Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy was in Harry Potter. That’s what a lot of young people will remember him for.

But I will forever remember Sunday evenings, and Siegfried Farnon.

Sunday evenings were unmissable. I used to spend a lot of time with elderly next door neighbours (I’ve spoken about them before), and when I first knew them, they had only an old radiogram to listen to the Archers on. Then they got themselves a black and white TV, and All Creatures Great and Small became a regular part of the Sunday ritual – round there around 3pm, playing board games, dinner with them, and then watching TV before I headed back home.

The programme had an extra impact on me because it was about that time that I came across the books as well. Our teacher at school, in what would now be year 6, the year before moving to secondary school, would read us bits of All Creatures Great and Small, and I remember getting very upset because a boy in class had his own copy of If Only They Could Talk, the first book in the series, and I desperately wanted to read it. These were among the first books written for adults that I’d come across in my own reading.

I picked them up years later and looked at them, considering whether to share them with my children, and was astounded to see just how grown-up they were – no thought of reading something like that to 10 and 11 year olds these days!

So Siegfried Farnon, and Tristran Farnon and James Herriot, were all part of my childhood. Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy, and thank you for bringing Siegfried to us.



It’s been a while

I’ve decided that I can spend my time and energy either talking about writing or actually writing, so for the past few weeks I’ve been concentrating on actually writing. Nanowrimo complete, I set Abandoned to rest. It was the first time I’ve written a complete draft of a story and been reasonably happy with it, but I haven’t yet gone back to it, so I might be in for a nasty shock when I do.

Since then, I tried starting another first draft, of a romance this time, but Gods V Heroes called to me too loudly, so I’ve returned to that. It seems to be a novel of 3rds – it’s in three parts, and the first part was done, the second part needed work and the third part was a mess. Now I’ve worked my way through to the third part, and the first third of that is okay, the second third needs work and the third part is a mess… So it feels like I get closer and closer to complete, but never actually getting there.

The third part is now thoroughly mapped out, so it’s just a question of putting in the time to get it written. Another draft will be needed, but the more I write, the cleaner my writing becomes, so it won’t always be this tough. In the meantime, the news stories I collect relating to my Babies novel suggests that by the time I finish that, it might well be fiction rather than speculative fiction. The romance is on hold for now, but has the bare structure ready, and another fantasy is brewing in the background.

What I’m trying to avoid is going so slowly on GvH that everything else jams up behind, so that I lose enthusiasm and focus and can’t decide what to work on.

And now I’ve discovered a TV series called Forever, which is just calling out for fanfiction…

The attraction of fanfiction is that it’s instant gratification. The characters and settings already exist, there’s a ready-made audience for the stories, and they tend to be rattled out and published very quickly, often in instalments rather than a finished product. Very different from the laborious process of writing a novel.

So I hereby grant myself permission to explore Forever via fanfiction, but promise that I will also persevere with Gods V Heroes, at a pace that will allow myself to make real progress.



Show and tell

We’re always being told as writers to show the action rather than telling. Sometimes that can be a struggle. Well, I’ve just watched the first few minutes of Unbreakable, and that’s an excellent example. It’s a movie, so they can’t tell you “the relationship between him and his wife was on the rocks.” Instead, they show in a series of scenes – he removes his wedding ring and tries to talk to a young lady. She tells him she’s married and moves away. He puts his ring back on. He walks out into the hospital waiting area, and his son rushes up to him, while his wife moves more slowly. The kiss is tentative, forced. They start by holding hands as they walk out, but the hands soon fall apart, as though feeling unnatural. Those scenes tell you everything you need to know about the relationship.

So maybe, next time you struggle with showing and telling, imagine watching it on the screen. What could you see that would get that message across, instead of just giving the information?

Screenplays and novels are very different media, but comparing the two, and considering scenes from one told in the other form, can be really enlightening.


D is for Downton Abbey

The letter DWhen I’m working at my desk I have a habit of having something to watch on the second screen, and my latest find is Downton Abbey – I hadn’t realised just how entertaining it was. It’s also thought provoking. If there’s anyone out there who hasn’t discovered it yet, it’s about an English estate, set 100 years ago. There are many things I’m learning from this series, on every level.

On the writing side, since I’ve already watched the earliest episodes twice I can see there’s foreshadowing of many plotlines in early episodes that are fairly inconsequential until they’re addressed fully in later episodes. It’s also intriguing to see how the different relationships are built and shown.

