Sunday 29 November 2020

November novel-writing: a few thoughts about what worked well this year

I didn't officially take part in Nanowrimo this year -- I deleted my account earlier in the year in dismay at their tweets about J.K. Rowling -- but in November I always write novels, and that didn't change. This year, I finished two novels off, Rolnikov the God, which I began writing in November 2019, and We Slept Through the Apocalypse, which I began back in November 2008. Finishing a book on which I'd been stuck for so long made me very happy, and that means I've now finished writing eleven of these daft novels. I think I'm going to keep going, and see if I can finish a few more, after catching up on my book reviews.

Anyway, for my own future reference as much as anyone else's interest, here are a few of the things that worked for me this month, roughly in order of where they came in the writing process:

Leaving Twitter and Facebook. I left Twitter and Facebook at the beginning of November and stayed off completely until I had finished a novel. To be honest, I wish I had stayed off until I had finished both novels. It's not just reading the posts on social media that is a drag on concentration -- though Twitter especially does offer a never-ending succession of interesting people with interesting thoughts -- it's writing my own posts, and then thinking about the responses to my posts, and then thinking about how to respond to those responses. I spent an entire week earlier this year arguing about the canonical sexuality of Velma from Scooby-Doo, for example. All thinking time better invested in the novels. I've become a big fan of just reading Twitter on the television, via the Fire TV stick, not logged in. It becomes like reading a newspaper then, much more enjoyable, with no sense of an obligation to respond to anything.

Moleskine squared cahiers. I love these. I've been using them for a few years now. I have one for each novel. I draw a front cover and write a blurb for the back cover, both of which help keep me focused on what the book is supposed to be about. The first few double-page spreads are for brainstorms, character lists, maps, mysteries that need to be resolved, and other things I need to remember. Then each chapter gets a double-page spread. On the left-hand pages go the things that are supposed to happen in that chapter, and on the right go the things that did actually happen, if different. It's so useful having my notes in these self-contained little booklets. I can take them anywhere, and they make it immensely easier to resume writing an unfinished book. I've just ordered another set of three, to help me finish off The Mysteries of Mygret Zend, The Triumphs of the Two Husbands and I Couldn't See Past the Spider.

Routine. I got into a very nice routine this year, helped, I have to admit, by one of our children having to quarantine in her room after being in close contact with a Covid-19 carrier. (Don't worry, both children seem to be fine.) That meant I didn't have to get up early with her, and also that the other daughter was sleeping on the sofa, so I couldn't play on the Xbox after half nine or so. Every night I would go in my office between nine and ten, start writing, and carry on till that chapter was done. I like writing in the mornings too, but that's a bit harder without a pub to go to, and if I don't get a chapter done in the morning it can be a drag on the whole day.

The Freewrite and the Freewrite Traveler. I wrote for most of the month on the original Freewrite, and then switched seamlessly to the Freewrite Traveler when that superb device arrived. Using the same device every day helped me to get into a routine, and it helped that the Freewrites are focused entirely on writing. There's literally nothing else you can do on them. When I sat down to write, everything else was already switched off and the Freewrite was waiting for me.

Alexa. I set up a routine on Alexa called Novel writing, with music. It tells me to write a hundred words, then plays a long, wordless song for seven and a half minutes, which is usually more than enough for me to write a hundred words. Then it tells me to aim for two hundred words and plays another long, wordless song, and so on until I reach my target of 1666 words for the day and the chapter. It's like putting myself on a train track. Once I'm on, I can't get off, I just have to keep going till I reach the station.

Hundred-word chunks. It's hard to write 1666 words, but it's easy to write 100. I marked each 100 words off with a cross on that chapter's page of the cahier.

Treats. Each 100 words earned me a treat. I'm getting a bit sick of Haribos at this point, but I finished two novels so they seem to have done the trick!

Playing cards. After each 100 words I also get to turn over a playing card. (I do the same thing with proofreading, where I turn over a playing card for each page read.) This acts as a surprise and a treat, but I think it also provides a physical manifestation of progress through a project that you don't get when writing or reading digitally. I have various sets of playing cards that I use (Doctor Who, James Bond, Star Wars, Judge Dredd, etc), but this year I mainly used a (possibly unlicensed) set that featured paintings of Tarzan, John Carter, Game of Thrones and Vampirella.

