Today’s Art (31st January 2019)

Thanks to being a bit more awake than I was when I made yesterday’s painting, this digitally-edited painting (which is also based on yet another photo of Westbrook that I took during the snow last March, just around the corner from the area in this painting) turned out better than I’d expected 🙂

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

“Westbrook – Gateway” By C. A. Brown

Top Ten Articles – January 2019

Well, it’s the end of the month and I thought that I’d do my usual thing of collecting links to my ten favourite articles about writing fiction, making art etc.. that I’ve posted here this month. As usual, I’ll include a couple of honourable mentions too.

All in all, this month’s articles turned out reasonably well. Although I’m still trying to post a book review every 2-4 days, so there are less instructional articles as a result (I don’t know when the next book review will be though, since the book I’m reading at the time of writing [“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson] isn’t exactly a quick read, plus it’s been a while since my last “Doom II” level review too), quite a few of my articles turned out reasonably well.

Anyway, here are the lists 🙂 Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – January 2019:

– “Four Tips For Writing Daily Short Stories
– “Why Traditional Art Skills Still Matter – A Ramble
– “Two Basic Tips For Adding Some Nostalgia To Your Stories
– “Three Tips For Building A “Buffer” Of Stories, Comics, Articles etc.. To Post Online (If You’ve Already Started Posting Stuff)
– “Two Sneaky Ways To Be An Inspired Artist Again
– “Two Better Alternatives To Writing Fan Fiction
– “Four Random Tips For Writing Stories Set In 1990s America
– “Three Clever Hidden Tricks That Writers Use
– “Four Better Alternatives To Rotating First-Person Narration
– “Three Basic Tips For Writing Vampire Stories

Honourable Mentions:

– “Five Things I’ve Learnt From Getting Back Into Reading Regularly
– “Three More Tips For Reading More This Year

Today’s Art (30th January 2019)

Well, this is another digitally-edited painting based on another photo I took in Westbrook during the snow last March (and the pub in this photo was the initial inspiration for part of this short story). However, since I was tired when I made this painting, it really didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped.

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

“Westbrook – Pub In The Snow” By C. A. Brown

Four Random Tips For Writing Stories Set In 1990s America

One of the interesting things I noticed when I was writing daily short stories last spring was the fact that I started writing a few stories set in 1990s America, like this horror story, this comedy story and the sequel to it.

This was something that I’d wanted to do back in February 2017, but just didn’t know how to – so, back then, I took the easy option and wrote five stories set in late 1990s Britain instead (even though I’d previously made a comic set in 1990s America, I just couldn’t work out how to write stories about it back then).

So, since I seemed to have gained a bit more wisdom and/or confidence about writing stories set in a decade I can only vaguely remember and a country I’ve never been to, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to write stories set in 1990s America. Needless to say, these tips shouldn’t be considered expert advice or anything, but they might be a useful starting point if you’ve never tried to write anything in this genre before.

1) Do your research (and think like a critic): One of the things that helped me to write stories set in 1990s America last spring was the fact that, several months earlier, I went through a phase of watching Hollywood movies from the 1990s and watching/rewatching various TV shows from 1990s America. A while later, I also went through a phase of listening to more punk music from 1990s America than usual too. But, unlike previous times where I’ve done this, I also did something a bit different.

Unlike just watching and listening for entertainment like I might have done a few years ago, I needed to find some way of justifying all of the time I’d sunk into them. So, I started looking at them in a more critical way – so that I could write reviews and/or analysis articles for this site. What this meant is that I had to look for things that they all had in common with each other, I needed to find ways to describe what set them apart from more modern stuff etc…

And, all of this meant that I got a bit of an education about what makes 1990s America so distinctive. So, my advice would be to think like a critic whilst researching 1990s America. Look for what different things from the decade have in common (eg: visually, tonally, thematically etc..) and it will give you a lot of pointers for writing stories in this genre.

