The Writer’s Dog

Kurt Vonnegut had Pumpkin. Neil Gaiman had Cabal. John Steinbeck had Charley and was so fond of Charley that he went on a road trip with him, which he wrote up in a book entitled ‘Travels With Charley’; a title which didn’t even raise a snigger back then.

Fifty (on left) and Lotte - temporary Writer's Dogs
Fifty (on left) and Lotte – temporary Writer’s Dogs

I had Gonzo for too few years and this week I am delighted to say I have Fifty and Lotte here as honorary writer’s dogs. The “writer’s dog” is a well-known notion, but what exactly is the role of the canine companion for a writer?
Well, for a start, a dog gives you somebody to talk, and even read to – and they are hardly critical at all! They help you feel you are not alone in the world, facing an army of hostile critics, unhelpful agents, demanding publishers and whooshing deadlines (© D. Adams). As a living, breathing, yawning (often farting) being your dog connects you with a world that is larger than the inside of the skull that you live in most of your time – which has a nasty habit of being both too constrictive and infinite at the same time.

Dogs make you move. Not excessively so, but the occasional trip to see what they are barking about is a good way to keep the circulation going. New research has shown that the majority of writers who do not move are dead. This is bad for a writer, although it can be good for sales. It is very bad for aspiring writers.

Dogs need walkies. Walking is an extended form of movement that is very good for writers too. Although it takes them away from their computer/word processor/typewriter/pen/pencil or quill/slate – slate being the choice for real hard core traditionalists. Walking can provide some much-needed thinking, or even inspiration, time. Ideas, characters and plots can come together when you walk in the most opportune of manners.

Also, collected poo in a bag is a very good metaphor for what most writers have to face in their chosen profession. Above all though a dog gives a writer what they probably are really looking for in life: indiscriminate adoration. If only dogs bought books.

Got to go. Lotte is grumbling at Fifty about something. Ah, movement – thank you writer’s dogs.

My original writer’s dog Gonzo: Continue reading The Writer’s Dog

Happy Hogswatch! The problem with Fantasy Holidays.

Happy Hogswatch – the problem with Fantasy Holidays.

Fantasy holidays, by which I don’t mean a month in the Seychelles, but a holiday set in a fantasyland, can be quite trick. Actually I had a month in the Seychelles once and it was a lovely place, but I could never get over the fact that they had ‘Bus Stop’s written on the road. Not randomly, at actual bus stops, but it made the Seychelles just slightly like a tropical Croydon.

Holidays in fantasylands then, as I realised recently, are difficult to set up. Except for Hogswatch of course. Hogswatch, and the scary Santa that is the Hogfather, are fantastically realised by Sir Terry because they are actually what the story is about (mostly). If, as a writer, you just want to slip a holiday into your story – along the way as it were – then it’s harder. The reason is that holidays are events with long histories that are steeped in a society or culture’s history. Christmas didn’t happen overnight after all, and neither did Hanukkah or Diwali.Detective with snow

As a writer you need to embed your holidays in your world’s culture. You are generally OK handling a ‘mid-summer’ or even a ‘mid-winter’ festival, but New Years can be tricky. I’m, still rather in favour with a new year starting on the first day of spring myself. Such seasonal events are relatively straightforward although they can appear a bit ‘weak’ and unimaginative. Other events need careful thinking about because they might bring up the dreaded subject of religion and religion in your fantasy books is something you may not want to get into.

In Narnia, famously, it was always winter but never Christmas. But as the Witch’s hold is weakened along comes Father Christmas, but shouldn’t he actually be Father Aslanmas?

You might not want to go there. Just think how ‘Game of Thrones’ would have suffered with a tagline of ‘Christmas is Coming.’ Not the same is it?

So, I think I might be writing a ‘Winterfest’, unless inspiration strikes. Until then: Continue reading Happy Hogswatch! The problem with Fantasy Holidays.

