Friday, 22 April 2016

Dare to Shine - Introduction


There's exactly one month to go until World Goth Day, and that means one month until Dare to Shine is officially unleashed! I'm so excited and proud to be a part of this incredible anthology, containing ten stories from contributors spanning four different countries, in aid of the fantastic Sophie Lancaster Foundation. And in light of the main publication, I wanted to share the Introduction which I have written for the book.

​For more information on Dare to Shine, please visit the website - and also check out the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, who will receive 100% of all profits from the anthology's sales.

I remember when I was in high school, there were a couple of girls in the year above me who were constantly stared at. Their hair was dyed raven black; eyes smoky, brows drawn on. They walked in chunky leather boots or intricately-decorated Converse. Their coats were long and dark. A lot of students would go quiet as they walked by; pretend they hadn’t seen them, or stare so harshly as to make anyone wince.

I also remember a day in August 2007. With it being the summer holidays, I’d spent a few extra hours in bed, before dressing in my typical black t-shirt and jeans combo, lining my eyes and lacing up my combat boots. Then I went out for the day, and heard the name Sophie Lancaster for the first time. I was immediately shocked and disgusted by the news. Here was a young girl, just a few years older than myself, who had been attacked and hospitalised with her boyfriend near Manchester. I abhorred violence anyway, but what truly sickened me was that these two people had been targeted for no apparent reason. True, they were goths, but so were a lot of people, just as a lot of people were who they wanted to be. There was no crime in that, no fault, was there?
I kept up to speed with the news. Thirteen days after the attack, Sophie died. There was an outpouring of sorrow across the whole of the UK. Flowers and tributes were laid outside Stubbylee Park where the pair had been set upon. Social media exploded with outrage and condolences.
The next month, I returned to school to begin two years of Sixth Form. There was a dress code: no logos, no band t-shirts, no ‘offensive’ text. I kept to my simple black ensemble – and, to my alarm, so did the two goth girls. The long flowing coats were gone; the makeup was really toned down. At first, I thought they had been scolded by a teacher. I later realised, after I was allowed to wear an ankle-length trenchcoat according to the dress code, that they had calmed their style out of worry. Manchester was only an hour away from my home by car. There was a fear. Were people so outraged, so offended, by the clothes on others’ backs? Offended enough to strike, to kill?

Over the next few years, the Sophie Lancaster Foundation grew. I remember reading about Sylvia Lancaster’s tireless efforts in her daughter’s name; when she was awarded an OBE by Prince Charles for all her work. I remember when I met her for the first time at an event held by my university.
Sophie Lancaster’s name has become almost legendary within the alternative community. To many, she has come to symbolise the extent of the hate crimes to which individuals can be subjected. But it is important to also remember that she had blood in her veins, she breathed the same air as her killers. She had hopes and dreams. She was creative, caring – her own person, as we all are. She simply chose to express herself outwardly, in her dress, in her choice of music; in a manner she was completely entitled to do as a free human being. There is no crime or fault in that.
I have always been a proud individual, never following a crowd – not out of any teenage angst, but because I wanted to be myself. One day I’ll go out looking like a long-lost member of the Addams family; the next I’ll be wearing tie-dye and flowers in my hair; the next I’ll settle for jeans and a plain t-shirt. I’ll get completely different looks and reactions from the same kinds of people – but I’m still me. And every day, no matter what I look like, I wear a black S.O.P.H.I.E. band on my wrist.
Being able to express oneself is a basic right, and any targeting because of that is a hate crime. Everyone can – and should – be who they are inside; show their individuality for all the world to see, without fear or need for justification. That is what the Sophie Lancaster Foundation stands for: education and acceptance. I have done a lot of work for them and it’s led me to push my boundaries in ways I never thought I would. It’s boosted my confidence, brought me new friends, and solidified my convictions.

I spoke briefly with the two goth girls while I was in school. A few band names were mentioned; some favourite movies. Then we talked about homework; universities; what we were each having for dinner. It was a completely normal conversation; a kind that anyone could have had, whether they were dressed in black or all the colours of the rainbow.

