Villeneuve’s Dune

When I reached home after seeing the Denis Villeneuve directed Dune I tweeted:

Dune
It was OK
I could go on.

Reader, I’ve decided to go on.

If you’ve not yet seen the film at this point you may decide not to read further, that’s fine.

I saw the film with my wife and we talked about the film all the way home, we talked about it in the evening, and more the next day. By that measure the film is a great success, and also by the measure of spectacle. Visually the film is grand, almost magnificent. Maybe not quite as magnificent as his Bladerunner 2049 because while it provided epic, sweeping landscapes, titanic vistas, and monstrous scale it was, in the end, very much what I was expecting from a film called Dune.

That’s no big deal. The film provides what it is supposed to provide in this respect, but elsewhere, for me, did it live up to those expectations? Not really.

Every actor felt as if they were, to the limit the direction allowed, deep into their character. Much to my surprise, Jason Momoa, hardly my favourite actor, did what I didn’t expect and gave me a nuanced and empathic performance. Josh Brolin, an actor I like, once again didn’t have the space to stretch and show himself and show his qualities, Dave Bautista was suitably, and entertainingly pantomime horrid.

But what was this story really about? Two enormously powerful,  rich, and martial  families fight for ascendancy over one another to gain more power and riches while exploiting an impoverished nation, one slightly less so than the other. And then there’s the white saviour thing. Hmm.

Despite its grand sweep, these are the fundamental limits of the story, but that’s all right, because the pleasure of the story is in the telling, and a good story teller will hook you with a detail here, a word there, reel you in, let you see the traps of wealth and power, in what is essentially a feudal society, that a good person can inextricably find themselves in.

Villeneuve’s Dune doesn’t do that. The Atreides seem by turns amazed and bemused that their sworn foes would leave them next to nothing to work with and fulfil their duties to the Emperor – to harvest the spice vital to keep the vast, space-faring empire running. ‘I’s are dotted and ‘T’s are crossed, the story unfolds, and it’s engaging, with moments of real drama, and, less often, true wonder.

Despite all this every character lacks profundity and emotional depth and I found myself engaging with the supporting cast such as Momoa, Brolin, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who plays the ecologist Liet-Kynes, rather than the leads. They do far more with less in a film that is emotionally cold from the universally brutalist architecture to the limited emotions each character expresses.

That said, I can’t criticise the actors or the acting, this is Villeneuve’s film through and through. Timothée Chalamet is an engaging, competent chip off the old block, keen to play his part as scion of House Atreides in his enthusiastically gamine way. And Duke Leto? As with so much here you cannot but help draw comparisons  with David Lynch’s 1984 film. These two Duke Letos could have been separated at birth, from personality to beard, and Lynch got there first.

This, for me, was a major problem, because so much of this well-acted, visually engaging but ultimately unsatisfying film felt like a retread.  For all its faults, Lynch’s film had a passion, humour, and grandeur that Villeneuve’s film somehow lacks, and pushed through the equivocal basic story with more flair.

When epic SF and Fantasy works well on the screen it can be astonishing. After seeing the first of Peter Jackson’s  Lord of the Rings trilogy my feet barely touched the ground; Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers blew my mind with sheer scale. Partly it was the story, the story in both of these films is one of existential struggle: lose and all is lost. And while Jackson beautifully and brilliantly stayed close to the mood and tone of Tolkien’s books, Verhoeven did something different and made a wry, clever, cynical and observant film that was all about Heinlein’s book and yet at the same time not.

My first thoughts on leaving the cinema was that Villeneuve, for all the spectacle, entertainment, and good acting of his film had, in the end, brought very little new to the party. One of the great gifts, and sometimes great flaws, of cinema, is the freedom to reimagine the source material into something else. To stay true to it but change perspective. Shakespeare’s plays have by turns both suffered and enjoyed this for centuries. This didn’t happen here.

Another thought was would I go to the cinema and see part two? After seeing The Fellowship of The Ring is seemed somehow cruel that I now had to wait a whole year to see the next film, but it was exciting to wait too. Dune part two, meh, we’ll see. Maybe.

My wife said she’d like to see Dune told from the point of view of the Fremen, how they approach the replacement of one oppressor by another, their lives and ambitions. The story of Dune as told by the people of Dune. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. That is a revisionist, alternative Dune I would pay to see.

Fin.

 

 

The Significance of Significance

If you are like me there are things you know but you don’t realise you do until someone else explicitly puts it into words. They are ‘unknown knowns’ – not because we refuse to acknowledge them but simply because they have not yet explicitly been put into our toolkit of concepts.

