The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Twelve. Looking Forward.

It's been a long journey, but we finally got here.  Actually, I've found this year to be the most enjoyable of my 12 Blogs series, mainly because, through sheer accident, it happened when I didn't have any deadlines to meet, and so I was able to devote a longer time to the writing of each blog.  I'm exhausted, but that's kind of the idea.  Today's blog ends with a rather lovely exclusive!

Midnight tonight is the cut off point for entering the This Time Next Year Game, where you're asked to judge the outcomes of thirty things in the coming year.  There are loads of entrants already, and big prizes to be had. I have to manually clear blog comments (I started doing that after my blog briefly became the central hub of anti-Robin Hood feeling, not an asset to one's popularity with the producers of that show.  I also still get the occasional fascist (I mean literally) dropping me a line to share their views about Captain Britain and MI-13.) So don't worry if you enter before midnight but your comment doesn't show up until after.  I'm going to be at midnight mass (and then, erm, where there is beer), so it might take me a while to clear last minute entries, but they'll be counted.

Two lovely reviews have appeared which I'd like to mention, the always interesting Too Busy Thinking About My Comics continues a series of blogs about Knight and Squire and Comics Alliance is nicely thoughtful about Demon Knights. Thanks, everyone.

Today, I'd like to look ahead to some of the events I'll be attending in 2012.



On February 2-5th, I'll be one of now quite an enormous list of author guests at the third SFX Weekender, now at Prestatyn.  What I love about these events, more than anything else, is the audience.  They're a very mainstream crowd, diverse, and with a much more even male/female balance than at conventions inside SF fan culture.  There's a lot of cosplay, and an emphasis on inclusion and partying.  These are people who grew up outside the ghetto and think of fan life as one element of a healthy diet.  I'll be staying once again at the Tor Cottage, where my publishers create a little sitcom of a bunch of authors sharing a house.  (Last year we woke to the sound of China Mieville skipping on the patio.)  The SFX guys have got me doing some fun stuff onstage, which I'll reveal nearer the time.  And you'll get to see me dancing ridiculously at the disco.

On 18th February, I'll probably pop my head round the door of lovely little Picocon at Imperial College, because former Guests of Honour get in free.  There are always good guest panels, in actual lecture halls.  I usually say 'but why is it bigger than Microcon?'  They've probably never heard that before.

On the 25-26th February, I'll be at the first London Super Comic Convention. Obviously, this is an unknown quantity, but they've got Stan Lee onboard, and the travelling party with many venues that is the UK Comickers will be there having fun as always.

On 6th-9th April, I'm proud to be a Guest of Honour (alongside George R.R. Martin, Cory Doctorow and Tricia Sullivan) at Olympus 2012, this year's Eastercon. Now, my relationship with the Eastercon movement has sometimes been slightly fraught, but that's true of everyone who regularly goes to Eastercon, and I think perhaps now a lot of the previous problems (that I kept pointing at and yelling about) are now behind us.  The venue is one of those classic convention hotels I've been at so often that I associate it entirely with good times.  It may, actually, be, kids, where I met your... well, where I met my wife.  (But we didn't know each other at the time, and aren't sure.)  I intend to make myself as available as humanly possible, and be as good a GoH as I can be.  'Work me hard,' I said to Liz Batty.  And she burst out laughing.  For some reason.

The very next weekend I'll be in Leicester for Alt.Fiction. I very much like the emphasis of what feels more like a literary festival than a convention, on all forms of professional genre writing being equal.  It's when I get to meet the good people who write for ranges like Torchwood and Warhammer.  There are lots of opportunities for readings, and panels stretch into the evening.  There's an infectious sense of civic enthusiasm about it.

On May 11-13th I'll be joining the travelling party again at the Bristol Comic Expo. In truth, I felt the recent years with a much smaller dealer area felt like thin stuff, so it's good to hear it's back, and the bar life of this particularly convention, for fans and pros, is like no other.  (I have dim memories of Mike Carey, who really does deserve a hug, gently extracting me from a bush.  That I'd, erm, fallen into.)

And the weekend after (oh my aching liver) I'll be at the second Kapow Comic Convention. The first one did very well in bringing a new audience to a comics event, and generated my longest ever signing line (two hours of new people!)  There's an excitement and a closeness to the audience that I find very attractive.

The Hugo Awards wait for us all at the World Heavyweight Championship of conventions (in significance rather than size), this year's Worldcon, this time in Chicago, from August 30th.  I've written many times about the wonderful extremity of the Worldcon experience, and this looks like a good one, with everything in one hotel venue, and it being Chicago outside.  We'll probably arrange a holiday around it, as we often do.

As someone who's getting involved with the British Fantasy Society, I'll be heading for Fantasycon in Brighton on September 27th.  If the BFS can manage such warm-hearted fun (and an excellent disco) as this year when they were suffering from organisational troubles, then the newly-shipshape society should celebrate in great style.  And it seems some truly major guests are going to be announced soon.

And speaking of conventions I feel warmly about, Bristolcon is on October 20th in 2012.  It gets bigger and better every year, and this year's was like an enormous hug from fandom, very welcome after the death of my Dad.

There will be a few more, because I'm in mid-negotiation with various con committees about going to various places, but that already looks like an exciting year ahead.  I hope I'll get to see you at one of these. Do say hello.

Today, we have no less than three guests on the blog, telling us about their seasonal plans.  Firstly, it's a Mr Tony Lee who writes...

'Christmas is always an interesting time for a freelancer; you have the enjoyment of a day or two off, watching cheesy television and films you haven't seen since you were a teenager, catching up with family and old friends and eating more food in a week than you would in the usual month, measured against the crushing freelancer guilt that this a day off, and a day not working is a day not moving closer to deadline and payment and get to a bloody computer and work already, wordbitch.

For me though, this Christmas is a special one, for it is the first one for Tracy and myself in the newly acquired roles of married couple. I expect that this new marital state will provide bountiful harvests of new, marital Christmas experiences, as I settle into my role of happily married husband, and Tracy carries on her journeyman steps to the position of long suffering wife.

I'll be downing tools on Christmas Eve this year* as Tracy and I make our traditional journey to Birmingham for Tanya and Ant's (two of my best friends) traditional Christmas Party. Having lived in Birmingham from 2000 - 2009 before returning to London, this party was always a staple date in the calendar, and when they selfishly decided not to have one last year (due to travelling around the world for eight months or something), it was greatly missed.

We'll drive back to London in the early hours of Christmas Day, racing Santa down the M40 and, after opening our own presents on Christmas Morning, we'll go to Tracy's sister's house for the Farrow Family Christmas.  Much jollyment and merriness will be had with the entire Farrow clan in one place.

Boxing day will begin with a trip to my Mother's grave for a more sombre Christmas moment - this will be the eighth Christmas that she's been gone now, followed by an afternoon with my Father and my Uncle Jack and an evening catching up on that aforementioned cheesy television.  And even though the 27th is technically a Bank Holiday, I'll be back at the keyboard, finishing deadlines, wondering why editors, agents, producers and publishers aren't replying to my emails and working up to New Years Eve, where this year we've decided to go for something a little more quiet and intimate.  And probably involving hideously cheesy shark-related movies.

So have a wonderful Christmas from me and mine to you and yours, and may Santa bring you everything you desire and wish for - last year he brought me the promise of a beautiful wife, and it was the best present I ever had.  May this year be even better.

*Depending on deadlines, this entire piece might turn into "I shall be writing, weeping, munching forlornly on a lone mince pie this Christmas as I try to finish a revised deadline", as is the freelancer's way.'



Thanks, Tony.  Next, we hear from a Ms Emma Vieceli, who writes...

'Christmas was a ninja this year.  I swear it just leapt out from behind my settee...gave me quite a scare.  So, plans?  We have an early Christmas gathering with family number one. And then hubby and I will be heading up to the Lake District to see family number two and hopefully indulge in copious amounts of food in gravy. I'll no doubt be taking a little work with me which I will attempt not to cover in said food and gravy.  That's about as far as I've managed to plan.  Wishing much festive cheer to everyone reading. Let the gravy flow!'

And she sends this image, of one of her new characters, who we'll meet in 2012...


And finally, here's my artistic collaborator on the forthcoming Saucer Country for Vertigo, a Mr Ryan Kelly, (check out his sale of original art on that page) who writes...

'Normally, the momentum towards Christmas is filled with a cocktail of exuberance and panic that will inevitably end in jubilation or tears.  Or a simulation of both.  In earlier years, I had the time and devotion to make homemade christmas cards, homemade ornaments, homemade mittens and even homemade snow. That's how powerful I am.  But these days, I've been busy with work and the holidays collide with the unmovable force of deadlines and tasks and the struggle to complete them.  This is not said lightly though. Some people don't have jobs, and I know that.  I think about it all the time.  I am grateful to have work. Work, love, family, friends -- these should be appreciated and coveted.  I have to remember this is all that matters, and not getting that Panini Maker on sale at Sears.  Wait... Paninis.  That sounds really delicious. No, nevermind, I take that all back.  I'll have the Panini instead!