After all, every single one of us is in the same boat; living our lives as we want, under the most diverse, crazy, mismatched flag you can imagine. And that is really something to celebrate.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Weaving a Tapestry of Sanity: Alice Liddell and Fran Bow

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

Since this is Depression Awareness Week, I feel it's a good time to address a topic which is often portrayed in artistic mediums: mental illness. I know it can be a touchy subject for some, but that is all the more reason for it to be given attention, as challenging the stigma which surrounds it is something I feel very strongly about. Statistically, 1 in 5 people will experience a mental health problem in their lives, and while it is becoming more accepted in many places, there are still a lot of barriers to break down. And that's why I'm so glad it is being tackled in these mediums, as each one holds a huge audience to which it can speak a positive message.

I've already mentioned this in a similar light in my Bookish Rambles post Getting Into Inside Out, and also in my Book of the Month for March: I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. So this time, I want to focus on something a little different. For the most part, I'm not much of a gamer, but the ones I absolutely adore share the topic of mental illness as a major theme: The American McGee's Alice series, and Fran Bow.

Go to any Comic Con and I guarantee you will see someone cosplaying as Alice Liddell, in her bloodstained dress, wielding a kitchen knife. A lot of people in these kind of circles are aware of her, even if they don't know exactly what she is all about. Basically, she is what happened after Lewis Carroll's canon stories ended and horrendous reality set in. In the first game, American McGee's Alice, she witnesses her family burning to death in a house fire, which causes her to suffer a psychotic break and spend ten years as a patient of Rutledge Asylum. Wonderland is portrayed as an imaginary world which has become broken and fractured with her, and stands as her own mental health amplified. This is continued in the second game Alice: Madness Returns, when she returns to Wonderland for a fourth time. In both games, she must use Wonderland as a means to understand her past and how it has come to affect her present self; and by facing the problems head-on in a way she can comprehend, she can begin to overcome them.

Fran Bow maybe isn't as well known, but it's definitely building a lot of buzz among those who have played it. Although its controls are a little simpler than Alice, it also isn't afraid to delve into some taboo and stigmatised concepts. This game tells the story of a ten year-old girl whose parents are brutally murdered, leaving her as the only survivor in the Oswald Asylum. After being given pills that allow her to see a macabre new reality, she manages to escape, going in search of her beloved cat and aunt. Along the way, she discovers the truth about what happened to her family, but the line of reality becomes so blurred that it's tough to say whether a lot of it is in her head or not.
​On the surface, these games sound very similar, and in many respects, they are - and not just because they both feature cats! Both are very dark and very brave, addressing not just mental health, but issues of emotional and sexual abuse, murder, and manipulation by people in power. They both also echo the concept I talked about in regards to Inside Out: using the mind as a metaphorical stage upon which real problems can be solved. All human beings do this, whether we are 'sane' or not - we all dream, problem-solve, use our imaginations to our advantage. There is an argument in evolutionary psychology that one of the reasons we developed such powerful brains, with such a vivid power to imagine, was as a defence mechanism to predict all the ways we could survive. Taking that hypothesis further, some in this field also mention that several mental health problems could be a result of this evolutionary mechanism essentially 'going too far.'

​So why is it such a great thing that it is addressed in games like Alice and Fran Bow?

Traditionally, literature, music and theatre were the key creative mediums in which powerful emotions and experiences could be expressed in the moment. They go back hundreds of years, with theatre also evolving into cinema during the early 20th century. Electronic gaming is a much more recent phenomenon, and modern games have come on so much since their early days that I can't help but marvel at the process. In the space of a few decades, we have gone from the simple tennis games on TV to massive online RPGs like World of Warcraft. It can be easy to forget how powerful this medium is. And like the others, it weaves its own tapestry of creativity. But there is one key difference which potentially grants it a little more power.

