All posts by SelimPensFiction

What’s Old has become New

During the 80’s, I never gave A-ha much thought. To me, they were YASB (Yet Another Synth Band), notable mostly for their the groundbreaking music video, “Take On Me”.

Then I saw Deadpool 2 and heard an arresting, acoustic version of “Take On Me”, and I was lost. Not only was this version of the song mesmerizing in its own right, it fit the movie perfectly.

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In short order, I found that the song was one of a set of re-worked songs on A-ha’s recent album, MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice. I haven’t finished the album yet, but I’m already in love, particularly with the lovely acoustic version of “The Sun Always Shines on TV.”

What’s old has become new.

This is encouraging because, I don’t know about you, but I find it increasingly hard to find music that excites me. Odd, considering how many choices there are out there. Music stream services have, how many songs? Lots. Lots and lots. But finding music that appeals to you can still be a challenge.

Movie soundtracks are becoming a great way to discover music. There are some great songs on the Lost in Translation soundtrack, for example. And don’t get me started about the Lord of the Rings soundtracks. For me, it was love at first sight. Trivia note: Howard Shore, the LotR composer, was once part of Lighthouse, a popular Canadian band in the 70’s, which I was also very fond of.

Meanwhile, I’m planning to sit back and give A-ha’s unplugged album a few listens.

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The Continuity Conundrum

Suppose you’re a writer and you want to write for a rich, established universe. Think Doctor Who, Star Trek, or Star Wars, for example. The question becomes, how do you write something that is original but consistent with all of that backstory?

Let’s stick with Doctor Who for now. The show started over 50 years ago, and although there was that hiatus between 1989 and 2005, that’s still a lot of content. But wait, that’s not all! You also get many books, graphic novels and audio dramas (yay Big Finish!). It’s enough to make your head explode. Unless you’re a Time Lord.

So what’s a poor, human, head-about-to-explode writer to do? Well, we can be grateful that there are websites like http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Doctor_Who_Wiki. Here you’ll find just about every fact about Doctor Who that exists. If you search for the Third Doctor, for example, you’ll learn about all his adventures in chronological order across all media. As a resource, this site is invaluable. And yet, there’s still a limit to what you can absorb, and there may be details omitted within a given adventure that contradict something in your writing.

I’m afraid this is one of those posts where I have no brilliant solutions. If you actually owned the property, rather than, say, the BBC owning Doctor Who or CBS owning Star Trek, or Disney owning Star Wars, then you could consider crowdsourcing the story. Put the whole thing online, then act on the feedback you get to make the story better. Andy Weir famously did this with his novel, The Martian, with contributors pointing out sciency things that could use some tightening.

If you’re writing fanfiction, then you can do this by posting the story on fanfiction.net, for example. I posted a very short and hopefully humorous Lord of the Rings story there. Once. It was inspired by a review of one of the Hobbit movies that pointed out that the eagles are a kind of deus ex machina in Tolkien’s writing. As multiple readers pointed out, that premise was fully explored in a YouTube video in which our heroes bypass the whole adventure by simply flying with the ring directly to Mount Doom. Rats. That episode cured me of any further desire to write LotR stories. You’ve really got to know your stuff, especially for that fandom.

Posting content online yourself doesn’t really work if you’re writing commercially for someone’s existing intellectual property. As with most things, I suppose you can only do as much research as you can (and as your deadline permits) and do your best.

PS Have I mentioned that Landbound has been released by Big Finish? Oh.

Landbound Available Now

DMzrImYX0AAWWsn.jpg-largeLandbound, the Doctor Who short story that I wrote, is now available as a Doctor Who Short Trip from Big Finish. The audio drama is free, but you need to login or create an account with Big Finish.

I can’t call it “my” story anymore, as the end result represents a collaboration with Big Finish. To be honest, the final product blows me away. Nicholas Briggs’ narration is exquisite and at times emotionally gut-wrenching. The sound effects take you right there, to the Whitby coast, to the Jolly Sailor pub, and to the TARDIS itself. Then there’s the brilliant music which adds so much to the presentation.

As for my written story, I gave it everything I had to make it the best that I could. Then, with gentle nudges from editor Ian Atkins, we made it better still.

I hope you get a chance to check it out. Let me know what you thought.

Oh yes, and Happy New Year to all!

Landbound

DMzrImYX0AAWWsn.jpg-large.jpegAs has been announced by Big Finish,  my story “Landbound” was selected for the 2017 Paul Spragg memorial competition. It will be released in audio form in December.

