MA: Going back to university

It’s been a very long time since I’ve blogged, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m rather rusty.

TL;DR: I am starting a Medieval Studies MA at the University of Manchester in September.

I’ve spent the last five to six years in a state of limbo, mostly trying to deal with being incredibly sick. This might surprise people who’ve met me, but I do have the kind of illness where for maybe a couple of hours with a person, as long as I’ve done a hell of a lot of background work, I can seem normal.

My life has mostly revolved around surviving from therapy session to therapy session, with awful gaps when there isn’t any therapy. I’m lucky, now, that I have a long term therapist in place, who is excellent, and a support worker who is also quite splendid. A lot of what they’ve had to listen to in the last year or so is me complaining that I should never have left academia.

As I reached the point where I could contemplate some kind of a future, I had to think about what I wanted to do. And every time I thought about it, I thought about how I’d walked away from an academic career at 26 and how this was a really dumb move. The more I think about it, I can’t understand what was going through my head between the ages of 24-26. Turns out recovering from anorexia shifted the underlying mental problem to psychosis. A whole load of no-fun.

I spent seven years, from ages 11 to 18, obsessed with going to university. It was really all I cared about. By the time I got there, for various reasons, I was severely anorexic and desperately underweight. I stayed there, all through treatment and hospitalisations, because it was where I truly wanted to be and I loved it dearly. I’ve heard cynics say that your dreams never turn out to be as wonderful as you imagined. They’re wrong. University was every bit as glorious.

Once I’d left, and discovered that I couldn’t cope with The Real World, I was convinced there was no going back. Having a PhD isn’t enough. You need publication credits and the like to your name. It never entered my head that I could get back in once I’d left. I thought it was all over. So I just complained about it, and harboured a lot of jealousy toward friends who’d never been as daft as I had.

Until about three weeks ago, when I woke up on a Monday morning after another spasm of severe depression in the night and thought, “I’m going back to university.” At the time, I had no idea how or what I would do. It was a weird week with a lot of discoveries. What seemed like an almost impossible fantasy turned out to be quite a reasonable next step, as I was reaching the point in treatment where I could probably tolerate doing something part time, if I had a hell of a lot of support.

My therapist did the practical thing and asked lots of questions, clarifying what I wanted. I kept quiet about it except to a couple of friends. By the end of week 1, I had established that an MA in Medieval Studies was what I wanted to do. It would serve as a step back into the academic world, either on to (another) PhD or to some form of associated work if I couldn’t immediately get a funded research placement.

By the Monday of the second week I had two referees. I emailed my former PhD supervisor and a professor who’d taught me as an undergraduate. I was in the middle of seventeen days without therapy, which was hard work when trying to change my life. I spent a week being entirely confused by the university’s guidance on references, before I found the right thing and at the beginning of week 3 (last week), I emailed them both the form.

Tuesday last week was the busiest, most nerve-wracking day of my life for quite some time. The application itself is all online now. I started university in 1997, when everything was still paper based and if you had an email address you went to a special room where they kept all the computers (like a sort of technological zoo), to read them. I’m sure my PhD application involved writing a proposal and seeing my dissertation supervisor for an interview.

The online application was nine pages long. Add to that, one referee was sending the reference direct to the university, the other to me. I’m now mildly traumatised every time I see a drop down menu for “nationality” and “native language”. I never thought these would be difficult things, or could be made hard. In the middle I had to rush out and get a passport photo, in which I look like a frazzled corpse, because the application required one but they didn’t include that on the “list of essential things before you start” page.

After submission, the reference going to the university came back to me. I swear, that thing has been sent to five different email addresses. I was terrified they’d never get it (I’m not prone to being rational about these things). Thankfully, the department seemed to know what they were doing, and exactly a week after I submitted the application, I had an email from them making me an unconditional offer.

It still hasn’t sunk in yet. I finally told people on Facebook and Twitter, but I’m indebted to the friends who knew beforehand, who were there in a supportive capacity while I tried to make this happen. Janis, Emma, Ben, Tannice, thank you so much for listening while I screamed at the never-ending admin of the last three weeks. Also thank you to the Director of Studies for this year’s course, who has put up with many a querying email from me recently.