A recent one for me was the concept of significance in story. By this I mean that the action, speech, encounters and locations in a narrative are not simply incidental moments, they are profound in that they are some of the building blocks of the story you are telling.

It took a character in the compelling Westworld TV series to bring this into focus. Why did people like visiting Westworld, the character asked? What fulfilment did it bring them that was lacking in their lives? The answer was significance. Visitors engaged with Westworld so strongly because every conversation, every encounter, every host they met was significant. For the human visitors Westworld was a gateway into a realm of stories.  Each word and deed meant something and the way they responded steered them into and through one or more of those stories.

It struck me how similar this was to LARP (Live-Action Role-play). One of the great appeals of LARP is that the character you assume is filled with significance. You, along with your companions (some of whom may be your friends in real life) are not only involved in important events, often opposing great injustice, evil, or sheer nastiness, your words and deeds will make a real difference to the way the whole game world turns. You all, as you negotiate, chew gum, and take names, have significance.

True significance brings consequences. Fights are not always won, not everything goes your way. Make a mistake and you or other characters will die. When that happens a persona you may have spent years inhabiting, one that has developed their own web or relationships with other characters, is gone.

If the Westworld concept has a flaw it is exactly that – the park guests really can act without consequence and I think that, as players, makes them lack sincerity. For them there is no jeopardy in what they do. A bug or a feature? There was certainly emotional consequence for some. I could now very happily go down a very deep rabbit hole about what this implies for The Man in Black, because at least he took it all seriously; and how the journeys of hosts like Dolores and Maeve are not only an attempt to gain autonomy but also to claim a degrees of significance for their own actions. On the one hand guests enjoy free action without consequence, while the hosts suffer consequences without free action. Westworld is, after all, a nested rabbit-hole of stories within a story within a story.

It used to be a source of wonder to me that a person could pretend to be another person. Much later I realised that everything in human society is a story. We are our own stories, people tell stories about us, about history and science and politics, and everything.  I think we humans may only really do two things: we match patterns (I’m fairly convinced everything we do and think is driven by pattern-matching)and we tell stories about them.

I didn’t write any fiction while I was a table-top roleplayer. I’d considered it, and perhaps everyone who reads voraciously and has adventurous daydreams has those thoughts, but at the time I never seriously wanted to. I enjoyed the playing, but I also ran my own games. I built worlds, I created conflicts and challenges to the best of my abilities. Looking back, I can see it was a different way for me to tell stories for the characters everyone else wanted to play. A short time after I stopped gaming I started writing.

That gaming and reading and later on LARPing helped me learn a lot about telling stories, as indeed did reading and watching good TV and film and theatre.

Subconsciously I knew things needed one form or another of significance. For me significance is profoundly important in story, just as important as all the other necessaries —  including character, tension, and situation. Everything in a story should be significant. Not necessarily profound, or deep, or earth-shaking, but simply relevant to the story you are telling. And hand in hand with that significance for your characters there must be consequence. If there’s no risk, no potential or actual price, the moment is inconsequential and there is no tension. And what happens then?  Reader, I stopped reading.

You can find significance in structure too. Another series I enjoyed was The Witcher, except that not only did it jump back and forth through the narrative timeline, there seemed to be no reason for it. I’ve seen this in fiction too, also often without bringing much to the party beyond an illusion of intricacy. Compare these to Westworld, which also dances back and forth in time, but with great success. The revelation that certain events preceded or were preceded by others was intrinsic to the narrative. It wasn’t just a clever sleight of hand, it was the best way to tell the story.

Why is significance so compelling? Perhaps it’s born of frustration with our own lives, perhaps we all want to be heroes and have grand adventures.  For me I think living in a world where my actions lack significance gives me the freedom to decide what is actually important to me. Although there is always risk and consequence I also know I’m fortunate to be in the position where I have choices in my life. In fact I can choose to be insignificant, and that’s quite a nice thing. Some days the sun shines and I’m perfectly content growing parsnips in the garden as opposed to being sent off to fight the dread Lich King and risk my soul being enslaved in perpetual torment for all eternity. But perhaps that’s just me.

~

(Originally published on BSFA Focus magazine #71 as ‘The Significance’)

12 Ways to be Better at Writing

I believe there are only two rules of writing, true rules that are unbreakable in the same way ‘Ye canna break the laws of physics’. (Except with the laws of Physics  we’re still not sure whether we have the full set of laws, or even, much like the three blind men encountering different parts of the same elephant, if we’ve a clear grasp of the beast entire.) With writing it’s easier, there are fewer fundamental particles and fewer rules. My Grand Unified Theory consists of:

  1. Writers Write
  2. There are no other rules

The interpretation of Rule #1 is obvious. If you write, you are a writer, however you chose to do, or be.

