Friday, 23 June 2017

Narrating is Hard, Who Knew?

It's not like I haven't always had a ton of of respect for narrators.  And I've had reasons enough to listen to them.  For some unaccountable reason, a disproportionate amount of my work has found its way into podcast or audiobook: all four of my novels, novella Patchwerk, and a dozen of my short stories have all had the audio treatment, and to the best of my recollection not once have I been less than thrilled with the results.  I've been really lucky on that front, and maybe that's one of the reasons I quickly started to notice how tough reading fiction out loud was, let alone doing so without stumbling over every other line, let alone while bringing genuine emotion and life to the work.

Still ... when you try it yourself, you discover that narrating is really damn tough, and that the people who do it professionally are really damn talented.  I mean, it's not like I've never had to read stories out loud, and sometimes I've even done so in front of quite large groups of people.  But if you fluff that then you can blunder through or make a joke about it, and really volume tends to be the main thing that matters in those situations, so if any actual subtlety or drama creeps in then I feel like I've done a decent job.  Actually making a recording of a story, though?  That's a whole other thing.  One significant mistake and you've had it and - as I discovered to my cost - just going in without the right amount of joie de vivre is enough to make for a rubbish end result.  Reading for thirty-five minutes without major slip-ups and without letting your energy flag is a heck of a challenge.

About now is when I should explain why I was even trying, right?  Basically, the answer is, because the folks at Great Jones Street asked me to, and those guys are cool enough that I didn't mind giving it a go.  If you haven't downloaded the GJS app by now, you really should; it's a huge library of short fiction by a ton of big name (and not quite so big name!) authors, and it's completely free.  More to the current point, it contains four of my stories: Jenny's Sick, Great Black Wave, and my two tales following master assassin Otranto Onsario, Ill-Met at Midnight and A Killer of Dead Men.  And the folks at GJS decided that it would be neat if their readers could be listeners too, so long as what they were listening to was authors reading out their own fiction.

In fairness, I should admit that I was largely extent imposing my own difficulties: Great Jones Street didn't ask for flawless renditions, and indeed specifically requested the exact opposite, suggesting that their audience would much prefer more warts-and-all renditions.  But, you know, you can tell a perfectionist not to try and get things perfect until you go blue in the face and it won't make a damn bit of difference.  Fortunately for my sanity, what did was sheer lack of time, not to mention a good deal of luck - otherwise I'd have been at this all year.  As it was, I managed to get by with only a few minor hiccups and one fairly major one, too far into A Killer of Dead Men for me to start over yet again.  What can you do, right?  "City" and "roof" sound awfully similar.

Anyway, for anyone who's curious, here's me reading out Great Black Wave, which is perhaps my favourite of the four stories and, not at all coincidentally, probably the one I did the best job with.


And, again, you can find the Great Jones Street app and so listen to all four, as well as lots and lots of other stuff, here.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Black River Chronicles 2 Levels Up

As of the start of this week, I've now more or less finished the second draft of Level One sequel and number two Black River Chronicle, the book tentatively titled The Ursvaal Exchange.  I say 'more or less' because I plan to do a bit of tweaking and polishing over the next couple of weeks, and to work through some minor issues flagged up by my ever-brilliant and almost too reliable friend and beta-reader Mr. Tom Rice, who agreed to help out at awfully short notice.

(I don't know that I've written a book that Tom hasn't had at least some influence over, and I probably don't thank him enough.  Thanks again, Tom!)

The second draft has been, I have to admit, kind of an uphill slog - which is strange given what a breeze the first was.  Or maybe that's so strange?  Looking back, that first run through was such a pleasure because I was caught up in the story I was telling and enjoying being back with this cast of characters that I'm more than a little in love with.  Perhaps it's no wonder I ended up waxing a bit too lyrical!  But all of that lyrical wax needed to be boiled down to serviceable prose at some point, and the last few weeks have seen a lot of boiling.

Then there's the fact that this second chronicle, as befits a sequel, is operating on a rather grander scale.  It's a good bit longer, it juggles more characters and digs more deeply into all of them, and - I think the biggest change - it has some seriously involved action sequences.  The thing is, Mike and I were determined that the challenges our heroes met were going to scale to match the fact that they're now level two adventurers, and that meant stacking the odds against them in a way we'd never have dreamed of in Level One.  And that means some serious threats, the sort that make a few angry rat-people or the odd murderous unicorn pale into insignificance - which in turn requires the sort of elaborate action that spreads across multiple chapters and locations.

Thinking about it, that might be the real reason this second draft has been so tough.  Maybe because I find it easy to get caught up in the excitement when I'm writing it, action tends to be the most difficult challenge at the editing stage.  The result, though, is a couple of sequences I'm seriously pleased with, and that feel so much bigger than anything that happened in Level One - a book that was, after all, always intended to be more intimate than epic.

So what happens next?  Well, after those two weeks of tweaking I'll be talking a month away to let my brain reset.  Then August will be given over to the third and final major draft, to be followed in close succession by copy-edits and proofreading and by the book actually coming out in October or thereabouts - which actually seems awfully close now that I come to think of it!

Monday, 12 June 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 25

For once I'll keep this opening brief!  The thing is, I had this whole other introduction finished, a rather defeatist musing upon how, despite my best intentions, I'd yet again managed to review stuff that was at best merely very good.  But what do you know?  That was before I watched - and wholeheartedly loved! - Venus Wars, and on average the final result is maybe the strongest set we've had yet.

With that in mind, let's just get on with discussing Battle AngelUrusei Yatsura Movie 3: Remember My Love, The Heroic Legend of Arslan and (of course) Venus Wars.

Battle Angel, 1993, Hiroshi Fukutomi

On the face of things, the two part, sixty minute OVA known in various places as Battle Angel, Battle Angel Alita and Gunnm (my personal favourite being the title card's Hyper Future Vision Gunnm) isn't up to anything especially remarkable for the time it was created.  Really, in the mid nineties, you couldn't have thrown a brick in the anime world without hitting a darkly futuristic story of cyborg humans living high-tech but low value lives amid decaying cityscapes.  And, oh, the lead cyborg is cute and female?  The antagonists look like they've wandered in from Fist of the North Star?  At first glance, it's hard to see why the title is as remembered as it is, let alone why this would warrant Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron teaming up to release a megabudget live action movie next year.

The truth is, it does and it doesn't.  Battle Angel falls into a category we've encountered a few times in these reviews: it does familiar things a great deal better than almost anyone else was even attempting.  A big part of that is that it really commits to its elements, no matter that they're less than entirely fresh.  Its hellhole of a city, surviving off the scraps of a possibly Utopian and certainly technologically superior second city anchored in the sky above, has the vibe of a real and lived-in place.  It takes the subject of cyborgization somewhat seriously, and cements it deep into the plot.  Its characters, especially titular battle angel Gally, are developed with care and feel unexpectedly substantial as a result, especially taking into account the brief running time.  Even the violence is fussed over in a way that makes it legitimately shocking rather than callow or silly.  Battle Angel takes itself seriously, then strives to justify that self-seriousness.

It helps, inevitably, that the technical values are terrific, bolstered in great part by detailed, distinctive character designs and the aforementioned efforts at world-building; the brief bursts of action are particularly lovely, and the attention to detail with which Gally's ass-kicking is accomplished probably has a fair bit to do with her legacy.  As with, say, Bubblegum Crisis, the coolness factor goes an awfully long way here.  Fukutomi's direction, too, is good enough to make me sad that he hasn't done much since; he has a real grasp of tone and of how to tell a story clearly and economically.  And though the music is more of a mixed bag, a piece reminiscent of Akira's iconic soundtrack is the perfect companion to the show's by turns winsome and horrific nature.

