen the film or read the book, you may wish to leave now because I will spoilify you.

 

The new adaptation of Stephen King’s classic 1986 novel IT is likely to be the highest grossing film adaptation of King’s work to date. Directed by Argentine film director Andy Muschietti, who is best known for the 2013 horror flick ‘Mama’, the film has been divided into two parts. The child’s perspective and the adult’s.

Anyone who has read the original novel will recognise this as an unusual choice because the two are very much woven together in the book. So much so that you’d be forgiven for questioning whether the structural integrity of the narrative didn’t come crashing down when the film makers’ chose to divide those two strands. It didn’t fall apart, however, at the same time, it betrayed one of the most important underlying themes of the book.

IT is a book with many themes and all are worthy of exploration but perhaps the most fundamental of these is the classic Good vs Evil battle showcasing the weak defeating the all powerful. From that perspective, I’m not surprised there have been rave reviews. Speculative Fiction went through a recent boom in GrimDark fantasy and sci-fi, as jaded generation X-ers and Millennials grappled with the far from perfect reality the Baby Boomer generation have left them. And then of course we have current politics, which surely I don’t need to go into in detail for the intelligent reader to be able to draw parallels as to why a straight forward Good vs Evil fight might be both refreshing and desirable. In a way – in my opinion, in a very shallow way – the film does deliver that. But overall the film just didn’t work for me so here are my five reasons why.

 

 

One: The Great Divide.

Everyone remember being a child? The sheer scope and possibility of life? Okay so magic probably wasn’t real and aliens probably wouldn’t land a flying saucer in your back garden but it was possible. As children, ‘impossible’ and even ‘implausible’ are not fully fixed concepts. This is important because we are at the stage of increasing our store of knowledge about how the world and social interactions work. The frameworks on which we hang our trial and error juvenile hypotheses need to be correspondingly flexible.  As adults our definition of what is possible becomes far narrower out of necessity. There are many folktales which deal with the base concept that you do not fully become an adult until you have learned to master fear. There’s some truth in that. If as adults we went through life with the same sense of possibility as children, we would never have mastered fear enough to function. I am conflicted about shutting parts of ourselves down in order to achieve this mastery but I don’t think anyone has achieved a better method yet. (If you have then please message me.) The point is that adults are often utterly incomprehensible to children. And if the adults in question have not retained at least a little of their child selves – and many do not – children are an equal mystery.

The adults in IT have learned not to see what’s going on in Derry. Despite the fact that the evil killer clown/ manatou/ shapeshifter/ space arachnid comes back roughly every twenty seven years – so at least once in every generation – they have learned to cite ‘adult’ reasons for the terrible things that happen in Derry, ‘adult’ logic for any hint of the inexplicable. They have taught themselves to forget. Some of that might be down to Pennywise (Mr Bob Grey) himself (or really that should be herself because *spoiler alert* IT is female) who has the power to get inside your head and make use of what IT finds there. IT is the ultimate gaslighter, no question. IT is also the ultimate predator. All of Derry is IT’s hunting ground, or rather it’s farrowing crate. In the book there’s strong hints that IT encourages the growth and success of the town, keeping it from prying eyes who might register that these twenty seven year cyclical killing sprees are happening, that the rates of murder and violence go well beyond what might be expected of another town of comparable size.

The children, on the other hand, with their natural credulity, can see what is really happening. There is a monster in the dark sewers and it preys on children. Or rather, it preys on fear, violence and most especially the unbounded creative force of a child’s imagination. (Hold that thought – that creative stuff is important.)

And this is the problem with dividing the child from the adult perspective in the films. Those two perspectives are stronger in the book for being presented simultaneously, even if each perspective is utterly alien and incomprehensible to the other. So strike one for me was sucking all the power out of the child-adult gulf of understanding.

 

 

Two: The Losers Club

I was an oddball child. I was weird. I didn’t fit in. And both adults and other children were uncomfortable around me – in fairness I was no more comfortable around them. Play time at primary school, for several years, was rather like that scene in Jurassic World where Chris Pratt’s character realises that the Veloceraptors are responding to a new alpha and it ain’t him. Those were my choices at school – being alone or being literally thrown like a basketball between a group of much older and larger kids. Before anyone gets out their violin, let me state this is not a sympathy play. I am laughing as I write this (I always do try to enjoy the last laugh) and my experience is not unique. Everyone gets bullied at school. Everyone. The only degrees of difference are severity and by whom. This is why stories about rag tag groups of morally aligned misfits saving the day despite the unlikeliness are so enduring. I mean, think about what your favourite fantasy films were when you were a kid. Did anything speak to you the way Star Wars spoke to me? My guess is yes. And for good reason. A group of ‘goodies’ band together and defeat the ‘baddies’. The weak overcame the strong despite seemingly insurmountable odds. This is why the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Last Unicorn, Krull, Labyrinth and everything ever produced by studio Ghibli captures imaginations. Star Wars is the answer to the silent, internal cry of every bullied child everywhere.

In IT the seven who make up the Losers Club are all misfits from different backgrounds. Stanley Uris is Jewish and unlike many eleven year old boys, likes to stay neat and tidy. Eddie Kaspbrak is very small for his age and appears to have crippling asthma. Richie Tozier is too clever for his own good, wears thick lensed glasses and cannot keep his mouth shut. (I actually really feel for Richie because that was always my problem too.) Ben Hanscombe is fat. No really in most schools and times in the West that would be enough to have your life made a living hell. To cap it off though, Ben is liked by teachers because he likes school, works hard and is polite. That’s like having a target painted on you in neon. Bill Denborough stutters. Mike Hanlon is black – the only black child in Derry at the time the book is set. (Ok so the film sets it in 1989 not 1959 but there was still enough endemic racism for this to be a reason bullies would go after you.) Beverley Marsh is poor – which in America certainly and in other parts of the world definitely, is tantamount to being criminal. It’s certainly shameful. And Beverley is beautiful, which carries its own special shit stew of bullying tactics if you don’t have the wealth and status that are supposed to go with good looks.

But what’s remarkable about the seven children is less what sets them apart as outsiders and more what draws them together in a group. Each one of them has a sense of right and wrong independent of their at best neglectful or at worst downright abusive parents. Each of them has kindness and courage beyond the usual for most people. All of them are incredibly imaginative, creative individuals. And, importantly, all of them escape a lone encounter with IT before they form a group.

And that’s what bugs me about the new film. In some ways it was good to see the losers club reformed with new youngsters since the hit and miss 1990 TV mini series aired. However the film made it look like a matter of chance that each of the seven escaped IT whilst alone, removing agency from the characters.

In the book for example, Stanley Uris is lured up to the Standpipe where he is trapped in the tower with IT. The creature is posing as the dead children who drowned in the Standpipe. Stan survives by holding out his bird book (he is a budding ornithologist) and shouting the names of different species of bird at IT. Mike Hanlon uses ingenuity and a blood minded desire to die fighting to escape Rodan, the shape IT uses to attack him. Bill Denborough’s love for his brother overcomes his fear. Beverley outsmarts her father (Al Marsh is a favourite puppet of IT because he is brittle and wed to his own narrow world view)  and escapes what might have turned into being beaten to death, she uses her grit to survive. Eddie Kaspbrak flees from the ‘leper’ at the house on Neibolt street, overcoming a lifetime of conditioning by his mother which says he is physically weak and cannot run. Richie thinks he hasn’t had an encounter with it when in fact he was attacked by the Paul Bunyon statue, he gets away and outsmarts town bully Henry Bowers and co – he uses his brain. Ben Hanscombe escapes the Mummy on the Kendeskeig river by choosing to embrace unlogic – logically the Mummy cannot be there. By trusting himself and choosing to believe it is there he escapes. All seven use something within themselves to get away. The film shows them saved at the last minute by luck or interruption and in my opinion this takes away from the characters.

Another factor in regard to the film version is that it just doesn’t capture the depth of love and friendship between the seven children. At a critical moment the group fractures and we’re treated to a montage of them all getting on with their own lives. This just doesn’t happen in the book. I appreciate that King is incredibly difficult to translate to screen because his themes scratch areas that other horror writers just don’t reach. That said, introducing conflict of that kind within the group detracted from the conflict outside of it. You could argue by the time Eddie breaks his arm in the book that the seven children are no longer entirely just children but are being used by something else, just as IT uses people in the town. They are very close to being ‘other directed’. However it is always clear that choice is an important factor. Which brings me on to:

 

 

Three: The Parents and other Adults.

