Sunday, 27 July 2014

On Planning Or Pantsing; or, You Are What You Love but You Aren't What You Do

I read an interview piece recently where a bunch of Nebula finalists were asked whether they considered themselves planners or pantsers* - and was reminded, not for the first time, of just how goddamn annoying I find the question.
THESE are pants.

Right off the bat, I kind of hate that term, "pantser".  All else aside, here in the UK pants are underwear rather than trousers, so it pretty much makes you sound like some kind of sex molester.  I mean, "What are you doing?", "Oh you know, just sitting around here doing some pantsing" ... that's not a conversation you want to have, not unless you have a profound urge to spend the night in a police cell.

But the other reason is, why should I have to choose?  Why should anyone?  Like so many of the things that society presents to us as as binary choices - left wing or right wing, sporty or smart, chocolate or vanilla - planning and pantsing are not mutually exclusive.  They're not even mutually incompatible.  In my own experience, they can pretty much be done at the same time.

As a writer I'm all for personal choice.  I've written Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, Crime and - for want of a better phrase - Literary Fiction, and written them as prose and poetry, comics and film scripts.  I've written tweet-length fiction and novels and everything in between.  I've planned and I've pantsed, and sometimes I've even done those things in public.  And I've usually had sound reasons, but the most personal and for me the most important is, I want to have fun with this stuff.  If writing's a sandpit, I want to play in as much of it as I can while I can.

Not only that but I wholeheartedly believe that experimentation makes you a better writer.  Sure, there's an argument for specialization, and let's face it, many an author has done perfectly well from writing the same book over and over again - and some of them were even really good - but as a rule the way you get better in this industry is surely by stretching yourself rather than by limiting yourself.  It's how you figure out what you can do and what you want to do, the kind of writer you are and the kind of writer you're capable of being.

So maybe you're a hardline planner.  Maybe you just love to pants.  However dodgy one of this things might sound, that's absolutely your right.  And sometimes it's fun to stick labels on yourself; it's a big part of how we human beings conduct our day-to-day existence.  But as a writer all I'm saying is, be wary of letting those labels define what you are or aren't capable of.  Be wary of doing the wrong thing because you've decided it's the thing that you do.  Planning is a tool.  Not planning is a tool.  Every possible approach to what you do is a tool in your toolbox, and it's up to you to decide how you go about using them. 

* For those who don't know, "pantsing" is writing by the seat of your pants - i.e. without a plan.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Book Ramble: Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

At this stage it's becoming apparent what we can expect from an Ian Sales Apollo Quartet novella: alternate histories of the Apollo space program, lovely yet minimalist design, meticulously researched, detail-laden hard science and superficially straightforward narratives with subtle twists, sometimes so subtle you can only understand them by reading the extra-textual material.  Which is something else they all have in common, thinking about it: appendices and plenty of them, though Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (oh, and long, wacky titles!) is relatively light in that department, with the actual narrative taking up a relatively whopping sixty percent of the page count.

So three books in and it's safe to say that there are clear patterns emerging.  However if the similarities are what justify the Apollo Quartet being an actual thing, as opposed to four books with just an author and a design ethos in common, it's the differences that are starting to become more interesting at this point.

I said in my review of The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself that I found it slightly disappointing after the brilliant and BSFA award-winning Adrift on the Sea of Rains.  It's indicative of how good Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is that I now want to go back and reread it to see if I was wrong.  (I suspect I was.)  Like I said, if the similarities are what superficially grab you - and let's face it, there's something intrinsically fascinating about that alternate-history Apollo program concept - it's the fact that within the rules he's set himself Sales is crafting stories with such individually rich identities that's proving most rewarding in the long term.

All of which is to say that, despite feeling very much of a piece with parts one and two of the Quartet, Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is not much like them at all.  For a start, at least half and probably a little more of it is set not outside Earth's atmosphere but beneath the ocean, as Lieutenant Commander John McIntyre and his two man crew venture in the tiny Trieste II bathyscaphe to recover what it soon becomes apparent is a downed spy satellite.  It's not particularly a criticism to say that this is the less interesting of TWtGOWDA's two plots, for while there are some genuine faults - it feels a touch padded, there are only so many times you can use the word 'abyssal' before it starts to stand out - its greatest flaw is simply that it's an intriguing story set beside a superb one.

For plot two follows the Mercury 13, America's all female astronaut team, as they play desperate catch-up with the Russians, with the ultimate goal of putting the first woman on the moon.  You remember how that happened, right?  No, of course you don't, because that's not at all the way it went down.  But perhaps it should have been, for there really was a Mercury 13, and their history - covered by Sales in a brief nonfiction epilogue - is every bit as fascinating as the fiction.

Which is to say, a lot.  Because the Mercury 13 subplot is deeply engaging stuff, and for that matter entirely novel-worthy.  The greatest frustration in Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, in fact, is that of the two plot lines it ends first - and really, that it ends at all, since I could happily have read another three hundred pages.  At any rate, it's thrilling stuff, and absolutely the best kind of feminist fiction writing, in that it makes little surface effort to convince while steadily constructing an argument of just how brazenly ignorant and absurd it is that these woman should not be given exactly the same opportunities as their male counterparts.  It doesn't proselytize, it merely shows, but it shows really well.

