Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Moon

I finally watched Moon (hooray) and I unsurprisingly loved it. What I particularly enjoyed wasn't the acting, the effects, the direction or the plot (which were all fantastic) but the way the story was told.

Douglas Jones gave a great deal of credit to the intellect of the audience. There was only one key scene of exposition that I can recall. Generally the story was leaked carefully out in subtle ways, through videos watched, or the ways characters acted. Huge clues were given that you in no way had to pick up on but surely will on a repeat viewing. By the end you had come to a lot of your own conclusions as to what happened, why it happened and the motives of the characters involved.

It's one of those few films that will actually get better on a second viewing akin to
Memento or Primer. Both were also told in complex ways, Primer particularly thanks to its creator's refusal to 'dumb down' the plot and its subsequent near-impossible-to-follow story. Moon may not be quite as complex as either of these two but was in many ways far more subtle and I'm desperately looking forward to rewatching it to see just how much better it will be on a repeat viewing.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

First lines

'It was the day my grandmother exploded.' - Iain Banks, The Crow Road

'When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.' - Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis

'This much I know for sure: My name is Peter Sinclair, I am English and I am, or I was, twenty-nine years old.' - Christopher Priest, The Affirmation

'In spite of all his efforts, Tavenor was unable to remain indoors when it was time for the sky to catch fire.' - Bob Shaw, The Palace of Eternity

It's line like these, particularly the first two, which for so long in my writing inspired and controlled me. Coupled with my longtime inability to proceed with a piece of writing until I had the previous section/chapter perfected, I was desperate to write the perfect opening line. Not just a good opening line. Nearly all novels have those. Not a great opening line; one that suits the tone and themes of the novel perfectly. A lot of novels have those. But a brilliant, punch-in-the-gut, rips you from reality and places you in the world of the novel, line.

I became somewhat obsessed with it and despite all this never succeeded. I believe the best I ever came up with was:
'A dead fish floated in the bay.'
Gripping.
Still working on this same story some time later, I gradually came to the opinion that although a line like Banks's, and Kafka's would be fantastic, they aren't necessary. As long as the first page hooks you, the first line merely has to be not-bad and that's not asking the impossible. So this first line of mine, in some sort of cathartic act finally became:
'A dead fish no longer floated in the bay.'
It was now obtuse and bizarre and acted mainly as a reminder to myself that this first line obsession was mostly pointless and not as important as I had myself believe.
Then, some time later I lost that whole section altogether.
As long as my first line isn't bad, I think I'm happy now. At least that's my excuse.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Paradox

I caught up with Paradox last night, intrigued to watch yet another sci-fi show starting on the BBC. Unlike Defying Gravity of which I knew nothing about, I was somewhat wary of Paradox.

Firstly everyone was comparing it to
Minority Report which could have just been an unfair simplification of Paradox, or worrying signs of unoriginality.

Secondly it has Tamsin Outhwaite in it and she's not exactly the most animated, likeable or indeed talented actress out there.

Thirdly it's a UK drama. I don't mean to have a go at British TV but we try, and generally fail, to produce TV as gripping, as well-written and as slick as the USA. We always go for grit over style and ex-soap stars over unknown but exciting talent.

Anyway, I watched the show and it was alright. All three of my fears were sadly confirmed in varying degrees of accuracy. Outhwaite was passable, the script was pretty dire and the whole concept wasn't exactly startling new. It's unfair to say that
Paradox is merely a rip-off of Minority Report when in fact it's derivative of pretty much any sci-fi that has incorporated time-travel or seeing the future.

Donnie Darko, Twelve Monkeys, Minority Report, Next, Paycheck have all covered ground that Paradox retraced. These are just the first five films that popped into my head. Add to these the TV shows and hundreds of books that have done similar things and it's not looking good. The last three are even all based on short stories by PKD. It doesn't have a gimmick or neat idea to make it stand out so it seems unlikely that we'll remember Paradox in some decades time.

But forgiving it these foibles, oh and the annoyingly clich├ęd broody, unsociable genius that was the scientist, it was pretty entertaining. The ending, though not perfect was far better than I was expecting and came as something as surprise to my cynical eyes. Perhaps this show will have to rely on shocks and keeping the viewer guessing in order to keep us watching.

I think I'll watch the next episode just because. For now I'm unimpressed with
Paradox but I was entertained.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Motivation

I'm finding it hard to get motivated at the moment. Not a surprising thing for a writer, I guess. I used to be appalling at getting motivated and keeping faith in my projects. I must have started around 5 novels before, gotten to about 15,000 words and eventually lost interest and given up. Most of that came down to my inability to move on to the next chapter until I was absolutely happy with the previous one. As such, it was near impossible trying to get a flow going but it was a habit I couldn't break.