I have 3 kids, so Christmas really belongs to them now.  I've had my way with it already and now Christmas lives as a Greatest Hits Collection filed away in the record collection of my mind.  Christmas is me and my brother and our neighborhood friends dragging our sleds a mile (or two) across the frozen tundra to "The 17th Hill".  It was named that because it was either on 17th Avenue or 17 people perished there.  I don't know, either way.

In the past, my mother and I would go to Christmas mass every Christmas eve.  The music was especially lovely, not the usual dour hymns and hymnals.  Nothing wrong with that though, just that the music was more soulful and Christmasy.  My father and brother would never go.  It was always just me and mom, so that was a special little thing.

Past Christmases are marked by which toys I got.  First a firetruck; then Star Wars; next Star Wars; after that, Star Wars; then He-Man and Masters Of The Universe; then G.I. Joe; and finally,Transformers.  I remember how bad I wanted a Han Solo and Luke in his Jedi outfit.  I remember how bad I wanted the G.I. Joe hovercraft.  Now I'm a grown-up and I can buy them all by myself and laugh and scream "Victory!" into the sky with fireworks and explosions and a music score by Ennio Morricone.

But back to real life.  This Christmas, my 5 year old son and I set out to craft the 12 Days Christmas in 12 unique visual styles. The art gallery can be seen here.

Last night, we had potato latkes for Hanukkah and on Christmas day we will have a swedish breakfast with gravlax, havarti, sausage, boiled eggs, lingonberries and rolls. After we revel in our bacchanalian excess, I will take the kids sledding just like the olden days of my youth. If there is no snow, I will make some. That's how powerful I am.

Next year, should be good. I'm drawing the new Vertigo series Saucer Country with Paul Cornell. As a gift, I bring you gold, myr, and some sneak previews of the art.'

(And this is the rather wonderful exclusive of which I spoke.  Vertigo kindly let us release the following images, some in pencil, some in ink, some promo or design images, some frames from the comic itself, all as chosen by Ryan.  We see this as akin to a movie teaser trailer.)




I hope that whets your appetite.  I'm very much enjoying working with Ryan.  Saucer Country #1 goes on sale on March 14th, 2012.

I cried at the Christmas episode of Rev and I'm sure much the same will happen if Arthur pulls the sword out of that stone this evening.  Christmas is an emotional time for me, and writing this blog is a part of that.  I'd like to thank everyone who's contributed to this run of the 12 Blogs, and I'd like to link to (because they so need the followers), three people I didn't at the start, Neil Gaiman, Lauren Beukes and John Scalzi. Also, a round of applause please for Laurie Pink, whose cartoons have brightened up the place wonderfully.



This afternoon I narrated a Nativity Play at one of the local churches.  (And what an insanely cute toddlerpocalypse that was.  The initial Donkey fell over and needed a hug, so a stand in got called up out of the congregation.)  It started with the following words:

Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth and God in man.

That's what Christmas is about.

I hope wherever you are, especially if you're on your own, you have a joyful time tomorrow and in the rest of the holiday season.  And I'll see you back here in 2012, with a list of the This Time Next Year Game entrants.  (Unless anything extremely exciting happens in the meantime.)  Merry Christmas!


The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Eleven. Favourite Fiction of 2011.

Thanks very much for all your kind comments on yesterday's post about writing.  We're into the home stretch now, and I can see the finishing line.  For Laurie Pink's cartoon today it's important to remember that her Paul and Mike characters were originally cuddly versions of me and artist Mike Collins...



Today, I'd like to talk about some of my favourite prose of 2011.  Let's start with the novels.  I'm behind with the Song of Ice and Fire books, so can't comment on A Dance With Dragons (except to say that, in a wide open field, I think George might finally get his Hugo next year).



I think Heaven's Shadow by Michael Cassutt and David S. Goyer is not only a very good book, but is important for the relationship between the genre and the mainstream.  It's a J.J. Abrams -style genre revivification, pumping energy back into the Arthur C. Clarke type of near future NASA novel, while retooling it to be relevant to today.  Thus, while we get a tense depiction of two competing teams attempting to land on a Near Earth Object that's entered the solar system, we also get a continual feeling for the reaction of the media landscape, and some real personality in the characters.  It's the 'airport novel' for SF that we as a genre have long been seeking.  (Or, actually, that we as a genre should long have been seeking.)  And it doesn't forget that Clarke was always about the sense of wonder, which arrives with a numinous kick halfway through the book.  Perhaps the ending isn't all it could be.  If there's someone in your life that hovers on the fringes of SF, and misses the sort of book they used to write, well, they do now write them like that again.  Unfortunately, the book doesn't seem to be gaining much critical traction, being perceived, I think (David Goyer being the screenwriter of The Dark Knight) as a bit of an outsider book.  (The forthcoming movie will, incredibly, increase that feeling.)  But an outsider can see the wood for the trees.



Reamde by Neal Stephenson doesn't need my recommendation.  A story that should be filmed by Guy Ritchie (were he interested in gold farming in massive multiplayer online games) with Stephenson's typical love for stopping the narrative to tell us all the interesting background detail (and it is interesting).  It's telling, I think, that an attempt at the Great American Novel, a novel of character and history and how people are formed by the underlying patterns of the world can now quite simply and obviously be set in genre territory.  It's not SF, it's about how SF has changed the world, a literary novel about how things are, now that we've won.



Look at the blockiness of those islands on the cover of (my favourite author) Christopher Priest's new one, The Islanders.  This is  also, in its way, an SFnal literary novel, being a gazetteer, a map, a series of descriptive pieces, about a completely fictional group of islands, in a fictional world, with fictional politics.  It's somewhat about Britain and its former colonies.  And it's, as always with Priest, about conflicting narratives and playful world building to an extraordinary degree.  He starts toying with us on the first page.  I mention the cover because I think it gives the game away a bit: if this isn't influenced by games like Skyrim, then it should be an influence on them.  Any book you might pick up in that game is a highly abbreviated version of this.  One day, when there's enough memory in the world, I hope to find this book down a dungeon.  Or by then I might be living in it.


Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi is an interesting experiment (a first in prose, I think) a re-imagining of a classic SF novel, Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper.  This is a courtroom thriller about colonisation and the rights of an indigenous intelligent species.  It's also a book about ethics, where they come from, and how they're maintained.  It's well aware of the potential pitfalls.  (Avatar's absolute lack of grey areas and it's horrifying desire for its aboriginal people to be 'noble'.  A cultural fable which I think reinforces the possibility of exploitation of those who aren't wise and noble, but are just people.)  Our hero is motivated by gain almost throughout.  There is due legal process in place.  (It's almost a direct response to the idea that what the aliens of Avatar really needed was a good lawyer.)  The book features that most cliche-bashing of creations: a good lawyer who works for an enormous mining company.  (Scalzi loves going 'wait a minute' to prejudicial assumptions about types of people, especially when the prejudices are those of his own liberal readership.) It's a book of clever tricks and reversals, satisfying and fast paced.  I listened to it via Audible, with a well-chosen Wil Wheaton doing the narration.  (One surprise, though, was that halfway through the package, I started to feel that the story was coming to an end, and wondered what insane twist Scalzi could possibly spring to keep this going for several more hours... only to find the book is bundled with the original Piper novel.  That's a nice gesture.)

This year, but not from this year, I also very much enjoyed Jon Armstrong's Grey and Walter John Williams' This is Not a Game, the sequels to both of which I'm anticipating diving into with great pleasure.

In 2012, I'm looking forward to Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth, Adam Christopher's Empire State (that's just about out already), Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamour in Glass and many, many more.

In the back of my diary/notebook, I keep a list of my favourite stories from each month of my Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine subscription.  I thought I'd share that list with you.  I love how the power of the Hugo Awards shapes the contents pages of SF magazines (making sure they make a clear division between novella, novelette and short story, the second of which especially is now almost a thing known only to SF fans), so why not continue that tradition?  (Where there's an except of the story available online, I've linked to it.)  Let me begin with the...

Short Stories.

'Visitors' by Steve Rasnic Tem (January).  Parents visit their son, a criminal who's kept in suspended animation, in a vividly described near future America.  One of those 'if this goes on...' stories that are the heartland of SF, with the usual Asimov's emotional depth.

'Smoke City' by Christopher Barzak (April/May).  A furious critique of steampunk as we get to meet the begrimed, poverty-stricken workers who keep all those lovely steam dirigibles in the air.  Makes excellent use of movement between two worlds of the imagination.  Now, it says, is better, choosing the future is better.

'The Fnoor Hen' by Rudy Rucker (April/May).  A brilliantly bizarre story of gene tech let loose in a future world seen, again, not from the ivory towers but through the eyes of the couples that live in the condos.