The adults in IT are a very mixed bag and most are ineffectual at best.

Bill Denborough’s parents are so consumed with grief for the death of his six-year-old brother, George, they have forgotten they have a living son. Eddie Kaspbrak’s mother genuinely loves him, to the point where she will gaslight him into believing he has a serious, debilitating and chronic illness. It’s basically Munchausen via proxy syndrome and how she loves it when he needs to be cared for.

Stanley Uris’ parents are actually alright, we don’t hear much about them but they appear to fall into the ‘average’ category.

Ben Hanscombe’s mother is a good mother but suffers from not really having much in the way of skills except the desire to work. She’s tough and has kept them both fed and sheltered after being widowed early, but part of that love for Ben has been translated in over feeding him. She works such long hours as well that she often doesn’t know what’s going on in his life. Her lack of vigilance isn’t deliberate neglect, but it’s the sort of thing that a non supernatural predator who preys on children looks for in a victim.

Richie Tozier has genuinely good parents. He is not what his mother wanted, frankly she doesn’t understand him and is a little spooked by the way his mind works (another reason for me to identify with Richie) but her love and care is undisputed. As is his father’s. His father goes even further, enjoying outwitting Richie on occasion, something which secretly delights Richie whose biggest social problem is that he is bored because he is cleverer than most of his peers.

Beverly Marsh’s parents are another story. Her father is a strict, rigidly upright man with a very fragile sense of self. A self he props up by controlling his daughter and wife. In the book he regularly hits Beverly, leaving her with a black eye more than once, for very minor infractions. (In the film they’ve chosen to go another route but I’ll get to that.) Her mother is once again ineffectual. Beverly’s parents do love her but it is delivered in a twisted fashion that damages her sense of her own worth.

Which leaves Mike Hanlon who has one of the most wonderful fictional fathers ever written. His mother is a good parent too but Mike is especially close to his dad. Mike’s father plans and saves for his future, insists on Mike working hard at school so he can go to college – something which William Halon, coming from his own dirt poor roots, never had the chance to do. He also insists on Mike taking time to do what he refers to as ‘going fishing’ which translates to ‘go and have an adventure, explore, be curious about the world around you and then come back and tell me about it’. Unlike most parents fictional and otherwise, William Hanlon doesn’t lie to his son. He doesn’t send him out believing the world is fair but he doesn’t poison him into thinking it’s out to get him either.

My biggest problem with the adults in the film version of IT is that there is no nuance. They are all presented as being ineffectual or abusive. It was an absolute travesty to remove Mike Hanlon’s father. Aside from the fact that there are still too few good and decent black fathers depicted in fiction, the film makers took out one of the few examples of truly good adulthood in the story. Because that’s the thing with IT. IT is Derry. IT looks out from every pair of eyes. IT nudges people to obey their worst inclinations and then feasts on the results in an all you can eat buffet of fear and violence. The choice however is never removed from the people IT uses.

If you have ever been a child who needed an adult to intervene on your behalf and instead said adult looked the other way – or in IT literally drove away and left you to have your gut carved up by the local bully – then you will understand the special sense of betrayal such an occurrence yields. The adults we become are heavily influenced by at what point as children we learn that no one is coming to save us and it’s different for everyone. While the film does a good job of showing IT as it lives inside the people of Derry, there is no counterweight. The adults are indifferent and all indifferent alike. You need your coterie of well-meaning but misdirected adults here too or the whole adult child dynamic becomes senseless.

 

 

Four: The Problem of Beverly and Mike

 

Firstly, Sophia Lillis, who plays the child version of Beverly Marsh in IT, was sensational. It was a good casting choice. But there are issues in the screen writing of the character that ruined the film for me. First of all in the book, the children are all around eleven-years-old. This is important. They are hovering on that cusp between being truly children and incipient adolescence. This plays into the child-adult gulf I mentioned before. In the film the children have been aged to about thirteen. There is the world of difference in development and maturity between eleven and thirteen. They are no longer approaching the tipping point, they’re in adolescence. The gulf between being a child and being an adult has begun to be crossed. Add to that the difference between thirteen year old boys and thirteen year old girls and you really have a different story. So that didn’t work for me in terms of the narrative and the themes.

Where it became a problem for me with Beverley was that the character was over sexualised. I don’t mean in terms of how she acted but in terms of how other characters saw her – from the girls at school to the other seven to her father and Mr Keane the chemist – she was presented as this young coquette. The Male Gaze was in full operation with the camera angles, which sexualised the teenaged actress in a way that was pretty gross. The screen writers also made the choice to change the physical abuse the character suffers at the hands of her father, to sexual abuse or at least the very heavily implied threat of it.  Nice trick that, give the more squeamish members of your audience an out so they can choose to believe it never happened. I’m not saying that this was added to be titillating but I do have to ask that if the character was eleven rather than thirteen would they have been so willing to make the exchange? (King after all does not pull punches when it comes to child sex abuse occurring in his books so I assume there was a reason he chose not to go that route himself.)

This father daughter dynamic is shown as creepy in the same way that other aspects of horror are creepy. Rather than being shown as rightfully horrific. By contrast Al Marsh punching his daughter in the face and body as he does in the book would have created a more visceral negative reaction than the implication of something which we as the audience can’t be sure actually took place. So to summarise, the screen writers took the one main female character and made her the object of her father’s lust. And that’s part of the problem, when one example is all you have it must stand for all similar examples. In this case, whether intentionally or not, Beverly stands for all the female protagonists – because she is the only one. This robs her of a lot of her power, whereas in the book she is smart, capable, brave and loyal. None of which saves her in the film. It taps into the mindset that a good female character can only be sexual if she doesn’t really want it. While not quite of a calibre of rape for titillation purposes, why did it have to be there at all? It doesn’t challenge an occurrence that’s all too common (one in four girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused, people) instead it puts it on a par with other horror movie tropes.

And for me that’s the crux because if you mythologise something like child sex abuse, then you make it easier for the truth of it to be denied. In the film, Beverly then kills her father after he attempts to rape her. Unfortunately this doesn’t redress the balance of power because in the context of the narrative it’s nonsensical. The fact that Pennywise then shows up and abducts Beverly as a warning / lure to the six boys merely adds insult to injury. You can see they have tried to mitigate turning the one female character with any agency into a damsel in distress by having her not succumb fully to the ‘Deadlights’ but considering she is revived with a kiss and effectively rescued by the boys, this attempt is a failure. Yes Beverly does some cool stuff in the film but since the upshot is that this is balanced by equal or greater amounts of her being forced to be a victim, I’m not buying it.

As a side note, in the book, the physical abuse from her father starts to take on a sexual charge on the day she and the others are driven into the barrens. He asks her if she is running around with boys and then tells her to take her pants down so he can check she’s ‘intact’. There is no attempted rape. While managing not to rape your daughter is hardly worthy of a commendation and doesn’t make book Al Marsh any better than film Al Marsh, once again the situation is more nuanced. Further side note, the actor playing Al Marsh in the film certainly played the character completely unsympathetically. Everything from the way he glanced up to how he moved was repulsive – as it should be!

And then there’s Mike Hanlon who if possible had even more power robbed from him. After removing his excellent father and putting him with an unsympathetic uncle who wants him to toughen up in the film, Mike gets comparatively little screen time. If you’ve read the book you’ll recall that Mike is the one who stays behind in Derry becoming the ‘light house keeper’. He narrates several passages of the book and sections of Derry’s history in first person and he is the reason the Losers’ Club reconvenes for the second battle. So why is he barely used in this film? Because if the film makers follow the book, he won’t be in the final battle down in IT’s lair. He’ll be fighting for his life in a hospital bed. He turns up when the seven went to fight IT, packing a bolt gun – easily the most powerful weapon they had between them. The last down into the well shaft, Mike is attacked by bully boy Henry Bowers, disarmed and nearly has the bolt gun used on himself. He does fight off Bowers but loses the reloads for the bolt gun. At the final battle, it’s quite telling that its Bill, not Mike, who finally uses the bolt gun on IT. This smacks a bit of the black character once again playing sidekick when in reality in the book he has as much agency as any of them.