It’s important to note that the point of the exercise is to honour Paul Spragg, a Big Finish employee who passed away at a much too young age. He was obviously beloved by his co-workers and by all accounts was a great human being. Paul believed in nurturing new talent, hence the decision by Big Finish to open the doors in the form of this competition. It’s taken a huge amount of work on their part. Imagine the time it must take to review nearly 1,000 story concepts and narrow the field to a half dozen finalists.

As for me, it’s been an interesting journey. I just checked my fanfiction.net profile and was surprised to see that I posted my first fanfic six years ago. I’d have sworn it was less time than that. Writing fanfiction is a wonderful opportunity to  grow as a writer while meeting and supporting and being supported by fellow writers. At some point, I started to feel I was “ready”, and began submitting stories for publication. Two were rejected, the third has been in consideration for some eleven months, and then there was this year’s Paul Spragg competition. I had no serious expectation that my story concept would be selected and was absolutely gobsmacked when I got the email from Big Finish.

What I’m taking away from the experience is a couple of things. This was the first time working with an editor and it was a wonderful experience. Ian Atkins had some great ideas for how to polish the story and trim it to the required length. He helped me to better appreciate the importance of providing characters with clear motivation, for instance. There was one scene in particular that broke my heart to cut. Ian liked it as well, but pointed out that it didn’t actually move the plot forward, so it could go. It went. And all things considered, the story is better for it.

The second take away is how wonderful the community has been. I’ve received all sorts of congratulations from friends and strangers alike. It’s very heartening.

If you haven’t heard of Big Finish, by all means check them out. Though they’re likely best known for their Doctor Who audio dramas, they also produce dramas for everything from H.G. Wells to Sherlock Holmes to the Prisoner to King Lear. They’ve been expanding their output while somehow improving the quality of their productions. They are very good and well worth exploring. The short trips range, of which Landbound will be a part, are short stories narrated usually by a single actor. Again, there are some real gems here. I’m particularly taken with “Falling“, a lovely first Doctor story that features his companion Polly.

I’ll post a link here when the story is released. Hope you enjoy it.

 

My Favourite Fanfiction Stories

I’ve written a fair number of fanfics at this point. Enough for about two respectable novels if you go by word count. When I look back at them, some of them make me shudder, some make me smile. I thought I’d make a list of the ones I’m most fond of. If you’re just starting to read my stories, this list might help. The timing seems right. If I haven’t stopped writing fanfiction, I’ve certainly slowed down.

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Rook to Castle” was one of my early Castle stories and I think it’s held up pretty well. A very simple story simply told, we see Rick Castle meeting his own creation. I also quite like “Western Castle“, one of my longer stories. It was inspired by an episode of The Prisoner in which the story of the agent who retired was re-told as a western.

 

 

 

 

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My favourite Firefly fic is “Bookends“, which tells the story of how Zoe and Wash went from mutual dislike to man and wife.

 

 

 

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Fate of the Earth” isn’t particularly well written Doctor Who, but the core idea is still one I’m proud of. “Walk the Plank“, is a small story about the young Doctor’s first attempt to steal a TARDIS. The story concept was provided by Thomas0399. I like the idea that the last Doctor that Sarah Jane Smith encountered before her passing was the Fourth Doctor, who bent the laws of time to pay her one last visit. That adventure is told in “End Game“. Finally, there’s “Mirror Mirror“, which was my (non-winning) entry for the 2016 Big Finish Paul Spragg memorial contest.

Crossovers

I only actually have one crossover, told in a series of stories, in which Rick Castle teams up with the crew of Firefly and then with the Doctor. The series begins with the Firefly story, “Goodbye” which was never intended to be part of a series. Then I wrote “A Firefly in the Castle“, “Castle Serenity“, and then “Miranda“. Look out for the Doctor’s cameo in “Castle Serenity”. That little hook let me write the final story in the series and bring it to a nice conclusion. It really is true that stories sometimes have a life of their own. Hopefully, as the series progresses, you’ll see an improvement in my writing. Certainly, Miranda was the most complicated story I’ve written in terms of plotting. I had to fit the story into the framework of Serenity (the movie) and my own “Castle Serenity”.

Indefensible

THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR MARVEL’S THE DEFENDERS.

DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE SHOW (HOWEVER, IF YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT THE SHOW, WHICH IS UNDERSTANDABLE, THEN GO RIGHT AHEAD).

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.


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Marvel’s The Defenders has made its much-anticipated debut on Netflix.

It wasn’t very good, was it?

That much is clear. The interesting question is, why wasn’t it very good? Let’s explore that and see what lessons we can learn to help us with our own writing.