With all of that said, Battle Angel is tough to get hold of these days, and I personally paid rather more for it than was sensible.  Honestly, I'm not sure it's that good; it's too much within the mold of what anime was at the time to be classed as any kind of masterpiece.  Nevertheless, it's a brief and memorable pleasure, made with real style and care, and I liked it enough to already be feeling vague dread at what the Hollywood take will end up looking like.

Urusei Yatsura Movie 3: Remember My Love, 1985, dir: Kazuo Yamazaki

Perhaps it's a stretch to assume that Kazuo Yamazaki considered himself in competition with Mamoru Oshii.  Nevertheless, it's easy to imagine a bit of a rivalry there; between them the two directed the vast bulk of Urusei Yatsura's staggering number of episodes, and Yamazaki found himself with the unenviable task of following up on Oshii's second feature Beautiful Dreamer, which - whatever the contemporary reaction might have been - was unquestionably something out of the ordinary.

A glance at Yamazaki's CV tells us that he's no Oshii, but also that he was no mere drudge.  He would go on to make Five Star Stories, A Wind Named Amnesia and the first Slayers movie, all of which I've raved about to a greater of lesser degree here.  And sure enough, Remember My Love is no step down into hackwork, not at all: I'd go so far as to say that it's even a clear improvement from Only You, Oshii's first stab at Urusei Yatsura moviemaking.  Nor does it quite turn its back on the crazy levels of ambition shown by Beautiful Dreamer; no mere franchise movie this, content to deliver familiar beats at a longer length and with some polished animation.

In fact, one might argue that Remember My Love is a step closer to the platonic ideal of what a Urusei Yatsura movie should be.  It stays relatively true to what I understand the spirit of the show to have been and manages to find things for a great many of the vast cast to do, while also interrogating its source material in surprisingly deep fashion, as a misguided curse threatens to separate alien princess Lum from her lecherous "darling" Ataru for good.  It dares to ask the sorts of questions every fan must have at least considered - like, are these two actually good for each other?  And are they really meant to be together?  Or even, isn't this just a show about two destructive people perpetually screwing each other's lives up?

This has one other side effect: much like Oshii's movies, Remember My Love isn't exactly funny.  There are scattered laughs, and moments of genuine hilarity, but there are also stretches without even the shadow of a joke.  Really, the plot is the draw; that and the production values, which are also in no way a step down.  Yamazaki certainly isn't as daring a director as his predecessor, but there are some terrific sequences, and a lengthy chase around the midpoint is show-offy in all the best ways.  The score, too, is another strong effort, with some screwy carnival melodies and a couple of likable pop songs.

Really, Remember My Love makes three for three on impressive Urusei Yatsura movies.  It's not indispensable in the way that Beautiful Dreamer is, but that's a silly bar to set, right?  It's still fun, imaginative and in places astoundingly weird, and it's still far bolder than the average TV adaptation, in anime or otherwise.  It's well worth a look, basically, and bodes well for the rest of what so far has been a shockingly reliable movie series.

The Heroic Legend of Arslan, 1991 - 1995, dir's: Mamoru Hamatsu, Mihiro Yamaguchi

Trying to say anything useful about The Heroic Legend of Arslan presents a whole raft of issues, even more so that trying to make sense of the average nineties anime release two decades on from its release.  What you get (at least if you acquire the most available and complete DVD release from Central Park Media) is two hour-long movie episodes directed by Mamoru Hamatsu, followed by two half hour OVA's directed by Mihiro Yamaguchi and made by a different studio, followed by another two OVA episodes, made years later and subtitled Age of Heroes for no discernible reason, once again directed by Hamatsu - oh, and with a different dub, featuring a new cast who sound nothing like the originals.  Also, the pronunciation of many of the characters' names changes midway.  And the narrator announces a major character dead only for them to later return.  Confused yet?

The wildly varying budget certainly doesn't help matters, nor does the shift in directors; Hamatsu's work is slick and often stylish in a way Yamaguchi barely tries to match, and this is even more prominent with Age of Heroes, where Hamatsu compensates for a lack of actual animation budget by doubling down on sheer eye-popping imagery.  In a way, the strangest thing is that, despite all the behind the scenes changes, the story simply keeps picking up where it left off; it's like the only people not aware of the chaos were the creators themselves.  As for that story, my thoughts kept going to Game of Thrones, if Game of Thrones had a prettier cast and slightly less bloodshed and was loosely based on sixth century Persian history rather than the War of the Roses.  Scuppered by his father's belligerent and headstrong nature, not to mention his utter lack of military strategy, the boy prince Arslan finds himself on the run with his kingdom in enemy hands and, at least initially, only a handful of friends to defend him.  But, as the story develops, events move from the small scale of Arslan's early struggles for survival to a grand narrative of battles, strategy and politicking that rapidly drew in more characters and countries than I could readily keep track of.

The result is all over the place, as I've noted often enough already, but certainly more good than bad; really, it's never bad, just a bit lackluster around the middle.  However, if the only issues were the inconsistent animation and direction and dubbing then I'd still cheerfully recommend The Heroic Legend of Arslan.  In fact I do, I guess, but more hesitantly, for here's the thing: what we have here is an adaptation of a series of light novels that's been on the go for thirty whole years and still isn't finished and this version doesn't wrap up even slightly.  There's no closure.  Not one meaningful subplot even ties up, and in fact the last episode sends the story off in a whole new direction.  And damn but it's frustrating.  Four hours is a long time to spend getting absorbed in something that just stops dead.

And still, The Heroic Legend of Arslan is worthy of your time.  Its somewhat fantasized historical setting, which takes in locales rarely seen in anime or elsewhere, its focus on grand, nation-spanning drama over traditional swords and sorcery, its likable and diverse cast, its lush soundtrack and frequently lovely imagery all make it worth giving up those four hours for - or at the least, worth watching the two opening movies.  And if it weren't for the pain of that non-ending I suspect I'd be being very positive indeed.

Venus Wars, 1989, dir:  Yoshikazu Yasuhiko

First things first: Venus Wars looks extraordinary.  I mean, my mind kept going back to Akira, and while it's admittedly not that good - what in pre-twentieth century anime that wasn't made by Studio Ghibli is? - it at least belongs in the same conversation.  This, by the way, is helped no end by a remastered print from the ever-wonderful Discotek, which is crystal clear and pops with colour and in no way resembles a print of a film from nearly three decades ago.  Seriously, Discotek deserve medals for their work here, and it breaks my heart a little that there's no UK blu-ray release.

This is the sort of animation that refuses to let you forget for an instant that it's the time-intensive, hugely costly product of dozens of skilled artists.  No expense is spared in showing scene after scene of almost unnecessarily complex things happening: in particular, Makoto Kobayashi's mechanical designs are marvelous organic oddities that must have been an absolute horror to animate.  Yet they're constantly in motion, glorious single-wheeled motorbikes battling against tanks that look like they were grown rather than built, all amid billowing dust and teeth-rattling explosions.  Venus Wars, on the whole, has splendid action scenes: varied, ingenious and never superfluous to the plot, every one's a pleasure to behold.

It's not just eye candy, though.  If we're being honest, that's probably the level the film succeeds most on; that and the score by notable genius Joe Hisaishi, back from before he became that guy who does the music for every Miyazaki movie.  But while its story of civil war on a crudely terraformed Venus is hardly revolutionary, the way its told is satisfyingly novel.  Our leads are Susan Somers, a visiting journalist from Earth, and Hiro, a biker with a sizable (though thankfully not Tetsuo-sized!) chip on his shoulder, and together they bring a skewed perspective to what might easily have been just another sci-fi war story.  Both quickly find themselves disgusted with either side of the conflict, and even as they get increasingly forced to take a stance, they remain sufficiently on the outside to remind us that wars are crappy things inevitably fought for all the wrong reasons.

