Archive | July, 2017

Parenting In The Nameless World

31 Jul

Obviously, there are details I’m not going to go into – and I can only speak in generalised terms anyway – but this is a brief outline that may answer a few questions.

The Nameless World takes a profoundly different view of child-raising than the modern-day West. In particular, there is no real concept that childhood is a time to be enjoyed – children are expected to start working and/or studying as soon as they are physically able to do so, with an eye to their future adulthood. The Nameless World does recognise, on one hand, that children and teenagers are immature (to the point where allowances will be made for their behaviour, if it isn’t strikingly out of hand), but it also recognises that parents have a duty to turn their children into productive citizens as quickly as possible.

There is no concept of the ‘parent as best friend.’ Parents have near-complete authority over their children (the only real exception to this is where there’s a clan-structure and the ultimate authority is the boss) and can dictate every aspect of their young lives. An older child can leave, in theory, but that child would almost certainly be disowned. ‘Because I said so’ is a perfectly valid argument, as far as the Nameless World is concerned.

A child born to a peasant family would be put to work as soon as he or she was physically able. Parents teach them the skills they need from the start. Sons work in the fields; daughters learn to cook, sew and take care of the animals. Craftsmen would treat their sons – and rarely their daughters, although it does happen – as apprentices. A son would be expected to follow his father into the family trade. Daughters would be expected to be an asset to whichever family they marry into.

A child born to a merchant family would be taught the basics of trade, again from a very early age. They’d be expected to master reading and writing, all the other skills necessary for merchant life. They’d be working behind the counter as soon as they could do it, then shadowing their parents as they make trades.

A child born to an aristocratic family would be trained in everything from war-fighting to courtly etiquette from birth. They would probably be farmed out to another aristocratic family of similar rank for at least part of their teens, on the theory that parents wouldn’t be strict enough with their own children. The higher-ranking ones – male and female alike – would be expected to take the lead, in discussions with their peers. Daughters, in particular, would be taught how to command a household; sons would be expected to know how to fight and negotiate, depending on circumstances. (Randor was neglectful, by the standards of his world.)

A child born to a magical family would be trained in magical theory even before they developed magic. Like noblemen, there would be a high focus on practical learning and working with others; young magicians (male and female alike) are expected to build up networks of friendships and patronage. (Sons and daughters get very similar treatment.) Unlike noblemen, there is no concern about ‘blood’ – the child of a newborn magician who marries into a family will not be treated any differently.

Parents across the Nameless World expected to have a say in who their child marries, when he or she comes of age. However, wise parents work hard to ensure their children are reasonably happy with their choice.

Both aristocratic and magical families face the same problem, when it comes to rearing children. On one hand, the children must be groomed to support their parents and then replace their parents; on the other hand, the children must not be either allowed to rebel or appear weak. (The Nameless World has had quite a few figures akin to Robert Curthose and Henry the Young King.) Finding something that keeps their children busy and in practice, without encouraging them to consider rebellion, keeps many of the aristocracy up late at night. One’s child must be independent, but not too independent.

Several readers have questioned why Void isn’t a stronger presence in Emily’s life (and why this doesn’t lead people to suspect the truth) and/or why the prospect of her presumed father’s retaliation isn’t worrying some of her enemies.

To answer the first point, good parenting – as far as the magical community is concerned – involves letting one’s child make mistakes and learn from them. Void is not expected to come to the rescue every time Emily stubs her toe, as that will stunt Emily’s growth as an adult. No one is particularly surprised that Void isn’t hovering around Whitehall, watching Emily. In this, he’s no different from hundreds of real parents. There’s no such thing as ‘Helicopter Parents’ in the Nameless World.

To answer the second point, everyone expects Emily to stand on her own. Void cannot put out too much of a security blanket without weakening her reputation, which would haunt her as she grows into adulthood and beyond. He might be inclined to extract revenge for a daughter – and just above everyone believes that she is his daughter or, at the very least, closely related to him – but not to save Emily from the consequences of her own mistakes.

He could have said something after Emily was manipulated into challenging Master Grey, for example, but that would have weakened Emily’s reputation badly. She would end up looking like a smarmy teacher’s pet, rather than a powerful magician in her own right.