I suppose a few people might want to know where this leaves my writing. As all this was going on, the Guardian article reporting on writing incomes was released, so a lot of my writing friends were discussing the fundamental problem: writing is wonderful, but writing doesn’t pay. What do you do, to support writing, that does allow you to live a life that doesn’t largely revolve around being sick of ramen noodles?

Possibly my biggest revelation is that I don’t want to write full time. Putting all the emphasis on writing made it a painful occupation, revealed a hell of a lot of insecurities, on top of not paying the bills. Looking back, I realise I wrote more, and more consistently, when I was doing my PhD than at any other time in my life. I know I need something else, and I suspect it’s healthier if you do have something else. In part, it’s because it spurs the imagination and keeps you thinking. I’d definitely never recommend to a writer they found a slog of a job and put all the emphasis on writing for fulfilment. Based on a lot of people I’ve spoken to and my own experience, that’s probably a little unhealthy.

Perhaps the best way to be a writer now is to be a little polyamorous. At 25, I knew a lot about my illness but the personal insight of a brick (so does everybody who’s 25). At 35, it’s possible to look back and say that my enduring love was always academia, which is not an easy road in itself, but suits me rather well in other respects. I know for me, personally, I need to be doing something else, something that can spark the imagination but also act as a financial and emotional break from fictional words.

Finally, I’ve resolved to try blogging a little more, although it will be more focused on Medieval Studies from now on. I can’t believe I get to take the subject Tolkien taught and studied. How appropriate, really.

Posted in Medieval Studies | 2 Comments

I need a way to catalogue my books as I read them

I appreciate I’m coming to this late. I’ve been reading for about three decades and only now do I think of this. Well, not now. It’s been a problem that’s nagged on my mind for the last several months.

I need to find a good way to record the books I’ve read.

You wouldn’t think this could be such a problem. I read tons and tons of books, especially at this time of year. Right now, there’s a thunderstorm drenching the city outside and at lunchtime I was caught in a hailstorm. It’s not exactly conducive to doing anything but losing yourself in a book.

I have an app on my laptop called Book Tracker. It’s all right, as it goes, but you can’t get any more specific about the date you read a book than the month and year, and often, I’d like to be able to remember in what order I read a book. It will re-order books at random, and I’ve never been able to get the scanner to work properly on it.

I tried another one, called Exlibris. This one seemed entirely uninterested in whether I’d read the books I was entering at all and was a waste of my time and money. I’ve got Goodreads, of course, but I want something private. I’ve considered using the Mac database app, Bento, but while it reckons you might want to catalogue a lot of things, none of them are books. And I don’t want to spend hours building a database I then forget to use.

My mother just uses a notebook, writing down books in the order she read them. My father, on the other hand, has a card index. Both are useful, in their own way. I’ve considered trying both, with a notebook so I can see in what order I read the books, and a card index to look up and check if I’ve read a book at all (with authors who write a lot of books, it’s easy to forget which ones you’ve read and which ones you haven’t).

My only concern with the card index is that by the time I read my dad’s age, I’m going to need a separate room to house all the cards.

All of which leaves me a bit stuck. Digital technology has so far refused to show much interest in book catalogues without making it too much of an effort to bother with. I might just have to get myself a notebook, and be satisfied with that. Of course, if you read this and have any suggestions, they’re more than welcome.

(Comments close in one week from the publication of the article.)

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Friday Reads: Among Others – Jo Walton

Confession: I am a Book Essentialist. It’s a made-up term. I was trying to work out what it was made me read printed books and turn away from the iPad, and realised it was an essentialist thing.

Essentialism involves imbuing objects with certain powers. Bruce Hood talks about it in Supersense. People don’t want to wear Jeffrey Dahmer’s sweatshirt. People shy away from the one person in the room who swaggers over to put it on.

I’ve read there’s a connection to synaesthesia, to an aspect they call personification of objects. I’m an essentialist. I can happily imbue objects with meaning and personality without needing to believe it might be real in an objective way. The great thing about synaesthesia is discovering just how separate your interpretation of the world and the way it actually is can be.

For some reason, I thought of this when I read this book. Two reasons, I suppose. Firstly, that our protagonist talks about objects and their meaning, their ‘magic’. Secondly, I was wondering if, because of the timing of reading this book, I might imbue the book itself with special meaning.