2) Optimism and cynicism: I’ve mentioned this many times before, but one of the things that sets the 1990s – especially in America- apart from other decades is the feeling of optimism. This is because it was the decade after the end of the Cold War and before 9/11. It was a decade where there seemed to be no major threats and that things could only get better.

If you don’t believe me, watch some Hollywood action/thriller movies from the time – the storylines are often hilariously silly or innocently generic, because the writers couldn’t just look to the headlines for inspiration. They actually had to use their imaginations to come up with fictional threats and horrors because things were relatively peaceful at the time. So, 1990s America had a bit more of an innocent and optimistic attitude. If you need further confirmation of this, watch the first season of “The West Wing” and ask yourself if anyone in America would make an uplifting political drama like that these days.

All of this cheerful optimism was, of course, counterpointed by the famous cynicism of the 1990s. Seriously, it’s one of the defining traits of 1990s America. Whether it is punk songs with depressing lyrics, a gloomier focus on more mundane problems (eg: crime, the environment, poverty etc..), sarcastic dialogue in movies, “gritty” comic books, “edgy” videogames or other such things, 1990s America is this wonderfully paradoxical balance between optimism and a more innocent form of cynicism.

3) Traditions: Although the world wide web was certainly around in 1990s America, it was still a “new” thing and not the ubiquitous thing it is these days. As such, there seems to be a slightly more “traditional” atmosphere to 1990s America. At least according to my research anyway.

For example, shopping centres (or “malls”) were apparently still popular meeting places and/or places to spend a few hours. Likewise, although VHS tapes (and, later, DVDs) existed in 1990s America, cinemas seemed to be a bit more popular back then. Popular culture was more heavily controlled by a few film studios and TV stations. Plus, of course, social media wasn’t really a “thing” back then, so groups of friends etc.. tended to be a little bit more varied in terms of opinions and personalities (which allows for all sorts of amusing “odd couple” style stories).

Likewise, just like twenty/thirtysomethings these days get nostalgic about the 1990s (like in this article), the older creative people who were making a lot of the popular films, TV shows etc.. in 1990s America were of course nostalgic about the 1950s-70s.

As such, things set in 1990s America will often have a slightly interesting contrast between modernity and a more rose-tinted “old” version of America. Look at the 1950s-influenced costume designs in seasons 1&2 of “Twin Peaks”, the vaguely 1970s-style newspaper office in all four seasons of “Lois & Clark” etc.. for examples of this.

4) It’s not that long ago:
Simply put, although there are differences between the 1990s and the present day, it’s still only 20-30 years difference. So, for the most part, your “1990s America” stories don’t have to be that different to more modern stories that are set in America.

Just remember that mobile phones were less popular in the 1990s, remember that the internet was less of a “thing”, remember to add a few 1990s pop culture references etc… and then just tell a slightly more “timeless” story that could theoretically happen at any point in the mid-late 20th or early 21st century.

After all, a lot of 1990s movies, a lot of 1990s novels etc.. are still very watchable and/or readable these days because they’re still relatively recent. For example, “The Matrix” was released in 1999 and it still looks relatively futuristic. Or, G.R.R Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones” was first published in 1996 and it was still easily adapted into a TV show in the early 2010s.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (29th January 2019)

This is a digitally-edited painting that is based on another photo of Westbrook (near Cowplain) that I took during a snowstorm there early last March – and, yes, this might turn into a small art series.

Anyway, this painting is based on an archway near Westbrook shops that always reminds me of the 1990s for some reason. As a bit of trivia, the location for this old “1990s horror movie”-style painting painting of mine was based on a video rental shop that used to be near this archway.

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

“Westbrook – Arch” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Aliens: Alien Harvest” By Robert Sheckley (Novel)

Well, after reading S.D.Perry’s excellent “Aliens: The Labyrinth“, I was in the mood for another “Aliens” novel. And, after looking online, I found a couple of old second-hand omnibuses going cheap.

Once they arrived, I tried to work out which novel to read first and then I noticed that one of the novels – “Alien Harvest” from 1995 – was written by none other than Robert Sheckley.