'Walking Stick Fires' by Alan DeNiro (June).  And this out-bizarres that, even, a road trip through an America that's disintegrated to the point of surrealism.  I love SF where the definitions and origins are lost to the point where the audience doesn't care and the thing is held together just by storytelling.  Giddy stuff.

'Watch Bees' by Philip Brewer (August).  Again, what becomes of America in the near future, where genetic engineering is available for farmers, but social order not so much.  It's not about the deadly bees that guard property from anyone whose biology they don't recognise, or the desperate ways to get around that, it's about how the world got here.

'Danilo' by Carol Emshwiller (September).  Emshwiller is swiftly becoming the new Bradbury, a unique voice that Asimov's has become the obvious home for.  Danilo was this guy this woman once knew, maybe, and she sets out to find him, in a future America (?) where going over to the next town is a major task.  (Reading Asimov's over a year puts one's finger on the pulse of what SF is thinking, and right now that pulse is jittery.) The world's not so much in apocalypse as in slow, sighing decline.  Or this might be set right now, just in the other world of the very poor and lonely.  The search says something to us, something lost and romantic and sad, and the story doesn't want to be bothered about being in any particular genre.

'Free Dog' by Jake Skillingstead (October/November).  File sharing is taken to the max in a world where a man's love for his dog, and the way that love is shaken by divorce, is interfered with when the dog starts getting... pirated.  It could be played for laughs, but again, the emotions are raw.  This is heartland SF adapted in that very Asimov's way: 'if this goes on... how would it feel?'

'"Run," Bakri Says' by Ferrett Steinmetz.  (December).  Bit of a masterpiece, this.  Iraqi dissidents start using SF equipment to enable one woman to rescue her brother from US forces by being able to have multiple 'lives' and go through her actions time after time, just as in a video game.  It gets as grim as you might expect, and neatly describes the processes of alienation from the world and loss of perceived personhood in one's enemies that form all extremism.

Novelettes.

'Out of the Dream Closet' by David Ira Cleary (February).  Another surreal future, the getting to which from here is unclear, but this one, a comfortable nostalgic post-everything Earth, littered with memories (literally) and sparsely populated with interesting posthuman characters, is almost somewhere you'd like to live.  Our heroine is avoiding thinking about the approaching (deliberate on his part) death of her father, who's no longer really human at all.  It's all a bit Alice and a bit Mervyn Peake.

'Clean' by John Kessel (March).  It's medically useful for a Dad to have part of his memory erased.  And that means consquences for his family.  (Dads, real people, emotional consequences, what Asimov's does.)

'I was Nearly your Mother' by Ian Creasey (March).  And was there ever a more Asimov's title than that?  It's so dull when you're a teenager and the woman from a parallel universe who decided not to be your mother wants to hang out with you.  In a wonderfully urban British setting.

'A Response from EST 17' by Tom Purdom (April/May).  Brilliant space opera, depicting some very original socioeconomic means of conflict and contact between worlds.  Dashes along at an exciting pace.

'The Cold Step Beyond' by Ian R. MacLeod (June). In an unfair world of warriors on quests, that's set in the ruins of SF rather than the towers of fantasy, a young woman warrior does her duty.

'Day 29' by Chris Beckett (July). When you're teleported to the colony worlds, you lose your memory of a certain number of days before you left.  And the implications of that are worked through very nicely.  Until the story starts to hint (and it never does more than hint, leaving it to our intelligence) that... but that would be spoiling a very fine piece.  (In what was always going to be my favourite issue.  Ahem.)

'Corn Teeth' by Melanie Tem (August).  This is a bit of a masterpiece, a dissection of how the pressure of prejudice (in this case anti-alien prejudice) shapes the mind of a little girl, from within her point of view.  It's heartbreaking, and feels utterly real.  Getting inside the consciousness of a child takes great skill.

Novella.

And to my surprise, when I look back at my list, there's only one novella on it.

'The Man Who Bridged the Mist' by Kij Johnson (October/November) is a hymn to the pleasures of work.  It's about an engineer sent to a rural community on what could be a future (low tech) Earth or a colony world, or (honestly) an imagined past or a fantasy world without magic.  His job is to build a bridge across a dangerous river of mist, in which there are huge, liminal creatures.  This will impact on the town's ferry services.  He meets a number of intriguing characters.  There is romance.  There are setbacks.  (None of them are obvious, every reversal is surprising.)  But make no mistake, this is a story (it could be a novel, even) about building a bridge.  Life goes on afterwards.  Life is good and work is good.  (The SFnal feel of it comes more from everyone's joy in the use of skill and intelligence to solve problems than from the creatures.)  It makes one wish there was a genre of civil engineering fiction.  Perhaps this is the first.  Just tremendous.



And that's it for my survey this year.  As always on the 12 Blogs, we're joined by a creator to tell us of their festive plans, and today it's a Mr Kim Newman who writes...

'I'm going to spend the holidays in the West Country.  On the 23rd, I'll be in Bristol with my oldest friends - Eugene Byrne, Alex Dunn and Brian Smedley - and we'll perform our annual ritual of opening the envelope in which we made prophecies for what would happen this year and see how wrong we were, and how few of the celebs who've died we managed to get in the Dead Pool.  Then we'll make a whole new bunch of predictions for next year.  Disappointing Team GB medal showing in the Olympics is likely to figure.  And Margaret Thatcher has been in the Dead Pool since she was in office.  Then, I'll be in Aller, a tiny village in Somerset, for Christmas with my Dad, sister and nephew - open presents, eat meal, play with toys, etc.  The Aller Pottery Christmas sale is still on if anyone in the Sedgmoor area needs a last-minute present.  Here's my Dad and me at Christmas dinner some years ago ... it'll be in the same room, but we're older now ...'


That sounds lovely, Kim, thank you.  (Maybe you should enter our This Time Next Year quiz.)  Tomorrow I'll be summing up, looking forward to the conventions of 2012, and saying hello to a whole bunch of guests, one of whom brings Vertigo surprises.  Until then, Cheerio!




The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Ten. 40 Things about Writing.

You now have only two more days (up until midnight on Christmas Eve) to enter the This Time Next Year Game, in which you're asked to guess the outcomes of a number of events in the coming year.  Many people have already entered, but the more the merrier, and there will be big prizes!

Laurie Pink admits that today's cartoon, featuring the Magic Pencil...


... may need a bit of an explanation.  So here she is to provide it:

I showed it to SJ (who's a couple of years older than you), and suddenly realised that the Magic Pencil may not extend to her experience.  Sure enough, she reported that she was aware of its work, but hadn't really encountered it.  So here is a Magic Pencil reference -'

 

'Upon watching this vid, I realised for the first ever time how Magic Pencil is done.  Look! It's mounted on a black glove!  I feel like I've uncovered one of the secrets of the universe!  Why, I could probably even make my OWN magic pencil vids, if I wanted!  I note that, in the Youtube vids, there's a Magic Pencil dated 1994.  You'll definitely be cool with the Young Folks *fistybump*.  With their hippity-hop and their techno and their... syphilis... (I ran out of young things).'

She's getting more word count every day.  (And that's two references to syphilis in this year's 12 Blogs.)  And I'm still not quite sure I... anyway, moving on...

I hate talking about the craft of writing.  I'm often asked to run workshops at conventions and things, and I nearly always say no, largely because I feel it puts me up on a pedestal that's unwarranted.  The leader of a martial arts class is assumed to also be continuing their own studies.  There's something about a group of aspiring writers that makes their position, instead, feel too humble, and the teacher's too exalted.  And then, even given that, they don't bloody listen.  I appeared at the London Screenwriter's Festival this year, and ended up passing most of my questions to Adrian Hodges, who's been a showrunner when I haven't.  I sprinted for the door at the end, only to find people running after me, asking me stuff in the building, all the way to the door, out of it, onto the underground, and half way across London.  Seriously.  Adrian stayed put.  I wonder if he's okay?

So I thought I'd try to set down all the points I usually make at such things, and then perhaps never do one again.  There are so few of them that I think one blog post should cover it.  Some of these are based on old sayings about writing, few of which seem to me to be true.

1: A writer writes.  Simon Guerrier tells me, though I don't remember (it was in a convention bar), that when he was very young, he came up to me and told me that he wanted to be a writer.  'Then write,' I said.  And it seems that he took that to be very deep.  Maybe it is, actually, but at the time I think I would have meant something pretty simple.  Everything else a writer does: research; publicity; blogging (ahem) is beside the point. You can't decide to be a professional writer (actually, you can, but the universe won't pay any attention), but you can decide to be a writer, by writing every day.  You don't need to prepare, to psyche yourself up, to get everything ready first, the most important thing you have to do today is write.  So write.

