Swanwick: Season 4

If only the weather was as nice as it was in this photo.
Well, it's that wonderful time of year again. I'm starting to contemplate making some kind of Swanwick equivalent of Christmas songs. Which can be played in July and August. Anyway, this week was my annual visit to the Swanwick Writers' Summer School at the Hayes Conference Centre in Derbyshire.

The trouble with being a mature student is that it gets lonely over the summer, as most school-friends my age are in full-time jobs and even have kids now. So Swanwick is the best social contact I get all summer. In fact, it's kinda like going to university. There's writing workshops, fun activities, and a cheap bar. I suppose that was why I originally chose to go to university. Although I'm not accustomed to getting up so early in the morning.

With that in mind, let's look at what was on the cards this year.

Specialist Courses

Screenwriting
The morning sessions are for the four-part specialist courses which are taught over the week. Trouble is that I was so torn between several of them which looked interesting. Unfortunately, they're taught at the same time and I lack Hermione Granger's time-turner and the ability to play a tune on the ocarina (and for that matter, I lack a regular ocarina, let alone The Ocarina of Time). Anyway, I eventually settled on a screenwriting course led by Bridget Holding.

This course looked at how to write pitches (which may come in handy next time I do Pitch Madness on Twitter), three-act structures, how to show rather than tell, and how to format scripts. I'd originally planned to use this course with a fantasy comedy piece written for one of my assignments (which is available on my other blog here). However, I was distracted from this by an epic historical series which I felt had the potential to be the next Game of Thrones. Well, I suppose I'm more accustomed to writing historical fiction than fantasy.

Short Courses

Following on from the specialist course sessions, there are two-part short courses which take up the sessions before and after lunch.
Sunday: Promoting Your Work
The first of these short courses was on Promoting Your Work, hosted by Val Penny. This was done in the form of an A to Z, with pointers on blog tours and social media, or where you can advertise books. I'll have to check things out once the notes become available, but it was fascinating, and Val can be a very amusing lecturer.
Monday: Gender Awareness
Monday's short course was on Gender Awareness, hosted by Pauline Mason. This was studying "Gender Theory", and how to avoid gender stereotypes. There was also a look at examples of characters written by authors of an opposite gender (and not the cringe-inducing "Men Writing Women" Twitter feed).

Wednesday: Time - Friend or Foe
There weren't any short courses on Tuesday, but there were some single session workshops in the morning. However, I didn't go to those ones, as I was nursing a hangover from the previous night. So, Wednesday's short course was on time management, hosted by Christine Williams. I figured I could use this one, as I've been putting things off a lot lately. That's the trouble with summer; no deadlines. So I'm not writing as much (and I've got nothing else to procrastinate from). Even if I did do Camp NaNoWriMo last month. Christine talked about making lists and limiting the number of tasks each day.
Thursday: Setting and Sense of Place
Thursday's short course was on Setting and Sense of Place, with Lizzie Enfield. This one looked at developing settings in a similar way to developing characters. There was a fun exercise which involved developing a setting from an object, taking into account the wider environment and how to use the five senses.

Evening Events

Groovy, baby!
Swanwick isn't just about courses. There are also a myriad of evening events. The first night had a new addition this year called "Birds of a Feather", in which different attendees could meet and network with those writing in the same genre. It was neat idea, and I got to meet a few more historical fiction writers, but I don't think they held it in the right place. The Main Lounge doesn't have the best acoustics.

Sunday night had a poetry open mic, and I decided to give that a go this year. I read out a poem which utilised audience participation, which a lot of people enjoyed. Meanwhile, Monday night had a fancy dress disco with a "flower power" theme (although they didn't play "Soul Bossa Nova"). There was also a prose open mic, a busker's night, a general knowledge quiz, and the "Page to Stage".

Finally, the Thursday night has the Dregs Party, in which attendees suit up for the final night as they attend the raffle prize draws, an awards ceremony for the Page to Stage, and a sing-along. Not forgetting the famous "Swanwick Anthem".

Anyway, now to mark the days on the calendar until next year.

Happy writing.

A Look Back - Age of Empires II: Age of Kings

Ah, glorious nostalgia. I've got a few days before I go on my annual visit to Swanwick, and I've finished my playthrough of Red Dead Redemption 2. So, I need to find another way to procrastinate. With this in mind, I thought I'd take a look at a classic which is been growing strong for twenty years now; Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.

