Today’s Art (31st December 2018)

Well, it’s a little early, but Happy New Year everyone 🙂 And, yes, I’m still surprised that we’re going to be living in the same year that “Blade Runner” is set in. And, yes, I had to make a cartoon about it (you can see the “work in progress” line art for it here), featuring the characters from many of my webcomics.

As usual, this cartoon is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Happy New Year 2019” By C. A. Brown

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Top Ten Articles – December 2018

Well, it’s the end of the month (and the year). So, I thought that I’d do my usual thing of collecting a list of links to the ten best articles about writing fiction, making art etc… that I’ve posted here over the past month. As usual, I’ll also include a couple of honourable mentions too.

Surprisingly, due to all of the book reviews I posted here this month (it seems to be becoming a regular feature), there weren’t as many “ordinary” articles as I’d expected. Even so, some of them turned out reasonably well and I also ended up writing more writing-based articles than usual too 🙂

Anyway, here are the lists 🙂 Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – December 2018:

– “What Can Novel Cover Art Teach Us About Making Art?
– “Don’t Show Your Audience Everything – A Ramble
– “Three Tips For Basing Lots Of Stories Around A Single Theme
– “What Books Can Do That Other Entertainment Mediums Can’t – A Ramble
– “One Quick Tip For Writing Ultra-Gripping Action Scenes In Thriller Stories
– “Three Shocking Tips For Writing 1980s-Style Splatterpunk Horror Fiction
– “Three Tips For Making Webcomics When You’ve Got Less Time
– “Three Differences Between Thriller Fiction And Horror Fiction
– “How Straightforward Should Your Narration Be?
– “Two Basic Tips For Using Digital Lighting Effects In “GIMP” (GNU Image Manipulation Program)

Honourable Mentions:

– “Three Silly Tips For Writing ‘Creature Feature’ Horror Stories
– “Three Tips For Writing 1990s-Style Cyberpunk Fiction

How Straightforward Should Your Narration Be?

Ever since I got back into reading regularly a little over a month ago, I’ve noticed something that I hadn’t really thought about before. Namely, the difference between the narration in more modern 21st century novels and in novels from the 20th century. Obviously, this is a major generalisation and there will be many exceptions to this rule, but I have noticed a vague difference between 20th and 21st century narration.

In short, modern narration is often a bit more straightforward. It’s a bit more matter-of-fact. It is designed for quick and efficient readability. And, in a lot of ways, this is a good thing. After all, narration shouldn’t get between the reader and the story. By making the narration reasonably effortless to read, a writer can easily immerse the reader in the story. And, when this works, it works really well.

For example, when I went through a phase of reading Clive Cussler novels a while back, it was striking to see the difference in narration between Cussler’s older thriller novels from the 1970s-90s and the more modern novels that have been co-written by other thriller writers. The differences in sentence length, descriptions and linguistic complexity are fairly noticeable. Yet, the more modern ones tend to grab your attention a bit more strongly and tend to be more effortlessly readable.

Or, to give a more nuanced example, I’m currently reading the third novel (“Dawnbreaker” – from 2009) in Jocelynn Drake’s excellent ‘Dark Days’ series and, after I got used to the narration in the first novel (which is slightly more descriptive than the average thriller novel), reading the subsequent novels has felt as effortless as watching a gripping TV show. The narration is still reasonably descriptive, but it is also written in a fairly direct and matter-of-fact way too (which is helped by the use of a first-person perspective).

To give an even more nuanced example, take a look at Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” (2015). Although the descriptive narration in this novel is meant to evoke 19th century narration, it is still designed to be very readable through things like the careful use of formal language that will be easily understood by modern readers, few to no references to classical mythology and slightly more straightforward sentence structures (that will be familiar to modern readers). And this works really well 🙂

But, I’ve also been reading some slightly older novels too and it always surprises me how slower and more descriptive the narration can be. Even in a thrilling action-horror novel like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” (1984), the narration will often be a little bit slower, more formal and more descriptive. Plus, of course, there are novels like Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” (1995) that deliberately use dense, formal, ultra-descriptive narration.

