Thursday 31 October 2013

Gemmell Awards tonight! Happy Halloween!

The Gemmell Awards are tonight at the World Fantasy Convention 2013 in Brighton, UK.

And at the very least I'm coming away with one of these! How cool is that. I should certainly be able to wreck havoc upon some of my smaller foes with that baby.

Seriously, the world of awards want to sit up and take notice. Forget the over-sized suppository that the Hugos hand out.

Miniature axes are where it's at. And if you win the Legend, you'll be going home with an even bigger axe!

Some of the competition have some catching up to do. I'm looking at you HP Lovecraft award.

With all due respect that's a big ugly head I don't want on my mantelpiece...  Now the Bram Stoker award has some charm to it...

...but then again it does look a bit like the sinister part of one of those twee china villages people used to collect, and whilst the Gemmell axe could be used to hit someone, you ain't gonna live in that.

So all in all, it's probably time the trophy makers upped their game. Axes are all good. Alternatives... how about something you can consume. A fine bottle of whiskey? A fantasy cake - I'd be in the queue for those.

Here's a Minas Tirith cake - feast your eyes, then your belly. That's the sort of prize I'd go for - and I'll have just the mini-axe to cut it with!

The Gemmell Legend Award (best novel) Shortlist:

And the Morning Star Award (best debut) Shortlist:

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Best Cake Ever!

The cake bears Kimberly Kincade's rather wonderful picture of Jorg.

Feast your eyes! I feasted my belly as well, but that's another story.

I recently increased my total attendance at fantasy conventions by 200% ... kinda. Last year I popped down to Bristol Con around lunchtime and spent an hour looking around the stalls and chatting with a couple of authors I knew from the internet.

This year I got to the reception at Bristol Con, which is held about 6 miles from my house, picked up my laminated badge and diverted into the bar to cool down from my cycle ride with a cold beer. Two hours later I left the bar and cycled home.

The hours were spent chatting with authors Snorri Kristjansson and Luke Scull, Luke's wife Yesica, and one of my readers, Agnes M. who brought with her the cake pictured above and a fine bottle of wine. The cake turned out to be coffee and walnut, proof that Agnes and her fellows at Bloody Cake News do their research with a purpose!

Luke Scull, Agnes M, Me, Snorri Kristjansson

Here's the evidence I was there - because sadly nobody inside the convention would be able to corroborate. 

Next year I hope to make it 3 hours and spend one of those hours not in the bar. See you there perhaps. Bring cake.

Thursday 17 October 2013

This shit just got real!

Sword and Sorcery movies in the 80's & 90's (up to 2001)
(click for more detail)

(I can find no data for Hawk the Slayer '80)

note - even adjusting for inflation the earlier films had small budgets - thus The Sword and The Sorcerer looks like it was huge, but it had a $4 million budget and took in $40 million. The Harry Potter films on the other hand made a smaller fractional profit (costing ~$1 billion and earning ~$7 billion) but clearly reached a much larger audience.

Shit got real!

For a long time fantasy on both the big and the small screens just didn’t seem to work. Every now and then someone would notice the obvious and overwhelming love for the books (primarily Tolkien) and the sub-culture (primarily D&D centered) and convince themselves that a fantasy film would be a good idea. The film would be made, not do as well as hoped, and there would be a pause for six months, or a year or two, or all of the 90s.

The thing is that whilst those steeped in fantasy books have been reasonably receptive to attempts to make the movie, the general public (who you really need at your film if it’s to make money) are a bit more suspicious.

This has been changing all millennium – very large dents have been put in the anti-fantasy prejudice by Harry Potter at the kids’ end of the market and Lord of the Rings at the grownup end. The work for these major successes was (unusually) done at the book-level though. Generally fantasy films do not rely on the readers of the book that inspired the movie for their audience. Generally books don’t have enough readers to fill movie theaters across a nation. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, with their sales in the hundreds of millions, break this truism.

More often though it’s the idea/story/film-making/actors that sell the film and the book may ride the wave of any success generated rather than making the wave for the film to ride.