Which isn't to suggest Venus Wars is any kind of pacifist tract, or even that it's terribly sophisticated in its ideas: when push comes to shove, it's too devoted to its delirious action sequences to be much of either.  But its narrative is mature and engaging, and even that's a heck of a thing for a sci-fi anime movie from the tail end of the eighties.  Really, its imperfections are minor and relatively easy to forgive.  Music-wise, cutting short the eighties-tastic Shakunetsu no Circuit in favour of the rather boring Asu e no Kaze over the closing credits is a weird old misstep.  The character designs had a tendency to deform into a cartoonishness that wasn't wholly to my tastes, maybe the closest the film comes to cost cutting.  And it's attitude towards women isn't fantastic, though for the time and the genre it actually kind of is; we get three major female characters and two of them have significant agency and development.  Sadly the same can't be said for the one gay character who appears briefly, only to camp it up horribly and die about a minute later, without having acquired even the shadow of a personality trait.

But that's all the bitching I'm willing to muster against Yasuhiko, whose debut this was, working from the source material of his own manga.  As a first movie, Venus Wars is a rare achievement, and though anyone who's made it this far into these reviews probably won't be terribly surprised that it flopped and Yasuhiko never got to direct again, still, it's a pretty devastating fact to discover.  Venus Wars has shot straight into my list of all-times favourites, and I'm already itching to watch it again; I doubt I'll be disappointed.


Really, when The Heroic Legend of Arslan is your weakest entry, and its biggest flaw is that it leaves you wanting more, you know you've reviewed some seriously good nineties anime.  There's certainly nothing here I wouldn't recommend at least a little, and Battle Angel and Venus Wars both fall into the category of things I'd urge most anyone to track down.  In fact, Remember My Love kind of does, too; I'm getting to the point of thinking that these Urusei Yatsura movies are something pretty special.

And we all know what this means, right?  The next entry is going to be terrible.  Like, M. D. Geist 2 terrible.  It's destiny, man, and you can't escape destiny.

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23, Part 24]

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Trying to Make Sense of Twelve Years of Short Story Sales

One thing about doing anything for a long time is that it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.  After over a decade of selling short fiction, I had only the barest sense of how well I'd done overall.  In terms of profit, some years had been startlingly successful, where others had been more or less disastrous; there were stories I sold to major markets on the first or second attempt and others, in my opinion no less good, that I eventually had to let go for a few bucks.  Really, the only way to make sense from such arbitrary-seeming peaks and troughs, let alone to gain an impression of whether all the effort I'd put into writing and selling short fiction had been warranted, would be with a ton of data and the obsessive-compulsive nature to dig through it.

Wouldn't you know ... I have both of those things!  And just recently I also had the time and incentive to sit down and figure out what stories I've sold, for how much and how often, and then to stick all of that information into an easily interrogated spreadsheet that I could prod for some answers.

The main question I was eager to solve was to what extent all those highs and lows had balanced each other out.  But before I even began running numbers, I was conscious of a couple of significant distorting factors.  I definitely learned to write and sell short fiction the slow, painful way, by spending a long time producing work that wasn't quite up to scratch or else was wildly ill-suited for professional sale, and then refusing to give up on any of it.  The upshot was that, in the early years, I ended up getting paid not much at all for a fair proportion of my output, or even giving stories away for free - which, of course, skews the data dramatically.  Then, as a wrinkle in the other direction, perhaps the majority of my sales these days are reprints, which means more money for stories I've already sold once (or, increasingly, more than once.)  Thanks to Digital Fiction Publishing, I also now have short stories earning royalties; and thanks to both Digital and NewCon, I have further royalties coming in from my short story collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.

Taking all of that into account left me with a few potential numbers.  Based on the raw data, my average pay rate for the eighty stories I've had published would be somewhere around three and a quarter cents per word, or just over half of current professional rates.  Add in the Sign in the Moonlight royalties and that rises past three and a half cents.  Disregard all of those unpaid publications and it nudges up past four cents.

On the one hand, when you consider the hours I've put in - approximately seven trillion by this point - even an average rate of four cents a word would be paltry.  On the other, given the extent to which that's being dragged down by those early low-earning sales, it suggests that in fact the stories that have been successful - whether through getting into well-paying markets or reprint sales or royalties or a combination of the three - have down rather more than I'd ever have guessed towards balancing things out.

Though it's tough to draw conclusions that would be useful for anyone but me from a career that's followed no clear trajectory or logic, let's at least try.  I already knew that, in the long term, you can routinely make decent money from selling short fiction, and on rare occasions you can make extremely good money; it's also become more and more apparent that, if you're careful with what rights you sell and for how long and if you're aggressive in seeking opportunities, the most successful stories will keep being successful time and again.  What my new data adds is a sense that my early misjudgements, or for that matter the occasions that still sometimes happen when I end up letting a story go for less than I'd like because I'm eager to be involved with a particular market or editor, aren't the big deal I've sometimes felt them to be.  While of course it would be lovely to have every piece end up with the likes of Clarkesworld or Lightspeed, the impression I have now is that maybe the scatter-shot approach I've taken makes more sense than at times it's felt like it was doing.  I've never made things easy for myself by writing in such a variety of genres and styles, but it's reassuring to discover that the results, on average, have been at least a qualified financial success.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 24

I swear, the plan was to fill this post with works of unadulterated genius to make up for some of the nonsense I've been posting about in recent weeks.  I really did try, and I'm still not sure what went wrong.  But we have do two utter classics - that being one more than I was expecting beforehand - and that's not too bad, right?  And I haven't given up on my ambition of getting another post out where everything is genuinely good; if I can just keep resisting the siren lure of M. D. Geist 2 then maybe we can manage that for next time.  Then again, there's the slender possibility of a Urusei Yatsura movie special, since an unfortunate E-bay-related accident left me with the entire series on Region 1 DVD...

But what's the use in worrying about the future?  Especially when we have quite enough vintage anime to worry about right now?  This time: Shamanic Princess, Digital Devil, Virgin Fleet and Urusei Yatsura Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer.

Shamanic Princess, 1996, dir's: Mitsuru Hongo, Hiroyuki Nishimura

Perhaps it's the conditioning of Disney movies, but I didn't expect great things from a series with princess right there in the title, let alone when said princess is called Tiara.  The cover didn't help; nor did the association with the all-female Manga artists' collective known as Clamp, whose work I'd at some point decided I'm not a fan of.  Maybe it's because I've come to hold them responsible - not unfairly, I don't think - for that whole 'giant eyes, pointy chin' look that everyone who doesn't know anything about anime thinks is just how anime characters look.  Really, I'm not sure why I picked up Shamanic Princess at all, with so much weighing against it.

Damn but I'm glad I did.  Shamanic Princess is a stunner, and just the kind of buried treasure I'm always in search of.  Who's even heard of the show these days?  Yet it gets so much right that its flaws are trivial to the point of being barely flaws at all.  Other than a somewhat languid pace, the only one of significant note is that it tells its tale in an odd fashion indeed.  For the first episode, in fact, this seems like rather a huge hurdle: characters are introduced, and some of them evidently have a history, though they're careful not to clue us in on what that history might involve, and we learn that Tiara - who's considerably more of an ill-tempered hard-ass than her name might lead us to suppose - is hunting something called the Throne of Yord, though she seems more interested in bickering with the talking ferret who serves as her familiar.