The characters, as in, the too many characters. Granted, there were only four heroes, but then there were the “five fingers” of the hand. (Did we see all five? I can’t remember. Worse, I don’t really care.) On top of that, there’s a resurrected Elektra. That’s ten so far. Then on top of all that we have side characters from each of the previous Marvel Netflix shows.

The characters, as in Danny Rand. Let’s face it, Poor ol’ Danny, that snotty nosed, none too bright, brat of a character is rather hard to cheer for. If you’re like me, you cheered when Luke Cage tossed Danny around like he was nothing more that a clothing store mannequin.

The characters, as in Misty Knight. What was up with the unrelentingly bemused smile she wore no matter what was going on? Even when she was giving our heroes heck, her expression never seemed to change much. I suspect this wasn’t the actor’s choice, but the director’s.

The characters, as in the villain(s). Much has been written about this already. The Kingpin: a great villain for Daredevil. Why? We understand him and his motivation. He’s three-dimensional. Plus he can be genuinely scary when he wants to be. Same to some extent with Cottonmouth in the Luke Cage series. The Hand? Well, they want to live forever. Okay. They also want to go back to Shangri La, sorry, I meant K’Un-Lun. Wow. But we know little about what makes any of them tick, even Madam Gao, after all the series she’s appeared in. As a consequence, they have less impact on the audience, even though they seem to pose a danger to life as we know it.

The characters, as in Elektra. What was up with her? Elektra was destined to be “The Black Sky” (I’m already shaking in my boots), the Hand’s ultimate weapon. The prophecies might have oversold things just a tad. We see that she’s a better than average ninja, but we also see that  Daredevil can pretty much take her singled-handed. Or was she holding back because of her faint memories of their love affair? Who knows. What we can all agree on, I think, is that as an ultimate weapon, Elektra was a bit of a let down.

Fight scene exhaustion. We all love a good fight scene, and the Marvel series have excelled at that. But give people too much of a good thing and suddenly it isn’t such a good thing any more. Even amazing fights get boring after a while. You find yourself thinking, Here we go again, as you check your Twitter feed while the latest one plays out. The fight scenes were very effective in showing the differences between the heroes.

The silly premise. Everything leads to the climactic showdown between our heroes and the Hand. And it has to be them. It can’t possibly be the police. After all, it wouldn’t be safe for the police to even attempt to deal with the Hand. And yet, as I watched that climactic fight, it occurred to me that a well armored and armed SWAT team would likely do pretty well against the Hand’s ninjas. Then I remembered Indiana Jones just shooting the guy with the sword and started to chuckle. Probably not the reaction Marvel was looking for.

The ending. Did anyone actually think that they’d killed off Daredevil? I mean, for even a second? Of course not. So what was the point? I guess it gave the other heroes pause, caused them to reflect a bit, and we see that, in Matt’s honour, Danny Rand plans to stay in New York as a protector. Then we see him perched on a rooftop in a Daredevil-like pose, gazing out on the city. That, actually, was a very effective scene. But what happens when he realizes that Matt’s still alive? Does Danny say, “Oh well,” and then go off on holiday to Hawaii?

Well, that’s a lot of negative. Wasn’t there anything good about the show? Of course there was. There was some great humour, especially from Jessica Jones, whose job seemed to be to call bullshit. They also used poor Danny’s earnestness and eagerness to discuss his time in Shangri La, sorry, I meant K’Un-Lun, to humorous effect. In sum, the humour was character based, which is a very good thing.

There was some good acting. Our heroes were all good, even Finn Jones, who’s received a lot of flack for Danny Rand. But he isn’t responsible for the vision of the character that the show runners want to portray. He portrays their vision of Rand well. It’s just that, for most of us, that vision sucks. The side characters also did well, and Sigourney Weaver, as always, was more than convincing.

All this isn’t to say that I could have come up with a better story, but we can learn from failures and successes, ourselves’ and others’. Let’s do so.

 

Intolerance in Writing and Writers

While growing up, I devoured the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, and a visit to a bookstore seemed as magical as a trip to Ali Baba’s cave. Caught in the web of Burroughs writing, I could swear I was swinging through the trees with Tarzan, or fighting all sorts of nightmares to win the hand of Barsoom’s Dejah Thoris. And as for Lovecraft, well, he just scared the hell out of me. I loved it.

Sadly, Burroughs hasn’t aged very well. In his day, Burroughs got away with populating Africa with all manor of lost civilizations deep in the unexplored forests of the “dark continent”. A hard sell, however, in the era of Google Earth.

