Important: New web address for STP Editing

Moving to

Moving to “STPediting.wordpress.com”

Hello everybody!

I will now be posting on a new website that, in most respects, is identical to this one. All that’s changed is the web address (URL).

https://mrbrookesabroad.wordpress.com has now moved to http://STPediting.wordpress.com.

You’ll find all the old posts and information there on the new website. The reason for the change is to focus more on the professional/writing side of  things instead of the personal, which was what Mr Brookes Abroad was intended to be.

Please do visit the new site and be sure to click the Follow button to make sure you’re subscribed. All new posts will be on the new site, STP Editing, from now on.

All contact details remain the same and this won’t affect any ongoing projects.

I look forward to seeing you all on the new site!

—David Brookes

What literary agents want

Need-a-literay-agent

I could write a dozen posts on this topic, since what literary agencies want is such a mystery to most of us. No matter how clear agencies think they’re being (articles in “The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook” are about as helpful as we’re going to get), they still manage to be vague individually, and contradictory as a group.

I like to think that the collective noun for agents is a “barricade”.

Whilst searching for representation for my second novel “Cycles of Udaipur” (third, if you could “The Gun of Our Maker“), I came across an agency’s website that was actually helpful. Imagine my surprise!

Luigi Bonomi, the chief agent at his eponymously named Luigi Bonomi Associates Ltd, wrote the following very helpful piece on what agents are currently looking for. It’s snuck away on his profile page, which appears to have been updated sometime this year. Here is the relevant section, which I hope is useful for writers seeking representation.

It also illustrates the lamentable state of affairs that is the current publishing industry, but I may come to that in another post.

Increasingly publishers tell me that what they are after is a book that has a hook that makes it very easily pitched – not just internally to their colleagues but also to the wider public. So recent successes like Gone Girl, Girl on a Train and The Miniaturist are all very easily pitched. The phrase ‘a story about a husband and wife and their dysfunctional marriage’  is not a great pitch. ‘A story about a wife who sets out to entrap her husband so he is accused of her murder’ is much stronger. A clear strong, high-concept storyline that can intrigue people in one sentence is what everyone seems to want. This invariably means stories with strong plots, lots of secrets, many twists, and a fast pace. There is a huge appetite for crime and thrillers, for novels with unreliable narrators (despite the recent glut of these), for big sweeping family dramas, for novels with secrets.  There is also huge appetite, I think, for cross-genre novels – ‘crime meets paranormal’ being something that has been mentioned, but also other forms of cross-genre novels – as long as it is something that looks genuine, comes from the author’s own passion and is not forced.

So a strong pitch, a clever concept, a terrific plot with well-realised characters. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But I know it isn’t – it’s incredibly hard to get right. Yet I believe there are very many talented writers out there – all of whom just need a break.

It’s nice to see that Mister Bonomi actually seems so kind, as if he really does care about all the authors who are mercilessly (yet necessarily) turned away with little more than a rejection slip. It would be fantastic if sympathetic and thoughtful literary agents set up a regular blog so that folks like us could get some genuine, up-to-date insights. We might then see past the barricade and have some long-overdue good fortune!

—db

What is dystopian fiction?

New-York-Ruins_Extraordinary-End-of-The-World-Inspired-Artworks

I get rather frustrated by how many times I see people misusing the word ‘dystopian’ (sometimes wrongly called ‘dystopic’). I thought it might be worthwhile putting down a definition for those who are interested in learning more.

Let’s start with the basics. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a ‘dystopia’ as:

An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible.

There seems to be a general misunderstanding about the word, as though it relates to a world where things are merely bad, or even just different, or set in the future. Readers and writers should ask themselves what kind of book they’ve read recently in which something wasn’t bad. The nature of fiction and drama is rooted in conflict. Therefore the protagonist will always find themselves in a ‘bad’ situation. That’s what fiction is about.

A dystopia is an extreme example of this. Think of “The Hunger Games”. This series for young adults is set in a future where the world is a wreck, where society has largely collapsed, where the majority of people live in oppressed poverty and a few live in perfect luxury. This is a dystopa. Things are really bad, all the time. It may be set in the future, or in an alternate version of today, or in another world altogether. A classic example is “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, where people are oppressed by a totalitarian regime and in some cases don’t even know it, or have forgotten. (When the book was written in 1949, the year 1984 was the future). People are always watched, and their very thoughts are monitored. Dissenters are harshly punished. Similar novels are “Fahrenheit 451” (or you may have seen the great film “Equilibrium”), or Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta”.

