Sunday, 24 April 2016

Writing Ramble: In Defense of Second Drafts

Recently my friend Andy Knighton wrote an excellent blog post titled Surviving the Second Draft, which did exactly what it said on the tin, offering some sensible tips on how to struggle through that fearsome first redraft.

I say, "fearsome first redraft" - but second drafts are my absolutely favourite part of the writing process.  I commented to that effect on Andy's post, smugly pointing out that "you take something that’s kind of a mess and make it into something really good, what’s not to like?" and Andy made the sensible point that not everyone likes to admit they messed up the first time, never mind having to think about setting right what once went wrong.

This is very true.  And if I think back, I know full well that there was a time when I felt the same.  First drafts were sacred brain-goop, the raw outpourings of an unfettered subconscious.  Second drafts were weird and icky, a process of picking over something best left unpicked.  And third drafts were - well, why would you have a third draft, when you'd nailed it the first time, then made yourself miserable trying to find faults in something that was just fine to begin with?  As much as I might not want to relive such early writing traumas, I understand.

Still.  The fact remains that I was wrong.  Seconds drafts are awesome.

I guess that when you're starting out, the first draft has to be fun, otherwise there'd never be any end product.  And second drafts are the natural antithesis of that; they're about conceding your mistakes, which is not generally considered an enjoyable act.  Still.  If you're relatively new to writing then I promise you, second drafts are where it's at.  And not only is that the case but it's a good thing.

Why?  Partly because it takes away some of that awful, mind-crushing fear that first putting finger to keyboard - and then doing the same again and again and again until you actually have something resembling a story - involves.  Embracing second drafts is to admit that your first drafts aren't perfect, and never could have been, were never meant to be.  It's to accept your own fleshy weakness, your flimsy-brainedness, and to comprehend that human beings create processes for a reason.  The reason  second drafts exist is because you will never, ever get everything right the first time.  Maybe you'll make a million typos.  Maybe you'll settle for third person when your protagonist needed to be telling their story themselves.  Maybe you'll fling about adverbs with wild abandon and forget that speech tags are a thing.  Or perhaps it will be a combination of all those failings and more.

But it's okay.  The second draft is your safety net.

Here's the thing: second drafts are the point where you get to get things right.  Inevitably my first drafts disappoint and unsettle me.  There are nuggets of awesome, but they're hidden amongst great swathes of mediocrity, not to mention clunky language and inexplicable spelling.  They're the point where I wonder if I haven't maybe found myself in the wrong business, when after all I'd be much better suited to interior design or inventing new breakfast cereals.  But then I remember that clunky language can be tightened, spelling mistakes can be spotted, and really, just about any other first draft mistake can be fixed too.  Sometimes it's a matter of tidying and sometimes it's a matter of immense effort - I say this as someone who not so long ago changed the tense of an entire novel! - but the crucial point is that the end result is always better.

And that, ultimately, is the joy of the second draft.  The first time around you get to be intermittently good, maybe even intermittently great in small doses.  The second time around, if you're willing to put in the same level of energy all over again, you can nail it.  And then there's the third draft, which in my head is usually called the polish draft now, for obvious reasons: that's where the story begins to genuinely shine.  But the first step, I think, is just to get past that hurdle of thinking of the second draft as a chore, a hardship or some assault on your artistic integrity.  You want to tell a story?  You want it to be amazing?  Then the biggest advantage you have is that you don't have to be perfect the first time through.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Hemingway: A Review

This is not, I should emphasize from the off, a review of author Ernest Hemingway.  Because that would be awfully presumptuous, and anyway, it's bad form to review dead people.  Although if it was a review of Ernest Hemingway I'd give him a hearty four and a half stars out of five.  Here's a clip from Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris to justice that score:

I'd also give Midnight in Paris four a half stars, incidentally.

