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Archive for the ‘Idle musings’ Category

Stay in School, Kids

Education is very important, and so I have decided to take a moment to briefly pause in going on about old movies and instead talk about a colleague. She is one of the most dedicated teachers I know, works much harder than I could ever dream of doing, and I am proud to be one of her many friends. She is one of the most universally well-loved people in the office, which is no mean feat considering the very high standard of people on the desks around me. I suspect she will be very embarrassed by this, which is why I am not revealing her name but instead just putting a big photo of her here:

tabI feel I should also point out that she is teaching a lesson about blogging very soon and wants to use this site as an example, and it does rather appeal to my mischievous side to make her teach with an enormous photo of her own face projected onto the wall behind her. What can I say, I’m a bad person.

But all the things I said at the top of the page are still true….

 

 

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For quite a while now, I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen (a low-ish number, as you can probably imagine) that any proficiency I have as an English language teacher is partly due to having spent a good few years Games Mastering various role-playing games, and I’ve gone so far as to suggest that GMing (or DMing, or Storytelling, or whatever) is the best way of building up a TEFL teacher’s skill set short of actually being in a classroom.

The slightly odd thing is that, to all intents and purposes, it looked like I’d stopped playing RPGs for good in 2004, a couple of years before I even considered going into teaching. Now I’m teaching for a living in the week and running a game session at weekends for pleasure, the parallels are even more weirdly apparent. Permit me to share a few of them with you.

I’m not sure there is any practical value in this, by the way: becoming a Dungeon Master would be an odd way of going about your CPD if you were a teacher, and I wouldn’t advise basing your career choice on the fact it’s vaguely like something you enjoy doing in your spare time. Nor am I suggesting a language lesson and a game session are functionally the same activity, because they’re clearly not.

Some role-players yesterday, obviously. (No drinks allowed in my class.)

Some role-players yesterday, obviously. (No drinks allowed in my class.)

All Right, The Obvious Differences

1. Money.

Language teaching is a professional transaction, obviously: the students are (indirectly or otherwise) paying you to provide a service to them. Gaming is a social activity for which nobody gets paid (apart from that guy with the beard who’s being employed to run Apocalypse World on Roll20, of course).

That said, I’d say a more relaxed lesson is always better than an up-tight one, and a too-relaxed game session has problems of its own. I suppose what I’m saying is that gaming is a social transaction with an implied social contract of its own, which I’ve heard argued is something too often left implicit or unexamined. I agree with this.

2. Numbers.

Nearly every game I’ve ever run has had two to four players; I’ve never had a positive experience (or indeed a prolonged one) GMing for six or more people, nor have I ever played in one (unless you include a mass Masquerade LARP event I attended in Huddersfield in 1996). Three’s very much on the low side for a group class, and I’ve taught as many as sixteen people with no major problems. Conventional GMing of any quality becomes impossible, I would argue, once you hit about eight players.

That Said, Those Similarities

1. Many Different Flavours

In the same way I wouldn’t prep for a Vocab class in the same way I would a Grammar class, or indeed conduct the lessons in exactly the same way, I wouldn’t prep for a session of D&D in the same way I’d get ready to run Numenera. There’s a spectrum in TEFL lessons of accuracy as opposed to fluency – correctness as opposed to communication, to simplify just a bit – as well as a wide variety of different types of activity you could conceivably include: games, controlled exercises, free conversation, and so on.

In the same way, there’s a spectrum in RPGs, this time with the almost-pure-tactical wargame (complete with maps and tokens) at one end, running through to the almost-pure-storytelling rules-light type of game at the other. I could also go on about different GMing and game styles, like Sandboxing, Railroading and Illusionism, but that’s a substantial topic that probably deserves an in-depth look of its own.

In short, what you mean by both ‘a lesson’ and ‘a session’ can include a variety of different things, depending on exactly what you’re doing.

2. Differing Expectations

‘I want to learn about prepositions, not just practice conversation,’ says the language student.

‘I want to break heads and steal treasure, not talk about my character’s background,’ says the gamer.