I think this game may have been one of the first real-time strategy games I ever played. Even when I was still living in Lancashire. Released in 1999, the game is about building up a Medieval village, gathering resources, and raising an army to crush your opponents. You can play random map games with computer or human-controlled enemies, or you can play one of five campaigns (in ascending order of difficulty):

  1. William Wallace's battles against the English during the First War of Scottish Independance in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries (which serves as the game's tutorial)
  2. Joan of Arc's campaign against the English and Burgundians during the Hundred Years' War
  3. Saladin's defence of the Middle East against the Crusader States
  4. Genghis Khan's conquest of Eurasia
  5. Frederick Barbarossa's expansion of the Holy Roman Empire
Or you can do what I always did and muck about with the scenario editor. I never made my own campaigns though.

An expansion pack, titled The Conquerors, was released in 2000. Those were the days. You'd buy the game, and then the following year you'd buy the expansion pack. They'd probably then put them both together in a "Gold Edition" not long afterwards. I think that kinda thing later developed into downloadable content (DLC).

Anyway, The Conquerors added five more playable factions (to the original game's 13), three new campaigns (based on Attila the Hun's rise to power, Montezuma's defence of the Aztec Empire, and the adventures of El Cid), along with eight single missions based on famous historical battles. I never actually bought The Conquerors when it was originally released. It wasn't until fairly recently, which is why this game surprises me.

In 2013, a new developer, Hidden Path Studios, re-released The Age of Kings and The Conquerers as the Age of Empires II: HD Edition on Steam. As stated above, I always used to muck about with the scenario editor, and there was the ability to make your own campaigns. Put that on a platform like Steam, and you'll have tons of players able to share their own campaigns with others.

And it wasn't just campaigns. An old game like this probably has simpler codes, which opens the gates for a large modding community. Four months after the re-release, a fan-made expansion titled Forgotten Empires received an official release as The Forgotten, under the supervision of Skybox Labs. This added five more factions, six new campaigns, and eight more historical battles.

But it doesn't stop there. Two more expansions were released; The African Kingdoms and Rise of the Rajas in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Each one adds another four factions, each with their own campaign. Not to mention more Random Map types.

So, we've got Random Maps with 31 playable factions, 22 campaigns, and 16 historical battles. That'll keep someone occupied for a while.

And if that's not enough, there's another remaster due to be released later the year; the Definitive Edition.

It amazes me that one game can be kept going for so long.

Happy writing.

Camp NaNoWriMo - A Virtual Writers' Retreat

Well, it's July, so I'm back home for the summer holidays. Unfortunately, there's not much to do in my hometown. Except perhaps another playthrough of Red Dead Redemption 2.

So, to pass the time, I decided to try out Camp NaNoWriMo. For those who don't know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a challenge held every November in which writers attempt to write a 50,000 word story in 30 days. Participants sign up to the website in order to register their projects for the month and monitor their progress. I tried this back in 2016, but felt it wasn't for me.

Anyway, the people who run it also do what is known as Camp NaNoWriMo. This is a virtual writers' retreat of sorts, held in August and July. The principles are similar to the November challenge, but this time you set your own goals. November's challenge involves starting a new novel from scratch, but I used Camp NaNo to work on an existing project. Additionally, you don't have to set word count goals for the month. Instead of words, you can also choose to write a certain number of chapters or pages, or spend a certain amount of time on the project.

With this in mind, I set myself a time goal to work on my swashbuckler story, The Lady's Favour, as this mostly involved revising and editing and made it difficult to monitor word count. I set the goal as 30 hours for the month, the minimum. I also experimented with timed writing sessions, starting with an hour and then working my way down to smaller sessions. Ultimately, I submitted The Lady's Favour before I fulfilled my time goal. So, I also included blog posts and visits to my writers' group within my time, along with the first draft of a follow-up story.

I think I prefer Camp NaNoWriMo over NaNoWriMo, as it offers more flexibility. Also, July is a fairly quiet time for me. I'm at university in November and I'll have a few deadlines on April.

