Tag Archives: Writing

A Fantasy Review: From The Lord Of The Rings To A Game Of Thrones

I am currently 2/3 of the way through an epic re-watch of the Lord Of The Rings. My band of brothers and I have escaped from out of the very bowels of the Mines of Moria. We have stood, bloodied and yet unbowed, before the Uruk Hai at Helms Deep. We have risked the black fury of Barad Dur itself. And we have taken the hobbits to Isengard.

In case of my death, let it be remembered that with each and every waking breath, I worshipped the Lord Of The Rings, both the books and the films. Let it also be recorded that I loved Tolkien as if he were my own son.

That’s right – Tolkien’s world is so immersive, his characters so complete, and quite frankly his dialogue stirs my loins. The great man is surely the yardstick against which all writing, especially fantasy, must be measured. As one critic puts it, all fantasy writers subsequent to Tolkien must content themselves with shaping the world that he revealed. On a side note, Peter Jackson and co. deserve credit for recreating so spectacularly the monstrous saga on the big screen. Each film is a stunning spectacle, which is nothing less than Tolkien’s genius merits.

Yet in spite of my rather more than casual adoration for Tolkien, there is a crucial element to his work that I believe is sadly lacking. This element is tension. My only problem with The Lord Of The Rings is that the (main) characters are so cool that at no point do you worry about their safety. The one exception to this rule is Gandalf. Fair enough, when he dies you are all like ‘oh no!’ but his dramatic return, unexpected as it might be, only serves to reinforce the growing suspicion that Tolkien has constructed his characters so well that he will not be able to handle killing them off. Indeed, the only characters that do end up biting the dust are characters who have displayed some sort of boorish flaw – e.g. Boromir, the louty yet loveable Gondorian scamp, or Theodin, the feckless leader of a rabble of random horseman.

I have some sympathy for Tolkien here. In my first book I was an absolute mess when confronted with the fact that my favourite character simply had to die. It was only a whole day’s worth of writing under the influence of a firm hangover that allowed me to push through to the end of my story without him.

The unhappy consequence of Tolkien’s (and my own, apparently) unrivalled ability to construct a character is that his books take on the attitude of a carefree jaunt, when really they should be nothing of the sort. It simply isn’t that ‘life or death’ that Aragorn has been surrounded by his enemies, because you know he will be able to fight his way out of it; that’s just how much of a man he is.

Fortunately for those adrenaline junkies out there, modern fantasy definitely has a ruthless edge to it. I defy anybody to watch an episode of Game Of Thrones (for example) comfortably – i.e. without sobbing softly whilst snot drips down their face, having been thoroughly overcome by the whole excitement of it all.

I should confess right now that I have not read George R. R. Martin’s series ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’ (on which the TV series of Game Of Thrones is based). I acknowledge that this is a gross omission for a man who professes to be a fantasy writer, but there we have it. What can men do, eh? To be honest it is probably a good thing I haven’t read it, because I would be a state.

Anyway, my point is this – Tolkien is a hero, of that there can be no doubt. Modern fantasy writers would do well to learn from him. Heck any writer would, (what is this whole disrespecting of the fantasy writer about anyway? Leave us simple folk alone, bra.) But if there is one thing that modern authors do have over their old mentor, it is the savage unpredictability of their plot lines. Some stuff is going down. There will be consequences.

If you haven’t been watching Game Of Thrones, by the way, then where have you been? Sort it out. Honestly.

On a final note, Theodin’s much pondered over question (see the top right of this fantastic post) was finally answered by my dear friend Roberto (like Mancini but more man and less cini) the other day. His response? ‘Little to nothing.’

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Muses on writing (and a little bit about Twilight & Breaking Dawn)

The game of writing has changed. It is no longer the case, as it used to be, that the people reading books are as informed as the people writing them. In the days of Hardy, of Dickens and of the other Victorian masters, for example, only the rich and the well educated reached for their spectacles and, removing their books from their libraries and reclining at ease in front of their fires, placed trembling fingers against the pages’ edges. A shared pool of knowledge and appreciation led to wonderful sprawling tales, decedent language and testing moral questions.