In both cases it can be a serious problem if different group members have very different ideas as to what constitutes decent use of their time, or if they have an idea of what the teacher/GM’s role should be that the teacher/GM doesn’t actually share: if they think the teacher is just there to deliver language clarification which they passively absorb, or the GM is just there to procedurally implement an inviolable ruleset, there will be trouble. They will object to a communicative task-based teaching style, they will equally object to a more actively-GMed scenario. In both cases the trust relationship is very important.

In TEFL it’s standard to talk to a class if there seem to be potential problems and manage expectations – I think this is partly because there is money involved and there is an understanding on everyone’s part that the class will take place, no matter what. In gaming the same types of discussions only ever usually happen on the most superficial level, even when it comes to fundamental things like game duration and attendance.

3. Latecomers and No-shows

My workplace has various policies for handling people who don’t turn up to class, or who turn up late. Given the choice I marginally have less of a problem with people who don’t turn up at all, as this is less disruptive to the people who’ve come in than having to integrate someone who appears half-way through the lesson.

It’s kind of the same with games: I have less of an issue with players who don’t appear than ones who turn up an hour late expecting to be integrated into the ongoing story. One difference, however, is that players with spotty attendance make it incredibly hard to run longer scenarios that span multiple sessions: you have to build in natural ‘pause points’ where people could conceivably wander off and stop then, rather than ending on a cliffhanger (my natural preference).

The lesson has to happen for contractual reasons, even if most of the class are no-shows: everyone wants the game to happen, if at all possible, because they’ve likely been looking forward to it. But in either situation you have to manage people not showing up.

4. Spotlight Time

You have loud students and quiet students; you also have loud players and quiet players. They’ve all come for the same reasons and they all deserve to go away feeling satisfied. This is one of the situations where GMing can feel eerily like TEFL teaching: you find yourself almost subconsciously aware of how long it’s been since you spoke to each other person, and how long it’s been since they spoke at all. In most language lessons, if a person isn’t speaking they’re probably not benefiting as much as they could, and in most of the games I’ve played (which have primarily been done verbally), if someone’s not speaking much it’s a sign they may not be having a good time.

It’s basically the same skill, implemented for the same reasons. The smaller group size in gaming tends to make the task a little easier, though; this may be why I prefer a group of three or four myself.

Small game sizes also permits you to tailor things a little more to your individual gamers, something a teacher is ideally at least conscious of with regard to his or her students. Making sure a student has a chance to practise their pronunciation or a tense they struggle with isn’t quite the same thing as ensuring Dominic the vampire has the opportunity to use his hypnotic powers at some point during a game, but, again, it’s not entirely dissimilar.

5. The Full-brain Workout

This may be why I find both teaching and GMing to be such hugely satisfying activities, because both of them can be very challenging, but commensurately rewarding when things go well.

In both cases, your brain is operating in a number of different modes, switching between them rapidly to suit the demands of the lesson/game. In teaching, you’re variously monitoring the students, thinking about the pace of the lesson and how much time you’ve got left, adapting your plans on the fly to accommodate how things have gone and the time factor, improvising new activities as necessary, responding to unexpected student queries, framing a technical grammar or vocabulary explanation, running a skills activity or game, and so on. Some of these jobs are managerial, some are technical, some are knowledge-based, some are creative. You are never bored.

In a game, you could again be listening to the group discuss strategy or a mystery they’re trying to solve, implementing a complex rule involving numerous dice-rolls by yourself and different players, playing through a complicated combat requiring you to track things like initiative and the health and abilities of multiple antagonists, figuring out how to get the story to a convenient break point around the same time as the session is due to close, inventing a new encounter on the fly to nudge the players in a more interesting direction, role-playing the leader of the mutant tribe the players are trying to trade with, and so on. Again, there is a huge variety of different task-types, and again,  you are never bored.

I could go on to talk about different prep styles used by different flavours of teaching and role-playing, but I think this is the key thing that resonates for me. When I did my first teaching practices nearly ten years ago, I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of variables I had to keep track of: ‘it’s like spinning plates,’ I would say. But gradually I mastered it, and I was eventually able to identify the strange similarity to GMing I think I’d sensed all along – because there’s a lot of plate spinning down the dungeon, too.

There is one more thing, too.

6. The C Word.

You can go to your lesson carrying a detailed lesson plan written out on paper, the rules for the third conditional freshly revised in your head, a sheaf of handouts six inches thick and every modern teaching app known to man on your phone or tablet.

