Saturday 25 October 2014

The Lost City of the Crowfolk

Few have heard of the City of the Crowfolk and those few call it Lost.  It was old when the Queens of Day were young, young only when The Absented dwelt in the World. It was the Crowfolk's capital, a jewel pillowed by the foothills of The Spine of the World.  It lies where it has always lain, yet no woman or man or child seeks it out.  Only the Crowfolk walk there and they walk there only in dreams.

It is large this Lost City and its buildings are tall.  Though none have dwelt there for six hundred years, it has neither crumbled nor faded.  Nor a snowdrop nor a daisy nor a blade of grass grows where it should not.  No moss marks its walls, no lichen sits upon its wide, flagstoned roads.  Not a fox pads over its streets nor does a mouse scuttle within its walls.  And no birds sing.

There are no merchants on the Almond Way, no jewel-cutters on Bright Street.  The dim halls of the Morthouse are shadowed only by their own stones, and the waters of the Three Fountains play unheard.  The Tower of Ravens, so high, so high, looks down and sees nothing and naught.  The City is Lost indeed.

Thursday 25 September 2014

The Rage that Powers Writing

Not a particularly Otherwhilish update this but I wanted to share Neil Gaiman's article for The Guardian about his friend Terry Pratchett.
The article - warm and sad and unflinching in the way Gaiman does so well - is a great reminder of the way that anger can power writing and particularly comic writing.  There is a deep hatred of injustice running through pretty much all Terry Pratchett's novels (particularly the Sam Vimes books).  In a world in which we are all encouraged to see ourselves as individuals and to forget all those others without whom it would be impossible for us to survive and thrive, that's exactly the kind of hatred we need.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Beware Gargoyles

Among the biggest hazards of my writing life are gargoyles.  I suspect that sentence needs some explaining.  As you've probably guessed, I'm not talking about the stone grotesques that hang off the side of old churches and cathedrals and have a tendency to fall on vicars, squires and the like in rural murder mysteries.  I'm not even talking about the gargoyles that come to life in horror movies. "Gargoyle" is the best term I've found for the ugly lines, phrases, sometimes whole scenes or chapters that crop up in one's writing (or my writing, anyway) from time to time and absolutely refuse to budge, no matter how many times you try to edit them away.

Having just chipped a particularly persistent gargoyle out of a script, I thought I would share some thoughts on gargoyle ecology - how they are born, how they survive and, most importantly, how to get rid of them.

How then are gargoyles born?  There are several breeds of gargoyle, each born in a different way.  The most common is the "Patch".  These are born when you need to press on through a piece of writing - because of a looming deadline, say, or because you know there's a "really cool bit" that you're desperate to write lurking just a few more sentences away.  This sort of gargoyle is slapped together quickly, an ugly thing meant to hide what would otherwise be an even uglier gap.  It's always supposed to be short-lived but give it the slightest chance to stick its claws into your writing and there's a risk it will stay there forever.

The next type of gargoyle is the "Autopilot".  These are created by your hands typing away while your mind is looking elsewhere.  They're the passages that just haven't had the same level of care lavished on them as the rest of the work.  Gargoyles like this are usually relatively harmless and when examined close up may even seem quite pleasant but when they're viewed as part of an overall structure, they make the whole thing look lumpen and unbalanced.

The worst type of gargoyle is the "Mirage".  Sometimes while trudging away beneath the harsh sun on your journey to the completed script/novel/sketch/&c your brain becomes a little addled.  You think you see a beautiful, wordy oasis, full of perfect imagery, elegantly expressed.  In fact, you've just found a truly misshapen bundle of words, full of ill-fitting ideas, exhausted clichés and inaccurate metaphors.  Unfortunately you just can't see it.  You stick it proudly in your script, convinced that anyone who comes across it will love it.