 

 

Five: The Supernatural has its own Logic

 

Do you know why fantasy or sci-fi or horror works? How you can have paranormal creatures and magic and yet the reader or audience willingly suspends its sense of disbelief? In part this comes from making sure that the mundane aspects of the narrative are as ordinary and accurate as you can make them. But a larger part of it comes from the unspoken agreement that all things otherworldly follow a system of logic. It doesn’t have to resemble our earth logic but the writer shall tell us the reader the rules and lo he or she shall adhere to those rules only breaking them once the audience is properly prepared if absolutely necessary. The film adaptation of IT does not do this in my opinion. The set-up of said supernatural logic is a bit shoddy which when coupled with  the floating children and lack of explanation of the ‘Deadlights’ at the end of the film shreds much of that suspension of disbelief. Instead it turns King’s work into a bog standard and even slightly dull horror flick just like all the others. Cue senseless act of violence. Cue overblown special effects. Cue children sepulchrally singing a Victorian nursery rhyme in a minor key. (Although points for the choice of Oranges and Lemons since it denoted the route through London from the prison to the executioner.) This really could have been so much more.

 

I’ll admit that IT is one of my favourite books – not just by King but at all – so despite trying not to be overly invested in my own head canon I can’t promise I wasn’t influenced by my own preconceptions. That said, I don’t expect a film to stick to the book. The most I ever expect is for a film to be true to the themes of the book. I feel in this case IT was not. I may well watch the film again and enjoy it more as a piece of horror cinema the second time. I will watch part two and I’ll try to go in with an open mind. Overall though, this was more hit that miss for me.

Anyone else seen it? What did you think? Leave me a comment below.

I Hold the Tide (Unveiled book 3) Sneaklet

Okay so earlier this week, I said that if I got a certain number of likes, I would post a sneak preview of my third Unveiled book – I Hold the Tide – which is due out on 20th October 2017. So here you go, this is an excerpt from Chapter Two, which doesn’t give too much away. Amy and Emlynn are staying at a guesthouse in Cornwall and there’s strange doings afoot. Enjoy 😉 

 

My eyes snapped open. I was curled up on the broad windowsill, the first golden fingers of morning stroking my face. I felt vile. As if I’d been out drinking all night. My head ached, my eyes were scratchy-hot and my upper left arm near the shoulder throbbed. Pain deep in the bone. I groaned and sat upright, fingers seeking for the small hole left by a lead ball in my upper arm. They met only smooth unblemished flash. No injury. Nothing there. No reason to think there would be – except that I knew I’d been dreaming some long dead person’s memories.

I didn’t want any of this again. I wanted to be left alone. But a deeper part of me still craved the excitement and mystery. Craved danger? Never had a dream where what I experienced as somebody else left me in physical pain, though. I tried to close my left hand, but I couldn’t get all my fingers to meet. As soon as I bent my thumb inwards pain screeched up my arm into my shoulder socket. I bit back a cry. Could you accidentally break your own arm in your sleep? Ridiculous, but the pain was real even if the cause wasn’t. Eyes watering, I rubbed my upper arm. Gradually the pain faded, lingering only in a slight numbness of my left hand. Eventually that disappeared too.

When I tried to make a fist again, my fingers obeyed with only a slight stiffness. I swung my shoulder in a full circle. No phantom pain. Which left me with only one question. What the hell was going on?

Are you alright, Em? 

That’s what Amy should be saying about now. It was a weird thought to have but Amy’s version of the Touch nearly always meant she knew when something was wrong. Which meant she turned up. Was she okay? In sudden panic, I stumbled to the connecting door and threw it open.

Amy was sitting cross-legged on her bed, typing away on her laptop with her headphones firmly plugged into her ears. I stopped, deflated. Whatever Amy was doing, it was engaging enough that she’d been able to ignore the Touch. I tried to smother the little voice that said Amy had moved on. That I mattered less. I tried to drown it with logic. Amy’s gift worked differently. It was less strong – and less of an affliction – than mine, so I couldn’t expect her to react to every bad night I had.

Yes but I was shot. 

No, the person you were in the dream was shot. Get a grip. Amy probably didn’t even know anything was wrong. Were you going to tell her anyway?

No, but

But nothing. It was a dream not the end of the world.

No, it’s just meant that pretty much every time in the past so far…

Do you want your little sister always on call in case you decide to let her in on your paranormal shenanigans? Do you? Doesn’t Amy get to have her own life, her own friends?

Her own boyfriend?

The guilt was hot, acidic and immediate. Everything I kept expecting to feel when I thought about what had happened to Rhys, but that had never come. I felt it now. And I’d named the evil. Amy has a boyfriend. Why should that feel like the world was dropping out from beneath my feet?

“Em? Are you coming in or is there something magical about the doorway?” Amy pulled out one earbud and cocked her head to the side. She looked impatient. The sinking feeling in my gut grew worse. I relaxed my grip on the doorframe.

“Yeah,” I said illogically. I meant ‘I’m coming in’ but I didn’t feel welcome and the word turned to ash in my throat.

“Could you whack the kettle on then?” Amy turned back to her laptop. She left the ear bud out but it was clear she wasn’t paying attention to me.

I mechanically went through the motions of filling the kettle and laying out the complimentary tea and coffee. A tight band of pain circled my head. A sidelong glance showed Amy reading something on her screen, her mouth curving in a smile so unconsciously tender, I felt as if I was spying on her. She looked up when I shoved a cup of tea under her nose, her smile more open and less intimate now it was aimed at me. I couldn’t help noticing that she rested one hand on the lid of her laptop, ready to slam it shut the moment I tried to take a peek. If Amy was aware of the cords of tension strung across the room she gave no sign of it. Feeling childish but unable to stop myself, I ostentatiously stirred sugar into my own tea. It was stupid, attention seeking behaviour. But Amy knew I only took sugar when I was particularly shaken after a bad psychic storm. If she was going to notice anything…

Amy typed one further sentence, then started shutting the computer down. She was oblivious to both my battle to keep my mouth shut and my shakiness. I sipped the sweetened tea, torn between wanting to know what Amy was up to and a thin, constricting pride that tightened around me, forcing the words back in my throat. If she wasn’t going to notice that there was a problem, I wasn’t going to tell her.

“Good job we’re at the top of this house,” Amy remarked. “The wifi is dreadful. I bet you can’t get any signal at all on street level.”

“Y-yeah well that’s C-Cornwall for you,” I muttered, still trying not to sulk. But Amy had given me an opening. “What were you up to anyway? You c-can’t have sk-school work already.” My attempt at teasing came out flat. Amy gave me a sharp look but didn’t comment on my tone.

“Just chatting to someone,” she said lightly.

“Muh-must have been some chat.” It was there again. The coldness in my voice. I couldn’t stop myself.

“You know how I get when I start talking ‘science nerd’,” Amy said but there was an edge to her tone. Leave it alone, the edge said. I couldn’t.

“D-don’t think you’ve t-told me anything about Geneva.”

“Really.” Amy’s expression shut me out.

I hated it. I hated this distancing. Was this a new thing? How had I not noticed? Anxious frustration laced even more tightly around me.

“Are y-you actually g-going t-t-to?” I demanded. The tenser I became, the worse my stutter grew. I didn’t mean to sound like I was interrogating her but something had snapped inside me. I was desperately trying to claw down the walls between us that I’d only just realised were there.

Amy shot me a look that was so cold and disappointed, I sucked in a breath. For a moment she wasn’t my little sister but a formidable woman I didn’t even know. “For your information I’ve told you pretty much everything about Geneva. If I’ve kept anything back it’s because it’s private. Can’t I have anything that’s mine? Or do you have to approve all my friends and everyone I talk to?”

“Amy…I…I–”

“I haven’t finished,” Amy said. “You of all people know how horrible it is to be talked over!”

I stared at her, mortified. If anything she was only getting angrier, which meant this had been building for a while. I shook my head but not in denial.

“Have you told me everything? Or even anything? No. You’ve been stuck in your own little world like always.” Amy’s frostiness cracked. A pleading note crept into her tone. “What happened in Dorset, Em? Why won’t you talk about it?”

“Nuh-nothing happened! I t-told you everything.” Everything I can tell you anyway.

Amy’s face was closed and cold. “No,” she said very calmly. “No you didn’t. There’s something going on with you. Why won’t you let me in?”

“There’s nuh-nothing going on!”

“Oh really,” she flared. “Then what happened with Ciarán? What’s going on there? He came back and you’ve spent the last two weeks acting like you wish he hadn’t!”

