Links Post December

Things I have done

Things strangers have done

  • Mapped London’s independent bookshops, to help anyone who wants to support independent businesses and get their books from sources that actually pay their taxes.
  • Provided a handy guide to embroidery needles, which helped me somewhat when I managed to snap one of mine in half while trying to straighten it after my ham hands bent it.
  • Sold very posh perfumes in imp sizes (2 ml bottles) for the impoverished and curious.
  • Collected together the very best and most innovative tattoos from around the world. Lots of material for inspiration here, although as the curator of the blog says, don’t copy anything directly – original work always looks better.
  • Posted about her exploits as an artist-in-residence at McMurdo, which involve a lot of penguins.
  • Put up a short guide to the colourful and weird slang of 1920s America. This should hopefully prove useful if I ever get onto my prohibition-era noir pulp thing with alien pregnancies that I have small plans to write.

That’s about it from me for this year. See you in 2014!

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Ways Into World-Building

At a recent event, one of the questions raised by other participants at the writers’ surgery was that of world-building, reminding me again that for some reason not everyone spends the majority of their waking life engaged in ironing out logical creases in a world of their own devising (or several worlds), and that like all unfamiliar tasks, at first jumping into doing this can seem quite daunting to those that don’t do it.

There are any number of ways to winkle open the shell of a new world in order to make sense of it:

If you’re the kind of writer who finds it easiest to come up with a character rather than the other elements of the story, all you need to do is work out what has made them the person that they are. Find the parts of them that have been broken or abraded and then deduce how: was she abducted by pirates? Great! This world has piracy. How common is it? Where was she living when she was abducted? How did they react? Where is the piracy concentrated around? What is the official response from the monarchy or government? Is there a governing body where your character comes from? How does it work?

As you can see, a lot of world-building – indeed, a lot of writing in general – comes from seeking answers for questions that arise as a logical consequence of previous ones. Finding the right question to start them off is the key, and fortunately there are a lot of “right questions” to choose from. Sometimes telling a friend – or a stranger on a train – about the germ of your story is a good way to get those questions rolling in, and can help a lot in finding unanswered nagging problems you may have overlooked in your close examination of the world.

Maybe you’re a plot-driven writer. The obstacles that come up, and the antagonism your characters are up against, will also tell you about the world that they’re involved in. Stuck on the wrong side of a mountain range? This is when you find out what level of technology your world has. Hero has to battle a five-headed dragon? There are dragons in this world! How common are they? Do people know they exist? What methods have people developed for dealing with dragons? How intelligent are the dragons? Are five-headed dragons usual or unusual? What folklore is there about them and how accurate is it? Perhaps your hero’s found herself thrown into a dungeon: where’s the dungeon, what’s the legal and judicial system of that place like, what are the loopholes in it, and how has that helped to shape the way the people in that place behave?

Even if you’re the kind of writer who finds that you get your seeds in the form of snatches of dialogue, there’s a way in. The way people talk tells us a lot about their culture. For example, in English, the language still shows the marks of over 1,400 years of Christianity. Even now, non-religious people exclaim ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘for Pete’s sake’ (after St Peter), or ‘bloody hell’. This example isn’t to imply that you have to concentrate exclusively on religion, either: it’s true of every idiom that what’s important or reviled in a culture seeps in, what’s admired becomes transmuted to imply admiration in other quarters. “Three sheets to the wind” as a euphemism for drunkenness comes from a sailing nation, and has less resonance if you’re landlocked and desert-based. Beautiful women are said to ‘walk with an elephant’s gait‘ in some parts of our world, drawing on the known delicacy and elegance of the elephant’s tread, and the way that this very valuable animal can pass through a forest without snapping a single twig if she chooses. Imagine that the same compliment were paid to someone whose only knowledge of an elephant is that it is very heavy: not quite the same effect! Turns of phrase can provide an immediate in, as can questions about where and why the conversation is taking place, who is holding it, and what will happen if they are found out.

