Wednesday, 1 October 2014

You Do Have Something to Say

This is for the IWSG for October, which we've reached quicker than I expected.


For this month, I'd like to offer all those writers feeling a bit insecure about stuff a piece of encouragement: you have something worthwhile to say.


It's something I know I've worried about as a writer from time to time. It's something I know friends of mine have worried about too. That feeling that we're not really doing anything important as a writer. That we're not saying anything other people haven't said.


But they aren't you. They haven't lived your life. You are unique, even at the same time as you're similar to many, many people. You have ways of looking at things, ways of feeling about things, that other people don't.


So put them in your writing. Put in the things that are important to you. Put in the things you care about. I'm writing what should be a fairly standard fantasy thing off and on, but I'm putting in a lot of stuff about history and the way we interact with it. Why? Because that's the stuff that interests me, and that I care about enough for it to make for a different book. And it is making for a different book. Big, out of control and far from easy to write, but definitely no one else's but mine.



Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Out of control

This is for the IWSG for September, although I notice I haven't really posted since August. Honestly, I've been thinking a little about shutting the blog down.


Currently, my writing is a little out of control. I don't mean that I'm producing huge amounts on some runaway rollercoaster of writing. I mean more that I'm not sure what I'm producing with any of my pieces, or when. I'm writing, and writing, and I'm sure the number of words on everything is growing, but I'm not sure at what point I'll be ready. I have like five beginnings for one novel, all clustered together.


But maybe it's okay, things being out of control. I finished a novel early this year, so I've got something big of my own done this year. I have the stuff in the day job where everything is rigidly ordered. Maybe it's just about being honest and saying that for me, my own writing is play. I'm writing because I like making things up and writing them down, and it's okay for that to be a little out of control.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A quick excerpt from the start of my comic fantasy novel The Glass:




Mad Thomas ran. He ran as fast as he could, which still wasn’t even close to the speeds that his brain remembered. Once he had been so fast that light had been hard pressed to keep up. Once, he had swooped and soared, so that the wind became something solid with the speed of it. Now though he could barely do more than sprint, and hop, and occasionally jump hopefully before coming back to earth in dejection, looking back all the time for the one who followed him. The one who had come to him with her lies...


***


One of the more curious things about… well, things, is the number of said things that begin in pubs. Not the big things, obviously. Universes only do so, for example, if they happen to be both quite small and exceptionally alcoholic ones. For things more generally, however, pubs are traditional.


            This pub, in the middle of the small town of New Wrexford, was called the Frog and Spigot. It sat sandwiched between the town’s theatre, which appeared from the outside to suffer from a typically theatrical excess of architecture, and a small firm of architects, which didn’t. Presumably, Mark Ezekiel Tilesbury reflected, the landlord found it quite a profitable place to be, since he looked like the kind of man who generally remembered not to offer any credit to anyone about to wander off on an extended tour of the Scottish Play in Madagascar. Or anyone else, for that matter.


            Mark was contemplating that fact primarily because he had just been sent to the bar for the next round of drinks. It was quite a strange bar, half mirrored and half tiled, but that just went with the rest of the place. The room appeared to have been decorated by a succession of drunken set designers and architects, with the result that no two of the tables matched and there were oddments around the walls that included everything from the traditional horse brasses to top hats worn in musical theatre half a century before. Oh and the centre of the floor was dominated by a stuffed flamingo for no good reason Mark could see.


            Flamingos weren’t a problem. Nor was the fact that it had been Mark’s round for the past three rounds. He was used to it by now. It had been his round at pretty much every stop of the tour so far. He tried using the mirrored half of the bar to divine exactly what it was about him that made that the case, some sort of inherent ‘the drinks are on me’-ness, but all that showed him was the usual: a blond haired man in his late twenties, with slightly more stubble than was strictly fashionable and a rather worn leather jacket that never had been.


            The contrast with the others was obvious. ‘The others’ in this case consisted of two people, wedged into a corner booth. The man with the dark hair and the elegantly cut suit was Greg Rambler, celebrity psychic, one man supporter of the male grooming industry and officially Mark’s best friend from school. His touring show was the reason they were in New Wrexford in the first place. Thanks to a mixture of cold reading, hot reading and several of the temperatures in between, the show had done pretty well so far. Apparently, people liked to be told that the dead were getting on very nicely, thank you, and that they were enjoying things on the Other Side very much.


