Friday, July 31, 2009

Writing Report

Started my next story yesterday, a sword & planet short called 'Slavers of Trakor.' The basic idea is a contemporary take on John Carter of Mars. A hero from Earth who ends up on an exotic, dangerous planet with sword fights and monsters, but happening in the here and now. About 1500 words in and having fun. I decided to skip the overdone origin story. (I simply couldn't believe I was on another world!) The hero has been on Trakor for about a decade and things haven't always gone his way. I've come up with a particularly nasty form of alien antagonist for the guy to fight. Should be fun.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Best Served Cold


A while back, an online friend from the UK recommended a book called The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie. He said it was the most original fantasy novel he'd read in a while and he thought I'd like it because it was extremely violent, somewhat urban, and it had "Some of those barbarians you're so fond of." Sounded like a good bet, but a quick check showed that the book wasn't available in the US yet. I considered ordering it from Amazon UK, but the cost and shipping were a bit steep for an unknown quantity.
Several months later I spotted The Blade Itself on the shelves at Barnes & Noble and Borders, but gave it a pass, mostly because I saw that it was the first of a trilogy and I wasn't in the mood to start a new series. Still I remembered my friend's recommendation and figured I'd get around to trying Abercrombie one day.
That day came last week. I was browsing at B&N and I saw a big, thick, hardback book with Abercrombie's name on it. I assumed it was another in the series that began with The Blade Itself, but a quick read of the dust jacket's inner sleeve showed that while the book was set in the same world as Abercrombie's other novels, it was a stand alone with all new characters. That did it for me. I could give Abercrombie a try and wouldn't have to invest as much time as a trilogy would require.
Took the book home and planned to just read a couple of chapters. Looked up after a hundred or so pages had passed. Oh yeah. This is my kind of book. My British friend was dead on. I'm here to tell you, this book kicks ass and takes names, pretty much from the first page.
As the title implies, this is a story of revenge. The infamous mercenary Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna have been victorious in many battle for their employer, Duke Orso, a man who would be king. But the sibling's victories have made them a bit too popular with the citizens for Orso's comfort, and fearing that they might seize his throne before he can, Orso orders Monza and Benna killed. Monza just manages to survive and spends the rest of the book seeking vengeance on Orso and the six men who helped him. Her allies are about as motley a crew as you can imagine. A drunk, a psychopath, a pair of poisoners, a torturer, and a (Yay!) barbarian from the frozen North. But don't let that fool you. This barbarian ain't Conan by a long shot. In fact there's no one in the cast you could point to as a stereotypical fantasy character. Their morals and motives are far too ambiguous. No real good guys in this book and loyalties and allegiances are subject to change as are friendships and other relationships. Right or wrong become a matter of whose side you're on that day.
The book has several action packed set pieces including a harrowing battle in a high priced brothel and a massive siege near the end. Abercrombie writes violence that hurts. People get cut. They get wounded. They get dismembered. And those are the protagonists. The supporting characters fare far worse. Much like in the work of George R.R. Martin, no character is safe in Best Served Cold. Don't get too attached to anyone because they might not leave the book alive or intact. It all makes for a satisfying level of unpredictability, and when you've read as much fantasy as I have, that's a rare thing.
Speaking of fantasy, there really isn't much of that to Best Served Cold. There's no magic (unless you count some Remo Williams style martial arts) no non-human races like elves or dwarves, and no monsters, save the human kind. The world feels more historical than fantastic. It has a very European feel to it. The cities remind one more of Venice and Barcelona than of Minas Tirith and Shadrizar. It reminds me far more of the works of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, and Michael Moorcock than of Tolkien and his followers. I would definitely push this one over into the sword & sorcery category as opposed to epic fantasy. I think Robert E. Howard would have liked the book a lot. He'd have laughed at the dark humor and cheered the battle scenes.
Best Served Cold contains a lot of gore, some rough language, and some fairly graphic sex, but nothing worse than an R rated movie. Still, probably not the best thing for a kid to read after he finishes Elftsones of Shanarra. It's no worse than many mainstream crime novels I've read, but for fantasy it's pretty grim and gritty.
So anyway, you can bet I'll be picking up the First Law Trilogy next time I'm at the bookstore. Abercrombie has won me over big time. I wouldn't want everything I read to feature "heroes" this amoral, but it certainly is refreshing to see someone pushing the boundaries and taking fantasy into dark and dangerous territory.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Another Big Moment