It never bothered me much that I had little idea what was going on, though I've seen other reviews that found the early obtuseness borderline intolerable.  Maybe it was just my writer brain noting how cleverly exposition was being doled out; by the end of the first episode I was comfortable that all would eventually become clear.  And in that I was both right and wrong: in an even stranger storytelling twist, the main plot wraps up after the fourth of six episodes, and the last two serve as a prologue that's really sort-of an epilogue.  Now, I've puzzled over whether it would have mattered if episodes five and six had followed chronological order and been episodes one and two, and whether there's any good reason they weren't.  My conclusions were that a) there would have been advantages and disadvantages either way and b) I don't much care.  Shake it however you like, it's a great story that Shamanic Princess tells, a deliciously weird dark fantasy set in a world that feels more complex than the slivers we see and is peopled by standout characters, not least Tiara herself, who's charmingly bitchy and headstrong and only grows more interesting the more we learn about her.

Add to that the fact that the show looks fantastic.  Had you told me it came out ten years after it did then I'd have believed you, and even by 2006 standards Shamanic Princess would represent more than solid work.  The animation is reliably fluid and unusually without flaws; the backgrounds, mostly bucolic countryside scenes and a lovingly rendered Mitteleuropean town, are lovely; the character designs, particularly Tiara herself, are among the best I've seen.  And the score, by Yoshikazu Suo, is downright splendid too, a constantly surprising mix of medieval instrumentation, J-pop and electronica that, again, feels a good decade ahead of its time.

Really, I can't think of a good reason not to recommend this one.  It's an unexpected treat, with some genuinely interesting ideas up its sleeve and superlative production values.  Sure, you might be a bit confused for the first hour and sure the plot never exactly rockets along, but all Shamanic Princess asks from you is a little patience, and it has a whole lot to offer in return.

Digital Devil, 1987, dir: Mizuho Nishikubo

Were I lazier than I am, I could more or less get away with inserting my review of Tokyo Revelation here and calling it a day.  I had to check a few times, in fact, to make certain I wasn't about to watch the same thing over again, especially since nothing about Tokyo Revelation really called for a re-watch.  Based on the blurb, the concepts were all but identical, and could there really be two different OVAs about a high-school kid summoning a demon with his computer?

Of course there could, this is the endlessly derivative world of budget pre-twentieth century anime we're talking about here!  But in fairness, there's actually a good reason for the similarities.  Both titles turn out to be part of the same franchise, which - if my two minutes of research haven't failed me - began as a series of novels before moving into video games and then films.  (The Persona series, brought to life in some so-far disappointing movies over the last couple of years, is apparently another outcropping.)

With all of that said, Digital Devil really isn't as good as Tokyo Revelation, which was only okay in the first place.  But, plot aside, the similarities remain: some more than solid animation and direction manages to elevate material that would otherwise be awfully silly and tacky.  This time our protagonist is one Akemi Nakajima, who reacts to being bullied and misused by manipulating his school's computer mainframe into summoning the demon Loki - which Kiseki Films subtitle, with a remarkable lack of cultural sensitivity, as Rocky, because that's about how the name sounds with a Japanese accent.  Come for the demon-summoning, stay for the casual racism!  Though since Loki looks like a generic (and purple) demon rather than a Norse trickster-god, I suppose it's not like the makers are exactly going out of their way to achieve cultural harmony either.  Anyway, Loki / Rocky goes on a rampage with pink gloop that comes out of his hands and makes people explode and there's a heroine, Yumiko, who's actually a reincarnated goddess or something and needs to be reincarnated yet again, but Akemi keeps having nightmares about her turning into an old woman-monster and attacking him and then they end up in a fantasy world somehow and they're only saved by Akemi's cyborg dog and holy crap but Digital Devil is all sorts of random.  Remember, all this is taking place across the span of forty-five minutes!

Then again, that randomness is definitely what saves Digital Devil from utter mediocrity: it's rather fun, really, trying to keep up and gasping at each new preposterous wonder it pulls out of its hat.  Oh, now the demon is robbing a bank via their computer screens?  But this scene will never be referred to again?  That's just fine, Digital Devil, I gave up trying to make sense of you a good ten minutes ago anyway.  Of course, one more slender saving grace is that you're only ever likely to come across the show because it was released on a disk with the supposedly much superior The Cockpit, which was why I bought it in the first place.  Viewed as a bonus for purchasing a much better film, I suppose you can't altogether complain.

Virgin Fleet, 1991, dir: Masahiro Hosoda

You probably don't need the cover blurb to tell you that Virgin Fleet is from one of the creators of the Sakura Wars franchise: the fact that it's set in early twentieth century Japan, with an almost entirely female cast of rather one-note characters who defend their homeland using a combination of innate magical ability and technical savvy is something of a giveaway.  Really, the only major differences are the swapping out of adorable steampunk mechs for seaplanes and the fact that the magic this time around is - um - virginity.

Yes, you read that right!  The plot revolves around virgin energy, which does largely what you'd expect it to - assuming your expectations involved women gaining nebulous superpowers through the virtues of not having any sex, anyway.  Yet, mad as the whole notion seems, you quickly realize that Sakura Wars was coming from a not dissimilar place - see the kerfuffle over the notion of Sakura's potential marriage that ends the second OVA - and then that Virgin Wars is just making explicit an obvious subtext in much female protagonist-led anime.  Here the subtext is text, and says "Women are a whole lot better off without men getting in the way" - or at least, without men who aren't willing to treat them as equals.  Given that the men in question are all pretty awful, it's a moral that's tough to pick holes in.

That the result doesn't play as overtly feminist is a bit weird in retrospect - perhaps it's simply that too much time gets devoted to the obnoxious male characters and their viewpoints - but nevertheless it's a level upon with Virgin Fleet functions quite well.  At any rate, the question of whether protagonist Shiokaze is willing to chuck in her burgeoning career as a defender of Japan to get hitched provides what narrative spine there is.  And it's desperately needed: with a nebulous back story and vague villains, and with a cast of too many characters for the slender ninety minute run-time, this feels very much like the setup for a series that never arrived.  (Though there was apparently a videogame sequel on the original PlayStation.)

Perhaps the attempt at franchise-building would have been more successful had the animation been a bit less rubbish; it's really rather cheap-looking and jerky, with only the likable character designs and to a lesser extent the cool planes going far to redeem it.  The result exists somewhere between a pleasant waste of time and merely tolerable, depending on where the wildly varying tone happens to land in any particular scene.  I really wanted to like Virgin Fleet - because, come on, virginity-fueled superpowers and seaplanes! - but a great deal of unnecessary shonkiness made the effort harder than it needed to be.  Also, at no point do the titular virgins have anything even approaching a fleet, and if there's one thing I'll draw the line at it's misleading titles.  For shame!

Urusei Yatsura Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer, 1984, Mamoru Oshii

You don't need to know much about the Urusei Yatsura franchise, the career of director Mamoru Oshii or indeed anime in general to notice the difference in ambition between the first and second Urusei Yatsura movies.  Only You was as unusually well directed and tolerably well animated franchise movie with just enough plot to feel like something more than an extended episode.  Beautiful Dreamer is...

Well, it's a proper Oshii movie, for a start.  Though it begins in what I take to be a fairly routine place for the franchise, with the characters preparing for a school festival by butting heads and preparing, of all things, a Nazi-themed bar, complete with tank, it soon because apparent that something's very wrong indeed.  (I mean, beyond the fact that someone thinks a Nazi-themed bar is a good idea for a school festival.)  What follows moves by turns through surrealism, mild horror, fantasy and the sort of goofy comedy you might expect, though with a definitive emphasis towards the first three.  There are scenes that are genuinely unsettling and images that will send a shiver down your spine; what there is especially, and for perhaps the first time, is the mastery of tone that would so come to define Oshii's work.  Music, sound and imagery combine in specific, unique ways to create a mood, of disassociation or unease or sometimes just of place.  And all of that, crucially, plays into the film's narrative and themes, which essentially boil down to two equally weighty questions: if you could live in an illusion that was in every way better than reality then would you, and why do people always feel the need to screw up nice things?

