Adrian Tchaikovsky Talks Dogs of War at Waterstones

Last Wednesday, I was in Leeds for the launch of Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s latest novel, Dogs of War. Leeds Waterstones have a lot of good events for the discerning sf+f fan, and this was no exception. With a reading from the novel followed by an interview conducted by David Tallerman, it was an intriguing introduction to what promises to be a great read.

I made a bunch of notes on what Adrian said, notes I’ll dig out when I have time to read the book (my to-read pile already includes five other Tchaikovsky books, so it might be a little while). Dogs of War is a story that addresses human rights and the hypocrisy of war, as well as the different approaches that might be taken to artificial intelligence. Based on what I’ve heard so far, it also has one of the most distinctive character voices I’ve ever encountered. The uplifted dog Rex wants to be a good boy and please his human masters, which coming from a carefully engineered killing machine is touching, funny, and tragic. This is military scifi that doesn’t follow the usual path of military scifi.

But what I most took away from the evening was a love for what Leeds Waterstones are doing for readers. To compete with the likes of Amazon, they’re turning into more than a shop, running events that bring readers together. Just attending this book launch, I stumbled into the tail end of a regular book quiz and got to hear about a Terry Pratchett book club. It made me realise that there’s a community of sf+f fans being brought together by these events, a community I want to get more involved with.

Reading can seem like an isolated activity, but a love of books can really bring us together.

Now to go join a book club.

Histories of Violence – the FantasyCon 2017 Fighting Panel

Fighting features a lot in fantasy literature. And so it makes sense that almost every FantasyCon has a panel about writing combat. This year’s featured:

What Makes a Good Fight?

Adrian talked about how a well-written fight scene has a clear perspective. The fight should be seen from a specific point of view but the writer should also know what’s happening beyond that viewpoint. Anna said she focuses on sensations and emotions, bringing the fight to life. Stewart went more specific on this, saying that as a reader he likes to feel breathless.

Stewart also said that the fight should fuel what else is going on for the character. Related to this, Simon said that there needs to be a reason for the fight, something to care about.

The Influence of Other Media

Discussing the influence of other media on their work, Stewart said that good computer games are an influence for him, but not films, as none of them live up to his experience from HEMA.

The panellists picked out a few examples that have good lessons – the meaningful action of Sam Peckinpah, the sensory richness of costume dramas, the mess and chaos of Saving Private Ryan. But as Adrian pointed out, trying to replicate a good scene from a film wouldn’t make a good written fight – they work differently.

This led into an interesting discussion of the aesthetics of violence in fiction. Simon said that it should be simultaneously appealing and appalling. Stewart said that the tunnel vision that comes in a fight creates a sense of intimacy and even camaraderie between opponents. Anna described it as something that can be deeply mindful.

As Adrian pointed out, if the reader knows more about the fight and its consequences than the participants then this can add to its power and emotion. There is, as Anna brilliantly described it, a moment of human tragedy as you see the mistake unfolding.

Accuracy Versus Entertainment

As David pointed out, most real fights are short, ugly, and not cool. This raised a question – is accuracy not a good thing?

Stewart discussed how, in late medieval and renaissance fighting manuals, most moves have only three steps – by then you’ve won, lost, or backed off. If you don’t hit first and you don’t back off, you might get hit back. If you’re writing something grim, there’s a place for that harsh realism.

Anna said that it depends on what you want to write. This is fantasy, and there’s a place for the gorgeous romance of Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling. As Adrian said, fights with pezazz are part of what readers expect from fantasy.

Final Points

A couple of interesting points came out near the end.

Adrian discussed how there are three levels of fights, each requiring different skills from both combatants and writers – the duel, the skirmish between a few people, and the mass battle. He considers the skirmish the hardest to write, as you’ve got multiple combatants but can’t just treat them as a chaotic mass.

Stewart said that, historically, battles with melee weapons tended to have surprisingly low casualties. Victory came through intimidation and breaking the enemy’s will, not through killing.

Overall, this was an excellent panel with a lot of useful insights. There’s a reason why the fighting panel is a staple of conventions.

The Black River Chronicles: Level One by David Tallerman and Michael Wills

Editors often talk about the problem of roleplay games turned into fantasy novels.

Sure, sometimes it works. Adrian Tchaikovsky built a multi-volume epic out of a roleplay campaign. Brandon Sanderson‘s roleplay habit shapes his wonderfully well-developed worlds.