A detailed and convincing fictional world will always be aided by a detailed and broad-running understanding of our world. Reading dribs and drabs of history – preferably from sources who like to join the dots to show how the loss of one crucial city led to the ‘discovery’ of a new continent, or how the defeat of an armada led to the confidence to form an empire, which had other drastic effects further on down the line – is a great way to start. Remembering that every culture within every given world has a different view of how history happened is another; not just creation myths, but the outcomes of battles (and which battles they remember), which interactions are deemed important, and the costs of them. Remembering that even in our one world there are countless ways that people have come together to solve the problems of existing in their environment and against the pressures put upon them by natural disasters and hostile neighbours; using these differences as a springboard, but never copying them. If you must draw on a cultural history for world-building it’s always advisable to look back into the history of your own culture: there will be surprises in there, dead ends you can pursue to other logical conclusions (what if Britain had successfully remained a republic in the 17th century?). There are always fascinating elements strewn throughout the history of the world, but never pull a George Lucas: don’t assume that because the fascinating headgear of Mongolian monarchs is alien to you, that someone else reading won’t immediately recognise it.

World-building is the place where the glorious free-form flights of your unbridled imagination meet with the bridle of logic and consequence and come together to form, I guess, a chariot of convincing story and setting. Enjoy that strained metaphor: it probably came from a culture that’s had a long historical reliance on horses.

Jewellery: Winter Goodies

Moving into textiles on Etsy:

Click on image for listing

7 inch / 18 centimetre (buttoned length) wine-coloured cotton velvet cuff with lining, satin buttons (upcycled from a wedding dress), and lace ribbon.

Click on image for listing

Cute, rich cuffs perfect for a winter outfit, these delicate little darlings are comfortable to wear and striking to see. A lovely finishing touch to a Lolita co-ord or as something to enliven a more plain ensemble.

And now, something a little less festive but equally wintry when you think about it: skulls!

Click on image for listing

8 inch / 20 centimetre skull bead necklace with silver-tone findings.

Click on image for listing

A spooky gothic addition to every outfit; whether you’re after a memento mori or chasing your inner graveyard haunter, this little gem is an unapologetic statement in favour of the darker side of life, and a snip at this price.

Other festive and not-so-festive delights, including some 1920s costume jewellery, can be found at my Etsy shop.

Evolution of Pulp

Or: how I took a discarded piece of fancy-dress clothing and turned it into an art project by accident.

(Post 1, Post 2, Post 3)

And now I’ve branched out to embroidering from handwriting:

New additions: in black, “Something beautiful left town” outlined around Sharpie handwriting, from Live Bed Show by Pulp (lyrics, music); in red, “you can’t get anyone to come in the sack” over pen handwriting, from The Fear by Pulp (music with lyrics).

I’ve lost the piece of paper where I had the remainder of the lines I wanted to embroider, so I suppose I will have to go back to listening to large quantities of Pulp songs to orient myself, what an immense hardship.

(Photos by J. Reilly).

Expectations Falling

It does my heart no good to have to give a bad review of a book, especially a book which has annoyed me by having profoundly decent ideas to go alongside its unsatisfactory execution. It does it even less good to have to compare it to books by another writer, especially when that writer is a friend of the book’s author and quoted on the cover of the book I am reviewing, praising it. However, it would be utterly short-sighted not to draw a parallel between the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell and the London-based supernatural crime drama of Doctor Who writer Ben Aaronovitch. And I have to deal with the frustration of this book which had so much in it so poorly-presented, when it could have been brilliant.

Available from all good bookstores and several bad ones.

Indeed, in description London Falling (currently a respectable 59p on the Kindle store) sounds like exactly the sort of thing I profess to enjoy, which just goes to show that trying to describe what one enjoys reading by means of characteristics is no more useful than saying “I like steak” when one means one likes grass-fed, correctly-aged steak of a particular cut and probably only served in the right way in about five restaurants overall. The difference is, I suppose, that while one can handle mediocre steak, because it is so common, this is rather more like finding a rare dish of a specific recipe and having it made by someone whose tastebuds aren’t aligned the way yours are.