Contrast with, say, a novel about war. War is very bad, but the world is not a dystopian world. It’s just an unhappy place with some hellish things going on. But imagine a world where war covers everything, where there are no safe places to hide, where there are no governments or civilizations left. That’s a dystopia, like the future world of the “Terminator” film series.

For a deeper understanding, we can look at the source of the word. It comes from the ancient Greek words for “bad place”. It is the opposite of a utopia, which actually means “not place” – because it refers to a perfect, ideal world that doesn’t exist. It may have been confused with a similar-sounding Greek word for “good” – eutopia, not utopia. There aren’t many books that are about true utopias because – as I pointed out above – fiction requires drama and conflict to be interesting and worthwhile. A perfect world would probably be pretty boring! And so often a dystopian world comes from a supposed utopian society, where certain people consider the world to be perfect, but actually underneath things are terrible. The world of “Nineteen Eight-Four” is actually a broken utopia, which in many ways is the same as a dystopia.

Dystopian societies are often ones that encourage people not to feel, or to speak out of turn. In the real world we recognise this as being silly – feeling is a part of being human – but philosophers around the world acknowledge that much of the bad things in our world happen because of emotional reasons. A science fiction writer might want to describe a ‘perfect’ world in which emotions or wrong words don’t cause offense, unrest or wars. Many dystopian novels address the issue of identity, and what it means for that to be suppressed. Invariably though, the characters in those books rebel. They want the freedom to be human. These worlds are often therefore bubbling underneath with violence waiting to happen.

Here are some great examples of dystopian fiction:

  • The Iron Heel, Jack London
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • Judge Dredd, the comic 2000AD
  • V for Vendetta, Alan Moore
  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K Dick
  • We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  • The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
  • Divergent, Veronica Roth
  • The Drowned World, J G Ballard

In film, you could watch:

  • Robocop
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Blade Runner (based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”)
  • Divergent
  • The Hunger Games
  • I Am Legend
  • The Matrix
  • WALL-E
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Terminator Salvation
  • Equilibrium
  • V for Vendetta

Dystopian fiction is a great way to not only tell a great story, but also to highlight the things that are wrong with our world today. It might be how we rely too much on technology, or how corporations are running the world, or about how we are destroying the planet. Many dystopian fiction books feature ecological disasters that have made the Earth almost unlivable, making life hell for everybody. Sometimes this is a freak of nature, but often it’s a man-made problem. The books are holding a mirror up to our world to remind us what we’re doing wrong, and make us try to change things before it’s too late.

Feel free to comment with other examples of dystopian fiction, or to ask questions!

—db

How to fail at writing a novel (pt.2)

writers-blockA few weeks ago I asked struggling writers to get to grips with their genre before attempting to tackle the arduous, intimidating task of writing a novel. You can read part 1 of my ‘how to fail at writing a novel’ series here.

This month there’s a lot of ‘news’ in the literary world about E.L.James’ forthcoming bestseller, “Grey”, the companion to her “Fifty Shades” series. This time she’s telling the story from her male protagonist’s perspective.

I considered pre-ordering the book, for about a whole minute. I would love to see James flourish into a competent author, in much the same way as I saw J.K.Rowling’s writing mature and improve. Then I remembered how utterly, irrevocably shit “Fifty Shades of Grey” was, and I couldn’t bear the thought of slogging through another 500 pages of ill-written tripe. I would dearly have loved to read “Grey” so that I could express, from a first-hand perspective, how awful it is, just as I did with “Fifty Shades” (Yes, I’ve read it, and no, it’s not worth the minimal energy expenditure it takes to open the cover, let alone read to the ‘end’).

Instead I realised that it was an opportunity to talk about a key issue in literature, and something that should be everyone’s foremost concern at every stage of writing their masterpiece.

2. Originality

“Fifty Shades” and its pointless sequels are a perfect example of doing a novel wrong. Of course, E.L.James is now a millionaire, despite single-handedly destroying feminism, diluting the self-publishing pool with the trash she inspires, and being yet another person who is famous for being talentless. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. These three issues worry me greatly, particularly the first two.

I have no intention of retreading old ground by talking about the appalling pacing, terrible writing and laughable dialogue, or inept characterisation. Not to mention how painfully un-erotic the whole venture is. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent case study for the originality issues that surround this incredibly lucrative piece of radioactive cowshit.

