A Quick Note

The Leeth Dossier is a sci-fi/fantasy series about an unusual girl, set in our world about 50 years from now: and 25 years after magic unexpectedly returns. It opens with the book Wild Thing (2015), and continues with Harsh Lessons (2016), Shadow Hunt (2017); then (Violent Causes) (2018?), Lost Girl (2018/19?)....
Find Wild Thing with Google

Monday, 31 October 2016

Where Ideas Come From

(Image from Andrés Nieto Porras)

I was daydreaming recently about what I'd say if I sat one day on an author panel, and someone asked the classic question.  But I've thought about it enough, and followed perhaps enough interesting research, and been lucky enough, to maybe partly answer the question.

A stupidly arrogant claim, eh?

The short, half answer, is: the same place dreams come from.

One clue was a fascinating documentary some years ago which mentioned an (Italian? French?) researcher's idea that the same mechanism the brain uses to form dreams is at the root of our consciousness itself, and our thought processes.

Another clue is our ability to create mental models of other people - what they're thinking, how they'll react, how they're feeling - and the discovery of mirror neurones, that let us experience the pain or joy of other people, as if whatever is happening to them is also happening to us.  That all ties up with our ability to form social groups, and through that, to survive.  The evolutionary pressure that drove that development is very clear.  So our ability to construct models of other people, good enough to allow us to hold imaginary conversations with them, is another large piece of the puzzle: we really are very adept at creating hypothetical situations, populating them with imaginary or "real" people, and then letting them act and react with each other in our minds.  That's a big part of the answer.

Another equally big part is our hyper-developed ability to see patterns; patterns in all the bits and pieces of things that make up our mental landscapes — whether they're simple geometrical shapes or complex sets of actions with causes and effects.  Our brains are hungry to find patterns, to predict the future or to make sense of the world around us. Again, this developed because the ability to read a warning sign, evolutionarily speaking, has very much been a matter of literal life and death.  For individuals, tribes, or whole societies.  So we're also great at making connections between apparently disjoint things: whether it's an apple falling from a tree, or a dream of two snakes coiling together.

Another really powerful element in our idea creation arsenal is our unconscious. I've blogged previously about the Unconscious Thought Theory, but it's worth recapping here.  Unlike our conscious mind, which is great at managing sequential lines of thought and performing logical manipulations, our brains also provide with "an" unconscious, with something like fifty separate and independent "mental processing units", that can all access all our memories and whatever it is our brains use to represent parts of thoughts (facts, idea complexes), and then form new connections.

Fifty streams of thought that are all able to match and measure and compare and select and create.

This forming of connections, I suspect, is how we construct those structures in our brains that represent our ideas.

So as well as our logical minds, we also have this powerful parallel processing thinking engine at our disposal.  I've been happily and very productively using UTT since I learned of it in 2014, to solve problems and generate ideas.  So I know that for me, at least, it works. Very effectively.

And if that's not enough, to this "most complex thing in the universe" (the human brain and mind), we have perhaps mankind's greatest invention: words, and language.  The ability to write stuff down.  When you think of it, written language is "just" the capturing of ideas in a static, black and white, two dimensional form. Frozen in time: visible for anyone to see, however far away in space or time they may be from the original writer.  Which is pretty amazing.

But for a writer, the written word becomes in a real sense an extension of the brain. Once written down, the burden of having and holding the thought has been transferred out of our brain and offloaded to an outside memory screen, sitting there for us to read at a glance and add back into the melting pot of our thoughts.  It frees up the mind to generate the next thought, the next piece of the idea, and holds it in a stable form that won't collapse if we're interrupted, or lost if we're distracted.

And the final piece of the puzzle, I think, is each person's "mental wealth": the Aladdin's cave of memories, experiences, sights, sounds, music, pictures, ideas, feelings, facts, tales, people, hopes, …. in our heads. I don't know the limits of the storage capacity of our brains, but I do know it's huge.  And the more good and rich and interesting stuff we store away in our treasure troves, the more building blocks we have for new ideas, new stories, new inventions.

So with all that thinking capacity at our command, and all that rich source of stuff from which to create new ones, I think the question of where our ideas comes from starts to seem a lot less surprising.

It comes from the most fundamental part of what makes us human, and from all we've seen and done.  Humans are imagination engines, naturally generating ideas like the sun generates warmth.

It's what we do.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Women Who Kick Ass

This is a homage to the fictional role models (viragos?) who helped lead to Leeth's creation.

While women have always been seen as influential ("behind every great man is a woman"), most human societies in recorded history have been male-led, if not outright male-dominated. Even in the above quote, the woman's position is behind the man. And while the average man is physically stronger than the average woman, that seems a pretty sorry justification for an unequal sharing of power. Thankfully, in the long run brain and heart are far more important to humanity than brawn. So as our societies evolve and improve, our innate sense of fairness puts a steady, shaping pressure that heads us in the direction of equality. (Fingers crossed!)