The Good, the Bad and the Elvish

 

nicely-group-shot-cropped

Elves, you just have to love them, don’t you? I mean, with their natural in-born nobility, un-specified magical powers, tall blond looks, high cheekbones and pointy ears, what’s not to like? No wonder that the most unfairly maligned of youth cults, the peace-loving hippies, was so taken by them. Unless, of course, your elves happen to be small enslaved domestic helpers with no dress sense and a habit of talking about themselves in the third person: “Blobby wear sack now”. Or perhaps you’re still hooked on the idea that Santa Claus keeps legions of relatively magic-free green and red clad elves to help assemble Smartphones and games machines in the frozen wastes somewhere north of the place they filmed ‘The Killing’.

Then again, if you ever had the misfortune to share 89 minutes (feels like longer) with TV’s Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty you might think ‘Elves’ (1989) are all about a neo-Nazi plot to create half-human/half-elf hybrids that were Hitler’s original idea for a master race. An idea inexplicably left out of most histories of World War II. Not forgetting the Dark Elves who gave Marvel’s Thor such a bad time in ‘Thor: The Dark World’ (2013) with their leader Malekith the Accursed who managed to look almost nothing like the actor Christopher Eccleston. Elves with high technology, there’s a new thing (or is it?).

It doesn’t really matter though, because they’re all elves now (OK, with the exception of the half-human master race) and elves have always been the trickiest of supernatural creatures to pin down. Even the Christmas elves are welcome to the fold and they seem to have their origins in illustrations that appeared in the American “Godey’s Lady’s Book”, a successful monthly magazine published in Philadelphia in the 1860s. Although the diminutive, gift-giving, white bearded ‘tomte’ from Sweden seem to fit that Xmas elf bill pretty closely too, giving rise to the possibility that Santa himself may be an elf.

The Old English ælf also had a ‘difficult’ relationship with people and any interaction could be to the person’s advantage –gifts yes please!-or severe disadvantage (where’s me cow). Partly depending on whether you were mixing it with the light elves or dark elves of course (very little good news with the dark elves actually). The dark elves weren’t a Marvel invention, but part of the Norse elf origin story. Called the Dökkálfar they tended towards a subterranean life style while the light elves, the Ljósálfar, lived in a rather nice place called Álfheimr (Old Norse ‘Elf Home’). The light elves took out the first patent on the blond, high cheekbone routine, being ‘fairer than the sun to look at’. This idea carried over into Scottish myths and the ‘Seelie’ and ‘Unseelie’ courts. The ‘Seelie’ court could do you a power of good, although annoying them, say by spilling slops into their houses, could also lead to the appropriate chastisement. The Unseelie court, which also included sluagh, redcaps, baobhan sith, shellycoats and nucklelavee amongst their number, just had it in for people.

Here though we reach contentious ground: when is an elf an elf and when is an elf a fairy? In England the light elves tended to be very similar to the fairies of Shakespearean fame – Titania’s hangers on. These would often be called elves as when Titania mentions ‘my small elves coats’. In Scotland elves were more likely to be human sized and lived in Elfame and that has certainly influenced one strong fantasy strand we know about.

In Scandinavia, life became more complicated when elves became mixed up with the huldre folk. These were originally more like forest spirits, usually female and associated with agriculture and women’s crafts. Although rather helpful, they’d take care of charcoal burner fires for example, they were also liable to kill your cattle and steal your children. And although the huldre women were very beautiful they did have cow’s tails (best not to mention it though, they got touchy).

In Iceland their elves, Huldufólk, have never gone away. Very much a part of life in fact and earlier this year plans to build a new road ran into trouble when campaigners warned that the road works would disturb elves living nearby. Construction work had to be halted, of course, while a solution was found.

So it seems that, love them or hate them, elves are not going to go away especially in our popular culture. They may pop up in different guises and sizes but the need for some ‘magical’ other to share our lives with seems very strong. Elves are here to stay – much to the annoyance of many dwarfs that I could mention.

Continue reading The Good, the Bad and the Elvish

Writing Comedy in Genre Fiction

How am I funny?

– Just … you know, how you tell the story, what?

– No, no, I don’t know. You said it. How do I know?

Goodfellas written by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese

So, how do you know if you are funny?

Write a joke and tell it down the pub and people will laugh (or not). Stand in front of an audience and tell it and you’ll know pretty quickly if it, and you, were any good. Write a joke for the radio and you might get feedback in days, for television it’ll probably be months.

Write a funny book and hopefully you’ll get some indication of how well you have done before the decade is out.

