My name is Chico and I’m a writeaholic

So I’m going to talk about writers’ block, a terrible condition. It seems that I have to write. Painting calms me and invigorates me (as do yoga and running), but only writing gives me a buzz. Typing “The End” on a novel is as intense as finishing an actual marathon!
Yet not long after “Printer’s Devil” was published I fell victim to this cruel affliction. There were a few reasons. I was working at an awful, awful place: an ad agency straight out of “Mad Men” for its misogyny (something which was completely absent when I first went into advertising about 20 years earlier). It gave me clinical depression and allergic asthma as well. Then the book I was working on and sending piecemeal to my editor at Baen, a reworking of World War Two on a world with two intelligent, but very different, human races, was cut short by her abruptly asking me “Why are you writing this?” To please myself, primarily, I should’ve replied, but didn’t. And finally— name and shame!— a guy named John Jerrold asked me for a meet. He’d read “Printer’s Devil” and was interested, he said, in working with me. I honestly can’t remember whether, back then, he was an agent or a publisher. We had, I thought, an interesting and even exciting meeting, talking about future writing plans.
He never contacted me again, and the only reply I elicited from some minion of his was that “John is away but is looking forward to working with you on this project”.
For the next four years I struggled to write any fiction. The words that had flowed so freely came only with great effort and were plagued by self-doubt. I would write a few sentences, then bin them.
And then, one day in 2000, while I was painfully limping through the first story for ages that I’d really thought was going somewhere, Captain da Silva came to me… and that great big dam burst asunder.

Bring back the demons!

I like dark in my heroes. Or some mystery. I always preferred Strider to Aragorn because here way a guy that came riding in dramatically for nowhere to save the day, and the hobbits didn’t know who the hell he was, or even if he was a good guy at first. And at the end when he got all kingy he wasn’t even very interesting any more. But for a long long time in fantasyland the heroes didn’t really have flaws. That was what made Angel and Spike and Cole in Charmed such great characters. Nothing like a bit of demon to spice up the mix.
However, darkness diminishes, and soon demons dwindle to metaphors, and metaphors turn into clichés. When I read a lot of today’s fantasy, it’s so ordinary and same-y I just want to sigh. The same goes, to some extent, to the thriller genre. This has at least made flawed heroes a specialty for a long time. But even the flaws are clichés, and they don’t make the detectives interesting, they make them miserable.
Thus, a fictional character can’t take a drink without being an alcoholic who either goes on extended benders or is trying to give up. (Way to go, AA!) Can’t smoke — has to be going through hell and nicotine patches. Can’t be in a happy relationship — there’s got to be a break-up, a bitter divorce, or a custody battle over who gets the kids (or the dog). Oh, and I mustn’t forget the brilliant investigators who don’t have any social skills.
What all these flaws don’t achieve is any depth of character. They are a mark of lazy writing (IMHO!). You might just as well call them The Alky, Bad Break-up, or the Cigarette-Smoking Man (oh yeah, that’s been done). Well-rounded characters have more than one thing that defines them.
Yeah, I know this is a generalization, and a pretty sweeping one at that. But it is a common problem, and one that I try very hard not to avoid. You can make a character memorable by giving him just one noticeable quirk, but that won’t work with major players in your world.
Anyway, when I found myself writing (or chaneling, who knows!) about Captain da Silva, a good deal of who he was and what he was about arrived wholesale, as it were. He doesn’t have any of the kinds of hangups I mentioned earlier. He smokes and he enjoys a drink, and he is still very much in love with his wife and she with him. But he does have demons, and they are both real and metaphorical. He ran away to sea at age fourteen to escape his religious fanatic of a mother. He spent a very long time working for a very bad man because he killed a would-be rapist and yet was unable to kill the worse man in cold blood. He hasn’t yet revealed a lot of the things he had to do as that man’s henchman, but he’s still a dangerous person, likely to hit first and ask questions later. What redeems him, apart from the fact that now he is a force for good in the world? His sense of humor, his honesty, his loyalty to family, friends and crew. He has a lot of darkness in him, but mostly it makes him stronger.
And the real demons? They’re afraid of him.

