Category Archives: Fantasy

Counting towards your write-a-day

On the art of writing, literary legend Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying: “Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens.”

This is great advice. But I must admit, I’ve been guilty of not writing a lot this week. Sorry Ray. I have in fact had my editing head on, working on a collection of short stories for a fellow author, my writing head being temporarily placed in its glass specimen jar on my office shelf. Wherever my head is at though, my mind is always wandering. Indeed, with my running head on, I let my mind wander free and it’s often when huffing and puffing through my local park that I come up with some of my best ideas.

By now, I’m starting to look like Cerberus, the ferocious three headed dog from Greek mythology. Or maybe a really lame hydra. I’m going to stick with the head analogy though. Indeed, it’s mythical creatures like this that first fired my imagination as a child. Having the Jason and the Argonauts movie and Tolkien’s The Hobbit evangelised to me by my father were probably a lot to do with a lifelong love of fantasy that hasn’t left me. To take nothing away from the immense skill of CGI artists, it was the second Ray of my blog, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion labours of love, that first drew me in to the fantasy world. I read a Twitter conversation recently featuring people from different generations all offering their thoughts on how much of an impact the iconic skeleton fight scene from Jason and the Argonauts had on them, their childhoods and their writing.

Role playing games are great too. I’m sometimes a player, using my vivid imagination to paint the scene presented to myself and my fellow adventurers by the Dungeonmaster. Sometimes though, I’m the Dungeonmaster myself, delighting in dreaming up adventures for my players to experience. I’m probably guilty of not spending enough time genning up on the rules and too much working on painting a picture, telling a story and dreaming up dialogue for the characters they’ll meet. But that’s my point, I guess. I’m using the game to nurture my imagination, and I figure my players will forgive a bit of furtive rule book fluttering in favour of a more enjoyable adventure.

What I’m getting at is that, whether you’re not using it all the time to write, your imagination is always there. It’s a well of ideas, some of which will inevitably come to you when you least expect them to. Use your mind creatively in different ways and you’ll be exercising it and keeping it primed and ready to dream up your next creation.

And no, writing a reply to this blog won’t count towards your write-a-day – though it would be really nice if you did all the same! Or, feel free to follow me and say hi on Twitter. I follow back and don’t snore (much).

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Test the Waters

OK, OK, I’ve made the obvious analogy of the literary ocean and throwing your work in it before, but sometimes it really can feel like that. Writing is hard. Marketing it is harder.

Sure, you can throw your hard-earned at any number of social media-savvy agencies who will promote your book and it may even work, but the hard truth is that with the freedom of self-publishing comes the reality that everybody is doing it. And that’s great. Let’s just make that clear SELF PUBLISHING IS GREAT.

So what does it mean? It means that even with a serious advertising budget, you’ll be up against some serious competition to get noticed. That’s why it’s a good idea to test the waters with your first foray in to self-publishing. OK, so you’ve been slaving away at your 100,000-word fantasy epic for months – years and it’s finally ready. Now, the world will know the true power of destiny and the irrepressible lure of the Tanthis Stone…but wait. Rush headlong into marketing it with no experience and it’ll probably just end up being read by your eccentric Auntie and Jeff your old college friend. And maybe Alison from work.

When I say experience, I don’t mean time served as a social media executive, either. I’m just talking about the experience of self-publishing and marketing and everything that brings. It’s tough, and a relentless grind. Doing it first with a shorter novella, like I did, is a sensible idea. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my novella Whisper Wood and worked hard at it, but I’m glad I used it to get some experience. I’m always learning and that’s the best way to look at self-publishing. Don’t expect readers to come to your book, take it to the readers, tell them why they should read it.

Comment on other authors’ stuff and write too. I’m genuinely grateful to fellow bloggers who follow and share my updates on here – each of them on their own creative journey. The same goes for Twitter’s supportive and fun #WritingCommunity. There’s enough space for us all, so let’s get writing!