“That’s n-not f-fair!” I said, stung. “And h-how is that your b-business anyway?” My own temper was rising now, molten lava through the ice.

“It’s my business because I like Ciarán. And I hate watching you hurt him by dangling him and stringing him along when you’re supposed to be together. I don’t know what happened with that Lucas bloke, but he’s not someone you ditch Ciarán for.”

“H-how is th-this about my love life?” I snarled. “I’m n-not with either of them. Wh-when d-d-d-did you become the kind of girl wh-who thinks someone is f-f-failing unless they’ve got a sodding b-boyfriend?” How dare she say I was dangling him! I had reasons – good reasons – for not getting involved with Ciarán again. I don’t deserve him I squashed the thought under a layer of fury. Who did Amy think she was? After everything I’d been through, I was selfish?

“H-has it occurred to you that m-maybe there’s m-more to it? That we’re n-not supposed to be t-together? Or were you so b-busy with your great n-new life you n-never th-thought?!” I snapped in a tone I would never in a million years have thought I’d ever use on Amy.

Instead of recoiling, Amy leaned into blast. “I know that you’re frigging everything up for some stupid reason you won’t explain! I know you’re so busy playing the martyr you don’t care you’re hurting anyone else!”

“Shut. Up.” The words whipped out of me on an electrical charge that left a burnt taste in my mouth. I saw them hit my sister. I saw them work. Her scowl went from anger – and a certain reckless enjoyment that we were airing the things that bothered her at last – to surprise and consternation when she opened her mouth and no words came out. Amy shook her head as if to clear it and tried again. Mouth open. Mouth closed. No words. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so awful.

Two weeks ago, I’d told someone else not to speak and they never had again. Admittedly Rhys had died soon after. Maybe it would have worn off. But what if I’d robbed Amy of her voice forever?

Amy looked up at me, mouth still working. Her anger had collapsed and she seemed to be trying to laugh but there was a hint of panic in her eyes.

“Amy? Oh shit. Amy sp-speak to me,” I half-reached for her and then let my hands drop. “Speak.” The word sizzled on my tongue. I closed my eyes in shame.

“Okay. That was weird,” Amy said, sounding freaked out.

“Um…” Relief mingled with the horror in my twisting gut.

“You know when you have something you want to say on the tip of your tongue and you just can’t get the words out?” Amy said, disturbingly calm.

I raised an eyebrow at her, feeling sick. My hands were shaking.

“Of course you do,” Amy went on conversationally. “Well that was nothing like that.”

I forced myself to meet her gaze. “W-what do you m-mean?”

“I mean it was like someone was actively stopping me from talking.” She gave me an odd look and I wilted under her scrutiny.

Now. Tell her. Now is the time. Explain about Rhys and his ability which is now yours. Tell her what you did and why you can never be with Ciarán. Make her understand…

“Wuh-weird,” I murmured.

Amy looked disappointed for a moment, then set her shoulders as if steeling herself. “Did you… you didn’t…do that? …did you?”

“What?” I vacillated between coming clean, explaining about the unwanted extra ability – that using it had been an accident – and saying nothing because I wanted Amy’s good opinion. I was horrified at the evidence of Rhys’ evil ability within me. But there was something else stopping me. That same stiff pride that quelled my horror, which told me I had made my decisions and did not need to explain myself to anyone. That I knew what was best and since I was the one who had to live with everything I’d done, it was my business, no one else’s.

Amy’s composure was being overtaken by bewilderment. I was sure she knew it was my fault, but she couldn’t see how it could be and doubted herself. Before she could reason her way through it, I leapt on that doubt. Encouraged it.

“S-sometimes I g-get so angry I l-l-literally can’t speak,” I offered. Maybe that’s what happened to you.

“Yeah but…” She shook her head again. We both heard the unspoken words. Yeah but you have speech problems.

“I’m suh-sorry,” I said miserably. Sorry I can’t tell you. Sorry about Ciarán. Sorry I just silenced you. Sorry I was angry and scared and possessive. Let her take it anyway she liked.

“Me too. I’m sorry I yelled at you. If you want to tell me anything…” She shrugged. “I’m here, is what I’m saying. When you’re ready.”

“Th-thanks.” I tried not to sound sour. “Th-think I’m going to go for a walk. Clear my h-head. It’s hurting today.” Maybe if I made it sound like one of the headaches I got on a fairly regular basis, Amy would put my bad mood and the resulting argument down to that.

“Do you want me to come?” Amy said.

“I’m n-not good company r-right now.”

Amy looked at me properly for the first time. “You’re mega pale, Em. And your eyes… Did you sleep alright? You don’t look well. Are you sure you should be going anywhere?”

“M’fine,” I murmured. “R-really. J-just need some fr-fresh air.”

“O-kay,” Amy said doubtfully but I was already returning to my room.

Looking at Both Sides – Adventures in Co-writing and Historical Fiction

 

Around the end of September 2015, my friend, historical fiction and non-fiction author, Matthew Willis, said the immortal words ‘Hey, does anyone want to write a book about the battle of Hastings with me?’ (I’m paraphrasing but that really was the gist of it.) I hadn’t studied anything to do with the Norman Conquest since a school trip to visit the Bayeux Tapestry, when I was twelve years old. I’d never attempted to co-write so much as a piece of flash fiction with anyone. And I mostly write speculative fiction and find it really quite hard to keep dragons, ghosts and genetically modified dinosaurs out of my stories. With that impressive list of qualifications, I immediately said ‘yes’ because, really, what could possibly go wrong? With a blithe disregard for the amount of work involved on research alone, I jumped in with both feet.

Have you ever seen the Disney film ‘Frozen’? I have two writing buddies who at regular intervals present me with ‘Do you want to build a snowman?’ moments and I find myself rashly agreeing to take part in all sorts of crazy schemes. Matt is actually the more restrained of those two friends. Just saying.

Back to co-writing. We threw around a few ideas. I think Matt may have had half the book mapped out in his head already, which was handy. One benefit of writing historical fiction is that you know how the story is going to end. You have a destination. Working out by what route you’re going to get there is the interesting, and occasionally difficult, process of producing a book. We both agreed early on that we didn’t want to present a single perspective. The Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066 was one of those pivot points in history that changed the course of events forever. It certainly changed the face of England, and by extension Britain. And by further extension, the world. So many of the events we take for granted now as historical fact, would not have happened – or at the very least would have fallen out differently – if the Saxons had not lost the Battle of Hastings. Of course history is written by the winner, who if they have any sense, put a bit of gloss and spin on their own actions and scuff up the reputation of their vanquished enemies. Not as if said enemies would complain – they’re dead after all. We wanted to present both sides of the story and for both the Saxons and the Normans to have a voice. (In hindsight this is possibly why we ended up overshooting our word count target by 110,000 words but then hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it?)

We’d already decided that William of Normandy himself should be one viewpoint character. But should Harold Godwinson be the other? For one thing, when a viewpoint character is dead, that’s it. No more Saxon voice. You lose that perspective. Another consideration was that while William and Harold Godwinson were undoubtably two of the most powerful and influential men of the time, they were both male. Recorded history often forgets or downplays the female perspective, taking the attitude of the time and valuing their contributions less. This isn’t a plug for gender equality by the way, merely a statement of fact. And yet there were many women of the time, both Saxon and Norman, who were important political players, who did influence events. It wouldn’t be as complete a story as we could make it if we didn’t include a female perspective. But who? It needed to conceivably be someone who was close to Harold Godwinson, so we could deliver his perspective without using him as a viewpoint character. It had to be someone who could conceivably have been at various different places, including on the fringes of some important battles. For authenticity, it needed to be someone about whom little was factually known. Which is where Ælfgifa came in.

Harold Godwinson had eight acknowledged siblings – in other words, brothers and sisters who shared both Gytha Thorkilsdöttir and Godwin of Wessex as parents. (In the Saxon tradition he probably had many half brothers and sisters as well – powerful men kept mistresses and had dalliances, and any offspring produced were usually acknowledged. It wasn’t considered shameful until the Latin Church really got a grip on Britain post 1066.) We know what happened to most of those acknowledged siblings. Harold’s brothers gained Earldoms in their own right and later died at the Battle of Hastings. The youngest brother, Wulfnoth, spent his life as a political hostage in Normandy. The oldest brother, Sven, was originally Godwin’s heir but got himself into some very hot water resulting in his banishment and Harold taking his place. Harold’s sisters too, were influential. Gunhild became abbess of the convent she joined – abbesses wielded a lot more power and influence politically back then. Edith of Wessex married Edward the Confessor and by all accounts is the reason he came to be known as ‘the Confessor’ since she ruthlessly scrubbed her husband’s public image and set about a careful, thorough and successful campaign of propaganda, the echoes of which we still feel today. Which just left Ælfgifa, one of the most shadowy branches on the Godwin family tree.