E L James, Grey, 50 Shades, Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian Grey, Anastasia Steele

“Grey”, E.L. James – “Fifty Shades of Grey” as told by Christian

There are two angles to this multi-pronged assault, both related to originality. The first is the matter of knock-offs in the self-publishing industry.

Working in editing and ghostwriting, I see fiction from a lot of would-be authors who would like their work appraised. Some are disappointed – occasionally offended – when I point out that they have failed to meet the number one criterion for worthwhile fiction: originality.

“It’s a bit like Fifty Shades,” they’ll tell me, “but different.”

When I challenge the author to tell me how it’s different, I get little by way of a response. The reason is that if you write an erotic book about a domineering, super-rich handsome guy seducing a naive and sexually-inexperienced girl presented in the first person, then you’ve just written “Fifty Shades”. Congratulations are due for the many who actually wrote a book far better than the one that inspired it. Condemnation is also due, however. When I ask the author why they bothered to write the story, the answer is invariably one of two: “Because I wanted to” or “Because it will sell.”

If you work for the latter reason, good for you. You’ve found an industry. Sadly it’s the arse-end of the doomed publishing industry, which produces only the most banal and saleable fiction as a result of the lasting economic downturn, lack of interest in worthwhile literature, and the advent of online stores and ebooks. This is what I call the shitmill, and if you want to be part of it, good luck to you. It’s possible to make a lot of money in exchange for your sub-literary offal.

If you work for the former reason, “because you want to”, then this is more admirable. it also promotes a mindset that is not conducive to writing a successful novel, because chances are you haven’t considered originality. You’ve just written (I’ll add that this is no less of an achievement). Who wants to read the same book over and over again? How are you innovating to stay fresh and needed in the current market? What are you bringing to the table, besides more of the same – a flavour that loses its appeal with every new sub-standard e-novel that is released?

The vast amounts of so-called erotic fiction available through self-publishing platforms, by its nature, obscures original talent by drowning it in unoriginal pap. There may well be some excellent bits of erotic fiction out there, but how can we find them amongst the derivative stuff? E.L. James has managed to create a whole sub-genre of erotica, casually called ‘billionaire romance’. It’s a sad revelation that so many women fantasize about being subjugated by a violent male whilst being ‘looked after’ and showered with lavish gifts. I may well write a separate post about how erotica is devastating to equality and gender expectations.

Unoriginality is a sign of poor imagination, which often comes with lack of talent. Even if this is only a perception, do you want to be perceived this way? Would you really happy being a rich but derided author? Before you answer, remember that your chances of becoming rich writing trash are far lower than you might even think.

The second angle of attack is something that I shouldn’t even have to point out. James is being unoriginal even within her own body of work. Why should “Grey”, which tells the “Fifty Shades” trilogy from the male protagonist’s perspective, even exist? What is it showing us that’s new? I can only assume that it will reproduce slightly summarized scenes shared by Christian and Ana, plus a few extra scenes in which Christian privately broods privately over his awful childhood and the false dilemma of whether he can have a meaningful relationship with this vapid little girl.

I’m sure fans can’t wait to speculate that there is more of Christian’s disgracefully cliché ‘dark past’ to be revealed, which raises another issue: If it takes you four novels to tell us what your main character is about, you have failed. Authors, you can take that away as a bonus lesson on how to fail at writing a novel.

Originality is the life and soul of literature. Without it, the publishing industry would have decayed long ago into a skeleton of its former self, catering only for readers of text books and biographies. If you want to be ‘a writer’, then this should be at the front of your mind every time you brainstorm. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have I read this story before?
  • Is my character behaving predictably?
  • How can I differentiate this from other novels? Is that differentiation convincing?
  • Did the story come to me without having to think much about it?
  • Have I just reproduced this character from somewhere else, and simply renamed him/her?

A simple exercise can be to reverse everything. Let’s say you’ve just accidentally rewritten “Fifty Shades”. You should hopefully by now realise why it feels staid and boring. But what if you swapped Christian and Ana’s characters around? What if the man is the sexually-inexperienced goofball and the woman is the S&M master? Already you’re far more interesting than the rest of the derivative stuff out there. What if your Christian is actually desperately poor instead of unrealistically wealthy? How could he ever entice a young girl into his life of depravity and violence then? What if Ana were ten years older than Christian and experienced in relationships? What if Christian is the one who wants to adjust, and Ana is the one enamored with his domineering sexual preferences.

As a final note, if you really must regurgitate another author’s material, why regurgitate something that was diabolically awful in the first place?