I remembered his name because the very first book review ever posted on this blog (way back in 2013) was of one of his “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” novels that I read after being curious about all of the one-star reviews it had got online. Since I enjoyed that novel and since I wanted to read something by an author I hadn’t read in a while, I decided to read “Alien Harvest”.

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

This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the version of “Alien Harvest” I read.

“Alien Harvest” begins in a dystopian future where Earth is in the later stages of recovering from an attack by ferocious alien creatures. Famed roboticist Dr. Stan Myakovsky is having a bad day. Not only has his spaceship been reposessed by a court order, but a visit to the doctor reveals that he is suffering from a terminal case of melanoma. The doctor offers him some illegal narcotics, made from alien secretions, to ease the pain – but points out that the disease has progressed to an incurable level.

As Stan sits around at home and begins to feel sorry for himself, there is a knock on the door. The mysterious visitor turns out to be an expert thief called Julia Lish who needs Stan’s expertise with robotics to pull off the heist of the century. Since Stan has got nothing to lose and since the heist will be a way to get back at his hated rivals in the BioPharm corporation, Stan agrees. After all, how difficult can a daring raid on an illegal secretion-harvesting operation on an alien-infested planet be?

One of the first things that I will say about “Alien Harvest” is that it is absolutely excellent, but it is also a very different novel to what I had expected.

If you’re expecting a relentlessly gruesome sci-fi horror novel, then you’re going to be in for a shock. This novel is many things – a brilliant piece of old-school science fiction, a gripping thriller, a drama, a bit of a comedy and a gloriously mischievous heist story – but it isn’t really that much of a horror novel. Even so, it is absolutely awesome 🙂

One of the best ways to describe this novel is that it’s kind of like a quirky 1950s/60s-style sci-fi novel (think Harry Harrison, Philip K. Dick etc..) but with a few brilliant hints of cynical “1980s cyberpunk”-style dystopian grittiness too (eg: in addition to the dystopian Earth locations, the early meetings between Stan and Julia are vaguely reminiscent of both the first meeting of Case and Molly in William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and the friendship between Pris and J.F. Sebastian in “Blade Runner).

This novel also has an absolutely brilliant three-act structure too. The first third or so of the novel is a gloriously slick 1960s-style caper story involving daring heists, criminal plotting, glamourous gambling dens and other such things. The second third of the story is a good slice of traditional space-based sci-fi drama. The final third is a little bit more of a horror/action thriller story, with some drama elements.

Although some readers may find this structure a little bit unusual or slightly slow-paced in parts, it works absolutely brilliantly and each segment of the novel segues into the next one perfectly.

In addition to this, this novel has personality 🙂 Although it is set in the universe of the “Alien” films, it is as fresh and different as a totally original novel would be. Not only does this novel have a gloriously quirky and nerdy sense of humour (eg: one of the characters is a surprisingly eloquent robotic alien called Norbert, there’s a Data-like android called Gill etc..), but the “world” of the story is also described in a brilliant way too. In addition to this, there is actual characterisation in this novel 🙂

Seriously, I cannot praise the characters in this novel highly enough 🙂 All of them come across as three-dimensional, albeit stylised, people who all have personalities, emotions, history, flaws and quirks. Yes, they all fit into the archetypes you’d expect (eg: genius scientist, master criminal, washed-up spaceship captain etc..) but they are all clearly shown to be interesting, unique people. Seriously, for a novel in this franchise, I was surprised at how much humanity it had.

Interestingly, most of what makes this novel so compelling is just good old-fashioned drama and storytelling. Yes, there are a few brief action-based scenes and a few brief moments of grisly horror but, for the most part, this novel is a cross between an old-school adventure yarn and a drama. There are perilous missions, mysterious locations, complex relationships, daring gambits, treacherous mutinies and other such things. All with lashings of gloriously nerdy old-school science fiction too 🙂

In terms of length, this novel is a little under 300 pages in length. Although the slightly slower pace in some scenes and the slightly more descriptive narration makes the story feel about 50-70 pages longer than this, the story never really feels particularly bloated. In other words, the story is well-suited to the length and never outstays it’s welcome.

