16 Apr 2017

Easter Musings

Hail readers!

Alex shall today use his Easter break to discuss another intriguing aspect of writing: first-person versus third-person narration. This is a topic that is quite bog-standard in creative writing circles, but one which Alex has not really thought about too much—until now. The reason, of course, is Fallen Love; it employs first-person present-tense narration, and this inevitably poses some challenges when compared to the Necromancer, which is third-person past tense.

So without further ado, allow me to present my thoughts on the advantages—and challenges—of the different narration styles. Hopefully you will find the discussion interesting (and well suited to a quiet Easter break, unlike my usual fiery polemics).

First or Third Person Narration? (Read: Intimacy or Flexibility?)

What, then, is the difference between these two common narration styles? The obvious answer is that first-person narration reveals the events through the eyes of the character (using “I”) whereas third person narration makes of a detached narrator (using “he”, “she” etc.) Nonetheless, there are some additional variations to consider: the third person style, for example, can be limited or omniscient. The first person style can be reliable or unreliable, and also has various degrees of closeness to the character.

To address the confusion, here is a list expounding the differences:

  • First person. In general, this is used for intimacy, especially when the story revolves around one important main character.
  • Unreliable: this is when the character’s account of the story is not always reliable—the character may lie, or fail to mention important things, and so on. This style is useful for certain narrative purposes.
  • Reliable: this should be obvious enough. Still, although the character doesn’t lie, their account of the story is limited by their own perception. This style isn’t equivalent to third-person-omniscient, by any means.
  • Third person. This is useful for telling the story through the eyes of multiple characters, and tends to de-emphasise the importance of one character in the grander narrative.
  • Limited: this is when the narrator doesn’t know the future or have perfect knowledge of the past. You can imagine the narrator as being someone close to the characters—knowledgeable, but human.
  • Omniscient/God narrator: this is when the narrator has a bird’s eye view of the events in both time and space.

So when and why do we use these different styles? There is actually no single answer; there are various recommendations, and some writers and editors swear by them, but as far as I’m concerned choosing between the styles is very much down to artistic choice.

You may have noticed that, earlier on in this post, I used the third person; right now I am using the first. This reflects a change in what my writing is doing. In the first instance, third person narration acted as a form of self-deprecation, and gave the reader a humorous introduction both to the topic and to me as a personality. In the second instance, the first person style serves to give me my own distinct voice, and thus carry a sense of authority.

Writing fiction works in a similar way. First person narration usually works to give the reader a sense of intimacy and connection with the main character—and a lot of readers enjoy this. Third person narration can be very impersonal, and usually works well to carry across a complex multidimensional plot. The dehumanising effect is another element of it: Game of Thrones is a good example of this.

But note the words usually and can. The reality—as with many things in writing—is that these different narration styles can blur together, or even act contrary to standard doctrine. Some first person narration is very intimate indeed, whereas other first-person narration is more detached; this depends on the main character’s personality. Third person narration can be intimate: it can tell the reader a character’s darkest secrets and brightest hopes. Some authors have a very warm, intimate, or humorous third-person voice.

Mark Lawrence, an author I regularly read and admire, has written a lot of dark fantasy in first-person narration. In his case, the question is not so much about making the reader like the main character (in the traditionally understood sense); rather, it’s about getting the reader to understand just how dark and depraved the main character can be (but making them love the character just the same).

Trudi Canavan, another author I admire, writes very compellingly in third person. Her romances make me swoon—at least figuratively, since swooning would be terribly unlike me.

So, to conclude: generally speaking, writing in first person is about intimacy, and writing in third person is about perspective, flexibility, and emphasis on plot. But writing is complicated. There are many things that go into character development and plot; the narrative style is more of a tool, and one that can be used according to preference.

What About Fallen Love?

This leads me onto the complicated subject that is my new novel. I have written the book in first-person, but I have broken a traditional rule: the narration is not in the eyes of one character, but three, and possibly more. Namely, we read it in Conall, Mark, and Kaylin’s perspectives.

The first reason is simple—there are many important plot elements which go on behind the scenes, and which Kaylin is somewhat aware of, but not the two boys. The second reason is also obvious: I like reading romance from both sides.

Still, this choice brings some challenges. For one, readers can sometimes struggle with multiple first-person Points-of-View (although my beta readers have not complained, so perhaps the number of POV changes and how they are accomplished matters). For two, it’s quite demanding in a technical sense.

Take language. Conall, an Upperclassman and poet, tends to use more elaborate language in place of the simple. Mark, on the other hand, usually uses more direct expression. Still, neither of them are stupid—getting the balance right is tricky.

Of course one might ask why I didn’t use third-person. The answer is that I wanted to focus on character development in this book, more so than in the Necromancer. In the latter book, world-building and fast-paced plot kept the story flowing; in the former, I think the reader needs to be closer to the characters in order to really understand them.

A Brief Note About Tenses

Since this post is proving fairly lengthy, I shall keep my digressions into the role of tense relatively short. Two kinds of tenses are used in fiction writing: past and present. The former uses ‘are/is’ and the latter ‘were/was’. (Of course, there are 12 tenses in the English language, so this is a gross simplification.)