I beg authors to strive for originality. If for nothing else, remember that publishers and agents are looking for something fresh, something that they’ve never seen before. They will undoubtedly prioritise you over someone else in your genre who was ‘inspired’ by existing fiction.

Keep reading, keep writing, never surrender!

—db

Terminology: why cyborgs suck

Ghost in the Shell

Five years ago, after years of toil, I finally got my first novel published in paperback. Half Discovered Wings is not easy to define in terms of genre: it is ostensibly fantasy, in the broadest sense – it features monsters and supernatural/spiritual elements – but it is also science fiction, in that the post-apocalyptic world in which it is set has a history of high technology (sci-fi is a sub-category of fantasy in any case).

Prior to finally being accepted by a publisher, Libros International in 2009, the novel underwent six drafts and a title change. Characters were cut, scenes were removed or changed, even the dialogue was completely re-written for some characters. There are still many characters (possibly too many) and a good 142,000 words remaining, but since all of these characters are integral to each other’s stories, and since all those words are necessary to describe those characters and the world they inhabit, I realised that I could cut no longer. It then became merely a proofreading exercise.

Since I wrote the first draft in 2003, my literary ideology had changed, and each successive draft was what I hoped to be a significant improvement. I was developing as a writer and I wanted my novel to reflect my best efforts.

For the past few months I have been working to create another version of Half Discovered Wings, what I will optimistically call the definitive version, for ebook release. Revisiting this nostalgic reality has reminded me of another difficulty: that of terminology.

Science fiction runs the knife’s edge of being scientific enough to interest a certain kind of reader, using big ideas to either speculate or explain, whilst still being readable and enjoyable enough to sell copies. Fantasy does the same – take a look at the difference between The Hobbit (fun and readable) and The Silmarillion (Biblical syrup), for example. Many people have told me that they never got into The Lord of the Rings because there were too many unfamiliar names and words. Some readers shy away from sci-fi for the same reason – they would rather have a story instead of half a chapter describing how a faster-than-light drive works, or precisely how time travel is possible. Forget that: just get on with the story. And I sympathise.

There are several original terms of Half Discovered Wings, so many that my editor suggested I insert a glossary at the back of the book. I reluctantly agreed. What does it matter what the term ‘sanguilac’ means when the reader is being shown what these blood-sucking creatures are (a basic knowledge of Latin would help also)? Still, if even one reader finds it useful, why not? For the rest of you, please don’t feel patronised.

In Half Discovered Wings I also wrote a character nicknamed Caeles, which is Latin for ‘dwells in Heaven’. The irony is that he is far from angelic, embittered by over a century of grief and warfare. Caeles is a cybernetic organism, a cyborg, created to fight in the radioactively- and biologically-hazardous battlefields of a distant war. He is a relic from this world’s sci-fi past, and understandably he is treated with suspicion and fear by the relatively ignorant inhabitants of its present.

One piece of terminology I struggled with was ‘cyborg’. Talk about cheesy. The term is now 55 years old, coined in 1960 by some theoretically-minded scientists (aren’t all scientists theoretically-minded?). The earliest example in fiction that I could find was in the 1972 novel Cyborg by Martin Caiden, which was the inspiration for TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man and spin-off Bionic Woman. I’m sure that many writers are used to turning away from terms such as ‘cyborg’ and ‘android’, precisely because they’re retro, slightly naff terms.

But what are the modern alternatives? I recall reading a few books that created unique terms to describe their particular type of cyborg – I’m sure I’ve seen ‘Tek’, ‘Tech’ and ‘mechanoid’, for example, even though the latter is incorrect to describe anything with electronic components. I recall, years ago, wracking my brains for something like this to use. For a time I settled on the term ‘cybernetic’, utilising the term as a noun. This was vaguely original at least, but unwieldy. Having someone refer to a character as “a cybernetic” rings false, assuming the reader has a feel for the difference between a noun and an adjective. It doesn’t sound right.

I don’t know how long I spent trying to wrap my head around the difference between cybernetics and bionics, and the mess of similar terms, to make sure I was using the correct one. The individual definitions are clear, but how they might apply to, say, Luke Skywalker’s electro-mechanical hand in The Empire Strikes Back is not. Is the hand bionic? Cybernetic? Is Luke now technically a cyborg?

Let’s not go there.

I was surprised, and secretly pleased, to see the resurgence of ‘cyborg’ as a term in comics. This is a fine example of what all writers should be doing: using the simplest, clearest language to describe what you need to describe. There is no need to be fancy, there is no need to over-explain. If a character is half machine, just call him ‘a cyborg’. The reader knows exactly what you mean just by using that one word. Its simplicity is beautiful.