On the social side, it’s interesting to see there are good people and bad people in all classes of life and at all levels. It pays to be nice to people, because you never know whether that person you’re being nasty to holds your fate in their hands. Generally, what goes around comes around, and good triumphs, although that doesn’t prevent me from feeling the tension when some characters are at stake. There’s also the issue that people are not all bad or all good, which I hope is developed more, because one-sided characters become dull and predictable.

It’s also interesting to watch it considering the news that’s been published this week about the new classes in society. One aspect of the story is that a young lawyer is thrust into the life of Downton with the prospect of inheriting it (thanks, O level English study of Pride and Prejudice for the knowledge of what entail means).  A conversation persuades him that everyone has a part to play, and that just because he feels he doesn’t need a valet, why does that give him the right to refuse his valet the chance to do his job? In a world where everyone seems out to pay the least they can get away with, for the most they can get, I found it a refreshing reminder that if all have their part to play, both in paying for services and in offering services, the world goes more smoothly. Maybe a little less attention to bottom line profits and more attention to giving as well as taking will improve life all round.


Sci Fi and powerful writing

I caught an episode of Deep Space Nine today, for the first time in ages, and was totally blown away by the power of the episode.

Like all good science fiction, this particular program succeeds because it shows ordinary people in recognisable situations, which can be seen all the more clearly for the unfamiliar setting.  I’ll give a little background, but the real life parallel will be obvious.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, it’s a Star Trek series based on Deep Space Nine, a space station (think motorway service station) near a planet, Bajor, and a wormhole (think motorway) to another quadrant, where the Cardassians originate.

A few years earlier, Cardassians occupied Bajor, and the Bajorans were freedom fighters standing up against the oppressors. Now Cardassia has retreated, and Bajor is trying to rebuild.

Kira is a Bajoran working on board Deep Space Nine (which is run by the Federation, a neutral group), and when a Cardassian calls in and asks for medical treatment, she accuses of him being the leader of a concentration camp.

At first the Cardassian insists he was just a filing clerk at the camp, and asks Kira how many Cardassian civilians she killed during her days as a freedom fighter (or terrorist). These are hard questions for Kira, but she sticks to her guns, researches, and eventually turns up a photo to prove the Cardassian really is the camp leader. Sure enough, he confesses and gloats about his crimes to her.

Just as they’re ready to hand him over to the Bajoran authorities for trial, further evidence turns up – the real camp leader died several years ago, and the guy claiming to be him seemed to have undergone plastic surgery, wound up his affairs and then deliberately sought passage to Deep Space Nine, where he was likely to be recognised and picked up.

So who exactly is he? In a moving conversation, Kira discovers that the Cardassian really was a filing clerk at the camp, who was horrified by the treatment of Bajorans but helpless to do anything about it. In despair, his conscience pricking him, he decided to pose as the camp leader and turn himself in, hoping that the ensuing trial would force Cardassia to face up to its crimes.

Kira ends up sympathising with him and assuring him that he was not to blame for the crimes. As she escorts him to the ship to take him back home, one of the Bajorans who lives on the station rushes up and stabs him in the back. “What did you do that for?” cried Kira. “He’s not the camp leader.”

“He’s a Cardassian,” replies the man. “Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” says Kira, cradling the dying man in her arms. “It’s not enough.”

And at that moment you realise that while at the beginning of the episode she too felt that the only good Cardassian was a dead Cardassian, she and we had travelled on a journey that led to the conclusion that there is  good and bad on both sides, and that it pays to look far more deeply.

That, to me, holds all the power of a true science fiction story – just as Kira is absolutely certain at the beginning and has her attitude changed by the end, so we too realise that there are two sides to the story, and that you can’t lump everyone together, label them and feel secure in that labelling.

The tension between Bajor and Cardassia plays a large part in the show, as does the religious beliefs of the Bajorans, and while DS9 may not have the excitement of a new planet to visit every week, I do believe it helps the stories themselves to become much deeper, with very strong characterisation and situations that truly reflect society.

I would love the ability to write stories of that calibre. And I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks at home, when I can catch up with more DS9 episodes.


audio commentaries

Finally my Merlin season 5 DVD set has arrived and I can watch it and listen to the commentaries. I love hearing the actors argue and chat over the episodes, but even better are the episodes where the writers and directors get their say. You hear all sorts of stories about the writing and filming of the episodes, what tricks they had to use, what worked and what didn’t, inside stories – like how they hard-boiled 120 eggs for the juggling scene instead of realising they could use wooden or rubber eggs – and generally get a really interesting view of life on the other side of the screen.

It’s even more enjoyable now I’ve finally figured out to turn on the subtitles, so I can follow the storyline of the episode properly while listening!

I just wish that the DVD producers would realise that the loud repetitive music and flashy sequences in the menu section are entertaining for the first two minutes/first viewing and thereafter simply become totally irritating and off-putting.