Anyway, I've spent the month on a virtual writers' retreat. And on the day that I won, I also received the programme for an actual writers' retreat. I think you'll know which one I mean.

Happy writing.

Closing the File - A Red Dead Redemption Fan Fiction

The clock ticked by in the offices of Blackwater Police Station, drowned out by the clacking of Archer Fordham’s typewriter. He exchanged brief glances with Edgar Ross, who sat on the opposite desk and cleaned his Browning automatic.

The rumble of footsteps made him pause, followed by a knock on the door.
“Those will be the Marshals,” Ross stood up and re-assembled the Browning, “On your feet, Fordham. There’s work to be done.”
“Sir?”
“It seems that our old friend, Mr Marston, is in possession of cattle bearing the brand of the Macfarlane Ranch.”
“I heard that rumour too,” Fordham remained seated, “I looked into it. Mr Macfarlane had gifted the cattle to Mr Marston. His daughter even admitted to driving them a portion of the way.”
“Was there a bill of sale?” Ross leaned over Fordham’s desk.
Fordham took a deep breath.
“No, sir. I did not see any paperwork. Since Macfarlane’s story was supported by his daughter and the foreman – one Amos Thorpe – I didn’t feel the need to ask.”
“That’s probably for the better,” Ross picked up his bowler hat from the nearby stand, “We’re riding over to Beecher’s hope to serve the warrant. Captain Jackson and his men are already en route.”

Fordham stood up.
“With all due respect, sir, I don’t agree with your plan.”
“Excuse me?”
“Marston has done as we asked. Williamson and Van der Linde are both dead, and Escuella is awaiting execution at Sisika State Penitientiary. All thanks to his help.”
“Fordham, you need to be careful of who you idolise,” Ross pointed at him, “Now get your horse saddled and ready to leave. Marston is a dangerous man and has clearly abused our trust. I intend to close the Van der Linde case file today.”
“No. I’m not going to stab this man in the back, sir.”
Ross twitched.
“You disappoint me. Very well. Agent Fordham, you’re confined to administrative duties until further notice. Additionally, I’ll be informing Washington of your gross insubordination today, and pushing for disciplinary action. Now, perhaps you can make yourself useful and find any case files on the other known associates of the Van der Linde Gang.”
“I did that a while back, sir. Charles Smith and Sadie Adler are out of our jurisdiction. Besides which, they don’t have anything we could use to ensure their co-operation in the same way as Marston. Anyone else was of little value or too well-established to be of any use or interest.”
“That’s irrelevant now. Just have those files on my desk by the time I get back.”
“Yes, sir.”

Fordham watched Ross leave. He reached into his draw and produced the bulky file marked “Van der Linde”. He reached into his jacket for his cigarettes, pulling out a book of matches. In a brief moment, he glanced between the matches and the file.
“Case closed,” He scooped them both up and left the office.

Western Weekends - The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

It's been a while since I've done a Western Weekend. Things are quiet at the moment, as I've finished my first year of university and am back home for the summer holidays. So, I figured I'd find some method of procrastination which involves some kind of writing.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a western film by The Coen Brothers. Or to be more specific, an anthology of six western stories, which I'll look at in turn. This may take a while.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Tim Blake Nelson plays an affable, loquacious, guitar-playing, fourth-wall-breaking gunslinger known as Buster Scruggs. He's presented as an archetypal "singing cowboy" akin to Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. But in the morally grey setting adopted by more recent western films, he's essentially a sociopath who doesn't feel empathy for anybody.

The vignette shows some improbable gun-fighting sequences and an almost cartoonish tone, which doesn't detract from the violent and amoral nature of the world being built. The most notable involves Buster refusing to play a Dead Man's Hand at a poker game and being threatened at gunpoint by another player. Since he'd surrendered his gun to a bouncer, he kicks a lose table leg into his assailant's gun to simultaneously throw off his aim and discharge it in his face. Repeatedly. And then he starts a musical number. It presents some side-splitting pitch-black humour.

However, it's also apparent that Scruggs is notorious enough to be pursued by up-and-coming gunslingers who hope to cement their own reputations by killing him.

Near Algodones

James Franco plays an unnamed gunslinger who tries to rob an isolated bank on the prairie. Unfortunately, the jabbering teller is more of a match, attacking with shotguns concealed behind each cashier window and then resorting to a Ned Kelly-style assault using armour made from pots and pans.