What do they do? Is there any difference between them? Frankly, I have found them to be problematic. I wrote the Necromancer mainly in the past tense, and Fallen Love was a mishmash until I settled on present. The difference seems to be one of grammatical pedantry, as opposed to a real literary technique; whether the prose is written in present or past tense, it makes little difference.

Rather, I have found that the usual truisms about tense—present is for immediate action; past for complex, multi-layered narrative-building—to be, well, truisms. The myriad action scenes in the Necromancer were very fast paced, despite the use of past-tense. Conversely, I have worked on the action scenes in Fallen Love so that they flow better. Other elements of writing—punctuation, the characters’ interest and motivation, the reader’s knowledge of the plot—have far more of an impact.

Finishing Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed my rather long and technical musings on this matter. To surmise it all in a few sentences: first person is for intimacy, third for scaled up narrative building; past is for multidimensional plot, present for immediate; and all of these are just generalisations.

So there you have it. I will be doing more blogging soon, although—aside from my work on Fallen Love and my commitments to Red Pers—I am also busy with academic work. Still, I will be visiting my parents again on Friday, and will have the week largely free.

Until then!

12 Apr 2017

The Year of the New Europe

Hello readers!

Alex previously promised you two things. Firstly, that he is busy working on the new book, Fallen Love; this is a promise that Alex has kept. He has written 48,000 words, and is well on the way to finishing beta-reader suggested revisions. If you are interested in learning more about the new book, check out the “Upcoming Books” page.

But what of the second promise? Alex intended to write more about European politics. His piece on the Dutch elections was part of that—but of course Alex knows that is insufficient for you hungry readers. Thus, allow him to present his new piece on the French and German elections. Since Alex is a Red Pers editor—for those of you who don’t know, Red Pers is a Dutch newspaper startup run by local students—this piece has been published on their website.

So, without further ado: the link. Enjoy!

4 Apr 2017

Twilight: A Review

Hello readers!

Although, as I have already warned you, I am immensely busy both with university life and with my continued efforts on Fallen Love, I have managed to find a window of opportunity for something else: a book review. As you may be able to guess, it concerns Twilight, that most hated—and loved—of vampire novels. Here are my thoughts...

The world’s most loved vampire novel; the world’s most hated vampire novel. Revered with religious zealotry by its fans—and hated with equal zeal by its detractors. It’s Twilight, and... well, I love it. But you already knew that. The question I want to answer is: why?

This question is not as simple as it may first appear. Many have been mystified by the enormous success of these books (according to the publisher, over 100 million copies have been sold) and while many explanations have been put forward, they are—to my mind—highly superficial. So: allow me to provide my own theory.

As you can guess, this review will not be written in the usual style. Normally, I would address the book from the perspective of plot and pacing; characterisation; setting; and of course, writing prowess. By this formulaic account, Twilight is a perfectly good book. The plot is strong and for the most part well paced (albeit a little slow at times). The setting—Forks: a grey, rainy, and strangely phantasmagoric place—is excellent. Characterisation is fine, with character roles being clearly defined and compelling. The writing is clear and occasionally poetic.

Since the critics are probably frothing at the mouth by this point, I will delay the onset of my main argument to counter the points they raise. First off: no, the writing is not bad. It is clear, well-punctuated, and successfully paints both the pallid landscape of Forks and the beautifully seductive Edward. To peruse some examples:

Phoenix—the palm trees, the scrubby creosote, the haphazard lines of the intersecting freeways, the green swaths of golf courses and turquoise splotches of swimming pools, all submerged in a thin smog and embraced by the short, rocky ridges that weren’t really big enough to be called mountains.
The shadows of the palm trees slanted across the freeway—defined, sharper than I remembered, paler than they should be. Nothing could hide in these shadows. The bright, open freeway seemed benign enough.

Regarding Edward:

His liquid topaz eyes were penetrating
He laughed a soft, enchanting laugh.

(You get the picture.)

As for the claim that Bella is an idiotic teenage girl dangerously obsessed with a killer: sure, that’s true in a very superficial sense. But I don’t think the critics are giving them enough credit. Bella is hardly a fool, for one; she’s intelligent, an avid reader of the classics, taking AP classes and planning on going to university. Edward is a vampire, yes, and a monster; but he is also selfless, urbane, capable of kindness, and willing to go against his nature in order to save human lives.

And this leads me nicely onto my main argument. The reason why Twilight has millions of adoring fans, and the reason why it draws such a storm of criticism, is the same for both groups. In Twilight, vampires are not cuddly. They may sparkle, they may be beautiful and charming—but they are monsters. Impossibly strong, indestructible to bullets, venomous; these abilities fuse together with something altogether more frightening.

Bloodlust. Vampires kill in Twilight, and they kill a lot.

So where does this put Bella and Edward? Meyer has a pithy set of lines:

“And so the lion fell in love with the lamb . . .” he murmured. I looked away, hiding my eyes as I thrilled to the word.
“What a stupid lamb,” I sighed.
“What a sick, masochistic lion.”

The beauty of this book—and what draws its readers in—is this conflict. Love and death; human and vampire. Edward isn’t seductive just because he’s beautiful (as every other vampire is). In the forest grove scene, quoted above, the answer is clear: it’s because he does, despite being a monster, try to hold onto his humanity. It’s why Bella—and the millions of girls and women in her feet—fall so hard for him.