To say this is heavy stuff for - and I can't stress this enough! - a light-hearted comedy sci-fi anime from 1984 is a hopeless understatement.  I'd be pushed to think of any other TV adaptation that remained basically faithful to its core property while at the same time bending it to such radical ends.  And while we've had a fair number of these "is reality real" stories in the three and a bit decades since, they weren't half so common back when Beautiful Dreamer premiered; were anime a little between known in the West, it would be easy to find the wellspring of a great many concepts here.  There are scenes, for example, that would recur in near-identical form four years later in the marvelous Dark City, and the gap is just long enough to imagine a direct line of influence.

Add to that the fact that the animation is hugely ambitious - again, an incalculable leap from Only You, but really, up there with anything the eighties produced - and it's no surprise the film has earned itself an enduring reputation.  So it pains me to say that, while I liked it a great deal, I didn't quite love Beautiful Dreamer.  Even as I was fascinated and entertained, I was also a little exhausted; without going into detail, the movie resets its status quo at least three times, each time pushing off in a new direction, and that's a lot to take in on a first viewing.  My thoughts kept turning to Angel's Egg, which would be Oshii's next feature and which felt similarly bludgeoning in places.  One suspects that Oshii wasn't in a terribly happy place when he made these two films; though Beautiful Dreamer is legitimately funny in places, its essence is challenging and bleak.  It's in many ways an existentialist horror movie - again, like Angel's Egg - and that's something of a tough prospect.

Nevertheless, I look forward to watching it again.  I think maybe the love will come in time, and I can't stress how much you should try and see Beautiful Dreamer if you haven't already: it's a bold, beautiful work that uses a silly comedy franchise to get inside your head and kick around the furniture, and I can think of few more worthy accomplishments than that.


It feels good, at any rate, to be making a couple of genuine and unqualified recommendations: unless you actively hate animation, Shamanic Princess is worth a look, and if you have even the faintest interest in anime then you should be on the lookout for Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, which really is a remarkable highpoint for the medium, even if that's not quite the same thing as being a flawless masterpiece.

Next time: Flawless masterpieces!  Or the wretched horror that is no doubt M. D. Geist 2!  Or lots more Urusei Yatsura movies!

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22, Part 23, Part 25]

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Short Story News, May 2017

Not for the first time, I've been lax in keeping up with my short story news, and not for the first time that means I now have a couple of posts' worth that I'm going to have to cram into just the one.  And as usual, the reason was that I felt as though not a lot was happening until I suddenly realized that it had been and I'd just been distracted!

Anyway, let's go for the new stories first.  Casualty of Peace marks my third collaboration with award-winning editor Eric Guignard; Eric got in touch to let me know he was resuscitating the long-running Horror Library anthology series, and did I have anything that might be a good fit?  The story we settled on is something of a companion to the last one Eric bought from me, Prisoner of Peace, and came out of the World War One research that occupied so much of my first year of full-time writing.  The question I found myself asking was, what must it have been like for those wives and mothers on the home front in the latter years of the war, who'd seen so many men return mentally or physically damaged beyond all repair?  Did they hope that their menfolk would be somehow exempted?  Or did they begin to secretly dread their return?  The result, like Prisoner of Peace, is a ghost story of sorts, an extended metaphor and a puzzle with no real answer, except perhaps that war spares no-one.  You can find it in Horror Library volume six.

I feel like I've mentioned my golem sex story quite a few times here, but perhaps that's just because I like typing the phrase "golem sex story."  And perhaps I'm not doing Feet of Clay, Mind of Coal justice by focusing on one particular, brief scene in what's actually an (admittedly rather weird) love story with a background in the folklore research I drifted into for my MA dissertation.  At any rate, of everything here, the third in Pantheon Magazine's Gaia anthology series is the only book I've actually found time to read, and it was just as good as volume two, which I enjoyed a great deal.  You can grab a copy here.

My second sale to the impossibly long-running Space and Time was another older story.  I can't even remember exactly how long ago I wrote Children of Deadways, except that it came towards the end of a period when I produced a lot of work I'm particularly happy with.  I was experimenting with the possibilities of going all-in on world building, and this is maybe the culmination of that trend, an elaborately Gothic dark fantasy with a setting I could probably have squeezed a whole novel out of.  You can grab a copy of issue 128 from the Space and Time website, and it comes highly recommended; there are reasons this magazine has managed to stick around for half a century.

Lastly for the new stuff, my most recent sale turned out also to be the most recent thing to come out: Now That All the Heroes are Dead was picked up by Read Short Fiction not even a month ago and, as of the start of May, it's up to read on the site.  I wrote this one for an open anthology call asking for Lovecraftian heroic fantasy fiction and, between you and me and in my greatly biased opinion, I still think they were dumbasses not to take it!  I had great fun distilling all my favourite weird fiction into one twisted little tale, and there's even a bit of subtext in there, thanks again to all that World War One reading.  It's pretty short, too, so why not give it a read?

On the reprints side, the most exciting news is perhaps that the editors at Pseudopod got in touch to ask if they could anthologize my story Stockholm Syndrome as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations.  Obviously I said yes, but I also took the opportunity to polish up a story that, frankly, has long since stopped owing me any favours; between Pseudopod itself and the hugely successful The Living Dead anthology, this has to be the most widely read (and listened to) short story I've written.  You can find the improved new version in the For Mortal Things Unsung anthology - which, given that it was primarily an incentive for a Kickstarter campaign, isn't that widely available, but can be grabbed from Smashwords, among other places.

Meanwhile, it will surprise no-one that I've had a couple more stories out with Digital Fiction Publishing.  As well as appearing in their own adorable individual e-books, Passive Resistance can be found in the Operative Sequence science-fiction collection and Rindelstein's Monsters appears in the Digital Fantasy Fiction book Casual Conjurings - which, by slightly awkward coincidence, I also did some of the slush-reading for.  Fortunately Rindelstein's Monsters got picked up well before I started, so at least I can't be accused of being one of tham thar nepotists, and the plus side is that, even having not seen a copy yet, I can confirm that there's some cracking fiction inside.

Last up - since I can't talk yet about the highly exciting reprint sale I snagged a few weeks ago! - I have a couple more pieces in Great Jones Street, namely my two stories following master assassin Otranto Osario through the mean streets of Cold Harbour, Ill-Met at Midnight and A Killer of Dead Men.  If you're at interested in short fiction then you really need to be paying attention to Great Jones Street, their app is free to download and is absolutely stuffed with great work from some of the biggest names in the industry (and, er, me.)

Anyway, that'll do for the moment.  As I vaguely remember predicting, the sales have slowed down this year - in fact, until April they'd dried up altogether - so I don't actually have that much left to come out.  But what there is is pretty exciting, so hopefully I'll have enough material to justify another one of these posts before too long.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 23

I seem to have got into the unfortunate habit of reviewing mostly rubbish here again.  And I'd say that it's not deliberate, but I suspect that, in a way, it sort of is; not because I want to watch bad anime but because I'm worried that the good stuff on the shelf (some of which I paid more for than I sensibly should have to lay my hands on!) will turn out to not be quite as good as I'm hoping.  In fact, now that I really think, the uniting factor with everything here is that I managed to pick it up pretty damn cheap.

Clearly, this state of affairs can't go on - if only because I'm running out of shelf space.  But for the moment, I suppose we have to work with what we've got!  Which means that this time around we'll be looking at Black Magic M-66, Yurusei Yatsura Movie 1: Only YouProject A-Ko: Uncivil Wars and the deservedly infamous M.D. Geist...

