Terry Pratchett

I felt a palpable sense of shock on reading of the passing of probably my favourite author, Terry Pratchett. It left me staring at the screen for a minute, and has taken a few days for me to get my thoughts together enough to write this.

He’s probably the author whose books I’ve reread most. They’re always fresh no matter how familiar, and draw you in from the first line. It’s going on three decades since I first read his work, and now I consider how many books he’s written I realise I’ve also probably read more books by him than by any other author (not even counting the aforementioned rereads).

There’s a playfulness to the language, a way with characters, and a capacity for dealing with large issues in rational and entertaining ways. And the humour of course, though never at the expense of the story (well, maybe occasionally. When it’s really funny).

It’s hard to avoid a selfish sense of loss at the books we’ve been robbed of by his premature death, but at least he leaves a body of work which should endure for centuries.

There’s still his last Discworld novel to be published. And of course the entire library to read again, and again, and again…

What’s Wrong with the Ultimate Universe

Marvel Comics’ Ultimate imprint has appeared to be struggling for a while now, and my enjoyment of it waning.

It was started as a continuity-free reinvention of the Marvel Universe alongside the regular comics (after 14 years the continuity-free element is pretty much dead), and in the early days did have interesting stuff.

Ultimate Spider-Man has remained consistently enjoyable, likely due to a stable creative team for so long, and the original writer still on the title even with a different lead.

The Ultimates was also strong when Millar was writing it, and has basically served as the model for the Marvel Movie Universe. It felt fresh in its details, as did his run on Ultimate X-Men, where the non-combat bits to do with the school activities felt fresh.

The problems started when other writers came on to the characters who didn’t necessarily give them the same feel. To me some of the titles started reverting to standard superhero tales that you’d find in the mainstream universe, which kind of defeated the purpose.

Not that I didn’t enjoy later writers: Hickman’s Ultimates and preceding mini-series used the setting for truly interesting stories that you couldn’t get away with in the mainstream comics because of how they changed the world. This felt like what the Ultimate universe could really be used for.

But sales possibly didn’t agree, so they did what they always seem to do when the Ultimate comics dropped off in sales: they had an Event.

While some of their Events haven’t been too bad (the Ultimate Galactus trilogy was good, and Ultimate Power was enjoyable), they have become fairly pedestrian. Have a big incident bringing together characters from all books; change some and kill off others. It all gets to feel too artificial. And the Universe doesn’t really have enough characters to go killing a handful at a time in the name of shoring up sales, especially since they’ve resisted bringing characters back from the dead. Events like Ultimatum and Cataclysm just haven’t worked for me.

I think the main problem (for me) is the traditional one for comics: they have to have something out every month, and readers stay with titles, so sometimes a new writer just isn’t going to give you what you’re used to.

Maybe if they’d gone with the original Ultimates way of publishing as mini- or maxi-series, only when they had a particular story to tell, it’d feel more special (although the third Ultimates series shows it’s still a problem when the writer’s changed). I like the approach DC have taken with the Earth One series (though I haven’t tried any of them yet) of producing a graphic novel every year or so.

Maybe if Marvel tried switching the Ultimate Universe to irregular mini-series when there’s a story worth telling, rather than keeping the titles going just to keep something there, they’d keep more readers. With most things collected these days, they don’t need to focus on periodicals, and the Ultimate Universe feels like it could be better served as a test bed for new publication models.

It was originally successful because of the quality, but attrition is inevitable. Maintaining success requires innovation as well as quality. In all writing.

…Continued

[Warning: this meanders quite a bit, towards no real destination]

It occurred to me that last week’s post may have read as though I’m totally against continuing stories, which isn’t the case. I read a lot of comics, where continuing series are the standard, and many have been around longer than me. (Series with a continuing creative team, or at least writer, tend to be different beasts, and not what I’m wittering on about below)

Long running series have both good and bad points. And shared universes tend to exacerbate the bad points, making them things that need to be accepted, ignored, or retconned (retroactive continuity is the rewriting of history to say that something never happened. If you’re lucky they’ll give a reasonable explanation of why people thought it did).

I recently reread Daredevil stuff from the last decade, from Bendis’ run through to the Shadowland stuff (which is a few years old now, so not really spoilers). The main idea behind Bendis’ run is what does it look like when a superhero has a nervous breakdown. It uses the character’s history under previous writers, building on your emotional investment with the characters.

The serial nature of corporate IPs opens it up to interesting interpretations by successive creators. Some are good, some are simply servicing the IP, a situation not helped by the monthly schedule: they have to have a story out even if it’s not a good one.

This was played with during this period, with each writer leaving the character in a worse place than they found him, for the next writer to carry on. Bendis left him in jail, his identity public but unproven; Brubaker destroyed his life even further, and left him taking command of the Hand, a cult of assassins he’d fought for years; Diggle left him shattered after the events of Shadowland, which kind of marked as far as he could fall. When the series relaunched under Waid, Daredevil’s trying to get back to what he used to be, but his recent history continues to overshadow his actions.