​Films, books, music, and traditional art are passive mediums. They can draw out a very strong emotional response from us, but they do so by presenting us with what is essentially a 'stationary' situation. There is nothing really required of us - the receivers of what they are giving us - to facilitate our brain's reaction. Games, on the other hand, give us 'active' situations, in which we must respond to a set of virtual external stimuli. They fire different sections of our brains, making us think and assess as if we ourselves are personally involved. But when your main character, who you are playing as, may or may not be completely sane, it also forces you to view the world as they see it.

I remember the first time I played the Alice games and Fran Bow, and with each one I loved trying to figure out what everything meant or where it could lead - as I was literally discovering them for myself. Games like this not only make mental health issues relevant, they also make them understandable, by making you look through the eyes of a sufferer. And to someone who may not have ever dealt with a mental health problem, that is an important experience.

​​Perhaps the reasons why games like this appeal to me is because I have my own mental health issues; perhaps it's because I love dark and fantastical things. But that's not the point. Many people can feel like they are losing their mind at some time or another; for some, it simply becomes a real debilitating problem.

​But at the end of the day, mental illnesses are simply that: illnesses. They share that same term with physical illnesses, around which there is much less stigma and fear. Yes, mental health can be scary, as physical health can be. And yes, the imagery that addresses it might be too much for some. But creativity and insanity can go hand in hand, and forgetting the stereotype of the tortured artist, these mediums can be a real key to understanding and breaking the stigma - by addressing the issues in such an upfront way that you have no choice but to take an active role.

​In closing, expressing these issues through creativity is a very smart and honest way of helping to leave behind the archaic wariness of mental health. It deserves to be talked about, and the more it is, the more it will be accepted. Books, films, music, art, games - whatever you prefer, it's great to know there is something powerful at work to bring it closer. So long as it is done respectfully, I applaud these artists for tackling such a powerful stigma.

Because after all, I'm pretty sure that more than 1 in 5 people find pleasure in creativity!

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Textbook Celluloid: The Beauty of Silent Movies

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday


Film is generally taken to be a completely different medium from books, and that's appropriate, as it relies on showing rather than telling. True, all films are scripted and in that sense they come from written words (doubly so if they are adapted from a literary work as well), but for the most part they rely on stimulating our minds with sound and clear-cut picture vision. In contrast, books (written ones, at least), rely on pure silence. We are presented with nothing but words on a page, and it's up to us as readers to decide how things look, sound, and taste.

​But there was a time when these two separate art forms came together seamlessly: in the age of silent movies.

I am a huge fan of these early films, and I'll happily watch them as well as modern movies. My love for them is probably most apparent in my short story Walking With Strangers, which centres around the production of the first cinematic version of Alice in Wonderland. But even for someone who isn't a fan, or who has never seen a silent movie at all, it's hard to mistake the shadow of Count Orlok creeping up the stairs in Nosferatu, or the face of the moon in Le Voyage dans la Lune.

​But originally the 'cinematograph', as it was first known, wasn't even used to create movies as we know them today. The Lumiere brothers' camera made a name for itself as a circus sideshow, simply showing short clips of everyday life for usually no more than several seconds. They were a moving photograph, captured in time, in the same way as their still-life counterparts. It wasn't until a little later that the early filmmakers realised they could use this new medium to tell stories.

Hence, the first movie studios sprung up, eventually growing into a large industry by the 1920s. It was during this period that many of the films still remembered today were made, such as The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and my personal favourite, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. And with no way to capture the actors' voices to accompany the film, title cards were created in order to give them words and help frame the story. It is because of this that I tend to think of silent movies as beautiful moving picture books.
The earliest films which evoke this feeling for me are those made by Georges Melies, who pioneered special effects so spectacular for the time that many of his images are still very well known even in the 21st century - case in point: the face of the moon! But my true love of the silent movies begins with the long ones that came later, with their lavish sets and good character development. And I really get the sense that they straddled a strange void between two completely separate worlds: that of the old era of storytelling through words, and the new one of visibly showing it coming to life.