Critics, of course, provide the superficial explanation that Edward is a girl’s perfect fantasy (in much the same way teenage boys fantasise about hot, available women). After all, Edward doesn’t pressure for sex; he’s charming, protective, and good looking.

All of this is true, but a problem remains for the critics’ account. Why haven’t other books that replicate the same—be it with vampires or any other male protagonist—failed to gain the same success?

Nor does it quite capture the nuances of this book. For one, the duo don’t have sex for the simple reason that Edward would kill her if they tried; but Meyer makes it clear that the attraction is sexual as with any other couple. Maybe Edward, rather than being Bella’s perfect fantasy, is simply a responsible, mature adult, much like she is.

And yes: Bella is an adult, not just a whiny teenage girl. She cooks dinner and drives her own car. She takes responsibility for her schoolwork, and shows a high degree of social awareness. Her poor co-ordination and obsessive interest in Edward is one that many girls of her age (and older) are familiar with.

This brings me, at last, to my conclusion. Twilight is a fine book from a formulaic perspective—it’s competently written (albeit not a work of poetry), the plot keeps the reader tightly engaged, and the characterisation is spot-on. But this book has a magic ingredient that goes beyond all that: vampirism, and more broadly, the line between monster and human.

Critics may scoff at it and dismiss it. They may provide convenient explanations for its success, and wrinkle their nose at its prosaic writing (even though it’s not really that prosaic, and is written better than many ‘literary’ novels that abuse the English language with their logorrhea). Ultimately, though, Twilight stands on its own legs: 100 million copies, four blockbuster films, and an entire social phenomenon.

14 Mar 2017

Politics and Agenda 2017

Hello readers!

I hope you enjoyed the guest contribution by Molly Fennig, and also my own guest post on her website. Today I am back to the usual Magical Realm fare: politics, and writing. But before we go onto the former, allow me to speak about the latter.

Fallen Love

I can now officially declare that part one of two is complete; the book is more than halfway to being finished.

This, as you can imagine, is excellent news—and it has come at no small cost to myself, as I have been most busy writing (as well as dealing with the general rough and tumble of academic life). Thankfully, my writing goals and deadlines have proven useful in motivating me.

For the time being, I am not working on Fallen Love; instead I am focusing either on academic life or on fulfilling my duties here at the Magical Realm. This is actually because I am leaving the book to rest in the drawer for a bit before I go back to revising it (and I will revise it) and to writing the second part. I have reached a milestone—but more is left to go.

Once I do begin working on it again, however, I will sadly be unable to make more than token efforts at blogging. You can blame it on the significant academic work I have to deal with—it falls on top of everything. Still, you can still follow me on Twitter (@AlexStargazerWE) as well as on Google Plus (+AlexBujorianu).

‘But Alex!’ you cry: ‘Won’t you give us any juicy details?’

Well, since you insist…

I wanted it to be a fairytale. I would love him; he would love me. We would sing happily ever after and set off into the sunshine.

But dark forces are at work. It’s not just the Party—the monstrous authoritarian regime that bans our relationship. It’s not just our Class, or our failings out, or family, or school. The boy I fell in love with might not be entirely human…

Onto Politics

I could talk about Brexit on the eve of Article 50 being declared—and with the culmination of countless ammendments, both in the Commons and the Lords, that were designed to offer a sensible Brexit but were defeated by gutless Tory MPs and a useless Opposition.

I could talk about Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon has declared that the new Independence referendum will be in Autumn 2018. I could talk about how me and my parents will vote…

But I won’t. In all honesty, I’ve written enough about that already (see: The Brexit Bus or just search ‘Brexit’ in the bar to the right). There is nothing to add, at this point, beyond more speculation: it’s time to wait and see now. Let Theresa May declare Article 50 and see if she gets her wishlist from the EU. Let the campaign for the new Independence referendum begin.

Instead I will be writing a little bit about an election closer to home: the 2017 Dutch elections. Polling day is tomorrow; and while the stakes are not that high, this election will nevertheless be important both for me and for setting the mood in 2017.

Some background is in order. The Dutch have a political system that not only includes proportional representation, but also has very few barriers to entering politics in general—there’s no lower limit to enter parliament and even the finances of standing for election are unusually liberal. This results in a political system that is extremely fragmented. No: I mean it. There are 11 (eleven) major parties. Even I, a politics aficionado, am torn—with D66, Groen Links, and even PvdA having plus points and minus points that put them on an equal footing.

I am not going to give you all a rundown of the 11 parties and their main ideologies and political positions. That would take too long; and besides, it is superfluous for our purposes. Instead, I will say this: all of the eleven parties bar two are respectable. This is not to say that I agree with them—but it is to say that they practise serious (non-populist) politics, and that they respect the fundamental tenets of modern liberal society. By this, I mean two things: secularism, and human rights. The latter involves touchy subjects like the rights of gay people and minorities.

The Christian Union is a fringe theocratic party. But the elephant in the room is the PVV (the so-called Party for Freedom and Democracy). Essentially, it is the Dutch equivalent of UKIP. Oh sure—it has some peculiarly Dutch liberal window dressing. Geert Wilders, the charismatic, comedian-like lunatic in charge of it, is happy to defend gay people and liberal democracy—from Muslim immigrants. According to him, the public enemy no.1 in the Netherlands is Islamofascism. (Public enemy no.2 is the EU.)