Like I said, the McIntyre plot pales a little by comparison, though it more than pays off by the end, when it finally interlocks with its counterpart narrative.  There are also some odd design decisions; I would really have liked a clearer distinction between the fiction and non-fiction sections, though I wonder if the lack of one wasn't deliberate.  I'll be hearing the word 'abyssal' in my nightmares.  I sort of missed have a glossary, even though one wasn't particularly required, certainly not the way it was with books one and two.  And with that, I have no more nits to pick.

Looking back, I realise I was fence-sitting a little on the Apollo Quartet.  It was hard to guess if it would be a thing of greatness or just a great novella and three unrelated sequels.  Well, I'm not fence-sitting anymore.  With Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I have no doubt that this series is going to be masterpiece, even if Sales's forthcoming All That Outer Space Allows turns out to be seventy pages of astronaut-related fart gags.  I have a feeling it won't be; I suspect it's going to be brilliant.  But even if it isn't, I'm damn sure it's going to interesting.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Film Ramble: The Box

The Box was director Richard (Donnie Darko) Kelly's third outing as writer and director, and his first proper go at adapting another writer's work; specifically the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson.  In Matheson's story a device consisting of a box with a single button on top is delivered to a suburban couple, who are told that if they press it two things will happen: they'll receive a large sum of money and someone they don't know will die.  In Kelly's version, the couple are James Marsden and Cameron Diaz, the device becomes the property of a grotesquely scarred Frank Langella, and the roughly two thirds of the film that involve Kelly spinning his own ideas off from Matheson's initial premise are one gigantic barrel of crazy.

It's always an embarrassing position to take in defense of a film to say that it benefits from being watched more than once.  The implication is usually of a plot so involved, so demandingly clever-clever and full of concealed detail that no single viewing could hope to unravel it.  Which, in my experience, is nonsense; I'm sorry, Primer, but if it takes ten viewings and a flowchart to follow you then I'd rather just watch ten other films.

Nevertheless, it's a fact that The Box gains from a repeat viewing.  And I say this in the least apologist fashion possible, in that I readily admit the problem is not Kelly's cleverness but Kelly's rather muddied storytelling.  Regardless, there's no denying that on a second go round the elements that seemed to come wildly out of left-field - hey kids, magic water teleporters that may or may not transport you via Heaven!* - are actually prefigured in as relatively sensible a fashion as they can be, the third act rises more organically out of the first two and many things that seemed random or throwaway begin to slot neatly into Kelly's moral argument.

Because, yes, The Box has a moral argument!  And because I've mostly been throwing faint praise so far at a film that I think deserves entirely genuine praise, let's just say that it's a damned interesting one.  It's also, perhaps, a clue to why The Box plays so much better that second time through: freed from having to  keep track of a winding (though not actually complicated) plot you're left with plenty of time to dwell on what it's all actually about.

Which is in fact a whole load of things, yet another reason it works better on that second viewing.  Because if you look for a single, unifying theme in The Box then you look in vain.  If there's one thing Kelly's filmography so far has proved it's that he has real trouble keeping himself pinned to just one topic.  If I had to pick a subject to say definitively that this is what The Box is about I'd have to go for free will ... much like Donnie Darko, thinking about it.  Is there such a thing as free will?  If we have it, are we capable of doing it justice?  Are we more or less dangerous for making our own decisions?  This is the kind of stuff that The Box throws about with cheerful abandon and, unlike in Donnie Darko, Kelly's answers are far from optimistic.

Again I realise I'm making The Box sound less than great, and once again I feel I should be pointing out how much it really is.  So let's put aside that thematic stuff for a minute and just list some things that it does terrifically well.  Away perhaps from the Coens, I don't know that any director has nailed a period atmosphere as perfectly and unpretentiously as Kelly does here; he offers a gorgeously rich, lived-in evocation of the seventies.  The central relationship, heavily based on Kelly's own parents**, is an equally perfect portrayal of a flawed but loving couple, and Diaz and Marsden deliver creditable work.  It's generally a great-looking film, and maybe a little more so these days when every damn thing has to have that crushing teal and orange cinematography that was interesting for about five minutes a decade and a half ago.  In terms of projecting mood through image alone, Kelly is damn near up there with Lynch, and there are some deeply effective visuals in The Box.

And with all of that, I still feel like I'm apologizing a little.   Maybe that's just a representation of how far Kelly's star has fallen.  Southland Tales was a delirious car crash, the second film of a director drunk on his own hype, and The Box was probably pitched as something of a step back from that ledge.  On paper it must have looked like a fairly straightforward, moderately budgeted sci-fi tale with just a touch of the weird, and it's not hard to imagine Warner Brothers' chagrin when it turned out they'd signed on for a car crash of an only slightly different order.