As for of how this 24 year old novel has aged, it has aged in a really interesting way. Although the (mostly) third-person narration is still very readable these days, the fact that the novel almost seems more like a 1980s-influenced version of a classic 1950s-60s sci-fi novel gives it a wonderfully “retro” quality. It seems both very old and fairly modern at the same time. Not only that, the excellent characterisation means that the story’s human drama is pretty much timeless. Plus, although there are a couple of mildly “politically incorrect” moments, there’s nothing seriously eyebrow-raising here. So, on the whole, the novel has aged surprisingly well.

All in all, this novel is astonishingly good. It goes beyond being a mere sci-fi movie spin-off novel to being very much it’s own thing. If you like very slightly nerdy old-school sci-fi, if you like slick heist thrillers, if you like daring adventure or if you just like compelling human drama, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂 Yes, you might be a little disappointed if you’re expecting a splatterpunk-style horror story, but everything else about this novel more than makes up for the slight paucity of horror.

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

Two Better Alternatives To Writing Fan Fiction

A week or two after I started writing daily short stories last February, I found myself tempted to write some fan fiction. Basically, I had started going through a phase of reading things like movie novelisations (and, yes, the recent book reviews have been written very far in advance) and, at the time of writing, there didn’t seem to be any novelisations of the “Silent Hill” videogames [EDIT: Whilst editing this article, I found that there are several Japanese-language novelisations and an English-language spin-off novel].

So, for a while, I actually thought about writing some fan fiction. Until I remembered that I didn’t write fan fiction. So, I had to think of alternatives. So, here’s an in-depth look at two better and more creative alternatives to writing fan fiction.

1) Be inspired (by multiple things): Ok, you’re a fan of something and you want to write something like it but you don’t want to write fan fiction. Great 🙂 This means that you can do something much better, you can take inspiration and then use this to tell an original story. But, how do you do this?

Start by looking at the basic, generic, underlying elements of the thing that has inspired you. These are general qualities that can be summed up in 1-3 words and which aren’t just found in the thing you’re getting inspired by (in other words, no highly-specific things like character names, location names etc..).

For example, the generic qualities of the old “Silent Hill” videogames would include: urban decay, implied paranormal horror, rust, gloom, vulnerability, grimy buildings, a foreboding atmosphere, psychological horror, mundane meets macabre etc…

When you’ve got your list of qualities, then try to tell a totally original story (featuring new characters, settings, background stuff etc..) that includes some of these generic qualities. You’ll end up with something that is evocative of the thing you’ve been inspired by, but also distinctly different, new and original. Because you’ve had to use your imagination, the story will also have a bit more of your own personal “style” too.

Of course, since you’ve got a list of generic qualities, then you’ll also be able to use it to find connections with other things – which you can also use for inspiration (via the same process) too. Basically, the more inspirations you have, the more original your story will be.

For example, after my initial thought about writing “Silent Hill” fan fiction, I decided to take inspiration instead. Whilst doing this, I realised that the list of qualities I was looking at were also shared by several other things such as the movie “Mimic“, the X-Files episode “Tooms” etc… I realised that all of these things were set in run-down urban parts of 1990s/early-mid 2000s America, they had a claustrophobic atmosphere and/or they often involved something lurking in the shadows.

I was then able to use these multiple inspirations in order to tell an original American-style horror story, set in 1997, about a haunted floor of an apartment block. Not only that, because I’d realised that claustrophobia was a major theme in this “type” of horror, I was also able to choose to use first-person narration and to set most of the story inside a lift/elevator carriage in order to add this quality to the story. This resulted in at least a mildly better (or at least less worse) story than if I’d tried to write some “Silent Hill” fan fiction instead.

Doing this kind of thing is better than writing fan fiction because it forces you to use your imagination a bit more, it means that your story will appeal to a wider audience (rather than just fans of one thing) and it also means that there are far fewer potential copyright issues with publishing your story too.