The trouble with the PVV is that they’re not all wrong. Islam is not the religion of peace—it hasn’t been since Muhammad and the Shia-Sunni split. It certainly isn’t good for the Middle East; indeed I and others have argued that it’s the real root of the conflicts there, more so than Western intervention—and on par with Ba’athism. And Muslim immigrants in Holland do hold some disturbing views: while 91% of the Dutch population supports same-sex marriage (Eurobarometer 2015) this is less true of the Muslim population. In the UK one study found that half of Muslims thought homosexuality should be illegal (The Guardian).

Unfortunately, one does not fight fascism by electing fascists. And Geert Wilders has uncanny similarities with fascists: he wants to ban all Mosques, for example. Even Donald Trump hasn’t suggested that yet. (And it’s an even more extreme position than he had a few years ago, when he merely suggested height limits for mosques, and then banning the construction of new mosques). That’s not all; the rhetoric he employs is reminiscient of Hitler. Dutch mainstream politicians have betrayed ordinary Dutch people. They are all in a conspiracy with the evil Muslims. Refugees (or ‘migrants’) are an army waiting at the gates. The EU is an international plot to undermine the will of the Dutch people.

Compare this with Hitler. He also said that mainstream politicians colluded with a disparaged minority (Jews) to undermine the will of the true German people. He also believed that an international conspiracy acted to undermine the glory of the Third Reich.

Anyway, that’s enough about Wilders. Let’s ask a different question: what kind of political power will he get in this election?

Current polls put his party between 13% and 20% of the vote. This is disturbing—in the latter case the PVV would be the largest party in parliament—but par for the course for the European far right. The thing is, even if the PVV is the largest party, this isn’t saying much in the fragmented political landscape. Even 20% is a long way off 50%. And virtually no one is willing to go into coalition with him.

So the Dutch elections are really about waging a wider moral battle. The forces of liberalism and pro-Europeanism on one side (embodied especially by D66, CDA and GroenLinks)—and the force of dark nationalism on the other. While I won’t go as far as to say that the Dutch elections will influence other elections in Europe, I think it is fair to say they make for an interesting case study.

12 Mar 2017

Guest Post: Advantages of Being a Teen Author

Hallo allemaal! I know I have been dreadful in keeping the Magical Realm updated, so today I am bringing you something new: a guest contribution. I will be writing a post of my own in the near future, though, don’t you worry.

Guest post by Molly Fennig, teen author of the YA thriller INSOMNUS and blogger for mollyfennig.com.

Writing a book is something many people dream of, and few actually accomplish. Some have already achieved that goal as teenagers, though, including Alex and I. When most people hear that I wrote a book during my junior year of high school, they usually respond with, “Wow, how did you have time for that?”

The answer is, with volleyball and homework and clubs, I didn’t just happen to have hours of time I could use to write. I did, however, find ways to work writing into my schedule.

I wrote on the bus on the way to school, or at least thought about what was going to happen next in the story. Also, I set aside at least thirty minutes a day after homework, and before anything else, to write. This meant while I didn’t totally give up TV, I definitely wasn’t watching regularly, just as I wasn’t spending as much time reading for fun or watching movies.

When I did read for fun or watch television, though, I was sure to capitalize on the experience: taking character and actor names for my own stories, looking for what made realistic dialogue, and getting new plot ideas that made me excited to continue my story.

Similarly, I was sure to capitalize on the resources I had as a high schooler to strengthen my writing. I used the same techniques for peer reviewing in English as I did for editing my novel. Annotations and close reading, while usually used for literary analysis, helped me determine plot holes and awkward wording in my manuscript. Analyzing other authors helped me hone in on my writing style and discover what I liked in the books, and, conversely, determined what I incorporated into my writing.

Other classes helped me grow as a writer besides English class. Spanish taught me almost as much about the English language (such as parts of speech and faulty predication) as it did about Spanish. Psychology gave me the idea for my novel, INSOMNUS, and the scientific explanations for the supernatural abilities my characters had. Of course, some classes, like math, had limited effect on me as a writer, although I suppose without it, I wouldn’t have been able to number my chapters. (Although I could’ve just made them chapter names, so really, who needs math?)

So, if you’re a writer in high school or college, what can you do to take advantage of the resources you have?


