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 content than style, 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, again 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 be 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.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Now With Added Art

A grumpy turtle.
It's fair to say I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but that doesn't mean it's always been the only - or indeed the main - thing that I wanted to do with my life.  In my teens, if you'd asked me then I would have mentioned writing definitely, but I'd have probably talked more about wanting to be an artist.  For that was my dream when I was growing up, and if it hadn't been for our glorious educational system - whereby, thanks to some bafflingly half-assed non-teaching, my strongest subject managed to be the only one I failed - it's probably what I'd be doing now.

Still, I'm not bitter.  Well, I am a bit, I failed goddamn GCSE Art because my school couldn't provide a teacher and it affected the entire trajectory of my future, but I'm not that bitter.  Because I love being a writer, and if you asked me to choose between the two - which I guess life sort of did - then I'd choose writing hands down.  However what would have been really neat would have been not to have to choose, and it soon became apparent that that wasn't a realistic possibility.  For the last few years, writing has been a full-time hobby performed around full-time jobs, and it barely left room for things like eating and sleeping, let alone picking up my art again.

A creepy child and creepy standing stones.
But I was always determined that I would.  In fact, looking back, that it was one of the many reasons I was so desperate to get to this point of writing full time: with writing a job rather than a sideline I could go back to being able to have actual hobbies, I could pick up art where I'd left off, and maybe in the long term I could see what might have been.

Only when the time came it was kind of scary ... because what if I'd lost whatever bit of talent I'd had?  I literally hadn't done more than doodle in ten years, and though people would occasionally point out that those doodles were quite nice, my own feeling was that I was struggling to draw a straight line, let alone anything that actually looked like anything.  Obviously then, the logical thing to do was to start with something really difficult.  Like a turtle, say.  Like the one up in the top right.   But, while it took me about two whole months, it did work out better than I'd dared hope.  And since then I've had a picture on the go pretty much constantly; it's staying as a hobby because, hey, that was pretty much the whole point, but it's been one I'm getting an awful lot out of.

Anyway, my existing impetus got a healthy push when I got talking to Mhairi Simpson at Fantasycon and was forced into playing her work-in-progress storytelling card game Be the Bard, despite my protests that telling stories is my day job and I was supposed to be on a break from all that, and also that I was pretty damn drunk.  And lo and behold, it was rather fun - but mainly I got distracted by the cards and the pictures on the cards and the possibility of getting to draw some of those pictures and how fun that would be.  And then I bugged Mhairi to let me do just that, which it turned out she was okay with, enough so that she promptly set me a few to work on ... like that scene with the standing stones up there.  I'm up to four designs right now, and it's great having someone actually asking me to draw things, so that I'd don't just stick with what I know or feel comfortable with.  (Which, by the way, also explains the unicorn.)
A penguin.  No, wait!  A bad-ass unicorn.

Now normally the blog is about writing and this post hasn't been at all, but there are some writing points to be made here, so let's finish up with those.  Or I could just point you to a recent blog post by Andrew Knighton, which says most of what I'd want to say.  But the gist is this: writing, if you put aside the manual dexterity required to hit keys / manipulate a pen / burn words onto a page with only the searing power of your mutant brain, is basically head work, and you can live in your head too much.  Every writer should have a hobby that isn't writing, and it's probably a good move to go for something that requires entirely different parts of your body and mind.  Which works for me, because what I'm discovering is that drawing compliments writing tremendously well, in that it's training me to look harder and in different ways at things I thought I understood - to literally see things anew, using whole other parts of my brain.  This, surely, is a good thing. 

And maybe, just maybe, if I work hard enough for long enough, one day I will be good enough to pass GCSE Art!  Hey, anyone can dream...