And as for traveling to Mars by… wishing yourself there? A bit much for even young children to swallow today. Mind you, do you remember the story that Carl Sagan related while hosting the original Cosmos? After reading John Carter of Mars, he ascended a hilltop and wished and wished and wished. But, sadly, he never found himself transported to the red planet.

Then there’s the quaint notion that, to make his mark, man is destined to tear apart nature and build things like railroads and smokestacks. Witness the Pellucidar books, where our heroes find themselves in an ancient, primeval forest in the centre of the Earth. Their hearts swell with pride after they’ve cut down trees, lain tracks, and constructed steam-engine trains that puff thick smoke into the pristine air.

Finally, even if we grant that Burrough’s audience is/was primarily boys, aged, say, 9-12, his books have structural problems with his over-reliance on the most amazing coincidences. So yes, it’s kind of hard to go back to these books, nostalgic as one might be.

1458759156549.jpegH.P. Lovecraft has fared better, and is still regarded as a major figure in horror literature.  While his writing style is definitely of the old school–Lovecraft loved old things and old places–he is still able to make your skin crawl, and, when he wants to, can dazzle you with beautiful prose. The novella, “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, begins thusly:

Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvellous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles.

I never tire of that opening.

While we can agree that Lovecraft didn’t expend a lot of energy into fully fleshing out his characters, that was never the point. The point was to develop an atmosphere of dread that would have the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and your body temperature drop a couple of degrees; to make you begin to doubt the veracity of your own senses; to create a world where the old gods, separated from our plane of existence by the flimsiest of veils, hungered for our souls.

Yikes!

Lovecraft could also be oddly prophetic, as in this excerpt from “The Call of Cthulu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have thitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Could it be that the discoveries of modern science have caused some to go mad, seeking a new dark age where the climate isn’t changing, evolution never happened, and vaccines are to be avoided at all costs? Perhaps. But that’s a blog post for another time.

But now we get to the crux of the problem, which is the intolerance expressed in the stories of these and other writers. For example, in Burrough’s At the Earth’s Core:

“A white man!” he cried. “May the good Lord be praised! I have been watching you for hours, hoping against hope that THIS time there would be a white man.”

And as for Lovecraft, this quote from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” will indeed make your skin crawl, but not in a good way:

Here his only visible servants, farmers, and caretakers were a sullen pair of aged Narragansett Indians; the husband dumb and curiously scarred, and the wife of a very repulsive cast of countenance, probably due to a mixture of negro blood.

One could point to many other authors, including Enid Blyton with her Golliwog characters, Ian Fleming’s James Bond referring to Italians as a bunch of “spaghetti eaters”, going right back to the controversial Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”.

What do you do with books like these? One answer, I suppose, is to put them away. But to not read some of the greatest, most beloved authors of all time? It seems unthinkable. To a large extent, I believe, these authors were a product of the age in which they lived, though some, like Lovecraft, through his love of times gone by, may have reflected even earlier beliefs and prejudices. We know that prejudice must have been part of the social norms of the time. How else could such stories have been published?

My inclination is to follow the advice of B. J. Harrison. In in his Classic Tales podcast, Harrison reads aloud books and stories that are, well, classics. Noting the presence of anachronistic prejudice in one story, he said something like this (I’m paraphrasing from memory): Perhaps we should view stories such as these as a lens through which we can see how far we have come.

Consider now the case of the World Fantasy award trophy. I was initially disappointed upon hearing that it would no longer be modelled after H. P. Lovecraft. But digging into the reasoning led me to understood completely. After all, suppose you were, say, a gay black author, that you won a World Fantasy award, and thereafter had to stare into the disapproving glare of Lovecraft from your fireplace mantle. No, I wouldn’t care for that either. In fact, it sounds like a suitable basis for a horror story…

There’s an even thornier question: What to do about intolerance expressed by current authors? Today, no one would get away with the kind of prejudice shown in the examples above (unless you were giving voice to a character with prejudice). That’s not the problem. The problem is when a published author promotes opinions or beliefs that you find offensive. For me, two authors come immediately to mind, one dead, one living. Both have written classic books in the SF&F genre. But while their books may be benign, I find their voiced beliefs and opinions to be offensive. Initially I tried to put that aside, concentrating on the book, not the author. In the end I found that the books suffered from guilt by association. I just can’t and won’t support them any longer.

This is an essay without any conclusion, I’m afraid, except to note that each of us, when faced with these kinds of moral dilemmas, has got to do what we’ve got to do. However, there’s one thing we can’t do under any circumstances, and that’s to ban books outright. That only deprives us of the opportunity to think and to follow our own path.