  1. Take writing classes. This may seem obvious, but do it!
  2. Take compelling classes that have nothing to do with writing, such as engineering or cooking, to give you ideas for characters, plot, and worldbuilding.
  3. While walking to class or sitting in the library, listen to how people talk so you can write more realistic dialogue. Listen for things like how often they day what they really mean and what kinds of words they use.
  4. Maximize downtime. Whether it’s on the bus, like me, in the few minutes before class starts, or as a study break, take the time when you can to come up with new characters, outline your plot, or just to write.
  5. Join a writing/reading club or schedule in time. Especially in college, it can be easy to go weeks without reading fiction or having writing time. By scheduling it in, either weekly or daily, you’re more likely to end up doing it. Plus, joining a club or reading with friends can be a fun way to make a solitary activity more social.
  6. Review other people’s work. Even if it’s just looking over a friend’s essay, it can help you refine your editing skills. Plus, it’s always easier to edit other people’s work, so it’s a great place to start.
  7. Find people to review your work. Whether it’s the same friend whose paper you edit or someone else, there are likely plenty of avid readers who would be willing to look over a chapter or two, at least, of your book, and see errors you missed after having read the manuscript four hundred times.
  8. Reach out to teachers in the industry. I wouldn’t have published my book without help from my creative writing teacher, who is a part of the writing and speaking industry, so reach out for advice or to be connected to other people who can help.
  9. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, journaling can be a great way to collect information (events, feelings, ideas, names) for future stories as well to help you write stream-of-consciousness. It’s also a good tool for writer’s block.
  10. Use social media/screen time for writing instead. The same goes for any time-wasting activity you normally do. While you don’t have to give it up completely, limiting your time on such activities can free up a fair amount of your day. That being said, when you do go on social media or watch television…
  11. Use social media/screen time for inspiration. Use pictures people post for characters and settings or use social media to connect to other authors and grow your platform.
  12. Make school assignments lessons in writing. Take what you learn about writing essays and expressing your thoughts coherently and apply them to your writing. Use research skills for research papers to get background on your story. If you find you work better with deadlines for school projects, give yourself writing deadlines. Use ideas from psychology, sociology, and economics to give your characters realistic motivations.

If you liked this post, check out my blog for writing tips, book reviews and more, mollyfennig.com, and check out my book, INSOMNUS, on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

15 Feb 2017

Conflict and Writing

Hello readers!

Alex must firstly apologise for the rather lengthy interlude in which he has not written here on the Magical Realm. You can blame it on his extensive responsibilities: university, his writing commitments in the field of journalism (firstly with Scriptus and now with Red Pers) and of course his work on Fallen Love.

Speaking of which, the topic of today will in no small part be related to Fallen Love. What am I talking about, you ask? I am of course talking about conflict. I intend to answer what conflict in literature is, and why it’s important.

So: onto business.

Defining Conflict

In principle, the definition of conflict ought to be a simple one: it’s when a character’s aims are being frustrated, and they have to engage in a series of actions in order to resolve this. A romantic conflict may involve resolving relationship difficulties; a paranormal conflict may involve coming to terms with supernatural powers; a historical book would likely involve political conflict; a thriller can be about beating the bad guys.

Nevertheless, conflict in a book is not always so straightforward. For one, it varies by genre—as you can already see, some genres tend to employ different kinds of conflict from others. For two, a distinction can be made between internal conflict (such as doubts about a romantic partner) and external conflict, which usually involves more obvious things like ‘catching the serial killer’.

Where it gets especially complicated is when the multiple types of conflict mix and interact. A character may struggle with inner conflict about identity, romantic passion, or his past; while, at the same time, struggling against an external force. Genre crossing is especially prone to this: a book that combines fantasy, mystery and romance will often feature three distinct conflicts, one internal, two external. The former would be sexual feelings; the latter would be uncovering a mystery and fighting off supernatural beings.

Now that we’ve established the ground rules of what conflict is, let us turn our attention to what conflict does.

Conflict in Fiction

Conflict makes stories. To put it simply: without conflict, there would be no plot, and no reason to write (or read!) a book.

This is the reason why I (and many others) dislike the genre sometimes named ‘literary fiction’. Any work of fiction requires an aim: something to which the characters aspire to, something that makes the reader bite their fingernails and anticipate the next page. Aimless literature is pointless literature. I’m not interested in hearing excuses about ‘oh but my characters are so developed’ or ‘but the world is such an interesting exposition into X’ or—my personal favourite—‘but I’m making social commentary!’

No. Developing characters requires putting them through conflict, and convincing conflict at that; it’s what tests their mettle and shows the reader what kind of person they are. World building is just expositional word vomit without plot. And as for social commentary? Please, write an essay.

Anyway, I am digressing. My point is that conflict is the essential part of a story—it makes plot, it develops characters, it breathes life into unfamiliar worlds.

Conflict in Fallen Love

So far I have written a general account of what conflict is and what purpose it serves. But now, I wish to address the question that is most pertinent to me: conflict specifically in Fallen Love.

You may have inferred that I am of the opinion that conflicts needs to be powerful; it needs to reach into the reader’s heart, and speak to their soul. To that end, Fallen Love has several avenues of conflict. There’s the romance—a Fallen and an Upperclassman, an unlikely and forbidden union. There’s the Party: a malevolent power, its eyes seeing all and its arm as long as the country is wide. And finally, there’s the supernatural powers; the darkness within Casey, the force that animatest the mutants, and the source of Kaylin’s magic.

The trouble is, you see, having multiple avenues of plot also involves multiple avenues of difficulty. Romance is especially tricky: it’s meant to be gentle, and passionate, but also fraught and problematic. The Party is meant to be evil, but rational. And as for the supernatural, well—they have their own agenda.

Striking a balance is no easy task. The book needs to be edgy and dark; but it must also have love and devotion. The light, and the dark.

Anyway, leave yours truly to battle his demons. The Magical Realm will see some more politics next...