​When we read a book, the words we see are really nothing more than ink on paper. But yet they still act as a catalyst for our imaginations, to somehow turn these straight lines of shapes into a visceral mental movie. There is nothing we cannot imagine, especially when given such powerful prompts as words. Books force us to think, in order to conjure everything we need to completely believe the story. In film, a lot of those 'responsibilities' are taken away from us, as we are already presented with most of the detail visually and audibly. Even though silent films had no spoken dialogue, they were always accompanied by a musical soundtrack to help add to the experience. But even though both mediums can supply us with different ways of experiencing a story, they both offer something else that is always left completely down to us: how they make us feel.

Whenever I read - or watch - a really good story, I connect with it on a level that goes deeper than simply acknowledging good characters or an intriguing plot. The feelings it evoked are usually the first thing I remember when I think back on the experience. In a similar way to memories of our own lives, this tying in to our personal emotions is the true magic that really turns what is otherwise a literal exchange of words into something living and breathing. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is a good example of this illusion of feeling, incorporating the harsh shapes and shadows of German expressionism to enhance its own very sinister plot. But whether that translates into the intended nervousness is ultimately up to the audience itself - just as what we take away from any experience is based on our own decisions and perceptions of it.

​It is this powerful sense of feeling which I believe fills the void over which silent movies hang in the modern world. They can evoke a sense of the uncanny valley in some people - that strange unease when something doesn't seem quite human. Perhaps it's because these actors often used movements and facial expressions that nowadays we may see as over the top - which makes sense in context, as most of them came from a theatre background where this kind of body language was required to reach a room full of people, and the early cameras were not refined enough to focus on tiny subtle actions. And I admit that can be distracting to someone who hasn't gotten used to the style of pre-1930s cinema. But if you can work through that and watch the films as what they are within themselves, they can evoke some very unique and even nostalgic feelings.

I don't mean nostalgia in the sense of the time period in which the films were made, even though that can happen as well. Instead, I mean that when I sit down to watch one of these, I'm somehow reminded of being a child in bed, reading an illustrated book, maybe one of the fairy tales which I grew up with. I see beautifully executed images which expertly capture what they are trying to say; calligraphic lettering; simple but effective language. The only difference is, this time the images are moving; an invisible hand is turning the pages for me, and while I drink up all the details that are being presented to me, the film still makes me think, conjuring the extra details with my own imagination.
In conclusion, I honestly believe silent films are important - not just for their cultural and historical reasons, but for the powerful feelings they can evoke in us, by being in that grey area that treats us both as viewers and readers. By acknowledging how we don't need to be spoon-fed the entirety of the story, and stimulating our imaginations in such a way that makes watching them a different experience for everyone - just like no two people will read a book in the same way. They will probably never become mainstream again, but there are several modern films that have been made in their style and in homage to their simple yet ingenious beauty.

The Artist is an example of this, as is Bram Stoker's Dracula, to an extent. Even though the latter is still a 'talkie', it used special effects created purely in-camera, the same way such effects would have been achieved during that time period - a short section of the film was even shot using a hand-wound camera. If you want to check out silent movies but feel like you need a bit of a transition period, then I'd recommend watching these ones first. And for a general family film that introduces silent cinema perfectly, go grab yourself Hugo. Out of the three modern movies I've just mentioned, this is the one which I feel truly illustrates my idea of a moving picture book: a strange yet comforting experience of being both shown and told a story. Especially when you see the sections of Melies films which were hand-tinted, frame by frame, into colour.

If those don't look like images you saw in a captivating book as a child, I don't know what does.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Author Interview: Donna Milward

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Spotlight on an Author
First Monday of Every Month

Donna Milward lives in Edmonton, Alberta in a tiny house with a huge yard. She’s been writing all her life, but decided to put writing on hold to get ‘a real job’ as a meatcutter and build a future with her beloved troll, Dan and her cat Freya.