Very little is known or written about Ælfgifa. So little in fact that we can’t be sure of the dates of her birth or of her death. Contradictory accounts say she died in childhood, that she joined a convent and later died after the Norman Conquest. That she died around the time of the Battle. Did she even exist at all? It’s odd considering how well all of Godwin’s other legitimate children were documented. Either way, we had our second viewpoint, a Saxon and a woman. Matt and I were good to go.

As with writing alone, there are many ways to go about co-writing. Matt and I decided to work out our general direction – The Battle of Hastings – and then alternate chapters. We’d set aside October for research – again I was displaying my blithe disregard for my sheer lack of knowledge – and had decided to use 2015 NaNoWriMo to get the bulk of the book written. We both felt we could easily come up with 50,000 words each in a month. That would be the first draft more or less written. We were determined. We were geared up, raring to get started on our new project. We were confident.

We may also have been just a little bit nuts.

However at the end of November 2015, we did indeed have 100,000 words. The problem? We were only about a third of the way through the story. You see, the thing with the Battle of Hastings, is that it doesn’t actually start with the Saxon and Norman armies facing off. (Actually it doesn’t really end there either but that’s another story.) To give that pivotal moment in history context, you need to go back further in history, past the battle of Stamford Bridge. Past the battle of Fulford. Past the shipwreck that delivered Harold into the hands of William of Normandy and the subsequent uprising of Conan II. Further back, through sieges and skirmishes and assassination attempts – in fact at times you have to wonder if William the Conqueror, upon his death bed, looked back and saw he’d spent the vast majority of his life laying siege to one city or another. Even further back than that, because what caused a situation where the English crown was so precariously situated on the head of a childless king? Why were there so many claimants to the English throne? What made William, who lacked almost all the advantages Harold was born into, claw his way up from upstart boy Duke, to the formidable war leader he became? In the end, because while history doesn’t have a designated start date but a book most definitely needs one, we started in 1045 – twenty-one years prior to the Battle of Hastings.

One of the things we probably should have done from the start, rather than when we were both about 20,000 words in, was to create a timeline of events. Basically, beats that we needed to hit or be aware that one viewpoint character was hitting. When you’re spanning twenty years and two different peoples in a book, or two books as it became, you really do need a clear map of where you’re going and when. The broad strokes at least. Still once that was in place, we really took off.

Some of the best bits of co-writing are related to division of labour. I imagine if you don’t have absolute trust in your writing partner or if you’re a writer who just can’t let go of control, then our method of co-writing might not be for you. Matt and I had worked together  on creating anthologies of short stories before this and we’re both founding members of a writing group – the Random Writers – so there was enough confidence in each other to do due diligence on research and be sure that no major gaffes were included. Having someone who is writing the other half of a book with you is very motivational for just getting the words down too. And of course you’re less likely to get bogged down or stuck or really hung up on the ‘what am I doing, it’s all crap’ stage that all authors go through on every single book. And when it gets to contract signing time, and then to publication, you are once again not alone.

The worst part of co-writing, in my opinion, is a worry that you’ll let your partner down. That perhaps you’ll allow an error through or that maybe your writing won’t hold up to theirs, becoming a weakness in the story. Natural enough fears obviously and all writing has its downs as well as its ups. The downs were never enough to stymy me for long.

I might never have tried to write a straight historical novel, devoid of fantastical elements, if it hadn’t been for Matt’s suggested collaboration. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could write historical fiction engagingly, let alone keep up with someone who is far more knowledgeable on the subject than I am. You learn something new with every book you write, collaborating on this duology has probably taught me enough for five or six books. (So if you are an author and you like working with other authors maybe give co-writing a try.) The end result was two epic historical novels that Matt and I felt pretty justified in being pleased with. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them too.

 

 

An Argument of Blood (Oath and Crown book 1) is available in ebook and paperback from all major retailers now.

 

A Black Matter for the King (Oath and Crown book 2) release date TBC.

 

See www.facebook.com/oathandcrown for more details

Launch Day – And a Free Book!

Ok, it’s finally here. Launch day for the second novel in the Unveiled series. I have been a bit rubbish about promoting ‘I am the Silence‘ here  – possibly giving in to my natural urge as a writer to hide whenever a book I’ve written is released.

Anyway, the usual anxieties around book releases aside, I am really excited that Book 2 is now available. I feel that I’ve really found my voice with this book and that it’s even better than ‘I Belong to the Earth‘ – and it appears there is a growing consensus of opinion to that end, so it’s nice to know that I am not entirely delusional 😉

Released 19th January 2017 ebook and paperback

“Have you found your inner darkness, Emily Lynette?”

A year after breaking the Pattern, Emlynn no longer fights her gift. She’s become adept at sending the Dead on to rest. Perhaps a little too good…

Sent to investigate reports of a haunting, Emlynn finds herself facing a crushing embarrassment, and worse, a deep betrayal. Deciding it’s time to leave the supernatural alone for a while, she travels to Dorset to stay with her childhood best friend, Beth. The Milton Abbey festival of music should take her mind off everything; Ghosts, betrayals and disappointments. Except Beth has changed. She’s definitely running with a new crowd – a cooler, dangerous group whose leader, Rhys, has an unhealthy interest in Emlynn.

As if that isn’t enough, Emlynn’s violin tutor turns out to be a young man she used to know. Lucas has definitely changed – hostile, volatile and rude, but also intense and disturbingly compelling. That’s one mystery Emlynn can’t leave alone. Torn between her connection with Beth’s troubled younger sister and the terrifying black beast that stalks Emlynn in her dreams, there’s no rest for the weary psychic. Facing the reality of what Beth is mixed up in, Emlynn may have finally picked a fight she cannot win…

I’ve mentioned in the acknowledgements that this was a really hard book to write and it’s no exaggeration, so I am also strangely relieved that it’s now available for general consumption. I am looking forward to hearing what you all think.

Also available for those who enjoy the Unveiled series – two novellas and a short story. You don’t have to read these before you read ‘I am the Silence’ – or at all for that matter, but there are easter eggs and snippets of back story that give a richer reading experience if you decide you want to. (Only available in ebook at present.)

 

 

 

Free Book – Ciaran’s Chance

Anyone been wondering what Ciaran has been up too since he exited stage right at the end of ‘I Belong to the Earth’? This companion novella to ‘I am the Silence’ will tell you all.

There are things we do in life that we can’t ever take back. Bad things that follow us, no matter how we wish we could change them. So I needed to find him. See the man. And the monster.’

A year after the events in Arncliffe and Ciarán is giving up hope of ever being able to return. Marked by what he did that night, he is no longer the person he thought he was. Surly, directionless and irritable, he reconnects with an old friend whilst staying with his sister. Somewhere between friendship and hatred, he starts to pick apart the strands of whatever darkness hides inside him.

A trip to find his father and confront his past turns into a nightmare that dates back centuries. Because something hunts the men of Ciarán’s family. Something ancient that cannot be reasoned with or bribed. Amongst the O’Connors, the sins of the father really are visited on the sons. If Ciarán ever wants to be able to see Emlynn again, he must succeed where all his ancestors have failed and stop the creatures that have stalked his family for generations.

This book is ONLY available through my website BUT I am giving it away FREE.

All you need to do to claim your copy is join my Readers’ Group . 

(I send newsletters around once a month or less, no spam – promise. And if you don’t like the content then you can always unsubscribe. You’ll still have the free book 😉  )

That’s it for now but there will be more updates in the days to come. I’ve been silent but extremely industrious – there are many more books on the way. Thank you for reading and to everyone who’s been part of the journey so far, and to everyone who has contacted me to ask about writing or for book recommendations or just because they liked something I’ve written. I love hearing from you – you all rock.

An especially big thank you to everyone who has reviewed my books. Seriously, authors live and die by word of mouth so every time you recommend one of my books or write me a short review (or a long one!) you are making a difference and ensuring I can write more books for you.

Ok so back to finishing book three it is then…

 

 

I BELONG TO THE EARTH – SECOND EDITION COVER REVEAL!

