The power of fandom: Phonogram by Gillen and McKelvie

I’m currently more excited about comics than I’ve been in months, and it all comes down to one release – Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine. It’s everything you’d expect from this talented team – beautiful illustrations, characterful dialogue, an intriguing mix of modern culture and fantasy. It’s the second best comic I’ve ever read about pop music as magic.

So naturally I’m going to talk about another comic – Phonogram.


Memories of music past

The first volume of Phonogram, Gillen and McKelvie’s previous collaboration, came out in 2006. Collected as Rue Britannia, this was the story of phonomancer David Kohl, a man with the power to make magic through music. Not playing his own tunes, but channeling the power of other people’s records. Ten years on from the phenomenon of Britpop, Kohl took a stroll down musical memory lane, digging into that era’s music, a mixture of daring and disappointment, in an attempt to solve a curse falling on him in the present.

Rue Britannia was unique and fascinating, and perhaps a bit self-indulgent. You didn’t have to have listened to a Shed Seven record to enjoy it, but if you remembered Menswear or had leapt around a nightclub to the sound of Elastica then it was going to be much more personal for you.

I don’t remember when I discovered Rue Britannia, but I was fascinated by its flawed and daring mishmash of subjects, as well as nostalgic for a musical era I’d experienced slightly differently from Kohl. It was enough for me to buy the second collected volume, The Singles Club, and…

Best. Comic. Ever.

There are comic series that I love as much as Phonogram, if not more. The jagged science fiction poetry of Transmetropolitan. The surreal humour and world building of Chew. The noire grandeur of 100 Bullets. But for a single impeccable volume, consisting of seven spectacular individual issues, nothing beats The Singles Club.

The Singles Club consists of seven short character studies, all set around the same night out in the same club. Each one contains a complete character and story arc, intersecting with the others to add depth to the whole. Each one grounds its fantasy and character elements in a passion for pop music that connects the story to familiar early adult lives. The art and writing are both clearer and more characterful than the previous volume. It is a thing of beauty that should appeal to anyone who enjoys both music and comics, or anyone looking for an offbeat approach to fantasy and magic, or frankly anyone with good taste (OK, maybe I’m getting a bit subjective there, is it still subjective when I’m clearly right?).

This is literature as a presentation of character, of growth, of the joys and challenges of life.

The Singles Club is the only book in my house that I read several times a year. I love it.

A magic about empowerment

The Wicked + The Divine is about musicians as people with magical power. Their ability to craft songs is clearly central to their ability to do something more potent. That’s all well and good, but it restricts power to the hands of those who can strike up a tune. There’s an implied message here – ‘if you’re creative then you’re special’. It’s a familiar message, and not a bad one, but it has a certain elitism to it.

Phonogram carries a message that is more egalitarian. For all the snide elitism of characters like David Kohl, the underlying message is that culture isn’t just about creativity, it’s about appreciating and being empowered by what others have created. It’s fandom as empowerment. It says that your love of music, or any other cultural form, is as valid and as powerful an act of empowerment and self-creation as anything else. And I think that that is a fabulous message.

Listening to music, loving music, discussing music, sharing your passion, these are actually incredible things. The same applies to the fandom of TV, of books, of films, of any other form. Being an engaged audience makes us come alive. It creates bonds between us. It is as vital to a thriving culture as the acts of creation that it revolves around. Appreciating that, making it central to a story, that’s a great thing.

Go forth and listen

The Wicked + The Divine is currently coming out month by month via Comixology and comic shops. If you’re into comics you should give it a go – the first issue certainly promises good things.

But Phonogram, and The Singles Club in particular, that is a truly great thing.

And in the spirit of that book I give you a mission today. Go forth and find a song that you loved in your formative years. Or if you’re still in those formative years then just a song you loved recently. Sit down and listen to it, doing nothing else with the time (OK, you can dance, though personally I’ll be leaning against a wall trying to look nonchalant, because that’s how sixteen-year-old Andrew rolled). Then come back here and tell us all why that song is so damn awesome, or why it seemed that way to you at the time.

Share that passion.

In Your Eyes – a tribute to love

‘I want to know what you feel like.’