The first disk, containing the first three episodes of the season, all have commentaries on them – I hope my luck continues and there are lots of episodes with commentaries throughout all 13 episodes. And that I get a chance to get through them in the near future. Mind you, I’ve come to quite enjoy my Sunday mornings ironing in front of the little TV in the kitchen.


Time to develop a plan

Image of my timeline planningThree chapters posted of the story already, and I’m only just starting to plan? Well, truth be told, so far most of what I’d done was just novelization of the episode, including an extra scene or two that was missing from the original. It’s interesting to note the differences between stories that are told in images and stories that are told in words, and the different techniques used and messages conveyed. Now, with the characters starting to take over and direct me, it was time for me to draw a rough map of my intended route through the story.

The trouble with fanfiction is that like nanowrimo, there’s little time to go back and revise. With chapters posted as they are written, it’s easy to write yourself into a corner and find that you’ve set up situations in earlier chapters that given hindsight you would have rearranged.

And so I set out to plan the events and timeline that the story needs to follow.

First I went through the original episode, which I had already transcribed (it drops off iplayer tonight and my DVD set isn’t released for another three weeks) and wrote down the order of scenes, categorising them into Merlin/Arthur, Camelot and elsewhere. This enabled me to see the flow of the episode and how the three areas of activity intertwined.

I numbered these, giving each a multiple of 10, following original computer programming convention. This served two purposes: first I could easily tell which were the original scenes, and second I could add in other scenes, with the intervening numbers, and had enough numbers between original scenes to allot to them. I also needed to work out which extra characters I would need to develop to carry the story through, tying it with previous episodes where I could and trying to stick to the style and structure of the original characters and storylines.

I then had a rough list of events, and the order they needed to occur in.  The next job was to colour code these to show who would narrate them, as my story is written in first person but jumping from character to character for each section, each clearly prefaced with who is speaking. The challenge is to work out who in each scene would tell the story best. Sometimes there is an overlap between chapters, as the same scene is told from the POV of two different characters, but only where I feel the second POV adds something to the storyline, or where I need to paraphrase to skip past a bit we’ve learnt about from someone else already.

I’m finding generally that my way of writing changes a little with each character, as I hear their voices in my head and picture them on screen. Even the vocabulary can change. This gives more interest to the story, but I still need to learn how to get deeper into their heads and I know one weakness of my writing is lack of description.

Ah well, I can’t guarantee a story update every day, but now I know where it’s going things seem to be going fairly smoothly.

The story is over 6000 words so far, by the way, with each chapter over 1000 and the longest chapter so far being 2250.


And we’re off!

I posted the first chapter of a Merlin fanfic last night, and after dreaming about the story overnight the second chapter was written and posted this afternoon. That’s the way a lot of fanfiction goes: it’s published as it is written, chapter by chapter, and reviews and comments on earlier chapters can influence later parts of the story.  In one sense, a story can be written as a collaborative effort between reader and writer.*

Fanfiction is addictive.  The instant feedback from readers urges you on to more, and the stats provided are compulsive viewing.  A lot like blogging, really.  I’ve already had over 170 visitors to my story page.  Part of the issue is that many people are dissatisfied with the official ending of the series, and are hungry for more stories, preferably extending the story well beyond canon.  Interestingly, a lot of my audience seems to have come from the states, where they haven’t even (officially) seen the last season yet.  I’m loving the role reversal – usually it’s me in the UK watching desperately as those in the states get TV episodes first!

The trouble is that having started, it tends to feel like a snowball rolling downhill.  I need to know all sorts of facts about the show; there’s a merlin wiki, but the trouble is I could really do with having all 983 pages from it embedded in my brain, ready to pull out any fact I need.

I don’t know enough about British history.  I want to write in another threat to the kingdom, but don’t have a good enough grasp of the geography and history of the location yet.  At least it’s set in Britain, so I don’t have the usual handicap of trying to write for an American setting/characters.

I’ve just got the Crystal Cave and Mists of Avalon, so I can research the original stories.  Then hubby mentioned le mort d’arthur, which is apparently the original original source of the stories.  So that’s the myths and legends research sorted.  I still need to figure out how I’m approaching the historical side of research.  I have Merlin seasons 1 to 4 on DVD, I’ve ordered season 5 which is released mid January and it’s currently available on iplayer, so that’s the tv series research available.