The image at the top of this page relates to the anime franchise Ghost in the Shell, a mind-blowing collection of manga, films and several TV series. The character in the picture, Motoko, is almost 100% machine, and usually referred to simply as a “cyborg” or “cybernetic human”. The Japanese have long been obsessed with the concept of melding man and machine. Having explored almost every avenue, in their wisdom they retain the simplest of descriptions.

I may change my mind during the course of this re-write of Half Discovered Wings. It’s been known to happen during my edits. But for now I’ll stick to my own rules: simplicity is best, conciseness is best.

Cyborg it is.

—db

[Half Discovered Wings is still available as paperback from Amazon here. Look out for Half Discovered Wings in ebook format soon!]

[P.S., artist of the picture above please step forward for credit!]

New Release: Next story in the “Professor Arnustace” series

Hello everybody!

I’m most spiffed to announce that I have finally completed the second in the “Professor Arnustace” series of short stories.  “Iced Tea for Professor Arnustace“, is available on the Amazon store here if you own a Kindle device, or via Smashwords here if you own any other ebook reader.

The “Professor Arnustace” stories are steampunk mystery tales, featuring the eponymous brainbox solving some most perplexing enigmas.  Along for the ride are his intellectual peer, Doctor Annabeth Ross, and his talking cat, Verne (read about the first story here and buy it here).

In this second story, which is best read after the first (Secret: you can get the first story for FREE on Smashwords, here), the Professor has his first encounter with Sir Chatterjee, the “sky captain” of a floating island.  Fun, quaintness and weirdness ensue.

Reviewers of my limited-release first story called it a page-turner with “intensifying mysteries and funny characters”, as part of “a very well thought-out universe”.


Professor ArnustaceEngland, the Year of our Lord 1917…

 After a strange new species is discovered on the English coast,
the eccentric Professor Arnustace and indefatigable
Doctor Annabeth Ross are stumped before the mystery even begins.
But when a dinner invitation arrives via a miniature airship
with a mongoose captain, little do they know the surprises in store
for them on Ipsun Isle, the nation in the sky.

Creatures of the deep, sky captains and a talking cat await readers
in this extended second tale in the Professor Arnustace
series of steampunk mysteries!


This story is substantially longer than the first, at a very satisfying 22,000 words. I encourage each and every one of you to give my little story a shot and perform what I like to call The Three Rs…

Read, Review, Recommend!

Happy reading, and thanks again!

—db

New Release: “The Gun of Our Maker”

I’m very pleased to announce that my first full length e-book is now available to buy from online retailers.

“The Gun of Our Maker” is a classic tale of vengeance set in the Old West. You can purchase it from Amazon (here) or Smashwords (here).


The Gun of Our Maker - David BrookesMinnesota, 1859: a man is executed for skimming
from a silver mine to provide for his family.

Arizona, 1877: the sins of the father catch up with the son

Six weeks later: a man on horseback scales
the forests of the Mogollon Rim. He is
searching for Bill Hawken, a renowned gunsmith.

Vivian Culhane is far from a typical hero. Crippled by a
childhood illness, he is weak, blind – yet unstoppable.

Together they will build an instrument of vengeance
that will be known across Arizona, New Mexico and
Texas – a revolver that produces red smoke,
with a limited supply bullets and a thirst for justice.


The Gun of Our Maker is a full-length Western at around 63,000 words, and is available at the bargain price of only 99p!  If you like your West old and your vengeance bloody, pick up a copy, leave a review, and meet me back here for news of more upcoming releases!

Thanks to everyone for your support and encouragement.

—db

How to fail at writing a novel (pt.1)

How to fail at writing

I meet a lot of people who are impressed that I wrote a novel. They’re even more impressed when they learn that it was picked up by a traditional publisher.  Writing a novel seems like an unreachable goal for a lot of people, a fantasy that will never come to fruition no matter how hard they try.

And lots of people try.  My artistic social circle is filled with people who have started to write a novel and given up.  From my first days at university back in 2003 to this blustery, wet March of 2015, I keep meeting people who have never achieved what they set out to do: write a novel.

I’m hardly an expert on the subject.  ‘Half Discovered Wings‘ was published in 2009, and it took me six years to write it, get it into a publishable state, then find a publisher.  In the six years since I’ve written several finished manuscripts and attempted to find literary agents for two of those, with no luck (I like to blame the economic crash, but that excuse is losing its validity with every new pre-election Budget).  But as a reader and an increasingly successful ghostwriter, I know what can work if the stars are aligned, and what will not.