This article is about some good ways to behave towards yourself and towards your writing that I’ve found work for me. It is a condensation of things I’ve read, concluded from experience, and discovered in conversation with other writers— many of whom have been around the block several more times than me.  One thing I discovered is that everyone has their own ways of being a writer. Here are some of mine.

  1. Your writing, your rules

There’s a huge amount of advice out there. Much of it is good, and most of it is well-intended. Take what works for you and don’t worry about the rest. If, at some point in the future you feel the need to change the emphasis in how you work or what you write, do it. Don’t stick with rules that make you struggle.

Don’t get me wrong, many of these suggestions are excellent pieces of advice, and you should think long and hard about how and when you apply them to your own writing. There are some wonderful books on the art and craft of writing. Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the Craft is highly rated, so is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Two other books I’ve found useful are Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, and D.V. Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer. These books are polar opposites in many ways. Vogler focuses on mythic structure and archetypes, Swain is pure nuts-and-bolts how to write, why you should do it that way, and importantly, why sometimes you should not. His rules are not rules but they are strong suggestions. This is one of the reasons I have found his book so helpful because I have a deep-rooted distrust of anyone telling me there is only one way of doing  anything. (Which Vogler does and is one reason his book is just another tool in my toolbox.)

  1. Take what you do seriously.

The more I treated writing as a job the more writing I did. Having a place to write can help, but what is much better is to find places where you can write. I used to co-run a London-based group called Million Monkeys based on just that idea – that you can write anywhere.

I like to write in the conservatory, and in the before-times in the local bookshop cafe. Very professional, that, I like to think, and I look forwards to those days returning soon. The walk into town with my writing kit in my bag cleared my mind, set the expectation I was going to work, and also put me somewhere where there was little else for me to do. (Full disclosure: I might have bought a few books.) If you’re stuck at home, try walking around the block before you start work, that ‘walk to work’ can work surprisingly well.

  1. Finish what you start

If you don’t finish you can’t fail but if you don’t finish you’ll never be published. One early piece of advice I had was, ‘You can’t edit a blank page.’

  1. Don’t worry about what comes next.

The story is your story, long or short. Worrying about submissions and the likely rejection will only reduce your confidence and pleasure in writing.

This is among the best advice I’ve ever seen on writing:

“Your entitlement is to the deed alone, never to its results. Do not make the result of an action your motive.”

Bhagavad Gita, 2, 47-51, trans. Sir James Mallinson.

This one I find difficult. From time to time I need to come back to it and remind myself not to stress.

  1. Celebrate Success

Decide what your own successes are, and how you celebrate them.  Finish a short story and I’ll walk around feeling satisfied for a bit; finish the first draft of a novel or actually sell that story and I might open a bottle of cheap fizz.

My self-confidence as a writer goes up and down. One thing that helps is having a shelf for everything I’ve had work in so I can see I’ve had my prior successes.

  1. Get it out, keep it out

If you don’t submit work to markets you can’t be rejected. It’s another great way to avoid failure, but if you want to be published in paying markets you have to go through this process. I’ve sold stories to big and small markets, I’ve been rejected by those markets before and after those sales. I’ve sold stories on first submission, or on the tenth, or twentieth. Online resources like The Submission Grinder and Ralan are very good for finding markets and helping you keep your work on submission.

  1. Calmness. Space. Timing

Too much time can be a bad thing. I’ve known writers who decided to live the dream, packed in the day job and wrote almost nothing for a year. One of the most useful productivity tools I’ve found is to divide my day up into chunks for 40 minutes or an hour. Set a timer and write until the tone sounds. Then reset the timer and do something else. Reset it again and come back to writing. I can achieve a lot in a day like this.  However, there will be times when you must—

  1. Accept Downtime

Life will inevitably intrude on your plans and sometimes you just have to roll with it. Beating yourself up about not being able to write never helps. Maybe you cannot sit down for hours, but perhaps you can grab a few minutes. A friend of mine wrote a prize-winning short story on his PDA (remember them?) standing up on a crowded train during his commute.

Perhaps you don’t have the focus to do even that. At times like that all I’ve been able to do is wait and hope for better times to come around again. Hopefully they will.

  1. Word counts

My daily word count spreadsheet is hugely motivating, but I had to learn how to use it. For some years I set my annual targets too high and never reached them. I realised this was de-motivating so I lowered it to something I knew I could achieve.  The result was I actually wrote more because I felt good about hitting my lower target and felt even better when I carried on and wrote more.

