In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

2014: The Good and the Bad

 So, it's that time of year when I look back on the last 12 months and share my opinions on everything from films to books. Some get a thumbs-up, others... don't. I'll start with films, and a bit of Sci-Fi.

 Ender's Game was a big disappointment. I love the novel, and the first sequel too, but the film managed to cover all the key events but somehow lose the soul of the story. I'm not honestly sure why. I've heard the project spent a lot of time in production hell, so maybe there were too many rewrites, too many fingers in the pie. But another day it was raining, my fiancee and I couldn't do what we'd planned, so we went to the cinema and ended up watching any old junk to pass the time. That junk was Guardians of the Galaxy, and it turned out to be the best superhero/ comic book movie I've ever seen. Everything was spot-on, from the action scenes to the comedy. The whole theatre was laughing one moment and engrossed the next. Fabulous film, if you haven't seen it you should, even if it isn't your usual thing.

 Another excellent movie was Hunger Games: Mockingjay. The book was the weakest of the trilogy I thought, but the film is the best of them all. Very well done, and it's unlucky not to be #1 for the year. But do not, and I mean NOT, watch Transformers 4. It's the highest grossing film of the year apparently, $1.1 billion, but it's a turkey. Worse by far than the 2nd Hobbit film, which was my least favourite last year. It's just a rerun of previous Transformers films, this time with Dino-bots at the end (which makes it different, apparently). Avoid at all costs.

 I don't watch much TV, but I do like Doctor Who because it's usually so well written. This season fell short though, partly because Peter Capaldi makes such a surly Doctor, and partly because the writers don't seem sure how to best use that. Normally there are one or two episodes which stand out, but not this year. It wasn't a disaster, but a schoolteacher might write "Must do better" on the report card.

 And so to books...

 I finally got round this year to reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It's creative and imaginative, but for me it just didn't have the X factor of Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games. I think it just lacked depth of detail. The wizarding world especially is brilliantly realised by J K Rowling, brought to life with all its little quirks, and Panem feels real too. Pullman's alternate worlds didn't, not to the same extent. It's still a decent series but to my mind is left behind a little by other recent works of fantasy for younger readers.

 One very good book I've read this year is Rebecca Alexander's The Secrets of Life and Death. It's a Fantasy set partly in our world and partly in the past, and the two stories alternate chapter by chapter until both reach a crisis at the same time, and everything is explained. It's desperately tricky to do, and the author pulls it off very well indeed. Also I read Ruso and the River of Darkness by R S Downie, which uses an even more fiendishly difficult trick - a detective, Ruso, in Britain during the Roman period. He has no forensics, no fingerprints or blood sampling, nothing to link a person to a crime. Ruso has to work only by asking questions and working things out, and to do so he - and so also the author - needs a tremendous knowledge of the details of Roman life. Ms Downie manages that and still keeps the story interesting, so kudos to her for it.

 Beyond these I've read a lot of factual books, often for research reasons. Babylon by Paul Kriwaczek, Freedom Next Time by John Pilger, and The Forgotten Arts by John Seymour are just three of those. The last of them is very useful; it details things like how to make charcoal and horseshoes, and tells how to take ash and fat and turn it into soap. A very helpful book for getting details of ancient cultures right.

 Of course, the best thing of all this year is my engagement to Caz, who by this time in 2015 will be my wife. Sort of makes all the other things feel unimportant, really. She encourages me to write, rather than taking time away from it, so at the end of next year I'll probably be doing another of these "best and worst" blogs ("yay!", I hear you cry). Meantime, enjoy New Year, and have a great 2015. I hope it's good to you all.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Buried Treasure

 Amazing what you discover, when you do research on Google.

 I didn't know, for example, that the Roma gypsy people originated in India. The story goes that a king in Sassania - modern Iran - was told that few of his people listened to music, so he had hundreds of musicians brought from India to play for them. Later the newcomers were expelled, and began to wander from place to place. In those days they were called the Luri, after the lyre, which was their favourite instrument.

 Isn't that fascinating? A little piece of history, broken off and carried intact into the modern world. I love it when that happens.

 You might have guessed (clever you) that this is to do with a story. I'm rewriting The Bone-Smile, volume one of a trilogy I've mentioned before. In essence a secretive clade of sorcerers controls the world, while a gaggle of misfits tries to defeat them. The mages have ruled behind the scenes for thousands of years, but a few fragments of knowledge have survived - some of them through the gypsies, who are so poor and rootless that the sorcerers have never considered them significant. The gypsies are new to the story, so I needed to know what they were like about 4,000 years ago; their language, how they dressed, what they enjoyed doing.

 A lot of it is guesswork. A lot more I can invent according to what the story needs, because in the end I'm not writing a history book here. But the heart of it ought to be true, I think, or as close to true as I can manage. Because the truth is, friends and readers, that nothing a Fantasy writer can create is half so fascinating as what you find in the depths of the internet when you go a-wandering, following link after link into a labyrinth you never knew existed. And that in itself is a journey into other worlds. Sometimes I find I have 15 windows open and am reading about the mating habits of the bower bird, for no reason I can easily remember. But other times I stumble over some hidden gem, a treasure buried deep under mounds of internet wiffle. That's how I found out about gypsy origins, and so got the idea to add them into Bone-Smile.

 That's all for now. My next blog will be about all the good and bad things I've encountered during 2014, but that's for the end of the month. For now let me just wish everyone the best Christmas and New Year. I hope you get a little of what you wish for and a lot of what you most need. Take care.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Best Life

 NaNoWriMo is over (already). I won, managing 58,000 words in November despite having a new job, volunteering at Cancer Research UK and spending time every day with my fiancee. This is good. Especially the last bit.

 Troy volume 3 will need a major rewrite and then the usual metric ton of editing, as all first drafts do. But it still feels like the end of my Troy saga, after well over a year. I wrote volume one for NaNo 2013, and spent the months before planning and plotting the story - everything from characters and events within it, to researching details of Bronze Age weaponry and clothing. So this is the culmination of some 16 months of work, during which time I've got a bit fed up of Troy, as I said last time. Sometimes an itch needs to be scratched or it drives us mad, but this took a great deal of scratching.

 I've decided that next, I'll rewrite "The Bone-Smile", which is volume one of a trilogy set in a world controlled by a shadowy group of sorcerers who destroy any culture which grows advanced enough to threaten it. The world is full of relics and ruins left by these vanished peoples, and there are fragments of their knowledge too - pieces which survived, and which tantalise but often make no sense. One of the reasons I want to do this is that it's so different to Troy. "Bone-Smile" is a much more mainstream Fantasy, with magic and mystery right out front - unlike anything else I've published, in fact. It includes (among other things) a man following a prophecy, gypsies, curses and creatures not fully alive, all in a land where magic has mutated some plants and animals into new forms.

 Unfortunately it's hard at the moment, because my time's a bit limited. But if we want to do this writing lark properly we have to find time, and thankfully my lady Caz is the type to send me away to do some work whenever she feels I might be slacking off. I still can't quite believe how lucky I've been to find her. She makes me even more determined to make it as an author, even if I only earn an average wage by it, because I want to be able to give her the best life I can.