World-building, word building and mac’n’cheese

The second time it happened I was in the bath. The first time I had happily been watching TV. Then up pops some commercial (it was Channel 4, not ITV, I should clarify) for Sainsbury’s and they mentioned a recipe for mac’n’cheese.

WTF?

I was informed it was an Americanism for macaroni cheese, a dish that we have a perfectly good name for, recognisable by generations of UK school children, so they’d immediately know to avoid it on school dinner menus.

Then this morning, in the bath, I was reading the otherwise excellent Jay Rayner restaurant review in the Observer and there it was again: mac’n’cheese! Mac’n’fn’cheese!

mac and cheese
The only Mac and cheese I’ll ever need!

We don’t need your mac’n’cheese, thank you. It’s unnecessary and irritating and just smacks of desperate ‘trendy’ promotion.

I should add at this point that I do not have a general problem with Americanisms. In fact, truth be told, this was part of the joy of first discovering the writing of Raymond Chandler. I loved his 1950s American world full of Chesterfields and Davenports, sharpies and shamuses (shami?), ‘dropping my nickel’ and ‘clam juice’ and if I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, it didn’t matter! It was all part of the joy, the magic of his world, the poetry of the street. And you could work out what was going on even if the exact provenance of a word or expression wasn’t immediately clear.

It was almost inevitable that when I started writing I shouldn’t just get into world building but word building too. The Citadel is a different kind of place and my dwarf detective Nicely Strongoak, does things differently too. So it’s not surprising, with a different history too, that they have different words and expressions too. It’s all part of creating a wonderful space for other people to come visit and it’s great fun too.

So, here are a few choice terms from my work in progress that I’m particularly pleased about: ‘filth-fellowship’, pop-the-pea’, ‘going bite-size’, ‘ground-hugger’, ‘thumb font’ and ‘bleach’. If you don’t understand them now, you’ll soon pick them up, and I hope you’ll enjoy them too, as much as I did the Chesterfields and Davenports and sharpies. Continue reading World-building, word building and mac’n’cheese

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Rugby and Fantasy Writing and other such favourite things.

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

This is a very famous quote and you can see the point, but the thing that’s always worried me about it is that as a child I loved Rugby football and I loved fantasy and science fiction writing. I am a fan, almost a fanatic, and quite unreasonably enthused by both. With the Rugby World Cup upon us and my own fantasy novel published I am so far beyond excited at the moment that only the Hubble telescope can find me.

Does this mean I never put childhood behind me?

nICELY RUGBY

I recently read yet another disparaging dismissal of fantasy writer Terry Pratchett by a critic who had managed to read one whole book of his. The conclusion seemed to be that it was pretty childish entertainment and not a patch on something as funny as ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’, which also gave us insight into the human condition. Now I happen to love ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and think it is a great book, but liking it, for me, doesn’t preclude loving Terry Pratchett, Tolkien and too many other science fiction and fantasy writers to mention as well. I also think that fantasy books can give us quite an insight into the ‘human condition’ as well, and if it happens to come via dwarfs and elves too that doesn’t worry me. I prefer it from the dwarfs, obviously, as they are much more down to earth and make better detectives.

Interestingly, nobody questions my liking of Rugby, even though I started playing it at the same time I got heavily into reading SFF. Is it that fantasy and SF are just easy targets? Perhaps people just associate elves and dwarfs with childhood and don’t think the subject matter can be treated in a different, more adult, manner.

As far as I know nobody has ever approached Chris Robshaw or Richie McCaw and said to them that they should put the ways of childhood behind them either. There are probably people who think this mind you; I wish them good luck, especially if they try mentioning it to either man over the next few weeks before the final on Saturday the 31st of October. Continue reading Rugby and Fantasy Writing and other such favourite things.

Advice – hard to take, tricky to give.

‘Don’t go out with wet hair, you’ll get a cold!’

My mother always used to say it and I, full of my vast knowledge of science – at that stage mostly gained from SF books and comics – would laugh and go out anyway, hair soaking wet.

Advice you see, it’s always difficult to take when the reasons for it aren’t obvious. Advice, tricky to take and sometimes tricky to give too.

"I refuse to belong to any club that would have me as a member" - Great Advice from Groucho Marx
“I refuse to belong to any club that would have me as a member” – Great Advice from Groucho Marx

When I actually gained enough scientific knowledge to put ‘scientist’ on my passport (except you couldn’t by then) I still found myself in a position where advice had to taken. From people with more experience, it made sense to listen, but it was harder when they didn’t necessarily know any more about the subject than you, but were just ‘senior’. Of course, when the advice came from somebody reviewing your research paper, you had to take notice or it may not have been published. Difficult then if you didn’t agree with the referee, so you tried to appear to be bending over backwards to accommodate their advice, while sticking as closely to your own guns as possible. An interesting mixture of metaphors there, I’m sure you will agree.