Not a good thing, in other words.

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The Pros and Cons of Choices

29 Jul

Let me start with an observation.

My wife, son and I travel to London from Edinburgh every few months. In theory, there are five ways to get to London: plane, train, taxi, driving or walking. In practice, only plane or train are viable options. I don’t want to drive for seven hours, I don’t want to spend seven hours in a taxi and I certainly don’t want to try walking over three hundred miles. In short, three of the five options are non-starters.

That leaves two.

On one hand, flying means spending only an hour cooped up with a toddler on a passenger aircraft. However, it also means a 40 minute trip to the airport, an hour in the airport waiting for the flight, being groped by airport security, the traditional bumpy flight and another hour or so travelling from Heathrow to London Kings Cross. Time: 3.5hrs. Cost (obviously variable, based on when you want to fly): £595.18.

On the other hand, the train goes from Edinburgh City Centre directly to Kings Cross. There are no security hassles, no absurd restrictions on baggage, a great deal more legroom and no turbulence. However, it means spending 4-5 hours in a train with a noisy toddler and, while the trolley service is better than airline food, it does tend to pall after several hours. Time: 4.5hrs. Cost: £136.

Now, as I noted above, there are a lot of variables here. If you buy an airline ticket weeks in advance, the price is often quite low. You can also get a reasonably cheaper train fare if you fiddle with the prices and suchlike – there’s also the reasonably excellent chance of being able to board a train and find a seat without needing to reserve in advance, not something you can do on the plane.

Point is, there are pros and cons to every choice.

Ok … so what?

There is no such thing as a perfect choice. I’d like to be able to step through a portal and arrive in London instantly. It’s not going to happen, barring a major technological breakthrough. Each choice has its advantages and disadvantages. People pick the choice with the advantages that (they think) outweigh the disadvantages.

For example, if I was going to London to catch a plane to Malaysia, I would probably fly from Edinburgh. That would save me from having to find my way from Kings Cross to Heathrow. Even if I was going to London, there would be certain advantages to only been cooped up with a toddler for an hour … although I would also be cooped up with him in the taxi or tube.

But if I was going to London proper, I would probably prefer to take the train. There would be no hassle on the far end, no need to get into London and even room for my toddler to run around. And I’d have more comfort at a more reasonable price.

This whole train of thought was started by a discussion on politics; people wondering why certain categories of people would vote for Donald Trump. Others chimed in to wonder why people would vote for the Tories or the SNP or whoever. And still others wondered why anyone thought Angela Merkel could possibly win yet another German election.

In 2016, there were only two choices: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Both of them had their advantages and disadvantages. (The only other competitors had very little hope of winning a majority – their only real role was to act as a potential spoiler.) The electors therefore had to decide if they should hold their nose and vote for one … or the other.

A single-issue voter might decide to back one over the other because of that issue. But most voters are not single-issue voters. This is a problem with a person likes some of a candidate’s policies and dislikes others. For example, a homosexual voter might dislike Donald Trump’s stand on LGBQ policies, but like his stance on illegal immigration on terrorism. Or a businessman might approve Hillary’s stance on Wall Street, but disapprove of her position on Third World debt. No candidate enjoys complete approval from the vast majority of voters – they just have to choose the candidate closest to their views.

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Or, as Homer Simpson put it, before voting for Sideshow Bob:

“I don’t agree with [Bob’s] Bart-killing policy, but I do approve of his Selma-killing policy.”

Quick Update …

27 Jul

Hi, everyone

This is, as you may have guessed, another short update.

First, I will be attending the Nine Worlds Convention in London next week – 4-6th August – and will be spending much of that time hanging around the Elsewhen Press table. If you want a garmented copy of one of my books, please let me know by Monday at the very latest.

Second, I’m nearing the end of the first draft of The Gordian Knot (Schooled in Magic 13) – I hope to have the draft finished on the 29th. Obviously, we don’t have a due date yet – let alone a cover – but hopefully it will be out by early September.

Third, we do have a due date for the audio version of Wedding Hells – 28/9.