For further disclosure, I found Paul Cornell’s two-parter on Doctor Who – Human Nature and The Family of Blood – almost the strongest of that season and certainly some of the better stories told since the return of that show to British screens in 2005. But he is out of kilter with my reading preferences, and I am about to explain why, with a certain number of spoilers, and comparisons to Ben Aaronovitch and Neil Gaiman which the author (who shouldn’t be reading this anyway) and his fans may find annoying and/or insulting.

The book follows the progression of a case through a series of established policemen, beginning in media res. That is to say, there’s no jumping-in point, no hand-holding, and no introduction, which I normally quite enjoy. There is, however, also no handle to be got on any of the protagonists, which makes it a little harder to like.

James Quill, the head of the operation, has a series of characteristics apparently pulled from the “honest copper” bin of clichés and nothing that differentiates him as a person, even after he gains “the Sight” and an unexplained and frequently dangerous insight into the malignant, magical city that lies below/beyond/through the physical one. Lisa Ross, the data analyst and eventual sacrificial hero, driven by a fairly standard-issue need for vengeance for her father (you will note no heroic woman ever wants to avenge her mother), has no other characteristics, no other desires, and like Quill no personality. They barely even have voices: with the attributions removed, I can’t tell one character from another for most of the book.

Tony Costain, the requisite reluctant hero/bad boy, similarly has no real personality aside from a desire for self-preservation and an ego which apparently vanish for most of the book in order to further the plot; Kev Sefton, the knight in shining armour and token nod to the existence of queer characters, goes on the hero’s quest for enlightenment, dumps a lot of exposition, and gets into a relationship in which he confides almost immediately every feature of his case in a dude he picked up in a bar. Sefton is described as having a posh accent that he slips into, of which there is no actual sign in the text.

I read stories for their characters first and foremost. A strong set of character voices is imperative in forming an emotional connection with the characters and in London Falling it is almost entirely absent. This is frustrating as all hell because there are some excellent ideas and some very solid world-building in here, but the overall tone of the book is cold. By comparison, the Rivers of London series provides a human warmth, set of weaknesses, and easy handle on all the human characters, and even the strange and esoteric creatures which pass through the world have glitches and points of interest.

There are other problems with the book, which ordinarily would have been nagging problems but not major ones: combined with the lack of character warmth and connectivity they became gaping. For example: in the Rivers of London books and Neverwhere, the fantastical London which lies within and through the London in which most people dwell is primarily neutral. It has its own laws, it can be extremely dangerous to those ignorant of them, but it is not malignant. In London Falling, the world which lies across ours is not fairyland, but Hell. The adversary of the overall arc of the Rivers of London books – and this is one of the things that really connected for me – is not a demon, not The Devil, but a human being who has become greedy for power. Something mundane, a form of evil with which we are all familiar, and which instead of excusing the greed and evil of mortal men by providing something bigger only underscores how rotten it is.

However, I can take fiction where the adversary is not mortal: in Neverwhere, Door and Richard Mayhew face a fallen angel, which is a pretty clear code for The Adversary in anyone’s eyes. In another of my favourite and not-exactly-well-written supernatural detective series, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, the adversary is again the lord of Hell: but the humanity of all its characters – including the grotesques – and the broadness and mundanity of the world, are preserved.

London Falling takes elements of traditional London storytelling: old Hob, a wicked witch, football legends, ghost stories, the power of the city, a hero’s vision quest, and the eternal copper. It lines them up together in a plot which makes good narrative sense and which hits all the major points at the right pace: but it feels both slow and rushed at the same time. The characters don’t speak from the heart, but are vehicles for the story, rather than driving it. There are times in which the narrative appears to be trying too hard to elicit a feeling that it doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to instil; moments in which the reader feels more like the jaded coppers standing outside the horror with no connection than perhaps they ought.