Until then!

30 Jan 2017

Quelle Président?

Hello readers!

Aujourd’hui Alex will give will his opinion on the French presidential elections. Why, you ask? Because Alex has a strong focus on international and, especially, European politics; and France is a key Member State. The French Président will make decisions regarding the terms of Brexit, the European response to both a revanchist Russia, and to Trump’s America. Moreover, this election is important in symbolic ways; it will give us a taste of 2017 and what it will mean for the forces of liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, and far-right nationalism.

So who is competing to become president of the République? The character cast comprises the following: a fascist, the male re-incarnation of Margaret Thatcher, two mad leftists (a post-scarcity utopian and a Marxist, respectively)... oh, and Tony Blair.

Well, not quite; this Tony Blair is French, for one. And although Blair did have fond feelings for the French—he addressed the country in French, and was given a very cordial greeting by the UMP—he was never, well, French.

Anyway, the man’s name is Emmanuel Macron. He was an investment banker before becoming an adviser for Hollande (the current president, if any of you don’t know); he was then subsequently promoted to being a Minister for the economy. But now, seeing how dismally unpopular the current president is, he’s decided to jump ship and form his own campaign (“En Marche!”).

As for the others, let me give you a quick rundown. We have Marine Le Pen, who is likely to obtain the largest number of first-round votes. She is the daughter of a fascist, and is of course a fascist herself. We also have François Fillon—the surprise candidate for France’s mainstream right, Les Républicaines—who is a Thatcherite. Lastly, we have Benoît Hamon—surprise candidate for Partide Socialiste—and Jean Luc Mélenchon, who, though an outsider, is de facto the candidate for the Communists and associated far-left politics.

So who does Alex think the French should vote for? Tony Blair, of course...

Mais Pourquoi, Alex?

This is not a particularly easy decision, in part because none of the candidates (as you may have guessed) are really ideal. But perhaps I can share my reasoning with you, and convince you to vote as such.

Let me be clear: Macron resembles Blair in more than just centrist policy and vague, feel-good rhetoric. The two are also similar in that both are quite dishonest politicians—they are masters of spin, however, and both convinced their electorates that they’re the Good Guys (TM). In Blair’s case, it was convincing everyone that he was a great, progressive politician, not beholden to corporate interests or neoliberal ideology; and in Macron’s case, it’s been about convincing the French electorate that a former investment banker is really an outsider ready to stir things up.

But even so, Macron remains the best option on the table. Allow me to firstly deal with the two main alternatives: Le Pen and Fillon.

Le Pen, as I have already said, is very, very, very bad. Her policies include (but are not limited to): dragging France out of the EU—likely destroying both entities—waging Cold War on Muslims, and ushering in an era of chest-thumping economic and political nationalism. The woman is essentially a Vichy collaborator, only her preferred foreign power is Putin’s Russia.

Fillon is basically a throwback to 1980s conservatism. Aside from his plans to cut 500,000 public sector jobs, ‘liberalise’ the labour market, and Thatcherise the economy, he also has another odious goal: to undermine gay marriage. It seems Section 28 continues on from the grave.

Once you understand who the two main candidates for the French presidency are, you will also understand my key imperative: anything but. Any of the other three candidates are preferable to these two execrable politicians.

Now, finally, onto the two remaining candidates. Hamon has been recently elected by the PS as their presidential candidate, scoring a surprise win against Manuel Valls, Hollande’s prime minister. On the surface, Hamon looks cool: he’s a radical leftwinger that beat the established candidate—a triumph of socialism over confused social democracy. But then, you look at his policies and his poll ratings. Hamon wants to a) tax robots b) reduce the working week to 32 hours and c) bring a system of universal income.

All of which would be great—if we lived in a post-scarcity society dominated by automation. Unfortunately, we don’t live in Utopia, and Hamon’s policies don’t make a whole lot of sense. Universal income would be impossible to afford unless it acts to replace social benefits, which would be idiocy: there are disabled people who need more than €750 a month to live on, and instead UBI would send money to millionaires. Taxing robots seems hard to implement, and pointless at best or Luddism at worst.

The last candidate, Mélenchon, is a nice enough guy. His platform is basically moderated Marxism: he wants to nationalise companies and regulate banks; he wants an increase in the minimum wage and also previously campaigned for a wage cap; he is a firm environmentalist, even supporting ‘degrowth’; and he wants to legalise cannabis.

I agree with most of his positions except cannabis and—more importantly—Europe. Mélenchon’s position vis-á-vis the EU is Marxist to an M: he thinks the concept of the EU is a great idea. As a supporting group, In Defence of Marxism, puts it: “Only a Socialist Federation of European States will unify the continent on a progressive basis, paving the way for a world socialist federation.” link

But, he thinks the current EU is contaminated by neoliberal economics; there needs to be a revolution, to replace the EU with the United Soviet European Socialist Republics.

Aside from being a bit bonkers, Mélenchon is polling at just over 10% of the vote. Recall the maxim I stated previously: anything but. It might be nice to have Mélenchon as president, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll be elected.