2: There are two good books.  I can't honestly say there are only two, because who knows what's out there?  But I know there are a lot of bad books on how to write.  I'd say you shouldn't read anything by anyone who hasn't got some impressive credits of their own.  The two I recommend are: Story by Robert McKee (starts slowly but gets to the nuts and bolts and provides loads of them) and On Writing by Stephen King (mostly a memoir, but the last quarter is full of useful insight, particularly on the proper attitude for a writer.) Should you go on a Robert McKee screenwriting course?  Well, it's a lot of money, there's a good book version, and are you doing it instead of writing?

3: You're going to rewrite it.  'I have such trouble starting.'  'Just start, you're going to rewrite it anyway.'  'I have to make sure every paragraph is perfect before I move onto the next.'  'That seems a waste of time, when you're going to be rewriting them anyway.'  'I get so afraid that someone will interfere with my work, will want to change everything.'  'They will.  The first person to do that will be you, when you rewrite it.'

4: Your job is to seek out harsh criticism of your work and change as a result of it.  That's the sentence I've boiled everything down to over the years.  'Seek out' because it won't come looking for you unless you're already published.  'Harsh' because it will hurt.  One of the best lessons of On Writing is that King spent a lot of time and effort getting people to tell him what was wrong with his work, and the first time they did, he immediately asked for more of that, please.  A boxer doesn't learn to fight by avoiding getting punched in the face.  I've seen editors kindly start to criticise the work of a would-be writer who's just shown them it, only for the writer to start to defend it.  'No, you see, what I was trying to do there -'  At which point the editor would be justified in walking away.  What you should say, if you're lucky enough to get in that scenario, is 'right, yes, okay, I see, thank you'.  And you should, either mentally, or no, actually with a pen and a notebook (because you carry a notebook) so the editor can see you do it, take down what they've said to you.  You probably won't, on that first listen, have actually agreed with all that hideous destructive nonsense about your precious work.  Pretend you do.  Because then you've shown that editor that you've got the right attitude.  Then, when you get home, comes the next difficult bit.  Apply every tiny line of what that editor said to the next draft.  You'll do that, initially, grudgingly.  Then you'll gradually see that hey, some of this makes sense, this is actually making the work better.  Then you'll realise that, hmm, actually, everything that editor said made the work better.  The tremendous pain you heard on hearing it will have vanished.  And you'll stand up from that new draft with, in the air above your head, the words 'writing skill level increased by three points, level up'.  In time, you'll come to be able to short circuit that whole process, and take huge, manuscript-changing notes with a jaunty smile.  Then you'll be a writer.

5: Note that I haven't even mentioned arguing with those notes.  That's like talking to someone who can't swim about their chances in the Olympic breast stroke final.

6: Plot first.  You could find a plot by just starting to write, but there's knowing you're going to rewrite and there's knowing you're going to be doing that for years.  Some people say 'character first', I say... nah.  Characters are the surface signs of plot underneath.  They may become 'real people', they may start to make plot for you, but right now, there's only plot.  They pay us for endings.  If you have a good ending, you're fine, go off and write that thing.  I usually start with a one line idea, then write a page of plot, then write a really detailed plot that includes everything, and that's often dozens of pages.  That's actually the hard part of writing a novel.  If you've got that done, and your editor agrees, you're sorted, off you go for a fun ride downhill.

7: Where do you get your ideas from?  That's the question writers hear most.  That person is saying 'I'm afraid because I don't seem to have any ideas for stories and I'm worried there's something wrong with me.' Actually, that person will have had loads of ideas for stories, because everyone does.  What they haven't done is write them down.  In their notebook.  (Which they will be carrying.)  They've had story ideas and treated them like daydreams, actual dreams, fantasies, and they've thus forgotten them.  Nobody else is going to see inside your notebook, you don't have to self-censor.  Most of the ideas you have will be crap.  So what?  I also sometimes think such people have ideas and write them all off as not being good enough.  Fine.  That means someone else gets to be a writer.  Because -

8: Like Woody Allen says, 99% of life is showing up.  Don't rule yourself out of the game.  There's no career structure for writers.  You can't apprentice yourself to a famous writer, write the occasional word, then move to paragraphs, then end up doing novels when they're on holiday.  Every one of us who works as a professional got our first job by some ridiculous, un-repeatable accident.  (In my case, it was because a friend of mine worked in the Guinness brewery.  Should you get your friend to apply for a job there?  No.) We all got our second job because of our first job.  You have to be ready, when that first accident happens, to grab it and hold on.  So you have to be good enough, and you have to not be one of those people who feels they'll never get it so they won't try, and you have to be ready, when that first editor starts telling you what's wrong with you (I mean, with your manuscript) to listen.  That painful, awful, thing may, seriously, never happen again.  And then you'll be sorry.

9: There's not much one writer can do for another.  Editors and agents know full well we have loads of friends who we love very much who aren't good writers.  If we're foolish enough to put one of those people forward to an editor or agent while they're still not good enough, the editor or agent won't grudgingly give our friend a successful career.  They'll kick them down the steps (very politely) and think slightly less of us.

10: 'It's not what you know, it's who you know.'  That's a conflation of the last two points into a misleading quotation that exists to make bad writers feel better.  You need to meet 'who you know', but you need 'what you know' to get anywhere with them.  And if you've got enough of what you know it really doesn't matter who you know.  The reverse of that isn't true.

11: There's no such thing as 'writer's block'.  It's just the easiest possible way for non-writers (people who didn't write today) to pretend they're writers (people who did).  If they sat down and started to write, they'd find they could.  There is a very similar real condition, but it's not a problem, it's a writer's ability.  That is, you may well find something in your mind going 'woah, wait, I don't want to continue writing this, why don't I want to continue?'  It's because you've got something wrong.  It's probably not a fault in what you just wrote, because it's taken you a little while to realise this, it's probably a couple of paragraphs, pages, or chapters back.  Don't panic.  Don't wander around the house with an icepack to your head, or go out onto the streets seeking 'inspiration'.  All that is, is not writing.  (Although if you're actually thinking hard about this bit I'm coming to, there's no harm in getting a coffee and looking moody while you do.)  What you're feeling now isn't a problem, it's useful.  Go back and read from the last major thing that happened.  You'll find there's a point where you started to feel there was something wrong.  That's because there is.  You put a brick down here that's unsafe to build on.  (Perhaps you've written a plot, and that was the point you left it behind, because some interesting alternative occurred to you, or you just forgot.  Look back to your plot, remind yourself of it, and decide now whether or not that's a good diversion, and where it will end up.)  This process might take a while, but this isn't time wasted as long as you've got a notebook open in front of you, know you're working on something that's gone wrong and where that thing is.  (Various writers do this at various levels of conscious thought.  Myself, I've started to realise that if I get depressive feelings about how terrible a writer I am, that's my sign that something's wrong in the manuscript, and I can switch all that off just by finding it.)  All this time, you will be absolutely able to write anything else you fancy writing, and perhaps you should, if it gets the juices flowing.

12: She said.  She didn't 'opine', 'conjecture' or 'venture'.  She said.  She can't 'smile' or 'laugh'.  ('Kill him at once,' she laughed.)  Not physically possible.  (She laughed.  'Kill him at once.')

13: Almost nobody writes for comics.  It's the absolute hardest market to crack.  Because most people who want to do it don't want to write, they want to write Batman.  And you don't learn to write Batman by trying to write Batman.  I didn't get to write Doctor Who on TV because I wrote Doctor Who fan fiction, or even because I wrote Doctor Who novels or audio plays.  I got to write Doctor Who on TV because I wrote for Casualty and Coronation Street.  That is to say, I'd learnt (to some small degree) how to write TV.  The one bonus for aspiring comics writers is that while it's frowned on to self-publish your novel (seriously, if you ever want to write professionally, I know it's tempting, now more than ever, but don't do it), and it's more likely you'll put together the tremendous effort required to direct your own short film than get to write for such a first time director without directing it yourself, it's absolutely fine to publish your own comic.  You'll lose money, obviously.  But it'll give you something to put into the hands of an editor, and they'll be fine with that.  Then you get to hear the hideously painful critique.  And you're off!

14: Start from the beginning every day.  (One of Moffat's tips, this one.)  If you're writing a short story, TV script or comic script, or, actually a chapter of a novel, read from the very start before you get to the bit you're working on, every working day, rewriting as you go.  That means you won't forget the plot when you get to the new bit, everything's in context, and the start of the thing gets more and more polished.

15: If a scene feels too long, make it longer.  (This is another of his.)  If a scene has started to feel dull to you, maybe it doesn't need radically cutting down (though it might).  Maybe it's just cramming in a lot of stuff into too small an area.  So characters are going on and on in long sequences of dull dialogue, when actually if you added some action to break things up, or even better, turned what they're saying into action instead... in short, the way to make the scene feel the right length is, sometimes, by adding to it.