I’m not a great fan of things like NaNoWriMo, and ‘A Novel in 100 Days’.  I know my chances of hitting these target are very low and I can’t see the point in setting out to do something I know I won’t achieve. However, other people get a huge amount from these events.  Your writing. your rules, set your own targets. One thing that helps me is:

  1. Routine, Exercise. Sleep

I quite like being a creature of habit, though after a while I’ll drift out of them and have to reset.  Keeping fit, eating well, getting enough sleep are all basic things but they are easy to forget and really help.

Drifting off to sleep thinking about the current work in progress is a nice thing.

  1. Limit Planning

I’ve met more than one person who is planning a book. They’re building the world, creating the characters, defining the back story, drawing maps and street plans, exploring culture and language. The months and sometimes years go by and still they have not started writing. Planning can become prevarication and besides, no plot survives contact with the characters.

I think of plotting in the same way as the plans you make before you go on holiday to a place you’ve never been before. You may pick all the things you want to do and see in advance of arrival, but once you’re actually there you find a whole lot of other interesting things you’d rather do.

  1. Join in. Meet, talk, listen

My first novel would never have been published if I hadn’t gone to my first Milford. I met someone there who introduced me to someone else at an early EdgeLit convention. We leaned on the bar and had a beer and things went from there.

There are dozens of conventions, groups, and meetups, there’s probably one near you. Dip a toe into a few, find the ones that work for you. Hang out, meet people, get to know them. It really helps.  I find a  weekend at a convention can be quite tiring, I need to pace myself because I only have so many social beans, but it can also be hugely energising and motivating too.

Everything is different in Covid lock down for me at the moment, but  I have found some great online writing communities. Including my own writing group, which transformed itself into a brilliant, supportive and energetic online group.

  1. It’s a muscle.

Did I say twelve ways? Never mind. Like anything we do writing gets stronger the more we practice.  Good luck with yours.

Fin.

My latest novel, The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, is available in print and ebook. Other recent work includes Third Instar from Eibonvale Press, and Once Upon a Parsec:The Book of Alien Fairy Tales, from Newcon Press. My short story, Warm Gun, won the BFS Short Story Competition in 2016, with other work short-listed for the James White Award and placed in the Aeon Award. I am a past judge for the Arthur C. Clarke and James White Awards, and former Chair of the Milford SF Conference.

This is an updated version of the article previously published on the Milford SF Conference blog.

Review – Two Cinematic Viking Sagas

I watched a couple of Viking-themed films on Netflix over the weekend, both were entertaining productions in their own ways.

Northmen – A Viking Saga is a fairly straightforward ‘band of disparate people thrown together battling against the odds’. In this case shipwrecked outcasts, a princess, and a warrior priest.

Led by Tom Hopper (Billy Bones from the brilliant Black Sails) this was fun, competent, and action-packed, with occasional mordant humour. Everyone played their parts with conviction as the brave band is slowly whittled down to a core of battle-hardened survivors. Everyone who distrusted or disliked each other resolved their problems in appropriate and satisfactory manly or romantic ways, and the bad guys were jolly bad and had sufficient reason for being so. There was even a rope bridge over a yawning chasm.

This sounds like it’s saga-by-the-numbers and while it’s by no means an original tale it’s an entertaining if undemanding take on the themes and I liked it.

Viking Destiny (aka Of Gods and Warriors) was an interesting surprise, I expected less and received more. The daughter of a murdered king fights to reclaim her legacy. I’m probably being unfair but while watching I thought it was a kind of live-action Brave. It’s not, it’s far more brutal and imaginative, and goes to unexpected places. Terence Stamp cameos a rather gnomic Odin, while Murray McArthur as Loki feels like he’s riffing strongly (and gloriously) off Nicol Williams’ Merlin from Excalibur. Anna Demetriou’s princess hero is suitably conflicted, tough, and competent with a bastard sword. And, as it turns, out, with a severed head in a spiked cage.

Despite the Norse gods this is not a viking story, far more a sub-Arthurian adventure that at times almost felt like a very high-budget role-play. Conceptually it’s a far more ambitious film than Northmen, which did what it did rather well but kept itself bounded by a standard narrative. Anachronisms abound (way too much lippy), and reach often exceeded grasp though in the right circumstances for me that can be admirable and very forgiveable. Nevertheless there was a mythic, fairy-tale vibe that I enjoyed, a decent script, and a surprisingly good supporting cast. I liked this as much for what it was trying to be as for what it was, and this made it my favourite of the two.

If you watch either of these I hope you enjoy them. Bring beer & snacks. Let me know.

Interview – Ian Whates/NewCon Press

Ian Whates

Not only is Ian Whates a successful author, he also runs Newcon Press, a prolific and multiple award-winning publisher of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the UK publishing genre landscape without Newcon.