Although I’m not a copyright lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, this type of inspiration is actually encouraged by copyright law. This is because most copyright laws around the world deliberately don’t protect basic ideas, concepts, themes etc.. Instead, most copyright laws only protect highly-specific details (eg: specific character designs etc..). What this means is that, if you like something, then you have to do something new and original with the basic ideas behind that thing. In other words, you have to take inspiration and use your imagination, rather than just lazily borrowing.

2) Write an old-school British-style parody: Before about 2014 or so, there was no legal right to make parodies in Britain. What this meant is that if a comedy show on TV or a writer or whatever wanted to make a parody of something, then they had to be a little bit crafty about it.

In other words, they had to work out what they were going to ridicule (eg: the general qualities, ideas, themes etc.. behind something) and then come up with a new and original set of characters, locations etc… that evoked the thing they were parodying, and then use this to poke fun at the thing that they wanted to parody. Although this sounds like it would be really convoluted and result in worse parodies, the exact opposite is true.

What it meant was that things which originally started as parodies – such as the TV show “Red Dwarf” – are still going strong decades after they were first made. Because they had to stand on their own two feet, rather than rely on something else, they have a much wider appeal and a greater degree of longevity. Likewise, because they weren’t explicitly based on one other thing, they could also parody a much wider range of things too.

So, using this style of parody can result in much more interesting fan-based stories. For example, this short story of mine is clearly meant to be a parody of “Star Trek”. But because it includes original characters, original settings etc.. It also allowed me to write a much more general parody story about modern computer software, which will hopefully also amuse people who haven’t seen a single episode of “Star Trek”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (27th January 2019)

This digitally-edited painting is another photo-based painting (which was based on a photo of Portsmouth that my sister took and sent me after I mentioned that I was going through a phase of making paintings based on photos).

Although this painting is considerably brighter and mistier than most of my paintings and, for some reason, it had a very slight J.M.W Turner influence too, I quite like how it turned out.

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

“Portsmouth – Across The Sea” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” By David Bischoff (Movie Novelisation)

A couple of days before I wrote this review, I needed to find a book. The two books I’d planned to read were ones that, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t get into. Worried about losing interest in reading once again, I needed to find something easy and readable. And quickly!

Then I remembered that there was a book. A book I’d owned for over a decade and a half and still hadn’t got round to reading. I am, of course, talking about David Bischoff’s 1990 novelisation of “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (if you want to see my review of this “so bad that it’s good” comedy horror film, then you can read it here).

Although it’s probably theoretically possible to enjoy this book without watching the film, I’d strongly recommend that you watch the film at least once or twice before reading the book in order to get the most out of it.

So, let’s take a look at the novelisation of “Gremlins 2: The New Batch”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1990 Corgi (UK) paperback edition of “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” that I read.

The story to this novel is, as you might have guessed, pretty much identical to the movie. The story begins in Chinatown, New York, where an elderly shopkeeper called Mr.Wing is visited by a rather unpleasant man called Forster who works for a business magnate called Daniel Clamp.

Clamp is interested in redeveloping the area, but Mr.Wing won’t sell his shop despite Forster’s arguments. After they leave, Mr. Wing catches his pet Mogwai (a cute, fluffy creature called Gizmo) watching a Rambo movie on TV and scolds him for it.

Several weeks later, Mr. Wing dies of old age and Clamp begins to demolish the shop. Gizmo barely escapes from the wreckage before he is found and kidnapped by a guy who is lurking in an alleyway.

Meanwhile, young couple Billy Peltzer and Kate Beringer are travelling to work at the Clamp Center, a vast office tower run by Daniel Clamp. Several years earlier, Billy and Kate’s humdrum rural life had been shattered when Billy’s dad had given him Gizmo as a Christmas present. You see, there are several rules with Mogwai. They don’t like bright lights, they spontaneously reproduce whenever they get wet and you must never, ever feed them after midnight. If you do, they turn into fearsome, destructive gremlins. Gremlins that almost destroyed Billy and Kate’s old hometown. But, of course, that’s all in the past. It could never happen in New York, right….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a surprisingly good adaptation of the film. In other words, it is also “so bad that it is good”. Not only does the book absolutely nail the slightly quirky, referential, tongue-in-cheek tone of the film, but it also adds a bit of extra humour and background stuff too.