Beautiful young witch casting a spell

For various reasons, I’ve had to reassess my schedule. It currently looks like:

Aug – The Zero Curse

Sept – Graduation Day (SIM 14, direct sequel to The Gordian Knot)

Oct – The Cruel Stars (Ark XI, stand-alone)

Nov – Bookworm Series II, Title unsure.

The last one probably requires some explanation. The original plan was to call the overall series The Unwritten Words and Book I Cat’s Paw. That said, I do have an idea for a book set between Bookworm and The Unwritten Words that may have to be written first. I do intend to discuss the matter with the publishers at Nine Worlds.

Of course, something else might come along. <grin>

Chris

Ask A Writer Feedback on Politics, Bureaucracy and Related Issues

26 Jul

I actually had to think how to title this post – the original subject was ‘regulation of hairstylists,’ which wasn’t that detailed. Hopefully, I made it a little more suitable.

I enjoy your books immensely. You’re a great storyteller but sometimes I wish you would do a bit more research. Barbers and hairstylists are regulated because of the public health and safety aspect of their jobs. Knowing [how] to properly sterilize scissors and combs, etc. is part of the job. Dealing with lice infested customers [is] part of the job. Disposing of biological waste is part of the job. Dealing with accidently spilled blood is part of the job if they nick an ear, etc.

Insisting on a basic level of training for hairstylists does not make bureaucrats look silly, as the narrator in Wolf’s Bane suggests…

So my question for you as a writer is, do you want to hear this stuff? Like I said, I’m a fan. I noticed how your use of the word "dissemble" evolved with your work, and I’ve noticed other things. If you’d rather not here it that’s cool- I’ll keep buying your books either way.

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That’s … actually quite a tricky question.

On a personal level, I am always open to someone telling me that they disagree – provided that they produce a coherent reason and/or rationale. There is usually a grain of common sense buried within even the most absurd bureaucratic regulatory nonsense. Someone who launched a thunderous broadside designed to instantly put me on the defensive would, on the other hand, convince me that they didn’t have anything useful to say. This would go double for anyone who tried to ‘call me out.’

The truth is, I don’t know everything. And sometimes I may miss the reasoning behind a regulation. And if someone made a reasonable case for that regulation, including a cost-benefit analysis and a statement of how they intended to handle the negative side-effects of that regulation, I would certainly consider changing my mind. But that’s not what people do, as a general rule. It’s all ‘think of the children’ or ‘anyone who disagrees with this is a racist’ or ‘if you don’t understand this you’re an idiot.’ Far too many people are too wrapped up in their brilliant idea or their political positions to remember that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

If the key to getting a hairstylist’s licence was a day’s training at a very reasonable rate, covering all the points you mentioned above, I’d probably be in favour of it. On the other hand, if the price was too high for someone who wanted to open a business, or if the demands were unreasonable, or if there was a cap on the number of people who could be hairstylists at any one time … well, I’d see it as yet another government regulation impeding the free market and killing any prospect of expanding the economy. I find it very hard to believe that anyone who wants to be a hairstylist needs a six-month course before they can stand behind their first customer. (And I speak as someone who spent three years learning to be a librarian, only to find that I didn’t need anything I hadn’t already had before I went to university.)

Having said all of that, if someone sends me an email disagreeing with one of my points, or posts on the forum, that’s fine. Someone who basically turns a minor issue into an excuse to attack me is not going to convince me that they have anything useful to say.

As a more general rule, authors write characters they don’t agree with all the time. I have a long list of characters who say and do things I would never do, or hold political beliefs that I find unworkable. Not all of these are bad guys, too. Sometimes I write them so they can come to realise what I already knew – that what they believe is unworkable. Others are characters rooted in their time and place. It is simply unrealistic, for example, to encounter a person with modern day views on … well, everything, in a time or a world not our own.

Attacking these authors for writing these character is pointless at best, trolling and outright sabotage at worst.

But that’s just my opinion.

Any more questions <grin>?