And that’s setting out to be deliberately funny, what if you are writing a book, say a fantasy, and want to include humour in it? How do you measure success then? Why not make it even harder, and make it a detective fantasy comedy, for example?

Is this simply doomed to be an exercise in multiple stool missing?

I’ve lectured on comedy (somebody has to – maybe?) and author Elwin White’s line, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process” always springs to mind. But then again I’ve also taught dissection and found humour there as well. In fact one of my best jokes ever involved the human connective tissue component fibrillin and how it… well, you had to be there, believe me.

funny cartoon scientist in various poses for use in advertising, presentations, brochures, blogs, documents and forms, etc.
So why attempt to explain anything about the comedy writing process at all?

I could be cynical and say that most things sell better nowadays when they have some comedy in them. Not ‘erotic romance’ obviously – start laughing at that and everything falls down (see what he did there?). I could possibly add that comedy is pretty cool at the moment and comedy nerds, even comedy nerds playing in the fantasy sand pit, are no longer first in the stocks being pummelled with the rotten fruit. I could even take a deep breath and explain that maybe it’s interesting to throw some light on the tropes we all love, and play around with them in a manner that could almost be called ‘intertextual’ – but I probably won’t.

So is it even possible to explain anything about the comedy writing process?

Well, when I did the aforementioned lecturing I used to occasionally do my party trick and give the students a newspaper, let them pick any page and story, and I’d write a comedy sketch about it for them. Nobody ever argued about my capability, I could produce a bona-fide comedy sketch on any subject. Of course, I got the occasional, ‘it’s not that funny, is it?’ This might well have been true, but it was always a sketch, with a set up, a pay off and jokes along the way. That bit can be taught.

For the next stage, as I went on to explain, raising it up to the level of the great comedy sketches … well remember Malcolm Gladwell calculated that it only takes ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. That’s about a year, working 24 hours day of course. Either that or be Tommy Cooper, born with genuine funny bones … and still undoubtedly put in the thousands of hours as well.

The first question to ask yourself about writing genre comedy is this, actually it’s the second question after ‘can my bank account afford for me to do this?’ and this second question is this: ‘what sort of funny’ are we writing here?

nicely-with-gun-close-up
“How am I funny?”

Let us make a distinction. A proper comedy, I would argue, really shouldn’t be obliged to do anything else other than make you laugh. That is the object of a comedy, be it a film, TV show or a book. Such pure comedy is rare. In film we’re more likely to be talking about a romantic comedy, or a teen comedy, or an Adam Sandler comedy. Such qualifications really move the pointer on the funny scale from ‘comedy’ to ‘humour’, nothing wrong with that of course, it just means that the writer has other intentions for their work as well. They probably want to move your emotions, relate to your peer group or just twitch your lips a bit. Which brings us to satire. Satire does not actually have to be funny. It can actually be quite cruel, as its intention is to prick pomposity and bring down governments. That’s its job. Fortunately funny is usually not off the table as well.

In many cases the author is exploring another subject alongside getting a chuckle and doing it – hopefully – by injecting humour as well. And this is the case with genre comedy, it should be firmly rooted in the genre and thus be aware of genre conventions. If you want to write straight comedy then do that, it’s both easier and harder at the same time; very much like the electron wave/particle duality.

Now: my top ten rules for writing genre comedy in novel form.

top-ten

(1) You have to know, and love, your genre.
I love and read fantasy and science fiction books. I love and read detective books. Nothing is going to spoil my enjoyment of them. Discovering a new author and a new world is a thing of wonder. Remember that love.

(2) Never ever laugh at your reader.
You are not writing to have fun at their expense. They are the same as you are; they’re better even, as they don’t feel the need to show off like you obviously do. It’s a sharing thing, laughing at ourselves and not really meaning it (as was said about me once, far too perceptively).

(3) Do not neglect your story.
You owe it to your reader to give them a story as well as laughs. It’s having fun with the genre, but detective fiction requires a crime and somebody to sort it all out.

(4) Real characters are the funniest.
If you invent a character simply for a single gag then it’ll probably show – so at least make it a good one! Readers will still prefer to find fully rounded people making idiots of themselves, even if they have pointy ears, a chronic UV fear or are dead.