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The Player

I first saw the player one morning in May. Since everything started to happen back in 2020 – and let’s be honest, it’s still happening – I decided to build a morning walk along the beach into my daily routine. Now I know what you’re thinking – “If I lived that close to the beach, I wouldn’t need a global pandemic to get me out there enjoying it!” Guilty as charged. Sure, I’d taken a stroll or two along the beach in the past – mostly as a way to evangelise my town to any friends and family who came to visit, but I’d never really taken the time to appreciate it for what it was. These days, I do appreciate it, in lots of different ways, and I’m not too proud to admit that I’d been missing out.

Anyway, back to the player. Spring had not so much as sprung, as reluctantly rose from a crouch with aching limbs – but nonetheless, here was some real sun that I could feel on my face. It glistened on the waves as they gently lapped the sand and I was surprised that there was nobody else around. Usually there’s a dog walker or two, and I’d joined them as one of the morning regulars since starting my routine. Sorry, I’m going off on a tangent again. I guess I didn’t think I’d have that much to say but then again, it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to anybody.

So, there he was on the beach. At first glance, I couldn’t make him out. it looked like some bizarre piece of ship wreckage sticking out of the sand, but as one of the few very small clouds in the sky passed over the sun, I got a clearer view. He was sat at a grand piano. At least, I think it was a grand. It certainly wasn’t one of those ones your grandmother used to have, or that you see in old Western movies. Unsurprisingly, I was instantly reminded of that film where a woman plays a piano on the beach. At first, I thought this was someone paying homage to that, or parodying it for some student film or sketch maybe? Transfixed, I continued to move closer, until I could make out the player. He had dark hair, and was wearing a suit – somehow this made everything seem even stranger, even though if he was sat there in surf shorts and flip flops, it would still have been strange.

Then there was the music. When I was working, back when everything was normal, I used to love to write while listening to music. I like all sorts of stuff, but instrumental music seemed to work best – soundtracks and classical mostly. So, I had a basic working knowledge of piano concertos, the classic stuff as well as the contemporary. And yes, the soundtrack for that film that this whole scene reminded me of sometimes featured. This was different though. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Sometimes, just for a fleeting moment, it sounded like some of Hayden’s chamber stuff, then I thought I could detect a bit of Rachmaninov, then what could have been one of the player’s own compositions – strangely discordant, with crazy time signatures, then off into some random honky-tonk. It was the weirdest thing, but even stranger was the fluidity with which he moved between every style, making it sound like one crazy continuous piece, that you all at once knew, but didn’t know at all.

That probably doesn’t make any sense to you, but it’s difficult to describe. I don’t really know why, but it started to make a little more sense to me when I got a little closer to the player. His suit wasn’t any kind of dinner suit, business suit or tuxedo that I had seen before. It seemed to shift before my eyes, like I couldn’t quite focus on it. For a couple of seconds, it looked like it was made of some kind of weird fabric that shimmered, reflecting the sun and casting radiant mini-rays all around. Then a moment later, it turned into a sport jacket and slacks, then into something so impenetrably black that I could make no creases or folds out at all.

By now I was about 10 feet away, taking all this in with growing incredulity.

“Hey!” I ventured. “Sounds great! Thanks for brightening up my morning!”

The instant it was out of my mouth, I wished I could have said something more profound than this jaunty herald. I suddenly got the sense that this was a pivotal moment of crucial significance, and what I said would matter.

I needn’t have worried. The player continued to play, oblivious to my presence. I stepped a little closer, and ventured round the piano, getting a frontal view as well as from both sides. The shifting suit continued to shift, and the man’s impassive face just maintained the same expression. When I was stood directly in front of him, he didn’t even register, but just appeared to look right through me. It’s so weird to say this now, but it was like his face was doing the same thing as his suit. One minute he looked like a handsome movie actor in a pivotal cinematic scene, the next he was a gaunt wretch of a thing, with eyes that…I can’t describe it…they just seemed to make him look like someone who’d seen things that nobody else had ever seen. Then at the next glance, he looked like everyone’s favourite jovial party host, rousing the guests with one of his good-natured renditions.