16: 'Write what you know.'  I've always thought this is a weird saying.  I can actually name very few people who did that.  (Dick Francis... erm...)  I think perhaps what it means is 'don't write what you don't know'.  That is to say, don't confine yourself to writing only about what you know right now, but if you want to write about something else, go out and research and find out all about it.  (But start to write it at the same time.  Because that means you're not putting off writing.  You're going to rewrite it anyway.  Stephen King famously researches his novels only after he's written the first draft, and, having just finished a research-intensive novel, I can see what he means.  You know the right questions to ask when you know what you're going to do with this stuff.  That means you'll have to change a lot of what you've written.  But you're going to rewrite it anyway.)  The alternative is trying to write what you don't know while not knowing about it, which results in...



(Yeah, some of my Casualty episodes were a bit like that.)

17: Don't give in to fear.  Are you sure, when you sent that manuscript in, that it was as good as it could possibly be?  Or did you perhaps, like I did when I was very young, not give it a last once-over before I sent it off, because then when it was rejected I'd be able to find the 'one little thing that was wrong with it'?  (Maybe that was just me.)  I think something else I used to do, which still takes a bit of doing, is a bit more commonplace, though.  If you want to write for television, you're probably going to have to start by trying to write for Doctors on BBC1 in the afternoons.  Sure, you've got this idea for a series about warring galaxies. To one day be able to pitch that, you have to write for Doctors.  Writing for Doctors is hard.  You're going to need to watch (or read) a lot of the sort of thing you want (or need) to write for.  Set your Sky Plus for series record on Doctors.  Maybe it's distaste that stopped you from doing that, rather than fear (which is fine, there are lots of other people who want to be writers).  But sometimes one doesn't read the market thoroughly because one is afraid that one will discover that everyone who writes that stuff does it really well, and one will get discouraged.  Well, everyone who successfully writes any stuff does it well.  (No, really, that bestselling author whose work you hate didn't rub a magic lamp and get three wishes, they appealed to a lot of readers.)  You have to read the market not hoping to find uselessness to be better than, but knowing you'll find quality (as you should realise when you understand the aims and needs of what you're reading) and start to aspire to it.  You need to be better than the best stuff.  But don't let that scare you.

18: The wandering point of view.  When you're starting out in prose you may find it easiest to write in the third person past tense.  (She sat down.  She was thinking about all the wonderful parties she'd been to in this house.)  First person past tense is great too.  (I sat down.  I'd been to some wonderful parties in this house.) But just make sure beforehand that one narrator will get to everywhere your plot needs to go.  Third person present tense feels modern and arty.  (She sits down.  She's thinking about all the wonderful parties she's been to in this house.)  But the reason it feels so cool is that it's tough to keep going, and, and this is just me, I think what it gains in immediacy it loses in warmth.  But for God's sake, whatever you choose, stick to it.  And there's something else you need to stick to, and it's a mistake loads of people make.  Here's some (rubbish) third person past tense prose:

She looked around the room, remembering Dan by that window, Roger leaning on the mantlepiece, Amanda falling over that sofa.  Look out, look out!  Oops, no, there she goes.  She smiled at the memory.  
     Joe entered the room.  Oh no, not him.  Not now.  She'd just been enjoying these memories, and here he was interrupting.  
     'Hi,' he said.  
     'Hi,' she said, hoping he'd go.  
     'I remember Amanda falling over that sofa,' he said.  But he wasn't remembering it fondly, the look on his face said.  He was remembering her friend being a fool.

Now, despite the fact that, as the writer, I'm not being my heroine (this is third person, we're using 'she' and not 'I'), the readers are still very much inside her head.  They get to know what she's thinking.  But the strength of third person is that we could cut away and look in on someone else's thoughts.  Like this:

She looked around the room, remembering Dan by that window, Roger leaning on the mantlepiece, Amanda falling over that sofa.  Look out, look out!  Oops, no, there she goes.  She smiled at the memory.  


Joe entered the room and saw Sheila looking around.  Oh, she was enjoying her memories of being here.  Well, he thought, let's puncture her balloon.  

That is also absolutely fine.  But note the gap between the two points of view.  That's the important thing here.  Because without it, you get:


She looked around the room, remembering Dan by that window, Roger leaning on the mantlepiece, Amanda falling over that sofa.  Look out, look out!  Oops, no, there she goes.  She smiled at the memory.  
     Joe entered the room and saw Sheila looking around.  Oh, she was enjoying her memories of being here.  Well, he thought, let's puncture her balloon.  
     'Hi,' he said.  
     'Hi,' she said, hoping he'd go.  
     'I remember Amanda falling over that sofa,' he said.  But he wasn't remembering it fondly, the look on his face said.  He was remembering her friend being a fool.


That's a bit confusing, isn't it?  You can see what's going on, but you have to work at it, and why give your readers meaningless extra work?  There are writers like Dorothy L. Sayers who do this all the time, but she's one of the greatest writers who ever lived, and she does it so well that readers seldom notice.  You are not her.  Do not attempt to copy her.

19: Good/nice/on time.  I can't remember who said that to succeed a writer needs to have any two of three qualities: writing ability; being pleasant to work with and always delivering on time.  Well, that's sort of true.  It only really applies when you're already in a job.  (Nobody gets hired the first time just for being nice, and how do they know you'll always be prompt?)  And it's more of a recognition that, on deadlines, one isn't always able to produce one's best work.  But I tell you what, of those three things, you can control two of them completely, so why not always be nice and always be on time?  (I think writers who don't make the biggest possible effort to be pleasant to work with are sort of testing how good they are, seeing if their work is excellent enough so that they can behave badly and still be employed.  And I think maybe they buy into the idea that genius is tumultuous.  But not all genii are rude.  And those guys that are you often see being indulged for a while, then quietly vanishing as soon as their work stops being absolutely top notch.)  I've thrown a few strops in my time, but I view every one of them as an abject failure on my part.

20: The last word.  The word that gets the laugh is the last word of the joke.

21: Odd pages.  Don't put surprises on odd-numbered pages of comics (because then the eye goes straight to the surprise on the right and misses the lead in on the even-numbered page to the left).

22: Characters aren't made of characteristics.  When I was a kid, I'd write down lists of characteristics for all my characters, as if people are made of what they like to eat and how they might vote.  Actually, especially in prose, often the less we know about a character, the more universal they are, the more popular they are.  The heroes of most bestseller novels are almost empty shoes for readers to walk around in.  Even if you want a bit more detail than that, start from a tone of voice, an attitude, a motivation.  The four heroes of Cops and Monsters are: 'The world's falling apart, but I'll keep doing my job.'  'I have been denied my revenge.'  'People keep bloody underestimating me.' 'This lot are worthless, I'm out of here as soon as possible.'  I don't know what their favourite TV shows are.  But if a situation comes up where their central attitudes can be illustrated by what their favourite TV shows are, I might decide.

23: Don't be didactic.  You might want to write a novel that tells us war is bad.  A lot of great novels have done that.  Very few of them featured a character who said 'you know, war is really bad'.  A lot of them are largely staffed by those who believe the complete opposite.  It's fine for your work to have a point of view.  But let it be shown in action, in cumulative effect.  Sometimes it's exciting for the viewer if your point of view (particular if it's one that hasn't been seen very often before) does make it onto the screen, banners flying.  But then you should be very careful not to paint every one of the opposition as bad guys.  You as a writer have to understand and to some extent sympathise with every character.  And make sure you show us the flaws in your leads.  Readers can spot an author's mouthpiece a mile away.  Have distance from every character too.

24: Start a scene late, finish early.  The start of a scene should be the first interesting thing that happens.  Ideally, the first surprise.  The scene should end at the exact moment when there are no more surprises to be had in it.  (That's why, in the movies, everyone is so curt at the end of phone calls.)  Joss Whedon in Buffy (I'm paraphrasing, and I forget the episode) has Xander say 'I'm sure I can go over there and talk her round to our point of view.'  (A new thought he hadn't mentioned before, end of scene.)  Cut to Xander hanging from the ceiling of a dungeon in chains.  Now, that's funny because of the reversal, the surprise.  (Although 'that is something I would never ever do' cut to character doing just that is now so hideously over-used as to be the cheapest of laughs, but because that's what happens, in the end, to all really cool new ideas.)  But it's also great writing because Joss has recognised that every single thing that happens between Xander saying that and getting chained to the ceiling doesn't have to be shown because it's obvious, it's not a surprise.  (I hope that was a Joss script, and not any of his co-writers, but it may well have been his scene whatever the credit, because that's how TV works.)

25: Learn to rely on the artist, director, actors.  The obvious newbie failing of all first time comic writers is to crowd the page with speech balloons.  (In my first two issues of Wisdom you can hardly see the art sometimes.)  Writers starting in TV have everyone talking too much.  In visual media, you need to try, at every opportunity, to give the work of storytelling to the artist or director and actors.