While I felt the Shadowland stuff didn’t quite work, mainly by being turned into an event, overall the sequence held together even with multiple writers. Using the character’s history to build the story on adds to it in a way a standalone story which introduces you to that history can’t. That’s what ongoing series do at their best.

 

[Rant Interlude: Franchises]

One of the less good parts of corporate owned IPs is the danger of over-franchising of successful properties. I’m looking at you, X-Men. There was a time, probably longer ago than I now care to remember, when I could have named every X-Man. There have been so many associated titles out over the last couple of decades, introducing so many mutants, most of whom are now considered X-Men, that it’d be difficult without a good degree of study.

Franchising tends, from my experience, to run greater risk of substandard work than much servicing the IP. And then new stories build on stories that you haven’t read. At least the advent of digital comics and increased collecting of stories solves the problems even a decade ago of not being able to get hold of the stories referred to. Whether you’d be grateful to get hold of them is another matter.

Franchises run the risk of diluting your investment.

And I’ve ranted about Events previously, so don’t get me started on that again.

[End Interlude]

 

Series with ongoing characters can build up an investment that keeps the reader with the story, obviating some of the set up required (although you still need to consider new readers). Pragmatically, it can also keep readers with a series, which is why publishers seem to prefer series to stand alones. As a writer you also get invested in characters and see further places their stories could go.

But I find I’m often more interested in new stuff than revisiting old stories. Sometimes they do call me back fairly strongly, and the stories still have things to say. But pragmatically speaking none have yet sold well enough to really draw any number of readers back, so my time’s better spent on new stuff that might draw new readers. I would like to make a living from this, then I can write the further adventures.

To Be Continued…

Lately I’ve read the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch. While I’ve enjoyed them (a lot) they’ve been read maybe a month apart so there hasn’t been as much of a gap between them as there will be reading future ones. This will matter because while the main plot is tied up, there’s an ongoing story through the series, leaving questions that probably won’t be answered for years.

This isn’t unusual for fantasy, but I’m not sure whether this is ongoing or planned for a certain length of story. It’s no different from TV series that end a season on a cliffhanger (although it’ll usually be less than a year to wait [Unless it’s Sherlock]), but they can irritate me (especially if they’re the kind that also end each episode on a cliffhanger, so you never have any sense of resolution from the stories, which more often than not lead into the next one with little break point).

I know that ongoing series are what traditional publishers look for, hoping they’ll have more audience retention than a series of stand alone novels. Does it also run the risk of alienating readers with knowing they’ve got a year (by most traditional schedules) to wait for the story to continue?

With TV series we’re more used to waiting for answers, and it’ll only be a week till the next fix, even if that doesn’t answer the questions (although viewing habits are changing with new technologies). You can’t control the audience’s pace of moving through a book as easily, so reading quickly through a good book could face a more jarring end if it finishes unresolved.

It can get the customer to stay with the series if it’s as well-written as Aaronovitch’s stuff, but I can’t be sure if I’ll feel the same by the time the next one comes out, or whether I’ll have forgotten the dangling plot threads by then.

 

My Use of Ongoing Stories

I tend to shy away from more overt uses in my stuff since I don’t do many series (I switch, trying to find something that’ll catch on [and as inspiration takes me]). The only time I’ve intentionally started with an overall story planned was the Shadows of the Heavens series of novelettes, which I released on a weekly schedule. Even they didn’t have the overall story too overt to begin with, but all had been written before the first was published.

I’ve done other projects with overall stories more roughly planned, such as Blade Sworn (which had a conclusion but the larger story not quite seen in the background won’t be expanded on unless the book starts selling), and the Tales of the Thief-City series of short stories (which I’m planning out the remaining parts of story for, so they should be released on a close schedule).

I’m unlikely to commit to larger ongoing stories until I start seeing more sales that’ll make it worthwhile (while sales are low sequels aren’t likely to gain me many readers [unfortunately most of my stuff at the moment is sequels, but ones spun out of the previous story rather than part of a planned larger story]). Even then, I don’t know how I’d feel committing to a seriously long project, and the last thing I want to do is start one and then leave readers hanging if I can’t carry it through (or get so bored that the work’s likely to be boring).

I don’t like flashbacks

While they can sometimes be useful to the flow of a story, and offer interesting possibilities for when to reveal information in a story, I generally feel irritated when I reach a flashback (a scene from the past, which is different from someone describing a scene from the past with which I have no problem). Fundamentally it’s because flashbacks stall the story.

This isn’t necessarily true, as the flashback may be progressing elements of the story, but it’s elements that are in the past. Maybe I’m just too linear in my storytelling tastes, but looking at past events I’m always waiting to return to the now.