It might sound like a simple, twee sentiment, but that sentence lies at the emotional heart of In Your Eyes, and stands for so much that is beautiful about the film. Written by Joss Whedon and directed by Brin Hill, In Your Eyes is a simple story built around a single central idea – two people who have never met but who find themselves seeing the world through each other’s eyes. It uses this one strand of magical realism* to up-end normal human experiences of intimacy, creating a powerful exploration of what love means.

Zoe Kazan as Rebecca
Zoe Kazan as Rebecca

In another’s eyes

The film’s fantastical element – the connection that lets Rebecca and Dylan experience the world through each other’s senses – is the most obvious way in which the film shows the experience of love. It’s an unambiguous metaphor for love as a shocking, transformative experience, one that makes us see the world in new and wonderful ways. It leads us to see everything from the point of view of another person, to whose perspective we find ourselves intimately bound.

Think of that moment when you started singing along to a terrible pop song because your date loved it; or your boyfriend made you realise how cute pug dogs are; or you noticed just how exciting horses were to your children. The film evokes this experience many times, most obviously when Rebecca builds a snowman for Dylan and he in return shows her a New Mexico sunset. They see the world through the eyes of love, and its wonders are revealed.

The confidence to continue

Seeing themselves through each other’s eyes brings out another aspect of love that the film explores – love as a bringer of confidence.

When someone else tells you that they love you, when they not only say but show that they think you’re special, it’s an incredible confidence boost. It puts that extra skip in your step, knowing that you are worthy of being valued, worthy of love. The little voices putting you down in your head don’t have to win.

There’s a wonderful moment in the film when Dylan sees Rebecca in a mirror for the first time and tells her how beautiful he thinks she is. You can see that confidence growing in her face, overcoming the belittling she has suffered at the hands of her husband. Each of these two lovers gives the other confidence, and they get it back in return. It’s wonderful.

Connecting to another, connecting to you

This shocking, unexpected connection that Dylan and Rebecca make, this magical, wonderful thing helps each of them to connect more deeply with themselves as well as each other. It gives each of them the confidence to explore their own feelings and failings, their own past and their potential future. In stark contrast with the husband who throws out Rebecca’s photos, or the old friends forcing Dylan down a path he does not want, Dylan and Rebecca support each other in becoming more self-aware, more connected with their emotions. It’s a connection that makes each of them less reliant on others while building an intimacy that they’ve never shared with anyone else.

It’s the beauty and the paradox of love as explained by Joss Whedon.

A film worth loving

It would by easy to dismiss In Your Eyes as just another love story, but it’s so much more than that. In Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon explored horror conventions in a way that was both affectionate and challenging. Here he does the same for love stories. What he says about love may not contain anything completely new, but he brings it together with a beauty and a freshness that left me grinning as I fell asleep last night.

It helps that the script is alternately funny and touching, as with so much of Whedon’s work, that the cast give great performances, and that it is often beautifully shot.

You can see the first few minutes for free and instantly hire the whole thing on Vimeo, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a beautiful film, it’s still a relatively daring approach to distribution, and it’s well worth your time and money.

Go, watch, and reflect anew on love.

And once you’ve watched it leave a comment below, let me know what you think.




* When I see the  phrase ‘magical realism’ I read the word ‘fantasy’. It’s a phrase that seems to have been invented by the literary establishment to avoid admitting that they’re reading, writing and enjoying stories that share a genre connection with The Dresden Files and all those shelves full of paranormal romances. But it’s also a useful phrase, as it’s now come to imply a particular type of fantasy, usually with a modern, realistic setting and only one or two fantastical leaps of imagination.

Letting off steam

We often talk about creativity, and in particular writing, as a cathartic act, a way of letting off steam. Counsellors recommend keeping journals or scribbling down your thoughts to give them form. Many writers expel their inner demons through the pen or the keyboard. Even when I was answering complaints for a living I found satisfaction in venting my real response onto the page, then deleting it and crafting the tactful reply we sent out.

Letting off some real steam - picture by Peter Shanks via Flickr creative commons
Letting off some real steam – picture by Peter Shanks via Flickr creative commons


It’s not always about venting negativity. In ‘Surprise Me‘ I tried to express both the frustrations I’d felt doing tedious jobs and the excitement I felt when I was younger and first falling in love. Because venting those emotions can help get bad feelings off your chest, but it can also give you a chance to relive the joys that you want to dwell on.