Then I need to work out what’s happening with the story.  It started as Arthur’s point of view within the final episode, then chapter 2 was from Merlin’s point of view, taking the story on a scene or two, but I realised as I started it that I needed to start his story a little earlier, which made for clumsy flashback.  Then I discovered that the timeline in the episode doesn’t make a massive lot of sense, so I was forced to juggle things and make up things to make it flow better.  I could continue with just these two characters, telling the story of the episode in greater depth from their POV, with an intent to continuing the story after the point where I want to change from the original storyline.  Or I could expand it to include what’s happening back at Camelot too, and make it a much more epic story, in which case I risk losing momentum as time runs out and I head back to work.  Whatever I choose, I need to work on keeping all the characters true to the TV series, while adding in enough extra to keep me and my readers happy.

So many decisions, so much power.  I literally hold the power of life or death in my hands, at least in respect of my characters.  I can influence the course of the kingdom.  Kings and queens take power or lose it, at the tap of my fingers.  I wield the power of magic and decide on the future of magic within the realm.

Ooh err!  I think this is all going to my head.  Maybe I’d better just focus on what will happen in the next chapter or two first! Whatever direction this does end up going in, I know one thing: as long as I am actively writing, I am improving my skills, as I develop plot and characters, try out different writing techniques and hone my writing practice.

*One memorable fanfiction project I was witness to, if not actively involved in, took part on a mailing list for a TV series. One writer wrote a part of a story from the POV of one of two characters.  Another writer then took on the story, starting partway through the first chapter but from the other character’s POV, and continuing the story a little further.  The first one then took up her character’s POV again, and so the story went on, told alternately by the two writers/characters, with no contact between them except the story segments posted by email to the mailing list. It was great fun to witness and must have been great fun to write as well.

Writing our own stories

The series of merlin finished last night in the uk. I’ll try not to give direct spoilers, but let’s just say many people enjoyed most of the episode but were unhappy with how things ended. Within 24 hours stories were appearing on with different endings, as people rejected the BBC’s version of events and substituted their own. This isn’t the first time this has happened, of course: fanfiction writers are constantly expanding the universe for their characters, and when a series comes to an end it gives a special kind of freedom for writers to speculate and imagine without the threat of new canon (official episodes etc) to render their imaginings inaccurate or outdated. When Buffy the vampire slayer ended the fan world continued writing, with at least one more complete season of episodes on the net. Blake’s seven continued far beyond the tv series. I’m sure there are many more examples out there of semi-organised, co-ordinated creativity, as well as the millions of individual contributions.
The magic comes for me when one writer produces their version of the continuation/alternate ending and the readers say “yes, that’s the right version. That’s what should have happened.” And that writer’s contribution becomes accepted as canon by readers and further writers, to the extent that their stories and ideas are developed further still.
So often now the literary universe no longer continues in linear fashion, but splinters off into different directions as writers exert their own influence. Some authors get very upset and protective of their work, while others tolerate or even welcome this creativity.
To me this becomes part of the magic of the Internet, as the line between writer and reader, creator and consumer, becomes more and more blurred, until in the end we all become creators in some form or another. Some might say we construct our own meaning every time we read and this is just an extension of that.
As for me, I’ll read the new versions of merlin, comment on them and either find one that I can live with or work out my own version, so the story can continue in a satisfying manner, and I might even end up sharing/publishing to see what others think of it, so that I too will play my part in negotiating the way the story should go. There’s magic in discovering someone who has the same ideas as you about how things should go, and even more magic in being the one to first express those ideas.
I will also look forward to receiving delivery of my wireless keyboard for iPad, as it’s a pain writing on it without or having to step up to a larger machine. I find it amazing that one of those stories already posted on merlin was written in English by an Italian writing on her iPhone!

I love fanfiction

I love fanfiction.  I love the way I can watch an episode of a TV show, and then go to somewhere like to see other fans’ views of that episode – what happened behind the scenes, what happened afterwards. I love the way I can then leave comments on their stories saying what I liked and what didn’t quite work, and get a message back saying thank you, you’re right, I reviewed my story and that bit didn’t quite fit so I’ve cut it out.  I love reading essays about the dialogue between the creators of shows and the fans of that show, as they negotiate and argue about essential issues.  I love the way that even in the hiatus between seasons there is material to be found, to enjoy and pick apart and maybe build on.  I love that there’s such a thin line between writer and reader that sometimes they’re the same person, and that there’s real dialogue, to the extent that feedback from the reader can influence the writer and words from the writer can affect the reader deeply.  I love the way that private imagination can become public entertainment on such a personal level.  I even love it that some of the fanfiction is of poor quality, because it means that even young writers, or unpractised writers, or young unpractised writers, are pounding the keyboard in an attempt to share their writing.

I even confess to thinking that maybe it’s time I started writing properly again.