WINTER

 

I am so excited about releasing the new cover for I Belong to the Earth, that I just had to write a sort post about it.

The new cover for Book one of the Unveiled series will be released tomorrow at 6.00pm GMT.

 

If you haven’t read it yet, I Belong to the Earth is a YA paranormal fantasy about a young girl named Emlynn, who has an affinity with the Dead. After surviving a horrific car accident leaves her with brain-trauma and a strained relationship her family, Emlynn finds herself further adrift when her father moves the family to a lonely vicarage on the North Yorkshire Moors. Withdrawn and wary of trusting anyone, Emlynn wants nothing to do with her strange ability, let alone with a centuries old repeating Pattern of rage, jealousy and poisoned love. But when her hostile older sister gets involved with the local bad boy, Emlynn has to confront her power or lose the rest of her family for good. Only the Dead have the answers she needs. Rushing towards another tragedy, can she bring herself to ask them?

 

This  second edition of I Belong to the Earth will be available from Amazon on 25th September 2016. (Paperback to follow in October, release date TBC). If you happen to have read the first edition, the story has not materially changed. Instead, as a more experienced writer, I have tightened up the prose a bit and removed a few continuity errors (I’m actually surprised I didn’t get called out on those!) So the second edition is not a new book but a cleaner, better, tidier version. I promise I have not gone George Lucas on it 😉 In addition there is also a brand new, never seen before Unveiled short story included because hey, if you’re a fan, you’ve had to wait ages and that is no way to treat your readers. A gift to you from me.

 

A bit about writing the book; I Belong to the Earth is my debut novel. I’ve written more books since then but I can honestly say that I have yet to feel compelled to share a story in the same way.

I was strongly influenced by three things. Classic literature, folk lore and genuinely wondering what it must be like not to be able to read or articulate your thoughts? I mean, being able to read and to communicate is a real gift – one I had sort of been taking for granted. At this point in her half-timid, half-take-no-prisoners way, Emlynn charged in and demanded the story be told.

I also wanted to look at the relationships and power dynamics between sisters. It was something I felt I hadn’t seen enough of in books and Emlynn, together with her older sister, Grace, and younger sister, Amy, were perfect for telling that side of the story too. Some people leave you better for having known them. I can now swear to the fact that some characters do the exact same thing – and Emlynn isn’t done with me yet.

Goodies and extras; Whilst going through my files when I re-edited this book, I discovered all sorts of snippets, extras, sneaklets and short stories. The pick of the bunch will soon be available to read FREE here on my website. Look out for the ‘extras’ button on the main menu.

See the new cover tomorrow at 6.00pm  GMT on my tumblr, facebook, webpage and goodreads.

 

 

I’m temporarily out of print but…

WINTER

I decided after much soul searching that it just wasn’t working out with my old publishers, so we have amicably parted ways. (Since then, they have shut down. Pretty sure it wasn’t anything to do with me – more in a future blog post maybe?) So I have my rights back but I Belong to the Earth is temporarily out of print. I say temporarily because I will be releasing all of the Unveiled books, short stories and novellas under my own imprint. This means that those of you waiting patiently for book 2 – I am the Silence have just had the release date brought forward by 18 months. Can I get a whoop whoop?

Anyway, for those of you interested, I thought I’d provide a release schedule of dates to keep an eye out for:

 

Unveiled Book 1- I Belong to the Earth (second edition, new content, new artwork) release in ebook – 20th September 2016, in paper back – 10th October 2016 (roughly).

Unveiled short story – Girls’ Night In ebook release – 27th September  2016

Unveiled Novella #1.5 – Amazing Grace ebook release – 1st October 2016

Unveiled Novella #1.9 – Amy’s Academicals ebook release – 30th October 2016

Unveiled Book 2 – I am the Silence – ebook & paperback release – 19th January 2017

Unveiled short story – The Black Dog of Lyme – ebook release – 25th January 2017

Unveiled Novella #2.1 – Ciaran’s Chance – ebook release 2017 … or is it 😉 (Check back, you won’t hear Ciaran’s story anywhere else!)

Unveiled Book 3 – I Hold the Tide – ebook and paperback release June 2017 (approx)

Unveiled Novella #3.5 – untitled – ebook release July 2017

Unveiled Book 4 – I Rule the Night – ebook and paperback release December 2017

There will be regular cover reveals, short stories, other novellas and freebies coming up so keep your eyes peeled!

Hopefully I’ve given you all something to look forward too. However, if you’ve read book one and you just cannot wait until January, I will be giving away an e-sampler of the first five chapters of I am the Silence free, here on my website. (If the ‘Get your free Sneaklet’ button isn’t up on the main menu yet, please check back later. Otherwise, click away and find out what is in store for Emlynn in book 2.)

Finally, in the next couple of weeks Emlynn will be visiting haunted houses and other spooky areas all over Britain. Check back for more details or follow #EmlynnsTrail on twitter, instagram and tumblr.

 

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume One – How to write a Sentence

 

You might be looking at that deceptively simple title thinking, but everyone can write a sentence. Well, yes, illiteracy aside, everyone probably can. The point is to write a sentence that grips people and makes them want to read on. To write sentences that create sympathy between your audience and your characters. Used correctly sentences can alter the flow and rhythm of your prose, adjusting it to the correct pace.

This seminar was taught by Andrew Willie (www.willie.org). He is an experienced and enthusiastic copy editor, with a real knack for spotting good prose.

So to break things down to their constituents before we reassemble them;

Parts of speech

A noun – names a person, place, thing, idea, quality or action.

A verb – describes an action or a state (doing something, being something)

An adverb – usually describes a verb, or how, when, where or how much something is done.

An adjective – describes or limits a noun.

A pronoun – is used in place of a noun, to avoid repeating the noun. (She, him, it)

A conjunction – joins two words, phrases or sentences together (and, as, but)

A preposition – usually marks the relationship between nouns or pronouns (of, on, in, into, around, along)

An article – is used to introduce a noun. (a, the, an)

An Interjection – expresses emotion or surprise. Often followed by an exclamation mark. (Hurray!)

A participle – is a form of a verb that is used in a sentence to modify a noun or noun phrase, and thus plays a role similar to that of an adjective or adverb. (Singing, writing – present participle. Written, sung – past participle.)

So those are the parts of a sentence. How do you string them together?

The subject of a sentence is the person/animal/ thing which the sentence is about.

The predicate is what the subject does.

Eg; the cat (subject) sat on the mat (predicate)

The most interesting thing in a sentence is not the subject but what the subject is doing and why. Ideally you always want to scatter a breadcrumb trail of ‘why’ for your readers to follow. So that the read the next sentence and the one after that and the one after that.

In most cases the best way to do this is to avoid using the passive voice.

An example of the active voice would be ‘the cat sat on the mat.’

In passive voice it might read ‘the mat was sat on by the cat.’

The passive voice is less gripping, less interesting. It doesn’t convey action in the same way. However there is a place for the passive voice. If for example you wee setting a scene where there was about to be a lot of action, you might start with some passive voice to lull your reader into a false sense of security or to even out pace. If time has been spent setting up an event the passive voice provides contrast.

Eg. The mat was sat on by the cat. The mat exploded.

Also passive voice is useful if you are extending sentences.

Eg the mat was sat on by the cat, where he then went and shat. (Sorry that was the class example.)

For more information, try the guardian essays by Phillip Pullman and Phillip Gardner.

A few other things to consider;

You can use first person, second person or third person but second person is harder to read and much harder to sell.

Present or past tense – either is fine but in general most people write better in past tense. A notable exception is Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, where the present tense adds to the tension.

I’ll leave you with the same quote Andrew left us with;

‘A first draft is just a writer telling himself the words of the story.’ Sir Terry Pratchett.

Recommended reading; Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale (which is on my kindle but I haven’t read it yet. Must get on that!)

Thanks for reading. If you missed this class, I hope the above notes helped. 😉

 

Throwback Thursday: A Perfect Dystopia

(First published on my old blog, 24th October 2013)

One of my favorite forms of genre fiction is dystopian fiction. The word Dystopia is of greek origin, coming from two words meaning ‘hard land’. It was used in answer to Thomas Moore’s coined term ‘Utopia’ from the book of the same name. While a Utopian world is an idealised version of our own, a dystopian world takes the darker aspects of human nature and examines them. This is what I find endlessly fascinating.