Most of all, this doesn’t seem to have any love for the city in it. Rivers of London and Neverwhere, Memoirs of a Master Forger (William Heaney), among others, fairly throb with affection for the metropolis in which they’re set. The story has been coalesced from the sense of unreality and history and Something Bigger which I think affects almost anyone who spends much time here, looking at the past poking through the present in unexpected places and in incongruous ways. It is natural as breathing for any writer to look at London and think of the mystical past affecting the rational present. But Paul Cornell’s writing doesn’t betray any kind of love for his subject matter, and that I think is what really affects the tone of the book more than anything else.

The alternative London captured in his pages is Hell; the London Sefton enters via a number 7 with a London Charon is empty; the Londoners of our reality are aggressive and stupid and moved only by tabloid thinking; there is nothing but contempt and anger, and if that’s real sum of London I’d be surprised.

There are other ways to make a horrific story boil out of a city than by failing to appreciate the picture that its uglinesses and beauties give rise to, and I don’t think I’ll be expending money or energy on the sequels to this book.

My 16 Year Old Self can rest easy.

I have finally made it into The Guardian in some form:

Readers’ recommended self-published authors

  • Pass the Parcel by Delilah des Anges recommended by many readers including nkkingston: ‘Her morally-compromised characters feel real for their flaws and you sympathise with them’

Another familiar face on the list is L. S. Baird:

  •  Evensong’s Heir by L.S. Baird, recommended by Eider: ‘She has such a way with words that I find myself remembering passages and wanting to read scenes over and over again! […] A marvelous author; one of my very, very favorites.’

I’m desperately pleased not only to be featured but to be in so good company! What a fantastic early Christmas present! (And much thanks to Laura for letting me know about it).

The Present Narrator: a preference out of time?

In writing The Circle this November I tried out a thing which I have been interested in for a while and which I suspect may be verboten in some people’s books: having a narrator who has a character of their own, and isn’t part of the story (and thus an omniscient-third for the narration).

In first-person stories the narrator is usually expected to be the protagonist and usually the hero, and sometimes (such as Maria McCann’s sublime As Meat Loves Salt, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita) the author will play with this expectation of heroism and the narrator-protagonist is revealed to be the monster of the piece all along; this is often done through the use of an unreliable narrator, one of my favourite kinds. These stories allow the author to force the reader to use their head a little more instead of being carried along on the tide of the narrative: one is supposed to stop and apply a formula of “wait but he/she said this earlier” or “remember not to trust this person”; there is even comedy, in some cases, in the dissonance between the narrator’s perception of the event and the evidence of the event as seen without the distorting filter of their reality. I have two first-person stories (Tame, The Breaking of M) as Melissa Snowndon and one (Protect Me From What I Want) in which the dissonance between the narrator’s statements about themselves and their evident behaviour are supposed to be the source of humour and occasional tragedy. The gap between what a narrator is prepared to reveal about themselves and what they have actually revealed in relating their own behaviour can make for compelling reading as the riddle of a personality is solved.

In close-third the voice and beliefs of the character should seep through more subtly: this type of narration seems to cause a lot of confusion among readers, with angry reviews on places like Amazon and Goodreads suggesting that the story represents the belief of the author rather than the belief of the viewpoint character (not always the same thing: I have just after all spent a month writing from the perspective of several white Edwardian men of reasonable means and their social norms are not my social norms); then again there are those who are determined that Nabokov must share every expression opinion with Humbert Humbert, so I’m not sure it’s so much a flaw in the narration form as it is a flaw in the intelligence of the reader. I’ve used multiple-viewpoint close-third for Pass the Parcel, in which it is directly possible to see from one section to the next the difference between how someone sees themselves and how others see them; and single-viewpoint close-third for The Other Daughter, which to my mind created a claustrophobic and traumatic narrative in which it was often impossible to see what was coming until it was almost upon the reader. This is a limitation which needn’t be a limitation: seeding the narrative with oncoming tragedy/events that the reader will spot even while the viewpoint character does not is a common enough trick.