Yet, I’ve found myself reading a mixture of older and newer books. This is because, although more formal and descriptive narration can be slower to read, it does have benefits. In short, it allows for a greater sense of richness and depth, at the cost of speed and ease of reading. It is something that requires a little bit of extra skill and effort to read, but you get more of a sense of accomplishment and a deeper story in return.

It’s kind of like the graphics settings in a computer game. If you set the graphics to “ultra-high”, then the game will look really good, but it will run more slowly. If you set the graphics to “low”, then the game won’t look as detailed, but it’ll be a lot smoother and more intuitive to play. Of course, there’s also a “medium” setting too…

After all, as I mentioned earlier, this is a massive generalisation. It’s also a bit of a simplification too.

Because, even more “readable” modern novels still need to use descriptions. Likewise, even more descriptive older novels still need to tell a compelling story. So, it isn’t a question of one extreme or the other, but more of a question of balance. And, if you’re telling a story, you need to think about this balance.

Whilst more straightforward modern-style narration will make it easier for people to pick up your story and keep reading it (and it means your story can compete better with TV, videogames etc.. for people’s attention), it also means that you have to be a lot more economical with your descriptions. You need to edit ruthlessly and efficiently.

Likewise, you’ll also have very slightly less room for using a unique narrative style too – so, you have to place extra emphasis on making your story unique in other ways (eg: characters, plot, settings etc..).

On the other hand, more complex, descriptive and “slower” narration can put off potential readers, but it means that your story will have a greater sense of richness to it. It means that your readers will be able to better picture the scenes you describe. It also means that your narrative style can be a little bit more unique (and memorable) too. Finally, it means that you can also do even more things (eg: literary techniques etc..) that no other storytelling medium can do.

As I said earlier, this isn’t an “either/or” thing. All stories, modern and old, fall somewhere between these two extremes. But, working out exactly where you want your story to fall is a decision that is well worth thinking about carefully.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art ( 29th December 2018 )

Well, luckily, I was feeling a bit more inspired and I realised that it has been way too long since I last made a cyberpunk/ retro sci-fi painting. And, although this digitally-edited painting ended up being a little bit minimalist, I quite like how it turned out.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Office” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Brave New World” By Aldous Huxley (Novel)

“Brave New World” is one of those novels that I’d been meaning to read for literally a decade or so but never got round to it.

Although one of the very first Iron Maiden albums that I ever bought (at about the age of thirteen or fourteen) was named after this book, the thing that made me interested in “Brave New World” was the fact that someone in one of my seminar groups when I was at university kept speaking highly of it. So, I bought a copy of it and… about a decade or so later, I finally got round to actually reading it.

So, let’s take a look at “Brave New World”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2001 Voyager Classics (UK) paperback reprint of “Brave New World” (1932) that I read.

“Brave New World” is set in a distant future “utopia”, where people are cloned and organised into a hierarchical structure. It is a world where a type of heavily-controlled community-based hedonism is used to maintain order and conformity. However, one member of this world’s upper class – Bernard Marx – is having subversive thoughts of solitude and monogamy and other such things.

After convincing his occasional girlfriend Lenina to join him, he sets out on a “research” expedition to one of the few parts of Earth that isn’t controlled by the utopia. Whilst visiting there, Bernard meets the son of a former citizen of the utopia (who was accidentally abandoned there during another expedition). Out of curiosity, he decides to take the young man back to the utopia to see what he makes of it….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I both loved and hated it at the same time. It is a brilliantly clever, thought-provoking and unique novel that is filled with quotable moments. It is a novel that can both amuse and horrify you with expert ease. Yet, at the same time, it’s also a book I found myself strongly disagreeing with at times and rolling my eyes at occasionally. Yet, there’s no denying that it has earned it’s reputation as a classic.

This novel is both the literal opposite of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and yet also very similar to it too. In short, it is a novel about individuality versus conformity. This is the only real way to look at this novel. If you try to break the novel’s opinions down into polarised modern categories, then you’ll end up confused. It was written during a more nuanced age (in Britain at least) and thus can be both left and right wing at the same time. In other words, it rises above simplistic political categories.