Lest you think I am an Imperialist hankering for the days of British dominance (which I am) let me tell you some American books have made it onto my radar. Of course they are still English, so to speak, in as much as they are written in the Queen’s language, but I’m willing to grant them a certain level of independence. Where now would you find a writer of Steinbeck’s ilk, for instance, whose fantastic Grapes of Wrath opens with a long and languid description of the red dust towns of Oklahoma, where the harsh beauty of the characters’ surroundings resonates fiercely with their struggle to survive the Great Depression? And Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville – how are we now to find a book so intelligently littered with classical references?

All that once was, is no longer now. No more is reading restricted to the hobby of the refined, us plebs can join in too. Of course this can only be a good thing, but, as one finds with Socialism, there are certain disadvantages to the spreading of wealth. As more and more people began picking up books it was inevitable that the delicate balance between writing and reading earlier described could never be maintained. Many new and shiny markets emerged where previously there might have lingered only a few old and dusty ones. In short, reading became popular, the curse of all things once great.

It is simply not feasible to write a book in the style of yesterday unless you are satisfied with the fact that only a very small percentage of the world’s audience will be interested. Books that used to take the fancy of the traditional reader do not take the fancy of their modern cousin, whose tastes are rather more fleeting.The overwhelming majority of today’s readers are all about fast plots and catchy themes.

Of course it is not the case that a book can no longer be beautifully written, indeed it often helps if it is. But the times are long gone where an author might go on for pages at a time about the gnarl in a tree trunk, or move their readers to tears simply by describing the way in which the gentle winter sun catches the shining grief in a character’s eye. Descriptive language is subservient to plot; it must be there for a reason. If it isn’t then the book won’t sell. Simple as.

To my mind, at the moment the books bringing home the most money (not always the best measure of value) tend not to be remarkably written. Indeed it seems there are only two things you need to produce a successful book these days, and neither of these actually has anything to do with writing. The first is a smouldering front cover, preferably featuring some hunky looking young men without many clothes. The second, of course, is an attention grabbing lure along the following lines – “She married him for love, he married her for blood…” The bait is thrown, the fish is caught, hook, line and sinker.

Indeed, this powerful combination, if put to correct use, creates so much hysteria that the fact that the book could have been written by a less than gifted five year old does not appear to matter. The success of the launch can then be measured according to how many screaming teenage girls wet themselves awaiting a signed copy.

To see this phenomenon at work one must look no further than the US box office, where the film adaptation of Breaking Dawn, the final instalment in the disturbingly average ‘Twilight‘ series took $139.5 million on its opening weekend. Now compare that, if you will, to the paltry $5.135 million taken home by the Rum Diary, Bruce Robinson’s take on Hunter S. Thompson‘s Puerto Rican romp. I have not seen either of the films, indeed it might be the case that Breaking Dawn (film) is better than the Rum Diary (film), but as a measure of interest it is clear where the power lies. The books, of course, are incomparable.

Do not take me for a snob. I am one, of course, but I would like to hide that fact. I am not a particularly gifted wordsmith; I am not writing this post out of frustration because I am not able to tell the stories I want to tell – I would not be able to tell them anyway. Rather I just want to highlight the fact that, when standing in Waterstones surrounded by all the books about Vampires and Werewolves, an honest reader can sometimes feel a little lost.

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For a brother

You left, as I recall, to sounds of pomp and circumstance,
To fight the noble fight, you said, one must set sail for France,
I waved to you goodbye but as a boy I could not see,
What all the foreign fighting had to do with you and me.
 
We lit for you a candle, which burned bright through night and day,
And kept you always in our hearts though you were far away,
But when the letter told us you were never coming back,
We didn’t visit church again, your candle paled to black.
 
Now after that, the day of days, in hope I was alone,
Unbowed, I lit a flame myself that I might bring you home,
This flame was not a candle but a fire that pierced the night,
Beside the pyre I sat in vain awaiting any sight. 
 
I did not understand why you would not come back to play,
And though our mother tried to try no words that she could say,
Would stop the sense of certainty from forming in my mind,
That some day you’d come back to me, so leaving France behind. 
 
An old man now I’ve seen at last just why you kept away,
But still I come to build my fire to set the sky ablaze,
I wish that I’d been by your side to face the horror too,
Because you and I were brothers and that’s what brothers do.

