Listen. I'm not going to apologise for starting my reading year with Dungeons and Dragons, Art and Arcana even if you come round my place with a tooled-up crew of rabid heavies. I am who I am, and now Stranger Things has legitimised me. At least until season three when they all get into girls and the gang splits up and only that sad wizard-kid is left DM-ing in a basement on his own but you know what I mean.
It's been the usual mix of MG, YA, thrillers and fantasy this year, with the emphasis heavily on the thriller since I'm 75,000 words into one of my own. Here's hoping there's 2020 news on that but it's way too soon to say.
Later on in the year it looks like this:
In the MG space I loved Malamander, and in the land of Gatsby-esque YA, Lockhart's We Were Liars is of course a masterpiece and I was a fool not to notice when I read the first half three years ago, before I subsequently forgot to renew it, paying a hefty fine and moving on to other things. I'm a top-draw dunderhead and I don't deserve your patronage.
You might have seen a previous post called Six Thrillers; they accounted for a sunny month towards the end of the summer. Two I loved but you have to guess which. Others: Jane Harper’s The Lost Man was an intense and stifling whodunnit set under the relentless Antipodean sun. Dark Pines and An English Murder were chilly European equivalents. Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party is shipping bucketloads from bookstore table-tops and for good reason: better, for me, than Moriarty’s Big Little Lies because despite a similar cast of vile and self-obsessed characters, Foley’s structure foregrounds the murder and we time-hop as well as head-hop. The two-day running time condenses action and ratchets tension very nicely.
Aany-way. Book of the year for me:
It's a raw, visceral and scary fictionalised account of the Donner party's disastrous attempted crossing of the Sierra Nevada in 1846. Spoilers: things turn bad and people get bit. Turn back or you will all die is plastered across the cover.
Hopefully that's not a comment on our foolish country's current trajectory, eh.
Back in a previous life I was asked to help design a school's reward system. How might we celebrate and champion students' efforts and endeavours? There was a lot of BS talked in the room that day; nonsense about trading 'behaviour points' for prizes. Or handing out school 'dollars' that could be used to buy cinema trips or get free pizza; trips to theme parks for kids with good reports, all that blah.
Thankfully I was deputising to a headteacher with her head screwed on. At one point, she suggested leadership roles. The ones who'd put in a shift, she explained, get to coach others, run school events, lead sports teams or clubs. "I dunno..." shrugged one member of staff. "Sounds like it could be hard work for them." The headteacher thought for a moment. "Well," she said. "Perhaps the reward for hard work should be more hard work."
I remembered her words listening to a superb speech given by poet and playwright Jack Nicholls at a recent award ceremony for young writers. Jack's on the left in the picture above, the dude with the remarkable pants; the other judges pictured are Paul Morris - another impressive and accomplished speaker and writer - in the centre, and me. (Shout-out to the wonderful Jake Hope and Danielle Jawando who judged, but couldn't be there at the event.) I won't attempt to reproduce Jack's words from memory here. You could ask him yourself on Twitter. The gist was this:
Congratulations, he began, addressing the shortlisted writers. It's official, you're all writers! We've loved reading your work! Now take a moment. It will never get any better than this. (There was an uneasy pause here, some nervous laughter. Jack grinned and resumed.) This is a career in which virtually no-one will ever tell you if you're doing it right.
So true. There are a vanishingly small number of reward systems for writers. Sure, there are regional and national prizes but the shortlists tend to have six books on them. Your book is one of several hundred published in any year. You ain't going to get on many shortlists. No-one's going to stop by to praise a WIP chapter or clap you on the back for drafting a superb poem. Most days you'll sit in a caff somewhere, like I am now, and just hammer the words out.
No-one will notice.
No-one will visit your site or thumbs-up your vlog.
No-one will say well done or offer up a high five.
No-one will provide a detailed report of recent sales or collate a list of glowing remarks.
That particular headteacher had it right, and the lesson is clear.
In this game, the reward for hard work is more hard work. It's up to us to Just. Keep. Going.