I've watched the recent triumph of A Game of Thrones on HBO with great interest. I've looked at the audience reaction on youtube and seen people who may never have read a fantasy book (or even a book, period) leap up from their couches yelling 'oh no they didn't' and 'this shit just got real' before stomping off into the kitchen to cool down after 'their man Ned' met his fate. 

How did this happen? I can tell you for sure it wouldn't happen with the kind of fantasy films we often saw in the 80's where the actors were chosen for their biceps or flat stomachs and strolled on set with more hair product in place than left on the salon shelves. It wouldn't happen for films where the dialogue drops leaden from pretty lips and leaves even the actors slightly embarrassed. It wouldn't happen for films where fight scenes involve everyone waving their swords about and grunting, and the occasional baddie falling over when slapped with a blade.

What makes fantasy work on the screen is when everyone involved believes in what they're doing. There's no hamming it up, no winks to the audience, the people are as dirty as the situation dictates and as variously ugly or attractive as the rest of us. People swear, wounds bleed, surviving matters. And taking everything seriously doesn't mean there can't be humor in there. It doesn't even have to be dark humor - I'm watching Breaking Bad and there are genuine touching funny moments in it - it just means that the humor has to arise naturally, not as one-liners to camera.

Game of Thrones works because the characters are brilliantly written and brilliantly acted. In the end it's all about character - first, middle, last - the characters make you give a damn what's happening. And of course you need to feed your actors - they eat good dialogue - they'll take the smallest opportunity to sound like real people and work it - give them a chance.

All those films that slapped a sword and a leather harness on a muscle-man, put a castle in the background and let him slay foes... they missed the point and their audience. Well... except for Conan of course... but Arnie is VERY muscly and he did have some good lines:

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life? 

Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their significant others.

... or something like that anyway.

Anyway, to return to my point, whatever it was... the way to make this shit get real is to put real people on the screen - the best actors available and ones who are committed to the story.

Jeremy Irons is a good actor - but put him on the set of a fantasy film and it all goes wrong. I saw another good actor interviewed on TV the other day talking about a martial arts film he was in to pay the bills when not in theater. 

"Do you like martial arts films?" the interviewer asked. 
"God no," said the actor. 

Well that's fine - I don't love them myself (except I really did like Kiss of the Dragon), but the point is that acting is hard. If you have to use part of that effort pretending to be into the thing in the first place there may not be enough left to do what's needed.

So to conclude - it's the actors, stupid. They don't have to look like pieces of Frank Frazetta art - they do have to be great at acting. Feed them the right lines and all will be well.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Short Story: During the Dance

Here's a short story I wrote a while back:

During the Dance 
By Mark Lawrence 

Dad stopped drinking the day my sister was born. He called her his angel, and the booze didn't take him back until she died. He came drunk to the funeral, crying and roaring, loud enough for two parents, loud enough to make up for Mam's silence. At the end, the men had to hold him back, or he'd have thrown himself in the grave. And foolish enough he'd have looked, a grown man in that narrow hole. I saw it in my mind's eye, him stuck in the grave-slot, his legs waving in the air, and a laugh ripped out of me, so fierce it hurt my throat.
    "Shush, boy." Uncle Jim took my shoulder. "Quiet, Sammy."
    "Shut him up." That was Aunt Grace. Fat, brutal, and red.
    I couldn't stop of course. The hysteria had me, and the laughter howled through me.
    Dad, and Mam, and me. We made a trio, there in our borrowed black, him cursing God for the taking of a baby, me with the laughing gas and the tears rolling down my cheeks, and Mam twisting so slow on an invisible wrack, every muscle at war with every other, and no sound escaping past her teeth.
    Me-me came into the world five years after me, to the day. She arrived on the same rug, in the same room. We lived the same life, but somehow she lived it deeper and sweeter. Mam called her Martha, after Nana Robbins, and the priest at St Luke's down by Bethnal Green poured the holy water on her so that God would know her name too. I thought that was strange, because God knows everything, and because no-one called her Martha after that.
    Mam called her a blessing, and her heart. Dad called her his angel. He would rock her in his arms, hour after hour, when the coals burned low in the hearth that first winter. He'd lick his finger and curl her hair into black spirals on her forehead, and she'd chuckle and reach for his hands. Somewhere along the way she named herself, in those first gurgles. Me-me.
    I came back to that room after we'd buried her. The room where we slept four to the bed, and now three. I sat on the rug, gray, with a memory of some diamond pattern in the fluff above the worn hessian. We'd both arrived there, me squalling at the world, telling it off good and proper, Mam said. Me-me limp and silent so's to set Dad shouting up the stairs, is it dead? Oh Jesus! But she'd coughed, and rolled open the bluest eye.
    I picked at the fluff and tried to imagine the pattern that'd been there once, a lifetime ago, woven in, bought and sold, sold again, beaten for dust in the alleys. Beaten out. Would Me-me be beaten out? She was just a pattern now. A pattern in my head. A small marker in the corner where they put the little ones. A white coffin Dad couldn't afford. She'll be cold there, under that London clay. I thought of her, alone now, in that dark box, and the tears came.
    Me-me walked young, and she talked young. She brought the sun with her, into the narrow alleyways of the East End. As a child in poverty you never know that you're poor, the slums are the slums. They're home. They're what is. So I'd never felt poor. But Me-me made us feel rich. She carried smiles with her.
    An older brother is supposed to be the one to delight the younger children with tales, but in our house it was Me-me who told the stories. From the moment she could talk she narrated a world I couldn't see. We'd sit on the steps out front, and watch the children barefoot in the street, and the coal-man coming with his sacks to fill the cellars of those who could pay. We'd watch the birds above, in that bright line of sky between the rooftops, we'd watch the washing on the lines, but most of all, Me-me would watch the dancers, and I would listen.
    She saw them everywhere. She saw them dancing on fence-tops, along old gutters, between the pegs on the washing line. She called them the `dancers', but then `angels' because Mam said that was proper if she couldn't stop talking about them. Mostly she saw them out on their own, dancing one at a time. She saw a lady in white, dance on Mrs Jenning's doorstep. She said the lady had hair like glass, and a dress that sparkled like sugar. She danced there for an hour before the light failed, jumping from step to step, even though they were taller than her. And we watched, or rather Me-me, watched and clapped her hands, and I listened to her, and tried so hard to see that sometimes I imagined a sparkle from the angel's dress when she spun.
    The next day the sheets on Mrs Jennings' line were stained red, and Mam said she had a lovely baby girl. Dad told me about the stork and the gooseberry bush, and I nodded and told him I believed it. But really I knew the white lady had brought little Sarah Jennings to the house that night.
    "Where do the dancers come from?" I wanted to know. "And why don't they talk?"
    "They do talk, silly." Me-me spread her pudgy arms. "They talk like this." She twirled, half-graceful, half-awkward, for she wasn't even four.
    "Where do they come from?" I asked.
    I kept my voice low because Billy Evans was coming up the street. He'd be ten soon. He was skinny, but tall with it, and mean. He had an apple, and my tummy growled as I watched him eat it.
    "Somes come from peoples," Me-me said. "And somes don't."
    Billy passed by. He smiled at Me-me. Everyone did.
    "From people?" I tried to imagine it.
    "From peoples." She nodded. "When they let them out."
    I glanced at Billy Evans, splashing bare-foot through the mud at the corner. "Billy Evans has a dancer?"
    She nodded.
    "What's his dancer like?" I asked.
    "Very sad," Me-me said.
    "What's your dancer like?"
    "She's a rainbow." Me-me grinned so wide her dimples showed.
    "Do I have a dancer?" I asked.
    But she'd turned away. "Looks!" She clapped her hands together.
    And I looked. "What?"
    "Lots!" She clapped again. "Blue dancers."
    We watched and she talked. She told me they were rushing around us, fast and serious. She told me about their blues, and greens, and how they danced together, swirling around, and around.
    That night Old Father Thames burst his banks, and we had to live upstairs for the week it took Dad to dig the mud out of our living room.
    I think it was that week of wetness, with the stink of the mud, and the rain never stopping, that put the cough in her. She'd cough and it would hurt inside me. Mam and Dad kept her close. Dad was always picking her up and twirling her round in a jig. "Hey Me-me, we'll dance that nasty cough away? Do your angels dance like this, do they?" And she'd giggle and push at him, "No." But then she'd cough again, with blood in it, and the game would finish.
    Me-me got a fever, and Dad went for the doctor. He said he'd steal for the money if he had to. He didn't though, the street turned out for Me-me, a penny here, a farthing there, a shilling from Mrs Jennings.
    The doctor came, and went. A little man in a hat that I'd have laughed at, if Me-me wasn't sick. He left his bitter medicine, and that was that. The four of us huddled the bed, with the darkness, and the coughing, and Mam taking a little gasp of breath every now and then.
    That next morning the fever had gone, and Me-me lay quiet and very white. Dad said it was a good sign. He went out to find work at the docks, maybe there'd be unloading, and he could buy her some bread and some bacon fat to drip on it. "Nothing like bacon fat for a weak chest."
    Mam went to do washing for rich ladies down at the laundry. And I sat with Me-me.
    "What's my dancer like?" It was a game now. I always asked and she never told me.
    She turned toward me, heavy, like she was made of stone. "You got to let him out, Sammy."
    "How?" Something's wrong?she never tells me.
    "You got to let him out. Soon, or never." She seemed to be looking through me. "He's like a new penny. Copper, and very quick. Very quick."
    I'd never felt so frightened, not even back when Dad was drinking. "Let's go play, Me-me. I can carry you down."
    She looked away.
    "Oh!" Her eyes went round.
    "I see a new dancer. She's so pretty."
    I looked around the room. I always looked and never saw. "Where?"
    "She's on the end of the bed, silly. She's black like coal." Me-me giggled. "She's got no dress."
    It felt cold in the room and I didn't want that black dancer dancing on the end of Me-me's bed.
    "Tell her to go away," I said.
    "Oh, but she dances so pretty, Sammy. She dances . . . so pretty." She was only four, and didn't have the words for it.
    I watched her eyes. Very wide and dark.
    "Tell her to go!" I had ice on my skin.
    Me-me lifted her white arms and swirled them before me. For a moment I heard the music.
    "No!" I caught her up in my arms. But she'd gone, and what I held was limp and cold.