The Kindle. I have things set up so that when I finish the chapter, and press the SEND button on my Freewrite, it gets automatically forwarded to my Kindle. It was such a pleasure to go to bed each night knowing that I would have a new chapter of my own novels to read! I wouldn't recommend them to anyone else, but I find them hilarious. I would annotate the chapter while reading, then in the morning take in those corrections to the text file. It was good preparation for writing the next chapter, but also meant the novels were in pretty good shape by the time I finished writing them. Expect to see them in future issues of TQF!

Not reading anything else. I didn't read other books this month. I got that out of my system in October! I read the new chapters of my books, and the old chapters of those books, and chapters of other books I've written about the same characters. That meant I was constantly refreshing my memory of their lives, and noticing details I could work back into the story. It also meant that I didn't get drawn into thinking about other people's plots instead of mine, or get distracted by writing book reviews instead of fiction.

Friday 27 November 2020

The Expanse, Season 3, by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and chums (Amazon Prime Video) | review by Stephen Theaker

Thirteen episodes of top-flight space adventure. They begin with Earth, Mars and the Belters at loggerheads, heading for war, and later put their people in a situation where co-operation is their only hope. In the middle of it all is James Holden and the capable crew of the Rosinante, pushed and pulled by forces they barely understand. Acting, storylines, effects, dialogue: all brilliant. It was dramatic, funny and epic, with a generous helping of sense of wonder. Stephen Theaker ****

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Splatterpunk’s Not Dead, edited by Jack Bantry (Splatterpunk Zine) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Splatterpunk may not be dead, but if this is the measure, then it’s only half alive. 

Splatterpunk’s Not Dead purports to reignite the presumed dying art of the splatterpunk horror subgenre. However, only half the stories within the anthology offer something both inventive and splattery. The remaining stories range from so-so to forgettable, plus there are quite a few mistakes.  

Monday 23 November 2020

The Devil, by Ken Bruen | review by Rafe McGregor

The Devil by Ken Bruen. Transworld Ireland, 304pp, £12.99, May 2011, ISBN 9781848270206.

I first came to Ken Bruen in 2002.  I was researching for a military police procedural series that I hoped would launch a writing career and was reading or watching every mystery with a military setting I could find.  I read a review of The Guards (2001), the first Jack Taylor novel, and because either the review or my concentration were lacking came away with the impression that it was about a murder in a London barracks.  Not even close – it’s actually about an alcoholic ex-guard (Irish police officer) who works as a private investigator in Galway, a small city on the west coast of Ireland.  I devoured it anyway and immediately sought out the second in the series, The Killing of the Tinkers (2002), which had just been published and which I read in a single sitting.  Like his protagonist, Bruen has suffered from addiction and his no-holds-barred noir fiction is nothing short of addictive itself – extremely difficult to stop once one starts, even if one later wonders if it was the wisest use of one’s time.  While I was waiting for the third Jack Taylor, The Magdalen Martyrs (2003), to be released, I got stuck into Bruen’s Detective Sergeant Brant series, police procedurals set in south-east London: A White Arrest (1998), Taming the Alien (1999), The McDead (2000), and Blitz (2002).  I also read two excellent standalones, The Hackman Blues (1997) and London Boulevard (2001).  The fourth Jack Taylor, The Dramatist (2004), won the Shamus Award, but it was at this stage that my appetite for Bruen started to wane.  First, there was simply too much personal tragedy in The Dramatist and too little mystery for my taste.  Second, it was at about this time that I realised The Magdalen Martyrs, which I had also loved, was essentially an inferior retelling of London Boulevard (which is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard).  I read the next three Jack Taylors and Brants with a strong sense of diminishing returns and gave up in 2008 with Sanctuary (the seventh Jack Taylor; the Brant series ended with Ammunition, published the previous year) and Once Were Cops, a disappointing standalone.