How do these gargoyles thrive and survive, making their way through successive edits while all about them is being put to the sword (see The Jabberwocky Guide to Editing)?  The answer is that all these Gargoyles rely on one of the most powerful magics of them all, namely  Cognitive Dissonance Reduction.  Stronger than any elvish glamour, CDR is the thing we use to minimise our discomfort - our "Cognitive Dissonance" - when we hold two conflicting beliefs. CDR is the stuff you use to convince yourself it was right to cheat on that test.  It's the stuff that keeps you playing the lottery even though you know you've more chance of being struck by lightning.  It's the stuff that swirls around the internet as people devise ever-more-complex conspiracy theories and bend and break facts to make the world conform to their view of it.  It's also the stuff that lets gargoyles lurk somehow out-of-the-way even as they sit in plain sight - making your eyes skim over them as surely as any cloak of invisibility.

So, how do you get rid of a gargoyle?  The first thing to do is to identify them and that's both the simplest and hardest thing in the world.  The truth is you almost always know when you've created a gargoyle.  There's a twinge, a slight feeling of discomfort (that Cognitive Dissonance again), some part of your body letting you know that the thing right in front of you is ugly and needs to be got rid of.  Even if you don't feel the twinge when the gargoyle first appears on the page, you will do the next time you see it.  And that's when you have to strike.  One of the gargoyle's favourite tricks is to convince you that you can deal with it later, that there are more urgent, more egregious, errors to be erased first.  Don't fall for it.  Hammer that thing out at once.  Don't be afraid.  If you're worried that you may have mistaken a carved angel for a gargoyle, still chip it away.  You can always put it into storage for later.  Never forget, your ultimate goal is to show your work to other people.  You want them to gaze in wonder at its beauty.  The last thing you need is for them to walk away shaking their heads and sighing at the presence of all those gargoyles.

Sunday 14 September 2014

The Nature of the Heart of the World

Everyone has heard of the Heart of the World, of course they have.  It is the great gem that hung above the Mountainsbreath Throne1, its light waxing and waning over the decades.  It is the symbol of the Kings and Queens of Otherwhile.  It is the stone whose destruction would mean the End of All.

But that is merely what everyone knows.  Where did the gem come from?  Why has it been unseen since the Battle of Lohss?  These are the questions the wise would ask.  But whether these questions can be answered and whether those answers will be true, that is a matter I will leave you to judge.

Many authorities say the Heart of the World is a gift from the Stars themselves, symbol of an ancient pact between those creatures of the Sky and our World below.  Others have claimed the Heart was a sign left by The Absented, a promise that She or He or It would one day return.  Those who make such a claim are, of course, heretics and their theories are unworthy of serious consideration.  Others say the great gem is but a fragment of the World's true Heart.  Those others, I believe, are correct.  They say too that there have been many such fragments and that the jewel that once hung above the Mountainsbreath throne is but the latest in a long sequence.  In this too they are correct.

A few of these sages2 say that the first of these splinters came into being thousands of years ago and that the tale of its birth is the tale of The Woman Who Broke the World's Heart.  They say also that the splinter was brought to Otherwhile over a millennium ago by the three Queens of Day and that they wielded its power to create the Palace of Days and to build the army of Otherwhile and to conquer lands from Vassel to Kemt and Oscurys to Flesch and even to bend the first Empire of Shende to their will.

They say further that some time in every five hundred years each splinter of the World's Heart would dwindle to almost nothing.  And then The Queens of Day would journey to  The Spine of the World and there follow the secret paths that lead deep beneath the mountains until they reached the cavern at the centre of the World, where they would carve a new gem from World's True Heart, ready to wield it once again for Otherwhile.

Lastly these sages say that to toy with the Hearts of Worlds is a very foolish thing.  And this is proof that sometimes all of us, or almost all, can have the wisdom of sages.

1. This directly contradicts much of what was said about the Heart here. Sadly that's the way history works sometimes, especially the history of fictional objects
2. Two of whom might be the Brother and the Sister (were they more than myths)

Wednesday 3 September 2014

A Flying Visit (and one very short story)

Hello reader!  As ever, sorry it's been so long.  While life and work have been chugging along, I find I've managed to notch up six or seven half-written blog posts but somehow haven't found the time to whip them into shape.