Here's Kharrn at the Mirror of Galadriel. The scene where the Lady of Lorien looks into her mirror and sees possible futures is one of my favorites in the Fellowship of the Ring, and here I am, sort of, in the very spot. I always get a kick out of running across iconic locations in the game. The Lady herself is at her home with Lord Celeborn. I've been there too.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Distance and Finishing What You Start

I had planned to give my recent short story The Silent History at least two weeks before revising it, but I noticed that my brain kept working on it, even when I was trying to think of something else. I kept jotting down revision notes to myself. How to fix this scene. How to make this or that make more sense. Bits of dialog I needed to add. So I decided that after a week of not looking at the manuscript, I might as well proceed to the second draft.
Now as you may recall, I didn't like large chunks of the story as I was writing it. I have learned that this is pretty standard for writers. A writer tends to be the worst judge of his or her own work, particularly while he or she is still writing it. You're just too close to the material. That's why it's best to get some distance from the manuscript. I usually like to leave something alone until I've almost forgotten it before doing any revisions. However this story had something of a deadline, so two weeks was really all I could spare, and that turned into one week. I should point out that some sections, the first three chapters to be specific, had three or four weeks because I didn't reread them as I worked. I wrote the last three chapters, the second half of the story. almost in one sitting, without referring back to chapters one, two, or three. I did throw out most of one chapter and almost completely rewrite it as well because the forward momentum of the story had become derailed.
So anyway, Friday I printed out the full text of The Silent History and took up my red pen and started marking things up. And you know what? I no longer hated most of the stuff I had hated during composition. I marked up the usual things. Some repetitious phrases and words. Adverb abuse. Moved some comma around. That sort of thing. I read the whole thing aloud so I could see how the dialog sounded and made some changes there.
But overall I didn't have to do nearly as much revision as I expected. As usual I found some of those things that always amaze me. Mostly bits about the characters. things that I hadn't known until the moment I wrote them. That's one of the things that makes writing fun. It's almost like magic in that stuff you don't really know how you came up with just appears on the page.
John D. MacDonald once said that sometimes he went to the keyboard all fired up with inspiration and then some days writing was like pulling teeth. Six months later he couldn't tell which parts of a book he'd written when inspired and which he'd written when totally uninspired. It really is like that. But somehow I never seem to remember that when I'm writing. There's always the point where I think "This is the worst thing I've ever written and I should just stop right now and start something else."
But I have learned that giving up on something just because it's not going well is a bad idea for writers. I'm not saying you can't have false starts. I had three on Silent History. But I kept coming back. You can give up on approaches, but not on stories, because if you do, you'll end up with a file full of fragments. I'm speaking from experience here. I use to bail on anything once I hit a road block. I try not to do that these days.
I think F. Paul Wilson said it best when he said:

"You come to learn that finishing is the work of writing. The great fun of writing is inventing the story and working out the problems. But once you've gotten that done in your head, then you have to stay with it and get it all down on paper."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Drinking Buddies