Here begins a short series of posts about how to fail at writing your novel.

1. Don’t know your genre

I had great fun reading the long-awaited seventh novel from literary great Kazuo Ishiguro.  Not because ‘The Buried Giant’ was a good novel, but because I was fascinated by the catastrophe of it.  It was a staid exercise in watching the author trying to claw out of quicksand he knowingly walked into.

Kazuo Ishiguro - The Buried Giant

‘The Buried Giant’ was ten years in the making and its release was hailed as the literary event of the year.  People expected great things from the author of ‘An Artist of the Floating World’ and ‘The Remains of the Day’.  As a writer of moving literary fiction, Ishiguro should have known better, but for some reason he decided to venture into the genre of high fantasy.  Without knowing a thing about how to write a fantasy novel.

Personally I was amazed at how a writer as talented as Ishiguro could create a world populated by monsters, dragons and sorcery whilst hardly showing us any monsters, dragons or sorcery Incredible fantasy and sci-fi author Ursula le Guin slammed Ishiguro for being vague in a scathing blog post, and she’s right.

Bearing in mind Ishiguro’s bizarre insistence that his fantasy novel was not a fantasy novel, I was two thirds of the way through the book and still wondering whether it was a clever literary device in which the characters believed in the paranormal but the world was actually as described in our history books.  Nope.  A knight attempts to slay a dragon in the final act, and the dragon is indubitably real within the fictional reality of the book.

So why did I spent 200 pages or so wondering whether this really was a fantasy book?

Ishiguro knew nothing about the trade of writing a fantasy novel.  One can’t write a literary novel and just throw in a witch or two and hope to be taken seriously.  World-building is a serious, concerted effort on the part of the writer to construct something tangible and believable within its own context bubble.  Successful fantasy trailblazers such as Tolkien and le Guin were successful because they created living, breathing worlds with complex politics, ecosystems, economies and landscapes.  I could write a whole other post about the importance of world-building, but that would be going off topic.

So why did Ishiguro, this master of the word, fail so miserably?  He probably read a lot of fantasy, but the wrong kind of fantasyToo many writers saw The Lord of the Rings in cinemas and thought, “Hey, that’s cool and it’s successful, I’ll write something like that”, unaware that Tolkien was a master but also a blight on fantasy fiction that writers are still struggling to recover from.  “Fantasy” is too often synonymous with “Middle-Earth” and it’s taking the Herculean efforts of the likes of China Mieville to reinvent the popular assumptions about fantasy literature.  Ishiguro took the standard fantasy tropes, such as knights, dragons and ogres, and shoehorned them into his rather touching piece about the nature of human memory, more as a plot device than anything substantial.

If you want to succeed in writing in any genre, read a lot of books in that genreOnly then will you know why your particular genre is important and how to be original with it.  If you don’t know which parts of the map have been drawn, then how will you know in which direction the uncharted territory lies?  Originality should be the goal of any writer (as far as that is possible).  I can’t help feeling that Ishiguro thought that he knew fantasy, but has probably never read a book by Mieville or Jeff Vandermeer or M. John Harrison.

For any genre, follow a few simple tips:

  1. Read lots of book in your chosen genre and learn what makes them work
  2. If you’ve read your idea somewhere before, come up with a new idea
  3. Read authors from each sub-genre.  There is no such thing as “fantasy”, there is really “high fantasy”, “slipstream”, “steampunk”, “magic realism”, “weird fiction”…
  4. For your genre, think about its themes and style.  Learn the rules before you break them
  5. Don’t read only your chosen genre – diversify your talents in style and vocabulary

Keep reading, keep writing, never surrender!

—db

The ‘offensive’ Batgirl cover that everyone’s talking about

Batgirl cover

So what’s happening in the above picture?

This is a variant cover for an issue of DC’s comic book, “Batgirl”, which follows a young heroine’s battle against crime in Gotham City.

Issue #41 has yet to be published, but there is already controversy over an alternative cover featuring psychotic villain The Joker terrorising the female protagonist.  It was drawn by popular comic book artist Rafael Albuquerque.  It’s no doubt a dark, disturbing image, appropriate for the fictional Gotham City – but why are so many people talking about it?