But often roleplay games turned into written stories aren’t so great. What was massively entertaining as a game might not make a strong story. Emotional attachment can stop people stepping back and critically looking at their narrative. The derivative genre tropes that fill so many roleplay games can make for extremely derivative stories.

David Tallerman and Michael Wills’s The Black River Chronicles: Level One takes this problematic starting point and creates something more knowing. The protagonist is a trainee ranger at an academy for adventurers. Students go through levels as they are trained. Attributes such as intelligence and dexterity are graded on number scores. It’s as if the mechanics of a roleplay game came to life, not just the tropes, and the characters had to deal with the consequences.

Rather than be ruled by familiar tropes or do battle with them, this story embraces them. It creates something charming and a little offbeat, yet comforting and familiar. It’s light-hearted fun with likeable characters. Roleplayers will enjoy seeing the things behind the scenes of a roleplay game brought front and centre. Other readers might still enjoy the fantasy adventure – having roleplayed for over 25 years, I can’t muster the distance to tell. But if you’ve ever picked up a set of oddly shaped dice, rolled to hit, and wondered how much XP you’d get for killing the goblin, then this one’s for you.

Hooray for the Second Draft!

All of these were once messes of red ink and notes scribbled in the margins
All of these were once messes of red ink and notes scribbled in the margins

I’ve discussed before the hatred many people feel for writing second drafts, and some ways to survive that. But as David Tallerman pointed out in response, there’s actually a lot of pleasure to be taken in writing second drafts. If you’re happy getting critical with yourself, they can be the most satisfying part.

My personal favourite thing about writing second drafts is finding something cool I wrote but had forgotten about, something that reminds me that I really can write. David expands upon the joy of second draft better than I could do, so if you’re still struggling with those pesky edits then go check out his post.

Plot Twists – a Mancunicon Panel

Twist - the bee did it!
Twist – the bee did it!

The best writer-oriented event I attended at Mancunicon was also the first I went to – a panel on plot twists on the Friday afternoon. Moderated by Gillian Redfearn, Publishing Director at Gollancz, it also featured authors Susan Bartholomew, Charles Stross, David Tallerman, Chris Wooding and Sebastien de Castell. All involved were on fine form, being both entertaining and insightful. Among their top writing tips were:

  • A good twist should be preceded by a bunch of stuff you can look back at afterwards and say “I should have known” (CW).
  • Be careful that your twist doesn’t ruin the meaning of what came before (DT).
  • Be careful your twist doesn’t undermine the main character – Poirot should have noticed what was happening in Murder on the Orient Express, so making it a twist undermined his credibility as a smart character (GR).
  • A good twist doesn’t come too soon or too late – usually about two-thirds of the way through the story (SB).
  • A good twist gives the narrative a different meaning (DT).
  • A twist that makes everything before it a lie or irrelevant is a bad twist, as readers feel like they’ve been wasting their time (CW/DT).
  • A twist should be seasoning, not something the whole story relies on to work (SdC).
  • The further you twist things, the more likely that you just won’t be in your genre any more (CW).
  • Your twist needs to be consistent with the setup earlier in the work – plausible but not predictable (CS).

 

Anime, Asimov and Alternate Realities – an Interview with David Tallerman

PatchwerkDavid Tallerman is an author of science fiction, fantasy and many other things. I’ve written previously about his books Giant Thief and Patchwerk. Over the past couple of years we’ve become friends, mostly through the shared bond of convention bars. So with several new books from him in the offing, I abused my position to get an interview.

And here it is…

AK: Let’s start with the obvious question – tell us about your latest book.

DT: Actually, it’s more books at this point! January saw the release of my Tor.com novella Patchwerk and, if all goes well, February should bring my fully-illustrated collection of horror and dark fantasy short fiction The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.

But going back to Patchwerk, it’s the story of a scientist named Dran Florrian whose solution to the many problems of the near-future world he inhabits has been to create a machine called Palimpsest that’s capable of repairing his own reality by patching in elements copied from others. Dran, being the sort of overly-focused individual who would build a thing like that without fully thinking through all the implications, is just now waking up to the fact that he’s created something of apocalyptic power in the wrong hands, and has decided to smuggle himself and Palimpsest to somewhere safer. The only problem is that he’s already too late, and when an attempt to steal it leaves Palimpsest damaged, Dran begins to discover just what his creation is capable of.

The idea was very much to write a kind of high-concept action movie, the sort of thing that would only really work in a novella format. And Patchwerk is also a love story of a sort, though one set after the actual love story is over. That seems to be the aspect that’s getting the least attention in reviews, but it’s perhaps my favourite part.