True story. Witnessed in a recently read spooky novella: our narrator, assailed by sinister events, tells us:
“My heart skipped a beat.”
Of course the writer has chosen a narrator who is no accomplished wordsmith so that might go some way to explaining the rather wooden description on offer. Look, there’s nothing wrong with narrators resorting to cliché if that’s what they’d do irl. (Or indeed repetition; one chapter later, his heart skips a beat again. The precise sentence is repeated.) But on the other hand, we do need to be immersed and invested emotionally in the protag’s terror… and when, in a chapter towards the end of the book, we get,
“A shiver ran down my spine…”
…we're running the risk that cliché denies the real power of fear, tames and civilises it – wraps it in something comfortingly familiar.
The power of fear is that it’s something animalistic and instinctive inside us, buried way down in the DNA; something tribal, a pre-civilised fight/flight dynamic. Visualise the last time you had that genuine lurch of terror you get when something threatens you and ask, where exactly does fear breed? It’s not the spine, for my money. Neither is it, in my experience anyway, the back of the neck – and it won’t surprise you to learn that the hairs do indeed rise on the back of our narrator’s neck at one point.
Check out 32 Ways to Write About Fear for a good physiological starting point. And consider ‘Killing the Word Was’ from Storycraft, where Jon Mayhew and I discuss ways young writers might replace “I was scared…” with something more visceral and emotive.
It's not a simple case of adjusting the adjective - it's about adjusting the whole approach.
Nate Crowley's fabulous 100 Best Video Games that Never Existed sets a high bar for post-truth non-fiction. I wept with laughter at a number of the entries, including write-ups for;
Behind the Bins at Burnely Co-Op Warriors ("a refreshingly gritty take on an otherwise fantastical genre"),
Quadbike Sorcerer ("it's about a wizard who rides a magical quadbike. What more do you need to know?") and
Scouse Dracula ("Dracula - but he's from Liverpool.")
...but the one that caught my eye during a recent read-through was Moulin Luge, a "gem of a sports game" that tells the story of a troupe of Parisian cabaret performers who set their sights on the Winter Olympics. The inciting incident of the whole sorry escapade is when "ageing courtesan Delphine sees a vision of a toboggan at the bottom of an absinthe bottle..." and realises she has "one hell of a pun on her hands."
I love a good pun. Here's how much. Once, I seriously considered re-writing Payback, a book that takes place over the course of a summer holiday, so I could shift the action to October and November and call it Grand Theft Autumn.
I'm glad I didn't. In the end, the pun is surely too puny (ha ha) a joke to carry the weight of an entire novel on its shoulders. When I see books with pun-tastic titles, I tend to steer well clear. For example, I have absolutely no intention of ever reading First Among Sequels, Bratfest at Tiffany's, Crime Brulee, The Toyminator or Night of the Living Dad.
*conflicted grinding of teeth*
OK! I admit, I love Bratfest at Tiffany's. Order it up!
With Payback I thought about what Robin Hood might look like as a story if I tried updating it and setting it today. A number of exciting ideas emerged: Robin Hood might be a gang of teenagers not one person. They might fight evil corporations and corrupt companies instead of a greedy royal family. They might be urban rather than rural … and so on.
Here's an eqivalent to workshop with students or young writers. What if we tried to retell the story of Cinderella? First, we’d need to get to the heart of the story. Maybe we'd start by considering the following:
Now consider this: which bits could we change to make it more interesting or relevant? Here are seven things we might experiment with:
Not all remakes, however, are a good idea.
Imagine if children were in charge of society and adults were banished. That’s an inversion that The 100 has a pretty good go at exploring. Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses is an inversion, Amazon Prime's The Boys is too. And Neflix's The Highwaymen also inverts expectation. Instead of telling the gangsters-on-the-run story of Bonnie and Clyde, it focuses on Hamer and Gault, the two aging Texas Rangers who were hired to track down and kill the bandits. I came to it through Thomas Newman's haunting score, but stayed for the terrific performances.
