Sunday, 30 November 2014

Working Through My Issues With NaNoWriMo

From the moment I first discovered NaNoWriMo I was convinced that it was about the dumbest,
most self-defeating idea I'd ever come across.

I only mention this here and now because someone - specifically, Sam at the SRFC-style event in York last weekend - did a surprisingly (well, surprising to me, anyway) good job of convincing me that just possibly I'd gone and got the wrong end of the stick.  And so, as much as a part of me would like to, I can't just write a post full of seething anti-NaNoWriMo vitriol. 

Still, I've been irritated by the thing for so damn long now that I can't just let it go, either.  So to kick off, here's at least a little bit of vitriol:

- 50'000 words, the NaNoWriMo base goal, is by no definition a novel.  I know that's an obvious and much-made point, but there's no exaggerating just what a useless length 50'000 words is: too little to expand into an actual novel, too much to trim to a novella.  When the heart of your concept is that flawed, surely there's reason for a rethink?

- 50'000 words may not be a novel, but it's still a whole hell of a lot.  At 1600 words a day and change, it's not like it's not doable; but writing that fast, every day, around other commitments?  Odds are that most people, working at that pace, assuming they don't just give up altogether, are pretty quickly going to start flinging crap at the page like a depressed monkey in an about-to-close zoo.  A few writers are well-suited to working flat out, day in, day out; many aren't.  In this sense, it seems to me that NaNoWriMo is pushing something that will be productive for only a tiny minority as a writing-apathy panacea.

To take that point further: writing at full pelt for one month in the year goes against the single piece of advice that every professional seems to agree on: write every day, even if it's only a little.  Becoming a writer isn't about throwing words around like crazy for thirty days in the month and then forgetting about it for the other 335; it's about writing often enough, and well enough, that writing well becomes a habit.

- Put that all together and it seems like you have a finely tuned system for generating millions of crummy none-novels, at least some of them from people who might be producing good work if they weren't following all of these arbitrary rules; if, in fact, they stopped imagining that novel-writing is (or can be, or should be) an easy win and accepted that if it's worth doing it's worth doing properly. 

There we go then: my objections.  Well a few of them, anyway; I mean, I could easily go on.  Yet as much as I still stand by all of that - Sam was persuasive, but not that persuasive - what I perhaps didn't fully appreciate until last weekend is just how much people are taking the NaNoWriMo framework and subverting it to their own needs.  It's not that those doing it necessarily fail to see that it's problematic; these days, it's maybe more about taking that existing model and contorting it into something that's genuinely useful.

Perhaps the reason that NaNoWriMo sometimes seems a bit like a cult to those of us on the outside is that, well, it is a bit like a cult.  But there are reasons people join cults, right?  And since it can't be all about the robes, one of those reasons is clearly mutual support.  Although I'd occasionally seen it in action, I hadn't fully grasped just how much group spirit there is around NaNoWriMo, or how cool - and work-enhancing - a thing that can be, until I heard Sam enthuse about it.  Similarly, because I'm basically a slow-and-steady writer at heart, I'd maybe forgotten just what a buzz it can be to chuck out words like your life depends on it, and how doing that can sometimes trip you into that awesome state of writing-on-purified-brain-drugs that's one of the holy grails when you're learning the trade.  I mean, I almost always enjoy writing, and even on the days when it makes me want to tie myself in a sack and throw myself in the river I'd still rather do it than any other damn thing.  But crazy, adrenalin-fueled, hell-for-leather writing?  I can see how a month of that might be an appealing prospect.

So maybe NaNoWriMo doesn't have to mean writing that useless 50'000 nonentity.  Maybe that 50'000 words can become 70'000 or 80'000 words; maybe it can be well planned and plotted in advance and so become the core of something that might actually end up being a real novel.  Or maybe it can be split over a load of different projects, but with the benefit of an awesome support network watching your back, ready to throw some enthusiasm your way the moment you start to flag.  I hope I'm not paraphrasing too much if I say that the impression Sam gave me was this: for those who take writing seriously but still do NaNoWriMo, it's something almost like a holiday.  They're still writing, but for that one month they're writing flat out, riding inspiration and mainlining motivation, surrounded by like-minded people who genuinely give a damn if they succeed and are there to offer support when things look dark and scary.

Anyway, I don't entirely know what the point of all this.  I realise it's not like NaNoWriMo, vast global leviathan that it's become, much needs my approval; nor do I imagine that any of the kerzillion people who've done it this year will much care what I think.  But hey, it's healthy to have debate, right?  Especially when it comes to something that affects so many lives and as has become such an integral part of the industry as this. So please, wade in with your thoughts.  I'm genuinely curious on this one.  Was I right in the first place?  Are my objections mistaken?  Are there more NaNoWriMo virtues that I'm missing?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Thought 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 either.  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.