Black Magic M-66, 1987, dir's: Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Masamune Shirow

Masamune Shirow would go on to become something of a legend, and adaptions of his works have already cropped up a couple of times here, in the shape of Appleseed and Dominion Tank PoliceGhost in the Shell has also had its fair share of mentions, like the one just above.  But Shirow would only turn his hand to directing - or rather, co-directing - the once, and that was with a loose adaptation of a single part of one of his lesser known works.

The result is an OVA of about 48 minutes, which tells the story of a couple of murderous androids that inadvertently get lost by a futuristic military and set about carrying out the test directive that's been mistakenly programmed into them: to kill their creator's teenage daughter.  Perhaps in acknowledgement that the movie he was most obviously ripping off benefited greatly from a strong female lead, Shirow offers us the same here, in the form of Sybel, the freelance reporter who just can't keep her nose out of the military's business, even when that means fleeing from killer robots.

It's hard to say how much difference Shirow's presence makes to anything - and of course he was only co-directing, though his involvement ran deeply elsewhere.  The direction is certainly beyond competent, in a manner that goes a long way towards elevating the material; the animation is far from great, with some shockingly low frame rates in places, but then every minute or two there'll be a shot of unusual ambition, like a fight scene in an elevator where the camera's constantly circling.  And it certainly seems likely that Shirow influenced the distinctive tone.  There's something rather adult about Black Magic M-66's approach that goes beyond the copious bloodshed and the fact that we meet our protagonist as she's stepping out of the shower.  In fact, that latter is a good illustration of the point; the nudity ends up working instead as a character beat, just as the violence is rather ghastly and never exciting for its own sake.  As much as the military are to some extent the villains of the piece, they're portrayed as professionals getting on with a lousy job, and we're encouraged to view them with a measure of respect that makes their deaths that bit more troubling.

Let's not overegg it, though, eh?  We're still looking at a less than fifty minute long movie made on a clearly restrictive budget that, once it gets its character introductions and setup out of the way, is basically one long action sequence.  And frankly, even in 1987, killer robot stories were hardly an innovative notion, which makes it all the more strange that Shirow's barely tries to differentiate itself; there are robots, they try to kill people, those people in turn attempt with varying degrees of success not to be killed and that's our lot.  That the first big chunk of action is pretty good and the culminating set piece battle leans towards the flat-out great certainly helps, and was enough to make sure that I enjoyed Black Magic M-66 while I was watching it.  It's certainly worth a look, let's put it that way - and good enough to make you wonder what Shirow might have accomplished had he continued to split his time between manga and anime.

Yurusei Yatsura Movie 1: Only You, 1983, dir: Mamoru Oshii

Another absolutely gigantic franchise, on a par with the likes of Ranma 1/2 and Ah! My Goddess, Yurusei Yatsura ran into 34 collected manga volumes and an extraordinary 195 anime episodes, not to mention OVAs and six whole movies.  Oh, and there was even a pretty good Scottish rock group that named themselves after the show (and were previously my only encounter with it.)  Since the films and OVA both theoretically fall outside the purview of these articles - Only You was released all the way back in 1983, midway through the show's run - I was ready to ignore them.  Then I discovered that the director of fully half the show's episodes and the first two films was none over that Mamoru "Ghost in the Shell" Oshii, and that his work on the second movie was considered something of an early masterpiece.

Only You is not that second movie, as I discovered only after I bought it* - and to call it a masterpiece, early or otherwise, would be an exaggeration.  Still, Oshii's fingerprints are easily spotted if you choose to look.  The whole business has an air of gravitas that seems ill-fitted to the material - Oshii, bless him, can't tell a joke to save his life - but the result is weirdly deadpan and somehow more amusing that it has a right to be.  In fact, by not treating its subject matter too lightly, Only You circumvents the shrillness that humorous anime from this period had a habit of slipping into.  And though there's no pretending that you're watching anything but an over-thirty-year-old animated movie made on a TV show budget, there's plenty to catch the eye: the colour scheme is surreal and lovely, there are no end of needlessly complicated shots, and the design work, particularly in the back half, is genuinely rich and special.

It helps that the story is basically good fun, and solid enough to stand up to Oshii's high-minded approach.  Yurusei Yatsura the series revolves around alien princess Lum who, for reasons too contrived to get into, has devoted herself to worthless philander Ataru Moroboshi; here it turns out that, as a child, Moroboshi also inadvertently pledged himself to marry another alien princess, a discovery that Lum is none too pleased with, especially when his reaction to the news is one of wholehearted enthusiasm.  There's nothing revolutionary there, to say the least, but Oshii's other significant achievement is to appreciate that he's making a film rather than a really long TV episode: there's less of the "and this happened then that happened" sense of, say, the Ranma 1/2 movies, and more of a clear three act structure, with proper development and even actual themes; in particular, things wrap up in surprisingly ingenious fashion.

All of which is to say that, as a way into one of anime's great mega-franchises, Yurusei Yatsura: Only You isn't a bad place to start; Fortunately, the peripheral characters are easily grasped, since they can be boiled down to those who are aliens and those who hate Moroboshi for being an undeserving lech, with considerable overlap between the two camps.  Possibly it's a stretch of auteur theory to suggest that Oshii's presence is what elevates the material from fine to genuinely good, but whatever; the fact is, the result is genuinely good, and genuinely well-made, and a thoroughly satisfying slice of comedy sci-fi anime.

Project A-Ko: Uncivil Wars, 1990, Katsuhiko Nishijima

The first thing you notice about Project-A-Ko: Uncivil Wars (or Project A-Ko Versus, to give it its inexplicably changed Japanese name) is that it appears to have not a damn thing to do with the original Project A-Ko or its previous sequels.  Now A-Ko and B-Ko are friends, of all things, and not only that but they're bounty hunters on an alien planet, and C-Ko is a kidnapped space princess, and really, how any of this relates to a show about three schoolgirls in modern day Japan is anyone's guess, though the cynical might suggest, "not a whole lot."

Now I actually found the notion of plucking out the heart of Project A-Ko and jamming it into a completely unrelated body quite an interesting one, but it's clear that it could go one of two ways: either the result will be an incisive examination of how much you can boil a franchise down to its essence and still keep that essence intact, or it's going to be a totally unrelated project where someone had the bright idea of doing a cut and paste on the script to produce a hasty sequel no-one was much asking for.  Guess which one we get in Project A-Ko: Uncivil Wars?

A trick question!  The answer is both, though certainly more of the latter than the former.  And in the first of two forty-five minute episodes, that balance is weighed furthest in the wrong direction: the only real points of reference are that C-Ko is a whiny, hyperactive brat, B-Ko is kind of bitchy and A-Ko is good at punching - though, devoid of her iconic sailor suit, she barely even looks like the character we know and feel some measure of affection for.  It helps not at all that the first part is dire, with no real plot to speak of, inert direction, questionable voice acting and lots of shrieking humour buoyed up with comically exaggerated animation that isn't very comical at all.  Where Project A-Ko had a broad enough joke at its core to be basically funny even when it wasn't doing a great deal, it's hard to say what this first episode is parodying, if anything.  Bad sci-fi anime, maybe?  By being bad sci-fi anime?

Fortunately, episode two is decidedly better in every way: even the animation improves noticeably, with at least the occasional really lovely shot.  It helps some that the story finally bothers to begin tying into the existing Project A-Ko universe, and helps a great deal more that events start being eventful and characters start being characterful.  Also, the whole thing briefly turns into a Moorcockian battle across realities, which is kind of great, and goes a long way to justify the sequel-that's-not-a-sequel approach.