We like to think that readers can see that passion on the page. Maybe it’s just a lie we tell ourselves to help us cope with the darkness, this idea that letting out our real pains creates art and so pleasure for others. Certainly it’s a comforting thought.

But maybe there’s something in it. After all, if you’re re-living a real emotion then you can describe it better, pick out the little nuances and the parts that we blot from our memories later. Maybe letting off steam makes better writers of us all, as well as healthier human beings.

So how about you? Do you find yourself venting your feelings as you write, whether it’s stories, essays or just emails to friends? Does writing help you get emotions off your chest, and is it normally the good or the bad ones?

And if you’ve just read ‘Surprise Me’ what did you think – did I succeed in getting those emotions across?

Requiem for an Astra – our attachment to objects

Even though I spend all this time writing stories, trying to tug on readers’ emotions, I can sometimes get pretty cold where belongings are concerned. It shows in my attitude to books, wanting to get onto the e-reader rather than have full shelves. It used to show in my attitude to cars as well – they were just ways of getting from place to place.

But as my crash this weekend showed, that’s changed.

The Hell of Automobiles
The Hell of Automobiles

The eternal passenger

I never wanted to drive. A mixture of environmental concern and lack of faith in my own coordination kept me from getting behind the wheel. I took the train, got lifts with friends, walked further than most people would.

Then along came my lovely wife. She has shoulder problems that are exacerbated by driving. She gets disturbingly angry at other road users. She was generally someone who should be driving less, yet insisted on going places by car. So, for the sake of her health and my sanity, I learned to drive. I felt a bit crappy about it, and it took me a whole year of lessons to get any good, but a few years ago I finally got my licence.

Now I had a whole new relationship with out car.

What’s in a name?

Once I started driving I started feeling more attached to the car. Laura had never name her, and as a passenger I’d just treated her as a way to get from A to B. But now that I was in control, now we were working together to get around, now I was learning the little quirks of her clutch and the best way to position the seat, I felt that attachment you have to an old childhood teddy bear. That feeling where you know it’s not a person, but it’s not just a thing any more. That meant she needed a name.

I named her Olivia, Oli for short. She was green and she moved quickly, which begged a Green Arrow reference, but Oliver wasn’t right for what I felt in my gut was a girl. So Olivia she was.

We travelled the country together. A long trip to Bristol with the Northerner for a meeting. Repeat journeys over the Pennines to babysit the Princess and Everready. Driving to the supermarket when the weather was too lousy for a long walk.

Oli and I really bonded.

Goodbye faithful steed

Then came last Friday. Driving at seventy in the rain when the car in front braked abruptly. A swerve. A spin. Several seconds of sheer terror as we spiralled across three lanes of motorway and slammed into the barrier.

I was fine, but poor Oli was battered and broken. Even as I coped with the shock I couldn’t help looking sadly at her shattered lights, ruptured wheel and crumpled body. It was no surprise when the call later came to say that she was a right-off, but what was surprising was how sad that made me, all over a car.

It’s the hardest thing to do

So now I’m saying goodbye to my car. To my own shock and amazement, I’m going to miss the metal monster I so long resisted driving. I can’t give her a ship burial Viking-style, or keep her remains in an urn on the mantelpiece, so instead I’m marking the occasion the way I know best – by writing about it.

Who knew I could end up so attached to an object? I guess we all do it. Maybe the characters in our stories should get more attached to things than they do. If you were a heroic warrior who lived and died by the sword wouldn’t you get attached to that blade? If you were a space cowboy wouldn’t you name your guns, like Jane in Firefly?

So long Oli. Thanks for all the journeys, and for saving my life by being so sturdy. I’ll miss you.

And in the usual spirit of ending my blogs, what objects have you got particularly attached to? Or what objects do you think characters in stories should name? Leave a comment, share your thoughts.


Picture by webhamster via Flickr creative commons.

Writing through the shock

I crashed my car in terrifying fashion on Friday. Lost control at seventy miles an hour, span across three lanes of traffic, smashed into the barrier and yet somehow escaped unscathed.