Ian’s kindly agreed to answer a few questions of mine about Newcon and his own work.

1. What effects has Covid-19 lockdown had on Newcon Press?

From a personal perspective, lockdown has had little impact. My normal routine will see me go several days working slavishly at the computer without venturing into the outside world; this has just been an extension of that – somewhat extreme, admittedly. Regarding NewCon as a business, I was genuinely concerned at outset. Events we had invested in heavily, such as London Book Faire, were cancelled with little prospect of recouping our investment, and we’d sunk a substantial amount into commissioning and printing books for launches and conventions that were no longer happening. Thankfully, we’ve worked hard to turn that around, organising virtual book launches, discount sales, and other incentives. As a result, we’ve actually seen a healthy return during the past few months. The only lingering effect to date has been a delay in releasing some titles, which was necessary when the pandemic first hit to help ease cashflow pressures, and that’s had a knock-on effect with our publishing schedule.

2. You’ve mentioned you started Newcon ‘by accident’. How did that happen?

Ah yes… I helped organise a convention, NewCon 3, in Northampton in 2003, at a time when I had yet to discover the SF community. It was a great little con, but none of us knew what we were doing and it lost money. To recoup those losses, I hit upon the idea of publishing a one-off anthology as a fund raiser. Somebody said, “You need to think of a publisher’s name to publish it under.” Since this was never to be repeated, I simply opted for the name of the convention. The book came out and was well received, selling out and pretty much covering the debt. The rest, as they say, is history.

3. Having started, what was it that made you decide to carry on, and keep going?

Short term memory loss. When I held the finished book in my hand, all the woes, the mistakes and anxieties that had gone into producing the volume disappeared, and I thought: “I could do this again…”

What’s kept me going? A combination of stubbornness, the pleasure in bringing out books I feel genuinely proud of, the ability to work with writers whose work I’ve long admired and also the joy of discovering or helping to promote emerging authors. The privilege of working with really talented writers and artists lies at the heart of it, but also the question: if I wasn’t doing this, what the heck else could I do?

4. You write, you edit, you publish. What’s a typical week look like?

Honestly? There’s no such thing. I would love to say that I have a regular routine, that I write for a set number of hours and then edit or read submissions, and I seem to recall it started out that way, but now… Not so much. NewCon has grown far beyond anything I imagined, with over 140 titles published to date (23 of them in 2019 alone, which is a ridiculous number). In essence, each morning I get straight down to whatever job is the most urgent: if a cover needs to be designed and laid out, I’ll do that; if contracts need to be drawn up and sent to the authors for an anthology, I’ll do that. If payments for stories, cover art etc need to be made… if a novel needs to be line edited… if the text for an author’s collection needs to be laid out… if royalty statements need to be calculated, typed, and sent out… if printers need to be chased up… Whatever is most pressing, I’ll tackle first. I start work pretty much when I get up (anywhere between 6.00 and 7.30 am) and work through until 5.00 or 6.00 in the evening; weekends I tend to ease up a little and just work five or six hours a day. There have been long periods (often stretches of many months) when my own writing has had to go on hold, in order to keep NewCon commitments on schedule. That was never the plan, but it has become the reality.

5. Favourite Colour?

Purple; which, I understand, is said to be a non-colour, one that we all perceive differently. I had no idea that was a thing when I decided at a very young age that I liked purple, but it does seem fitting, given the nature of much that I write and indeed publish.

6. Please tell us about your own latest work.

In May I released Dark Angels Rising, the final volume of a space opera trilogy that began five years ago. At its time of release, the first volume Pelquin’s Comet became an Amazon UK #1 best seller, and, flatteringly, it returned to the top of sales charts with the third book’s appearance; in fact, at one point, all three volumes in the series were in the top 50 for ‘space opera’, which was completely unexpected. The series takes a couple of SF tropes and turns them on their head – most notably the idea of humanity making it to the stars with the aid of caches containing ancient alien technology – and is a combination of swash-buckling action, tight-knit character interaction and a dash of humour (with added aliens). The first book drew comparisons with Firefly, and the final book ventures into superheroes in space territory. I had a lot of fun with this series, which garnered some great reviews from the likes of the Guardian and the FT, and I’m sad to say goodbye to the characters.

Next, I’m turning my attention to a literary fantasy inspired by the artist Holbein, which has involved a great deal of research. The story has required me to create a number of different societies, basing some on historical periods and settings and dreaming up others from scratch, letting my imagination run wild in both instances. This one’s pretty much written – a standalone novel – but I need to rework various aspects following feedback from my agent.

