Monday 30 September 2013

The Prequel: A Flawed Concept?

According to Wikipedia, the term ‘prequel’ has existed since the 1950s, when it was occasionally used by science-fiction writers. These days, most people recognize the term from cinema, and most closely associate it with the second trilogy of Star Wars movies.

Recently, I was having a drink in the Eagle and Child with a friend, and we got to discussing prequels. We’d been talking about The Hobbit and how Peter Jackson is reworking it to serve as a prequel for The Lord of the Rings. As our conversation spiralled around, it became clear that both of us saw the whole concept of a ‘prequel’ to be inherently flawed. Our argument goes something like this...

At the most basic level, most people listen to/read/watch stories for one reason - to see what happens. Yes, characterization, beauty of language, and a great soundtrack are all important, but they are all secondary to the plot. As much as I love the grand shots of the Fellowship of the Ring walking across the beautiful New Zealand landscape, it is the quest to destroy the ring that keeps pushing me forward. Sure, I know the good guys are going to win (because I’ve read the book), but I want to see it happen. I want the climax, the payoff. I want the reward for my emotional investment.

Prequels, by their very nature, lack the payoff. The climax has already happened. In the prequels, Darth Vader is not redeemed. The Emperor is not defeated. The Death Star is not destroyed. Perhaps these movies could have succeeded as tragedy, but tragedy is not a popular genre these days.

Okay, the biggest problem with the Star Wars prequels isn’t that they are prequels (they’re just bad, especially numbers II and III), but even if they were well-made movies, I don’t believe they could have succeeded in a way that approached their predecessors. Okay, Obi-wan managed to hide Anakin’s kids, but that’s really just a conciliation prize.

It seemed to us, sitting in that pub, that the word ‘prequel’ is almost an admission. It says, ‘I’ve already told you the best part of the story, but let me go back and fill-in a few other bits you might find interesting...’. I’m tempted to go a step further. Is a prequel just laziness? Is it just easier to go back and write back story than it is to be fully creative and move a story forward?

To bring this discussion full circle, it should perhaps be mentioned that The Hobbit is a bit of a special case. If Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema wanted to do more movies set in Middle-Earth, then this was the only story they could tell. (The Tolkien estate isn’t allowing anything else). The Hobbit (book) isn’t a prequel. It was written first. If The Hobbit (movie) had stuck closer to the book it wouldn’t be a prequel. It would be a separate, but related story, with its own plot and its own big, dead dragon, Battle of the Five Armies pay-off. Unfortunately, by tying it closer to The Lord of the Rings, P. Jackson and crew have made it into a prequel. We will learn all about the rise of Sauron and his ring, but we will not see it destroyed.

Oh, I enjoyed the first Hobbit movie. I have little doubt I will enjoy the next two, at least on some level, but I already feel certain that I will not get the same return on my emotional investment that I did with The Lord of the Rings.

Rant over.

Monday 23 September 2013

Zombie Book Signing

Last Thursday I had my ‘big’ book signing at Forbidden Planet, London. I didn’t expect too much from it. Unless you are a famous author or a television personality, people don’t usually come to your book signing.

As it turned out, I had nine people come up and ask me to sign their book. I suspect all nine just happened to be in the store when the announcement was made, but no matter, it was fun and exciting. For ten minutes, I had a little line of people waiting for my signature. A tiny taste of fame was enough.

I also had to sign twenty copies for people who had pre-ordered the book online so it could be shipped to them. (Big thanks to any Troll readers who might have ordered!).

After the ‘crowd’ died down, the guy in charge asked me to sign the other 71 copies they had. Looking back, signing my name 100 times within an hour is probably a personal record.

I had a nice chat with the organizer while I was signing, talking about all the different people they’ve had in lately. The last person before me it was Bruce Boxleitner!

Anyway, I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad it is done.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Witches by Tracy Borman

I bought this book, in hardback, a week ago in Waterstones, on a bit of whim. Over the last few years, I’ve developed a real interest in the history of Britain under the Stuart Kings, and I’ve always had a bit of interest in magic, mystery, and the macabre. This book promised to hit both with its tale of ‘Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction’ in the case of the Belvoir witches.

Unfortunately, instead of telling an interesting story, the book is mostly just an information dump of facts about witch trials in England over a two-hundred year period. Every time the author makes any point, she feels the need to back up the point with two or three quotes from period sources. These quotes, some of which are quite lengthy, are interesting at first, but grow increasingly annoying, especially as they are presented in their original seventeenth century spelling. The reading soon becomes tedious.

In many places the author manages to go pages without any reference to the story she is supposedly telling, and when she does return to it, it is often presented with a non-historic word such as ‘probably, maybe, possibly’.

