Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Understanding?

It's one of those wonderful ironies of which life is made that everyone wants to be understood but few people seem to want to understand. Well wonderful for a given value of wonderful and also possibly not absolutely everyone, but hush, it was a good opening sentence for what is quite likely to turn into a meandering ramble of a blog post.

It's a stereotypical teenage thing to pout, declare that their parents don't understand and storm off to their bedroom, and it's seen as a sign or immaturity. Trouble with that is that they're probably right, or at least partially right. Right because whatever their parents might remember about their teenage years the specifics of their child's situation are going to be somewhat different, right because in some significant ways the world is a very different place than it was a generation ago, but mostly right because as adults we tend to have a very selective memory about what we were like when we were younger (personally I try not to remember anything that happened to me before I was thirty, it's just better that way). In any case the desire to be understood is hardly restricted to adolescence, in fact the stereotypical response is to point out that the teenager doesn't understand their parents (and why they might be concerned about a particular behavior for example), for some reason this is seen as a superior argument, rather than, you know, exactly the same argument. In either case the basis of the argument is 'you don't understand why I'm doing this, therefore your opinion is wrong' which is rather shaky logic.

Almost exactly the opposite attitude is in play when people say 'I don't understand how anyone can do that.' where 'that' can be anything from 'commit genocide' to 'go out in public without make-up'. The underlying logic here is 'I can't understand that, therefore it must be wrong'. Of the two attitudes I find this one more worrying, not for itself but for the corollary whereby people don't want to understand someone they dislike (or a group of people they dislike) because it might make them agree with them, or even become them, it's kind of silly when you think about it seeing as understanding how some historical bastard got to be that way might well help you avoid falling into the same kind of thinking yourself, but it happens, I've been guilty of it myself from time to time.

The thing is it cannot possibly be true that not understanding someone's point of view can both validate and invalidate your own opinion, and as you may have gathered from my comments so far I tend towards the opinion that neither is true and that understanding another person's point of view merely means that you understand their point of view and can agree with or disagree with it from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance. But learning to understand other people takes time and effort so why bother? Well I bother because I'd write really crappy antagonists if I didn't try and understand the darker side of human nature, wouldn't do much for my protagonists either really, given that I have a fondness for antiheroes, also I find it endlessly fascinating, but mostly, I figure that if I want people to understand me then it's only fair that I should put in the work on the other side of the ledger.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

An Eclectic Collection of Awesome.

For whatever reason I'm not feeling terribly philosophical today, so I'm going to be lazy and just do a round up of various things I happen to find awesome. In no particular order (or more accurately whatever order they happen to occur to me in), the following things are hereby given the Aiwevanya seal of approval:

1. Home made Scanning Electron Microscope... I have no words, the science geek in me is doing cartwheels over this. I get similarly giddy over stuff like the top gear team trying to launch a Reliant Robin into space (or a mini off a ski jump, that was awesome too), I'm not sure how related those things are, but anyway.

2. Potion Bar So it's a casual game, so what, it's fun. I have literally dozens of casual games on my computer, puzzlers, hidden objects and so on, some I've played through once, some I've not even managed that, this one I've completed probably a couple of dozen times now I just keep going back and it's sort of hard to explain why. The game play is pretty simple, you mix potions for customers in a bar and every so often there's a mini game level where you create a new flavour of potion or move to new location. The story is also pretty simple, the person who normally tends the bar has done the magical equivalent of chloroforming you and chaining you to the drink dispenser, you're trying to find him and make him take his job back, while finding out various things about some kind of end of the world magic thing and the love lives of the regulars. I think it's the regulars themselves that keep me coming back though, the bar's customers are a quirky bunch, there's a witch and a demon and some kind of faerie girl, a werewolf who's tutoring a valkyrie through college and my absolute favourite, Cupid, envisioned as an emo kid with black and pink hair and a skull on his t-shirt, who's thoroughly fed up with all the love triangles going around, makes me smile every time.

3. Nightmare Before Christmas - What's This? Painting Actually most of the digital art in action videos this guy has done, wouldn't ever have known about them except the artist started following me on twitter (why exactly I have no clue) and I did what I normally do when that happens which is check out what kind of stuff the person tweets about and start following them if they seem interesting (and don't tweet so frequently that they drown out everyone else I follow). Serendipitously one of their most recent tweets was a link to a video of a digital painting that blended Disney's little mermaid with Van Gogh style swirly background to a tune by lady Gaga and watching it I had this break through moment when I suddenly understood how to go about revising my wip novel in a way better suited to my rather messy thought  processes... what do you know? not only is inspiration everywhere, inspiration about inspiration is as well (and yes I have a very strange brain). Also the cover version of the song 'What's This?' that this is set to is absolutely kick ass.