Even if the flashback isn’t too boring, I still feel the same irritation the next time one turns up, and it can turn me against stories that I might otherwise enjoy, such as Lost (apart from the ending, obviously), Once Upon a Time (apart from being a bland rip off of Fables, and occasionally boring in the current time period stuff), and the Stormlight Archive (assuming the rest of the books have flashbacks too; which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Way of Kings, just that certain bits irritated me).

The first two of those are even more irritating in that the flashbacks are part of the formula, so the writers have to use them. While they can work better in a visual medium for distributing backstory, and using flashbacks because the story works best with them then is one thing, using them to force a story into a particular structure (while it may make an interesting exercise) just means I can make a reasonably accurate guess when the irritating part will occur.

[At least with TV programs if you’ve recorded them you could always fast forward through the boring bits and still get a general sense of what’s happening. Skimming a book and just reading the first word of each line rarely works.]

So I doubt you’ll ever see flashbacks in my writing.

 

Crossover Events

(I’m mainly talking comics here)

I like crossovers. I’ve even got plans for a crossover involving characters from some of my books, although that’s a fair way off.

I also (in theory) enjoy crossovers in comics, although many recent ones have been disappointing. I’m not talking about the small crossovers, where a character appears in another characters’ comic, but the Crossover EVENT comics.

I find them more successful where they’re relatively contained, such as some of the X-Men Events of recent years (Messiah Complex, Utopia, X-Nation, Second Coming) where the story runs between regular issues of the comics.

Where I find them less successful is when there’s a mini-series, with regular series having side-stories which are allegedly not needed to enjoy the main story (examples include Secret Invasion, Siege, Fear Itself). Even those I enjoy feel a bit rushed in the mini-series, since they need to allow space for the associated series to fill out the story. It feels like you’re only getting the bare bones of the story, which can affect the pacing.

Sometimes it can’t really be helped. Overall I liked the idea of Secret Invasion, and the flashbacks in other series showing how the plot occurred behind the scenes for the past few years worked for me. But they would have slowed the main series down too much. Could it still have worked with a meatier story in the main mini-series? I think so. The background stuff just enhanced the overall story.

A subcategory of events is the alternate world stuff (Age of Apocolypse, House of M, Flashpoint, Age of X). While I enjoy some alternate world stories, Events often leave me cold. No matter how much they supposedly affect the regular continuity, they never really feel like they matter that much. (And since Flashpoint was simply a story rationale for rebooting the DC Universe, which included CANCELLING SECRET SIX, it in my view wallows at the nadir of such events.)

Okay, most Events are there mainly to serve a marketing purpose, trying to get readers of one comic hooked on others. So should they get judged on different criteria? Not really. They don’t usually get priced any cheaper, and the fact that some Events are enjoyable means that there’s nothing inherently bad about the type of story.

They usually seem to fall apart when there’re a number of creators working on parts of the main story, and lack of communication and organization cause problems. Final Crisis on its own felt fairly self-contained if memory serves, as long as you ignored the events in some of the lead up titles which contradicted elements of the set-up (but since I didn’t read all of those I found the main series relatively enjoyable).

The main thrill of a crossover is characters crossing over into each other’s stories, though, and having them interact. Which isn’t to say that should be the focus, since a weak story just to allow two characters to interact will leave the encounter unsatisfactory. Ideally the story should have a reason for all the characters to be involved, and all should have something to do other than just interacting.

With a firm control over the story, though, and using only characters who have valid reasons to be involved, crossovers can be fun, and I really want to do one.

Why don’t I enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire?

Not that I dislike it, and I appreciate the skill and scope of the work, but I can’t say I actually enjoy having read it (some sections, yes, but on the whole I don’t really look back on it as being as enjoyable as other stories), and sometimes have to force myself to continue slogging through it.

It might be because I read a few too closely together. I started reading it the year before last, getting the first two books out of the library over a couple of months. Then last Christmas I got the box set of the first four books, and a couple of months later got the paperback editions of book five. So over a few months I read book three, book four, and the first half of book five (the first of the two paperbacks).

This may be the problem, in that reading over 2500 pages of anything might be too much. So I switched to some Lovecraft, then science fiction, and have the second half of book five waiting patiently for me (since my current project is epic fantasy, it’ll be a good idea not to be reading similar while working on it).

On the other hand, I seem to recall similar feelings from the first two books, which left a somewhat sour taste despite the awe. Possibly it’s the harshness of some parts of the story (let’s face it, the chances of anyone getting a happy ending are slim, and if there isn’t already, there should be a poll on how many characters are expected to be alive at the end. I’d be surprised if it’s more than a couple, and they’ll probably be heavily mutilated, physically and psychologically). Similar elements in other stories can sometimes feel the same, but never to this degree.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. I don’t like it. It’s simply a matter of taste. It doesn’t mean I won’t read the rest of the series (rereading might be another matter, though), just that I won’t be looking forward to it as much as, say, the Wheel of Time. But I could feel a greater sense of relief when I do finish it, so there’s that to look forward to.