Benign schizophrenia

Well, I think I’m a bit of a convert to this blogging thing. I don’t know anyone I can talk to about writing, so it gives me a chance to blabber on about it — even if it’s only into cyberspace!
All writers are obsessive to one extent or another, I guess. You need to know everything about your protagonist, from how they drink their coffee to who all their relatives are and how they met their friends and acquaintances.You certainly need to inhabit this person, and that results in a sort of benign schizophrenia.
Captain da Silva is very much his own man, but one thing I have imposed on him is a rather progressive mindset. But then, who knows? A sailor with a polyglot crew one hundred years ago might well have tolerated all of his shipmates better than his landlubber contemporaries. Under the hardships of sail, race and color would surely take second place to seamanship on how you viewed your fellow man. That people were bigoted I can’t deny, but I think that if you had a tireless and skillful African crewman as a shipmate it wouldn’t matter a jot that the common view at the time was that black people were lazy.
On a similar topic, I dare say there were men at that time who acknowledged that  their wives and sisters and daughters were people with intelligence and talent and strength. But probably not very many. You may have wondered why my main character is a man, given that I favor strong, capable, smart, and preferably ass-kicking women. To which I can only reply that he came into my mind when a story needed him, and at a moment when he was forced to act as a hero — and I just had to accept that.
But the women around him are strong. Da Silva’s adored wife, Emilia, though she has to walk with a stick, is a talented jeweler, the businesswoman who handles his ship’s affairs, and his strength and lodestone. Paciência, Emilia’s friend, is a powerful witch, and her daughter Luzia has the ability to surpass her. And Teresa Batista, daughter of the Captain’s enemy, is fierce, strong and hot-tempered, and prone to dueling with a saber and inflicting damage upon her opponents. And that’s just in Demon Weather. If you haven’t met Tatiana, the Russian witch who’s appeared in the short stories Past Acquaintances in my first small collection, Second Sight, and Brief Encounter in the almost eponymously-titled Brief Encounters, you will make her acquaintance in the second novel…

Windjammer Writing

I don’t write to a plan. I let the story take me where it goes while I enjoy the journey. I know more or less what the final destination is, especially when it comes to novels, but everything else is what my brain churns out while I’m en route. I doubt if I could write to a set plan or template without it being obvious that I was doing so. My fiction really is like a sea voyage in the days of sail: I know where I’m headed, but there’s no way of predicting exactly what’s going to happen during the voyage – hurricanes, doldrums, sea-serpents, sharks, men overboard, pirates, derelicts, castaways, shipwrecks, mermaids, icebergs, Neptune or Davy Jones, all are possible.

When you read one of my stories you’re reading something that’s not very far removed from the first draft — I don’t revise much because that way some of the spontaneity is lost. To this day, though, I don’t know where Captain da Silva came from. For that matter, none of his “Scooby Gang” was deliberately created, either (or, indeed, the fact that he’d end up with a Scooby Gang): they all just popped into my mind and onto the page when their time came.

Did I set out to create a whole world of stories centered round a master mariner of the 1900s, who can see ghosts and talk to the dead? No. Am I happy it happened? Hell yeah.