The slum is gone. Razed and built over with warehouses and factories. Beaten out like a carpet-pattern. All that came with me from those days is Sarah Jennings, who I married, because of her smile, and her cleverness, and the white lady who danced on her step the night of her birth.
    We go to the cemetery, Sarah, me, the twins, Samuel and Robert, and little Martha in Sarah's arms. I had Me-me's white coffin moved from the mud at St Luke's. I didn't watch, but I had them do it. You can have things like that done when you're rich. I had her put in Highbury, up on the hill with a view, with Mam to her left and Dad to her right. He'd have liked that.
    I gave her a new headstone too, and since I never had the words to tell it, I had Oscar Wilde's words put there instead, the poem he wrote for his little sister who died too young as well, even though she had fair hair and Me-me had black.

All her golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Peace, Peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life is buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

Sam and Robert hold my hands, one each. They don't like to see me get sad.
    "How did she die, Dad?" Sam asks.
    I don't answer. I can't speak.
    Sarah tells them. I've told her everything.
    "During the dance."
    They want more, but Martha has struggled out of Sarah's arms and is running to the graves. She stops in front of Me-me's. She's laughing and pointing.
    "People dancing, Daddy. Dancing!"
    "Who's dancing, darling?" Sarah's voice isn't much more than a whisper.
    "A rainbow girl." She claps her hands. "And a copper boy. And they're laughing."


Previous short story:   Dark Tide

Saturday 12 October 2013

The Broken Empire Personality Test

I made this test up as a bit of fun when I did a book giveaway a while back.

Take the test and report back which of these four it says you're most like!

(links to the original art used above)
Sir Makin
The Nuban

Results after nearly 2000 responses.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Two great nations divided by a common genre?

So I'll freely admit to scrap-booking with the screen-capture facility on my laptop accessories. My view is that this 'being an author' thing is likely to be as fleeting as it was unexpected and I need to snatch these moments and put them in a dusty e-folder to bring out when the commotion has died down just to convince myself (and potential grandchildren) that yes, that really did happen.