But this isn't a review of Ernest Hemingway or Midnight in Paris, it's a review of an application called Hemingway, which you can find here.  Hemingway the application is a free web app (though there's a purchasable desktop version that appears to do more or less the same thing) that describes itself as "like a spellchecker, but for style."  Basically, you copy into it or write a section of text and Hemingway judges that text according to five parameters.  Four of these get immediately identified with some neat colour coding: hard to read and very hard to read sentences are marked in yellow and red respectively, phrases with simpler alternatives are purple, adverbs are pale blue and incidents of passive voice are green.  Lastly, Hemingway assigns a readability stat based on what I assume to be the US school grading system.

This is helpful, without a doubt.  In fact, ever since I discovered Hemingway a couple of weeks ago I've been using it more or less constantly.  There's something awfully brilliant about colour coding: paste in a paragraph and you'll see either a panic-inducing splatter of primary shades or a reassuringly plain background.  It makes for an intuitive insight into what's working and what isn't; go mad with the adverbs, inadvertently phrase half your story in the passive voice, and Hemingway will let you know about it in no time at all.

Which is not to say you won't want to punch it.  I spend approximately sixty percent of my time with Hemingway wanting to punch it, and I'm a fairly laid back sort; your personal mileage may vary.  The thing is, as much as everything that it's pointing out is useful in theory, it's really not that bright.  Unlike more sophisticated tools, it has no structural or contextual understanding of what you've written, and works off hard and fast rules and what appear to be fairly simple metrics.

Take adverbs, for example.  Here's what Wikipedia has to say about adverbs:
An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, another adverb, determiner, noun phrase, clause, or sentence. Adverbs typically express manner, place, time, frequency, degree, level of certainty, etc., answering questions such as how?, in what way?, when?, where?, and to what extent?
Wow, Wikipedia, you make adverbs sound pretty awesome!  But here's what Hemingway has to say about adverbs:
4½ / 5
Okay, that's not what Hemingway says.  I'm paraphrasing.  What it actually does is tell you how many adverbs you have and then demand that you remove most or all of them.  Regardless of their function.  Because it doesn't really get that adverbs serve a ton of different purposes.

All of which is to say, you should totally check out Hemingway, it's a great tool, named after a great writer, who was impersonated in a great Woody Allen Film.  (Perhaps the last great Woody Allen film?)  But ... you should treat what it tells you with a pretty big pinch of salt.  Frankly, all of its categories are about as dumb as those poor adverbs; its idea of what constitutes a hard to read sentence will have most authors wincing on a regular basis.  On the other hand, if an entire paragraph turns red then you might want to consider reining things in a little.

This brings me a wider point that's a good one to wrap up on: though there are certainly a ton of great answers out there on the subject of writing, and no end of neat tools, none of them are ever entirely, one hundred percent right.  A big part of being a successful writer, in my experience, is learning whatever you can from a particular source and then knowing when to disregard it.  With that in mind, Hemingway is a pretty great editing tool; used with restraint, it definitely has the potential to make your writing life easier.  Just don't altogether trust it, and certainly don't rely on it exclusively, that's all I'm saying.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Help Rosarium, Help Cthulhu

It's been a while since I've talked about my horror / sci-fi comic book miniseries C21st Gods, so let's redress that a little, shall we?  After all, there's never been a better time to do so - but more on that in a moment.

The first bit of big news is that, after some hiccups last year, the project is now fully up and running again in the hands of a new artist: the hugely talented Anthony Summey.

Anthony is brilliant.  I  mean, he's a brilliant artist, you can see that for yourself just from the logo there, but he's also been brilliant to work with, and an absolute professional.  I've seen inked pages for about half of the first issue now, and they're marvelous, not to mention a great representation of what's got to be one of the better scripts I've written.  I don't know, perhaps this is the year for projects coming back from the brink of death, but I'm confident that when this thing hits the shelves later in the year it's going to look great.

Which brings us round to why I'm mentioning this now, and why C21st Gods is happening at all - which is to say, Bill Campbell and his publishing house Rosarium.