Friday 20 November 2020

Burials in Several Earths, by Radiophonic Workshop (Room 13) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Radiophonic Workshop created electronic music for BBC programmes, innovating all the while, and inspiring more than one generation of electronic musicians. After some surviving members reunited for live performances, they went on to make this excellent instrumental album. Four of the tracks are so long that two CDs are required, and when it is playing I’m never quite sure what is happening, but I like it a lot. It reminds me of classic Tangerine Dream albums like Alpha Centauri and Zeit. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday 15 November 2020

Ragged Alice, by Gareth L. Powell | review by Rafe McGregor

Ragged Alice by Gareth L. Powell, 202pp, £9.99, April 2019, ISBN  9781250220189

It would be an exaggeration to state that rescued the novella as a literary form in the twenty-first century, but that form certainly appeared to be in an irreversible decline by the end of the last century and’s series of speculative fiction novellas has made it a commercially-viable option for authors again.  The revival of the novella (and, to a much lesser extent, the short story) may also be a consequence of the shift from hard copy to hard and digital copy over the last two decades, however, as the chunky – and often clunky – ‘airport’ novel seems to be as popular as ever.  Notwithstanding, deserve credit where it is due and the renaissance in which they have at the very least played a significant part has been achieved in the simplest and most effective way possible, by publishing great novellas.  In the last four years alone, these have included: Victor Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016, reviewed in TQF here), Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone (2016) and A Song for Quiet (2017, TQF review here), David Tallerman’s Patchwerk (2016, TQF review here), and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier (2017–2020) series.  Personally, I couldn’t be more pleased about this.  If one follows Stephen King’s definition, the novella as a narrative of between twenty and eighty thousand words, it is my preferred form for most genre fiction.  It not only suits speculative fiction, but crime fiction too and almost all of Agatha Christie’s ‘novels’ as well as all four Sherlock Holmes ‘long’ stories were in fact novellas.  This review is of a particular combination of the two, an outstanding occult detective story that fits the novella form with pleasing perfection.

Friday 13 November 2020

The Vision, Vol. 1: A Little Less Than a Man, by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

This was an unexpected treat, and I can see why it got a lot of attention. The art is terrific, and the story is a real tragedy, as the Vision tries to set up a home with his synthezoid family and step by step things get worse and worse. It reminded me of The Leftovers in that way, and was somehow just as moving despite the protagonists being robots. Stephen Theaker ****

Thursday 12 November 2020

Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons, by James Lovegrove | review by Rafe McGregor

Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons
Sherlock Holmes and the Beast of the Stapletons by James Lovegrove

Titan Books, 408pp, £11.75, October 2020, ISBN 9781789094695

Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialised in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902 and then published as a novel (or, more accurately, a novella) by George Newnes the following month. The tale is probably the best known of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and is certainly one of the most filmed, with big and small screen adaptations stretching from 1914 to 2016 at the time of writing, including retellings in both BBC One’s Sherlock (2010-2017) and CBS’s Elementary (2012–2019) series (The Hounds of Baskerville in 2012 and Hounded in 2016 respectively). I think it may also be the narrative about which I have written the most, in terms of number of publications: a review of one of the sequels, David Stuart Davies’ The Tangled Skein (1995) in TQF24 (2008); an article for Crime and Detective Stories (2008) in which I propose an alternative solution to the case; a review of SelfMadeHero’s graphic novel in TQF29 (2009); a chapter in Josef Steiff’s Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy (2011) in which I suggest that the novella is primarily a work of horror rather than crime; and a short story sequel, “The Wrong Doctor”, first published in TQF50 (2015) and reprinted in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine 20 (2016) and The Adventures of Roderick Langham (2017). The reason for my fascination – or perhaps I should say fixation – is my interest in crossover between crime and horror fiction (particularly, but not exclusively, the occult detective) and my agreement with Christopher Frayling’s claim that The Hound is one of the four great Gothic horror stories of the first century of the genre, alongside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In the chapter for Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy I examined both the creative context of the novella, which was originally intended to be a supernatural story co-authored with Bertram Fletcher Robinson, and the narrative itself to show that the mystery plot is underpinned by tropes much more common to the horror genre.