In June this year I set myself a target of writing 500 new words a day, forgetting about them being decent and just trying to get a rough, rough draft done. By the end of September I had 60,000 words, most of them crap but I had a novel, just about. Throughout October I read over the chapters and took notes on what was wrong with the plot and characters.

In the first week of November I started redrafting these chapters and found I'm slipping back into my old ways. I've set myself a target of getting it all redrafted by February, which means redrafting two chapters per week. Currently I've done one and a half. I'm not worried that I'll fall behind, I'm worried that I'll lose interest altogether.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Cover art

Much to the pleasure of publishers, I can't help but be drawn to a book by its cover art. Though I try to avoid buying brand new, unread books due solely to a doodle on the front, I find myself buying second-hand books this way. I often want to replace books I already own once I discover a different edition with superior cover art.

I'm particularly a fan of the trend of having a simple cover depicting one key element of the novel's plot - an element that's importance and relevance only becomes important once you've read the novel.

Below are four of my favourite covers from my sci-fi collection. Each depicts a key event or item in each novel; the comet shower; the Curious Yellow Vurt feather; a can of Ubik; a doorway to another world. All are incredibly slick, effortlessly cool and deeply powerful.
I often think about what I'd want on the cover of a book should I ever get published. A pipe dream sure, but the mind wanders. Yet the more I've discussed this topic with other sci-fi writers, the more I've decided that I think I'd rather have a classic trashy cover than a minimalistic one. A messy drawing of an astronaut in a jumpsuit standing in shock as an omnipresent alien towers over him. Partly it's a loyalty to the roots of sci-fi, as well as being more fun and reminding me of my childhood.

I have such vivid memories of trying to get into such books when I was about eight. I'd pick up a book because the cover depicted a jumpsuit-wearing man fighting off a pterodactyl on an alien planet as a gleaming spaceship roared to his rescue. But upon reading these books, I could never appreciate the story inside and would end up flicking through the text vehemently searching for the word 'pterodactyl' or 'spaceship.'

Below are some classic examples of such covers - covers I'd love should I ever get published. I welcome the trashy, sci-fi stigma that comes with these illustrations. It's a stigma that usually comes with sci-fi anyway.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Defying Gravity

I caught the double-bill of Defying Gravity by chance a couple of weeks ago and couldn't believe my luck that a brand new sci-fi show was starting on the BBC. What's more, I saw it was a 13 episode-long series (the maximum length to get the most out of any TV show) and looked like it could be a fantastic serious addition to the sci-fi genre.

Three episodes in (I'll catch last night's episode later on iPlayer) and I still can't make my mind up. It's not bad, but I can't say I'm enjoying it. I'm sticking with it partly because I'm hoping it will take a few episodes to pick up speed - like The Wire. But I think I'm mainly sticking with it out of mad, stoic, sci-fi solidarity.

Though sci-fi literature is still fairly cult, sci-fi cinema and TV are phenomenally popular. What with the recent influx of American TV shows, a fair few have been sci-fi. The two biggest, Lost and Heroes, have been enjoyable yet undoubtedly nonsensical. Heroes I found particularly disappointing and gave up after series 1. Lost I'm still battling along with. Then there was Eureka! which was pretty entertaining but for all the wrong reasons. The mini-series The Lost Room has been the only sci-fi series of recent that has really blown me away. I'm beginning to doubt that Defying Gravity shall be the next.

Defying Gravity's first problem is that it's far too slow-moving for its own good. There's just not enough focus on the majesty of space. Instead there's too much concentration on characters' libidos and a few piss-poor attempts at tension. Were we ever likely to believe they'd kill off the female lead in episode 2?

Defying Gravity's second problem is it's Lost-like mystery. Something in Pod 4 aboard the craft is somehow controlling the events of the crew's voyage. It's surely some kind of extraterrestrial being or god. Now I think religion and sci-fi are a perfect marriage - both are about discovering the secrets to life and the universe. But in Defying Gravity the pairing seems jarring. I've checked the episode outlines on Wikipedia and apparently the crew find out in episode 9 what the thing is. I hope we find out too. I can't be bothered getting into another series, waiting for series upon series for a revelation that could never live up to the hype. Of course the flip side of the coin is that 9 episodes in, Defying Gravity could well lose the only thing keeping me interested...