So, with the excuses out of the way, here's a very short Othewhile-ish Tale I put together for the Edinburgh Book Festival's #StoryShop challenge on Twitter ...


I dropped a stone into the well. Down & down & down it fell and still no splash. And then, so faint, a voice said "Thank you"

I promise the next update will be longer and, I hope, arrive sooner.  Until then, all the very best!

Thursday 15 May 2014

The Jabberwocky Guide to Editing

Editing can be a horrible process but it can also be a liberating one.  A lot depends on your frame of mind as you sets out to look at your manuscript/paper/.docx/Scrivener file. Approach with a defensive attitude, intent on preserving as many dearly-loved passages and favourite characters as possible, and the editing process can be transformed into bloody trench warfare, with each slow advance followed by a retreat and every last word the scene of an ugly skirmish.  On the other hand, leaping into the attack, intent on cutting away the excess characters, unnecessary plot twists and purple prose that threaten to strangle your story, and the whole thing can end up being rather fun.  In the end it's much easier to slice away a whole page with a flash of the editing blade than it is to trudge through every sentence jabbing each word with your bayonet to check if it's still alive.

So it is that I advise the Jabberwocky approach to editing: take your vorpal sword in hand, seek the manxome foe and make like the hero of Lewis Caroll's poem.

One, two! One, two! and through and through.
His vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

It really is the best way!

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Echoes and Remembrances

I've recently been reading "The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead" by Carl Watkins.  It's a wonderful book, looking at British traditions of death from the time of William the Conqueror to the First World War.  Along the way it unearths a now-hidden landscape of death, lying just at the borders of reality, a landscape in which the dead dwell, always near to the living.

The book's early chapters, dealing with the time around the Reformation, made me consider for the first time how the shift from Catholicism to Protestantism fundamentally altered our attitude to death, with purgatory suddenly abolished and the possibility of intercession on a soul's behalf extinguished.  This change in the attitude to death had a significant effect on life too.  In particular it saw the destruction of the Catholic apparatus of death: seeing the dissolution of institutions such as chantries (where a priest or priests were employed to say masses for a dead person's soul), an end to the reading of bede rolls (lists of persons to be prayed for) and abandonment of long-standing traditions such as the ringing of church bells on All Hallow's Eve.  Ghosts were no longer dead souls locked in a kind of quasi-earthly purgatory and people themselves were now (pre)destined for heaven or hell from birth and/or through their own acts, with no room for intercession by priests or the prayers of the faithful.

So what does this all mean for Otherwhile, which has no afterlife at all  (a point on which Otherwhile's only god, The Absented, was particularly clear).  How would this absence of the ever-after affect the average Otherwan?  How do the people of Otherwhile give meaning to their lives knowing that they will soon be gone from this and every other world?  Do they have ghosts?

The easiest of these questions to answer is the last: no, there are no ghosts in Otherwhile, not at least in the sense of beings trapped between this world and the next.  On the other hand, there are things very like ghosts, apparitions of the long lost and recently departed that appear to the living.  They are thought of as reflections of a person's being that arrive after that person has died, in the same way that an echo returns after the original sound that created it has ended.  Indeed the term "Echo" is commonly used in Otherwhile when speaking of such phenomena and "echo tales" are often told around Otherwan fires on dark nights.

The other questions are more complex and need a more nuanced answer.  Here on this blog we haven't time for that, so I'll boil things down as quickly as I can.  The general thrust of Otherwan belief is that a woman or man lives on through the memories they create in others, whether by having and raising children or through the effects of their acts.  In order to ensure their memories will last, those who can afford it make donations to Remembrances - a kind of cross between mediaeval chantries and monasteries - where their names will be chanted and their deeds recited for as long as their bequests hold out.  The Remembrances in turn offer aid to the poor and weary in the names of those same dead, allowing even the most wicked to do some good after their time in the world is done.  It's an imperfect system, of course, but does at least provide a form of inheritance tax, redistributing money from the wealthy dead to the needy and keeping this fantastical world free(ish) of mediaeval Paris Hiltons.