4. Orlando Furioso specifically this prose translation. Absolutely awesome tale of knights running around the world having adventures with dragons and fair maidens and stuff (some of the fair maidens are knights and this was first published - in Italian - in 1532, that's a trope that's older you think, or at least older than I thought). The original was an epic poem, but the translator of this version maintains that the differing rhythms of English and Italian make poetic translation awkward which made sense to me. Anyway I'm now wondering where my copy is because I fancy reading it again, very, very cool book.

I think I'll stop there, I could go on, but if I don't I'll have something to blog about next time I'm at a loss for a topic. Oh, also I apologize for overusing the word 'awesome' in this post.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Prophecy, Way Too Predictable.

So I read a fair bit of fantasy in various flavours and as such I tend to see the same tropes over and over, because, well because that's tropes for you really, but sometimes this bugs me and one of those sometimes is prophecy. There are a number of reasons for this.

Problem one: Why are prophecies so often in the form of really bad poetry? two reasons probably, firstly, that's what Nostradamus's prophecies look like and secondly because bad poetry is really good for hiding what you meant and thus requiring an explanation later on and also, importantly, not completely spoiling the plot. The first reason I don't object to, but the second gets on my nerves, though admittedly for quite a pretentious reason. The thing is I strongly believe that poetry should add to comprehension not take away from it. Ideally, a poetic description of a person / place / event should convey a strong sense of who / what / etc you're talking about in just a few words, the choice of one synonym rather than another should convey extra information about the subject (and not just declare that you have a vocabulary and aren't afraid to use it), good poetry is memorable and conveys emotion and so forth. Obviously here I'm mostly talking lyrical prose rather than actual rhyming couplets or whatever which have a whole bunch of extra constraints to wrestle with, but yeah, I get annoyed by poetry being deliberately used to obscure things.

Problem two: Why are prophecies always true? All right, it's fantasy, there are a number of possible reasons why a prophecy might be true (mostly coming down to magic, gods, predestination or some combination thereof) but in worlds where there are a large number of people acting, basically, like people why aren't there also reams and reams of false prophecy that are devoutly believed in? (credit where it's due, some authors do this and then prophecy becomes way more awesome as a device). Also, all too often a prophecy in a low fantasy setting where there's a lack of sufficiently powerful magic / beings to explain how the prophecy could possibly be made to be true will still have a true prophecy for no good reason.

Problem three: Why do some writers use prophecy as really lazy foreshadowing? Obvious answer, because it's easy, look I phrased the first two problems as questions then had to do the same with this one and it didn't quite work, just deal with it. I think my issue with this is actually broader than using prophecy as foreshadowing, it's more about clunky foreshadowing in general, that feeling I get sometimes when I'm reading that the author is saying 'yeah I know this bit is a kinda dull, but look there's awesome stuff coming up, keep reading'. It's bearable when the author is wrong and actually 'this bit' is not as dull as all that, but honestly, have a little faith, you don't have to put a bit at the end of every chapter that says 'and in the next chapter things get worse' I know that, if it's a book and you managed to get it published then every single chapter with the possible exception of the last one is probably going to be a rendition of 'and it got worse' either trust me to keep reading, or be a little less obvious with the pleas for attention.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Happy Birthday Masquerade

So apparently Vampire the Masquerade is twenty years old, goodness, that takes me back. It was the first role-play game I ever played, back when I was seventeen, which wasn't the whole twenty years ago but... uh... I think I'm going to stick with 'not twenty years ago'. I played a Gangrel prostitute, if I remember rightly, in a game that my then boyfriend was running. I don't remember much about that game, I don't think we played many sessions before I split up with the GM.

What I do remember is that, a year or so later I was wandering around the Fresher's Faire my first week at university, feeling a bit lost and alone as you do when there's hundreds of other people around and you don't know any of them and I spotted that familiar green book lying on a table among a bunch of other more or less similar looking books, and largely on the strength of that joined the role-playing society on the spot and thus began many, many adventures in vampirism.

There was the jaded Ventrue Elder, so utterly bored with politics that she had an affair with a Ravnos outlaw just to liven up her nights. There was the tough as nails, child Pander who among other things survived: a particularly cruel Sabbat siring she wasn't intended to; the rest of her original pack being eaten by a demon; being inside a (wooden) house when it fell to bits; most of the rest of her second pack getting killed by wraiths; some brutal Sabbat version of football and for quite some time, the antediluvians waking up and eating the rest of her generation, alright she didn't manage to escape them forever but still, it's going some when you're a clanless thirteenth gen stuck in the body of a thirteen year old girl and it takes a fricking clan founder to take you down. Who else? Too many to tell all their tales here, though I want to make special mention of my dark ages Cappadocian, if only because even after over a decade I'm still annoyed that she got killed by another player for completely out of game reasons (hold grudges? me? why yes I do).

