Sunday, 23 November 2014

Though Bubble 2014

I'd had grand plans for this year's Thought Bubble, aka the Leeds Comic Art Festival, after I went last year and felt like I'd failed to make the most of it.  But by the time it actually came round, many of those plans had fallen through for reasons out of my control, most of the friends and acquaintances I'd been hoping to see there had backed out, and honestly it hasn't been a brilliant year on the comics-writing front, to say the absolute goddamn least - so in the end I couldn't have dragged myself into Leeds with a whole lot less enthusiasm.

Which is to say ... Thought Bubble, it wasn't you, it was me.  I understand that you went to a crazy amount of trouble, and then I just turned up and spent two hours scowling at the over-packed tents and the random-seeming queues and the people dressed up as characters from things I've never seen and then gave up and went and hung around the Royal Armouries* instead.  All of that?  It's on me. 

But maybe it was you just a little bit too.

Because, honestly, having been twice now, I'm still not one hundred percent sure what I'm supposed to do at Thought Bubble.  I mean, I have my suspicions, but they're cynical ones and I'd like to think that they're wrong; because I'm starting to get the impression that I'm paying £24 to be encouraged to spend a whole load more money on other things, and that would clearly be ridiculous.  Still, while I have no doubt that there must be more going on than the two aircraft hanger-sized rooms full of people hawking stuff and signing work, I seem to have managed to miss all of it for yet another year running.

So hey, Thought Bubble, next year I really am going to try and figure you out.  I'm going to get your programme well in advance, and I'm going to plan out exactly what I'm going to ... this I swear upon the severed bat-nipples of George Clooney.  But if at the end of all that I still feel like I've blown £24 on a not-very-inspiring day out?  Well then, just maybe it actually is you and not me.






* It's making me unreasonably cross that Blogger keeps trying to correct the spelling on this.



Monday, 17 November 2014

Unexpected Birthday Presents

One of the nice things about being a writer is that every so often, out of the blue, people send you exciting things in the post.  And statistically I suppose that the longer you go at it, the more of a chance there is that those things are going to arrive on your birthday.  Still, it was a nice surprise when not one but two parcels containing contributor copies arrived just in time for me to pretend that they'd been sent to celebrate my successfully surviving another year.

I've already talked plenty about 01 Publishing's anthology of Lovecraftian Horror Whispers From the Abyss - and rightly so, it's really good - but I tell you, however good it was as an e-book, it's a whole lot better in print.  And this isn't just my weird, old-man affection for books that are made out of dead trees talking, either; in fact, it's got a lot more to do with my weird, old-man affection for additional artwork and sexy formatting and books that are generally really nicely put together.  Honestly, I wish I could show you how great this thing looks on the inside ... and I could, quite easily.  But it would involve taking more photographs, or scanning or something, and honestly, I'm bored with both of those things right now.  You'll just have to take my word for it.

Anyway, as exciting as getting print copies of Whispers From the Abyss was, it wasn't quite so exciting as what Spectral Press head honcho Simon Marshall-Jones sent me.  A little back-story: in 2012 I won a competition with small press Horror publisher Spectral to have a story produced as a chapbook, a competition I only entered because I'd had my eye on them for months as potential publisher for that particular story, The Way of the Leaves.  As well as getting tWotL chapbookised, my prize for winning was a copy of every chapbook Spectral put out henceforward, which was pretty cool because - more so that it has any right to have done for what's still a relatively new imprint - Spectral has become one of the lynchpins of British Horror over the last three years.

Actually it seems an age since I've talked about The Way of the Leaves, and perhaps when it was released it got neglected a little, falling as it did between Crown Thief and Prince Thief coming out.  (Though, that was also partly because it sold out pretty quickly.)  I don't remember even posting any  reviews, and it got some particularly solid ones: Morpheus Tales even reviewed it twice, with J. S. Watts calling it "...haunting, dark and lyrical..." and Stanley Riiks pointing out that it's "...a soul-chilling tale worthy of the Spectral name," that "...builds into a heart-wrenching urban fantasy..."