HE:     What's wrong?


SHE:   I'm not happy at you mocking Amanda about when she fell over that sofa.

... isn't as good as...

HE:     What's wrong?


She gives him an angry look.  He should know.  

Only have the character tell us about what should be acted or drawn when there's no other choice.  Look at how little dialogue there is in a Warren Ellis comic like Planetary, but how much story there is.  You'll find a lot of what you write in a television or comic script is in the descriptions of action.  That's what most of those famously huge Alan Moore scripts consist of, information (both background and emotional) that gives Dave Gibbons or David Lloyd a lot of starting points for their own skills.  It's fine to say what the shape of a comics panel should be (tall thin ones speed up the action, long flat ones slow it down, like slow pans), but the artist might well decide they know better, and every good artist I've worked with has sometimes restructured a page I've written, always to better effect.

26: But don't direct.  It's annoying for a director to be told what to do.  When the soldiers burst in, and the child hides under the bed, and watches them search the room, don't write:

We're in his point of view under the bed, we're watching the feet of the soldiers right there in front of us.  

Because although we have that (cliched) shot in our heads as writers, it's possible the director will have another (better) way of filming it, and it's not up to us to do their job for them.  Instead, the emotional context is welcome.

He lies there under the bed.  The soldiers search the room.  Noise and movement all around. They could find him at any moment!  

But don't go so far as.

He lies there under the bed.  The soldiers search the room.  Noise and movement all around. They could find him at any moment!  This is just like that time when he played hide and seek with his sister, only this is terrible!

Because the director will look at that and wonder how they can show that the boy is thinking that about the hide and seek.  But if you're making a specific point there, you could go for:

He lies there under the bed.  The soldiers search the room.  Noise and movement all around. They could find him at any moment!  (Maybe remind us somehow of that time Ben played hide and seek with his sister?)

How much of a question or a statement I'd frame that as would depend on how well I knew the director, but note that I'm asking them to use their skills to achieve a particular effect, not telling them how to do it, and even that might be infringing a bit on their domain.  They'll probably have got that resonance, and it's their job to add such resonances if you didn't think of them and to disregard them if you did and they don't think it should happen.

27: Don't do the beat twice.  This is something I still do. You need to show what happened once, and do it solidly enough so that you don't need to show it again.  This is particularly the case when it's characters making big decisions.  For some reason, I tend to have them mull it all over again, or even forget they've already talked about this.  The need to show things only once is why, when it's a life changing decision and it's only reasonable that characters should hesitate and talk a lot and return to the topic several times, and not having all that would be very unrealistic, people on television say 'we've already talked about this'.  Often in a manner which suggests they though the matter was closed, because that adds dramatic tension because of opposing points of view.

28: Don't get hung up on script format.  Some television or comics companies like to get scripts from writers that work for them in a particular format.  Pitching spec scripts for movies means you might, in order to look professional, want to use Final Draft.  (Though Russell Davies managed to convert BBC Cardiff to Movie Magic Screenwriter.)  But none of that matters at all when you're starting out.  (There's no standard script format at all in comics.  Pick one of the many wildly-varying ones available online from different comics writers.)  Just make sure you can easily tell dialogue from directions, that there's loads of blank space on the page, and that you only print on one side of the paper.  You'll probably feel better if you copy an established script format, but nobody's going to chuck your work for getting the width of a margin wrong.

29: Don't worry about length either.  It'll become, when you're about to get something actually filmed, very important.  But right now, something that roughly feels like an hour (or 45 minutes) of TV is all you're after.  Read it aloud to yourself once you're done, read the directions giving time for your mind's eye to see what's going on, and time it.  You'll be wrong, but as long as you're within ten minutes either way, no problem.  (A bit too long is better than a bit too short, but way too long isn't a good idea.)  The worst that can happen about this matter is that someone says 'as it stands this is a bit too long'.  But you'll be rewriting it anyway.

30: Read it aloud.  I've found myself self-editing books as I read them aloud at conventions.  A very bad sign.  I knew Cops and Monsters was okay when I read it aloud and felt I wanted to say every word.

31: Follow the guidelines.  When a publisher or magazine says they want to read submissions, they'll inevitably have specific instructions about what sort of thing they want to see and how they want it presented to them.  Follow those instructions to the letter.  'Well,' you're thinking, 'some of this advice has seemed pretty demanding, but that one's easy.'  So why is about twenty five per cent of what those publishers and magazines then receive stuff that ignores their instructions?  That twenty five per cent goes straight into the waste bin.  (It's not just a question of what they want, it's also to see if you're the sort of oaf who's come asking a favour but wants immediate special treatment.)  So that's great news.  You can straight away get yourself into the top three quarters of applicants by following the guidelines.

32: When to annoy your friends with your manuscript.  I think we've all probably learnt the hard way that the time for that is probably never.  Joining a writer's group works really well for some people (though having come up through academic writing training, I'm rather allergic to them), and in one of those everyone has the right to foist.  Similarly, if mates volunteer to 'beta test' your manuscript, they knew what they were getting into.  But established writers, friends who haven't asked, editors you meet down the pub (until they indicate they're willing, or at least until you've waited so long to ask them they're wondering why not), agents when they're socialising, all of these targets are off limits.

33: The ideal way to pitch something.  Is to be entertaining and charismatic, in real life or in social media, in front of people who might use your work, until they finally ask if you've ever thought about writing.  Because who you are is taken, for good or ill, as a good sign of how you might write.  We write our own dialogue every day.  If you then reveal that you have a novel finished waiting for just such an opportunity, then both writer and publisher will be happy.  The novel will probably need work, but then the writer knew they were going to be rewriting anyway.  If it's no good at all, the writer will be told no thank you, because it's still only quality that matters.  But they'll probably have learned loads along the way.  And if their reaction to that no thank you is good, then there's every chance they'll get to try again.

34: Are you getting paid?  You should never pay anyone anything for their help with your writing.  An agent will take a percentage of what you make, only after you make it.  Nobody else should get a thing.  Anyone who asks for money for 'editorial services', as a 'reading fee', or anything else is ripping you off. Writer Beware is the Science Fiction Writers of America's big-fisted guardian of your rights, and continually names and shames those out there who seek to trap vulnerable writers.  You might decide to work for nothing, like for a fanzine, but beware 'movie projects' that want you to do work for them in return for 'a share in the proceeds'.  There won't be any and any experience you might get will mostly be in terms of never doing that again.  The very smallest of magazines will pay you with at least a tiny sum, or at the very least a couple of copies, just to underline their belief that your work is worth something, and that's the honourable way to do it.

35: Two emotions in one panel.  Another newbie comics mistake.  Your dialogue for one particular panel says: 'When I think of her, I'm so happy... but in general I'm so sad.'  (What?  I'm not giving you my best lines in a blog post!)  What does the artist draw?  A sensible one would divide your one panel into two, one showing a happy face and the next a sad one.  A 1950s one would draw those two faces in one panel with blur lines between them.  But that's not done now.  Similarly, you can write 'she rushes out of the room, slams the door after her and suddenly screams from outside', and that's okay for a film script, but that's the all time worst comics panel description ever.  What exactly, if given that, would an artist draw?  I think that would translate to two panels.  She rushes out of the room.  Then we have other characters reacting at a scream from behind the now closed door.  (A slamming door is a pretty big ask unless you've got a cartoony artist.)

36: 'There are only eight stories.'  Or is it seven?  What are the eight?  (Which one is Inception?  It's got a familiar search for redemption at its heart, but that's not The Story, that's one element of it.)  I suspect this one actually got started with someone's mad theory.  Of course there are more than that.  You can easily name, off the top of your head, way more than eight movies the basic story shape of which has nothing in common with each other.  What there are, what this old saw gestures towards, is a finite number of archetypal stories, or of familiar building blocks that are used in stories.  But these can be re-arranged in a number of ways that approaches infinite.  I think this is an excuse used for when we feel that the movie we just came out of was kind of familiar, but we liked it anyway.

37: Reluctance.  I have a lot of time for Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his search for The Archetypal Story, but it's a book full of questions, not a road map.  Several of his points about things that always happen in myth that thus inform story are spot on, though, and one of those things is that it always feels emotionally right if the central character is reluctant to take part in the story.  They should take all reasonable measures to stop the story happening without them having to get involved.  Why don't they call the police?  You have to find a good answer to that question, not have the lead just ignore it.