In the same way, you can turn up to your game with every rulebook in the game, beautiful handouts, maps and miniatures for every encounter, the greatest dungeon ever designed, and beautiful crystal-effect dice of every size from d4 up to d20.

You can have all these things, and the most positive and accommodating group of players and/or students imaginable, but both your lesson and your session are not going to fly unless you have one other thing. Players and students always know when you’re without it, and don’t like it when you don’t. All the other stuff is just there to make sure you have it when you most need it.

And that thing is confidence in your ability, either as a GM or a teacher. It’s hard to acquire and easy to lose, but in the final analysis it’s the only thing that counts. I suspect this is something which is true much more widely than just in teaching or gaming, but in both these arenas you’re really confronted with that fact. And that’s probably a useful thing to know, whether it comes from conjugating infinitives or confronting infernals.

 

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It has been a fairly joyless few weeks, what with the demise of Top Gear (genuinely one of the very few current TV shows to make me laugh out loud), the passings of Leonard and Sir Terry, and the still-looming spectre of a possible Tory-UKIP government in a few weeks time, with the incalculable damage that might inflict on this green and pleasant land. So it was nice to get some good news on Tuesday with the promised return, even if only for a few weeks, of The X Files.

The X Files

I’d been expecting this for ages but I was still surprised – not by the news, but by the strength of my own response when it was confirmed, and also by the fact that a lot of other people were equally delighted. Some of these were folk who I would never have pegged as being the type to spend time in the cult ghetto, and I suppose it all goes to show the extne to which The X Files broke out to become a mainstream phenomenon.

For a while, in fact, I was almost transported back to those heady days of twenty years ago, when the series was receiving its first terrestrial broadcast on BBC2 and rapidly acquiring a buzz. I seem to recall being rather dubious about the first episode, probably because I was under the mistaken impression that this was intended to be some kind of drama-documentary in which the characters would investigate real-life paranormal cases every week. But the second episode, which is still a favourite, won me over completely, while the third…

Well, the thing about the third is that – if you have been living in the cult ghetto since the age of about 7, as I have – it doesn’t try very hard to hide its roots. Squeeze is the story of a very strange killer with superhuman longevity, compelled to kill five victims every thirty years or so. The resemblance to the second Kolchak TV movie, The Night Strangler – which concerns a very strange killer with superhuman longevity, compelled to kill five victims every thirty years or so – is, to say the least, striking. Of course, chief X-honcho Chris Carter soon went on the record admitting that Kolchak was the inspiration for The X Files, and all this had the added bonus of allowing those of us who were already into Kolchak to feel rather smug and ahead of the game (I say ‘us’, but it’s probably just ‘me’, let’s face it).

Needless to say I bought the T-shirt and a number of posters, eventually winding up with all nine series on VHS (mostly second-hand). I also ended up with a copy of the magazine containing Gillian Anderson’s legendary first photo-shoot, which at one point was changing hands for insanely high prices – I think I’ve probably missed the peak of the market when it comes to selling my own, but fingers crossed the new series will see a bit of a resurgence in interest.

My favourite extended run of X Files episodes is still probably the first series, which is less constrained by its own mythology and more interested in tackling classic horror and SF archetypes – it does the ghost story, the werewolf story, the killer AI story, and so on – but it would be foolish to deny that for most of its run this was a show which managed to sustain a very high level of quality, the production values looking good even when some of the actual scripts were either dodgy or impenetrable. And when the episodes were good there was no cleverer programme on TV.

Nevertheless, I think it would be foolish to deny that the series did outstay its welcome just a bit: the final two largely Duchovny-less seasons often felt like they were reducing the show to a feeble shadow of its former self, and the ongoing meta-plot with the alien oil and the Syndicate and the alien super-soldiers just seemed to be getting more and more involved, rather than actually progressing at all. And it was quite sad to see the series, having achieved a rare move to BBC1 prime time, slowly being relegated back to the small hours on BBC2 as audiences fell off.

This should not detract from the cultural impact of the show, of course. Mulder and Scully went on The Simpsons. Catatonia sang a song about them. You only have to look at the sheer volume of knock-off series which came out in the mid-to-late nineties – you can perhaps even detect a dash of the influence in the 1996 Doctor Who movie, which teams up a rational, intelligent female medic with a flamboyantly eccentric man – or the fact the series was held to be strong enough to support a slew of spin-offs.