There's a lot to like about what Rosarium's been doing these last couple of years, but one thing that stands out above all others.  Inclusivity in publishing is one of those subjects that lots of people talk about and very few people act on in anything but the most surface ways.  One of the rare exceptions - perhaps the most major exception right now - is Rosarium.  Rosarium has inclusivity in the very marrow of its bones, and that's led to a range of creators and of books that you're unlikely to find anywhere else in today's market; these are varied and exciting works by varied and exciting people, and it's an honour, frankly, to be a part of that line-up.

And Rosarium has been growing fast.  I mean, even in the short time I've been involved, that much has been obvious.  With projects like Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, and APB: Artists against Police Brutality, they've grown into a force to be taken seriously - hence some major attention and a couple of awards being thrown their way.  Now Rosarium is perched on the verge of great things, and that means needing money, and that means a fund-raising campaign - in this case, Indiegogo.

Now, I try not to badger anyone to throw their money at things here on the blog, even things I've written, because, hey. we're all broke, right?  But I hope people will have a look at this and maybe think about hurling a little cash Rosarium's way.  If only because most of the awards are books, and Rosarium do great books.  Get something brilliant to read and help a publisher that's actively making the industry a better place flourish more than it's already doing?  I feel okay with asking people to do that.  With that in mind, you can find the details of Rosarium's Indiegogo campaign here.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Eastercon 2016

The good news?  This year's Eastercon was better than last year's.  The bad news?  It was still just okay.

This time around, at least there was only the one huge problem, but it was a pretty big huge problem.  The venue chosen was hopelessly unsuitable.  You know the one thing you need for a conference?  Big rooms.  And, judging by what was on offer, the Hilton Manchester Deansgate had nothing that came even close.  It was sheer dumb luck on my part, though, that the only events I was really interested in on the program were relegated to one of the tiniest, which had seating for an entire twenty one people.  I know.  I counted.  Even the dealer's room had to be split into two parts - one of which got lumped in with the noticeably shrunken art show.  Oh, and the green room was a corridor.

Speaking of corridors ... now that I think, a conference venue actually needs two things: you need a bar area where people can sit down, too.  Because if people can't get into your events because the rooms are all too small, they need to have somewhere to go and chill that isn't basically a big hallway with a bar at one end.  And maybe I'd be feeling a lot more positively towards this year's Eastercon if I hadn't spent most of the Saturday suffering with back problems and not being able to get a seat to relieve them.

It's a shame, and I almost feel bad for pointing it out, because everything else was at the very least not bad.  The Hilton was a crummy venue on many levels - I didn't try the food, but I watched enough people turning green to know I'd made the right call - but the staff were absolutely brilliant, friendly and chatty and just generally really nice.  Same goes for the organisers; they seemed like splendid people and were trying hard to make things work.  The program wasn't exactly pushing any envelopes, but there was some solid stuff on there, and I can see how, if there'd been space for more than a fraction of the attendees, that could have worked out well.  There was a good range of events, too, with most slots offering at least something.  Even the bar prices weren't crazy, at least compared to London events.

Still, I don't altogether understand how anyone could have looked at the Hilton Deansgate and thought it would make a good venue.  I mean, I get that this was a rescue bid and all, but surely those two points up there - decent-sized rooms for panels, space to sit - are pretty obvious?  I don't want to diminish how hard it must be to arrange a conference on this scale, let alone at late notice, but looking at this solely as a punter, the fact remains that that shouldn't be my problem.  Eastercon isn't the cheapest of con's; it needs to be better than it's been over the last three years if people are going to keep attending.