Dystopian societies may be anti-utopian, in other words taking the worst of human behavior and setting, and magnifying them. Or it may be Counter-Utopian – presenting a society which is Utopic on the surface, with one fatal flaw. The latter is the one I find most interesting. Just as a character’s fatal flaw may help drive the plot of a book or film, a society or races fatal flaw may do the same in dystopian fiction. As unsettling as much of it is, I think dystopian fiction allows us to look at ourselves, at our current society and ask ourselves ‘is this where we are heading?’ There are often strong moral conflicts involved, revolutions and uprising against a totalitarian regime or subtler struggles for public hearts and minds or even just a pocket of resistance clawing out some space to think for themselves; all of which is right up my literary alley.

Here are some of my favorites, try not to laugh at the first few;

The Stand by Stephen King –  ok so many people would class this as a horror story. For me, despite it’s opposing poles of good and evil, it is a huge tome set in a dystopian future (though technically we’ve gone way past the year it is set in.) A human designed plague has been released killing 99.9% of the worlds population. It has caused society to grind to a halt while those survivors who happened to be immune try to find each other and reestablish some sort of working civilisation. The thing with plague killing off the populous is that it has not destroyed buildings, power plants, supplies, weapons etc. They are all waiting to be picked up and used. Add to that a force for goodness and a force for evil fighting over the scraps of mankind. This is self examination in it’s rawest form in many ways. Not all of the people who followed the dark man were wholly bad, not all of those who went to Mother Abigail were entirely good. Everyone is caught up in something bigger than themselves and not just the plague. It  is the choices you make in those situations that make this so interesting.
\
Watership Down – Richard Adams. – Yes I know it’s about bunnies. I still maintain that there’s a case for it being included in dystopian fiction. Fiver the seer, knows that  bad danger is coming to the Sandleford warren, with his brother Hazel and several other rabbits they manage to leave before, what would be to them, a catclymic world altering event occurs, killing all the others. Struggling to find a place in the world they stumble on Cowslip’s warren. This is a false Utopia, as it turns out all the rabbits there, while never hungry or worrying about enemies, are being kept safe and fat for when the farmer wants to catch a couple. The whole area is snared. And yet the rabbits of that warren make believe that they serve the shining wire, that death chooses them. Hazel’s group moves on and eventually finds Watership Down. It’s near perfect except that they have no does, without which their ociety will die out in a generation. Finding the Efrafra warren, a true totalitarian regime, where you are perfectly safe as long as you don’t disobey orders and live in (for rabbits) unnatural conditions, Hazel’s group effects a daring plan to break away a group of does to join them. The final battle for the survival of their own warren is against the dictator General Woundwort – possibly the scariet rabbit ever.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley – The World State controls almost everything, it is all surprisingly peaceful, a stable society with plentiful goods and supplies. Natural birth has been done away with. Children are instead created and raised in hatcheries where they are conditions and separated into five caste systems. Citizens are conditioned to value consumption above all else. All need for transcendent, spiritual experience is managed by the state with Soma – a hallucinogenic approved for ‘holidays’. Recreational sex is encouraged. So with everything provided for you and everything figured out for you, where is the reward of thinking for yourself? What is there to strive for?

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury – there’s a lot more to it that this but books are outlawed and burned as they promote free-thinking. This is literally my personal hell on earth.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell – not so much a favorite as a must read. After a global atomic war (so set in obvious dystopian landscape) we follow the story of Winsten Smith, who is at intellectual war with The Party and has an illicit romance with Julia. His consequent imprisonment, interrogation, torture and reintegration are chilling.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Attwood – read this first when I was 16 and was horribly struck by how possible it seemed. A christianity based theocratic regime rules everything after a global disaster. Few women have viable ovaries. Those who do are re-educated and sent out as handmaids to bear children for members of congress. The ritualistic adultary  in which the wife takes part, rendering the handmaid merely a womb for hire while the husband inseminates her is truly horrific. The ambiguity at the end is disturbing but right for the story, especially as one of the themes of the book is not knowing.

The Chrysalids – John Wyndham – possibly my absolute favorite. Man is made in a specific image, people are conditioned by a cut off, theocratic state, not to succour the mutant. Something as simple as being born with an extra toe can get you forcibly serilised and sent into the barren lands. But what about mutations that don’t show? A group of children develop a kind of telepathy which is found out and abhorred as a mutation. Their struggle is to find somewhere they can live un-persecuted. It is suggested that this mutation is actually one of nature, rather than nuclear fallout. So the question is how far will society go to control natural gene expression?

Pure – Julianna Baggott – in a post nuclear/ dirty bomb society, there are the pure, who live within the dome – seemingly perfect lives. And the aberrants who have eked out an existence outside the dome. As the politics unfolds it turns out that there is less perfection inside the dome than the imperfect aberrants think. There is also a question on just who set the bombs – surely not their own government on a mission of enthnic cleansing, attempting to set up their own superior race?

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins – I don’t care what anyone says about this being ripped off from ‘Battle Royale’. I don’t believe it is but even if it was, Collins took an idea and portrayed it a hundred times better. Deal with it. What the series looks at is what war really does to society, in particular, to children. The twelve districts of panem are controlled with a constant mix of fear, oppression, hardship, humiliation and a tiny insidious but of hope. Every year each district is forced to provide a male and female child tribute to compete in the games, where they are expected to fight to the death. A pretty good analogy for the pointlessness of war considering the arbitrariness of the  rules and what the games turn the children into.

There are dozens more books that cover various themes in a dystopian world. This is merely a small selection of my favorites. The attraction does not simply relate to reading either, I enjoy writing dystopian fiction. The themes it explores are close to my heart, questions that must be asked over and over in order to avoid such dark futures ourselves.

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume one – Plot and Character

(First Published on my old blog, 28th October 2013)

By now I wouldn’t blame you if you were thinking, ‘just how long can she go on about York FoW13? It was a month ago!’ And you’d be right in as far as no amount of blog posts can recapture the experience of going yourself. That said, I did learn some quantifiable skills with regard to writing so I’m passing them along. Think of it as a taster in case you decide to go to York FoW yourself one day. (Also I have a quota of posts to fill this month. Don’t worry though – there’ll only be a maximum of two more York rambles.)

Jeremy Sheldon (who taught ‘Lovers and Buddies’) also covered this seminar on plot and character. Strong storytelling, hinges on one or both of these elements. If you ask an agent what they are looking for, they will nearly always reply ‘strong storytelling’, that’s if they’re not replying with ‘voice’ or ‘style’. What they don’t do, is explain what they mean by this. What is a strong story? What is Voice or Style? Aside from a technical description,  which is about as much use as someone telling you that a light bulbs blown but then refusing to tell you where the light bulbs are, no one can really say. I think in part this is because they mean different things to different people, but also t seems to be jut one of those things. You can’t put your finger on it to describe it to someone, but everyone knows when it’s not there.

However, all is not lost. If you look at plot and character in enough detail, chance are that you’ll build a strong story anyway. With voice and style. So, plot and character, is there a difference? Yes and no. It depends entirely on your point of view. Personally I think some narratives are more plot driven and some are more character driven. The best narratives, in my book, are both. The only person whose opinion matters there is the writer’s. Having said that, while you may prefer plot over character, or vice versa, in order to build a strong story you cannot consider them entirely disconnected. A character without a plot is just  collection of vices, virtues and mannerisms, all dressed up with no where to go. A plot without a character, is a fantastic stage set without actors.

“Tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of the action not of narration; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” Aristotle.

Basically, Aristotle argues that in Tragedy, plot is more important than character. (He later goes on to say that in Comedy, character is more important than plot.) Actually I’m not sure I entirely agree. While it is important to ellicit an emotional response in your reader, surely one of the best ways of doing this is building a bridge of sympathies between your characters and your reader? Yes plot is important in tragedy – the events in Romeo and Juliet or Oedipus have to follow the set sequence or the gradual upping of the stakes and dawning horror of the situation, just won’t happen. I’d be inclined to say that it was just as important rather than more important though. But then Aristotle would have said I am emotionally un-house broken due to my hair colour so…

Anyway, within a plot you have the writers perspective and the readers perspective. They should ultimately dovetail and that’s what you need to bear in mind when plotting;

The Writer;

Story = Crucible of invented human activity – affected by time and causality – resulting in The Final Outcome.