So, short story long, what Simon sent me was the gorgeous boxed set of the first eight Spectral chapbooks (including my own, obviously) pictured above, which is a pretty great birthday present by any definition.  I mean, look at it!  It's like someone painted the monolith from 2001 red and then it spewed chapbooks.

As a postscript, it would be great to end by mentioning that there were plans in motion that would mean more people got to read The Way of the Leaves, what with it being one of the better things I've written and only having appeared in a limited edition and all.  And maybe there are even plans afoot in that direction.  But if there were then I obviously wouldn't be able to talk about them.  
So I won't.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Style ... What is it Good For?

One of the many things taught to learning writers that I've never much agreed with is that you need to work on developing a style, and the sooner the better.

To me, this is dumb advice for any number of reasons.  In fact, I'm never even sure that the people handing it out are one hundred percent clear on what having a style entails.  All right, they're talking about making an effort to use language distinctively, but you can do that quite easily by relying on a few stock phrases and words of choice, and surely no one considers that a good thing?  Anyway, writing distinctively isn't necessarily a good thing.  A lot of terrible writers have distinctive styles, but often it might be better if they abandoned them and concentrated on just writing well.  Then lastly, if you write for long enough - hell, if you do anything for long enough - then you're going to develop a style whether you like it or not.  You're a unique human being; once you've grasped the fundamentals, there's no way that that uniqueness won't start to find its way into your work, whether you want it to or not.

My own feeling has always been that I'd rather aim to do good work in all sorts of styles, and in all sorts of genres, than to worry about manufacturing one characteristic voice for everything I do.  I'm sure there are common elements between all of my Fantasy stories, for example, but I'd like to think that many of them are different to the common elements in my Science Fiction stories - because if I was writing both genres in exactly the same style then I wouldn't feel like I was doing my job very well.

Or to put it another way, I've always thought that the story should dictate the style and not the other way around.

This is one of the reasons I have huge admiration for film director Robert Wise.  Unless you're a dedicated movie nerd it's likely you won't be familiar with the name, but you'll certainly have heard of some of Wise's movies.  He directed the very first Star Trek - you know, the one with the seven hour shot of the Enterprise in dry dock - and he made both West Side Story and The Sound of Music.  Those films, however, are not why I list him amongst my favourite directors.  No, that would be because he made the greatest Haunted House movie (arguably the greatest Horror movie) of all time, in the shape of The Haunting*, and because he made not one but two of my favourite Science-Fiction films: The Day the Earth Stood Still** and The Andromeda Strain.***

Because, yes, The Haunting and Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Sound of Music, all of those were made by the same guy.  Wise also did more-than-creditable work in the Crime genre (Odds Against Tomorrow, The House on Telegraph Hill), took a stab at War movies, Westerns ... the man could do damn near anything, mostly he did it at least well, and every so often he knocked out a stone cold classic.

Knowing all this, and thinking the way I do, I was thrilled to stumble upon the following quote from Wise:
"I’ve been accused by some of the more esoteric critics of not having a style, and my answer to that always is this - I’ve done every genre there is, and I approach each genre in the cinematic style that I think is appropriate and right for that genre. So I would no more have done The Sound of Music in the thinking and approach that I did in I Want to Live! for anything. So that’s why I don’t have a singular mark but I justify that by saying that it’s just because of the number of genres I’ve done and the cinematic style that’s proper for each one. That’s in my view, of course."
With all due respect, Wise was a little bit wrong about his own work, and so were those esoteric critics; there are definitely recognizable elements across his films, however disparate they might be on the surface.  No one so talented could fail to develop a few stylistic traits and ticks.  Then again, it was a style that Wise was absolutely in command of, and he managed to stretch it to its very limits over the course of his astonishing, more-than-sixty-year career.

To me, consciously trying to develop a style is like designing your own straightjacket.  Might it not be better to spend that time figuring out just what style entails and how best you can make use of it?  Not everyone has to be an auteur, and looking at a craftsman like Wise and his remarkable body of work suggests there's a lot to be said for understanding just what style means rather than getting hung up on whether or not other people think you have it.