A Book Of Vital Contemporary Relevance

23 Jul

The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War

-Stephen Puleo

A person who spots a book entitled The Caning might be forgiven for assuming that it’s yet another rip-off of Fifty Shades of Grey. It is not. The Caning is centred around Congressman Preston S. Brooks’ brutal assault on Senator Charles Sumner, back in 1856. Sumner – an ardent antislavery activist – was targeted in response to a very savage verbal attack on slaveowners, including Senator Andrew Butler (Brooks’s second cousin). The incident not only left Sumner a shattered man – despite attempts by the South to claim that he was shamming – it destroyed all pretence that the American North and South could tackle their differences amiably. In many ways, it was the harbinger of the Civil War.

The Caning starts with a biographical sketch of the two men. Sumner was oddly detached from his family, yet a passionate enemy of slavery. Brooks was obsessed with his family, his state and his honour, to the point he was desperate to prove that he hadn’t been shamming during the Mexican War. I suspect someone must have made a comment that rankled, as no one – including the authors – seems to suggest that Brooks’ illness was anything but real.

The two characters in the drama are sometimes odd and inconsistent. Sumner appeared to have few emotional ties to anyone – perhaps, like many activists in the modern day, he was more interested in ideals rather than the real world. Brooks, apparently seeing himself as the South’s avenging angel, showed a weird blend of gallantry and hypocrisy in his bid to punish Sumner. His first attempt at his victim was thwarted by the presence of a woman in the hall, whom the sergeant-at-arms refused to order to leave. Brooks appears to have believed that committing such an assault would only be wrong if done under the eyes of a lady!

It is strange, reading the book, to see how unprotected Washington was in that era. Brooks does not appear to have been arrested, even though he managed to injury himself during the attack. The author goes into considerable detail of the aftermath, including an observation that Brooks evaded the prospect of a challenge from outraged northerners.

There can be little doubt that the effects of the attack were far-reaching. (Calling it a caning actually minimised the impact.) On a personal level, Sumner was badly injured and never recovered; Brooks, feted as a hero by the South, effectively got away with it. He was re-elected, but died of disease shortly afterwards. For better or worse, he never saw what would become of his beloved South in the war.

But on a national level, the effects were dramatic. For many in the North, the attack proved that the North and South could no longer co-exist. If a man could be silenced violently and the silencer allowed to go unpunished, they asked, what would happen next? The common understanding of the rules no longer existed. And, when the South refused to disown Brooks – very Southerners ever considered it, it seems – it was clear there would be war. The deep irony of the whole affair is that it galvanised abolitionist sentiment in the North and led directly to the election of Lincoln. Brooks had meant to punish an enemy and silence the South’s critics. Instead, he made them stronger by giving them a cause.

It is possible to overstate the affair. The caning of Charles Sumner took place during a time of unrest: Dred Scott, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, John Brown, etc. It is hard to say, even with the advantage of hindsight, just how decisive it truly was. And it, as one northerner put it at the time, the caning marked the moment where the South decided to pit clubs against arguments and shatter the united nation. It represented a break with the rules that could never be mended.

It is also a glimpse into a very different time. The South truly believed in its cause, including the right to own slaves. (Although, as cynics pointed out then and since, relatively few southerners owned slaves.) They were attached to their country – their states – in a way that far fewer people are today. The fundamental wrongness of holding their fellow men in bondage never crossed their minds. They wrote elaborate arguments to ‘prove’ that freemen couldn’t take care of themselves, none of which hold water to us. This was combined with a sense of honour that was starting to turn actively poisonous. Brooks may have felt as though he had failed in some way, but his desire to protect what scraps of honour he felt he had left led him to disaster.

The North, too, was deeply divided. Sumner – and John Brown – might have been strongly opposed to slavery, but not every northerner felt the same way. Racism was deeply engrained in their society (and backed by the economic point that slavery benefited the North too, a point the South felt would prevent the North taking effective action.) The origins of the civil war were far more tangled than the good/evil dichotomy we are presented with today.

The relevance to our time should be obvious.

In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton and become the 45th President of the United States. His election was, at least in part, a reaction to the ‘culture wars,’ to the growing perception that America – and the world – was threatened by progressives who used political correctness as a weapon to crush resistance. Many of Trump’s supporters believed that the ‘left’ was willing to do anything to impose its agenda, branding its enemies ‘racists,’ ‘sexists’ and ‘bigots.’ And there was – and still is – a great deal of evidence to suggest that his supporters have a point.