There have been complaints over the apparent misogynism in the image, and dark undertones of sexual abuse.  The Joker is clearly the dominant figure in the picture, smearing a blood-red smile on the terrified Batgirl’s face whilst holding a downward-pointing pistol.

Batgirl cover #41 variant

Perhaps a little backstory here.  In a famous Batman storyline from the comic books (“The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore in 1988), psychotic killer The Joker shoots and paralyses the character of Barbara Gordon – the alter-ego of Batgirl.  Some say that this particularly dark graphic novel also implies that Barbara was sexually abused by The Joker whilst imprisoned, although this is not explicitly stated.  The cover is said to be reminiscent of “The Killing Joke”.

According to the artist, Albuquerque, his Batgirl variant cover was an homage to this monumental literary work.  The publisher DC today announced that the alternative cover will not be available to purchase when #41 is released in shops – news that has had with mixed reception.

Batgirl cover variant #41

I’d love to go into excruciating detail about why characters like the douchey “GBG” above are complete morons, but I would probably influence nothing by my blood pressure.

I’m not entirely convinced that the cover itself contains any imagery of sexual abuse.  Apparently the pistol “pointing south” is sexually implicit, but I find it ambiguous.  The Joker could point his gun up into the air, but this would undermine the sense of threat that his character is imposing.  If the arm is to remain over Batgirl’s shoulder, where should it be pointing?  It’s anatomically possible for him to point the gun at the ‘viewer’, but again that undermines his dominance over Batgirl (and what does ‘the viewer’ have to do with the situation?) – not to mention that it would be rather uncomfortable.  Pointing downwards is really the only direction it could point.  But even for the sake of this discussion only, I’m happy to assume that the cover is sexually implicit (it certainly might be) – because for me, this is not the point.

The complaints appear to be saying that any depiction of terrorism or sexual abuse is offensive.  I disagree.  Just because the notion of something is offensive, it doesn’t follow that any form of art should pretend those offensive realities don’t exist (if you’d like to read another of my rants about comic books and literature, click here).  I don’t quite understand any other stance.  What is literature for, but to put a spotlight on various aspects of humanity and society, good or evil?

What is the suggestion here – that characters in fiction should never have anything bad happen to them?  That a person, let alone a ‘hero’, should never be traumatised by past events?  Terrorism happens, crime happens, sexual abuse happens.  Comic books, like any other form of literature, have covered the length and breadth of humanity’s highest and lowest capabilities.  Recently some ‘tweaked’ versions of the cover have been released giving Batgirl a defiant look, which apparently changes the cover from sexist to showing a positive image.  I should hardly think that’s necessary, when anyone would rightly be terrified by encountering the mass-murdering lunatic who once put your in a wheelchair.

It could be argued that sexual abuse is not appropriate material for comic books, which are read by children.  If this is your opinion, then I’m sure you are perfectly sensible about which comic books, films, TV shows, games and books you let your child view.  Comic books have contained adult material since their inception (despite the tights and spandex), so your argument is about 60 years too late.

Some have pointed out, quite rightly, that Batgirl is a strong female character who is depicted uncharacteristically weak in this image.  I would agree.  But isn’t that what variant covers are for?  In the comic book industry, alternative covers are used for anything from ‘what if?’ scenarios to cross-media advertising.  The fact that a variant might be used as an homage to a previous storyline of high repute is not unusual in the least.

It seems that others object purely on the grounds that this is a supposedly strong (female) character trembling in fear of a (male) villain.  Anyone who knows the character of The Joker (i.e. anyone who has seen either of these high-profile films, watched either of these popular TV series, played any of these 3 recent bestselling video-games or has read pretty much any DC comic book ever in the last 75 years) would know that he is a psychopathic murderer: he kills men, woman and children indiscriminately.  His is a non-gender-biased terrorist.  Anyone would be terrified in the situation that Batgirl is in here.  Even Batman himself, the fearless caped crusader, is afraid of The Joker.

If the complaints are suggesting that showing a defeated hero goes against “the current direction” of the comic books, which aim to depict a modern, strong female hero, then I might argue that there is a bit of a double standard there:

Batman defeated Superman defeated Spider-Man defeatedEven super-hero needs to get their butt whooped every now and again.  Who wants to read about perfect, invulnerable heroes who never lose?  Even Superman “died” once.  If we want literature to encompass all the highs and lows of life, even within fantasy sub-genres, then we simply can’t complain that any topic is inappropriate for literature.  That is the philistine’s approach, and I reject it completely.