* Not the futile 1999 remake with the crummily bizarre CGI ghosts.
** Not the futile 2008 remake with the crummily bizarre Keanu Reeves.
*** Not the futile 2008 miniseries ... no, actually, I hadn't seen that one.  It might be great.  Still, not that one.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Film Ramble: Take Shelter

One of the things I find most exciting about the current state of genre film-making is that I'm no longer one hundred percent sure what the term even encapsulates.  So many of the Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror films I've liked in recent years have hung upon the edge of those categorizations; for where exactly do you place oddities like Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Safety Not Guaranteed, or Seeking a Friend For the End of the World?  And what about a film like Take Shelter, which tells a story ideally suited to a genre movie - a man begins to have vivid visions of an imminent apocalypse - and equally so to something considerably more Art House, and ends up straddling a perilous line between the two?

That story in brief: Curtis (Michael Shannon), a blue-collar worker of limited means - husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and father to a young daughter, Hannah, suffering from deafness, though not beyond hope of cure - begins to experience nightmares and hallucinations of terrible, imminent future events.  Curtis has plenty of reason to doubt himself, not least the fact that his mother is in assisted living after a complete breakdown that occurred during his childhood.  Yet if he's right then the possibility of not acting on what he's seen, horrors that specifically jeopardize his small family, is too awful to contemplate.

From that summary, it wouldn't be hard to read Take Shelter as a work of Fantasy.  And, since much of it, whether it be prediction or hallucination, takes place specifically within Curtis's head, it inarguably is fantasy of a sort.  Or ... take for example a moment during one of Curtis's predictions / hallucinations, where every item in his living room is suddenly drawn up from the ground, as though the house itself has bucked free of gravity.  Everything hovers, as Curtis stares, wild-eyed.  Seconds pass.  Then the furnishings plummet earthward.  The scene is never referred back to, never explained.  Rationally, even within the context of Curtis's visions, it's not quite explainable.  Emotionally, subconsciously, while it's on the screen, it's absolutely convincing.  It's a perfect moment of Fantasy film-making.

Then again, it would be just as easy to interpret Take Shelter as a Horror movie, a reading equally impossible to discredit; if only because director Jeff Nichols is more than okay with wrapping his film up amidst the ideas and imagery of Horror.  Not that it would be easy to make a movie about a man being tormented by apocalyptic visions and doubting his own fragile sanity without at least a little horror slipping in around the edges, but you could certainly make one without the incessant sense of dread that hangs over Take Shelter, or the aggressively unsettling note of unreality.  That scene I just described, for example?  It's truly terrifying, and on a deeply primitive level.  It takes something private and intimate and makes it weird, unruly, discomforting.

Looks like rain...
Yet for all that, Take Shelter for the most part works perfectly well outside the confines of genre.  There's no question but that it's an allegory, the story of an everyman wrestling with the concerns of his particular moment in time; that it's a very specific response to financial crises and wars on terror and climates changing, all of those of-the-moment terrors ramped to quasi-mythical levels.  Strip away the Fantasy, the Horror, and you'd still have a perfectly serviceable movie about a man who knows that awful things are happening, who wants to protect his family, and has no idea how to reconcile the one against the other.

But let's back up.  Because that scene, in which all of Curtis's household goods are torn loose from the rules of gravity and reality, only to be dashed back moments later with shocking force - a moment so fantastical in concept, so real in practice - sums up a lot of what fascinates me about Take Shelter.  It's open to multiple readings, and it clearly wants to be, but at the same time it makes no compromises in telling its own narrative according to its own terms.  That ambiguity, which permeates every moment of the movie, is quite an achievement, and I'm not sure it could have worked half so fluently without the technologies of modern film-making to back it up.