Anyway, enough philosophy. This piece is meant to be about the fictional characters who inspired me: role models who helped shape Leeth, and of whom I sometimes wondered "How would Leeth get on with X?" So, here's the list, in the order they spring to mind (and probably the significance of their influence):

Key Influences

Modesty Blaise — if you haven't read all Peter O'Donnell's novels about Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin... you're missing out, big time. Those stories have everything, including a lot of heart.

Leela of the Sevateem (Louise Jameson alongside Tom Baker's classic Doctor Who)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_Angel_Alita">Battle Angel Alita aka ("Gunnm" in the Japanese)

Buffy (we don't even need to add "the vampire slayer" these days, do we?). The original film was an influence — and although the series was better, it was a little late to be a big influence. :-)

Leeloo of (Fifth Element)

Leeth... and magic?

Leeth was pretty much fully-formed by 1992: both who she was and her personality were already determined before all the fictional characters who came later than that. (As my friend Jon Marshall pointed out: Leeth has been in existence for more years than her fictional age.)

It was kind of weird, in a way: when Leeth was born, strong female characters in fiction were both rare and considered odd. Even in my original MS, Harmon chose the Huntress as the Archetype to try to activate through Leeth's Unfolding, because it would result in a perceptible shift in society. And strangely enough, while I wrote and polished, society did indeed shift around me, just as Harmon had hoped in his future society. Writers are dreamers: I know I was just tapping into a change that was already under way; there was no cause and effect. Words only work their magic on our society if they're read, not from the pure act of writing! But still, it seemed a nicely weird coincidence.

Sensitised by Leeth's existence, and wanting to do the best I could for her, I read lots of books in the genres I like, with strong female characters. And there are some truly wonderful women who have burst into life in our imaginations. Although they had much less influence on Leeth than the earlier few, I still want to give a kind of "shout out" to these later women of courage.

More women who kick ass

Commander Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell's Section 9.

Joel Shepherd's series about Commander Sandy Kresnov. As I've long thought, by another weird coincidence, Crossover, the 1st novel in that series was one of the ten finalists alongside my own early MS — then titled "Leeth" — in the 1998 George Turner contest.

Lilith Saintcrow's Dante Valentine and Jill Kismet.

Joanne Walker of C E Murphy's The Walker Papers.

Diana Rowland's demon-summoning cop Kara Gillian.

The irrepressible Tinker of Wen Spencer's Elfhome series (aka "the Godzilla of Pittsburgh" — quite a rep, for a teenage girl!)

Maxine Kiss (in Marjorie M Liu's Hunter Kiss series.) Incidenatlly, how's this for a fantastic opening line — which the series goes on to equal and exceed! — "When I was eight, my mother lost me to zombies in a one-card draw.")

Elissa Megan Powers, "Emp", (Adam Warren's subversive and deeper-than-it-looks superheroine comic series, Empowered).

Wonder Woman, as re-imagined by George Perez in the late 80s.

Patricia Briggs's Mercedes Thompson.

Joanne Baldwin of Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series.

Eugenie Markham, Richelle Mead's Dark Swan series.

Katsa, Fire, and Bitterblue in Kristin Cashore's absolutely brilliant related books, that began with Graceling.

Agent Lila Black in Justina Robson's intriguing Quantum Gravity series.

Honor Harrington in David Weber's hard military sci-fi series.

Valkyrie Cain in Derek Landy's hugely fun Skulduggery Pleasant series.

Jane Yellowrock in Faith Hunter's Skinwalker series.

Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake (of the eponymous series).

Rachel Morgan (Kim Harrison's Hollows series).

Agatha Heterodyne (Phil & Kaja Foglio's brilliant Girl Genius series of graphic novels).

So, what's the attraction?

Why am I so drawn to the idea of a strong woman, as an author? There's probably a raft of reasons.

For a writer, a female protagonist provides a rich vein of emotional openness to explore. Men are expected to be "strong", and in our society showing emotion has for centuries been taken as a sign of weakness: a vulnerability. (Although that's finally changing!) In contrast, women were allowed, even expected, to let their emotions show. Or maybe they've simply been generally wiser, or tougher: willing to expose that side of themselves because of all it brings in return? (Countering the irony of Simon and Garfunkel's "If I'd never loved, I never would have cried".)

But whatever the reason, while for all these characters, their prowess and general ability to kick ass is empowering and heartening, it's their spirit that I find far more engaging. These are people who don't back down, who don't give in, who keep on fighting, no matter the odds. They never say die.

And it's that indomitable spirit which is their true strength.


If you have thoughts about any of this, or would like to nominate other inspiring, kick-ass female protagonists, I'd love to hear about them in the comments!