Next year sees another rescue bid and another big city venue.  There's not much reason to think it will be an improvement.  2018, on the other hand, takes us to Harrogate and an event that already seems much better planned than anything we've come to expect of late, so that at least feels hopeful.  Still, the fact remains that Eastercon isn't in the best of shape.  To my mind, the best thing that's happened to Fantasycon recently is the fact that it had to take a year out to accommodate World Fantasy.  When it returned it did so bigger and much better.  From an outsider's perspective, Eastercon seems to be in a state of permanent crisis, and once you reach that point, the absolutely best thing is to back away and take stock.  To my mind, that would be the thing to do now: step back, take a deep breath, listen to some of the criticisms you're getting year after year and return stronger.  Eastercon definitely has a meaningful place in the Con scene, it has its own vibe and it's a good one.  There was plenty to like this year, and given room to breath it might have been great.  Here's hoping, then, for better to come.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

My Eastercon 2016 Schedule... short but sweet.  I'm on the one panel early on Friday afternoon, which is nice because it bunches the work stuff right at the start and leaves me the rest of the weekend to chill out.  Also, that panel is on a subject particularly dear to my heart these days, as I increasingly come to discover just what neat tricks and surprises you can pull off when you really plan your story through from the start.

Anyway, here it is.  If you're at Mancunicon this weekend then please do come along and listen to me inadvertently spoiler books I haven't even finished yet!

Twisting the Story
Friday 14:30 - 16:00, Room 8 & 9
 Intrigue! Betrayal! Revelation! All these options and more are available to the writer looking to take their story up a notch. But what is the key to making a good twist work, and work as SF or fantasy? Is it primarily a question of making the reader care about a character? Is it about managing and playing with the reader's expectations, particularly in those stories which draw on established structures, such as a heist or a procedural? Is it about the logical but unexpected implication of the speculative setting? Or is it something else entirely?
With: Gillian Redfearn, Susan Bartholomew, Charles Stross and Chris Wooding.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Writing Ramble: Is Writing Fun?

Recently I had an interesting discussion with a couple of author friends, Andy Knighton and Charlotte Courtney-Bond, that began from my admitting I don't find writing to be all that fun.

When Andy and Charlotte very sensibly asked why I'd do it,  I explained that there are plenty of things I do get out of writing.  I love the constant challenge, the intellectual stimulation, the way no two projects are ever even slightly the same, and the fact that I'm always learning, be it real-world knowledge to enhance my work or just how to be better at what I do.  Writing is always interesting and sometimes thrilling, but that's a different thing entirely to being fun.

After consideration, Charlotte decided that she largely felt the same way; Andy wasn't convinced.

But is writing meant to be fun?  Perhaps when it's purely a hobby, and I certainly remember getting a certain enjoyment in the early days just from the sheer act of flinging words together in interesting and unlikely combinations.  Yet the minute you start doing something professionally, in however small a way, that inevitably changes.  Writing becomes a job, and though jobs can and probably should be fun, they also need to be other things: productive, profitable, demanding.  And even if you're not aiming to make money, most people write with the intention of producing something worthwhile, which implies a certain level of graft.

In fact, I'd suggest that it's dangerous even to expect that writing should be fun.  Because, as we hinted at in our discussion, the minute you bring those expectations, you put it up against many other fun things: playing games, watching TV, ten pin bowling, shark wrestling.  And writing is always going to struggle to compete, because when done seriously and well, it's bloody difficult.  (Admittedly, the same can be said for shark wrestling.)  If you expect writing to be stimulating and emotionally fulfilling then it will rarely let you down, but when you're asking it to be fun you're bound to be disappointed, because at its worst it's a process of beating your face against the keyboard until a load of stubborn words that would rather you sod off and die than come out finally agree to play ball.  In fact, at its very worst, writing can mean dredging through experiences you'd rather not imagine or relive, and then trying to transfer those shattering emotions onto a blank page.  Whatever the word for something like that is, it surely isn't fun.

Is that to say I don't enjoy writing?  Not at all, and I do, maybe more so now than ever.  My point is just that there are plenty of different ways in which to enjoy something.  To use a tenuous metaphor, for me it's been a bit like the development of a relationship.  At the start everything was crazy and exciting, every moment was precious and every slight crisis felt like the end of the world.  These days it's more like being comfortable in the company of a clever, knowledgeable, witty companion ... maybe me and writing don't hit the town so much, but that's not to say we don't get plenty out of our time together.

Of course, no amount of writing experience has weened me off my fondness of crap metaphors.