I went to see the second X Files movie when it came out in 2008, despite the tepid reviews it received, and my memories are mainly of head transplants, Billy Connolly acting badly, and a dubious subplot about a sick child. And yet I still distinctly recall my strong emotional response to seeing Mulder and Scully again. It was like bumping into two old friends after a long break – obviously they had changed a bit, but it was nice to see them looking well and getting on with their lives, after a fashion.

I’m expecting the same kind of feeling when the new X Files eventually appears. Inevitably one has to wonder what the new episodes have in store, other than the return of Mulder, Scully, and Skinner: virtually every other recurring character had been killed off by the final episode of the TV series, if I recall correctly, so the new episodes may not be able to take the easy route of being a simple nostalgia festival. I’d be wary of an attempt to pretend the last 15 years haven’t happened and just do standalone monster of the week episodes, too, for all that these were some of my favourites. I really hope they don’t attempt to do any kind of ‘passing of the torch’ shenanigans by introducing young, hip, replacements for the two leads – if the final series showed anything, it’s that the magic of the show is in the chemistry between those two characters and performers.

It’s probably too much to hope for, but I’d really like to see an attempt at resolving the ongoing mythology and actually finishing the story off. According to X Files mythology, we were due an alien invasion in 2012, and there’s surely a story to be told about that? I can only imagine how hellishly difficult it would be to recap the existing mythos, in all its insane complexity, while still telling an accessible story for new viewers, but even a failed attempt would be interesting. I suppose we shall see. I am happy to wait; it will give me a chance to consider another great unexplained phenomenon, namely why I don’t have any episodes of this, one of my very favourite TV shows, on DVD. That one at least will be easy to resolve.

(I wonder if it isn’t somehow significant that on this, the tenth anniversary of the revival of Doctor Who, I should find myself writing about the return of another series entirely. What price a proper Doctor Who revival now? Beyond diamonds, I suspect…)

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idelba007pic

…I saw Idris Elba’s name coming up a lot earlier this week in connection with more information released back into the wild as a result of Sony’s current embarrassment. (Sorry palindrome fans, I just couldn’t make it sing somehow.) Apparently, apart from thinking that Angelina Jolie can’t act and possibly thinking about leasing Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios, one of the things that Sony executives like to spend their time doing is thinking about who should be the next James Bond, and – not for the first time – Elba’s name has come up in connection with this.

First and foremost, the thing to remember is that Daniel Craig is still in-post and will be for at least another twelve months: he’s already started shooting Spectre, after all. He’s contracted for the film after that, as well, though Eon do have form when it comes to unexpectedly dumping successful Bonds – just ask Pierce Brosnan. Whether Craig is retained for the c.2018 Bond movie will probably depend on how well Spectre does with the critics, but I’d be surprised if he went. So I doubt the job will be up for grabs much before 2020, by which time Elba will be 47 or so, which would make him the oldest person to take on the role.

But putting this to one side, is colourblind casting an option when it comes to a character like James Bond? There’s no question that Elba is an accomplished and charismatic performer – I thought that this was someone with a lot of potential the first time I saw him, which was in 1998’s Ultraviolet – but, inevitably, issues of ethnicity and diversity raise their heads when this kind of question is asked. The New Yorker, for instance, ran the following impressively subtle and ambiguous cartoon on the topic.

idelba007cartoon

I wouldn’t have said I was a particularly heavyweight Bond fan, but as this is just about the only major franchise from my childhood I still feel a genuine sense of investment with, maybe I should reassess my position. Certainly, on the ‘could a black actor be plausibly cast as Bond?’ question, a couple of things leap to mind – both regarding exactly who the main character is in the series of Eon films.

The notable thing about Casino Royale is that it is a hard reboot of the Bond series: this isn’t just a new leading man, but a new version of the character, and this is made clear in the movie. This naturally gave Craig and the film-makers a lot of latitude which was, perhaps, denied to Pierce Brosnan. The logical question for those of us who worry too much about trivial stuff is, therefore, one of whether we’re supposed to regard all the preceding films as happening to the same person.