            Deirdre sat across from Greg. At first glance, she looked exactly like the kind of pretty young woman Greg frequently spent the evening seducing with whatever level of mysterious powers he could pretend to have. She had a delicately upturned button nose, the widest eyes to be found anywhere outside of a cartoon, deep red hair and a petite figure that tended to put people in mind of the babysitter they wished they had left their kids with when they came to the show. What most of those people would think if they could hear her soft Irish lilt working its way through the joke she was currently telling Greg about the three nuns and the bishop, Mark didn’t know. He did know that the one time Greg had tried his luck with her, he’d walked with a limp for several days afterwards.


            Thankfully, Mark seemed to be mostly safe from the wrath of Deirdre, if only because there seemed to be no conceivable universe in which she could even remotely think of him as anything more than an irritating younger brother figure. That broadly meant that she looked out for him, so long as it wasn’t too inconvenient, and Mark continued to do exactly what he was told. In theory, they both had equal roles as assistants to the star of the show, but Mark had never dared to suggest it.


            ‘Assistant’ seemed to translate to very different things for the two of them. Deirdre did front of house work. Mark, meanwhile, found that the term translated somewhere around ‘helper, sounding board, blame taker and general gofer.’


***


Somewhere behind Mad Thomas, there was the sound of a car. Was it her? Was it one of Them? Mad Thomas could barely remember. In the haze of fear and adrenaline, he could barely even remember the flying, and that filled his every waking thought. Memories of what he had been. What he’d lost. What they’d all lost. They stacked up around him like accusations. He had lost what he was, and so he must have been at fault. That was how things worked. How they had always worked. Yet he still could not remember why. No matter how hard he tried, he didn’t know that. He only knew that he needed to run.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

IWSG August

This is for the IWSG for August. I've been reading some stuff on different ways of working with stories, and I feel like there's one thing that consistently shows up as a problem for me with mine: my beginnings. With both of my last two novels, I've had reviews that have said "I was a bit worried at the start, but I kept reading and it turned out well". There are some obvious reasons for this:


  • I often try too hard at the start, trying to hit a particular style that fades as I go along.
  • I often have quite slow starts, designed to show a character problem.
  • Occasionally, my starts are written a long time before the rest, and no longer fit.
Mostly though, it feels like the big question is one of where I choose to start. There are so many possible starting points for any story. The ones we pick can make such a difference to the way the thing unfolds. Now I just have to find the one that works best for my current work in progress.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Rant About Tai Chi

In which I probably dive in feet first into an on going argument, because I found an article the other day saying many of the things I'm about to say. But I think they're important things. I've practiced tai chi for years, as well as bagua and xing yi (not to mention plenty of other things, BJJ being the most prominent at the moment), and every so often I go through a phase of looking up tai chi on Youtube. Specifically, I tend to look up things like "tai chi fighting" "tai chi sparring" or even "tai chi MMA". Why? Because I'm of the opinion that tai chi is a martial art, that it should be taught that way, and that people should train it in a way that allows it to function as such.


Yet ninety percent of what I find has nothing to do with combative skill. Most people just don't train that way. Tai chi has become just the practice of the form. Just very elderly people moving very slowly as a kind of exercise. And I've had enough. I have no problem with the idea that tai chi brings health benefits, but classically that has never been its primary aim. The translation of the full name (grand ultimate boxing, or great pole boxing) makes it clear what its practitioners were aiming for. I firmly believe that if you aren't doing a martial art, then you aren't doing real tai chi. You're doing some sort of gentle, arm waving yoga (and you should do yoga, because it's more specifically designed for the health benefits you're looking for).


There are plenty of tai chi classes around me. Of those, perhaps one or two do anything with the applications of the form or with push hands, and most of those see them as advanced things to be gotten to after the completion of the form. Genuine interactive practice is right out of the window, while I suspect that if I had to give you a pound for every time they talked about hitting someone and you had to give me one for every time they made an exaggerated claim about chi or medical benefits, I would end up quite well off. Even at the one "good" club, I felt like we were doing only drilling, with no live practise. Not even push hands.


So I'm going to say what I'm sure a number of people have said over the years. If you're doing tai chi, look at the way you're doing it. I firmly believe that it can be a useful art, if you train it that way. So if you practice tai chi, ask yourself the following things:


Am I just going through the form every session? No one learns to protect themselves by doing forms. No one. Forms are a good way to get repetitions of movements in correctly, but they teach nothing about distance or timing. Nothing about yielding or following. Worse, doing it this way turns tai chi into an external art. It becomes solely about the way things look, rather than about what things really are.