Okay, I'm not even going to try and remember what Convention I got this one at, though it was probably The Atlanta Fantasy Fair and probably between 1982 and 1984. Anyone who knows what Cons Dave hit in those years, feel free to let me know. Anyway, I do remember the actual circumstances much better.
I was wandering around the dealer's room and I spotted Dave seated at a table among the other artist tables. His hair was shorter and he no longer had a beard, but the voice and the mannerisms were the same. I made my way over and said hi. There were only a couple of other people hanging around and no one seemed to be buying anything so I asked Dave if he was doing sketches. He said yes and that he was charging 50 bucks a pop. I'd been buying a lot of original art at that point so 50 seemed reasonable to me. Dave asked what I wanted and I said, how about Cerebus and Superman.
Dave kind of blinked and said no one had ever asked for Superman before. In fact he couldn't remember having ever sketched Superman. But he was game, so he asked if I wanted then fighting and I said no, just a buddy shot and he said, "Oh, how about drinking buddies?"
Well of course.
So while Dave was roughing the drawing out, he and I and the other couple of fanboys hanging around got into a discussion of "Could Superman get drunk?' because obviously his brain cells would be as invulnerable as the rest of him. Presumably alcohol wouldn't have any effect. Someone suggested that maybe the bar had red sun lamps, because as we know, the Man of Steel loses his powers under a red sun. So there you go.
Anyway, if Dave really had never drawn Superman before I think he did a great job. Somehow, the idea of a sloppy drunk Superman is just the sort of thing you'd expect from Dave Sim. This remains one of my favorite sketches in my collection.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Primeval


Since, as you may or may not know, I don't have cable and rarely watch television, I sometimes miss shows that I'd probably enjoy. Fortunately my pal Cliff usually tells me about stuff I'm missing and loans me DVDs of shows he thinks I'd like. The other day, kind of by accident I discovered the British SF show Primeval. I looked at a few trailers and saw lots and lots of dinosaurs and we know I love dinosaurs, so I decided to order the first volume DVD box set from Amazon.
The basic premise is that unexplained rips in time have started appearing all over the UK and things from the past are slipping through. Mostly big things with sharp teeth. A group of scientists team up with the British government to try and contain the situation.
I've watched four episodes of the show so far and I love it. There are dinosaurs everywhere. Well animated CGI dinosaurs at the super market, at grade school, and in swimming pools. Giant spiders on the London Underground. See, for me this taps into my childhood fantasy life, because I was always imagining dinsoaurs everywhere. I had a reoccurring dream about dinosaurs living in a swamp (a real place) a couple of miles from my house. It seems that I have always loved dinosaurs.
The cast is good too. Douglas Henshall plays the big brain scientist type Professor Nick Cutter. Andrew Lee Potts is the geeky, brilliant, young student Connor Temple. Hannah Spearritt plays Abby Maitland, the cute blonde chick who's also an expert on reptiles.
The writing has been very strong so far as relationships begin to develop among the various characters and plot arcs begin to emerge. I understand that the show was created as competition for Doctor Who and they do seem to be going for the sane audience. The show has a similar feel, though it's probably more Torchwood than Who.
Anyway, I understand that there's a big cast shake up in series 3 and that the show has probably been canceled at this point, but that's okay. From what I understand, monsters from the future start appearing in series 2, and that interests me less than dinosaurs, so series 1 and 2 may be all the Primeval I need. Of course after I bought the DVD box set I mentioned it to Cliff and he had already bought it himself, so I could have watched the series for free. You think I'd learn...

Comics Detectives


While digging through my stack of convention sketches, looking for the Dave Sim Cerebus sketch I've already posted and the other one I've yet to post, I came across another of my favorite sketches, this one commissioned at the 1990 Chicago Comic Convention. Back in the day, Chicago Con was second only to the San Diego Comic Con in terms of importance in the comic book world. Chicago Con always had tons of guests and the various comic companies were all well represented.
One of the guests that year was Terry Beatty, the co-creator and artist of what I consider the best private eye series in the history of Comics, Ms. Tree. Co-Created by Max Allan Collins, the author of Road to Perdition, True Detective, and many other novels, Ms. Tree was basically a female version of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. Tough as nails and with a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, Ms. Tree cut a swath through mobsters, murderers, hit-men and the like over a long career that spanned many years and an impressive (and somewhat confusing) list of publishers.
Anyway, I swung by Terry's table and asked if I could get a sketch of Ms.Tree and the dark night detective, Batman. I'd always figured Terry would draw a cool version of the caped crusader and he didn't let me down. Beatty's Batman reminds me of the classic Dick Sprang/Jerry Robinson version of the character which seemed to fit right in with Ms. Tree. Terry threw in some clever dialog too. In case you can't read what the characters are saying, Ms. Tree says, "So, you're a detective, huh?" and Batman says, "Yup!"
In this age of great comic reprints, I really wish someone would put together some trade paperbacks of the full run of Ms. Tree. I have all the original comics and some of the older collections but they're getting a bit long in the tooth and the entire series was never collected. Even a couple of 'phone books' like Marvel's Essentials and DC's Showcase would be great. Meanwhile, Ms. Tree recently appeared in a prose novel, "Deadly Beloved" by Collins with a cover by Beatty, published by Hard Case Crime. And come to think of it, I'd still like to see Batman and Ms. Tree team up on a case. The hero who won't use a gun and the heroine who won't go anywhere without one. Sure to be sparks.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Writing Report Redux