While it wasn’t my first thought, it didn’t take long for my writing brain to kick in and go ‘hey, that’s a life experience, what can I do with that?’ As I sat by the side of the road, cold, shaken, angry at myself and at my insurance company for leaving me there, some part of me was analysing it and storing the experience away for later.

This is a good sign. I clearly have my writing brain well trained and enjoy using it enough that it spontaneously takes over in moments of crisis. But it’s a strangely distancing thing too, when you’re not so much feeling the shaking of your own hands as noticing that they’re shaking and thinking that’s an interesting detail.

For the record, I’m absolutely fine and no-one else was even involved in the accident. Poor Oli, my mighty metal steed, is in less good condition, currently locked in a police impound and awaiting some serious repair work.

I’m incredibly grateful to the drivers who stopped to help me out, and to my friend The Northerner, who rescued me in my hour of need and reminded me to have a hot sugary drink to counter the shock. Dude, you’re an absolute legend.

So, in the spirit of writing what you know, I imagine I’ll be writing a few car crashes over the next year. Or at least making a better job of describing how people feel after a shocking event. Because a writing brain is a pretty powerful thing, and if I can’t use it to profit from my scare then really, what’s the point in being a writer?

Clever vs engaging – Delany’s Einstein Intersection

An award winning sci-fi novel that’s now several decades old, Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection isn’t the sort of book I would normally pick up. The fact that I did is a tribute to the value of joining a reading group – in my case the Sword and Laser group on Goodreads. Because this took me away from the sort of reading I’m normally comfortable with and has given me some food for thought in the process.

Einstein Intersection

About the book

The Einstein Intersection is the story of Lobey, a member of a race who have taken up residence on Earth after humanity’s departure. Living amid the remains of human genetics and civilisation, his society is one facing difficulties as mutation creates growing numbers of unusual people, people who would previously have been locked away from society for the wider good. Following a tragedy, Lobey sets off on a journey that is more mythological quest than science fiction speculation, in which characters become as much symbols as people.

A postmodern patchwork

The Einstein Intersection came out before the triumph of post-modernism and its fetish for playful reinvention. But it feels like a product of that movement, a book than stitches together elements of science fictional speculation, fantasy quest and metaphor made manifest. It’s the sort of writing that feels clever more often than it does emotionally engaging, and where you feel like you’d get much more out of it if you had a guide to explain its references. That’s not to say that it’s not enjoyable as a straight up story, but rather that it’s somewhat fractured and disconnected, like King’s The Gunslinger.

The writing is often beautiful, with neat little poetic phrases and unusual characters. There are quotes at the start of the chapters, and presumably they are meant to help pick out the theme, as such quotes often do. But unlike other such cases I’ve read, it often wasn’t clear to me how the quotes were relevant, so most of what they did was disrupt the flow.

Which, I suspect, may have been half the point.

The problem of head and heart

Any writer has to balance the interests of emotional and intellectual engagement when reaching out to an audience. A book that’s all emotion, full of action and passion, can be lacking in new ideas or intellectual challenge. On the other end of the scale a book that’s all about intellect and being clever, like Eco’s Prague Cemetery, can sometimes fail to engage intellectually.

Think Davies era Dr Who vs Moffat’s recent work on the show.

It’s a matter of reader taste where on this spectrum you like your books, but for me The Einstein Intersection ended up a little too far into being trying to be clever while not making it clear in the text what the cleverness was about. Delany clearly wanted the reader to be thinking about the text and what it represented, but that distracted me from living inside the story and engaging with Lobey’s journey. I enjoyed the reading experience because of the fine prose but ended up dissatisfied with the story. Which is a shame because, describing it like I’ve done above, it sounds like the sort of thing I should love.

And the lesson is…

I guess what I’ve learned from this one is that references and structures are all very well but they have their problems. Building a story around the myth of Orpheus is a fine idea in theory, but if your audience isn’t familiar with that myth, or isn’t on the lookout for it, then they may miss the context, and without that context your story can lose its power. And if your writing keeps drawing attention to what it’s doing as writing then it’s going to disrupt the emotional flow.

By all means write something clever, I like clever. But try to make something engaging as well.