Twelve years later, an invitation to a Romance Writer’s Conference in Washington D.C. led not only to new friends and new knowledge, but to the inspiration to write again. Thoeba was completed the following year.

Donna likes to mix her fascination with reincarnation and all things paranormal with her love of mythology in her work, and has even written her own myth ‘The Sacred Truth” (on as the lore behind Thoeba and future novels to come.

Donna enjoys fishing, gardening and canning. Despite these hobbies, she much prefers city life.


Which books have influenced you and your writing style the most?
I was reading a lot of Dean Koontz when I decided to write seriously, and I remember how his powerful characters struck me. They felt so real. I told my critique group that I wanted to write character driven novels like his and went from there. Even now when I read my work alongside his, I can draw a lot of comparisons.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Stephen King, because I must be a masochist! One of my critique partners went to his workshop, and she said he was a perfectionist and a brutal taskmaster, but that she had nothing but respect for him. The information she passed along helped shape MY writing as well. I devoured those tips like Cadbury Mini-Eggs, and I would endure any criticism he gave me for more.

Did any of your characters turn out differently than you first envisioned them?
Yes! Ares from Aphrodite’s War is my favorite example.  He was supposed to be a charming rogue, but he said something so offensive in the prologue, I threw my hands up from the keyboard. I thought, “So THAT’S who you really are!” From then on, I let him be himself. When people tell me how much they hate Ares, it makes me grin-- Even if I’m not sure I can take credit for him.

What are the most difficult and the most fun parts of the writing process for you? I used to find editing so painful, but even that’s getting better. I find that as I learn more, I automatically write tighter and avoid my previous mistakes. It’s still hard, but not such a tooth-grinder. These days I find the thing I hate about writing is marketing. That sucks all the joy out of the work—to push myself on strangers and try to entice them to buy my books without being obnoxious? Ugh! The squeeze of the synopsis looks comfortable in comparison. Could I just write those instead? If it were up to me, I would do nothing but write. That’s the best part. To create people and worlds and have the words flow freely is pure bliss. When it’s good, it’s like a drug. Highly addictive.

How do you research your books?
I’ve been studying reincarnation, mythology, and the paranormal for decades. I LOVE those subjects, and have collected quite a library over the years. And whatever I don’t know, I Google. I LOVE Google! I’m still getting used to having all the knowledge of the world available to me at the click of a mouse.

What do you think most characterizes your writing?
Tough question! An acquaintance from my hometown  recently read THOEBA, and she told me “It’s so you.” I’m not sure what that means, but I did work hard to create my own brand.  I think ‘The Sacred Truth’ would sum it up. It’s myth I created for my ideas. You can read it on a page available in the right hand corner of my blog

Would you say that your books have any kind of underlying themes or messages, even if you didn’t really intend there to be? I would have to say yes. I’m not comfortable pushing my opinions in my work--it’s supposed to be entertainment--but they leak through anyway. I’ve noticed my views on feminism are actually very prominent, but I’m glad it turned out that way. I think strong female characters are important.

What is the biggest thing that people THINK they know about your subject/genre, that isn't so?
Haha! I went to a Writer’s Convention, and when I told someone I wrote paranormal romance, they grimaced and asked, “Vampires or Werewolves?” I said. “Neither. Angels, demons and gods.”  I got raised eyebrows, nods, and smiles for that.

What does your writing space look like?
Ack! There are half-burned candles, a mug of pens that don’t work, glasses that I never wear, cat toys, a back scratcher, my dictionary and thesaurus, journals, and a multitude of LISTS. I’ve just counted five lists on my desk, each for something different. Oh, and a pouch full of USB keys.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring authors?
I think the word is ‘perseverance’. Writing is NOT easy, no matter what your friends think. Self-doubt is a part of being a writer—we all get it. If you get bored or find yourself drifting away from it, maybe you don’t want it badly enough. If you do, you have to pick yourself up, and keep writing. It’s okay to get frustrated and even think about quitting.  I get those feelings too. But you’ve got to persevere.