(5) If you’re not laughing, then how can you expect your readers to?
I laugh at my own jokes. One of the best feelings in the world is when a line comes to you as you are writing, so you experience the pay off as it appears on the page; fully formed and gorgeous. It is not a sign of excessive self-abusive.

(6) Jokes are not evil.
It does not always have to be about amazing insights and clever juxtapositions of events and characters. A good joke or a clever line helps as well, mind you they are probably a lot harder to come up with. Jokes are hard, new jokes even harder still.

(7) When in doubt go back to your sources.
There is so much great stuff out there, read it and become soaked in it. Absorb it through your pores if possible. Then construct something that works on its own terms and integrate all your influences.

(8) Find your hero.
Your audience want to empathise with your main character, sympathise with them, or even antipathise (maybe not be a real word, should be) with them. Make your hero somebody they want to spend time with, but they do not have to be a protagonist. By that I mean they do not have to be changed by events (much). Leave that for the films.

(9) Stay true to your intentions.
Do not slip into parody or pastiche, unless that’s your real intention – in which case you could actually be stepping out of your intended genre. They are rather different beasts, equally pertinent in their own way, but can be rather ephemeral and best explored within the pages of the marvellous Mad Magazine or even in sketch comedy. Is ‘Bored of the Rings’ an actual fantasy novel?

(10) Have some fun.
Fun is good. Fun is infectious. Your reader will be able to tell if you are having fun writing and it will encourage them to have some as well.

You also have to bear in mind that we are living in a world where many literary types still look down on much ‘genre fiction’. Bless their shrivelled souls and callused imaginations. There are sadly also some genre enthusiasts who worry about the purity of their favourite form and worry about comedy creeping in. If you have they urge to write genre comedy, ignore them all, and the rest of us will be having a titter, chuckle, giggle and guffaw along with you.

I will leave you with the words of the fabulous actor Bill Nighy, a face for genre comedy if they ever made one:

“I don’t do plays without jokes anymore. I’ve retired from those plays. I think it’s bad manners to invite people to sit in the dark for two and a half-hours and not tell them a joke.”

And remember it only takes 10,000 hours – so get cracking!

Continue reading Writing Comedy in Genre Fiction

Way Back Elf

WOW! Can it really be 3 years today since the self published version of A DEAD ELF came out? Then Harper Voyager come along just weeks later, pick it up for publication and it becomes a #1 Epic Fantasy Bestseller!

Yes it’s true!

dead-elf-cover

 

Here’s the original cover – designed by a wonderfully talented friend – which is as fantastic as the totally different cover designed by Alexandra Allden! How lucky I am to have two great covers!

Continue reading Way Back Elf

Black Friday Non-Special!

Eek! Black Friday #1 Epic Fantasy Bestseller special:

‘Chandler meets Tolkien’ ‘Dashiell Hammett meets Terry Pratchett’*

118 Amazon Review >50% 5*. Price now:

black-moon-cover

 

Just $2.99 – no change at all!

Continue reading Black Friday Non-Special!

Nicely’s Appeal Explained

You can’t beat a good Venn diagram can you? Still love a good Venn diagram – and it’s the perfect method for explaining the appeal of ‘Detective Strongoak’ to readers of fantasy, comedy and detective fiction. So here we go:

The Appeal Of Detective Nicely Strongoak to Different Fiction Readers.
The Appeal Of Detective Nicely Strongoak to Different Fiction Readers.

So there we are! Very informative, I’m sure you’ll agree and clearly illustrating the target audience! Just about everybody who likes a good book! Continue reading Nicely’s Appeal Explained

My Funniest Joke Ever (as a scientist)

Comedy writers do actually get asked to say something funny at parties (not actually to write something funny, but say something funny – which isn’t that fair; I mean a racquet manufacturer isn’t expected to win Wimbledon!

Or at least I do; get asked to say funny stuff – not to win Wimbledon that is.

‘Come on what’s the best joke you’ve ever written?’

“Sorry, don’t really write jokes.”

‘What!’

‘I prefer commenting on the human condition obliquely using humour.’

‘Yeah, right. Can I hit you?’