After the would-be robber is knocked out, he finds himself about to be hanged by a posse, only for them to be killed by an Indian war party. He's left hanging until another cowboy passes by with a herd and cuts him down in exchange for help driving his cattle. Unfortunately, the herd turns about to be stolen, and this Good Samaritan's...goodness...expires when he leaves our friend to be arrested by another posse.

Like the previous story, this one starts with some utterly bizarre imagery from the bank robbery. I like how it plays with the cliche of saving the condemned man by shooting the rope; the cowboy tries this, but misses with his first shot, which scares the horse. This makes it harder to shoot the rope when the man is swinging. It takes a few tries to pull it off. I also love the ultimate tragic irony at the end.

Meal Ticket

Liam Neeson plays a mumbling impresario who's travelling through the various mountain towns. His act is a quadruple amputee orator played by Harry Melling, who recites Ozymandias, passages from the bible, Shakespearean sonnets, and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Unfortunately, the show's popularity is dwindling, and the impresario is becoming increasingly impatient of his charge.

This one doesn't use much dialogue. In fact, Melling doesn't have any lines except in the scenes where he's performing. It's made clear that the orator depends on the impresario to look after him, while the impresario depends on the orator to make money.

It's a grim little story, where show-business is even more cutthroat out on the frontier.

 All Gold Canyon

Tom Waits plays a mumbling prospector who travels to a pristine mountain valley in search of a gold pocket. Most of the story consists of him digging up the meadow and panning for bits of gold before digging deeper.

There's not much to this one. I suppose there's some environmental message which can be picked up; there are shots of the wildlife leaving the valley with the exception of one owl as they sense the prospector approaching. He's pretty much the only character, and the film shows him slaving away in search of the pocket. That said, he seems to show some moral character above his greed; he goes to raid the owl's nest for eggs, but only takes one after being stared down by the owl.

I think they could have cut this one.

The Gal Who Got Rattled

Zoe Kazan plays Alice Longabaugh, a sheltered young woman travelling with a wagon train to marry her brother Gilbert's new business partner in Oregon. Unfortunately, the journey becomes increasingly complicated for her: Gilbert dies of cholera, the hired help demands wages she can't pay, and Mr Knapp the wagon master is forced to put down Gilbert's dog (which promptly runs away when he bungles the attempt).

I think this one should have served as the title of the film. It's the longest story in the anthology and takes up most of the film's running time. It's also the one with the biggest pacing issues. Nonetheless, there's a great action sequence, and a harsh cliffhanger.

The Mortal Remains

The final story follows five passengers on a stagecoach: Jonjo O'Neill and Brendan Gleeson as Thigpen and Clarence, an Englishman and Irishman who are "ferrying cargo"; Saul Rubinek as a French gambler named Rene; Tyne Daly as Mrs Betjeman, a devout Christian lady who is seeking to re-unite with her estranged husband; and an unnamed fur trapper played by Chelcie Ross.

The bulk of the story takes place on the stagecoach, and simply involves the passengers engaging in a philosophical discussion. However, the journey begins to feel unnatural, as Thigpen and Clarence discuss the nature of their work. There's not really much to it, but it does become atmospheric, with the suggestion that the stagecoach may actually be a journey to the afterlife.

All in all, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an interesting connection of stories depicting a savage world, but I think they could have cut one of the stories. The film is available on Netflix, and I do recommend that you watch it.

I'll catch you on the trail.

Flash Fiction: Bill


John Garrett brushed the dust off his jacket as he leaned against the hitching post. With the midday sun, the burg’s few residents were off the streets. Trying to use what little shade the saloon porch offered, he took the handbill from his pocket and unfolded it:

“William “Waddling Bill” Stanton, wanted for rustling.  $100 reward offered by the Lone Star Cattle Consortium, signed by Circuit Court Judge Erasmus Lauderdale of Prescott, Arizona.”

Stroking his unshaven chin, he pocketed the wanted poster and entered the saloon.

With the shutters closed, shadow filled the interior, except for the dim lamps on the walls, and where sunlight entered through the open door. The bartender’s attention was focussed on the glass he polished with the end of his apron. The floorboards creaked as John approached. In the grimy mirror behind the bar, he could see one patron hunched over in a corner table. The man was pouring a drink from a half-empty bottle of whiskey, but mostly over his hand. His hat was pulled low, so John didn’t see his face.