Which I guess is also a big part of what I find exciting about Take Shelter: I don't see how it could have existed in anything like its current form even a decade ago.  Pluck it from a world in which utterly convincing special effects work can be done on a relatively small budget and you'd have a movie that, if it should even manage to get made, would have to commit itself to being either fantastical or realistic.  Now that's no longer an issue; it can be genuinely ambiguous.  It can take from genre film-making without devoting itself to a genre aesthetic; it can tell a story grounded in a clear and definite reality without being constrained by reality.

In genre literature circles we've been talking about this kind of thing for a while now, or at least something very similar, and placing it under the (maybe not altogether satisfactory) term of Slipstream.  But is Slipstream film-making a thing?  Or, you know what, maybe that shouldn't be a question.  Because on the strength of Take Shelter, and those other movies I name-checked, I'm pretty sure that it is.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

I've Earned A Break

So, where are we?  Late October?  Only I'm writing this a few days earlier, because I'm about to go on holiday (off hiking in the Lake District, to be precise), and since I have no intention of doing anything that might be considered as work next week, and also since I want to go away feeling happy and maybe a little good about myself, here's a post about where all of my ongoing novel projects are currently at.

By way of context, I should mention how I have a bad habit of setting myself crazy targets and then sticking to them, even when there's a chance that doing so might kill me and possibly others in my vicinity.  This is something I'm working on; in the shorter term, I did worry that trying to finish drafts of three novels plus all the other things I had planned for my first year of writing full time might be a bit on the insane side.  As such, if there's one fact I'm glad for right now it's that not only am I on target, it hasn't proven apoplexy-inducingly difficult to stay there.  Nor, for that matter, has it been anything like easy.  Which I seem to remember from some government-mandated training course I did once is pretty much the ideal for targets.

Now I'm cheating a little, because once I get back (which, I guess, is when I'm posting this), there'll still be another week for things to go hideously wrong in; but assuming that doesn't happen, here's where all of my current projects should be by the end of this month:
  • To End All Wars, the World War One-set Science-fiction novel I began at the start of the year, will be half way through its second draft.  And it feels like it's coming together nicely.  Given that my biggest issue with the first draft was its wordiness, it's satisfying to be going at the thing with a bone saw.  That first draft was a little over 103'000 words; I'm confident it will end up somewhere around ten thousand words shorter than that.  Whatever happens, I'm liking it a lot, and I'm still comfortable with saying it's the best novel I'm written so far.  Although that may change at any time, because...
  • Degenerates, the book that began as a rewrite of 2010's difficult second novel War For Funland and has since turned into a whole new, vastly more interesting thing with the skeleton of War For Funland wriggling beneath its muscles, will be finished in first draft.  I'm way too engaged with it right now to be sure what I think of it, except to say that there was never a point where I felt that War For Funland was entirely a success and there's never been a point where I've felt Degenerates was a failure.  I find myself falling back on that word, interesting; and I keep realizing that at this stage I'm absolutely okay with it being that.  I know that in the next draft I'm going to have to hammer this crazy monstrosity into some sort of shape, but right now, interesting is an adjective I'm comfortable with.
  • Then lastly there's The Bad Neighbour, my first stab at writing a crime novel, which will be past its mid-point and well on the way to an end-of-year finish.  Okay, this is the one thing about which I was maybe lying slightly above: as much as I'm on target (and indeed a fair bit ahead), it's looking like the target itself may be off; something that's been causing me a degree of panic since a) I'm pretty clearly obsessed with targets and b) this should not be a long novel.  It's supposed to be a book that jumps out and kicks you in the throat and then runs the hell away, and if it breaks 100'000 words I'm not sure it's going to be that book.  Still, that aside, I'm plenty happy with it.  It's not a bit like anything I've written, and since a large part of why I chose to write it was to see how far I could get out of my comfort zone before I burst into flames, that makes me feel like at least I'm achieving what I set out to.
All of which means there's a solid chance that I will in fact finish three first drafts this year, just like I planned - and perhaps more importantly, that I'll be happy with all three once they're done.  Giving up my livelihood to write full time has been one hell of an experiment, and one that still scares me a little every day.  Until I've got some books ready to sell I've no sure way to judge whether it has a chance of being a long-term success, and in the meantime my only measure is whether I can do the amount and quality of work I feel I should be doing to make a living as a writer.  So it's great to be able to say that right now, by those terms, I'm winning.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Film Ramble: Dragon Hunters

Sometimes it's hard to keep from being defensive in these Film Ramble articles.  For anyone who knows me will know that sometimes I get terribly enthusiastic about movies that are not, by any objective definition, entirely what most other people would call good.
Because try finding a high def version in English.