And yet this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Across America and Europe, a tidal wave of frustration and rage is rising. The right believes that national governments are incompetent, feckless or outright treasonous; the left believes that the right is bent on imposing fascism, forcing them to resist with all of their power. The right sees the left as deluded hypocrites who believe the rules can be ignored if it’s in a good cause; the left sees the right as evil, motivated by bigotry and racism. This is not a recipe for peace in our time.

A second American Civil War – or a European Civil War – would be bloodshed on a scale to rival the European Wars of Religion. The sides are not separated, but living side by side. No one in their right mind could possibly want to fight it. And yet, if the middle ground is lost – and if arguments are silenced by force – might open conflict become inevitable?

Why is it that we never learn the lessons of the past?

Overall, The Caning is a must-read in this day and age …

… Even if you think it should be wrapped in a brown paper wrapper.

Doctor Whom?

21 Jul

I was not surprised, a few days ago, when it was announced that the Thirteenth Doctor would be a woman.

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I expected it, to be frank, from the moment Missy made her appearance as the latest regeneration of The Master. (The Mistress, get it?) Missy had a somewhat more shaky start than either of her two predecessors – I’m not counting any of the pre-reboot – Masters – but she rapidly grew into the role. Dark Water did not sell me on Missy, but The Magician’s Apprentice did. Missy might well have served, along with a handful of throwaway lines about transgender Time Lords, as an unsubtle way to test the waters. If fan reaction to Missy had been savagely negative, I suspect the BBC executives would have ditched any plans to turn the Doctor into a woman.

But they didn’t.

Cynics pointed out, of course, that this is hardly the first time a popular show had a female lead. Captain Janeway took command of Voyager back in 1995, while the reboot of Battlestar Galactica also featured a gender-bent Starbuck, now known as Kara Thrace. Both of these observations are of limited value. Captain Janeway might have stood alongside Kirk, Picard and Sisko, but she was not replacing them; Thrace started out so differently to the original Starbuck that the only thing she had in common with him was the name. And, like everyone else on the rebooted Galactica, she went sharply downhill midway through the show’s third season and never really recovered.

Doctor Who is unique, in essence, that there is a string of actors playing the main character. This is not a show where Major Kira replaces Captain Sisko, which she could have done with aplomb; this is a show where the newcomer effectively is the main character. The task facing any new Doctor, therefore, is to keep the essence of the character while putting their own spin on it. This is not easy. Indeed, I think it is fairly true to say that all of the newer Doctors – with the possible exception of Nine – have started out rather shakily and then improved as they grew into the role.

That said, there are effectively two sets of complaints being made about the new Doctor.

The first is that a female Doctor Who represents yet another Social Justice Warrior intrusion into a beloved SF franchise. Actual storytelling will be pushed to the back; social justice and gender politics will be pushed forward. A genuinely decent role model for young men will be replaced by yet another perfect woman, etc, etc. And the show will be ruined forever.

The second is that this isn’t good enough. The Doctor shouldn’t be replaced by a white woman, the Doctor should be replaced by a black man or a black woman or a transgender (never mind that the Doctor and the Master are both effectively transgender, to the point where the Master’s casual misogyny sounds more out-of-place than appalling). The BBC isn’t being representative, etc, etc. And the show will remain a bastion of straight white males. I think we can simply ignore these complaints.

Is there any validity to the first set of complaints? Well, yes and no.

The version of Doctor Who that opened with Rose made more reference to social justice issues than any previous version of the show. Sometimes, this was subtle; I didn’t like Mickey Smith when I first saw him, but I came to like him after his second appearance. (To be fair to the actor, he was very much a second-stringer compared to the Doctor and Rose and the pilot had no time to develop his character.) And in other times it was blatant and annoying – Jack Harkness’s open sexuality always struck me as out of place in a show kids would be watching. And it would go on to do immense damage to Torchwood.

I have nothing against gay or lesbian characters. Bill Potts was a good character who really should have stayed around for longer. But Doctor Who is not about sexuality, nor is it focused on Very Special Episodes. We watch Doctor Who to follow the adventures of a mad(wo)man in a box, to believe that one man can challenge evil and cling to his principles even in his darkest hours, not to have his or their sex lives thrust in our faces.

