Posts Tagged ‘commentary’

Live by the Sword came from one of my basic desires as a fantasy writer – to write something that’s familiar and accessible, but that also brings something new to the genre. To provide my audience, and myself, with enough novelty to stand out but not so much that readers will feel lost.

To this end, I decided to write a Roman fantasy. It’s something I’m returning to at the moment, and that I think has a lot of merit. The majority of secondary world fantasy has a strong Medieval flavour – The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The First Law, etc. We’re starting to see more influences from the Renaisance and the Victorian era coming through, especially with the growing success of steampunk. But if writers go further back it’s normally to produce wild barbarians in a Conan style, rather than to build on ancient civilisations.

So I picked Rome. I picked the arena because it was an exciting setting, and because this was before the popular Spartacus TV shows, when it had more novelty. And I picked the gladiators as characters not for the glory and romance of men of action but because it allowed me to look at those harmed by the might of Rome, as well as to show the wide diversity that was the oppressed under-belly of the empire.

The plot came from something more modern. I saw paintings in the Manchester Art Gallery by artists who had survived the horrors of the First World War, and whose art was shaped by this. It made me think about the other forms of creativity that came out of that era, such as the war poets, and how art became a way for them to cope with the violence they experienced. I wanted to explore that, and it fit naturally with looking at how my gladiators escaped from the traumas of their lives. The fact that I was writing fantasy let me turn this metaphor into reality, the subtext into text, art into something literally transformative.

So there we go. A little insight into where this story came from. Now it’s time for me to take some of this inspiration and go write something new.

I have a story, The Wizard’s Stairs, in the current isue of EMG-zine. It’s freely available to read throughout June, so go, read, enjoy.

This story came to me while playing with my niece, the Princess. The Princess is three years old, with a three-year-old’s interests. She likes fairy tales, with their particular logic, where ideas have power and magic defies reality. In fairy tales, a phrase like ‘all the towers in the world’ can be meaningful because it catches your imagination – you don’t need to think about the rules of magic or the logic behind the situation. As long as there’s a lesson, it works. So while she may be too young to appreciate it, this one’s for her.

I don’t think it’ll surprise you to read that I’m a fan of Joss Whedon. If you’re reading this, you probably are too. Over the past couple of decades Whedon has been responsible for some of the funniest, smartest genre television ever.

The past month has seen the UK release of two Whedon films – the long-awaited Cabin in the Woods, and a little thing called the Avengers. And each one, in its own way, does something new and exciting with cinema.

I’ve never been to the cinema on my own before, but Cabin’s release persuaded me that the time had come. Mrs K has many fine features, but a taste for horror isn’t one of them, and most of my cinephile friends live in different cities. So I found myself, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, sitting in a darkened room full of strangers. And man, was it worth it.

I know it’s a cliche to say this by now, but it’s hard to talk about Cabin without giving away too much. Suffice to say that it takes a familiar subgenre, and a not-entirely-novel reorientation of that genre, and turns them both into something far finer. It’s Whedon’s mastery of character and dialogue that makes the film so watchable, but it’s his mastery of genre that makes it fascinating. He melds fantasy and science fiction in ways that make perfect sense, and which create a palpable sense of tension. This might be confusing to the casual viewer, though it will be familiar to fans of Whedon or regular comic book readers. And the interaction of character, genre and plot is finely done. Every character adds something to the film, is interesting in their own right, and moves the plot along in a way which feels perfectly organic. And every one of them gives an insight, usually unspoken, into the nature of fantasy horror and its viewers, without becoming clumsy or detracting from the pleasure to be taken from the film as a genre work. Whedon’s brilliance isn’t just that he combines a celebration and a critique of his genre, but that the two are so closely interwoven that they become one and the same. And through this it celebrates the very nature of genre fiction, and the way that we can enjoy it more, not less, by acknowledging its quirks and flaws.

The Avengers is, on the surface, a different beast. Big budget meets big franchise in a blockbuster of seat-shaking proportions. This time in the director’s chair, Whedon again demonstrates his mastery of the fantastic. He succeeds in something that I didn’t think would work, combining the disparate elements of various sci-fi, fantasy and spy superheroes, residents of separate genres but a shared comic universe, in a way that is accessible without ever becoming unbelievable. He relishes the absurdity, contrasting action and humour in a way that deflates the risk of something over-serious and over-blown. He again brings on the characters, making a remarkably large group of heroes interesting and likeable, while creating compelling conflicts between them. And, like any good superhero story, he uses action to advance both plot and characterisation. Despite the length of the film, I didn’t feel that even a single moment was wasted. And while this was a purer celebration of its genre than Cabin, it also demonstrated the value of a creator who has an understanding of genre and takes a delight in its workings.

It’s often said that character and plot shouldn’t be separate things in fiction, that they should be derived from, and drive, each other. Whedon has shown, twice in one year, how this should be done, while also showing the remarkable things cinema can do. He shows that a critical mind and a sense of wonder aren’t incompatible, even on the biggest screens. The man is a big damn hero.

A friend and I were talking the other weekend about narrative songs. He writes and performs as part of the splendid steampunk trio Pocketwatch, whose songs are generally stories. One of the things he apparently finds difficult, and which I sometimes struggle with as a writer, is creating a satisfyingly structured story.

This reminded me of one of my favourite story songs, and to my mind one of the most concise and perfectly formed pieces of narrative of the last couple of decades – Eminem’s Stan. While Eminem has built a career out of playing with persona, Stan is unusual for him in being so story focussed. Over the course of a few rapped verses we see the development of two relationships, one existing almost entirely in someone’s head – the central plot of Stan’s obsession with Eminem and the subplot of his relationship with his girlfriend. There is a first act in which the central relationships, characters, and plot are established. A second act in which things become worse, Stan’s anger growing, his personality unravelling through conflicts which drive the story but are entirely rooted in character. And then, in the final act, comes the climax, subplot resolving before main plot, in the terrible drama of Stan and his girlfriend’s death, followed by the pathetic tragedy of how little he has meant to his idol, and a few kind words of intervention coming too late. There’s a distinct character voice, interesting themes of obsession and identity, and a real sense of change through conflict.

I’ve always found Stan moving. But it’s only now, as learning to write has taught me more about the art of story-telling, that I’ve come to admire how skillfully it’s put together. I don’t write song, but if I could craft something half so eloquent I’d be a happy man.

 

About ‘On The Third Day’

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

I spent a lot of time at university studying the middle ages. Between that and the period’s long tradition as the fantasy baseline, a tradition going back at least to Tolkien, it’s inevitable that I turn to that period a lot when writing. But that’s not where this story comes from.

A few years ago I saw a painting in the National Gallery in London, taking the theme of judgement day, a common feature of medieval painting, and giving it a modern context. Here were the dead rising from the tomb in a quiet, twentieth century English village, ready to be judged. It drew my attention to the contrast between modern and medieval takes on the rising dead. To our ancestors, this would happen when God came calling them to him. It was a time of judgement, but it was a good thing, a godly. For us, it’s usually the zombie apocalypse, a story of horror and desperation. Similar image, very different meaning.

That’s where ‘On The Third Day’ came from. From taking the contrast I felt looking at that painting and flipping it around. Because if you’re comforted by the thought of the walking dead, then you’re really not ready for the zombies.

As a small aside, Mulbarton is a real village in Norfolk, near where I grew up. I have no desire to see it consumed by the walking dead, it’s just a name that for me conjures up the image of a country village. To the best of my knowledge, it’s never been attacked by zombies. Yet.