So here, to give you some idea of whether you might conceivably agree with anything I say about Dragon Hunters - a film that, my god, I adore in a way I know can't be entirely reasonable - are some opening assumptions:

I like animation.  When it's great, it's fair to say that I love animation.  I like Western animation and anime about equally.  I'm happy to watch kids' films so long as they're not awful, joyless, carelessly-made kids' films.  I'm okay with the French sense of humour, unique as it can sometimes be.  And I'd sooner have style than content, but if there's enough style I can get awfully distracted by it.

And Dragon Hunters, by the standards of what it is - a just-about-feature length, CG-animated, French Fantasy movie aimed quite squarely at kids - has no shortage of style.  It is, in fact, all sorts of stylish.  It's also, in places, quite brazenly and stupefyingly beautiful.  Judged solely on its most beautiful scenes and images, I would say that it's the single most beautiful CG-animated film I've seen.  And I've seen most of them.  Is it more beautiful that the opening third of WALL-E?  More beautiful than that sequence in Monsters University where they enter the real world?  More beautiful than the frequently-beautiful Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs?  Yes, yes and yes, at least at its very best.  And if you're at all interested in animation, let alone computer-generated animation, that alone should be reason enough to take a look.

Now imagine that everything is moving.
 Unfortunately it's impossible to convey any of this in a still image - because at its best, Dragon Hunters doesn't only present astonishing scenes but moves its characters through them in genuinely imaginative, interesting ways.  Then again, it's a film that does almost everything in interesting ways, even when what it's doing isn't inherently all that interesting.   Its characters are archetypal on the surface, full of charming wrinkles in practice, and the character designs are gloriously eccentric, perhaps all the more so for having apparently each wandered in from different movies.  Its plot is straightforward - dragon about to end the world, mismatched cast thrust together to save the day - and yet its details are everything but.  Because that world that needs saving?  That would be a vast archipelago of islands and planetoids each with their own gravity, and man-made structures drawn from every place and era of human culture, all in a constant but steady process of disintegration.  Its action sequences are ingenuous and joyfully silly and, like the animation in general, preoccupied by doing interesting things with space and movement and in playing with the medium itself, in a way that so few films are.

Oh, right, and there's this kind of blue rabbity dog creature that pees fire.  For absolutely no damn discernible reason.  And it has a character called Sir Lensflare. Whose introduction just happened to the point where I went from puzzled affection to outright adoration.

Now, even as someone who clearly adores it, I'd admit without a thought that Dragon Hunters is a long way from perfect - and even perhaps falls shy of being the most perfect version of the film it might have been.  It flirts so heavily with elements of cliche that there are some who are bound to simply see it as cliched, and it only works even slightly if you surrender in the first few minutes to its internal logic - or rather, lack thereof.  There's something faintly but insistently wrong-feeling about the translation from French to English, which leaves characters speaking too quickly and far too much, and that French humour, which bounces fairly evenly between childishness and being downright weird, doesn't always translate well. Of its three central characters, two have the potential to be hugely irritating, and at points are clearly meant to be hugely irritating, and that's an awfully big gamble for any movie, let alone an animated kids' film.

Still.  It is beautiful - often astonishingly so - and it's almost bloated with interesting design choices, and silly and good-hearted and frequently, gloriously strange.  And if you're in tune with, let's say three out of five of the assumptions I set out above, I think there's a fair chance that you'll have fun with Dragon Hunters

Monday, 13 October 2014

Why I Joined Authors United

I guess "because I was asked" isn't an answer?