I do give books a magic. Books I’ve had with me for decades. My problem with the Kindle and other devices is nothing logical, nothing sensible. The iPad in my hands is one object. I feel, somewhere deep and fundamental, as though each book needs its own physical object into which I can pour my relationship to the story told on the pages.

Hence my distress at losing the copy of The Ship Who Sang, which journeyed with me out of childhood, the way that so many of my books have been with me since first bought, that I hold them to remember the first time I read them, what they meant to me then. I can’t do that with a digital file.

This book is about such feelings, about our more intangible relationship to the world. It’s about magic and fairies, too, of course. It’s about a girl who has such a burning passion for books and for fantasy and sf that I suspect a lot of people will see themselves in her. I too survived hard school years by reading constantly. If only I’d known how to conjure a karass to discuss them all.

As for me, Lord of the Rings is her bible. We could be the same person.

You find yourself taking notes on all the books she mentions that you don’t know. Set in 1979, filled with references to Le Guin and Zelazny and Delaney and Heinlein and Donaldson and too many more to name. You smile at the names you know, search library and Waterstones websites for the ones you don’t. It’s about the power of fantasy to make life liveable, to give you connection and meaning in the world, and of magic.

It was very hard to stop reading, to tear myself from its pages. I’d commit myself to stop at the next entry (the book is a diary), then find I’d run on another four or five, just because it was so easy to keep turning the page. It’s that kind of book. It’s the kind of book for people who know what books can do for you, even while life is falling apart.

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Friday Reads: Red Seas Under Red Skies – Scott Lynch

Let us begin with a story. Once upon a time, I experienced what it’s like to be at sea in a storm. Force nine gales, to be precise, in the Eastern Med. All evening, we’d had a to-do with the authorities stationed in the Port of Tel Aviv, who’d just decided that anybody with a Syrian visa was a Possible Terrorist, even if they were a bunch of school kids from a respectable grammar in England.

They eventually allowed our ship to enter the port, if not disembark. Severe weather warnings were everywhere; that day we were informed that other ships from Syrian ports had been denied entry and were trapped outside in the full force of it. Where we were was bad enough.

The next morning we went to breakfast in the aft canteen. The ship bucked and rolled; it was not unlike climbing a steep hill to reach the canteen itself. Once seated, we looked out across the aft deck to an unforgettable sight. All sky. It wasn’t particularly troubling, until the ship crested the wave and we were plunged, suddenly, into a world of sea. Nothing but water, a great wall of it, and us tiny and struggling against its relentless pull. The waves were bigger than the pyramids at Giza we visited two days later.

After that morning, I went to lie down in my cabin, as per instructions from the captain, until it was mostly over. We had plenty of women on board, perhaps it was the absence of cats that caused the problem.

Sequels are hard. Unless you Do A Tolkien, and simply write what is essentially one book that’s split into three volumes. Otherwise, when you come to the second book in a series, you have to have a clear sense of a stand-alone plot that builds on the first book but doesn’t depend entirely on the first for quality. It gets easy to repeat ideas, the world and the characters are no longer fresh and new, so they have to be interesting and develop on a new level.

Lynch is doing a very good job of managing all of these problems. He has a smart technique: he understands that people don’t merely develop along the arc of one story, but grow and change beyond the narrative of one set of events. Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen were very young during the events of the first book, and Lynch has taken advantage of their ageing to build new stories and open up new avenues of adventure.

What interests me most about this book so far is this exploration of Locke’s morality. A passage dealing with the War of Amusements, essentially the super-rich paying for the privilege of watching the impoverished and desperate subjected to humiliations and punishments of their choosing, fascinated me. Locke’s reaction is his justification for stealing.

I didn’t have a problem with Locke’s choice of lifestyle in the first book, but Locke’s personal justifications never really came to light. He felt shallower, and it seemed rather as though the stealing was done simply to prove that he could. It was very clear, after all, that other than financing ever grander capers, none of the Gentlemen Bastards had any need or love of the money they stole.

While that’s entertaining for one book, I’m not sure I could have stomached it for a whole series. Locke’s reaction to the War of Amusements explains his actions on an ethical level. He’s no Robin Hood, but I can appreciate the idea of ‘the rich remember’, that the super-rich ought to be subjected to moments when their bubbles of privilege are burst and they are made to experience how the other half live. In fact, if he was more of a Robin Hood character, he’d be too nauseating for words.