But did my moderate enjoyment of episode two balance out my frequent boredom at episode one?  Not entirely, no, though I suppose it helped.  In the end, however, Project A-Ko: Uncivil Wars didn't do much except confirm my growing opinion that some things are better off left un-sequelled.

M.D. Geist, 1986, dir's:  Hayato Ikeda, Kôichi Ôhata

Among those with more than a cursory knowledge of pre-twenty-first century anime, M.D. Geist is legendary - though not for a single one of the right reasons.  It tops many people's worst-ever lists, and, perhaps more damningly, takes many more people's second worst slot; which is to say, it's not even considered interestingly terrible.  All of which makes giving an opinion on M.D. Geist here a more than usually futile task - especially when a practically definitive review exists, with plenty of juicy (and hilarious!) gossip about the forces that brought the fifty minute OVA to the West and helped establish its temporary popularity and abiding notoriety.

Still, fear of being pointless has never before checked my hand, and at least M.D. Geist is pretty easily found, particularly in the Director's Cut version that was funded by Western distributor CPM as an attempt to polish off some of the original version's rougher edges.  Which is a startling thing to be aware of as you're watching, because there are still more downright dysfunctional shots here than I've seen in any anime I can think of.  My favourite is probably a zoom where the animators have transparently just moved the camera lens towards a still image, but there are no end of other examples; whenever an object has cause to move across or into shot you can guarantee that something will go unpleasantly wrong.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  It's difficult to appreciate M.D. Geist's proper awfulness without having some idea of the plot - a fact that the special edition tacitly admits by refusing to translate the introductory text.  A little research tells us that it's the far-flung future, and the planet of Jerra has been torn by a war that we see a bit of in some new (and notably more competent) footage at the start, and which has pretty much burned itself out by the time the actual story begins.  This is at least in part due to the Most Dangerous Soldier program, which unwisely let a bunch of uncontrollable psychopaths loose and expected them to play nice.  One such was the titular Geist, who proved so unpopular with his paymasters that he was imprisoned in an orbital satellite, an idiotically un-foolproof plan that goes wrong when the satellite falls out of orbit and Geist somehow survives.

A summary of the story from there is especially futile, not because there's much to it - assume that Geist kills most everyone he sees in particularly bloody ways and you've grasped the essentials - but because it unfolds all but entirely at random.  There are at least three false starts; I'm tempted to go as far as five, if we count the additional director's cut footage.  There's almost no logical thread between the beginning, middle and end, though the creators sort of try and impose one with - well, I was going to say a love interest, but Geist transparently despises the female lead Vaiya, to a comical degree.  Ironically, Vaiya turns out to be the nearest thing we get to a protagonist, since Geist himself is basically a murderous plank.  But that's not really an argument in her favour, given how shrill and dim-witted and patently out of her depth she is.

Anyway, you've probably grasped that, with terrible animation shackled to a risible story, this isn't going to end with me being the lone voice in M.D. Geist's defence.  I'll say this, though, because I like to look for the good in things: there are some nice mecha designs, especially towards the end, and one in particular that's rather splendid.  The show wastes them utterly - the fights, which it seems to consider a big deal, are all but incomprehensible and hopelessly anticlimactic - but at least they're proof that someone had at least some idea of what they were doing.  And I'll go further to admit that I didn't actually hate M.D. Geist.  Its only really objectionable content is some lurid gore, but it's hard to be too shocked by a badly animated exploding head, even when the animators are obviously trying to be shocking.  And that's M.D. Geist all over, really: it's like an ugly, stupid, incontinent, over-excited puppy that you know you should probably kick out a window but can't because it just refuses to grasp how unlovable it is.  Or, put it this way: if you're going to watch one legendarily bad vintage anime, this is probably the least obnoxious one to go for.


I'll say this much: twenty-three posts in and with both Legend of the Overfiend and M.D. Geist behind me, I feel like the only way on from here is upward!**  Not that this round was a total washout - Black Magic was a small pleasure, and the Urusei Yatsura movie I actually liked quite a lot - but still, I've promised myself to stop ignoring the good stuff on the shelf for a while.  And thanks to some judicious abuse of E-bay, there's actually a fair bit of (hopefully!) good stuff there to be watched.  Fingers crossed, then, for entry number twenty-four, and the unearthing of some of those buried treasures I used to be so hopeful for back in the halcyon days of a few months ago.

[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21, Part 22, Part 24Part 25]

* That would be Beautiful Dreamer.
** Of course, this would be even truer if there wasn't an M.D. Geist 2, and on the same damn disk no less.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

We Want Your Dragons

Wait, you wanted dragon STORIES?
We're about halfway through the submissions period for Hic Sunt Dracones, the Digital Fiction Publishing dragon-themed anthology that I'm slush-reading for, and we've had a more than solid response so far, one that's included some pretty terrific stories.  But we don't have near the material for a full book yet, so I thought now might be a good time to spread the word a little.

Hic Sunt Dracones is reprint-only, with payment being one cent a word and enrollment into the Digital Fiction Publishing League, which would take way too much explaining here but basically means that there's a realistic chance you might see some royalties at some point; you can find the full details and the submissions form here.

And here's what editor Michael Wills has to say about what he's after:
Dragons - bad-ass dragons. Dragons that destroy things and eat people, and the people/robots/aliens/time lords that fight them or out-smart them - or get eaten by them. No story book dragons that live in forests helping orphans or peddling psychedelics. My dragons eat orphans for breakfast. Timeline and setting is wide open. Your dragons aren't necessarily getting stabbed by swords - but swords are welcome too. I want dragons - awe inspiring fear provoking monsters. They can be mechanical, mystical, steam-powered, alien, aquatic, from another dimension, or from outer space - but they must be terrifying beasts of destruction. Here be dragons.
For my part, I'd add that I could live with a dragon that wasn't wholly bad-ass, so long as it was contained in a story that was really splendid.  I mean, I think that in a pinch we might be flexible on that one; so don't let the fact that your dragon is only quite terrifying or destructive be too much of a decider.  For me, what we haven't seen enough of yet are those other kinds of dragon: the mechanical, mystical, steam-powered, alien, aquatic, from another dimension, or from outer space ones.  Lots of trad fantasy, absolutely; lots of comic fantasy, too, though not all of it terribly comic.  But I'm itching for some really good dragon sci-fi, or dragon horror for that matter.  It feels to me that there's more scope here than we've yet seen.  (And it's worth noting that those stories that have bucked the trends have frequently been among the best; or maybe that's just my tastes talking.)

Anyway.  The point is, we want your dragon stories.  And despite what I've said, they can be traditional as all get-out so long as they're good; believe me, I've put forward stories as old-school as anything, where they were genuinely excellent.  So give us your fantasy dragons.  Give us your science-fiction dragons.  Give us your tired dragons, your poor dragons, your huddled masses of dragons yearning to breathe fire freely.  Based on what we've seen already, this promises to be one hell of an anthology; wouldn't you like to be part of it?

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Black Rivers, White Thornes, and Other Novel News

I sure do seem to have a lot of works-in-progress!  But, at least until we get towards the back end of the year, 2017 is very much about just two of the however-many books I have at one stage or another, and about getting that pair finished and out the door.

First up, and the obvious one, there's the sequel to last year's The Black River Chronicles: Level One.  And the good news is, the first draft was basically a delight: I doubt there's ever going to come a point where writing a novel in under two months is less than a challenge, but this was as close as I expect to get, and a pleasure to boot.  There were so, so many things I wanted to accomplish with this book, and so many ideas that Mike and I kicked about, and I'm stunned to find that I feel like all of them are at least within reach: maybe not entirely there on the page just yet, but definitely waiting to be uncovered.