One high point was this - topping the Epic Fantasy chart on US Amazon:

This, sadly, though was a one-off, on the back of being kindle deal of the day - generally my performance on the US charts has been solid but not spectacular.

In the UK this:

is far more common. True, Prince of Thorns was only outselling A Game of Thrones (at the same price) for a couple of days, but all three books have been in the top 20 best sellers since Emperor of Thorns was released.

And this brings me to my title. The Broken Empire trilogy has sold well in the US but it has sold MUCH better in the UK. To put that in focus - I've sold as many books in the UK as I have in the US, and the populations look like this:

Now I've heard tales before of authors who were hits in one country and not the other. David Gemmell for example sold a bazillion books in the UK (he's great, read him), but in the US ... not so much.

On the other hand Lois McMaster Bujold I'd never heard of until recently and apparently has sold a lot of books States-side, but rather few in Great Britain.

Are these random events or do they reveal some fundamental difference in the fantasy markets? Is this difference driven by some national characteristic? some taste gene? the perception of the genre locally?

A mystery! Answers on a postcard please.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Book burning - on libricide and the art of biblioclasm

So I read a review of Prince of Thorns on Goodreads recently wherein a promise was made:

Out of the thousands of books I've (literally) read, this is easily one of the worst, if not THE worst.


I can promise that 

a) I will burn the book

and b) I will never, ever, own or otherwise read something by this author again.

I can update this with an incident of Prince of Thorns inspired near-biblioclasm from from 2015:

i read 1 and 1/2 chapter and i gave up. it is awfull. i don't know why i took it from the libary they should burn it

There are two sides to this coin, one funny, one dark, and whilst I'll address both I should point out that my reaction was one of amusement. I posted about the review and I expect it will sell me more books than the next ten 5* reviews that crop up. In fact only hours ago somebody posted:

"I just spent an hour reading one star reviews of your book on goodreads and I've decided to bump it higher on my to read list."

My immediate concern was that the person was only burning the one copy - a nice big pile of hardcovers would make a really decent blaze and I'm sure the publisher would have given some kind of bulk discount...

Perhaps you've not really arrived as an author until someone has burned a copy of your book? Certainly many writers spend long hours honing their craft so that they can elicit strong reactions from their readers. If you're writing something that challenges, that provokes, and that takes a reader through highs and lows into dark places then you might well expect some fraction of the emotional responses to spin off in directions other than that intended. I suppose if my books left their readers unmoved I would be far less happy than with a mix of ecstatic praise and of reaching for pitchforks, tar, and feathers.

The other side of this coin that I've well and truly spent is the visceral horror many people feel about the burning of books. It's an iconic act of desecration that's heavy with the worst of associations. Perhaps the most infamous and recent examples have been the Nazis' organised burning of books they disapproved of, but history is stained with other examples dating back as far as the written word has been set upon anything that's flammable.

Generally the target for these incidents have been non-fiction, works espousing beliefs that the perpetrators cannot abide or risk contaminating others. I guess some fiction may have been in the mix too - certainly story telling has been used as a vehicle for ideas before, and ideas can be seen as dangerous.

I guess my reviewer in this instance is just using the burning as an expression of contempt, akin to using the pages for lavatorial purposes. It's my hope that they'll film the deed and stick it on youtube - I could use the publicity. But it's an interesting issue to me that in these days where our stories are truly indestructible, being endlessly reproduced in the flow of electrons across the world, that we still resort to such basics as fire when a story upsets us...

Anyhow - to conclude - two polls (click on them to vote):

1) Have you ever burned a work of fiction as an expression of disapproval of its contents?

2) Can you anticipate circumstances where you might burn a work of fiction to register disapproval?

Tuesday 1 October 2013

The little blog that could...

Traffic on the blog has been hotting up! More visits last month than in the whole of the first year!

These are the most visited pages:

3 Jan 2013, 15 comments
12 Apr 2013, 29 comments
13 Nov 2011, 30 comments
21 Mar 2013, 1 comment
29 Mar 2013, 14 comments
13 Jan 2013, 2 comments
19 May 2013, 18 comments
8 Jun 2013, 17 comments