Am I doing my form blindly, or do I understand at least a basic application for every movement? There are plenty of potential applications for every move. Knowing at least one will change the way you do the form, and probably increase its benefits to you. One of my old karate instructors suggested that it should be possible to take at least five different applications from every kata move in that art, including taking the whole thing to the ground, throwing, joint locking, striking and defending. Tai chi is at least that sophisticated.


Are you relying on chi to solve all your problems? There is no good evidence for the existence of chi that I have seen. There is certainly no evidence that it will make you a better fighter. It is not a short cut to easy success. It's a medical model that belongs to the past, and is also far too general to help us understand different nuances. I know, I know, without chi, how can we be an internal art? Yet it is possible to be "internal" without focusing on chi, by thinking about things like the moment of interaction, understanding an opponent, understanding yourself and your structure, the feelings and reactions you bring to an engagement and more. I think that being internal is about letting things flow out from principles of good movement and understanding rather than focussing on the form of the movements. But these things only really develop working with someone else, so it's easier to just talk about chi.


Are you doing some sort of genuinely interactive practice in every session? Push hands is a starting point. I don't think it's the end. I don't think it's an adequate analogue for fighting. But it's a good in between ground, and the bare minimum that you should be doing.


Are you working from principles? There's a tendency for people to look at those who actually fight with soft/internal arts and say "That's not tai chi/aikido/whatever". Actually, it's just not what you're doing. Whatever that is. The movements adapt to whatever the other person is doing, ideally. So long as the core principles of the art are in place, that's fine.


So if you practice tai chi, take a moment to think about what you're doing. If you don't like what you see, change it. Talk to your teacher. Find another teacher. Find a friend who is willing to do some work with you outside of your usual classes. I firmly believe that if enough people work at it, we should be able to put the chuan back into tai chi chuan. I think that it's important that we do.


Anyway, that's my martial arts related rant over for now.



Monday, 7 July 2014

Medieval Monday: Equipment

It's another Medieval Monday, and today, I'm looking at the most important activity for any heroic figure in a medieval setting- shopping. It's a weird thing, but in medieval stories, epic poems and so on, often we hear more about the hero's equipment than about their personal characteristics. Indeed, in many cases, we get the impression that the biggest difference between them and anyone else is the stuff they're carrying about. In many ways, the RPG thing of spending hours poring over equipment lists and digging out that plus one sword of general light entertainment is a more accurate representation than people think.


Swords are an obvious one. Arthur had Excalibur, but his wasn't the only sword of note in stories from the middle ages. El Cid had Tizona. Roland had Durendal. Even the swords that didn't have names of their own were typically described in terms of their quality and makers. Raoul de Cambrai's sword is described as being the next best sword in existence to Durendal, pointing to a kind of shared awareness of this process of talking about the quality of the weapons. There was also a tendency to talk about the swords being forged by particularly famous or even mythical smiths, from the "Galant" who forged de Cambrai's blade to Wayland Smith, who gets cited in all sorts of places.


It wasn't just swords though. That focus is a modern one. The stanza after we hear about Raoul's special sword, we hear about a golden shield. The stanza before, we hear about a helmet proof against every blow. Armour was a big deal for writers in the middle ages, and indeed, the way fight scenes are written in the literature, it is often the big thing. Modern movie fight scenes are about grace and skill and movement. Written medieval ones are mostly about personal strength set against the strength of the opponent's armour. Often, we find detailed descriptions of armour giving out beneath the strength of particular blows. I'm not saying that's an accurate description of how fighting happened, but it is how it was portrayed in fiction.


Perhaps a part of that is because there was an element of reality to it. The simple fact was that the people who could afford thick armour and good weapons had an advantage over those who couldn't. It wasn't an unfair advantage in their eyes so much as a symbol of their greater nobility and higher birth, which of course made it right that they should be able to beat up all those poorly armoured peasants. Indeed, a big part of the whole issue of becoming a knight was not nobility per se (barons, earls etc would have been insulted if you'd called them a knight in the early part of the period) but simply the ability to afford the armour.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

IWSG July




I'm worrying this month about the notion of not writing well enough. Two things have sparked this. One is reading through the 2014 Best SFF as part of some reviewing I'm doing. Another is working through some re-writes on a piece. The one is about the idea of all this incredible writing right in front of me, while the other is about being told outright that something needs work. Which is an occasional occupational hazard.


But there's the other half of that, which is about other people's standards. At what point does wanting to write to the standard of something else spill over into not wanting to write like yourself? Not wanting to be yourself. I know I have a particular voice, so at what point does that become a problem? How much is it worth changing things, and at what point should you push back and say that doing so isn't going to work.