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The Aviators, by Helen Jane Long

Every now and again one is fortunate enough to stumble upon a piece of music that catches one by the heartstrings and does not let go. Today I found exactly that in ‘The Aviators’, by Helen Jane Long. You may have heard a part of it in the BA ‘to fly, to serve’ adverts.

Whilst listening on youtube I found that the music – which is featured on the BA advert mentioned in a previous post – was being compared to Hans Zimmer / Klaus Badelt’s ‘He’s A Pirate’ as if this was in some way a bad thing. It was suggested that Long should be ashamed of herself for taking the credit for somebody else’s genius. I am afraid I do not share this view. A good piece of music is as much about how it makes you feel, as it is about how it sounds. Anybody sensible who has listened to the two tracks will see that there is no meaningful comparison to be made between them, if indeed there is a comparison to be made at all.

I am a methodical writer – after the initial trembling excitement of a new idea, rarely do I feel particularly happy about what I am producing. Writing is a slog for me. I don’t mind, that’s just the way it is; I sit down, and I get it done. Music is my crutch – I would have produced nothing without it – and on occasions I am lucky enough to be reminded of the reason why I write; to stir the passions in others as others have stirred the passions in me.

I have written 2,500 words today. Each one of them is thanks to a beautiful piece of music by Helen Jane Long.

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The frustrating view of the world through the eyes of Harry Potter

That my intentions might not be misunderstood, it is important I state at the very beginning of this post that my ambition is not to discredit J.K. Rowling as a writer. Like so many others, as a child I was a voracious reader of the Harry Potter series and I have always considered J.K. to be a wonderful story teller who has produced a funny and inspiring universe.

But this is not to say she does not have her weaknesses. Most documented are the various loop holes, which range from minor plot issues to near catastrophic oversights. I will not be addressing how the books stand plot-wise. In my opinion, too much has been made of what is essentially an unavoidable consequence of a successful children’s book being required to evolve into something more. There are mistakes, yes, and there shouldn’t be, but there are more important things afoot.

My discussion will focus on J.K.’s writing – more specifically on her writing of the character Harry. Again, I am not aiming to reveal some gross incompetence, but rather to try and tease out an element of the writing that I do not think works.

Harry Potter is written in what is sometimes called the fixed third person. This means that, unlike say Vanity Fair or the French Lieutenant’s Woman, which feature omniscient narrators who are directly telling the reader a story, it is narrated from one character’s view point. Apart from a few exceptions, noticeably those few chapters that follow Snape, we see the world through Harry’s eyes and ears and his eyes and ears alone. We know only what he knows, and if there is something he is unaware of, we are unaware of it too.

Simply put, the magical world is revealed to the reader at the same pace that it is revealed to Harry. In the first few books, this works like a charm (get it?). But as the story progresses it becomes less and less effective. And here’s why.

The problem is two fold. Firstly Harry is too disinterested in what is going on around him to serve as a proper point of contact. Secondly he is too slippery to get an emotional hold of.

In the first place we might expect Harry, with all a child’s curiosity, to try to learn as much as he can about his new universe as quickly as possible. But J.K. isn’t stupid, she knows that she needs to hold a few things back in order to maintain her audience’s interest. The details must be released to the reader steadily and not all at once. This means that they must be released steadily and not all at once to Harry. The problem is that J.K. has not struck the balance quite right and as a result of this failing, Harry comes across a little moronic.

For example, Harry does not make even the merest of enquiries about the Dementors or Azkabam until his third year of school in spite of the fact that the latter has been mentioned in front of him. Likewise, he does not ask anything about St Mungos until he has been surrounded by Wizards for five years. Surely any 14/15 year old kid would have long ago asked somebody something about the Wizarding hospital. After all, Neville has been banging on about his parents for a while now. Weren’t you listening, Harry?