Anyway, I'd be intrigued to hear other writers' thoughts on this one.  Do you find writing fun?  If so, is it always fun?  Would you give it up if it wasn't?  And if not then do you get the same things out of it as I do or something altogether different?  Have I just been going about it wrong all this time?

Friday, 11 March 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 9

More nineties anime?  It must be a slow news week!  This time around we'll be looking at Patlabor 2Madox-01Zaion: I Wish You Were Here and Psycho Diver:

Patlabor 2, 1993, Mamoru Oshii

If the first Patlabor movie was the work of a director discovering what was to become his signature style, the second is that of an extraordinary talent who's worked out in the intervening four years just precisely what sorts of movies he wants to make and how he wants them to be made.  Both are unmistakably works from the same artist, but Patlabor 2 is just ... I guess the word is purer.  Which is not the same as saying better - I would argue that if we take the Patlabors and 1995's Ghost in the Shell to be Oshii's masterpieces then Patlabor 2 is marginally the weakest of the three.  Then again, that still leaves it as an extraordinary work that you should track down right this moment if you haven't seen it, so I'm hardly criticizing.

Where the first Patlabor was largely a police procedural that just happened to sometimes bother itself with giant robots, this second is absolutely a political thriller, and concerns itself with giant robots even less, such that for long stretches it barely feels like a Patlabor movie at all.  That fact is only heightened by the fact that Oshii largely sidelines most of the regular cast of Special Vehicle Unit 2 to cameos and focuses instead on their two superior officers - who were admittedly always the best characters, but that doesn't stop it feeling a little cheeky.  In general, this has the vibe of a franchise movie where the director had already moved on from the franchise, which is somewhat hard to deal with as a Patlabor fan but basically a delight as an Oshii fan, since what he'd moved onto being, for ever so brief a period, was one of the greatest creative presences the medium has ever seen.

The thing is, Patlabor 2 is slow, meditative, relatively low on action, but what it loses by such traditional measures of anime it more than makes up for by being thrillingly original and unique: a work of obvious artistry which at the same time works as a precisely constructed sci-fi thriller, ticking away like gorgeously-constructed clockwork.  I prefer the first Patlabor because it's the more rounded of the two, I prefer Ghost in the Shell because it was my first encounter with Oshii and with smart anime in general.  But neither fact detracts from what excellent workmanship this represents.  Patlabor 2 was revolutionary when it was released, a challenge to the strictures of its medium and its genre that also functions as a bold, unconventional sci-fi thriller, and also manages to be a masterpiece of the animator's craft.  If Manga would have the decency to rerelease it in a less crummy edition, it would stand effortlessly against anything released in the last decade.

Madox-01, 1987, Shinji Aramaki

Another release from Manga Video's old and much maligned (by me, if no one else) budget range The Collection, my expectations for Madox-01 were muted, to say the least.  As such, I suppose it's high praise to say that I quite enjoyed it.

Its basic concept is utterly silly: a prototype robotic suit, the Madox-01 of the title, falls into the hands of a teenager, who promptly decides to use it to meet his girlfriend, despite the suit's designer and test pilot and a deranged military officer's best efforts to get in his way and recover or destroy the Madox.  You'd expect this to be played for broad comedy, so it's rather puzzling when instead it's presented mostly straight, with only a few stray gags acknowledging how basically wacky the whole endeavor is.  On the one hand, this keeps things moving briskly, the slim story never bogging down to think too much about its premise; on the other, it feels like a wasted opportunity, as the one thing that makes Madox-01 distinctive gets largely left by the wayside.

Still, it's enough to give the show a little character, and the animation is generally impressive, especially for the late eighties.  The mech design is sufficiently distinctive and the final battle is really pretty good.  At forty five or so minutes it feels precisely as long as it needs to without wearing out its welcome.  Even the dub isn't catastrophic in comparison with some of Manga's efforts from the time, though as usual there's hardly anyone who doesn't either overact or underact.  And this is some seriously faint praise, isn't?  I'm trying to be positive, I really am, but it's just not working.