Inversions are a great place to start if you're running a workshop or a story-plotting session. Invert a heist story, and tell the tale of a thief who, overwhelmed by guilt, attempts to secretly return every item they've ever stolen.
Or consider this list:
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Deathtrap Dungeon. Forest of Doom and City of Thieves were joined this summer by Assassins of Allansia, which I snapped up immediately.
I loved FF Gamebooks as a kid, but interactivity comes with a unique set of narrative challenges. Jason Vandenburghe was one of a team of programmers working on a game conversion of Chris Carter’s seminal TV show The X Files. The game clocked up a million in sales but was a flawed piece of work, and Vandenburghe’s assessment of its failings is interesting.
It was composed, essentially, of a series of pre-shot film clips featuring David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and the rest of the cast: no expense spared. It worked like this; the player made choices and the game reassembled these filmed clips to tell the story. You essentially got to build your own episode of The X Files depending upon your responses to key events and your code-breaking and deductive skills.
Here’s the interesting thing. “Working on The X Files” says Vandenburghe, “proved to me that interactivity and drama directly oppose each other. That was a devastating realisation. Drama is all about being a helpless witness to events. The moment you give the viewer agency, the emotional spectrum shifts from tension to curiosity.”
And so it did with those Fighting Fantasy gamebooks all those years ago. Tension became curiosity.
I loved playing through Assassins of Allansia this week, but, since curiosity trumps tension in interactive fiction, I did so with all the thumb-in-the-previous-page muscle-memory of a habitual cheat.
Here's six thrillers I read this summer. Two I didn't care for, two I liked a lot and two I loved. A little more detail:
One I couldn't finish. I really wanted to and I really tried. I'm missing something, I know - the critical concensus has been super-positive.
One I flogged myself to the end. It was a relief to get there and finally set it aside, but everyone else I know who's read it has loved it.
Two were really solid genre pieces that I enjoyed tremendously.
One felt exceptional, rising above the others for its wonderful narrative voice.
One felt exceptional, largely for its creeped-out setting and damaged protag.
OK folks, over to you. Guess which is which.
It all started with The Shallows.
Me and my brother love a good shark movie and this one was epic. Afterwards, we were talking about that brutal, no-nonsense ninety-minute run-time being a significant strength; a constraint that fuels creativity rather than dissipates it.
The 99-Minute Movie Club was born. It's an aesthetic principle that makes a lot of sense. Take this experiment, conducted with American school children for a creativity competition called ‘Odyssey of the Mind’. One activity gives students the plain image of a clock face with a red second hand. The instruction is: Replace the second hand with something unique. The aim is to make the clock more interesting and unusual.
Here’s the interesting part. Not all responses were generated under the same conditions.
Twig, toothpick, spoon, oar, needle
Witch’s finger, dinosaur’s tail
Stick insect, giraffe, Angelina Jolie’s right leg
As you can see, the responses generated with constraints are - I think - significantly better those generated in complete freedom.
Constraint fuels creativity. For further proof, see Shallows, The.
That's right. It's hurrying near.
Watching celebrations of carefree youth - or nostalgia-porn if you want to put it that way - reminds us just how much time we wasted as kids. I burned hours on my bed reading stats for monsters I'd ultimately never meet; hours scouring D+D modules cover-to-cover and imagining playing them through, (here's one I was particularly obsessed with...) and hours building mods that we never got chance to play, not to mention hours carefully studying tiny lyric sheets tucked into cassette tapes.
Fast forward. Last time I checked, I'm thirty podcasts behind, three audiobooks, and a combined seven seasons of various shows off the pace. That's without mentioning a TBR the size of Dumfries and Galloway.
So back to yesterday's topic; why am I reading about gaming rather than gaming? Well, this is one reason right here. I haven't got forty hours to hack through God of War, Uncharted, or - despite it being my all-time fave fantasy world - Elder Scrolls. But I can spare thirty minutes to read some neat video-game crit.
Know what? I need shorter games.
Shorter movies too - more about which, tomorrow. "And tomorrow and tomorrow..." *sigh*