Is the image glorifying violence or abuse, of any kind?  No.  Is it showing the sadistic killer in any kind of positive light, or the torture of the heroine as a positive thing?  No.  Just because a piece of art, visual or literary, depicts something awful, does not mean it supports that awful thing.  In fact, comic books are renowned for poetic justice and praising the strong positive ethics of its heroes.

Complaints against this piece of artwork seem to be from people who have no understanding of literature or what it’s for, and it’s a very sad thing indeed that art can be censored because ignorance can be loud.

–db

A Sam Simon lament: Depression in the creative industry

Sam Simon, The Simpsons, Mental Health

This time last week, you’d be forgiven for having never heard of Sam Simon, who passed away this week at the age of 59.  Simon is credited as being the unsung hero of The Simpsons, present during the writing and production of their first full season back in December 1989.  He is said to have been the one who developed the show’s sensibility, despite quickly locking horns with their creator, Matt Groening.

Ken Levine, one of the writers on The Simpsons, said that Simon was the real creative force behind The Simpsons:

“The tone, the storytelling, the level of humor – that was all developed on Sam’s watch, [and] brought a level of honesty to the characters” and made them “three-dimensional”, adding that his “comedy is all about character, not just a string of gags. In The Simpsons, the characters are motivated by their emotions and their foibles. ‘What are they thinking?’ – that is Sam’s contribution. The stories come from the characters.”

If Sam Simon was so instrumental in developing the tone and depth of what Time Magazine called the best TV show of the 20th Century, then why was he compelled to leave after writing only 13 episodes?

There were some creative differences – natch – but it’s also apparent that he had troubles of his own. In a 2001 interview with the New York Times, Groening described Simon as “brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I’ve ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced.”

But in the man’s own words, Simon just “wasn’t enjoying it anymore”:

“Any show I’ve ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy. I hate myself.”

Sam Simon, The Simpsons, Mental Health

Soon after, when Simon worked on “The George Carlin Show”, it became apparent that Groening wasn’t simply sour over having the spotlight taken off him.  Carlin confessed to having a negative relationship with Simon, going so far as to issue a general disclaimer for sitcom creators: “[A]lways check mental health of creative partner beforehand.”  In his autobiography, Carlin said:

“The biggest problem, though, was that Sam Simon was a fucking horrible person to be around. Very, very funny, extremely bright and brilliant, but an unhappy person who treated other people poorly.”

There are any number of positive things to say about Simon – his enduring animal rights campaigns, and millions of dollars in charitable donations, to name just two – but for me his apparent mental health issue should be of equal interest.

What is it that makes writers depressed – or perhaps the question should be, what is that makes depressed people write?

It’s no secret that there’s a trend.  Off the top of my head, famous names who attempted or succeeded in suicide include Ernest Hemmingway, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Jack London, Raymond Chandler, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson, all of whom who join the ranks of severely depressed painters, poets, comics and actors who felt unable to continue despite their success and adoration.  Are all writers depressed?  Of course not, but there’s compelling evidence for a pattern.

Discouraging is the association of poor mental health with creativity.  Who hasn’t imagined the clichéd writer tapping away on his typewriter, smoking with a drained bottle of whiskey beside him, contemplating the rope?  A character in the 2012 film “Seven Psychopaths” deftly illustrates the perceived fatefulness of it when he tells depressed screenwriter Marty that “of course” he has a drinking problem:

“ONE: You’re a writer. TWO: You’re from Ireland … You’re fucked!”

Seven Psychopaths depression

I’ve been asked by more than one girlfriend whether I can only be creative when I’m in a low mood.  This is a common claim amongst creative types, who assert that their best work is produced during their most depressed periods.  I wondered if the same was true of myself back during my university years, when I wrote Half Discovered Wings (published only a mere six years later).  Looking back, it’s clear that much of my poetry and short fiction from that time was morose, self-absorbed drivel (but that can be the only expected output from creative writing course at that age – ask any English teacher).

The serious ramifications of this trend in writers are obvious: that some maintain a state of unhappiness to spur their creative output, believing that it’s the key to their success; and that because it’s “expected” of a creative type, others are less inclined to intervene.  Having seen some of the worst outcomes of these scenarios, I sincerely hope that it’s not a common truth.

Perhaps the sudden interest in Sam Simon will do more than rehash his old dispute with Matt Groening.  It would do well to increase public awareness of mental health issues, which remain belittled and dismissed by many, including leaders of the National Health Service (here and here).  In any case, the entertainment industry has recognised a genuine talent who has gone unsung for too long.

—db