And this is the important bit: to keep Fillon out of winning the first round, Macron needs to get as much of the left vote as possible. The race is very close. The latest polls put Le Pen on around 25%, Fillon on 22%, Macron on 21%, Hamon on around 16% and Mélenchon just below him. (Poll by Kantar Sofres)

Of course you might wonder whether the latter two can team up. Unfortunately, Mélenchon is reluctant to join the PS campaign (the party is considered toxic in leftwing circles) and so this is sadly improbable. Even if it happened, there is unfortunately no guarantee that Mélenchon would beat Le Pen. He probably will—most French people don’t like her very much— but Macron is more likely to succeed in this regard. If this changes (and there have been some surprises in this election) I will reevaluate my position.

Until then, my message is this. The last thing France needs is a run off between a homophobe and a fascist. So, to the French left, I say: vote tactically. C’est la vie.

22 Jan 2017

Writing a book at 14

Hello everyone!

Since I am terribly busy with my Dutch lessons, various administrative tasks, and of course my writing, I have decided not to write any original work at present. However, the piece below was originally published in the university journal, Scriptus; and I believe you will find it to your great interest...

When I tell people I wrote a book at 14, it would be an understatement to say that I get a lot of responses. But beyond the look on people’s faces, writing the Necromancer changed my life in many deeper (though sometimes subtle) ways.

Firstly, allow me to address the obvious factor here: commitment. Writing a 108,000 word high-fantasy book is not something you do on a whim. Indeed, it took me over six months to complete the first draft—a feat that required writing multiple hours per week—and a whole 18 months to get feedback, edit, seek agents, do more edits, and eventually hire professionals to do the artwork.

This leads me onto the second obvious question: motivation. Why, exactly, does a fourteen-year-old undertake such a quest? In my experience, laymen often draw on analogies with entrepreneurs: perhaps, they think, I wrote because I want to build something. Maybe I want to make the world a better place. Maybe I’m just in it for the money, or the pleasure of throwing down a 500 page book and saying ‘I wrote that.’

But this is only a small part of the reason I write. To understand my motivation, you need look a bit deeper, and trace the origin to my love of reading. I have always loved reading, even from an early age, and this was particularly true of the years just before I began writing. A transcript from the school library showed that I read about 400 books between the ages of 11 and 14.

The old adage is true: behind every writer there is a profligate reader.

So how did my love of reading affect me? It is safe to say that I became enraptured by the world of fantasy. Like the children in Narnia, I had opened the wardrobe and found a whole world waiting for me. Eragon and Northern Lights kept me up at night. I saw myself in their shoes: I fought urgals on the back of a dragon; I met angels; I fought dark magicians and consorted with vampires.

I was, in truth, smitten by the occult. My fascination was endless. It seems almost inevitable that I came to write about it; that my ideas grew, morphed, and took a life of their own.

One grey October afternoon, I began writing. I believe the necromancer compelled me to write that day; that the curve of his arrogant jaw, the icy power held in his ‘cold orbs of sight,’ all but forced me to put him down on paper.

Laymen often ask writers where their inspiration comes from. This, I am afraid, is the best answer I can give you.

The first few chapters I wrote were not worth the paper they would have been printed on, however, so I had to rewrite them from scratch. This is true of nearly all first time writers—you can blame it on the fact that writing fiction is… hard. It is difficult for a non-writers to understand just what kind of challenges writing presents: the elaborate art of writing itself; the magnificent difficulty of capturing whole personalities, often in few words; the intricacies of plot—all to name a few.

The rest of the book was a journey. I followed Linaera—apprentice mage and unwitting protagonist—through her journey into the Northern Mountains. I watched on as Nateldorth, Great Mage, uncovered dark conspiracies in the capital, Dresh. Most of all I followed the necromancer. I was witness to him: to his betrayal, his descent into madness, and his ultimate redemption.

Books are journeys. The journey of my book was in a way my journey: where my characters struggled, I struggled with them. For them it was question of facing up to existential challenges. For me it was knowing their motivation, and building all the twists and turns of plot that made up their lives.

Writing the Necromancer was often a pleasure. I liked the dark, unexpected turns of the plot; the characters’ inner lives; and most of all, I enjoyed writing in the world of Arachadia. I loved the towering mountains, the vast, sprawling forests; the great stonework of the mage buildings and the fine craftsmanship of the wooden cathedrals; the world of dormant dragons and powerful magics.

Of course, writing the Necromancer was often a challenge. I was young, and devoid of experience. I often struggled to write fluently—it took much work to correct the early mistakes. It was as if a vast realm had been entrusted to a young king; a king with many ideas but few ways to actually conquer.

But conquer it I did. Perhaps I did not quite succeed. Perhaps there are other worlds yet unconquered—other vast and distant places full of promise. But writing the Necromancer was not the finishing line; it was only the first milestone of a long journey. I do not know what dragons still slumber in the path I am taking.

Nor does it matter. My advice to my younger self—as well as to other would-be writers—is perseverance. Many monsters lie in wait (some of them are called publishers, critics, and yourself) but the treasures they guard are beautiful.

17 Jan 2017

Hallo Allemaal!

Hallo allemaal! Ik ben deze maand Nederlands aan het studeren!

If you’re scratching your head, wondering whatever has possessed yours truly, rest assured that Alex has not fallen prey to a bout of logorrhea. Rather, he is learning Dutch this month; and he has decided (since he has been terribly busy and unable to write on the Magical Realm) to give you a rundown on his activities over January.