Lynch’s talent for putting his characters’ balls in a vice, if not multiple vices, has not waned. His world is expanding nicely, and from what I’ve read so far, it looks like this one might be even more complex and satisfying in its unfolding and resolution than the first.

I can’t end this review without commenting on the sea-lore of the world, hence the opening story of life on the open waves. I’m not sure how sailors feel about cats generally, but I’m aware they’ve historically been pretty unequivocal about women being bad luck on boats. In Lynch’s world, cats and women are about the best thing you can have to guarantee a smooth ride at sea. I’m aware that some responses to this decision have been strongly worded in the negative from Certain Quarters who don’t like their view of the world being messed with.

The whole cats thing is hilarious. This is what would happen if the internet put to sea. Imagining forty men on a ship in a storm yelling at each other because Captain Locke forgot the cats is positively beautiful. The tone is absolutely perfect, doesn’t detract from the tension of the situation at all. It’s wonderful.

Then there’s the women thing. I knew about the women-are-lucky thing from a friend, from Scott’s own response to somebody raging at him for doing it, and from Scott himself discussing it at the kaffeeklatsch. I have mixed feelings about it. Right now, I have to say he manages gender so well in every other situation, by not paying any attention to it. Women are just there, doing exactly the same jobs as the men, and nobody bats an eyelid. That, for me, is a dream come true in writing. There isn’t a lot of harping on about Women Doing Men’s Jobs Well (which you get even in Best Served Cold). It’s the world we’re aiming for, genderwise.

I have this weird thing, though, about being singled out as special – whether in a positive or negative way – because vagina. It feels objectifying, however well intentioned, as other nuances of personality, skill and such are lost when you are reduced down to one quality, one you’re not actively using to do the job in hand anyway (sailors, to the best of my knowledge, do not have to use their penises constantly whilst at work). I think I’d have preferred it if there were as many women on the ship as the men (the absence of cats more than covers the luck angle). But the whole women/men are better/worse at X thing tends to stick in my craw.

Yet perhaps we need some positive discrimination here, perhaps we need to go overboard  (no pun intended) to make the point. And I can’t help but love this, from Scott:

Zamira Drakasha, middle-aged pirate mother of two, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. I realized this as she was evolving on the page, and you know what? I fucking embrace it.

Why shouldn’t middle-aged mothers get a wish-fulfillment character, you sad little bigot? Everyone else does. H.L. Mencken once wrote that “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” I can’t think of anyone to whom that applies more than my own mom, and the mothers on my friends list, with the incredible demands on time and spirit they face in their efforts to raise their kids, preserve their families, and save their own identity/sanity into the bargain.

Shit yes, Zamira Drakasha, leaping across the gap between burning ships with twin sabers in hand to kick in some fucking heads and sail off into the sunset with her toddlers in her arms and a hold full of plundered goods, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy from hell. I offer her up on a silver platter with a fucking bow on top; I hope she amuses and delights. In my fictional world, opportunities for butt-kicking do not cease merely because one isn’t a beautiful teenager or a muscle-wrapped font of testosterone.

I don’t think you can argue with that.

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Favourite Book Discoveries of 2013

I could try to focus on books published in 2013, but I don’t think that’s a sensible, me thing to do. As with games yesterday, these are five books (or rather, authors) I really enjoyed reading this year. Yes, it’s only five. I read many more than five books. But five is a great number, and this way I’m more likely to be able to finish before I cough up my own lungs.

1. Saladin Ahmed: The Throne of the Crescent Moon – Much nominated, much acclaimed, this is fantasy of an Arabic flavour. Ahmed is a humorous, imaginative writer and the feel is very light and accessible. It’s one of those “three unlikely companions are forced together to solve a problem” plots, with a political twist as well as the threat of ghuls and whatever power lies behind them. This is also the first of a series. I picked it up after abandoning yet another white, western, sword-and-sorcery book for being too Martin Meets Tolkien. Online, Ahmed is currently tweeting the Arabian Nights, so you should check that out.