This is just it. Harry is an idiot. Or rather he is intellectually uninterested. He does not seem to bother about the things we might think he would care about.  For instance, having found out that the most powerful Dark Lord of all time is after him, why doesn’t he pay more attention in class, rather than sharing another joke with simple Ron? Why doesn’t he spend all of his spare time learning useful fighting/healing spells, or else those strange enchantments that Hermione knows all about? Without Hermione, Harry and Ron wouldn’t last one second. They are well aware of this, and yet still they do nothing about it! Hermione acts like I would imagine any at least semi-intelligent person in Harry’s position would act, and yet throughout the books her behaviour is not seen as appropriate, but rather it is considered to be geeky and is treated as an object of great ridicule.

In the second place, emotionally, Harry is all over the place. An advantage of the fixed third person perspective is that it makes the story easy to follow. We know what we are supposed to be feeling because it is what Harry is feeling too. But, although this may be true in the beginning, the link between the reader and Harry becomes more and more tenuous, until by the sixth book, nothing he says or does makes any sense at all. At least it didn’t to me. Indeed, were it not for the helpful but woefully unsubtle hints like ‘Harry was angry’ one might be completely lost at sea. The fact that J.K. believes she needs to tell us what to feel surely demonstrates that she does not believe enough in her character to let him show us instead.

It started so well. Through books one to four we started to get a hold on the sort of boy Harry is growing up to be. Then in book five it all changes. Suddenly the past catches up with him. I know teenagers can be cranky, but really, he needs to chill out! Harry – it’s not Ron or Hermione’s fault that your parents died. You knew that last year, why don’t you know it now?

Fortunately for us all, within a year he has settled down a lot – who knows why, because if anything his life has got a lot worse – and now he is into girls. Big time. Again it is a little unclear where the emotion is sprouting from. The fact that Harry is an elusive character is even more of an issue for J.K. as it would normally be because her characters have aged along with their readers. The majority of her readers literally grew up with Harry Potter, this means that they should not be strangers to the sorts of things a young man would be thinking / feeling, even if they have not been subjected to the same hardships as he has. Given that she had seven long books in which to put her reader in the mind of Harry, it can only be regarded as a dismal failure that she has not managed – at least in some cases – to do so.

Pretty much everything I have just said takes nothing away from the standing of the Harry Potter series. J.K.’s talent lies in story telling, not character building. She has produced an thoroughly entertaining and sellable world and should be praised for her success. But  I think that what frustrates writers about the seemingly limitless plaudits the series has won is that, to the extent that writing at its best is arguably above all about character, the books are not terribly well written at all. And what really frustrates them is that, on this score, her fans are completely unaware.

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A Christmas Truce

Pale winter’s sun with her sweet dwindling light, 
To bed crept she and hid her weary face,
Whilst fell around her darkness bleak as space.
What madness might have met that fateful sight,
But for one faint and gentle spec of white?
A single flake of snow with God’s good grace,
Untouched as yet by death or human waste,
Did fair remind the world of wrong from right.
Now to this ghost both friend and foe gave chase,
With haste across the lines that had been set,
And in each other’s hearts they found a place,
To rest, amidst a merry Christmas fete,
So true the violent times could not erase, 
The mem’ries of when warring brothers met.

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The Rising Of The Sun

First light and is the night swift sent from sky to back of mind,
Forgotten timeless hours spent, awake, though eyes were blind,
Behind the clouds the sun peaks out an arm to turn the ruse,
First light’s a poet’s marvel; it’s a budding wordsmith’s muse.
 
The waking wind is whisp’ring ’bout a half remembered dream, 
That matters not the slightest to the slightly bubbling stream,
Or to the trees that bend to touch the lazy morning’s breeze,
First light’s a simmering silence; a restless reverie.
 
The little mouse fears not the owl who’s sated by the night, 
Nor does the owl have mind to kill, his bed consumes his sight,
It’s morning, let the world be so, let Nature keep Her way, 
First light’s a careless harmony; a carefree time of day.
 
But there’s the creak and cranking, from the forest over head,
A crimson dawn, and through the haze, the water runs as red, 
The sense of shame, of shattered calm, an air that’s thick with hate,
First light’s a cruel ecstasy; a bitter twist of fate. 
 
If not from owl or mouse from where, this stain upon the land?
A stranger to the playful scene, be it the claws of man?
First light’s a fickle mistress; it’s an awful game of chance,
Wake up, you might be anywhere, thank God you’re not in France.

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