As I was pondering over the whole otherworldliness of the situation, a thought stuck me. What if somebody else comes along? What will they do? What will I do? Where I lived wasn’t a bad place to be, but there were still some deviant kids who liked to cause trouble – probably just out of boredom. What would happen if they showed up? Then, coming the other way, I could see a woman in the distance, striding along as a Golden Retriever bounded on ahead in search of the length of driftwood she’d just thrown in front of her. As she got closer, I recognised her as one of the morning walk regulars and took comfort in the fact that she at least wouldn’t do anything disruptive.

The dog had returned to her side now and as they drew closer, I got ready to make conversation, with an ‘I know, right?’ expression on my face. The fact that the dog didn’t do anything instantly made me curious. It walked right past the player – just for a fleeting moment turning its head quizzically in his direction, then plodded up to me. I absentmindedly scratched behind the dog’s ears as I watched its owner close the distance between us.

“Don’t mind him, he’s just saying hello!”

She did not acknowledge the player at all as she walked straight past him. Before I could stop myself I said:

“Can you not see him? The man at the piano?”

She looked at me quizzically, saying she didn’t know what I meant. I made some hurried correction, saying that I’d seen someone on the promenade playing the piano yesterday and did she see him? That seemed to make more sense to her and of course, she said that she hadn’t. Relieved that I hadn’t created a scene but more confused than ever, I made to look as if I was gazing whimsically out to sea, so she wouldn’t think I was being weird just standing there. She carried walking with her dog behind me and a carried on watching the player. There! A bit of Mozart was it? Then some sort of weird, free-form jazz thing, I don’t know, I can’t really describe what it was.

That was when the idea struck me. We have all this technology at our fingertips and take it for granted to the extent that we forget we even have it. I took my phone out of my pocket and held it up. I wish I hadn’t. When I looked at the player through my camera, it was as if we had both been transported to…I don’t know where, some strange dimension, it was like…well, it sounds like such a  corny thing but it’s the best way I can describe it…It looked like the player was in Hell. I can’t unsee what I saw. He was surrounded by searing flames but the piano was completely untouched and his face remained impassive, at least until the flesh on it bubbled and melted, sliding off his skull before my eyes. Shouting out in horror, I pulled my camera away from my eyes and looked at him again. Everything was just the same as before, with him playing impassively away – with his face still very much intact. Despite what I’d just witnessed,  I couldn’t help myself, and held my phone up once more, ready to drop it from my field of vision if the same thing happened again. This time there was no fire. Now, the player was sat in a stunningly beautiful glade, with shafts of golden sunlight streaming down through the trees and countless flowers blooming all around. Ah, I thought. So this is the Heaven version – of course, how silly of me.

I couldn’t make sense of anything and was a moment away from just turning on my heels and running – just to put some distance between myself and something I couldn’t possibly understand. But there was one more thing to try. I switched my phone camera to video setting and held it up again. This time, the player was sat in a barren dust bowl of a place, the air thick with some sort of strange cloud. It shifted momentarily and I could just make out the skeleton of some enormous building, something that looked ultra-modern, but that had also been in a state of ruin for hundreds of years. Whether this change of scenery was a result of me switching to video, or just a coincidence, I don’t know. What I did know is that I’d had enough. Backing away from the player until he was a good 30 feet away, I turned round and ran all the way home, clutching my phone.

All of a sudden, it felt like I was in possession of the most amazing thing in the world but also the most terrifying thing in the world. I went into my bedroom and gave myself a moment, then looked at my picture gallery. I don’t know if it was disappointment or relief I felt when the last two pictures I’d taken now showed as corrupt files. I almost didn’t bother trying to play the video, but I did.