For example, the novel is both strongly anti-capitalist and strongly anti-communist at the same time. It contains bitterly satirical depictions of advertising, fame, commercialism, class systems etc… Yet, at the same time, the novel is also sharply critical of many of the hallmarks of communist regimes (eg: propaganda, brainwashing, ideological censorship etc…), and the utopia’s motto of “everyone belongs to everyone else” is also used to critique communism too. In both cases, the novel brilliantly criticises how these ideologies promote unthinking conformity.

One of the central themes in the novel is the horror of mass production. Not only are people quite literally cloned and raised in a mechanical fashion, but the religion of the novel is based on Henry Ford‘s production lines. Characters exclaim things like “Oh, Ford!” (rather than “Oh, Lord!”) – and there are even sign of the cross -like gestures that mimic the “T” of the Model T Ford. Likewise, there’s also a lot of darkly comedic satire of Pavlovian conditioning, subliminal messaging and the pharmaceutical industry too.

This novel also tries to be a fierce satire of hedonism too. I’m guessing that if you grew up in the more traditionalist age that the novel was written in, then you’d probably find the novel’s depiction of hedonism (including things like *gasp* contraceptives, popular music, recreational drug use etc..) to be frighteningly immoral and the novel’s celebration of religion, ageing, mourning, Shakespeare, self-flagellation etc.. to be warmly reassuring. Still, if you think about the novel as being about individuality versus conformity, then the novel’s satire still makes some sense when read today.

And, yes, this is what this novel is truly about. Individuality. Often, the characters’ opinions will be shown to be part of their conditioning or there will be these absolutely beautiful passages about the joys of solitude (and, if you’re a bit of an introvert, then these passages are still thrillingly subversive in this age of smartphones, social media etc..). If you ignore all of the story’s traditionalist moralising, then this is a brilliant novel about the value of self-reflection and thinking for yourself.

In terms of the writing, it is surprisingly good and – once you’ve got used to Huxley’s slightly older writing style – it is a joy to read.

One of the interesting techniques that Huxley uses is to suddenly jump from scene to scene and conversation to conversation very quickly (with about six pages just consisting of short paragraphs from different alternating conversations). This is vaguely similar to the style of later writers like William S. Burroughs and it was possibly inspired by the modernist writers of the 1920s.

Likewise, the novel’s narration is filled with pithy observations, darkly comedic dialogue and other such things too (which occasionally reminded me of later science fiction stories by Philip K. Dick). The story also contains a few almost stream-of-consciousness like segments that could easily have come from a gritty, edgy novel written thirty years later.

In terms of how this eighty-six year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. Whilst there are some parts of this book that reflect the attitudes and prejudices of the time it was written, other parts of this book still seem remarkably ahead of the time they were written (but behind our time). Put simply, this book is a satire of the 1960s… that was written during the 1930s. Then again, it was written a couple of years after the “Roaring Twenties” – so, this might explain it too.

Still, some other parts of the novel are unintentionally modern – such as the use of metric measurements (they’re ordinary now, but were no doubt frighteningly futuristic during the days of ye olde imperial measurements), or the novel’s cynical critique of mainstream entertainment. Not to mention that, once you read this novel, you’ll start to notice references to it in all sorts of other things (for example, the movie “Demolition Man” is heavily inspired by it, to the point of actually calling a character Lenina Huxley).

But, some of the novel’s satire falls flat when read today. Yes, the criticisms of conformity in the novel still carry some weight. But, the idea that hedonism is a symbol of conformity seems cruelly ironic these days. Seriously, if there’s one thing we need more of in this miserable age, it is good, honest hedonism!

All in all, this is a well-written and thought-provoking novel. It was wildly ahead of it’s time, but lags somewhat behind our time. It’s a satire of the 1960s that was written in the 1930s. It’s a novel that, even when you disagree with it, you’ll still be impressed by the skill of the arguments. It is a novel about the value of thinking for yourself. Yes, as old dystopian novels go, I still prefer Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (at least the dystopia actually looks like a dystopia…), but I can see why “Brave New World” is regarded as a classic.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.