So, have any of the rest of you read this or Delaney’s other books? And what did you think?

The danger of pity

Should we ever make our readers pity our characters?

It might seem like a natural way to build empathy and support. But when we pity a character we aren’t just acknowledging their suffering. We’re seeing them as vulnerable, as a victim of others or of circumstances. Pity is about seeing the weakness and suffering of others from our own position of strength.

This is a dangerous thing in writing. If we start to pity a character then we see them as less powerful, less in command of their own destiny. We aren’t seeing their ability to cope, we’re just seeing their suffering and, in a sense, belittling them into the role of victim. Doing that to a protagonist can really undermine them.

Of course it can also add depth and nuance. Look at The Hunger Games. Katniss is a complex character. Feeling pity sometimes plays into that. But it’s part of why she isn’t really a strong role model, for all that she’s a wonderful character. This isn’t someone idealised. It’s someone in trouble and turmoil, unable to take control of their life.

Big damn fashion hero
Big damn fashion hero – not words I ever expected to type

By contrast, Cinna the stylist takes a brave action in Catching Fire that has terrible consequences for him. Should we pity him? Or, given that he’s making a sacrifice for others, should we just admire his nobility, not weakening that with pity? Is there room for both, seeing a strong character laid low by his circumstances, forced to choose between right and safety?

My own thoughts on this are still half formed, inspired by an email from the Raptor but still seeking clarity. So what do you think? Is pity the right response to a character like Cinna? Is it a feeling we can nurture towards characters without undermining them? How is it best used in writing, and can you point out some good examples?

Help me think this one through please internet.

Evoking readers’ emotions – a lesson from an unlikely place

How we feel about a piece of writing is as important as what we think about it. That’s true when reflecting on what we like, and it’s also true when interpreting the author’s intention. Whether it’s a heart-warming tale of romance to help you relax, or an action packed adventure to set the heart pounding, literature is all about the feels.

Those feelings are very important, and it’s useful to know what effect they will have on readers. Today I want to explore that using a modern literary classic, Deloitte consulting’s ‘Human Capital Trends 2013’.

Human what now?

OK, unless you work in the higher layers of HR management, or like me have been hired to write something in that field, you’ve probably never heard of this paper. But if you’ve ever worked in a large company then you’ve met its linguistic ilk. It’s a 25 page report on a management topic, rammed full of buzzwords and managerial jargon. If you grind your teeth at the phrase ‘moving forward’ or cringe at the title ‘innovating the talent brand’ then you get the idea. If not, lucky you.

I hate the sort of language these papers use. They hide their meaning behind linguistic acrobatics and trendy buzzwords, rather than clearly explaining their substance. It’s the corporate equivalent of a group of teenagers imitating the latest slang. I have to pause every few paragraphs as my eyes glaze over.

And yet, it serves a purpose.

Feeling good

This language isn’t just a bad habit. It’s designed to evoke a feeling. To inspire confidence in people who live in this buzzword world, or who are deeply clued into the latest management trends (yes, management has trends, just like fashion or literature – I don’t know what the management equivalent of urban fantasy is, maybe HR vampires, but if you’ve got an idea then post it below). To imply cutting edge thought and deep intelligence. To leave readers intrigued and maybe just a little confused, so that they go to the likes of Deloitte for help.

It makes readers feel like they’re part of an elite, an elite that reads and uses this sort of advice. But it also creates a sense of tension, as readers become convinced that there’s something here they ought to use, but don’t quite know how. It’s a tension that drives them to use organisations like Deloitte.

I don’t know how far this is deliberate, and how far it’s just how this corporate language has evolved through trial and error. But like a Mills and Boon novel, it’s all about the feelings.

So what?

This blog isn’t about corporate trends or buzzword bingo, so why is this relevant to fiction writing? Two reasons.

Firstly, whether you mean to or not, you will evoke feelings through your writing. Successful writing uses those feelings to drive behaviour, to pull readers in and make them buy what you’re selling – for Deloitte that’s consulting services, for authors it’s books. Think about what feelings you’re evoking, how they draw readers through the story, how you’ll leave them at the end.