I know this didn’t happen at the time – I was only filming for a few seconds – but I swear, when I played the video back this time, it was different. The player stopped playing. He looked up directly into the camera. At me. My heart almost leapt out of my chest as he spoke:

“What you do next will decide the future.”

And, for the couple of seconds that it took him to say this, his surroundings were brought into vivid detail. He was sat in some kind of haunting, apocalyptic landscape, the burnt-out remains of skyscrapers behind him, as a number of shambling figures lurched about in the distance. I attempted to play the video again, but just like the photos, it was now showing up as corrupted. I wish I could tell you that the first thing I did was run back out to the beach, but I didn’t. I lay for the rest of the day on top of my bed, in a state of high anxiety and turmoil, until sheer nervous exhaustion lured me into a deeply uneasy sleep, full of dreams, fire and screams. When I awoke, still feeling absolutely exhausted, I hurriedly put on my shoes and headed out to the beach once more. The player was gone.

I don’t know why I’m writing this now, weeks after. Nobody will believe me and I’m the only person who saw it, but I guess I just feel the need to document it all somehow. What did he mean? Who was he? Believe me, I’ve tried to make sense of it, but the whole thing is too much for my mind to comprehend. I must admit, I’d been losing focus in my life before the player arrived. At least now I have something to think about, and something to work for. After all, nobody needs to know where I got the idea from, do they?

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What is a book?

No wait, hear me out. Still there? Good.

If you’re reading this you’re probably looking for a little more than a literal answer, so here goes.

These days, books can take many forms. As well as a good old-fashioned charity shop find or a crisp new release hastily picked up from the airport newsagent before your flight, there is of course everyone’s favourite space-saver, the Kindle. Or indeed, the Kindle app if (like me) you’re slumming it just a little.

Delve into the world of online publication and you’ll have so much choice, you won’t know where to start. I’m guilty of perhaps not reading as much as I’d like to, but having dipped my toe into Amazonian waters, I discovered a few things pretty quickly.

Firstly, self-publishing makes it easier than ever before to get what’s inside your head out there for the public to enjoy. And if they don’t, well that’s their problem. At least you did it. This doesn’t have to be the 1000+ word fantasy epic you’ve been slaving away at for half your life though. These days, books take many forms. Your story may be great but you just find yourself wanting to get it over a little more quickly – that’s fine. In the world of self-publishing nobody looks down their nose at a novella.

It doesn’t even have to have a narrative either. From stream-of-consciousness ramblings and specialist cookbooks, to collected essays and structured how-to guides, pretty much anything can be a book these days.

So, get that idea out of your head and onto your screen and before long, it’ll be on everybody else’s screen as well.

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It’s fine to sit on your first draft

After months (maybe years?) of sketching out ideas, procrastinating, fleshing out characters, developing plots, then procrastinating a bit more, you’ve finally got your novel finished. Well, the first draft of it anyway. So what to do now?

It’s safe to say that nobody ever got their first draft published, so the next logical step is your second draft. The important thing is here though, don’t rush it. After all, it took you this long to get here didn’t it? Sit on your first draft for a while. Leave it alone. Don’t look at it and try not to think about it. Go off and write about something else – maybe that short story idea you’ve had simmering away in the back of your mind for a while, or even just another blog post.

This will make it much easier to look at your writing objectively when you do get to your second draft. After being immersed in your book’s own little world for months, you need some time to purposely forget some of the detail, so when you do come back to it, you’ll find it much more easy to notice all those parts you want to develop or change. And, because your brain has still been creatively active, but in different ways, you’ll be able to look at your book with fresh eyes. Who knows? Maybe something else you write may trigger off an idea on how to fine-tune that character who in your heart of hearts, you still have niggling doubts about.

Read as much as you can, too. It’s a great way to improve your own writing. Obviously I don’t mean you should go and steal someone’s idea, but you’ll subconsciously absorb lots of things you don’t even realise. After all, what you read for most of your life shaped you into the writer you are today, and you probably didn’t even know it! When you think you have your final draft ready, send it over to me, and I’ll put the finishing touches to all your hard work!