And the final word count for the first draft of The Silent History is 9040 words. Typed The End at 8:54 this morning. I'll put it aside for a couple of weeks then go back for a rewrite. Plan to get something else up and running pretty quick though. No rest for the wicked.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Writing Report

7976 words on The Silent History and one chapter to go. Looks like I may be pushing the 10,000 word upper limit on this one. Still not thrilled with all of it, but determined to finish this weekend.

Cerebus and Me


Dave Sim is currently putting out a comic book called Cerebus Archives, in which he is reprinting his early work which led up to the creation of Cerebus the Aardvark, a series that changed the course of comics history, inspiring many creators to publish their own comic books rather than go to work for one of the major comic companies. Sim was at the forefront of the growing independent comics movement in the late 1970s. Some call Cerebus the single most important series of that movement. I'm not sure about all that, but I know that Cerebus had a major impact on me when I first discovered it.
In the summer of 1979 I was 17 years old but did not yet own a car.(Though I bought a 1973 Mustang Mach 1 a little later that year.) My father drove me and my cousin Rick down to the Atlanta Fantasy Fair, a convention being held at the Castlegate (I think it was called Dunfey's Royal Coach Inn at the time.) Hotel, just outside of downtown Atlanta and left us there for the weekend, with instructions not to leave the hotel and to watch out for 'weirdos.' This led to me punching out a guy in a Thor costume, but that's another story. Though I had been to several cons before, it was the first time I'd ever attended all three days of a convention and stayed in the Con Hotel. And it was the weekend that I discovered Independent Comic Books.
I think it was the second day of the Con and I was wandering around the area where artists had tables set up. I remember that John Byrne was there. He was just starting to hit big in the comics world and he was churning out tons of con sketches. Back in the day, most comics artists would turn out quick pencil and marker sketches of whatever character you wanted for twenty bucks or so. I bought my first one from Gil Kane by accident, but that too is another story. I was watching Byrne sketch, trying to pick up some drawing techniques (and I did, actually). There was a guy sitting next to Byrne with a really nice set of color markers and he was coloring one of Byrne's sketches. At first I thought he was John Byrne's assistant, but then I noticed that he had several stacks of some odd looking comics. The covers only had a couple of colors and the hero appeared to be a short, gray animal of some sort. One of the covers featured Red Sonja or someone who looked like Red Sonja.
There was a cute brunette woman sitting by the guy and she noticed me looking over the comics. She said Hi and introduced herself as Deni Loubert and started telling me about the comic book, Cerebus. Then she introduced the guy who was coloring away on a sketch of the Vision as Dave Sim, artist and writer of the comic. He looked up and gave me a grin and then began talking about Cerebus as well. Deni, it would turn out, was Dave's girlfriend and partner in publishing. She too, would be very important to the fledgling independent comics world, but that would be later. Dave finished his coloring and turned his attention to me and a couple of other comics collectors and we ended up chatting for a good while. I found him very funny and he and Deni seemed like genuinely nice people. So I bought a copy of each issue of Cerebus, mostly just to be friendly. They were out of issue #1 but they had 2,3,4, and 5.
Later, back in my hotel room I read the second issue and found it hilarious. Three, four, and five were even better. The early issues of the comic were basically a parody of the Roy Thomas/Barry Smith run on Conan the Barbarian, with Sim doing his best to imitate Smith's 'dot-dash' style of inking in the first couple of issues. Issue 3 featured the Red Sonja analog Red Sophia and issue 4 had a parody of my pal Michael Moorcock's Elric. I loved it, and I wanted more. I knew that Sim didn't have any more issues of Cerebus so I went down to the dealers room and tried to find a copy of issue one, but no one had any. I did however discover Wendy Pini's Elfquest, another early independent comic that would be very popular and influential.
I just noticed that I've neglected to explain what I meant by Independent Comic. When I started collecting comics in 1972, there were two major comics companies, DC (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) and Marvel (Spiderman, The Hulk, Fantastic Four). Gold Key and Charleton were still holding on, but Marvel and DC were the heavy hitters. The only other form of comics around for the most part were the so called Underground Comics that had come out of the 1960s, and they weren't really aimed at the mainstream. Independent Comics, comic books published by small companies or by individuals were comics seeking to reach some of the same audience as the big boys but without being bound by corporate control. Creator owned comics, hopefully offering something different than what you would get at Marvel and DC. And boy was Cerebus different.
Anyway, the next day I went back down to Artist's Alley to tell Dave and Deni how much I liked Cerebus. They seemed genuinely pleased. I bought a poster of Cerebus, which Dave signed, and I decided to buy a sketch from Dave too, but they had an early plane to catch, so Deni took my name and address and twenty five bucks and they headed out. A few weeks later I received the classic drawing displayed alongside this long and rambling post.
Over the next few months Cerebus began to attract a lot of readers and some critical interest as Dave's art and writing became more sophisticated. The book was on its way to becoming the first really big hit in the independent market. That market would flourish and eventually I would enter it, doing some drawing and writing. But once again, that's another story. It would be a couple of years before I would run into Dave Sim again. I'll talk about that in another post with another sketch very soon.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Rule Victoriana