Weird Noir: Shakespeare’s Gravediggers

There was a time when fantasy for grownups was thin on the ground. Once you’d finished Lord of the Rings, that was about it. There were a few re-tellings of folktales such as The Mabinogion, and older fiction like E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (which was really hard going), but you really had to scratch around to find something to read. There was plenty of horror, and ghostly fiction (which of course I wrote almost exclusively for 20 years), but if you wanted elves and orcs, well, tough luck. Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968) was one of the rare exceptions to the rule, not that it had elves and orcs in it, but at least it was fantasy. It also had a fair smattering of humor, which helps to make it enjoyable even today. And that was a first, I think. Though there are comic moments in LotR, one could never call it funny. I wonder if Terry Pratchett ever read The Last Unicorn? The first Discworld novel came out in 1983. With one stroke, Pterry not only reinvented a neglected genre single-handedly, he made it laugh-out-loud funny, much as Joss Whedon would later do for the horror genre. (It’s amazing to realize that Buffy (the series, not the movie) first aired in 1997.)

At the time my first ghost story (the much-anthologized An Incident in the City) was published, my model was the great M.R. James. Though humor is present in his work, it is always fleeting and usually gentle: little bubbles that evoke a smile rather than a laugh.

“Mingled suspicions that he was keeping the old man from his déjeuner, that he was regarded as likely to make away with St Bertrand’s ivory crozier, or with the dusty stuffed crocodile that hangs over the font, began to torment him.” – Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook

It was James, doyen of the English Ghost Story tradition, who introduced the idea that humor is legitimate even in the most creepy of tales, much as Shakespeare’s gravediggers in Hamlet were intended to give light relief and contrast with the tragedy (something which every writer understands, even if it isn’t for them). In being influenced by James, I tried to emulate this technique of his.

“‘I’m on me tea break,’ he announced with a blast of mephitic breath, brandishing a mug to prove it. If tea is amber-colored and made in Scotland, he spoke truth.” – What of the Night

Thus I was primed from my very first published story to admit the light side as a contrast to the dark. With James as the original template, and admiration for novelists as diverse as Raymond Chandler and P.G. Wodehouse stewing in my brain, then tossing Joss Whedon’s oeuvre into the mix, I came with Captain da Silva to inhabit a sub-genre which the Australian writer Rick Kennett has dubbed “Weird Noir”– the narrator who is utterly honest about himself but deeply cynical about the rest of the world, and survives with humor that is often dark.

“From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” (Chandler)

“She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me.” (Chandler, but doesn’t it sound like something from Buffy?)

“Nobs like to have an entourage. I think they feel undressed without people to wipe their asses, tie their bootlaces and knot their bow-ties.” – Unfinished Business, published in Poe’s Progeny (ed. Gary Fry)

“The first [thug] had a bald pate and a bushy beard which made him look as if his head was on upside-down.” – Magnetic North, published in The Vengeance Jar

To quote Jim Rockwell in All Hallows: “Not that these hints of Chandler in any way suggest slavish imitation. The elegance-amid-mire that characterizes Chandler’s prose is replaced here by the salty, choppy diction of the seaman, Marlowe’s tendency towards ethical ruminations are almost completely absent from da Silva’s personality (if we except his scruples over resorting to necromancy), and the captain shows no compunction against violence, resorting to it in an instant when he deems it necessary: Since Luís da Silva is no underdog, he is also less prone to make wisecracks, preferring to comment ironically on what he says by flanking spoken statements with asides. The man, his actions, his statements, and how he presents them to us seem natural outgrowths of each other.”