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Growing up Carpenter

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Like many people growing up in the 1980s, a trip to the corner shop for a video on a Saturday night was an integral part of my weekend. Of course it wasn’t me usually doing the renting, which meant a fair old smattering of sci-fi and horror – such was the preference of my Dad. Naturally, I’ve inherited his love for the weird and wonderful, which was why I recently found myself at a concert by the horror master himself, John Carpenter.

For those not in the know, as well as directing his films, Carpenter composed and performed the score for the vast majority of them himself. As far as critical acclaim goes, his crowning achievement is of course Halloween, and, it was this timeless chiller that brought him fame. But as the 80s turned into the 90s, the fickle beast that is Hollywood turned its bristly back on Carpenter, which is why I’m especially glad to see him making such a success with his music.

This isn’t merely a solo show though. Backed by a band of skilled musicians, including his son Cody creating a double synth attack, Carpenter takes to the stage to the strains of Escape from New York. It’s another of his most celebrated creations, and it’s great to hear its soundtrack skillfully fleshed out by a live band, and to see Snake Pliskin’s antics re-writ large on the video screens above Carpenter and co.

Pliskin was so memorably played by Kurt Russell – a regular go-to lead man for Carpenter, who also features in my personal favourite, The Thing. This especially foreboding theme fits the movie perfectly and it’s great to hear the Septuagenarian synth-lover play it, even though it was the work of the great Ennio Morricone – something Carpenter explains to the audience beforehand. Throughout the evening we’re treated to pretty much every Carpenter theme, along with a number of old JC’s stand-alone compositions taken from his lost themes albums. “Be careful driving home, because Christine’s out there”, quips Carpenter, before the soundtrack to every second-hand car buyer’s worst nightmare brings the night to a close.

It’s gratifying to see that Carpenter’s carved out his own creepy niche performing his music in later years and even more so that his recently-released Halloween sequel has received largely positive reviews.

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A Summer of Verne

Jules Verne

I may have been familiar with some of his most popular work thanks to the old film adaptions I watched my childhood, but until this summer, I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never read anything by Jules Verne.

There, I said it. Feels better to get it out in the open. I ‘m still only two books better off, but what an amazing pair of books they are. It’s admittedly a massively overused phrase but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and its Sequel The Mysterious Island really have stood the test of time as pieces of literature. A good story is a good story and will always trump a work which falls over itself to shoe-horn as many fancy words in as it can. That’s not to say Verne didn’t show literary flair but his emphasis was always on keeping the reader gripped and taking them on a fantastical journey.

All the while I was reading, I was reminding myself that they were translations too, and what skill Verne must’ve had to ensure the many works he wrote in his native French could be enjoyed by everyone. They’re a fascinating time capsule as well, from a time when it wasn’t easy to visit other countries, experience other cultures, or an everyday occurrence to meet someone with a different colour of skin.

In 20,000 Leagues…, Verne not only introduced one of popular culture’s most enduring figures in the enigmatic Captain Nemo, but one of its greatest feats of engineering, his mighty vessel the Nautilus. We take the idea of the submarine for granted now, but in this book, Verne pretty much invented it. The ideas and concepts he introduced in the book surrounding the Nautilus must’ve been nothing short of revolutionary at the time and it’s quite an experience to read about it now, knowing that at the time of publication, no-one had ever heard of such a thing before.

The Mysterious Island has also received the film adaption treatment – twice – but it was of course the original which caught my attention as a child. In it, Verne carefully weaves a stand-alone tale into the continuation of Nemo’s story seamlessly and extremely satisfyingly. In some ways it’s an even more gripping read, and it’s fascinating to behold the ingenuity of its protagonists as they adapt to life on their new-found accidental home.

If you’re a literary stranger to Jules Verne, I’d highly recommend these two great helpings of escapism.

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October 8, 2018 · 8:41 am