This book is a glaring example of something that is seen all too often in historical publishing. Although the story of the Belvoir witches certainly contains a few interesting details, it is painfully obvious that there is far too little historical fact about the case to form the basis for a book length discussion. The author really should have accepted that and moved on.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Miniature Friday: Dwar of Waw

It is a rule. Give anyone the license to The Lord of the Rings and eventually, they will name the Nazgul. Well, the other seven anyway. Tolkien gave names or titles to two of them: The Witch King of Angmar and Khamul the Easterling. The others, he left unnamed; I suspect on purpose.

But people just can’t resist, especially if they are trying to make new product and sell it, and so they give them all names. I believe the first company to do this was Iron Crown Enterprises, when they were working on the Middle-Earth Role-Playing game. These names were later used in the LOTR collectable card game and by Mithril Miniatures.

It is one of those Mithril Miniatures that is featured this week. Here I present the pronunciation train-wreck that is Dwar of Waw. In my opinion, whoever came up with that name should probably have been taken off the project. I believe the back story is that Dwar was some kind of genetic manipulator who bred strange creatures for Sauron, which (sort of) explains why he wears a helmet with a monkey face...

Well, as stupid as the name and concept are to me, I quite like the figure. When I was young, Mithril Miniatures were my favourite minis to paint, partly because they were based on the LOTR and partly because they had minimal detail that made them easy to paint. However, as I got better at painting, I started to find that lack of detail a bit frustrating. I enjoy picking out details much more than I do the subtle blending that is required to get large areas of cloth to look good.

I’m actually not sure what happened to most of my Mithril miniatures, perhaps they are buried away at home, perhaps I got rid of them. Yet last time I was home, I found old Dwar, still in his box, and decided to bring him back to England and paint him up. I decided early on that I didn’t want to use him as a Nazgul. I really do like the figure, and the pose is cool, but he just doesn’t seem like a Nazgul to me. Instead, I figured he could make an evil sorcerer.

I went with purple robes, that seem to have shifted a bit blue in the picture. As usual, I found a figure who is mostly robes very difficult to paint. Although the photo makes the colour blending harsher than it looks in real life, it still troubled me. I'm not that happy with the outcome, to be honest, but I'm also not willing to spend any more time on the figure. It is 'good enough'.

The best part about the figure is that he fits in perfectly with the rest of my Lord of the Rings miniatures from Games Workshop. This is a little strange since the two lines are supposedly different scales, but I’m not complaining. I’ve included a comparison shot of Dwar standing next to (my much better painted) The Betrayer, one of the Nazgul from GW.

Yes, GW also named the Nazgul, although I think they took a much better approach and gave them all titles instead of names. It helps preserve the mystery that makes them so cool.

As a final note, I am aware that both ‘Nazgul’ and ‘Khamul’ should have little chevrons over the ‘u’, but try as I might, I could not find this symbol in my version of word.

Dwar of Waw...what were they thinking.


Wednesday 11 September 2013

Nick Bury - By That Much

(A bit of flash fiction)

Nick Bury tossed his rusty shovel out of the freshly dug grave and crawled up after it. He chuckled softly as he dusted off his pants and looked around the field with his one green eye. He then glanced skyward, where the sun was well into its slow descent towards the horizon. Pulling out his old black pipe, Nick sat down on the mound of dirt next to the six-foot hole.

Nearly an hour passed while Nick sat smoking. The first stars became visible in the evening sky.  Then lightning flashed, and a thunderclap rolled across the field. A scream came from above. Nick looked up and saw a man plummeting through the air. The man’s scream was suddenly cut short as his body crashed into the ground a foot to one side of the open grave and mere inches from where Nick Bury sat. A second later, a black wand covered in silver runes rolled out of the man’s hand and into the grave.

A frown formed on the gravedigger’s face, but a moment later the corners of his lips curled up into a grin.  A wheezing chuckle escaped his throat. Nick slipped a foot under the body and rolled it into the grave.

“That’s the problem with magic,” Nick said to himself, “so hard to predict.”

* * * 

Back when I was writing a lot of fiction, I would sometimes challenge myself to write a complete story in an hour or less. For whatever reason, a lot of those stories featured a creepy little grave digger named Nick Bury. Most of my 'composed in an hour' stories weren't very good and and are now decomposing in a landfill somewhere, but a few were worth keeping. 

By That Much is probably my favourite of the Nick Bury tales, and it was arguably the most successful. In 2000, it was accepted and printed by Calliope, the journal of the MENSA Writer's Special Interest Group. In 2004, it was reprinted in the online fiction magazine, Flashshots. I don't know if either publication still exists.