Wednesday 11 November 2020

Vampires vs. the Bronx | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Stranger Things partners with Fright Night and moves to the city to take on gentrification 

Kids find out vampires are trying to take over their neighbourhood. Adults don’t believe it. And so a familiar scenario plays out in Vampires vs. the Bronx, directed by Oz Rodriguez. Lots of clichés in this one: hissing, baring teeth, gathering weapons, taking notes from movies. However, one thing does set this film apart from other vamp flicks: the predators use the guise of a real estate firm to pursue their malicious goal. They even go so far as to enlist some of the neighbourhood thugs to help them.

Tuesday 10 November 2020

The Dark Knight Rises | review by Rafe McGregor

The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Bruce Wayne, Bill Gates, or Donald Trump?

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is the third instalment of his Dark Knight Trilogy, which began with the unimaginatively-named Batman Begins in 2005.  The latter title was selected to indicate that Nolan’s trilogy is a reboot, starting the story afresh after Warner Brothers’ initial film series ended with its fourth instalment, Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997), which was very poorly received by critics.  As the title of the Trilogy suggests, Nolan wanted to return to the hardboiled realism of Frank Miller, Klaus Jackson, and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) rather than continue the comedy that Schumacher brought to Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin, which was reminiscent of the camp humour that popularised ABC’s Batman (1966–1968) television series.  Batman Begins finds millionaire Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) setting out to train himself as an outlaw in order to return to Gotham (a fictionalised New York) and perform the role of a law enforcer – against the threat of organised crime – a role that the corrupt police department cannot fulfil.  In Bhutan, he is trained by the League of Shadows, which initially appears to be a monastic order but is subsequently revealed as a kind of Hegel-inspired insurgency that has existed for centuries and shapes world history by destroying civilizations when they become too decadent.  Wayne escapes when he learns that Gotham has been selected as the League’s next target and returns to save the city from organised crime as Batman, with the benefit of his physical and mental training at the hands of the League and the technology produced by Wayne Enterprises.

Monday 9 November 2020

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle | review by Rafe McGregor, paperback, £8.82, February 2016, ISBN 9780765387868

Read on its own, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is a fine example of a novella in the hybrid genre of the weird tale – or perhaps, more accurately, the new weird.  In The Weird Tale (1990) and The Modern Weird Tale (2001), S.T. Joshi defines the weird tale as a retrospective category of speculative fiction, published from 1880 to 1940, that is essentially philosophical in virtue of representing a fully-fledged and fleshed-out world view. The new weird was initially associated with China Miéville in the UK and subsequently Jeff VanderMeer in the US (although both Miéville and Joshi reject the term). In their introduction to the short story collection, The New Weird (2008), VanderMeer and his wife, Ann, distinguish the new weird from the weird tale in terms of the former combining real-world complexity with transgressive fantasy and contemporary political relevance. Read in conjunction with H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”, which was first published in Weird Tales in January 1927, The Ballad of Black Tom is a deliberate and definitive deconstruction of the original short story. LaValle takes one of Lovecraft’s most overtly and viciously racist narratives and reimagines the character, action, and setting represented by Lovecraft from a twenty-first century that is conscious of racial prejudice, social injustice, and police impunity. LaValle dates his story to 1924, when Lovecraft and his wife, Sonia Greene, were living in Flatbush and the real horror of Red Hook for Lovecraft was the extent of its multiculturalism, which stimulated his racism and xenophobia and fears of miscegenation and evolutionary reversal. In contemporary terms, Lovecraft believed he saw first-hand at Red Hook evidence of the white genocide conspiracy theory, which is one of the reasons he returned to his sanctuary in Providence, Rhode Island, after less than two years. LaValle is an African American novelist and short story writer from Queens, who lives in Washington Heights, and his complex relationship with Lovecraft is revealed in the dedication of the novella, ‘For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings’.