The Reader;

Story = investment of time   –      leading to Reader Expectation – resulting in, Reader Investment Confirmed.
(sense of place, dialogue
writing etc)

In other words you can’t suddenly throw in bits and pieces and bend your plot to suit yourself without going back and sowing the seeds of suspicion. Think Chekov’s Gun. If you are going to use the gun in the third act, then it should be visible on the wall in act one. Not I said visible not necessarily blindingly obvious. Readers like to have their suspicions confirmed; it makes the book feel like a friend. Readers do not like being cheated or misled through laziness – do that enough times and the reader will put the book down. Remember you are the tour guide of your created world, it is your job to make the reader feel that you know what you are doing and will take care of them, otherwise they won’t feel like they are in a safe pair of hands.

Story should not contain any filler. So anything that does not build your plot or your characters has to go. We all know what it’s like with a first draft; there are place holders, half names, undecided bits. That’s fine. The finished product needs to have been on the mother of all Rocky style training montages so that it’s a lean beast, not a flabby, soft read.

Basic Structure (which you can adapt at your leisure.)

-Set Up (scene setting/ world building/ character introduction)
-1st turn – hamartia or fatal flaw. This is where the story stops telling what it’s about and starts being what it’s about.
– Development, Character tries to achieve goal, but is thwarted, often repeatedly.
– Mid point – Character starts to break through/ make progress, but isn’t there yet.
– Crescendo – protagonist is making greater step toward goal. Antagonist counters more strongly.
– Crisis – everything appears to be going wrong / unsavable
– Recognition and reversal – the protagonist recognises their fatal flaw and reverses it.
– Climax – protagonist triumphs (or not, depends if last point occurs in time!)

In a tragedy the protagonist is unable to recognise their hamartia or reverse damage, at least not in time. Eg King Lear, Macbeth, Chasing Amy, Red State

In a comedy the protagonist recognises their fatal flaw and reverses it in time for a happy ending. Eg Much ado about nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones

Character and Flow
– the flaw should appear unconsciously (to the protagonist) in the set up
– mid point plot break through is the first moment of real character insight. Significant step towards goal.
– Crisis – the self realisation and plot all go pear shaped. Character has not yet reversed his flaw.
– Character has to engage with changing on a positive level, turning the flaw into an asset.

With regard to hamartia or fatal flaw, it may be conscious or unconscious (usually the former is better.) It is a deep character weakness. It is also often the same as a character’s greatest strength. How self aware the character is and what use he puts that quality towards is what defines it as a flaw. For example the film As Good As it Gets – the MC has massive OCD issues coupled with social ineptitude. On the other hand he notices things, everything that other people take for granted. By the end of the film he’s learned to use the positive aspects of his OCD, namely noticing and anticipating, and controlling the negative aspects, the desire to control everything and push people away.

Or to use a personal exmple, in WIP my MC is incredibly resilient. She endures and doesn’t allow things to flatten her. She keeps going. The fatal flaw is that she doesn’t trust anyone to help her, she is to independant. She pushes people away and becomes isolated during a very dangerous sequence of event. Does she recognise and reverse this? Well if I ever get any where you’ll have to read it for yourself and find out 😉

Thanks for reading!

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume one : The Sci-Fi Master Class

(First published on my old blog, 18th October 2013)

High time I continued with my York FoW13 chronicles. Only a fairly short one tonight, as this was one seminar where I think you had to be there.

Gary Gibson, well known science fiction author of Angel Stations and Stealing Light (amongst others), took the Sci-Fi master class seminar. While Zi highly recommend attending this seminar yourself if this is in your area of interest, here are some of the things I found most interesting.
Sci-Fi has been written for a long time (if you include ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley, it’s been written for hundreds of years.) Early authors include H G Wells and Jules Verne. The interesting point the Gary made was that you need 20th century understanding to make sense of sci-fi. Actually I agree. Partly because science needs to have emerged as something respectable from the esoteric studies it, and maths, were once part of. Partly because advances in scientific knowledge have allowed more and more plausible plots, no matter how far fetched, due to greater understanding. And partly because the human psyche needed to be less ruled by religious doctrine, of whatever flavor. That’s no slight to personal faith, it’s just that science and religion are in the uncomfortable, not-quite-friends-but-trying, post break-up phase.
In the last 100 years there has been a huge race of scientific progress. We are now at the tipping point of literally being overtaken by our own technology. (And yes I do find that a bit scary – I worry that we’ll lose an essential part of our humanity or at least humane-ness if we carry on without thought.) Anyway, as Gary Gibson said, science fiction is a way of questioning and making sense of this.
Originally after masters such as H G Wells had retired from the field, sci-fi became very sloppy. Pulp books were turned out very quickly with little thought, plot or research involved. Now there’s nothing wrong with something written purely to entertain – even OK magazine has found its audience after all. (Can’t for the life of me imagine why but I guess I’m not part of their target demographic.) However the knock on effect of so much crap sci-fi being published in the early 20th century, was a lingering belief that all sci-fi (and fantasy) was crap. This is clearly not so – think of Dune by Frank Herbert or Brace New World by Aldous Huxley or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood – however it is a stigma that has stuck, which is why there those who give you ‘the look’ if you say you write sci-fi or fantasy today.
All we can do is continue to write amazing sci-fi until the nasty, junk food taste of early sci-fi pulp is a dim memory.
Within Sci-Fi/ fantasy there are many sub-genres; slipstream, steam punk, cyber punk, dystopian, space opera, hard sci-fi to name but a few. They are all equally relevant dispute their different approaches. It all comes down to personal taste. Ultimately you should write what you love. I won’t tell the story Gary told, about his friend who lives a nomadic existence between sofas so he can write about dwarves hitting things with axes, because it’s not my story to tell. It is well worth hearing though. Ultimately it points at the fact that if you really want to write, you will make it happen. As my friend said to Gary Gibson, after a seminar ‘it was the most laid back motivational speech ever.’ From the look on his face I believe he took it as a compliment. 😉
So where do we go as writers of sci-fi?
Firstly read widely in the genre and research! You can be excused scientific ignorance if its something we haven’t discovered yet or if you hang your story on a theory that is disproved in twenty years time. You will not be allowed such lassitude if you make a gaff due to lazy research.
The example Gary quoted, was the ubiquitous asteroid field. In a lot of sci-fi films asteroid belts are deadly places full of whirling rock and space debris, ventured into only by the most fool hardy and navigated only by the bravest and most skilled. In actual fact, to hit anything in an asteroid field, you’d have to be trying pretty damn hard as there is no gravitational pull and the asteroids don’t move! We all love ‘Empire Strikes Back’, but we’ll have to assume that in that galaxy far far away, different laws of physics apply. It couldn’t be that George Lucas didn’t do his research…
Ultimately, whenever you write something that requires more than the usual suspension of disbelief, the mundane details must be as realistic as possible. Even if you are writing about a sentient, alien race as MCs, you must find an emotional level on which your readers can engage and empathize with them.
Another thing to consider, is that it’s rare for sci-fi and fantasy to crossover in a bookshop. They might do in real life, in the book. Alien is more of a space horror, Handmaid’s Tale is definitely literary. But as targeting for an audience, you particularly need to know where your book will sit in a book shop. Where will your fans go to find your book? There was one lad in several of the same seminars as me, who argued hotly against being pigeon holed. His book crossed seven genres equally. You know what that’s fine. But you can’t sell it in a book shop like that. You’re unlikely to be able to sell it to an agent. Exactly how are they supposed to sell it to a publisher? ‘Its a sci-fi horror fantasy steam punk space opera with literary overtones and magical realism.’ It might very well be but no one will buy it like that. Pick the main genre and maybe one or maximum, two crossover genres and describe it like that.
(A note here, never, as an author describe your book as being literary or containing magical realism. These are terms applied by agents and publishers. Saying that as an author makes you appear arrogant and is a distinctly unpopular move in the publishing world. What if you’re wrong? You’ve completely discredited yourself in five seconds flat. Stick to a more general description and let the professionals sing your praises.)
And the last point but the most important; those who succeed as writers are those who are writers first and anything else second. This doesn’t mean chaining yourself to your lap top or ignoring your spouse but cultivate the mindset that you are a writer, whether or not you are paid for your labors yet.
If you ever get the chance to go and listen to Gary Gibson, I highly recommend it; thoroughly nice bloke and very entertaining and down to earth.
Perhaps that’s the secret; if you’re writing about happenings amongst the stars, your feet need to be firmly on this planet first.