Firstly, I shall address my experience learning Dutch thus far; and secondly, I shall address the many other important aspects of my literary life, with particular regards to my progress with Fallen Love and my beta readers. But yes, before I go into that, allow me to explain a few pertinent elements of Dutch.

Nederlandse is Gezellig!

The full complexities of grammar, spelling and other such tedious details I shall not be overly concerned with here; I intend, rather, to speak about Dutch in a more general sense. What is the character of Dutch? What does it sound like, feel like? Languages, I believe, are more interesting in the broad sense—in the way they communicate meaning and in the cultural character that they reveal about their speakers—rather in the technical minutiae.

So: what is Dutch like? I think the word gezellig—which translate rather approximately as ‘cozy’—is a good example. A Dutch man or woman, when speaking positively, will often describe a place (or indeed numerous other entities) as being gezellig. In English, there is no real equivalent. We might say cozy, or comfortable, or moody, or characterful; but such words are encompassed by a single word in het Nederlands.

Gezellig can also be used to describe the Dutch character. The Nederlanders are a laid-back, conversant, and expressive people. In conversation, they can seem curiously joyful, with such expressions as ‘dat is moi!’ or ‘Lekker!’ (The former translates, again approximately, as ‘that is pretty’; while the latter means ‘it is great, nice, pleasant’).

I believe part of this impression also stems from the way the language sounds.

Dutch Phonology (and Orthography)

The Dutch language is melodious. In fact, I would say it is the most melodious language I’ve heard, surpassing English and even Italian. (And for the record, French, which isn’t at all as romantic as it’s cracked up to be.)

But you would never guess that from the orthography. No doubt some of you, when seeing the word gezellig, incorrectly tried to pronounce it as /gɛzɛlɪg/ (a bit like geezer) instead of /ɣəzɛlɪɣ/. The Dutch pronunciation of the g grapheme is very unfamiliar to modern English speakers. It is known in the technical parlance as a ‘voiced velar fricative’; basically, it’s like having a sore throat. If you gyrate your vocal cords together, you’ll get it.

You’d think this would make the Dutch language sound harsh, like German or Scandinavian languages. But you’d be wrong: when the voiced velar fricative is introduced in a language that has very pronounced vowels (e.g. as in alleen or allemaal) it sounds quirky rather than harsh.

But yes, Dutch does have a lot of elongated vowels. Duur and straat are examples; indeed in any case where there are two a’s or e’s, the vowel is elongated. But, even in words like deze (this) you still get pronounced vowels, being realised as /deːzə/.

Grammar

I admit I am still very much unfamiliar with the grammar, so I shall make only a minor observation regarding it. As with many languages, the word order can change depending on context: in the main clause (hoofdzin) the verb comes second (Dutch, like English, is an SVO language: we say ‘I love you’ or ‘Ik houd van jou’). But, in the subordinate clause (bijzin) the verb comes last: Ih heb hoofdpijn, dus ik wil een ibuprofen hebben.

In English, the meaning can be subtly changed by the word order as well—particularly when yours truly is writing poetry. For example:

Deep in mountains great and terrible \ O’er the frozen wastelands of the north \ There lies the dwarven hinterland.

What is the significance of saying ‘deep in mountains great and terrible’ instead of ‘deep in great and terrible mountains’? Perhaps nothing, you say. But notice that in the former I use asyndeton (there is no connecting word between the noun—mountain—and the two adjectives, great and terrible). This can give the prose a different character to ordinary conversation.

Het Diminutief

Another curious aspect of Dutch is the use of the diminutive, i.e. ‘little words’. These usually (albeit not exclusively) terminate in -je. Examples would include e.g. kopje or broodje.

It is difficult to describe what exactly a diminutive is for English speakers, but perhaps I can peruse an example from Scots English instead. You will sometimes here a Scotsman using the word wee, as in ‘a wee lad’. The word wee in Scots English acts as a diminutive.

Dutch is in fact not the only language where diminutives exist. In Romanian, a similar rule exists: you can say ‘un scaun’—a chair—or ‘un scăunel’ (a wee chair). In Romanian the use of the diminutive is complicated by the presence of gendered words, so ‘o masă’ (feminine word) has a diminutive form ‘o masuță’. Moreover, there are even some words that have irregular diminutives, so ‘un copil’ (a child; masculine word) has the diminutive ‘un copilaș’.

As you can see, Dutch isn’t the hardest language you can learn!

Writing

And now, finally, I shall address my writing progress.

I have written 22,000 words in Fallen Love so far, and will continue to write more. I have already received feedback from my two beta readers for the first 10K words; and I will receive more soon.

As for the Necromancer, I have finished reviewing the books allotted to me, and I have received the reviews I was owed. I shall seek more reviews for it, though with writing, reading, and learning Dutch, I have more than enough on my plate.

To Finish

The month of januari will be a busy one for me, as you can see, so my blogging will alas cover only the essentials. But, you can expect to see two interesting pieces published in the coming weeks. The first is another poem I have written (but not published); and the second is a piece I wrote for Scriptus, the university journal.

Very well; that is all for now. As the Dutch would say: Doei!