The present narrator – that is, a third-person omniscient narrator whose character and voice is such that they become a distinctive part of the story, holding opinions or leading the gaze of the reader rather than merely dumping the events on them as if this occurred naturally – is in my memory associated with children’s fiction (specifically the works of Roald Dahl and C S Lewis, upon whose work I unfortunately cut my teeth, along with a slew of books by Tolkien, Dick King Smith, Colin Dann, Willard Price, and Hugh Lofting, rendering me infinitely “problematic” in the idiom of the current age), and with comedy (Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which breaks a lot of fiction-writing “rules” and is the better for it).  By “present” I mean “here” rather than “in this moment” (that would be the present tense).

Throughout my education and the proliferation of articles about fiction, and conversations with friends,  I’ve been exposed to the idea that a present narrator is a quaint anomaly, a relic of another time, shoved in the corner along with Improving Fiction and Gothic Horror as curiosities of the past. I am rather fond of the Present Narrator. I am rather fond of first person narration also; it holds up well for War of the Worlds, and the Present Narrator handing over to the first person in The Time Machine lends the story a certain air of credibility. It’s not just H G Wells – as mentioned above there are authors whose stock-in-trade involves the presence of the narrator, pointing at things, judging the characters, making jokes at their expense, or simply telling the reader that X character is a big liar. In terms of readerly difficulty, then, perhaps it is – or is seen as – the entry-level. It separates the beliefs of the narrator from the beliefs of the characters; it tells the reader when the character is wrong or being mendacious or will be proven wrong later. No alarms, no surprises: except it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Present Narrator, like the first-person narrator, the third-person-close-narration, comes with its own set of expectations. We expect the Present Narrator to have the whole story. We expect them, the conduit to the fictional world, to tell us the “truth”, while pointing out the lies of the characters; we expect them to be on our side, if not that of the characters; we expect them to perhaps mislead us a little, but not a lot.

Knowledge of expectations from a certain format in writing is an invitation to overturn them.

Kissing Carrion: slower to update than even Strangehaven

MANY MANY YEARS AGO… like, 2004… I wrote a comic for my final project at university/wrote my dissertation on the British Comics industry & how to write a comic yadda yadda bloo blah. That thing was called Kissing Carrion & was A VAMPIRE DETECTIVE AND HIS CROSS-DRESSING SIDE-KICK because I am not now and nor have I ever been a subtle or tasteful person.

First Issue
First Issue

(you can buy horrible-quality renditions of the original: Amazon UK, Amazon US, Lulu)

The original was illustrated by a much younger Gillian Blekkenhorst, who has since become a very accomplished artist and set-dresser and will be exhibiting at TCAF this year if you want to embarrass her with the knowledge of this comic’s existence.

It received a lukewarm response because it’s something I wrote and that is pretty much how I go, but my friend Rotem Shuval – who also designed my St Sebastian tattoo – was really into it, and I gave her the script to the second issue to illustrate at her leisure.

Since then the script has been lost and found and so have her pages: she’s been without a scanner for years, and on the other side of the world (literally: in Japan), but recently got a new scanner and sent me some of the pages she drew.

Page 23 of the second issue, Rotem Shuval; click to enlarge.
Page 23 of the second issue, Rotem Shuval; click to enlarge.
Page 24 of the second issue, Rotem Shuval; click to enlarge.
Page 24 of the second issue, Rotem Shuval; click to enlarge.

It’s been so long since I finished that script (2005?) that I have completely forgotten everything that I wrote, and it’s like reading someone else’s work. Pretty weird. I gave up on any idea of collaborating to write comics a long, long time ago: it’s not as if I have the money to pay artists, or the goodwill of artists who are willing to work on spec in the hopes of being paid for their work in the future, and I can hardly say to someone “bring my vision to life, for free, and never see a penny for it because neither will I”. I know there are people out there who are capable of forming that sort of working relationship with someone but they’re definitely not me; however, it’s pretty good to see someone having fun with a script of mine, so who knows?

Maybe I’ll just knock some out now and then and let whoever have a go at them when they want.