– You write in a wide range of genres – fantasy, science fiction, horror, crime – and a range of formats – novels, comics, novellas, short stories. For you as a writer, what’s the advantage of doing so many different things rather than focusing on one?

In many ways, I think it’s proved more of a liability; I suspect that I’d have had more success by now if I’d stuck to one or even two genres. Still, I hope there are a few people out there who are excited by the notion of a picking up a book by a writer knowing that at the very least it will be completely different to what they’ve read before from that person.

Whatever the case, I’m convinced that I’m a better writer for it. Every new thing you try teaches you something that’s applicable elsewhere and helps to keep your ideas fresh. I’d hate to ever feel like I was repeating myself, and if that means I tend to over-steer the other way then I guess it’s a price I’m happy to pay. But mainly I do it because it’s fun and it keeps me interested, and I suppose because I want to get to play with all of the writer toys.

– Your novella Patchwerk deals with alternate realities and the desire to change them. If you could step into an alternate reality of your choice, how would it be different from our own?

I think that one of the inevitable morals of this kind of story is that we live in the best of all and the worst of all possible worlds, and your only option as an individual is to do whatever you can to make it more the former than the latter. Having said that, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at any reality where I got Crouching Tiger style Wushu flying powers. I mean, that would be pretty cool.

Giant Thief– Easie Damasco, the hero of your Thief novels, is a selfish loner reluctantly pushed into doing good deeds. We shouldn’t like him, and yet we do. Why did you choose a protagonist so inherently hard to like? How did you make that work? And what foul deeds did you commit to get into his mindset?

I don’t know that I chose Easie as such, he just kind of came along. Because Giant Thief was my first proper novel, it never occurred to me that it might be problematic to have a protagonist who was basically pretty obnoxious and by no definition a good person. Easie was a bad guy because the setup I had called for a bad guy, and I suppose I figured that because he was funny – at any rate, because I found him funny – it wouldn’t be much of an issue.

The thing is, to me, Easie is a fairly realistic character, within the bounds of the kind of story that Giant Thief is; he’s not some cartoonish rogue, he really is a criminal and he’s led the life of a criminal, so of course he doesn’t simply begin doing the right thing at the first opportunity. He has his good side, he’s capable of kindness – he treats animals, as a rule, better than he does people – and he even has a kind of lopsided sense of right and wrong. Again, I suppose I just hoped that those qualities might be enough to allow readers to turn a blind eye to some of his less savoury behaviour!

As for any likeness between him and me, the most we have in common is a propensity to talk to horses. I can honestly say that I’ve never once stolen a giant, a crown or even a prince.

– Other than your own books, what have you really enjoyed reading recently?

That implies that I sit around all day reading my own books! Whereas in fact I tend to wait for the audio book to come out.

I’m just right now getting to the end of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ten book Shadows of the Apt epic fantasy / sci-fi series, and it’s been a hell of a ride. I normally avoid doorstopper books due to limited time, but once I finished the first I just didn’t want to stop. I also went back and reread The War of the Worlds for research on a short story and it was a reminder of just what an incredible, ahead of its time book it is. To anyone who hasn’t read it, or whose memories have been muddied by the films, I’d recommend coming to it with fresh eyes, it’s a true masterpiece.

– As your blog shows, you’re passionate about anime. What’s special about the genre that appeals to you? And if someone doesn’t watch anime why should they try it?

Well, you know, we’re talking about a vast body of work here and what’s visible in the West, especially here in the UK, is only the tip of the iceberg. It sounds like nitpicking but its actually a crucial point: anime is a medium and not a genre. So in that sense to say “what’s the appeal of anime” is a little like saying “what’s the appeal of film” or “what’s the appeal of books.” If you enjoy art or entertainment then there will absolutely definitely be something in the world of anime that will appeal to you, and it’s easier than ever these days to track down something that fits your tastes. Certainly if you’re into just about any subgenre of fantasy or science-fiction then you’re doing yourself a huge disserve not to.

For me personally, though, I would say that, firstly, I love animation; I love the artistry of it and, although I like Western animation too, there’s the obvious fact that it’s been dominated by a company that gears their work predominantly towards children for the better part of a century. On top of that, anime tends to handle genres that I like, fantasy, horror and sci-fi, in a manner that’s more thematically diverse and, at its best, more sophisticated than what tends to come out of Western film and television. I suppose the relative lack of budgetary constraints is a big part of that: even if you had the impetus to make something like the Ghost in the Shell TV series, that kind of smart, adult-focused science fiction, the costs would be prohibitive. But for whatever reason, I think that the best anime tends to be a little more daring in its story-telling and the kind of places it’s willing to go to.