After becoming a radio and TV comedy writer, the next obvious step after being a research scientist, I still had to take advice. Usually this came from a producer and of course you had to listen to this otherwise your sketch didn’t get broadcast. One, now very famous, multi award-winning, comedy producer once told me to take my sketch away and put more ‘melons’ in it. You can probably guess what type of melons he was referring to. I didn’t want to put more ‘melons’ in it; I don’t particularly like ‘melon-heavy’ sketches. I put the ‘melons’ in it though. It was broadcast and got laughs. (I still think it would have got laughs without the increased ‘melon’ count, but I’m not the one with the BAFTAS).

Now as fantasy writer I still get advice and this time it’s from an editor. So what’s the best approach to take?

Continue reading Advice – hard to take, tricky to give.

Adaptation and playing with other people’s toys

I do quite a lot of adaptation work, mostly book to film, although I have also adapted for the stage and am currently adapting a musical to book form. That last one is particularly fun! It’s science fiction too!

Sometimes this adaptation is from complete stories and sometimes it is from treatments and outlines. The point remains, you are working with somebody else’s ideas and characters. You have been put in a position of great power here, and with great power comes great responsibility. (Now that’s a line for somebody).

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Super Adapterman. (need to work on the name)
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Super Adapterman. (need to work on the name)

For me it is like being a child again and going round to somebody else’s house and being invited to play with their toys. It’s really exciting, loads of fun, but you make doubly sure you don’t break anything – these are not your toys after all. You are in a position of trust.

When ‘adapting’ writing gurus such as Syd Field go on record as saying, ‘The original is the source material. You are not obliged to remain faithful to the original’ and Robert McKee says, ‘never be afraid to reinvent’. I tend to disagree, I think you should fall over backwards to stick as closely to the original as possible, WHILE RECOGNISING THAT YOU ARE WORKING IN A DIFFERENT MEDIUM WITH DIFFERENT REQUIREMENTS. That last bit is of course crucial.

I don’t think you should work with somebody else’s ideas and characters and remake them in your own image. I also happen to think far too many directors have been cavalier in their approach to pre-existing stories, but that’s another matter. If there are things about the story material you have problems with, don’t get involved. By the same token the ‘originator’ has got to recognise that producing a script from their work will probably involve some changes to get it onto the screen. Films work differently from books and plays and that’s part of the joy of experiencing story in different forms.

The point is that you don’t go round to a new friend’s house and break their toys deliberately.

When starting a project I always say the Dr Tel pledge: Continue reading Adaptation and playing with other people’s toys

If the hat fits…

The difficulty of becoming an author (♂) of SF and fantasy is as nothing compared with the really hard choice of deciding which hat one should wear to complete the image. The problem is compounded if one still has a full head of hair or, indeed, actually is a hat fan and likes wearing different hats, depending on mood and the occasion. This will not do though, oh no!

Above all hat wearing for the author is about creating the right image, unless you’re somebody of the calibre of Terry Pratchett and it doesn’t matter about image because you are so damn good that you can wear a kettle if you so fancy. For the rest of us a few pointers are useful.

But which one?
But which one?

The Black Hat suggests mystery and danger and possibly vampires as well. There is no doubt that with a Black Hat you will be taken seriously – unless it doesn’t fit properly as Black Hats have a habit of doing. With the Black Hat you have to ‘pull-it-off’ if you want to ‘put-it-on’. We better come back to the Black Hat. Otherwise, you could perhaps go for the brown fedora, a good choice the brown fedora. It suggests a certain devil-may-care attitude that says your hero won’t let a little thing like a goblin army get in his way. Enchanted sword at the ready the brown fedora wearer knows his audience and always has a glint in his eye and an ironic smile on his lips. The brown fedora wearer delivers.

Or perhaps the Greek Captain’s hat might be the best choice? The captain’s hat hints of exotic locations and distant shores, maiden’s in diaphanous clothing, unicorns and, of course, sea monsters. It can be tipped back and worn to bed for that ‘lived in’, ‘world building’ look of the writer with maps at both the start and the end of his epics. The Greek Captain’s hat might just require the use of a writing pen name though – Emile Dulcas sounds good to me.

The Panama has stood many writers in good stead for generations; this is surely the hat for a writer! But isn’t it more Catholic guilt than elves and Goblins? Do Panama hats do dragons? Plus its association with the 5-day cricket Test Match doesn’t exactly shout ‘productivity’. Wouldn’t the hero of a Panama hat wearer be likely to forget about his quest while he discussed the merits of The Duckworth Lewis Method over a jolly-up in the Dancing Dragon?

Continue reading If the hat fits…

In conversation – genre and more

Have a look here for a very stimulating conversation with fellow writer Jason LaPier discussing combining genres in fiction writing, and much more. It’s always an interesting subject , because people can get very worked up about their favourite genres.

Superhero with speech bubbleAnd it’s also interesting  to find out how other writers approach their plotting and world building (his book has a great cover too!). Plotting is so important, but can sometimes seem slightly magical. I’m not even sure how I approach my own plots sometimes.

Superhero with speech bubble

Continue reading In conversation – genre and more