7. Why do you want to tell the stories you do?

I have no idea. I’ve always told stories. As a young boy I loved to read, finding wonder in books that no film or TV programme could match (this was long before computers or more sophisticated media), because a book allows me the space to fill in the gaps with my own imagination, whereas in a film the director and producer have already done that for me. English was my favourite subject at school, essay writing the only homework I truly enjoyed. I always felt that I had something to say, my own accent to bring to the long tradition of story-telling, whether simply to entertain in one instance or make a point about society or humanity in another. Whether anyone cared to read my words was another matter, but I suppose I was vain enough to hope they might.

8. What’s the best advice you can give, or have been given, about writing?

Two things: don’t take rejection personally. Just because an editor or agent turns your story or novel down doesn’t mean it’s bad; it simply means this isn’t what they were looking for at that time. The second is to get feedback and genuine criticism from your contemporaries, from people who are not your friends or family. I did this via a writing group, and found the input invaluable, if not always enjoyable. You can learn a lot from critiquing the work of others, as well, from spotting a recurring fault in their writing and thinking: “Hey, I do that too.”

9. What are the best bits of writing and publishing?

Publishing: all of it. The process is akin to a tapestry, with threads interweaving and supporting each other. Pull one thread out and the whole thing can unravel. There’s satisfaction to be had in every aspect – returning edits to an author and having them agree to the suggested tweaks (and even thanking you), completing the layout of a cover and knowing that it works, delivering files to the printers… I suppose the best bit is holding the finished book in your hand. Of course, positive reviews always help as well…

Writing: finishing a story or a book and feeling satisfied, feeling that you’ve done justice to the idea that inspired the tale. I’ve heard it said that no story is ever truly finished, that an author can always go back and tinker with the wording here or the phrasing there, and I can appreciate the sentiment, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in and there comes a point where you know any further tweaking would just be cosmetic.  Reader reaction is vital and can be very gratifying, but being content with the story I submit is at least as important, and is about as good as it gets.

Thank you, Ian!

Ian’s own books are available in print and e-book formats. And please do take a look at NewCon Press, which is packed full of good reads. And if you’re quick you might be able to take advantage of a slightly secret special offer on some NewCon books that Ian’s currently running.

Fin.

Leathery Words – -Skiving Off

There isn’t much crossover between the worlds of writing and leathercraft except in the broadest terms — they both improve with practice, attention to detail is all, a well-thought-out plot is similar to a good design, and so on. (I actually think there are more similarities between writing and gardening, but that’s something for another day.)

I’d love to write a story that involves leatherwork in a meaningful way. I have some ideas that have been kicking around for a while[i] but nothing coherent has taken hold. I think it needs one more seed for the whole thing to germinate and take root. And there I go with gardening metaphors again.

I was skiving in my workshop[ii] today and realised that although that was what I was doing, I wasn’t actually skiving off. Except I was, because I was skiving off the leather with my skiving knife. In other words, I was thinning the leather, specifically in this case so I could close a loop of leather and have the place where the ends overlap no thicker than the rest.

There are several different tools you can use to skive leather, from this simple and traditional knife, to ‘safety’ versions, and all the way up to rather expensive splitting machines. I’ve not had this knife for long, I’m still getting used to it, but I really like it. It’s handed, I use the right-handed version, and that angled-blade design has not changed for a long time.

Leathercraft might not be the oldest prefession but it can’t be far off. Archaeologists have found implements tens of thousands of years old that are immediately recognisable as leather-working tools. And in one case they were not even used by Homo sapiens. I really like the idea that there was a time when we swapped tips and tools with another branch of humanity. And perhaps language too.

‘Skiving’, or ‘skiving off’ escaped from something a craftworker did to their material to an expression that meant not pulling your weight, of slipping away from the job and leaving their co-workers to take up the slack. Skiving of that sort was seldom popular, shaving a little bit of time off at the end of the day, just like I was thinning the end of my piece of leather.

I wonder if the first person to use it as a criticism got a laugh, albeit a dry one. I hope so, it’s a clever use of language. Skiving might not a phrase in very common use any more, but leathercrafts is almost certainly[iii] where it came from.

Fin.

[i] For ‘a while’ read ‘several years’. Writers are renowned for understatement.
[ii] For ‘workshop’ read ‘conservatory’. Writers are notorious liars.
[iii] Probably. Writers are always making things up.

A Brief Encounter with the Hive Mind

Ant HeadSometimes I’m reminded that I don’t always see things the way other people do. It’s human, we’re all different, and in many ways it is a good thing, almost an ideal.  What a terrible fate it would be if we were all the same.