Wednesday 26 February 2014

The Great Cathedral of The Absented

The Great Cathedral of The Absented is certainly the most important site of pilgrimage in all the land of Otherwhile and perhaps the most important site in all the globe1 , housing at its centre the Lake of Loss, the silver-watered lake - its circumference a perfect circle, its surface ever still - where The Absented took Her and His and Itself from this world.

Though the Lake has existed beyond the memory of humankind, the cathedral that presently surrounds it was first erected some thousand years ago, during the reign of the Queens of Day, and has been added to and amended many times over the years.  Viewed from above the original building took the shape of an equilateral triangle: the southerly side housed accommodation, kitchens, workshops and such whose purpose was to serve both those who attended the Lake and also the many visitors who came, if not on pilgrimage (the Absented having forbidden her/his/its worship), then on something very like it; the westerly side contained the Great Library; the easterly side provided a space for merchants to ply their trade.

Those divisions of the building's use remain essentially in place even to this day.  However, a thousand years of building have left little of the original design of the cathedral visible.  Instead there is a great encrustation of towers and turrets, annexes, wings, buttresses and the like built in at least a hundred  different styles. It is said that one could spend many years in the Great Cathedral moving to a different room each day and one would never be forced to visit the same room twice, though whether one would want or be wise to do so is another matter altogether.

In the present time both the Great Cathedral and its equally Great Library are under the control of The Unvoiced2 , though a large area to the cathedral's south-east is reserved for Farla's Veils3.

1. One can never be definite about these things: the world of Otherwhile is large and may be home to continents as yet undiscovered, those continents may in turn be home to new and unfamiliar cultures and those new and unfamiliar cultures may have built even greater sites of pilgrimage. On the other hand, they may have seen very little point in the whole building sites of pilgrimage thing and preferred to discuss predicate logic, invent new forms of musical notation or go surfing instead, but it's best to be on the safe side.
2. Of whom more will be revealed at a future date.
3. Who are discussed briefly in Ye Gods

Wednesday 12 February 2014

A Small Discovery

I've been spending a lot of time down among the dustier shelves in The Great Library of the Absented, shelves where the thick leather bindings of the books have been untouched in decades, perhaps centuries, and where the heavy chains that keep the books from wandering are flecked with red rust.

This morning, in the middle of clearing away an unusually heavy covering of dust from one of the thicker books, I stumbled upon a small and very delicate scroll, tucked away.  Much of what was written on it was indecipherable and much of what could be deciphered was gibberish but the few fragments that did make sense threw up what might be a very interesting possibility: it seems that when Arbor Vulpa stole the great gem known as the Heart of the World (a tale that begins here) he may have left a tiny sliver of the Heart behind.  What happened to that sliver I don't know for certain but other documents, as old or even older than the one I happened to find this morning, lead me to think that it may somehow have found its way into hands which meant, perhaps still mean all these hundreds of years later, to change the fate of Otherwhile itself.  It's an exciting discovery and one I intend to follow up.  In the interim I hope you'll excuse me if I continue to be a little slow in delivering the tale of Vyolla Who Sings.  Poor Vyolla, her story deserves my full attention and it would be wrong for me to give it anything less.

Friday 31 January 2014

And Another Thing

It's been rather quiet in Otherwhile recently.  At least, it seems to have been judging  by the frequency of updates on this site.  In truth, there's been quite a lot going on: a near riot at the Applefall Fair, rebellion in the west, even - so they say - the disappearance of someone closely connected to the royal family.  Unfortunately I'm not in a position to tell you much more about these things, at least not right now.  Nor can I tell you more about The Veils, or The Voiceless or the Great Library of The Absented, though  all of these will come in time, as will the story of Vyolla Who Sings, which I promised you ages ago.

For now though, what I can give you is a picture.  You see I wrote a picture book for my niece, who is making the perilous journey from two to three, and my sister has just sent me this illustration for the book's cover.  I think it's rather marvellous.