Well, only on that second watch did it occur to me that I'd rather watch Kelly's car crashes then more careful work from the vast majority of directors.  Because whatever his failings, Kelly makes the exact opposite of what we routinely criticize most genre film-making to be:crazy, esoteric, personal movies full to (over)brimming with interesting ideas.  And while The Box is not his best, because let's face it he'll surely never make a better movie than Donnie Darko, it nevertheless is good and almost great work.

* Part of me thinks I should have marked this as a spoiler, but frankly if you're the kind of person who'd be put off by that plot tidbit then you're almost certainly not the intended audience anyway.

** In retrospect, I think the whole film gains hugely from this fact, and going in knowing it in advance.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Help Someone Nice Go Somewhere Horrible

I've met many nice people in this industry since I became a published writer, and many very capable people, but high on either list would be Anne Zanoni, who as anyone who knows her even slightly will attest is both a lovely human being and a highly accomplished Copy Editor, with an understanding of and devotion to her craft that would do credit to anyone in any profession.  I know this at first hand because Anne did the copy edit on Crown Thief, which is notable amongst the three Easie Damasco books for being the only one where horses behave even vaguely like real horses, objects and people act remotely in accordance with the laws of physics and the geography actually makes a degree of sense.  (Actually I tell a lie, these things are largely true of Prince Thief as well, but only because I thought Anne would be copy editing that one too and was scared she'd tell me off.)

Get up close to the screen and you can actually feel the misery.
My point, lest I start to wander more than I already have, is that Anne is good people.  And she's not been having an easy time of it lately, for various reasons, and right now she has something she really, really would like to do - that being attending the 2014 Worldcon in London.  However, being as freelance Copy Editors are paid about as well as everyone else in this industry, she doesn't have anything like the funds to make that dream a reality.  For this reason she's set up an Indiegogo campaign to try and scrape together the requisite cash.

You can find Anne's campaign page here and her rather more coherent explanation of the whole thing here.  Please take a look and then consider throwing a few quid Anne's way.  Because all else aside, she has some funny ideas about London, and we should all help her to see it for the seamy, noisy, overcrowded hellhole it is.

(Sorry, London.)

Oh, point of trivia: that photo on Anne's Indiegogo page, I took that on my last day of regular work.  Man, I don't miss that city even one little bit.

(Sorry again London.)

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Six Months In

I've actually been working permanently as a writer for about seven and a half months now ... but I tend to discount that first month and a half before Christmas since I mostly spent it allowing myself some slack and addressed some lingering health problems, so by my reckoning it's basically been six months since I began writing full time.

Sadly this is not a cake I made myself to celebrate.
It's been, on the whole, a good six months.  But for a tough relationship break-up and a vicious bought of flu and the fact that you don't go from being physically and emotionally wrecked to joyously happy and Zenishly calm overnight, it might even have been a great six months.  But you know what, good is okay.  Good is, in fact, pretty good.  And I'm glad to say that the personal stuff is much improved: I've finally finished the interminable-seeming work on my sort-of-recently-purchased house; I've been learning and relearning all those life skills that working two jobs pushed to the sidelines; I've been repairing my health, rediscovering neglected friends, even starting to think about actual hobbies.  And most importantly, I've been writing five days a week, writing and editing and researching and blogging and submitting and keeping on top of e-mail, doing all those jobs that fall under the banner of Writer and being able to enjoy it all again.  Like any job it's had its off days, but the good ones have been by far the majority, and given what I gave up and gambled to do this it would have been pretty devastating if that weren't the case.

The upshot of all that is that I've written one and a half new books.  Almost exactly, in fact: To End All Wars is finished in first draft and The Novel Formerly Known as "War For Funland" is well past the fifty thousand word mark.  Add to that a comic and half a dozen short stories and I've produced nigh on 200'000 words, which is somewhere around three times my output of last year or just under twice that of the year before.  At the six month mark.  And most of it, I think, is as good as or better than anything I've done up until now.  I've also redrafted my first novella Patchwerk, thirty thousand words worth, and worked through about the same in short fiction.  And research-wise I've plowed through some twenty books, something I could never have even conceived of when writing was a second job.  I've done everything I'd hoped to get done and maybe a touch more, and while I'm definitely keeping busy it's rarely felt like a slog.

So that's it for the first six months.  Between now and Christmas I'd like to finish The Novel Formerly Known as "War For Funland" - god I'm so bored of calling it that, it's called Degenerates now, okay there I've said it!  I'd also like to get most of the way through an initial draft of my first Crime novel, currently under the working title of The Bad Neighbour.  At the same time I need a chapter plan of novel number seven ready by the end of December, which means figuring out an actual plot, which means a hell of a lot of research into both witchcraft and the Middle Ages.  Then there's the second draft of To End All Wars, a few more short stories, and ... well, whatever else comes up.  Even us obsessive planners can only obsessively plan so much.

The conclusion, if it isn't obvious by now, is that I'm not regretting my hazardous leap out of full time employment and into full time writing.  Right now I feel that even if it fails I still won't regret it.  I've wanted to do this since I was a kid, I understand now how badly I needed to do it, and now I am, and as I think I mentioned somewhere up there, it's good.