Lockdown has made me very productive in the house, the garden, my leathercrafts, but I’ve also become disconnected from my writing. The wider world is desperately distracting and it seems the part of me that writes is the part that gets most distracted. Meanwhile, the part of me that weeds and plants and grows food is positively encouraged.

I’ve started reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, a book I’ve owned for several years and failed to engage with. This time however I’ve fallen into it[i]. Obviously the book hasn’t changed, it’s me. I’m intrigued, fascinated, and illuminated by VanderMeer’s  wise words, his open-minded approach to creativity and the internal and external worlds it needs. Wonderbook is very energising and it’s helping me regain focus and motivation.

It’s easy to look back at a day and think ‘I’ve achieved nothing worthwhile, I’ve wasted all that time,’ but most things worth doing take longer than a few hours, and down-time is needed. Those ten and twelve hour days are hugely satisfying but I also know I need to plan in those rest days so I can sit and relax, potter about, and let my mind wander. I need to make the time to simply be.

Over the past few days the black garden ants have been swarming. You can see them getting ready a week before they do – the workers enlarge the entrances to the nests (and, presumably the tunnels behind them) so the big flying queens can leave the nest. And they become more alert – a foot-stamp on the ground sends scores of workers flooding defensively from those wider openings.

A few days later you can see a few queens tentatively emerging and then retreating back into the safety of the nest, surrounded and escorted by attentive workers.  It turns out that swarming day is fairly unpredictable here in the UK, but is usually a humid day following rain sometime in July. Whatever the specific triggers, they help colonies coordinate swarming to maximise the chances of the queens meeting drones from other nests.

One reason to write (as if you need a reason) is to try and give shape to what it is you are thinking, and how those things you are experiencing make you feel – even if it’s just for yourself. Even if it’s an apparently little thing like watching ants swarm. Yesterday I sat on a step in the garden path near a nest and watched them. There were far more drones than queens, the queens seemed clumsy and indecisive at first, wandering back and forth then floundering through the air in short, low flights of just a few inches. I wondered if they were warming up their flight muscles.

I noticed other queens climbing up plants to take flight. I let one climb on my finger and held up my arm. The queen ran to the tip of my finger, checked it was as high as it could be, and took off. (Ladybirds do this too.)

Meanwhile our nice neighbour was having a minor panic about the swarms. Coming from another part of the world she’d not seen them before and was worried for her young children.  My partner, Gaie, explained there was nothing to worry about. I said it was one of the grand sights of English nature and she looked at me a little strangely.

Down in the garden dozens then hundreds of queens and drones took flight. It was the only time in their lives they would fly.  Each queen could found a new nest, a new underground city of ants. They would never see the sky again.

The air filled with flying ants climbing into the sky, each seeking a mate from some foreign nest. I watched them rise and wondered if those queens had hopes and fears, if their small minds held dreams for the future. Perhaps they did; the more we find out about insects the more we discover their version of intelligence.  In one shape or form ants have swarmed every year for over 100 million years. I felt very fortunate to be able to see this happen once again. An odd wave of optimism filled me.

[i] I’ve found myself reading a lot of graphic novels recently, I’m clearly being drawn towards visual as much as written narratives, and Wonderbook is very much that, filled with clever, imaginative and colourful illustration.

Free to read short story – The Savages

As of today my short story, The Savages, is free to read at Unsung Stories. Please do take a look!

The Savages is an alien coming-of-age story about gender and individual choice. I finished the first draft at a writing retreat in South Wales earlier this year. I knew it wasn’t quite right, so I offered it for critique to my writing group and received some really useful comments, suggestions, and ideas.

Having some distance between yourself and the work can be really useful, so I put this one away for a few weeks before taking another look.

I then had the fastest submission-to-publication of my entire life! Submitted on Tuesday, accepted on Wednesday, proofs and contract Thursday, and published Friday. Phew.

Early in the Covid-19 lockdown here in the UK Unsung Stories decided to publish a new story online every week. There are many great SFF stories there from some excellent writers, all free to read, and I’m delighted to be in such good company. It also means that if my one doesn’t press your buttons there’s bound to be others that do, so you should definitely check them out. Enjoy!

 

 

An Ancient Horror Returns – Richard Middleton

Back in another era, another age[i] I bought a book in one of the charity shops along the local high street. This is something I’ve been known to do from time to time.  Sometimes I find a book by an author I like, or someone I’ve been meaning to read, or some interesting piece of non-fiction.

This one was a bit different,. It was old, it was a little scruffy, the pages were yellowed, and it was horror. I don’t read a lot of horror, but this one somehow, called to me.  Maybe I remembered the glorious description from the second-hand trade for books a little (but not too much) the worse for wear ­– slightly foxed but still desirable.  Some days I aspire to that description.