Friday 6 November 2020

Supergirl: Book Four, by Peter David, Leonard Kirk and chums (DC Comics) | review by Stephen Theaker

Reasonably enjoyable but surprisingly religious adventures of an odd Supergirl. Not Superman’s cousin, nor quite the protoplasm Supergirl either, she’s a mixed-up kid who merged with the protoplasm while dying to become, well, an angel. Trying to do good while keeping her secret identity under wraps, in this book she learns that her literally god-given talents have an expiration date. Though not so obviously aimed at men as earlier books, it’s still not the Supergirl you’d pick out for girls. Stephen Theaker ***

Thursday 5 November 2020

Poison City, by Paul Crilley | review by Rafe McGregor

Poison City by Paul Crilley

Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, £15.49, August 2016, ISBN 9781473631588

I’ll begin this review with a confession: for idiosyncratic reasons in which the readers of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction will have no interest, I have a soft spot for police procedurals set in Durban, South Africa’s ‘third city’ (after Johannesburg and Cape Town).  As far as I know, Poison City is the only police procedural set there aside from my own novella, The Secret Policeman (2008).  In consequence, I may have approached this novel in a less critical frame of mind than usual.  Having said that, this is not Durban as I or anyone else who has ever lived there knows it.  Scottish author Paul Crilley invites his readers to imagine a world similar to that of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), in which every legend, myth, cult, and religion ever invented by humanity is true and in which the orisha – these supernatural beings – all exist.  The difference between Crilley’s and Gaiman’s fictional worlds is twofold: first, Crilley is not afraid to confront the monotheistic religions and his God is simply another orisha, albeit one of the most powerful; second, the orisha are free to migrate where and when they wish rather than being reliant on humanity for their transportation and have accordingly dispersed across the globe.  A world where human and orisha live side-by-side requires a special police force and an international organisation of police officers along the lines of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) exists precisely for this purpose.  These Supernatural Divisions are part of the regular police forces of each country, clandestine units with obscure names run from secret headquarters whose primary purpose is to serve as peacekeepers, enforcing the Covenant, an ancient truce between humanity and orisha.  In South Africa, the Supernatural Division is called Delphic Division (DD), is part of the official Occult Related Crimes Unit of the South African Police Services (SAPS), and is based in Durban.  DD is nominally under the command of Divisional Commissioner Ranson, a political appointment, but actually run by Major Olivia Armitage, an Englishwoman in her fifties, and her senior investigator is Lieutenant Gideon Tau.

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Angel's Inferno, by William Hjortsberg | review by Rafe McGregor

Angel’s Inferno by William Hjortsberg

No Exit Press, 384pp, £8.19, October 2020, ISBN 9780857304131

The late William Hjortsbjerg (1941–2017) was a Hollywood screenwriter best known for his screenplay of Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985) and his novel, Falling Angel (1978), which was filmed as Angel Heart (1987), directed by Alan Parker.  I recently reviewed Angel Heart for TQF, discussing the film and the novel, in consequence of which this review includes spoilers for both.  Hjortsberg was not a prolific writer of books, publishing seven novels, one collection of short fiction, and one biography, with only Falling Angel achieving critical acclaim.  He published a single novel in the last twenty years of his life, Mañana (2015) and his last before that was Nevermore (1994), which may have been the inspiration for James McTeigue’s disappointing The Raven (2012), though I’ve found no acknowledgement of the connection.  Nevermore is considerably better than The Raven, featuring Harry Houdini and Conan Doyle as a detective duo (they were real life acquaintances), a fine example of an occult detective story that blends fact with fiction.  I’ve been interested in Hjortsberg for some time, but – like so many screenwriters – details of his work and life are difficult to find.  I stepped up my efforts when I reviewed Angel Heart and was surprised to learn that not only had he been working on a new novel at the very end of his life, but that it was a sequel to Falling Angel.  (There is no mention of the book on his own website, which is the most comprehensive source of information on him:  I had to re-read the final chapter of the latter to refresh my memory as to whether a sequel was possible without employing retroactive continuity… it is and it was first published by Centipede Press in July 2020, as a limited edition hardback paired with a new edition of Falling Angel that sold out on pre-orders.  The specialist crime fiction publisher No Exit Press, which is part of the Oldcastle Books Group and seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance of late, released the paperback and Kindle editions three months later.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

The sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale. Incendiaries, intrigue, and insurrection: finding the female voice in a world “where women might as well be house cats”.

What kind of place relegates women to groups with names like Econowives, Marthas, Handmaids, Pearl Girls, and Unwomen? Where might one see a Particicution in which normally meek and submissive women grow enraged and literally tear apart men convicted of crimes? Gilead, of course… the fictional setting of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.