From VtM I got into all sorts of other role play games both table top and LARP (I played my live action Daughter of Cacophony on and off for over ten years) and these days I have play-testing credits in a completely different system, but Vampire the Masquerade holds a special nostalgic place in my heart, happy twentieth birthday.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Of Sex and Death.

Without sex there would be six billion or so fewer people on the planet, without death we'd be getting eaten by dinosaurs... and surviving. These are fundamental parts of the human condition, and they make us nervous. So nervous that over time we've built up huge complicated rituals about them like an oyster builds a pearl around grit.
Very like building a pearl around grit really, at least for me, because I find the rituals far more fascinating than the events they're ostensibly about. It fascinates me to discover that ancient Athenian courtesans were often named after fish, for example; or that tribes-people in Siberia once mummified human heads by covering them in gypsum. It's more than that though, I'm fascinated with the psychology of the rituals and the psychology of why we have rituals at all (nervousness is probably only part of it).
So, because these things fascinate me, I write about them, not necessarily graphically, not necessarily even obviously, but I do, because you know, writing about something I wasn't interested in would be weird. Also, because I like to write fantasy, I tend to make up funeral rites and societal attitudes to sex and sexuality to go with my imaginary societies, to me that's an obvious thing to do, they're universal aspects of the human experience and human or human-like society is probably going to have some kind of traditional view point, to a lot of other people it apparently makes me a freak.
Here's the thing then, I think I need to figure out a better way of explaining what I write about than saying 'I write about sex and death' because while in my head that's shorthand for 'I write about the human condition with specific reference to the special place in social construction of..." etc, etc in other people's heads it apparently sounds like 'I write really weird porn' which I don't... usually.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Missed Connection

Flash Fiction take three, challenge by that Wendig guy over at terribleminds again. My stories for these seem to be getting shorter and shorter, must try and write closer to a thousand words for the next one. Oh and look, not fantasy for a change.

Missed Connection


I see her walking down the hall again, stocking clad legs between spike heels and a skirt just a little too short to be decent. Gorgeous, elegant legs, I'm probably staring again. I try to tell myself that I'm only wishing I had legs like that, but I'm not sure I believe me.
Her eyes glide over me as she passes, I wonder what she sees, ordinary face, plain clothes, does she pity me? envy me? maybe she doesn't think about me at all, maybe she's just checking I don't have a knife.
I listen to the sound of her footsteps click clicking their way towards the elevator, I want to turn round, introduce myself, ask her name. Does she use her real name? does she have a professional name? something like Candy or Sugar. I've probably watched too much television if I'm thinking that. In my imagination she's grateful for someone to talk to, someone who understands that she's more than just a reflection of other's fantasies. Except that's me projecting my own lonely fantasy right there, isn't it?
I hear the lift doors open. I turn to look. She's standing in the lift, beautiful, glamorous. Just for an instant our eyes meet. My heart skips, confusing me in ways I have no idea how to deal with. For a moment everything seems to hang in the balance, if I could only speak the right words, some kind of password to a different life, but the doors slide shut. The connection is lost.

Fantasy as Metaphor

I like fantasy, as a reader it's what interests me, as an amateur/wannabe writer it's what inspires me. I mean it's not as if I won't read anything else, I also like detective novels and I read a lot of non-fiction, and it's not as if I won't write anything else either, but fantasy is my go to genre, my favourite. I really shouldn't have to defend that, but I keep running into people who look down on fantasy because it's 'just for kids', or even more annoyingly it's just for kids unless it's based very closely on an ancient story or preferably a legend in which case it counts as literature. That weird scrunching noise you can hear? that's my teeth grinding together.

I should probably point out that I've got nothing against stories being based specifically based on other stories, 'Lenore's Song' by Yunyu is a response to Poe's 'The Raven' and is awesome (and yes, literally a song, but that's not the point), Neil Gaiman's 'Snow, Glass, Apples.' is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale and I love it. Done well the whole retelling / literary response thing is great, what gets on my nerves is the idea that a work is somehow better because it's a response to something else, or rather the inverse of that, that a fantasy work is automatically shallow and 'just for kids' if it isn't a response to something that has a literary pedigree. I won't even get into the issue of assuming that kids don't want any depth to their stories, that's a whole other rant for another day.

Now obviously I can't just say 'fantasy is for grown ups too, so there' because, well, I'm neither a five year old nor an American politician; and I can't really just point to the growing number of modern fantasy works that feature sex and violence (or come to that all the fairy tales that do in their unexpurgated forms), because I haven't been a teenager for a while and don't equate those things to maturity; not suitable for young children, sure, but that's not the same as 'grown up' now is it? What I'm going to do instead is point out the power of fantasy as a metaphor for real life.