2. N. K. Jemisin: The Broken Kingdoms – This is naughty. This is the second in Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series. Her voice is striking in the first book, but this was the one that I related to the most. The world of the Kingdoms is unique, where in the first book at least gods mingle with humans, trapped in mortal bodies and used for their power. The second book takes the idea further, with the sadly unusual tack of introducing a disabled* protagonist. Jemisin has this talent for complicated, dark relationships and characters, which I think shines through more in the second than the first book.

3. E. J. Swift: Osiris – I picked this up on a whim while in Waterstones and I read it in a day. Swift’s debut novel describes a waterlogged future dystopia, an apartheid of rich segregated from poor. It’s the first of a series (again, sorry), but this book I could not put down. Reminiscent of many revolutionary stories, the decadent daughter of a rich and powerful family becomes the unlikely patron of an impoverished rebel. The prose was smooth and made the book a delight to read, from the crumbling slums to the glamorous centre of the city.

4. Sarah Pinborough: Dog-Faced Gods Trilogy – Is this cheating? I read all of three books. Well-written, compelling and strange. Once again, there are gods amongst mortals, except this time we have a near-future dystopian London. The story is police procedural meets political thriller meets 1984. Each book presents a new set of serial murders to be solved by crumpled Ian Rankinesque Columbo type detective. There are moments that will genuinely turn your stomach. This is not a series for people of a sensitive disposition.

5. Joe Abercrombie: Best Served Cold – I had a problem here because I wasn’t sure whether to do Scott Lynch or Joe Abercrombie. I think I’ll save Scott for next year. What makes Best Served Cold special is Monzcarro Murcatto, one of the darkest and most twisted protagonists you’ll encounter at the moment in fantasy fiction who also happens to be in possession of a vagina. The story picks up after the First Law trilogy, and focuses on the vengeance of Monza against the men responsible for the death of her brother. It is uncompromising in its quality, and very difficult to put down.

***

*I say ‘disabled’, but I’m not sure what the right term would be. The central protagonist is blind, but for much of the book can see things others can see, and I’m keenly aware that I’m thinking from a seeing perspective. Some people might well not regard blindness as a disability, just something that is. Regardless, it’s not often you see somebody with such issues in a fantasy novel as protagonist and treated as a whole person not defined by this one feature.

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Favourite Game Discoveries of 2013

It’s the end of the year and you have to do lists. I’m holding up two traditions at once, here. I have a horrible cold and I’m writing a list of Things About 2013. Multi-tasking, FTW.

This isn’t a list of games that came out in 2013, but games I played and enjoyed, games I actually remember playing, over this last year. Tomorrow I’ll do books. I won’t do TV or films because I have limits. For similar reasons, and the aforementioned cold, you only get five.

1. BioShock – Not Infinite. I have issues with Infinite, mostly revolving around the racism, the overblown faux-intellectualism and Elizabeth’s annoying shoes. This is the original. I picked it up in January last year, for two weeks of glorious horror gaming. I suspect achievements like BioShock are one-offs. It’s the atmosphere that does it, the constant sense of impending doom from several million kilotonnes of water pressure landing on your head. BioShock demonstrates that games can explore themes with all the panache of a novel, whilst still being entertaining and dynamic play. I remain spellbound and think of it every time I find myself humming Beyond the Sea.

2. Journey – I bought a PS3 for this. For very different reasons, Journey like BioShock demonstrates that games can do more than war shooters. This is one of the games that stirs you emotionally, guiding you on rails through a beautiful, broken landscape of eerie ruins with a stranger, somewhere out there in the real world, joining you to sing and fly. You can’t really understand it unless you do want to do something other than shoot people, it’s something you either entirely love or just don’t get at all. Yet even though you do the same things, visit the same places each time, every single journey is a unique experience. This is what makes it so beautiful.

3. Dead Space – Before making an Aliens game, this should be required playing. Like BioShock, you’re on rails, completing tasks, engineering stuff, and playing with some unique gaming mechanics. Rather than being underwater, you’re in space. Between fighting necromorphs and trying to survive, there are moments when you peer out a window or must traverse some rip in the ship’s side, and while your own life hangs in the balance, space surrounds you, as oblivious as it is beautiful. The writers know how to do horror really well (as I keep saying), and have progressed beyond jump scares to make use of the whole environment to create a continuously chilling atmosphere.

4. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – For some reason, nobody seemed to buy Enslaved. Yet it’s wonderful. Tear-jerking. It has the fighting mechanics of Bayonetta or Ninja Gaiden combined with a secondary character that’ll make anybody who thinks Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite is in any way novel or helpful revise their opinion. Also there’s climbing on things. So much climbing on things. Surfing on things. A story to die for. An ending involving Andy Serkis. The most beautiful post-apocalyptic landscape you’ll ever see. I borrowed a copy to play it, but I’ve now bought my own, just in case it disappears forever.

5. Dark Souls – One day, far off in the distant future, I’ll finish Dark Souls. Possibly. Despite the pain induced by this game, I still love it. Not so much the actual play, although the agonising hours of suffering are balanced by occasional seconds of pure elation. No, I think it’s the world-building, and the mythology of Dark Souls that I love most. Unlike those games where you spend 90% of your time running through endless tedious dialogue trees that form a lecture series on What The Writers Thought Up For Backstory, Dark Souls leaves it in the landscape, and to speculation. Nobody is going to tell you why all the statues of Lord Gwyn’s son have been destroyed (except that one, just before Undead Parish), or make you listen while they explain in detail the relationship of Ornstein to Smough. I think the game is more realistic, more immersive, for that. You must wonder at Ornstein’s gesture at the death of his unlikely comrade, or the Chaos Witch’s daughters unlikely gigantic spider body. It encourages investigation and curiosity rather than boring you with excessive detail. Dark Souls is the definition of Show, Don’t Tell. If it doesn’t break you first, of course.

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Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

One of the stories about World Fantasy Con I meant to tell – but never did – was about how I went for lunch with Scott Lynch. Admittedly, once I inform you that there were also a lot of other people there, all of whom had actually read his books and were therefore fans with more right to have their lunch bought for them, you’ll be far less impressed.

I did admit to him that I was there because Ben invited me. “So basically, this is a hostage situation for you,” he said. So Ben and Scott Lynch held me hostage for two hours with a lot of other people to explain how good Scott Lynch’s books are. The lunch was also excellent.

I don’t think an author has ever advertised their work so well to a new reader. Obviously, the lunch helped, but I don’t generally only read authors if they’ve already provided me with a good meal. Ben had kept on at me to read the books, but it was Scott’s chatting about them for two hours that convinced me. Somehow, I managed to get the second and third in first edition, signed copies. The first book came to me in regular trade paperback.

Locke Lamora entirely lives up to expectations. It reminded me of Assassin’s Creed 2, with more food and sartorial flourishes. The prose exactly fits the location, all Venice-like flamboyance and splendour, garnished with just the right amount of seedy underbelly. The interludes, interweaving Lamora’s backstory with current events, work very well indeed. They lend more power to the crises that unfold toward the end of the story.

Lynch explained, while we all ate food on his tab, that he’s very much a gamer (when he has time), and it shows in his writing. His favourite point is the opening section, when you have some rusty broken thing as a weapon, possibly a spoon, and must stagger around with no idea what’s going on. I thought of that moment when you first leave the Vault in Fallout 3 and stagger across the post-nuclear landscape armed only with a BB gun as you try to make it to Megaton without dying of all the things.

It was a surprise to find Locke not doing all that badly in the beginning of this book. He has an excellent setup, beautifully contrived, and a life any thief would envy. Think Assassins Creed Brotherhood, before it all goes horribly wrong. It does, of course. Lynch wouldn’t want to spend all his time with the suave and sophisticated end result of his game. Locke ends up about as down on his luck as it’s possible to get without actually dying.

The plotting is excellent, and Lynch does not shy away from Gene Anderson-style Blow It All To Hell climaxes once he gets going. Perhaps what thrilled me most was the background. He doesn’t explore it so much in this book (I’m already reading the second instalment), but Lynch’s Fantasy Renaissance world is built on something much more alien and strange.

I have this thing about intriguing ‘origins’. I like mystery being left right where it is, unless you can do it very, very well. So far, Lynch has maintained the mystery, but left us with plenty to speculate with. Whatever built the structures that form the landscape of Camorr, they are just interesting enough to contribute to the world building without being overbearing and distracting from the story. I love the way that it’s just there, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with current events at all. Such is the way of much of life.

This was a very difficult book to put down. Lynch’s writing is delightful, the world fascinating and the characters don’t ever have an easy moment. This is definitely one of my favourite finds of 2013.