“Whiskey.” John placed a quarter on the bar. The bartender filled the glass he had been polishing and pushed it along. John unfolded the wanted poster, along with a dollar bill, weighing them down with the glass on the counter. The bartender shook his head and walked away. John grabbed his arm, and pointed to the sketch on the poster. He said nothing, but glanced over John’s shoulder, towards his other customer.

John heard the sound of a toppling glass. He grabbed the Remington in his holster. In the mirror, he could see the patron scrambling for his gun.

Gunfire and shattering glass resounded through the room. John inhaled the powder smoke and tried to keep sight of Bill, oblivious to the irritation to his throat. He pressed against the bar. His heart raced as a wild shot embedded in the wood. He fired at the vague human shape enveloped in the smoke. There was a cry of pain, and silence.

“Did you get him?” The bartender emerged through the clearing smoke. The bounty hunter saw the vacant frame behind the bar. Looking back towards the door, he sighted the blood trail leading outside.

“He won’t get far.” John cocked the Remington and walked out.

“Find him. You’re paying for all this.”

Video Game Retrospective - The Operative: No One Lives Forever

I've been feeling nostalgic, and have been interested in revisiting at a sadly overlooked gem from 2000; The Operative: No One Lives Forever, a first-person shooter with a strong "Swinging Sixties" aesthetic developed by Monolith Productions.

You assume the role of Cate Archer, an operative for a spy agency known as UNITY. A former cat burglar and UNITY's first female operative, Cate has been relegated to the mundane assignments. However, an apparent leak within UNITY has resulted in the systematic elimination of many field agents. Thus, Cate is reluctantly given several high profile missions, bringing her into conflict with a mysterious terrorist organisation called HARM and one of their world domination schemes.

Gameplay is your typical first-person shooter action, but there is an emphasis on stealth (on some missions this is mandatory). In fact, stealth is encouraged because it exposes the player to some finely-crafted conversations between the guards. The casual dialogue paints your enemies as "punch clock" villains who are just doing their jobs and have lives outside their professional ones. One of my favourite conversations is a guard lamenting the fact that he's missing The Man From U.N.C.L.E when he's on duty, and his friend starts a chat about their favourite contemporary thrillers on TV. Shows like Mission: Impossible, The Saint, The Avengers (the Emma Peel one, not the Marvel one), the then-recent finale of The Fugitive, and the recently-advertised The Prisoner.

It's the game's humour which made it stand out. As well as the aforementioned chats, there's optional intelligence items which further emphasise the "punch-clock" aspects of professional villainy. Or there's the code phrases disguised as bad pickup lines and Cate's snarky response, after which her contacts are always apologetic about using the phrases. A lot of the story revolves around Cate dealing with a lot of casual sexism (particularly from her handler, Mr Smith), but it's nice to see that many of UNITY's informants don't share Smith's attitude.

I love the array of characters too. Cate has a strong student-mentor relationship with Bruno Lawrie, UNITY's past-his-prime top agent who recruited her many years ago. There's also an array of colourful villains. The most memorable of these is Magnus Armstrong, a violent Glaswegian demolitions expert who captures Cate on several occasions but refuses to kill a fellow Scot without a fair fight.

The game was followed by a sequel, A Spy in HARM's Way. That's also a good game, but with a slightly different sense of humour. There was also an interquel called Contract Jack, in which you play as a freelance hitman working for HARM. I haven't played that one, but I've heard it wasn't very good and prompted Monolith to discontinue the franchise.

Writing this, I have to lament the fact that you can't get these games because of a copyright issue. Monolith was acquired by Warner Bros Interactive. The publisher, Fox Interactive, was acquired by Vivendi, which merged with Activision to form Activision Blizzard. And nobody knows who owns the rights to the game, so there's been no re-release. It's not even on Steam or Good Old Games. I think that's tragic, because it's a great game.

I hope this can be sorted soon.

Until then, happy writing.

Swanwick: Season 4

If only the weather was as nice as it was in this photo. Well, it's that wonderful time of year again. I'm starting to contempla...