Metaphor might actually be the wrong term, I think what I'm really talking about is abstraction, about fantasy as a gedanken or thought experiment for social thinking. The example that really springs to mind as example of this is Thud! by





Friday, 11 March 2011

What I Learned From Watching Black Swan

Last night, at around half past eight and with the credits still rolling on the movie screen my boyfriend declared Black Swan to be the best movie he has ever seen. On the whole I think I agree with that assessment, or at least I can't think of a movie I thought was better and it's not just the story, or even primarily the story, it's the way it's told. Anyway, since watching it I've been thinking about the film and about what I can learn about good story-telling from it, this is what I've got so far:

You don't have to make the audience feel comfortable to keep their attention.
Black Swan is not a happy film, watching it is a profoundly uncomfortable experience but a compelling one, even when I was squeamishly shutting my eyes (body horror is not my thing) I still wanted to know what was going to happen next. It was this kind of twisted fascination, like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion or something and I'm convinced it maintained that interest not in spite of being uncomfortable but almost because of it and because there was never any feeling that those scenes were unnecessary or included only to shock, they were making valid story points. I told a friend last night 'I could have done without the body horror, I don't think the movie could.' or in other words if you're going to do dark themes, have the guts to do them properly.

It's all right to leave questions unanswered.
 I've only seen the film once but I'm fairly sure that repeated viewings still won't explain exactly what was going on at some points, there are times when you're not sure whether what you're seeing is real or a hallucination or the director getting all arty to make a point (or quite possibly all of the above), and that not only doesn't take away from the story, it adds to it, everything is told from the perspective of the main character who is going steadily insane, your uncertainty as to what just happened is her uncertainty, it's a powerful story telling technique, plus it leaves the audience still wondering and thus still thinking about the story, which can't be bad, surely.

The end of a story is when you've said everything you need to.
Not when you've run out of things to say. Suffice it to say that the director of Black Swan has this one absolutely nailed to a wall, I literally wanted to cheer when the credits started rolling, not because of the ending itself (which is about as twisted and bittersweet as you would expect, given the nature of the film) but because the director knew when to stop.

And on that note, I'm going to stop too, and go away and figure out how to make use of these insights.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Writing Class


Once upon a time... no, wait I did this bit last time. Anyway it's another flash fiction challenge from that guy Chuck Wendig, this time using the words 'Irregular Creatures' as a starting point.

 Writing Class

The nymph's hair was a leafy tangle hung with fruits in shades from yellow-green to deepest red, which she pushed nervously back from her face as she read. Her voice was reedy and faltered over the words.
Of her class mates only the patchwork boy appeared to pay attention, stitched hands clasped beneath his chin, his mismatched eyes deep and troubled. The other boy, his scaled skin patterned green and brazen gold, his every exhale marked by lazy tendrils of smoke, seemed absorbed in watching the dark-winged girl who played with her glittering earrings and pretended not to see.
"Thank you Cerise." the teacher's words filled the silence left by the end of the nymph's tale "Would anyone like to comment on Cerise's story? Chareim?"
The dragonkin transferred his idle gaze to Cerise. "I like the serpent as an avatar of temptation." he drawled. He ran his tongue over iridescent lips and smiled as she blushed.
"Chareim." the teacher scolded.
Unabashed he laughed and lounged a little further back in his chair "I'm just saying, I think that moral ambiguity gives more depth to the protagonists."
"That's an interesting perspective." The teacher eyed him suspiciously "Perhaps..."
"Oh please." the succubus interrupted "Like those human things even are the protagonists, the creator figure is just treating them like toys." her bracelets jangled together like discordant bells.
"Constructive criticism only please, Malydia." the teacher reminded her wearily.
Malydia rolled her eyes "Yeah, yeah everything I say is all mean or something." she pouted "I didn't even say it was bad that they aren't the protagonists."
The teacher stifled an exasperated sigh "So what you're suggesting is that the story might be improved if the focus was altered to a different character?"
Malydia shrugged, her feathers rustling "Yeah. I guess."
"Very well then." The teacher said "Guilder, you haven't said anything yet, what do you think?"
The patchwork boy rubbed absently at his cheek where purple bruising stood out against his pale skin "I think." he paused and then the words came out in a rush "I think that it's kind of heroic that they try to overcome their creator, even if they're punished for it." he was quiet for a moment and then added "We shouldn't copy the cruelties of our makers."
The others were quiet at his words, uncertain. Cerise bit her cherry red lips and glanced at the teacher for support "I'm sorry, I didn't think of it like that." she looked at him helplessly, apologetic.
Guilder smiled awkwardly and his words were brittle but forgiving, "I know."