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Dark Souls Play Blog: The wall

Hunkered down behind a broken pillar, I was trying to kill the Darkroot Titanite Demon. It lives next door to Andrei the Giant, a curious pairing. Andrei had just told me to try not to die. I was doing my best. Sadly, my best wasn’t good enough. Not for Dark Souls.

This Titanite Demon is a rare thing in Dark Souls: a large boss that gets stuck in a single repeated attack. As long as you don’t move from behind the pillar, it can’t get you, and does nothing but fire lightning bolts your way. It doesn’t have a head, so presumably whatever senses it uses to judge where you are in the room can’t tell that you’re behind the pillar.

Confession: I feel like I cheated with this one. I farmed souls elsewhere, I bought a bow and arrows. I killed it from behind the pillar. I fired arrows doing little more than 17-21 damage per hit until the thing exploded in a puff of souls. It feels like the wrong way to play Dark Souls.

I started playing months ago, and then stopped. The wall I hit was the Taurus Demon. Embarrassing, I know. Usually, though, I play games for the story. I don’t want to spend hours repeating the same tiny area, because the challenge of defeating it in nightmare mode has no particular appeal. I have enough stuff to deal with in real life; I play games for entertainment.

After a break from gaming due to feeling very uninspired, I started to play through Borderlands 2 again. Just because I knew it well, it wouldn’t be too tough. I was disturbed, though, by how easy I found it. I decided to try something else. Deus Ex: Human Revolution only bored and annoyed me. I can see its positives, but hiding behind pot plants for hours is dull and I dislike first person games. Also they seem to give me migraines.

I turned back to Dark Souls.

I have a strange fascination with this game. It reveals in immediate story so little, and yet there is so much clearly there, so much history and so much going on. Fantasy RPGs are my genre of choice. There isn’t really a fantasy RPG quite like Dark Souls.

Every other one I’ve played follows a certain formula. While you have a few moral choices, you’re going to be the hero eventually. You might start off fighting off enemies with a spoon, but by the end you dominate the environment completely. Most make use of dungeons you fight through once or twice, while the rest of the world is, while not being exactly as safe as your living room, is at least not horrifically dangerous.

I remember the first time I was attacked by a dragon in the wilds of Skyrim. How terrified I was, how I ran through the night and fell off a mountain. I was very new to 21st century gaming then. A couple of weeks later, I think I was in charge of the mages’ college and about to take over the thieves guild. I went looking for dragons to kill.

It’s a glorious feeling. If you want to feel like a god, killing everything in range in seconds, that’s fine. But that’s not what Dark Souls is about. Dark Souls doesn’t need dungeons. Everywhere is dangerous. Enemies happily wander out of their assigned realms to kill you if they feel so inclined. Nothing is ever easy. Death is always there. You approach even the most basic enemies with a degree of respect, because if you fuck up while being cocky, you end up dead.

The first time I played I escaped the asylum and made it to Undead Burg. It took a lot of work. This time around, it seemed to take ages before I glommed to the knack of beating the Asylum Demon. After that, something clicked and I started to play through Undead Burg and found I had gained some skill as a gamer.

Aside from the people who like invading and upsetting others’ lives (and those who like to help through summoning), Dark Souls isn’t so much about story or getting anywhere as it is about those tiny windows of moments when you beat something. I wound through that second portion of Undead Burg over and over, until I could reliably get to the other end without using estus at all. Then I’d face the Taurus Demon and die.

Something had to click in my head to get it. I play Dark Souls because it triggers my anxiety disorder, my panic and my fear take over, and there’s no better way of learning how manage it than by doing this. A moment came when I was able to release enough of the fear, get a handle on the shakes, and focus to do the first drop attack, run away, weave through the beast’s legs, unleash fire attacks and take him down.

The elation that follows is why you play Dark Souls. You beat insurmountable odds. It stays with you for ages. Giddy from victory, I stumbled down to meet Knight Solaire and made it through Undead Parish. I died in the early sections under the bridge a couple of times, but after that, clever use of fire and estus brought me to Andrei in one piece.