Oh, and in the spirit of absolute honesty, I’ve come to realise that I’m kind of a sucker for J-pop.

– Who would win in a fight – Isaac Asimov or J R R Tolkien?

Are they armed? What’s the field of combat? Are they in the back of a moving vehicle? Has Asimov had any opportunity to slip nerve toxin into Tolkien’s tankard of ale? Did they bring their writing possies?

But actually, none of that matters. The correct answer is Isaac Asimov.

– Where can people find you on the internet? And what terrible things will befall them there?

I am in many places on the internet, but a good place to start would probably be my website at www.davidtallerman.co.uk. There’s nothing terrible there at all, it’s a place of innocence, beauty and quietude. Kind of like a Zen garden, if Zen gardens were full of people ranting lengthily about anime.

Patchwerk by David Tallerman – the Novella as Action Movie

Patchwerk“Sometimes all you need is an infinite number of heroes.’ – tagline to Patchwerk.

Patchwerk, the new novella by David Tallerman, is a complete action story that takes place over the course of a single flowing scene, yet shifts across half a dozen realities. The protagonist, Dran Florrian, is the inventor of the Palimpsest, a machine capable of reaching across the fabric of reality, linking one universe with the next. When someone tries to steal the Palimpsest, and so to turn Florrian’s invention into a weapon, the device is triggered. Florrian finds himself on the run across realities, all without leaving the aircraft he’s on.

Except that now the aircraft is an airship. No, wait, it’s a train. Nope, it’s some kind of living, throbbing vehicle, and Florrian’s an insect.

Florrian is in for a difficult ride.

Action and Adventure in 134 Pages

The novella format lends itself well to the story Tallerman’s telling here. With fewer pages to play with, the story doesn’t get strung out, and a keen reader could get through it in a single long sitting.* Like a well-made action movie or a good graphic novel, it maintains a pace that keeps you going, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be getting the payoff soon. The different worlds Florrian is exposed to are interesting, and there’s an emotional heart to the story that gives it extra substance, as well as a satisfying finale.

The Anti-Sliders

Remember that TV show Sliders? It came out in the 1990s, when TV executives had realised that science fiction could sell, but weren’t yet willing to give it a decent budget. Week after week, the heroes jumped from one reality to the next. Most of the worlds they visited looked almost exactly like a modern American TV lot, and none of the adventures carried much emotional weight, as each one was wrapped up before they jumped worlds. Reasons to care were thin on the ground.

Patchwerk is the opposite of that. With only a few words, Tallerman hints at worlds which are both familiar and very different from our own, creating the sort of richness that emerges from careful implication. Because the characters and situation carry over from one reality to the next, you’re already engaged in each one. If you care enough to get past the first few pages then you will keep on caring.

It’s not a story of vast depth and substance, but as an adventure story it’s very satisfying.

The Return of the Novella

 

For those watching the publishing industry, Patchwerk is also a marker in a wider trend – the growing diversity of formats. As indie authors have been pointing out for several years, novellas sell, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary. How you sell them is a trickier issue and one that publishers Tor have tackled in launching a range of novellas. From sprawling epic series to stand alone flash fiction, there’s a wider range of reading options available than ever before, giving readers huge choice.

Yet there’s still resistance to this in traditional publishing. After all, resistance to change is what established institutions do. Ten minutes after thrusting Patchwerk into my eager hands, Tallerman himself was declaring that fifty thousand words doesn’t count as a novel, even though it’s an accepted length in YA, indie publishing and romance – the latter being the most flourishing market out there. Ole mental habits die hard. Tor have stepped cautiously into trying something new with novellas, and there are plenty of people predicting that they’ll fail, or that what they’re doing won’t catch on.

This line of novellas may or may not work for Tor. If they fail, traditional sf+f publishers will once again declare the novella dead, and probably not dig any deeper into what went wrong. If they succeed, expect others to tiptoe slowly onto the bandwagon.

In the meantime, we get some cracking short reads, Patchwerk among them. If you like quick adventure stories or tales of parallel realities then give it a go.

 

Disclaimer: David is a friend of mine, and he gave me my copy of Patchwerk. If I hadn’t liked it I just wouldn’t have blogged about it – a general policy I take to books, so that I can keep this space positive. But still, bias warning, I was pre-disposed to like this one.