Sequels, I'm finding, are easier than beginnings, but that's not to say they're easy.  In this case, I had a whole laundry list of ways in which I wanted to move the groundwork of Level One forward: fresh arcs for Durren, Arein, Tia and Hule, and challenges that would really push them beyond their comfort zones; a new setting, complete with new characters; a greater sense of the Black River Chronicles world; more depth as to how magic works; and, of course, a ton of D&D jokes, because I can't imagine a day when D&D jokes aren't the lifeblood of this series.  The result is, I hope, a book that will follow on in exciting ways for anyone who's read the first but works just fine on its own - which, again, isn't exactly all that easy to pull off.  Anyway, there are a couple of drafts to go yet, and who knows what will change in the process?  Still, there's a great deal to be said for a successful first draft, given how, with the smallest of mistakes, they can go so horribly wrong; getting things more or less right on the first try always feels to me a little like avoiding a twenty car pile-up by the skin of my teeth.

White Thorne, my (in retrospect, stupidly overambitious) medieval, magical realist crime thriller, has been an altogether different prospect - but the news, somehow, is still rosy.  The first draft was soul-crushing and heartbreaking, as I tried to juggle too many balls and had to watch helplessly as half of them went flying about the room, smashing valuable ornaments and causing a few nasty concussions.  But, you know, one of the brilliant things about writing under your own steam is that you can keep at your work until you get it right.  In this case, that meant a long break, advice from some wise and trusted friends and then digging away over a six month period: really, digging is the absolutely best word.  That first draft felt like I'd managed to bury the intriguing plot and distinctive characters and months of historical research in my head beneath an inordinate amount of crud.  And the second became an exercise in aggressive archaeology, sometimes with a trowel but frequently with an excavator; by the end, I'd cut an entire novella's worth of wordage.

Over the summer I'll be returning for a third and (I hope) final draft, in which I'll mostly be trying to restore the polish to a book that's no doubt pretty raw and beaten-up from the brutality of our last go around.  And then, I guess, I'll have to starting thinking about trying to sell the thing.  Which, fortunately, isn't a worry with The Black River Chronicles: Mysterious Secret Title That I Can't Announce Yet But That Definitely Isn't Level Two, which I guess is yet another advantage of sequels.  You can expect that one before the end of the year - by which time I'm hopeful that all the stuff that's good right now will be really, really good.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Writing Ramble: Making the Most of a Second Draft

Since I happen (for reasons best not discussed!) to have an unused article lying about, and since it's a while since I posted anything on the actual business of writing, I figured I might as well share this here.  It's on a subject I hopefully know a bit about: after a dozen or so novels and novellas and a hundred and some short stories, I've seen my share of second drafts - and picked up a thing or two about what you can and can't expect to achieve with them.


For most writers, the first draft is the most fun: that's where the ideas come out, where the characters are born, where the wild sentences are spun.  The first draft is the raw joy of creation; everything after that can feel like nitpicking.  But, as you dig deeper into the craft, you may find that - for all the giddy thrills of a first draft - it's the second that turns work you're excited but a little embarrassed by into fiction you're eager to show off.  For every writer that gets a story mostly right on the first attempt, there are a hundred who need to come back after time away before they can really draw out its virtues.

So here are a few areas where you might find your perspective is that bit clearer the second time around...

One of the advantages of writing in a language as gloriously messy as English is that you're never confined to saying something only one way; the flip side is that it's easy to get away with conveying an approximation of what you mean.  More than ever here, you need your reader head on over your writer one, and this is something most people will find difficult without the emotional distance a redraft provides: you've the chance to back off and question whether what you said is what you meant.  That character, that scene, do they come across just as you imagined?  Does that dialogue convey the information you need it to?  Are those descriptive passages full of insightful details or are they flabby and rambling?  If the words you chose are being vague or flavourless then here's the chance to replace them.
Conversely, you're not always obliged to spell out every small detail; in fiction, less is often more.  And another question better suited to a second draft than a first is whether you've said too much.  Again, bring out that reader head, and ask yourself, have points that only needed to be made once been made half a dozen times?  Do you feel patronized?  Are there aspects of your characters you wanted to imply without necessarily stating outright?  It's often a good idea to be verbose in a first draft, when you're trying to ensure that no vital information gets missed; that doesn't mean you can't roll back some of that exposition now that you have the chance.
In a first draft, it's all too easy to devote the same attention to every detail, to establish single scene characters with the same loving attention you've devoted to your protagonists or to detail every inch of a room your characters see for all of ten seconds.  The second time around, it's easier to ask: is the level of detail proportionate to the significance of the material?  And is it enriching your story or sucking away momentum?  Ultimately, the question here is whether individual elements - be they words, sentences or whole paragraphs - are adding to rather than subtracting from the story.  Viewed that way, decisions that seem merciless on a first glance can look awfully necessary on a second.
The pace of an action scene shouldn't be the pace of a leisurely conversation between two old friends, which in turn shouldn't be the pace of a description of a country garden.  While rhythm is tough to impose in a first draft, it's easy to identify in a second.  You may find, too, that you spot it (or its lack) more readily by reading from a printout than a screen, or in a reduced font, so that it's easier to judge how those blocks of text are fitting together.  But, ultimately, the question you're asking is the same however you approach it: do all my sentences and paragraphs look the same, or are they adapting to the story they're telling?
There are almost always synonyms for any given word of phrase, but when you're in first draft mode, your natural inclination may be to use the same handful of words time and again.  This is hard to avoid, and isn't even easy to spot on a second draft.  One trick is to use your word processor's find function: if in doubt, run a search, and if the word you suspect you might be overusing crops up twice on ever page then you are, indeed, overusing it.  And if that sounds like pointless effort then the way to look at this is that, rather than obeying an arbitrary rule, you're exploiting an opportunity to squeeze in more richness and detail: every time you reintroduce a character or an object and every time you return to an idea, you have a chance to reveal some fresh aspect, and that means taking advantage of fresh words.
However to the point you try and be in your first draft, cutting out the waste is infinitely easier in the second: for that matter, few things will teach you as much about the craft as trying to cut ten or twenty or fifty percent of your word count without infringing on the sense.  Which, really, is the crucial point, and why brevity is better sought in a second draft: you can cut a great many things, but the one that has to survive is meaning.  If you can't strip out another word without turning a sentence into nonsense then you've definitely trimmed enough; if you could rewrite a sentence with half the words and it will say precisely the same thing then you're not even close.
Nevertheless, there are definitely times when your language needs to be lovelier than others.  In a first draft, you often have to be workmanlike just to reach the end; in a second, it can be clearer where letting in a little poetry will serve some actual purpose.  This is one of the trickiest things to spot yourself, and one of the main reasons why giving yourself a good long gap between drafts is crucial.  The time to come back is however long it takes for you to stop being in love with the language itself and to consider what function it's serving: sure, that description of a sunset is lovely, but does it belong in the middle of a helicopter chase?  And, to return to the point, if you can go a couple of pages without any sense of physical space or of what characters look like, or if scenes that should have emotional heft feel flat and lifeless, then those are the points when you can let yourself loose with the pretty words.

One last thought: it's entirely okay to work through as many drafts as you need to, at whatever speed feels right.  That said, a draft will go better if you have a sense of what you're trying to achieve; you may find, for example, that hunting for typos is a job you need to separate out from spotting continuity errors.  And you may also find that it helps to have a checklist like the above to remind you precisely what you're looking for, or even to treat each point in its own mini-draft.  Perhaps the hardest lesson here is that there's no one-size-fits-all solution to editing. and getting it right requires at least a little understanding of the particular ways in which your unique brain works.