Now I’m stuck on the Capra Demon. I have a feeling I need another mental click, a sort of level-up for my brain, before I’m able to match him. Still, I’ve given it a good college try and I’m determined not to go for the dung pie or the firebomb approach, tempting though it is. In other games, these cheat methods don’t seem to matter so much because the reward of winning through honest means isn’t so great. In Dark Souls, it just feels like you’re letting yourself down.

Posted in Gaming | 2 Comments

Five Empires: The unfortunate discovery of Amazon Serials, too late

This is annoying. Just yesterday, somebody tweeted about another Amazon format for authors wanting to publish through Kindle Direct. Somehow, through this I discovered that Kindle has set up a “Kindle Serials” thing. You can submit your serialised novel to them and if they like it, they’ll publish it as part of the Kindle Serials selection.

I’ve missed the boat with Five Empires. I already have three episodes published, and I can’t supply them with vital details like final number of episodes, total word count and such. I know how it’s going to end, but I’d like the freedom to explore side stories and the like.

… And I’m making up excuses for not having the sense to find out if Amazon already offered a serialisation system for authors. Since I’m doing this because what I’m writing is essentially a series of interconnected stories to keep me going while I’m working on recovery and mental health issues, I’m not sure Five Empires would fit.

Nevertheless, I’m kicking myself a bit, as it would have made subscribing to the series for readers so much easier.

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Writing: How to handle rejection

It comes to us all in the end. I don’t think I’ve met anybody in the writing world who hasn’t had their work rejected at some point. When I was submitting work as a teenager, I had to endure lectures on rejection and how I had to ‘man up’ if I wanted to be a writer, to get tough and carry on regardless.

I lack the required genitalia for manning up. There are probably thousands – if not millions – of posts about coping with rejection as a writer. My stance comes from dealing with rejection when you have a mental illness. For a long time I didn’t submit because I didn’t want to have to deal with the symptoms resulting from rejection. But if I wanted to write, and have a career in it, I had to find a way to cope.

A rejection came in this morning. It hit at the same time as something else triggered depressive symptoms. I get depressed rarely (I’m mostly dissociated or very anxious all the time), and it truly is the pits. It’s more physical than anything else. The desire to roll over, go back to bed and stay there for the rest of the day was incredibly strong. Instead, these are some of the things I did, that I think might help, if you’re writing, submitting, and dealing with rejection.

1. Engage safety net

Unless you think you can do it safely, don’t disappear into your own private darkness. Try to arrange to spend time with somebody sympathetic just to hang out and shoot the breeze. It can stop a downward spiral in its tracks. Reach out to other writers who know what it’s like and talk to them. Stay away from people who like pep-talks and making you feel small. Those people are not your friends at this time.

2. Let the thoughts roll

All those horrible, horrible “it’s the end of the world, this proves I’ll never be a writer” thoughts are going to come in and there’s no point fighting them. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for 30 years and it’s been like a really bad Call of Duty in my head where I’m both sides and nobody wins. There isn’t even a dog.

If you struggle with obsessive thoughts, I’ve found labelling them ‘thinking’ in a gentle way helpful. There are loads of other techniques like The Work of Byron Katie. It’s better to feel the dreadful feelings, think the terrible thoughts, and then move on than try to block them out, fight them or make them go away.

3. Take a break

Shoot bandits in Borderlands 2, hide behind a pot plant in Deus Ex, enact some strategic dismemberment in Dead Space. Read books (not about writing), go for walks, go for a run. Chill out and generally don’t rush the process.

4. Check in with feedback

If you get feedback, that’s lovely. This time, for me, the story didn’t fit with the feel of the anthology and I know the editor, so I sent a reply thanking her for the personal reply. You can’t do that if it’s a form reply, but when you’re ready, when you’ve worked through all the crap, start to look over any feedback, and think about where the work goes next.

I’ve also asked for more feedback and advice from my beta readers, and think about where the story goes next (if anywhere). Plus, there are always other projects to work on.

5. Move on

The big takeaway from this should be not to try to cover up rejection with instantly sending out again. Unless you are one of those people Forbes thinks has a Strong Mind (TM), revenge-submission is never good. People who handle failure well do so because they process how much it sucks well. You can still do that with a mental illness, but you may need to take more time to do it. And more trips back to hang out with beta readers and good friends.

Rejection is probably the hardest bit of being a writer, especially if it feels like your brain is not on your side. It’s still doable though, with patience.

Posted in Writing | 3 Comments