The importance of dragons

Fantasy is a given for most of us— as kids we were probably all exposed to fairytales before almost anything else (though not everyone carries on  liking the genre). Science fiction, on the other hand, although grouped with fantasy, is always an acquired taste.
I’m gonna talk about how I got into SF. The first thing that I remember was a BBC radio serial called “Shadow on the Sun” (about which there is surprisingly little on the internet). It was the first thing I was excited to tune into every week. Around the same time I clearly recall an image from a comic (not a comic book), which I think was about a kind of Swiss Family Robinson in space. It showed the protagonists being flung in all directions by a meteorite impact. I think I’m about eight years old here. I also read Jules Verne at this age, and several times at that.
Fast-forward to 1963. I’m ten, and we have just acquired out first TV set! The week before, a show called “Dr Who” aired for the first time, and caused quite a media storm— so much so that the first part of “An Unearthly Child” was repeated on the day of the TV’s arrival at our house, followed by episode 2.
My dad and I were hooked, and remained so. But I still don’t recall reading much in the way of written SF until quite a bit later. Then “Star Trek” came along, and other things, including “Blake’s 7”, which rather subverted the genre on TV. I didn’t read the adaptations of the TV Star Trek until I was in my first year at uni, by which time I had, somehow, started reading the stuff. By the time “Star Wars” came along, I was a pretty hardcore fan of both SF and fantasy (this was before the fantasy genre boomed, so apart from “Lord of the Rings” there wasn’t that much around).
When I say “hardcore” I don’t mean I was particularly a fan of “hard” SF. I was always drawn to stories with a smaller focus, by which I mean I like a Big Damn Hero better than a big damn spaceship, but I prefer a small human drama to both. Although I’m as much a fan of big damn space battles as the next geek, my eyes glaze over when the narrative starts describing the hardware (David Weber, you know who you are!).
There’s a line where SF and fantasy blur. One of my all-time favorite SF writers, Ursula Le Guin, writes stories that could be categorized as either, or both. Another, Elizabeth Moon, writes equally well in both genres. When the tale is set on another world, it could be either. If a spaceship lands, it’s evidently SF. But when a dragon pops in to call, it’s fantasy.
That’s not to say dragons are the only distinguishing feature of fantasy, or spaceships SF. But I did succumb to the temptation to bring one into the DaSilvaverse. Kind of.
The story is called “The Dragon That Ate The Sun” and it was published in Supernatural Tales in 2003.
“It was not, strictly speaking, a dragon. As tales grow in the telling, so do the monsters they describe. The air of the world is too thin to buoy the great flying dragons of legend, though it can, for a time, support the roc and the garuda. Moreover, what East and West mean by dragon are very different things.
“So, although the creature that found itself unexpectedly freed into the river Seine was of the same species as Tarasque and the others which the saints long ago had overcome, it was, in fact, a demon. The distinction is not semantic, although poor Etienne didn’t much care what it was that ate him. Dragons are things that belong, in whatever form, to men. They may be supernatural, but they are not unnatural.
“This creature, however, was not bred in our world, but elsewhere.”

Disrespect!

I love the website http://tvtropes.org.
There’s one page called Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu? People who diss the Big Bads have always appealed to me. Captain da Silva does this all the time. He doesn’t like people who boss him around, although it’s pretty much defined most of his life. First his mother and the church, then (more benignly) various ship’s captains, and then the man he refers to as “the Venetian”. Now that he is pretty much his own master he’s reluctant to accept any role the Powers That Be tell him he’s destined for, and routinely bad-mouths any demon— or indeed bad guy— he encounters.
He may be a loose cannon, but he’s OUR loose cannon.
Okay, much of what we write is autobiographical, and I always had problems with authority figures. But the Captain isn’t just me. I’m sure I’ve assimilated much more than I realize through being drawn to fictional misfits and nonconformists. Certainly there’s a bit of Col. Jack O’Neil in him, and some Leroy Jethro Gibbs—both of whom, not incidentally, have teams which are fiercely loyal to them. Oh, and a certain other Captain, sometimes known as Tightpants…
Another thing all these fellas have in common is a sense of humor. I suppose if you make a habit of flipping the bird to the Goa’auld, the Feebs, badasses like Niska, and assorted demons, you need to be able to see the funny side. The more conventional heroes— gung-ho, square-jawed, hardcore guys— never do.
Yeah (sigh), it’s almost always guys. Buffy (and Faith) are still pretty unusual in being wisecracking, ass-kicking females, though Max in Dark Angel could hold her own pretty darn well.
What they all also have in common is smarts. They know they are better than the Don, the Man, and the Boss, and so first they tick the Big Bad off and then kick his butt. And that’s what makes me love ’em.