It also included a couple of stories by Arthur Machen, and that persuaded me. I bought it, took it home, and read it like horror should be read – in bed, late at night by the light of the table lamp.

Published by Hutchinson, New Tales of Horror by Eminent Authors had no publication date, and no editor credited. Maybe that information was on the long-gone dust jacket, maybe they didn’t do things like that in those days. Some simple Google-fu reveals it was published eighty six years ago, in 1934. With 17 of the thirty stories previously unpublished, I’m guessing this would have been a desirable book for horror fans between the world wars.

In the main I was a little disappointed, even by the Machen and the Hugh MacDiarmid. These are stories of their era, written in that era’s style. Some are more vignettes than tales, and too many relied in the shocking twist, the ghastly revelation on the last page. Except…

Except there was one story, by one of the many writers in the anthology  that I’d never heard of.  Love at First Sight, by Richard Middleton, was short, strange, shocking, and very clever. A story that brought me to a dead stop after reading it. I read it again. Clever, strange, and a little mad. That last line.

Middleton had a short and unhappy life. Suffering from depression he took his own life aged 29. By then he had real reputation. Machen and others rated him, and Raymond Chandler seemed a little in awe.[ii]  His  short novel, The Ghost Ship, is a book I would like to track down.

It’s hard not to wonder what unwritten stories Middleton had, and to regret their non-existence.  I also wonder at the names of the other Eminent Authors such E.H. Visiak, Sir Ronald Ross, Nugent Barker,and  R.L Mégroz and realise that almost inevitably given another eighty four years, someone finding one of my stories in an anthology will  think, ‘David Gullen? Never heard of him.’

~

[i] In other words, last year.

[ii] “Middleton struck me as having far more talent than I was ever likely to possess; and if he couldn’t make a go of it, it wasn’t very likely that I could.” (Raymond Chandler Speaking, Dorothy Gardiner, Kathrine Sorley Walker (ed.), Houghton Mifflin)

Review – The Novels of Fred Willard

I came to Fred Willard’s work back to front as it were, discovering him through his fiction before realising he was such a prolific film and TV actor. Willard only wrote two books. Both are noir crime novels and both are original, highly entertaining and well worth reading. The main characters are not so much hard-boiled as hard-bitten, they’ve made mistakes and learned from their criminal pasts, and get pulled back into the game by the lure of one last job.

Down on Ponce is the first, the tale of ex-dope-smuggler Sam Fuller’s time laying low on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta. A job emerges, a crew of apparently hopeless street characters assemble – a voiceless cancer survivor, a paraplegic, a madman. Together they plan to rip off the biggest crime boss on the area and escape to better lives. Of course, nothing survives contact with the enemy and their plans for a bloodless scam unravel in the face of true criminal insanity.

There’s an unexpected tenderness among all the dry wit, twists and turns, set-backs and violence. Willard’s characters care for each other, they understand they are different and not only accept each other’s differences and disadvantages, they work with them too. Down on Ponce starts to wander a little as it approaches the final acts, there are few debut novels that don’t, but it soon gets its feet back under itself for a superb ending.

Willard’s second book is the gloriously titled Princess Naughty and the Voodoo Cadillac. Once again Willard has a misfit crew pitched against a mixed opposition of schemers and highly dangerous operators, this time on the decaying fringes of CIA covert ops. Willard really finds his style with this book, short chapters, quick changes of scene, a book written as if it’s filled with cinematic jump-cuts.

This time also the story as better balanced between the multiple narratives. Once again our crew are spiraling in on the big score, but other sharks patrol these waters too, and some are highly competent.

As the title promises, the book has a dry and cynical humour. Ponce had that too, but here again it’s better developed and better used. Everything is turned up to eleven and Willard is pushing for twelve. The secondary characters are by turns sinister, ludicrous, pathetic, and deadly. And again there’s that unexpected tenderness in the character’s emotional lives. Well, some of them, most of the others are incapable of finding that and perhaps that was Willard’s point.

Willard’s book are convoluted and intricate but the plots never become confusing. There’s always an ‘X’ on the map that everyone is, by hook or by crook, working their way towards, determines to be the first in, or if not at least the last standing. While there might be no good guys (or gals) there are those who are less worse, and isn’t burning down the really bad guys and getting away with it something we all occasionally dream of?

Both books I suspect are out of print. To my surprise Down on Ponce is available on Kindle. I think Princess Naughty should be too, it’s the better book. There is, however, a decent second hand market for the print versions of both books. Go get ‘em.

Fin.