Still, Bischoff’s third-person narration can take a little while to get used to. He writes in a very informal, fast-paced and referential way that you’ll either find wonderfully readable or slightly annoying. Fortunately, for me, the former was true. But, this is only because I’ve seen the film several times before.

If I hadn’t seen the film, then I’d probably find the narration to be a little bit on the confusing side. Even so, the narration is full of these brilliantly fast-paced rushing-to-meet-a-deadline descriptions that almost have a certain poetry to them. Likewise, the informal narration fits in really well with the zany, anarchic tone of the film too.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, the narration (like the film) is fairly referential too, with frequent references to movies, TV shows, celebrities etc… Although this mostly works well, it all depends on how many of the references that you get. Luckily, most of them have stood the test of time. But, I’m guessing that, if you were living in the US during the 1990s, you’ll probably get slightly more out of this book than you would if you read it for the first time in 2010s Britain.

Likewise, the story itself moves at a reasonable pace too. Since this book was published in 1990, it is actually able to be short. What this means is that – over just 225 pages – the book can tell a reasonably focused story that doesn’t waste too much of the reader’s time. Seriously, I really miss the days when short books were nothing unusual. So, yes, this is a very readable book that will probably only take you a small number of hours to read too.

Although this novel follows the story of the film fairly closely, there are a reasonable number of extra little jokes thrown into the narration – mostly consisting of puns, sarcastic descriptions and parodies (eg: a mention of a werewolf movie called “The Jowling” which is a parody of a film called “The Howling” that was directed by the guy who directed “Gremlins 2”).

However, some visual parodies in the film don’t turn up in the book (eg: the “Batman” reference when the bat gremlin escapes the lab). But, although this novel mostly follows the story of the film, there are a couple of interesting story differences too.

For example, the novel initially seems to follow the film’s idea of making Daniel Clamp a thinly-disguised parody of Donald Trump (even taking it a step further than the film by hinting that Clamp wants to run for US President. As if anyone could imagine something so ludicrously absurd!). Yet, unlike the film, the novel actually mentions that Donald Trump is Daniel Clamp’s arch-rival. So, in the book at least, they’re supposed to be two totally different people.

Likewise, the fourth wall-breaking “film montage” scene in the original movie is replaced by a short chapter where the brain-serum gremlin breaks into David Bischoff’s apartment and narrates for a page or two before Bischoff is able to scare him away and continue telling the main story. Although this is quite a clever way to adapt this scene, and it also includes references to the original montage scene, I still slightly prefer the version in the film.

In addition to this, we get a very brief description of the Mogwai homeworld (implying that Gizmo is an alien), the film’s “New York, New York” musical montage scene is less of a major moment in the book (since it’s a book) and the electrocution scene is a little bit more intense and grotesque than it is in the film. Plus, in a scene that I don’t remember from the film, Grandpa Fred gives a speech about chaos and order that sums up the themes of the “Gremlins” series absolutely perfectly.

In terms of how this 29 year old novel has aged, it has aged as well as the film has. In other words, it’s a “so bad that it’s good” relic of the early 1990s. But, even though some of the book’s pop culture references are a little dated, it still reads reasonably well. If you’ve see the film and you know what to expect, then this book is a wonderful piece of 90s nostalgia. If you haven’t seen the film, you’ll probably find it less readable/enjoyable.

All in all, this novel is quite literally “Gremlins 2” in book form, even down the somewhat quirky/zany tone of the story. And, I’m honestly not sure whether I prefer it to the film or not. Like the film, it is “so bad that it is good”. It is endearingly annoying, it is a dreadful delight….

So, like the film, if I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would get… both one and five simultaneously.