The Bond films are so connected to real-world geopolitics and technology that it’s very difficult to argue that they don’t all happen in or around the year they were released, and this instantly makes it massively implausible that the man who visits Jamaica in 1962 is the same one dropping into South Korea in 2002. Clearly there have been most likely a number of soft reboots along the way, but the question is when this happened.

There is a school of Bond thought that, actually, in the context of the films themselves James Bond is only a codename assigned to a succession of individual agents (in same way Matt Damon’s character is renamed Jason Bourne in that other franchise). It’s an idea, I suppose, but one with virtually zero evidence to support it on-screen beyond George Lazenby’s jokey cry of ‘This never happened to the other feller!’ at the start of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Set against this must be the same film’s painstaking efforts to make the audience believe that Lazenby-Bond is the same guy as Connery-Bond (Bond clears his desk and encounters props from previous films), not to mention various references to Roger Moore’s Bond having been married to the Diana Rigg character from OHMSS.

There are usually so few continuity references between Bond films, so few recurring villains, and such an absence of ongoing plotlines, that you can insert the reboots and rewritings of the character’s history pretty much anywhere you like, although the first seven films all seem to be in continuity with other, while some version of the same events seems to have happened off-screen to Roger Moore’s Bond – hence the marriage references and the brief appearance by supposed-to-be-Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only. (In the same way, the appearance of the tricked-out DB-5 in Skyfall is presumably meant to suggest that Craig’s Bond has been through some version of Goldfinger – rather a shame we didn’t get that film instead of Quantum of Solace, but never mind.)

Anyway, it will be interesting to see if the next change of Bonds triggers another hard reboot. Normally I would doubt it, but casting a non-Caucasian actor would really demand it, I suspect: colourblind casting is one thing, but colourblind recasting another.

This still begs the question of whether casting a non-Caucasian Bond is viable, even following a hard reboot. I suspect it depends on how you view Bond himself – if he’s just a generic tough, wise-cracking, ladykilling, male-power-fantasy-fulfilling cartoon, character then there’s nothing that ties the character to any particular ethnic group. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to see him as a coherent, aspiring-to-be three-dimensional character – specifically, the one created by Ian Fleming – then it may be a bit more problematic.

Fleming himself obviously never conceived of Bond as anything but white – he admittedly describes him as ‘dark’ at one point, but also likens him to Hoagy Carmichael. There’s also the fact that Fleming writes Bond as – by modern standards – an appalling racist. ‘Koreans were lower than apes,’ is a representative insight into Bond’s thought processes in the original novel of Goldfinger. On the other hand, this aspect of the character has understandably been dropped from the movie version.

One bit of Fleming which has been retained is Bond’s heritage as a Scots-Swiss orphan. The question, if Fleming’s conception is to be retained, is really one of whether a Scots-Swiss Bond can also plausibly be a non-Caucasian Bond. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I must confess to feeling dubious about the prospects of this idea.

But, if we’re going to think about this in terms of Fleming’s conception of the character, then we’re talking about a white Bond, a very traditionally British Bond, a son of privilege, an elitist, a snob, an imperialist. The question is not just one of whether an acceptable version of all these characteristics can be brought to the screen by a non-white performer, but whether any non-white performers of note would be interested in doing so.

In short, then, I would say that a non-Caucasian Bond is possible, but it would be a departure, and a version of the character more widely removed from the source material than any other up to this point. You might say that Bond has already evolved a long way away from Ian Fleming by this point, and I would agree, but only up to a point. Much of the success of the Craig version of Bond is, I think, down to the way in which the films have authentically returned to the roots of the character. Stepping too far away would undeniably be a risk.

 

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Strange Fruit

A restaurant, early November 2014:

apple
‘Ah, m’sieur, I see you have finished. Was everything to your satisfaction?’

‘Um, well, no, not really…’

‘I am most sorry to hear that. What was the problem?’

‘Well, you know me, you know how much I love the Special Famous Pie. I’ve been eating it for decades, after all…’

‘Mmm-hmmm?’

‘Well – I couldn’t help noticing – you’ve changed some of the apple in the Special Famous Pie to blackberries.’