Zaion: I Wish You Were Here, 2001, dir: Seiji Mizushima

Never one to worry about breaking my own rules, here's a four episode series from 2001, which I'm going to talk about anyway because I thought it was nineties anime when I bought it and because, hey, why not?

Plus, Zaion is a frustrating show, and I want to vent.  There are so many indications that this could, and should, have been something special - it was produced by Gonzo, who were practically churning out good anime at this point - and the fact that the end result is rather bland and kind of a mess is deeply unsatisfactory.

It doesn't help that Zaion found generally reliable distributor ADV in particularly mercenary mood; those four episodes are split, unconscionably, over two DVD releases.  However, to justify the decision ADV included some unusually lavish extras - the enclosed booklets are particularly lovely - that give away far more details about how things went wrong behind the scenes than they were probably meant to.  The impression they give is of a lot of at least moderately talented people pulling in no clear direction, led by a director working at odds to his own writer.  So the fact that the result was a schizophrenic mix of under-cooked love story and half-baked sci-fi action, the former undone by lifeless characters and the latter by dubious animation, truly horrid CGI and bland designs, comes as little surprise.

Yet Zaion isn't awful.  It just spends too much time being merely functional, and, like I said, frustrating.  And at least one person was clear on what they wanted for the project, even if it was a fundamentally insane decision: ever-brilliant composer Kenji Kawai goes to great pains in the extras to explain how badly he wanted to write a prog rock score, and if it gels not at all with anything else that's happening here, it's at least great fun in its own right.  All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, while I quite enjoyed the experience of Zaion, I'd feel awfully bad about recommending it to anyone else.

Psycho Diver, 1995, dir: Mamoru Kanbe

Here's a question for you: you're making a film called Psycho Diver, about a world where skilled individuals use technology to enter the subconscious minds of others, acting as a particularly hands-on brand of therapist.  Do you a) play the concept for all its worth, indulging in the sort of trippy dreamscapes only animation could possibly allow or b) do your absolute best to ignore the concept in favour of an overstuffed plot full of entirely mundane fistfights and car chases?

If you voted b) then a slow hand-clap for you, because you were probably one of the production team behind Psycho Diver, a fifty minute OVA that does everything it can to avoid embracing the one element that might possibly make it something special.  What we get instead is a forcedly noir, needlessly violent show about a voice over-happy tough guy hired to sort out the incipient craziness of a pop star who can no longer sing.  (There are two of her songs on the soundtrack and they're both indescribably awful, which begs the question of why anyone would care.)

Psycho Diver is humourless and weirdly dense with plot and characters, but the one thing it isn't is interested in exploring its core concept, which could be all but jettisoned with barely the slightest effect on the plot.  In fact things would actually make more sense if the protagonist was simply a psychiatrist, and goodness knows we need more shows about gritty, hardboiled psychiatrists!  As failings go, it's flat out annoying, because the brief scenes that do play on the whole psycho diving notion are the most visually interesting, and director Mamoru Kanbe - who would go on to make the notorious Elfen Lied - was certainly capable of doing more with the notion than this.  Psycho Diver isn't actually bad as such; for what it is, it's fairly diverting for its short running time.  But by promising something genuinely interesting that it hasn't the faintest interest in delivering, the movie falls flatter than it needs to.

Ultimately, then, the best thing about Psycho Diver is that you don't have any reason to watch it; not when Satoshi Kon's magnificent Paprika exists, and does all the things this should have done, a hundred times better than Psycho Diver ever would have.


Wow, that was another awful month, wasn't it?  I sure can pick 'em!  The strange thing is, practically everything on my to-watch shelf looks great, so I'm not sure what's going wrong here.  Then again, Zaion looked great, so perhaps it's time I accepted that looks can be deceiving when it comes to nineties (or even early two thousands) anime.  Still, I have faith!  There must be another classic or two out there I haven't found yet.  There must be!

I mean ... there must be, right?

[Other posts in this increasingly desperate series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8]