It's true though; or a part of the truth, anyway.   On July 3rd this year I got an e-mail via the SFWA, drawing my attention to an ongoing dispute between retail leviathan Amazon and publishing giant Hachette.  As the e-mail pointed it, such disputes are far from unusual; what was different in this instance was that Amazon had chosen to penalize Hachette by boycotting their products, which in this case meant books, which in turn meant boycotting the works of a considerable number of writers who were little more than innocent bystanders to the conflict.  In response, author Douglas Preston was intending to post an open letter of protest, and was looking for other authors who'd be willing to put their name to it.  Having read through what he'd said and done a little digging, I decided it was something I wanted to be a part of.

I guess my reasoning came down to two things.  Firstly, as a consumer more than as an author, I've been growing increasingly fed up with Amazon.  Some of the reasons are relatively minor: I got fed up with them when I took up their Prime trial offer and had a series of lousy experiences with unscrupulous couriers trying to meet unattainable targets.  I've been fed up with them since they took over Lovefilm, my movie-providing life blood, and ran it into the ground in ways that seem intended to push users to buy more stuff on Amazon.  Then again, some of the reasons have been more serious: I got deeply fed up with them when I saw that, during a period of brutal economic cutbacks, they continue to pursue a policy of what looks a lot like deliberate and calculated tax avoidance.  In short, my consumer relationship with Amazon had been suffering a death by a thousand cuts, until I'd come to view it as a company that liked to throw its weight around in ways I felt I was unwilling to support.

Despite all that, though, I think it was the second thing that clinched my decision.  Because the second thing is that I don't like seeing authors get a raw deal; and often, too, I get tired of the lack of cohesion in a field that could desperately use some.  Authors United, as it would come to be known, looked like a valid attempt to draw writers together in a meaningful cause, and that alone was enough to peak my interest.  In a sense it didn't matter that it wasn't a cause that directly affected me, or many of those being asked to involve themselves.  In a sense, that was the entire point.

Now here we are in October, the Amazon / Hachette feud is still a thing - and so is Authors United.  And despite being offered numerous opportunities to retract my signature, I'm still a member.  Will I see it through to the end?  Who knows?  And at this point, who can begin to guess what the end will mean?  At any rate, while there have been some points in their communications that could certainly have been phrased a whole hell of a lot better, I still feel like AU is doing more good than harm.  And if my presence and the presence of writers like me is useful for one thing, it may at least puncture the absurd myth propagated in some quarters that the group consists of nothing but high-earning, A-list authors - for I am clearly neither of those things.

Which I suppose is the reason for this post.  Because by the same measure, a lot of people (and notably, Amazon themselves) seem intent on turning the Hachette / Amazon situation into an argument between old-style publishing and Amazon's brave new world, or between print and e-books, or between outmoded traditionalists and self-publishing revolutionaries.  And there's no doubt it shades into all of those topics; it touches on a whole host of things, and the fallout of this dispute will undoubtedly have vast repercussions for the publishing industry and perhaps for consumerism in general.  But for me, what's at stake here is that Amazon is callously attacking the livelihoods of my industry colleagues so that it can plow more money into its already heaving coffers, and asides from finding that a disagreeable prospect, I have no dog in this fight.  I've little loyalty to traditional publishing or to print as a medium, and certainly none whatsoever to Hachette.  All this is to me is two companies throwing authors into the firing line - and while Hachette are surely not blameless on that front, Amazon have been the main culprit at every turn. 

Also ... they purposely misquoted George Orwell to suit their corporate agenda, in what would appear to have been an entirely unironic fashion.  And frankly, if it weren't for all the other reasons together, that one alone would have done it.  For wasn't it Orwell himself who said, "those who misquote 1984 are condemned to repeat it"?*





* No, it wasn't.  But I'm pretty sure Orwell said something about "those who misquote that quote about forgetting history are condemned to, um, something something something bad." **

** No.  Wait.  I made that up too.