‘Well, as I am sure m’sieur knows, the recipe for Special Famous Pie is constantly evolving…’

‘Oh, sure, I know. Watching it evolve and become more sophisticated down the years is part of the pleasure, and I know that the way you change the kind of apple you use for the main filling is an essential part of what makes it Special Famous Pie.’

‘And so what is the problem…?’

‘Well, Special Famous Pie is apple pie. If you start putting different fillings in it’s not really the same pie, is it?’

‘Well, sir, I have to say that the new pie is very popular with many people. You may have seen a number of recent blog posts with names like Why Special Famous Pie Could and Should Be Made With Blackberries. I should say that we are probably going to change all the apple to blackberries in the not too distant future. ‘

‘You are? Why in God’s name would you do that?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir, I’d no idea you were that type of person.’

‘What type of person?’

‘The type who is prejudiced against blackberries.’

‘I’m not prejudiced against blackberries, I just don’t want them in an apple pie. I want apple in my apple pie.’

‘Yes, m’sieur, but it’s not called apple pie. It’s called Special Famous Pie. It doesn’t have to have apples in it, don’t you see?’

‘You’ve been making Special Famous Pie for over fifty years, and it’s always, always had apples in it. You can’t suddenly change the heart of the recipe and claim it’s the same thing.’

‘Well, m’sieur, you must recall that Special Famous Pie was invented many years ago, when we lived in an apple-dominated culture, and blackberries have for a long time been under-represented in restaurants…’

‘So make more blackberry desserts. It doesn’t mean you have to put blackberries in the apple pie. It is possible to have both, you know.’

‘Ah yes, but making our Special Famous apple pie using blackberries will be an important statement of principle.’

‘Which principle would that be?’

‘That apples and blackberries are equally good.’

‘No, the statement you’re making is that apples and blackberries are identical, which they are plainly not to anyone with taste buds and a brain. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are fundamentally different things.’

‘M’sieur, it’s very important to have more blackberries in restaurants.’

‘And I’m not arguing with you, but as well as Special Famous Pie you make a lot of other bland and rather dreary apple dishes – you invent a new one every couple of years. Why not stop making those and try making a new blackberry dish instead?’

‘Well, those dishes are not as popular or important as the Special Famous Pie. Also, making an apple dish with blackberries sends an important message that the two of them are of equal importance.’

‘I think it’s sending the message that you’re wilfully trying to ignore the fact that apples and blackberries are two different things. Also that there’s something wrong with apple pie that can only be fixed by making it with blackberries. Which isn’t really much of a fix at all as you’re no longer making apple pie in any meaningful sense.’

‘M’sieur, we are not changing anything. It will have the same name, it will be cooked in the same oven, most of the same ingredients will be same, it will still be a delicious fruit-based dessert -‘

‘Yes, but it was conceived as an apple pie, it became popular as an apple pie, it has five decades of accreted history and traditions as an apple pie, and making it without apple basically means you are making a different pie!!!’

‘The new style Special Famous Pie is going to be a delicious pie, sir.’

‘Yes, I’m sure it will be very popular with people who have it as an article of faith that there is no actual difference between different kinds of fruit. And I suppose there’s even a chance that it will be a good pie. But it won’t actually be Special Famous Pie, because that’s made with apple. That’s an essential part of the character.’

‘The character, sir?’

‘The character of the pie, I mean. What you’re talking about is a new pie with a completely different character. I can’t believe you’re doing this. You wouldn’t do this to any other dish.’

‘Well, that’s what makes Special Famous Pie so special, sir, that we can do this to it. No other pie has both a tradition of regularly changing its recipe and is so non-specific about its ingredients.’

‘You mean that because it isn’t specifically called Special Famous Apple Pie, the apple which is the main ingredient is somehow dispensable? That’s nonsense. You have no idea about what makes Special Famous Pie work.’

‘Well, perhaps, but we are in charge of it and we can do what we like. In the end it is only a pie, after all.’

‘Maybe so, but it’s still a pie I love and it makes me very angry to see it mucked about with this way. If there is no place for traditional Special Famous Pie with apples in it I’d rather you just stopped making it entirely than carried on with this slightly absurd travesty of a pie.’

‘Well, m’sieur, look at it this way: if the new style pie fails we can always go back to making the old pie. I expect we will alternate between apple and blackberry fillings anyway, in future.’