38: Don't break the world for an in-joke.  I hate in-jokes.  When I was first starting out, I loved them, and put them in everywhere.  Gradually, I realised that they were the cheapest of tactics, that they compromised the drama, that above all they're not funny.  What about Knight and Squire, I hear you ask?  I'd say there's a difference between the way the references are used in that and your standard in-joke, say, the invisible man in Heroes being named 'Claude Rains.'  (Although it's a fine line, I grant you.)  'Claude Rains' is called that just so someone watching at home can nudge someone next to them on the sofa and say 'that was the name of the actor who most famously played the Invisible Man!'  To which their companion might be justified in replying: 'I thought it was unlikely enough that any modern Salfordian be named Claude, that rings false every time anyone says it, but how unlikely is it that someone with that name should also just happen to be invisible?!  And nobody comments on it!'  The name of that character hasn't been thought about for more than the moment it took to raise a (slight) smile.  But it's like an albatross around the character's neck.  I think what I do in Knight and Squire is a bit more integrated than that, that at least I try to make it all work.  Certain writers and directors seem to think that in-jokes are the whole point.  But I think originality is much, much, more worthwhile.

39: Old names.  Don't name your angry young teenager Harold, or your elderly lady Kylie.  Tracy was the most mysterious, romantic name when James Bond married her in 1963.  Names bring meaning and age with them.  There are lists online of what the most popular names were in a given year.  When you're naming a character, make sure they bring the right baggage with them.

40: There are times when none of these 'rules' apply.  One time is when you're so very very good that you can break all the rules and it's brilliant.  (But do you really want to bet on that?)  The other is when you're genuinely just doing this for fun, and don't expect to sell anything.  In which case why are you even bothering with reading all this?  Go have fun.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with pottering around for your own entertainment, and you'll learn stuff just by practicing.  You don't have to get serious until (and unless) you want to.  And you can control the levels of seriousness (fan fiction for yourself, shown to friends for them to comment on, shown to the internet for it to comment on) and make gentle upward progress. Or again, just to enjoy yourself.  But do bear in mind that the only people who get to call themselves boxers are people who've been punched a lot in the face.  A lot of people call themselves writers who aren't, and writers don't take kindly to that.  'I'm a writer of fan fiction' will always be fine.  'I'm a writer' means you got paid by someone who it's tough to get payment out of.  Getting published is really, really, difficult.  Failing is no disgrace.  There is no easy way to do it.  Hard work and the ability to recognise and make use of that one mad chance when it comes along, that's what pays off.  Sometimes.

And that's it.  Or it feels like it for now.  I hope some of that's been useful.  I won't read your manuscript under any circumstances, or give it to anyone else to read.  (I thought I'd best just say that bluntly now before the Comments section opens.  What's the betting someone will ask anyway?)  I'm glad I managed to blurt all that out in one place.  In feels like the tip of an iceberg I'm not qualified to... survey or explore or something, what, did someone tell you I was a writer?

As always on the 12 Blogs, today we feature a creator telling us about their festive plans.  This time it's a Mr Warren Ellis, who writes...

'Atheist household.  Xmas is a good excuse to give each other gifts and cook a goose and open too many bottles of wine.  Somewhere between hypocrisy and cultural continuity: Yule has been around at least as long, and I like to think it was celebrated here in Danelaw Essex before Christes-Mass arrived with the Normans.  So we just treat it like a winter solstice festival, with a bit of Brumalia and, let's face it, huge steaming sacrifices to Mammon.  I'll be chilling a bottle of Krug in the morning for the table, before cooking up a pan of eggs (fresh from the chickens in the garden, who will denounce me for creating the foul weather) scrambled with organic unsalted butter and organic smoked bacon, a champagne chilled the night before will be opened and the glasses dusted with gold leaf, and then the (local) goose will be roasted.  Afterwards, there will be games, conversation, maybe a bit of a film, more wine and, with luck, a deep and deeply alcohol-infused sleep.'

And he sent, erm... well...


Ho ho ho!  That sounds brilliant, Warren, and a happy holiday to you and all our atheist friends.

Tomorrow I'll be summing up my prose of the year, both in novel form and in my list of favourite stories from Asimov's.  Until then, Cheerio!



The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Nine. 50 Words for Snow.

Several bits of business to deal with immediately today. First of all, the Christmas Edition of The SF Squeecast is now up, with myself and my regular collaborators Seanan McGuire, Cat Valente, Liz Bear and Lynne Thomas talking about The Nightmare Before Christmas, Hogfather, the Avengers episode 'Too Many Christmas Trees' and (in my case) It's a Wonderful Life.  It's a joyous edition, and one of our best, I think. Please do give it a listen.  (It's also on iTunes.)

Secondly, the gang from SFX Magazine have put together this festive offering...

 

In which I pop up, alongside a whole bunch of famous faces, doing, well, I'm sure you recognise the speech.

And thirdly, I'm interviewed, with Brian Bendis, Walt Simonson and Sal Abbinantti on this festive edition of the Word Balloon Comics Podcast with John Siuntres.  As always, John gets a lot of details out of me about Demon Knights and Saucer Country.

Now, after the weekend, when our cartoonist in residence Laurie Pink revealed that she'd taken two days off from the blog to play roller derby, a number of you, intrigued, asked for details.  So I asked Laurie, and she writes...

'I skate with Manchester Roller Derby, which has, in the last few months, grown to be not just one team but THREE!  We have a men's team, New Wheeled Order, and two ladies' teams, the Manchester Check'Er Broads and the shiny BRAND NEW (yet to even bout, that's how new they are) Phoenix Furies.  On Saturday the Check 'Er Broads played Croydon Roller Derby and New Wheeled Order (in their first ever bout as a team) played Tyne N' Fear.  Alas, there was no victories for MRD, but both games were so damn awesome we didn't care!  My derby name is Pinky Fingaz and I am number #101 (numbers are chosen when you choose your name.  There haven't been 100 other unfortunate Pinky Fingazs before me).  I started skating in March, and I absolutely love it.  Roller derby is such a great melting pot of folks, all with a passion for skating, and hitting other people with their bums, in common.  Yesterday we did our end of year training session with secret santa, chocolate and dancing to Queen on wheels.

Oh! New intake for Manchester Roller Derby starts in January! No skate experience necessary! Look here for details. More about Manchester Roller Derby is on our site, which is due a big update in the new year. Very exciting!  Also, here are some pictures of Me n' the team from Saturday. I am the one with the pink bits on (I do have teeth, but my gum-shield is black). Don't we all look pretty?!'



Thanks for that, Laurie.  And here's her cartoon for today, which reveals our theme...


As many of our regulars will know, I'm a huge fan of Kate Bush.  (Whose own record label Fish People (she is a Doctor Who fan) now has an excellent website for her.)  And the news that she had two albums coming out this year, after such a long wait, was, well, it took a bit of dealing with.  What took more dealing with was that Director's Cut, in which she revisited tracks from two earlier albums, was, for me, so deeply disappointing.  Everything was longer (Ridley Scott, picking away at Blade Runner, always made it shorter) and less focused.  The choice of tracks certainly included some I felt could do with revisiting (it was, in many ways, a selection of my least favourite Kate works, with a couple of things I loved enough the first time round).  But what Kate seemed to  be doing was emphasising all my least favourite things about her work.

I was even a little worried about the single, 'Wild Man', until I'd got used to it, for reasons I'll get to later.  The track listing of 50 Words for Snow didn't fill me with confidence.  Only eight of them, and at such worrying length.  So it was a vast relief to discover that, while still not quite the second side of Aerial, this is a thorough return to form, perhaps the first step on a completely new journey, even.

Specificity is the curse of Kate.  To me she's at her best when lost in unknown territory, offering the slightest attempts at definition amongst impressionist soundscapes.  (We don't know what 'Suspended in Gaffa' is about, entirely.  We know far too much about what 'Heads We're Dancing' is about.)  I prefer her as musician rather than storyteller, despite the fact that a lot of her early successes were in story-based songs.  The important difference, I think, is that 'Wuthering Heights' or 'James and the Cold Gun' offer a couple of characters and a situation and, above all, an atmosphere.  It's when that gets extended to plot beats and an ending ('Experiment IV') that she flounders.  It's as if everything becomes too concrete and that sinks the song.  So it's a good thing that 'Snowflake', that opens here, has (a mother?) looking for a single, pleading, snowflake in a blizzard, reassuring him that she'll find him... and that's as far as the situation goes.  We're in Kate's musical bedrock of building piano motifs, that pleasing sense that she could write jazz.  The soundscape is an attempt, at what seems just the right length, to put as inside falling snow, where we feel somehow muffled, with bursts of strings on 'fleeting', gusts and flurries.  The music begins, and stays, just the right side of ambient.  We're meant to listen, just about.  It's meant to be in the background, and then seep into our consciousness, as the side-long architectures of her best work do, until we come to anticipate each move, while loving the relaxing atmosphere it puts around us.  At no point is our conscious mind jerked out of the dream with a plot development.  And, thank goodness, that feeling continues throughout the album.  Kate's son Albert's presence on this track (indeed, he's the first voice we hear), is entirely apt, works artistically, and isn't the misjudgment it could have been.