Beyond that, there is a more worrying trend. Female characters like Major Kira, Susan Ivanova and even Kara Thrace are strong on their own merits, but other characters are strong because the male characters next to them are degraded. The movie version of Hermione Granger was turned into a superwoman, while Ron was turned into a cowardly jerk. Some of his best lines and greatest moments were outright given to Hermione. (I haven’t watched the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, but I have been assured that the same problems are present there too.)

Part of this, I suspect, lies in a reluctance to portray female leads as having any flaws. Yet the Doctor is a flawed character. Nine’s obvious PTSD made him snappy at times, unwilling to relax; Ten’s god-complex pushed him into doing stupid and dangerous things just to prove a point. Will a female Doctor have flaws of her own? Or will she be portrayed as practically perfect in every way?

It will depend, I suspect, on the actress – and on the scripts. And Doctor Who has been quite iffy over the last three years. Twelve has had some good scripts, but also some bad ones. And some of the bad ones were howlers (although they never quite sunk to the level of Love and Monsters.)

If I was doing it, I wouldn’t even acknowledge the issue. The Doctor being female shouldn’t be portrayed as any more or less important than the colour of her hair. She’s the Doctor – so what? The Doctor is not human. The Time Lords should, by all rights, be energy beings by now. (One of the things I dislike about the new show is its portrayal of the Time Lords.) He/she is unlikely to care about our human natures. He may even simply fail to notice them.

There is a problem, these days, in far too many books, television shows and movies. And that is the problem of the message overriding the story. And that is a problem, because people hate being preached to. It might have been possible to have Tom Baker replaced by a woman, back when Baker left the show, without ranting and railing from both sides of the culture wars. Now, when gender-swapping and race-bending characters is nothing more than a gimmick – and critics are blasted as sexists and racists rather than being listened to – the message is stronger than ever. But it is the story that determines if people will stay.

I’ll give the new Doctor a chance. But if I don’t get good stories, I’ll watch something else.

I want characters I care about, not characters that tick demographic boxes. I want enemies I love to hate, not unsubtle pokes at current affairs and politically-correct villains. I want action and adventure, not gender/sexual/racial politics.

And I want to sit back and relax, not be lectured.

Is that really so wrong?

Ask A Writer: Keeping Going

19 Jul

A third question …

I have a question for your blog. Do you have any tips for helping beginner writers, such as myself, to have the confidence to keep going? While I’m having a particularly confident spell at present, I know this is an issue for many beginner writers.”

The short answer is to keep at it.

Yes, I know. That doesn’t sound particularly helpful. But the blunt truth is that learning to write is very much like learning to do press-ups – the more you do, the easier you’ll find it … but if you stop for a few days, you’ll find you fall back to square one.

What I did – what most writers do, I think – is two-fold. First, I set myself a goal. I told myself, at first, that I would try to write at least 500 words a day, rain or shine. It didn’t matter what those words were, I told myself, as long as they were a reasonably coherent story. The idea was to develop the habit of writing. Most – pretty much all – of what I wrote in those early years was utter drivel (he says, modestly <wink) but I did manage to develop the confidence and drive to just keep going.

The second thing I did, to some extent, was to draw up a rough outline of the planned book. I found that if I knew where I was going, while leaving room for modifications as I went along, it helped convince me that I was striving towards a goal. (This is particularly helpful if you’re writing a book that depends on you seeding clues throughout the narrative, perhaps a detective story.) I don’t believe in following plots religiously, but it does help when you’re starting out.

The blunt truth is that the first million or so words you write will be crap, to put it mildly. Very few people start out with the talent to write polished prose – it’s a skill writers develop over time. My honest advice is not to seek feedback for a while because it will either be from friends and family (people who aren’t going to be cruel) or people who will slam it outright, without making allowances for your relative newness. Self-published books like Empress Theresa, where it is clear that the writer hasn’t spent years practicing his craft (whatever he says about it), tend to attract unpleasant remarks and reviews that aren’t always particularly constructive.

Don’t expect instant success. And beyond that, don’t give up.

Good luck.