Secondly, nothing works for everyone. That language in the Deloitte paper doesn’t inspire me, it annoys me. I’m not their customers, so that doesn’t matter. But you should be aware of who your writing will deter as well as who it will attract; how that will limit you; how it will limit the usefulness to you of those people’s opinions.

So there we go. I’ve vented my feelings on this bit of reading, and hopefully turned them into something useful. Now back to the world of human capital.


My Doctor Who: Peter Davison

For me, Doctor Who will always be Peter Davison.

It’s a matter of age. I was just old enough to be watching Doctor Who during his tenure, and to be traumatised by his near-death and regeneration at the end of The Caves of Androzani. As a little kid, this charming, energetic young man was everything I wanted to be. The fact that he beat alien menaces without resorting to violence really clinched it.

Seriously, how much cooler can a person get?
Seriously, how much cooler can a person get?

Of course I enjoyed Colin Baker, for all that I know now that he was controversial. And I loved Sylvester McCoy, with his erratic energy and weird, dark plotlines. Berty Bassett still gives me the creeps. I watched the older doctors on video, and took a particular liking to Jon Pertwee, for reasons I can’t even remember.

I was gutted about the McGann mess, for all the flare he brought to the role, and then immensely releaved when the RTD revival got it right. I’ve enjoyed Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and now Hurt, and I cannot wait to see Capaldi take on the big blue box. These days, the Doctor just seems to get better and better.

But for me, and I suspect many others, the appeal of Doctor Who isn’t in the quality of the show, which has swung wildly about over time. It’s in my emotional attachment. And that lies forever with the fifth doctor.

Getting past writing blocks

Tenabreme, who is blogging over here to find inspiration for a thesis, asked for advice on how to keep writing when you’re finding it a struggle. And I thought, hey, I’ve faced that problem a dozen times in the past few months, that’s worthy of a blog post.

I’ll admit, the pride at being asked for writing advice by a total stranger may also have encouraged me – look Geppetto, I’m a real writer now!

So anyway, some things I’ve learned that help me keep writing:

Get an early start

I’m more productive if I just get up and write. This is a family trick passed down the generations, like my grandad’s old wood working tools. My Uncle John has those tools, and he also recommended that I get up and write for half an hour before anything else in the morning. I don’t usually manage that, but an early start does prevent my brain from putting up barriers to writing. I don’t get to feel daunted or distracted, and I’m fresh and rested. Achieving something at the start of the day makes me feel productive and energised for the rest of it.

My Grandad's tools - a working piece of family history
My Grandad’s tools – a working piece of family history

Eat the big toad first

I wrote a whole other post about this, so I’ll direct you to that rather than repeat myself.

Be careful about breaks

I used to reward myself for writing by taking a fifteen minute break. I also used to swear by the full hour-long lunch break. I’ve recently learned better. Taking a break from writing means I lose the flow, and I have to face the act of willpower that is going back to work. Maybe you need your breaks, especially if, like Tenabreme, you’re writing a thesis. But try going without them for a day or two, see how it works for you.

I do still take lunch breaks, because everyone needs food. But it’s always a battle of wills to turn off Dexter after I’ve finished my sandwich and get back to the keyboard.

Seriously. Dexter is freaking awesome.

If all else fails, write about how you’re struggling to write

Sometimes you just need to get past the blockage in your head. Circling round it like a jackal round a dying lion won’t help. So if all you can think about is how you’re struggling to write, then write about that. Write about how hard it is to get motivated, how frustrated you feel, why you’re struggling. Because you clearly care about that, so it’ll get you typing away, and it’ll get you passionate. It’ll vent that blockage from your head and let you move on to more productive work.

This works for struggling with your emotions too. That’s how I learned it – from a counsellor. Thank you to her, as she pretty much saved my sanity.

If you’re taking a break, take a proper break

I used to take my laptop on holiday. I was so attached to the idea of writing, I didn’t want to let it go. But that meant that I never really relaxed. I kept feeling like I should be working.

So when you go on holiday, leave the laptop at home. By all means, make notes in your notebooks. Read books that inspire you. But have a proper rest. You’ll come back refreshed, not ragged from battling every day with whether you should be writing.

What else?

Who else has some tips? Leave them in the comments below. Goodness knows I could do with more tricks.

And Tenabreme, good luck with that thesis.