There are sounds one associates with Kate falling back on old certainties, of being, to a certain extent, lazy.  The Trio Bulgarka were brilliantly different, the first time we heard them.  They stayed on Kate's records for far too long afterwards.  The ghosts of them show up on 'Lake Tahoe', but it's only the slightest hint.  And again, it's a piece built on the piano and individual voices, on the sustain of notes, that seem to lead one inside to the spaces of sleep.  The vocals are way down, yearning for something, but one almost doesn't want to read them.  We're perked up not by plot, but by the rattle of a castanet, a signifier of something, threat or mystery, but we're not told what to think.  (It's odd for me, with Lake Tahoe fixed in my mind as a place of summer, to have those words linked to snow.) Those drums build up like drifts against the door, and the voice finally dies away almost mid-word.  Again, eleven minutes, and it hasn't bored us by trying to exist in our waking mind.

'I turn off the light, switch on the starry night', is not, therefore, the most promising start to thirteen minutes of 'Misty', nor is 'but I'm not sleeping'.  And this is very dangerous ground, because this is, to put it bluntly, not just a story, but a story about shagging a snowman.  Thankfully, this is made immediately evident, and isn't the subject of a twist ending ('it was a carrot and two pieces of coal!')  And also, she may have told us this isn't a dream, but she isn't interested in the whys, just the hows: 'his crooked mouth... bits of twisted branches'.  And the music in the background becomes first shuffling jazz, then tiny strings that, since we've had 'Wild Man' in our heads for a few weeks now, signify cryptozoology, the beast seen on the side of the hill.  'What kind of spirit is this?' she asks, and we don't get an answer.  'His creamy skin,' is said with such lust you're reminded that Kate is still one of the few women who's not afraid to express that so openly on record.  This is an experience that nobody has had, something nobody else has possibly ever even thought about, and we're encouraged to see it not as metaphor (she has simple fun with 'melting in my hand' and the wet sheets, comedy being something Kate does a lot but that isn't talked about enough), but as a depiction of an impossible experience.



(That animation, Mistraldespair, directed by Kate herself, really makes the concrete/surreal tightrope bounce.  I can't decide how successfully.  The fact that this edited version of the track has a new, more dreamlike title perhaps indicates where the weight needed to make a new balanced is placed.)

'Wild Man' is a track I now associate with my father, this being the piece of music I was listening to most frequently in the week that he died.  And that's kind of apt, in that this is the fourth track in a row that's about  something being sought, having got lost, and needing to be found.  Lost in the Snow would be an entirely descriptive title for the album.  When I first heard it, all the research detail made me worry that we were in the world of the concrete again, and some of it still hurts, I think ('roof of the world' isn't nearly as significant as the delivery it's given, but is just wordplay).  But this is detail in service to a mystery, the kind of supporting evidence that witnesses always provide about impossible experiences, and here even is one such very reliable witness, the schoolmaster of Darjeeling!  The Christmas bells are an odd idea (was there idea for this to be a 'Christmas single'?)  Kate's emotional reaction, in low mutterings, to Andy Fairweather Low's higher pitched factual sighting details make this feel like the two halves of the brain talking to each other, and as such keep us in the interior.  The beast refuses to be pinned down, and (and I think this is a good sign if it's her current opinion of her own work), Kate doesn't want it to be.



We're at a fluttering, uncertain distance at the start of 'Snowed in at Wheeler Street', but then the piano provides a hint of place.  There's acting that suddenly becomes the emotion of a sung line, the piano tinkle of memory again.  'Don't I know you?  There's just something about you.'  (She's used that line before, it's a keystone of The Red Shoes.) And she does know him, because that rich voice of 'we've been in love forever', oh, wow, it's Elton John!  'When we got to the top of the hill -'  Wait a second, that was nearly 'take me up to the top of the city', from that same album, so close as to be nothing but deliberate.  Why is Elton's voice here so strong, so welcome?  We're very used to him by now, after all.  Is it just the new context?  Well, this is a song about two lovers who've lived through, or are reincarnated throughout history (thankfully, we're not told any more detail), and it's as if Kate has placed her childhood hero here in her own musical history as well, as if this could have, should have, been recorded in 1976.  Those piano chords harken back to The Kick Inside, even.  (That descent on 'I don't want to lose you again' feels very familiar too, and in another way when it's replayed more stridently, but I can't pin it down. 'A Sea of Honey' is touched upon in the way the lyrics hang in a very open musical space.)  It refreshes Elton, takes him back to where he came from too, that enormous soul voice, here dancing along Kate's quite unfamiliar to him line lengths.  It's the best we've heard of him in years, it makes us remember the greatness of that voice.  It makes them both sound young.  'Come with me, I'll find some rope, I'll tie us together', touches on metaphor, but again we're meant to take this as a real, if impossible, experience.  If this were shorter, it could almost be a semi-typical 'rock duet', with drums and cymbals from the 1970s, and as such it could have found an honourable place on 'Lionheart'.  It's all the better for it.

At this point, I'd be saying this is actually her masterpiece, that this atmosphere's been meticulously built up over five tracks and that surely nothing can stop it now.  Unfortunately, something does.  The title track.  Stephen Fry's voice is something that's from, that almost defines, conscious thought.  Kate's putting effort into making the reading of the numbers sound emotional, for some reason that seems utterly misplaced, the backing is keeping up a nice empty windscape that befits the rest of the album, but the definitions aren't particularly resonant or poetic, and Fry's connoisseur's delight in the words that pass his lips just haul us out of the blizzard and into the library.  'Come on Joe you've got thirty-two to go,' is funny, as Kate's gestures towards rock chick energy always (deliberately) are.  But is that gesture actually wise at this point?  (And is 'Joe' a name you'd ever associate with Stephen Fry?  That's just here to rhyme with 'go', isn't it?  Which would conjure up the fun of straight rock and roll.  But is that actually what she should be seeking to conjure up here?)  The vocals have been turned down in a seeming effort to get it under our conscious threshold, but no, actually, the whole point is that we hear them.  After five tracks of dreamlike wonder, we get a far too concrete attempt to stamp what we've heard before into an encyclopedia, a list.  Just when I thought she'd worked out the map of her own talent exactly... well, she wouldn't be Kate if she didn't go off-piste.

'Among Angels' starts with a piano note, then halts, thinking for a moment, then starts again.  Being immersed in that sustain again is very welcome.  This is a summing up of one of the strengths of the album, Kate realising that just her at the piano is actually the heart of her music, that the Trio Bulgarka and all that are, no matter how welcome they sometimes are, bells and whistles.  You don't often hear about Kate as a pianist, but it's one of her greatest strengths, the light touch and then the sustain (you can imagine her feet working the pedals, like the funny image of how hard the serene swan is working under the waterline).  There's the slightest possible story here.  'I can see angels around you.  They shimmer like mirrors.'  ('In the summer', so we've got light at the end of this dark, interior album, an opening out.)  There's a full twelve seconds of fade out at the end, not a triumphant end to the album, but a tailing off, an apt way to close, inviting us to, only now, apply conscious thought to what we've just experienced.

Of these seven tracks, six feature fantasy characters, namely a living snowflake (I'm making that too concrete now), a ghost (who vanishes in that last cut off breath of 'Lake Tahoe'), a living snowman, an abominable snowman, a collective noun of angels and the romantic leads of Highlander.  All of that works.  All of it.  That's so much taking on what didn't previous please in her work, and making a go of it, that it's actually shocking.  It's last she released two albums in the same year that were polar opposites.

The length at which every track is expressed works.  Nothing, apart from, ironically, the faster-paced title track, outstays its welcome.  As well as the return to the core of what she does, Kate has found some new noises here (those yeti on the hillside plucked strings), which is why I feel there's a pleasing glimpse of a way forward.  This isn't the record of an artist resting on their laurels, this is the work of someone who's looking to promote their new label and get back into work, now her child is old enough to take part.  It bodes very well for the future.  Perhaps, incredibly, Kate Bush's best work is still ahead of her.

Kate Bush as the new breakout recording star of 2012.  Who'd have thought it?  I couldn't be more delighted.

As always, we invite a creator to tell us about their festive plans, and today it's a Ms Karen Lord who writes...

'This holiday season I have lots of non-fiction report writing to finish before year-end.  Work or not, I try to keep this time of year as hassle-free as possible, so there’s only one solemn duty on my list.  I must provide dessert for Christmas: the traditional black cake made with rum-soaked fruit, spices and burnt-sugar browning.  You can eat it warm from the oven, but it’s really good after three days of absorbing rum.  We serve it with a warning: don’t eat and drive.  Here’s a picture of one of my cakes receiving its first application of Extra Old Rum (43% alc/vol).  That’s a tropical sunset in the background.  Happy holidays!'



Hmm, I like the look of a Barbadian Christmas. Thanks, Karen.

Tomorrow, I'll be offering some advice for new writers, centering around the topic of things that people often say about writing, where they're right and where they're sometimes horribly wrong.  Until then, Cheerio!