 

* It took me two, interrupted by the arrival of my new Playstation.

The Geekend

Getting over-excited - the essence of the geekend.
Getting over-excited – the essence of the geekend.

I picked up a new word at Fantasy Con, and it’s a word I now know I always needed. That word is geekend.

Most of my best weekends are geekends. I might be at a fantasy convention, a live roleplay game, a board gaming meet up, or just hanging out with friends playing drinking beer and talking about comics. There’s a shared atmosphere to all these occasions – a sense of enthusiasm, relaxation and geeky camaraderie. I might drift between my different nerdy hobbies, but the core pleasure remains, and that pleasure is the geekend.

Credit for this new piece of vocabulary goes to David Tallerman. I don’t know whether he can be credited with its invention – that’s the problem with writers, they’re always making stuff up. But learning the word over drinks in a convention bar, from a friend I met over drinks in a convention bar, that’s perfect.

Do you turn your weekends into geekends? Have you just got back from one? Share your particular enthusiasms below – what do you love enough to spend a whole weekend nerding out over it?

Redshirts and recklessness – my recent reading

I’ve been reading some pretty cool stuff recently. I don’t seem to have time for full posts on any of it, but here’s a few things you might enjoy…

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Imagine if all those Star Trek extras who get killed on away missions realised how much danger they were in. Then imagine them trying to make sense of the weekly horror and terrible fatality rate that is their lives. That’s what this book is about.

Redshirts is odd stylistically. There’s almost no description, just a lot of dialogue and occasional action. That lack of description adds to the sense of anonymous people caught up in their terrible anonymous fate, as well as letting you imagine the trappings of your favourite scifi show as the backdrop to their lives. It’s the sort of meta-textual game that’s intriguing for a stand-alone novel but wouldn’t stand up to a series, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

If you’re a Star Trek fan or enjoy watching a writer play stylistic games then it’s well worth your time. If not you might find it a little frustrating. But if I have more than three readers who never watcher Trek then I’ll eat my hat. Or at least a hat shaped cake.

 

The Thief Trilogy by David Tallerman

I wrote a whole post about why I enjoyed the first book in this series, and it turns out that the rest live up to its promise. It’s a fantasy world without much of the wizz-bang magic stuff, in which the main fantasy elements are an invented country and some loveable giants. Thief and protagonist Easie Damasco continues to do the right thing against his own better judgement, and in the process follows a nice character arc from selfish prat to something at least vaguely akin to a hero.

This is a fast moving, action packed series with a certain wry humour to it and a nicely developed setting. The likeable supporting characters help to carry the reader through despite Easie’s initially despicable attitude to life, and the giants in particular are surprisingly loveable. Even Easie is hard not to like, with his sense of humour up there with his sense of self-preservation, and the clear hints from the start that he sort of wants to do the right thing, however much he protests against it. I’m going to miss these guys now the story’s done.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

If the art of the short story lies in succinctly portraying a single fascinating idea then Chiang has it nailed. Stories of Your Life and Others was something I only picked up as part of a reading group, and that I then fell far too far behind in reading to take part in the discussion, which is particularly vexing because these are fascinating ideas, from digging through the vault of heaven to trying to learn the language of a previously unknown alien species. The characters have emotional depth, the settings and events are interesting, but because it’s short stories I didn’t have the constant page-turning thrill of a longer work where you keep wanting to know what will happen next. Recommended for the cool concepts and self-contained emotional journeys, but if you’re anything like me you’ll read it over weeks of dipping in for one story, not in an over-excited binge.

*

NaNoWriMo update

Day one and I haven’t done my daily writing yet, but I’m sure I will. I just wish that I’d gotten round to planning chapter one in advance, or even coming up with decent names for the characters at the planning stage. I can’t write a half dozen scenes about Cardinal Cardinalface.

On Thursday I counted up all the fiction writing I’ll be doing in November. Between NaNoWriMo, a heavy freelance workload and my flash Friday stories, I need to write around 185,000 words of fiction to hit my goals this month. Plus about 15,000 words of non-fiction for this blog and another ongoing freelance gig. That’s a pretty staggering 200k in total. What’s even more staggering is that in theory it’s doable.

If I can do this then I can do anything I set my mind to, which I guess is the attitude NaNo is meant to foster. Have at you word count!

How are the rest of you getting on with NaNo? And having read my book recommendations, do you have any of your own that you’d like to share?