Managed to get 'The Silent History' back on track by deleting a scene and completely rewriting it. That brings me to 6135 words as of today with and estimated 2000 words to go. The challenge I set myself was to write something crossing four genres: sword & sorcery, Victoriana, hardboiled fiction, and H.P. Lovecraft style horror. So far the hardboiled part has fared the worst, only coming on strong in two places. Victoriana has ruled so far, with S&S and horror starting to push to the front as the story approaches its end. I don't like all that I've written, but I do like some of it and hopefully I can hammer the rest into shape in the second draft. I never like all of it. Just part of being a writer, I guess.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Weekend Stuff

So the long weekend didn't go quite as I'd thought it would. I really figured I'd spend three of my four days off alone doing various projects, but my dad wanted to go to lunch Thursday and then my pal Brian wanted to go to lunch on Friday and my brother had a cook out Saturday, so a lot larger chunk of the weekend than anticipated was spent socializing. I'm fine with that. These are all people I like to see. I enjoyed all the get-togethers. But it did cut down on the alone time.
So here I am late afternoon on Sunday trying to cram a lot of stuff in. I did a lot more writing on The Silent History but I'm not sure how much of it will end up in the final version. I seem to be getting a bit derailed. We'll see how that goes.
I read a short story by Walter Mosley and one by Rex Stout. I enjoyed both and may read another Mosley before the day is out. I need to wash a few dishes and put in a load of laundry. I may have some iced coffee here in a bit and probably an omelet for dinner. All and all not a bad weekend.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Feeling My Way

I hit 4056 words on The Silent History this morning. I'm guessing that's about halfway through. I say guessing because I still have no clear idea where I'm going. Unlike my last short story, which was written to a synopsis, I'm just feeling my way through this one. However I can see that I'm fast reaching the point where I'm actually going to have to sit down and figure out what's going on so I can bring things to a satisfactory close. Wish me luck...