Strangely, when I was a full-time scientist, I never got asked what the best science I ever did was. That would have been easy: coming up with the constitutive-like secretory pathway for the release from the human heart of Atrial Natriuretic Peptide.

funny cartoon scientist

It’s a belter, eh?

Part of the problem with finally admitting to what I consider to be my funniest joke ever, was that it was actually said in a laboratory! It’s a science gag!

It was while I was doing some work on Marfan Syndrome. This is an inherited  genetic condition affecting connective tissue and sufferers are typically very tall with long fingers. Abraham Lincoln may have had the condition, as might Mary Queen of Scots and Sergei Rachmaninoff (as a pianist he had a tremendous ‘span’).

The compromised connective tissue protein is called Fibrillin and it first was isolated from a medium of human fibroblast cells, following electrophoresis after di-sulpide band reduction, which produced a nice distinct single band of 350 KD (not small). Because connective tissue occurs throughout the body there are many distressing and life- threatening problems associated with Marfan Syndrome including degeneration of the heart valves. I was assisting on a project investigating the ultrastructure of Fibrillin in Marfan patients and control subjects. Specifically I was training up two young technicians to ‘rotary shadow’ isolated ‘patient’ fibrillin. This technique involves making a high resolution heavy-metal ‘replica’ of rapidly frozen and freeze-dried macromolecule in a vacuum evaporator. It is not the very, very most demanding of electron microscopical techniques, but there is plenty or room for error.

It was not going well.

Or rather, we were obtaining images from the control fibrillin – which are particularly lovely with a bead-on-string arrangement of fibrillin along the long microfibril. However we were not having any joy with samples from the Marfan patients, which obviously were in rather shorter supply. We wanted some action! We all, after all, wanted to do out bit to help combat this rotten inherited disease!

Was it an isolation problem actually associated with the putative problem with the fibrillin microfibril itself? We didn’t know.

Every other day a new isolated sample would be rotary shadowed, and the delicate replicas teased up on a grid to be put in the electron microscope; the three of us huddling around in the dark looking at the screen for some sign of the elusive molecule.

And every other day disappointment.

And then one day it all came together – as it can do in science for no particular reason. There on the screen was a sample of the ‘Marfan’ fibrillin. The normally intact microfibril was ragged, flayed almost; the beads disrupted.

fibrillin

‘Look at the state of that,’ I said to the two young technicians: ‘it’s the parents I blame.’

All right then, please yourselves.

Continue reading My Funniest Joke Ever (as a scientist)

For anybody considering writing for theatre: Things Theatre Writers Should Know

Theatre Advice 3The full advice, before you start writing for theatre:

  • Sadly directors are not there to get your ‘vision’ on stage in an unadulterated form – many have thoughts of their own. Live with it.
  • Actors are not wet-props. Some have thoughts and feelings like regular people do.
  • You will rarely get the credit, but some directors will always try to give you the blame (even if they rewrite your script).
  • Putting on a play is very much a group activity, but you’re not really in the group (most of the time).
  • Part of your job is to present your work in a properly formatted fashion with clear and precise stage directions. Your genius is more recognisable that way.
  • Do not expect to live on what you earn as a theatre writer, get yourself a proper job too.
  • It’s all right to say ‘I’ve got a new play on’, just not in the presence of anybody else involved in the production.
  • Writers are not meant to marry actors. It’s a matter/antimatter thing.
  • If you want to work with professionals, act like a professional – sorry, be a professional; never act at all. That’s not your job.
  • Theatre writers are not restricted to just writing plot and dialogue. If you really, really believe it is truly important that somebody should enter STAGE LEFT say so, but don’t be an arse about it.
  • You are not writing a radio play – think visually.
  • You are not writing a film script either – don’t think that visually.
  • If you require lavish sets marry well.
  • Never tell anybody with a manual occupation, or working in public services, how hard your job is.
  • Awards don’t matter until you get one.
  • Never trust anybody who says you can make money at the Edinburgh Fringe, unless they sell fast food.
  • Most critics are only human.
  • The show does not have to go on, get a sense of perspective – other people have lives too.
  • Producer is a job too.
  • Never be the last one to stop clapping at your own show. Continue reading For anybody considering writing for theatre: Things Theatre Writers Should Know