‘But – but – you’re still making two different kinds of pie and pretending they’re the same one. You’re still ignoring how the world actually works. Apples and blackberries are two different things.’

‘I’m sorry, sir, I will have to ask you to keep that kind of opinion to yourself in a public restaurant from now on.’

‘From now on? You actually think I’m going to carry on eating here?’

‘Well, m’sieur, you said yourself you have been eating and enjoying Special Famous Pie for decades, so of course you will carry on eating it, no matter what we do to it…’

‘No! No! Have you been listening to me? It’s not the same pie any more, no matter what anyone says. I’m damned if I’m going to eat blackberry pie and pretend it’s sort-of-like-apple just because you tell me there’s no difference. If I can’t get proper Special Famous Pie, I’ll take my custom elsewhere, thank you very much.’

‘Ah well. We will see you again, when we change back to apple for a bit.’

‘I think you presume too much of my loyalty. This whole situation makes me very, very angry. Can I speak to the head chef, please?’

‘Alas, m’sieur, Mr Moffat is out to lunch.’

‘No kidding.’

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In one sense, writing 50,000 words is quite easy. You write a word. Then you write another word. And then you do the same again and again, another forty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety eight times. Nothing could be simpler.

So why, then, did I so signally fail to complete NaNoWriMo in 2012 and 2013? For the underinitiated: this is the challenge where one undertakes to write 50,000 words of sequential fiction in a thirty-day period (technical it’s supposed to be a novel, but I think this is veering dangerously close to delusions of grandeur). I’m not sure, but I think clues may be found in the manner in which I managed to actually finish the damn thing this year, for the first time since 2010.

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

Perhaps the nature of that 2010 win was also significant. As I was (ahem) resting from paid employment at the time, I was able to devote all my time to the project and ended up with a 115,000 word manuscript, which – when run past a professional author for comment – transpired to be irredeemable tripe with no discernable structure. This was a blow to my confidence as a writer of long fiction which it took me a long time to get over.

I blame Stephen King, and especially his book On Writing. This is an inspirational tome and no mistake, but it also promotes Mr King’s potentially lethal strategy for novel-writing, which is basically ‘have an idea, start writing about it, do 3,000 words a day until you reach the end and then stop’. In other words, don’t bother planning what you’re doing. Just trust to the creative winds.

It took me a long while to figure out that what may work for an intuitively gifted storyteller like Mr King is not necessarily going to work for the average garret-dwelling spod. I have come to the conclusion that this sort of behaviour is not going to end well for most of us. It’s like going on a 300 mile drive without bothering to check the atlas, and no real sense of where you’re actually heading to in the first place. You may cover some ground, but you’re unlikely to end up anywhere it’s worth being.

Reluctantly parting company with the King Doctrine was probably the first step towards having a chance of concluding a NaNo with a story that actually has some kind of narrative merit. Realising the importance of structure, I invested in a number of other pieces of advice which I must confess I found to be of varying usefulness.

Near the bottom of the heap, although this may be a user-friendliness issue, is the near-mythical Plotto, by William Wallace Cook. This is not so much a writer’s guide as a plot generation tool, but not one I actually found any use. Perhaps it’s just that the Kindle edition is somewhat clunky to navigate through.

More interesting than genuinely useful was 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias, which is strong on general information but weak on actual mechanics and detail. A step up from this, despite being somewhat disingenuously titled, was Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters, which has some useful stuff on many archetypal characters and the two main types of character arc. It’s one of the few writing handbooks I’ve read which comes close to being actually generative (i.e. giving you proper ideas).

Lani Diane Rich (aka Lucy March), professional author and writing tutor, weighs in with what she considers to be the seven crucial anchor points of essential narrative. I was rather dubious about this when I first heard about it – it seemed rather too formulaic at the time, and also that many great stories didn’t seem to stick to the scheme – but am prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is largely because of the single biggest factor in getting me across the NaNo finishing line with something I’m reasonably pleased with: to wit, Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, a meticulous guide to the core competencies of storytelling in general, and structure in particular. Brooks breaks the story down into four chunks, assigns key plot moments and responsibilities to all of them, and then goes through what the essential plot beats are, where they need to fall and how they inter-relate. His book is perhaps a bit too strongly aimed at the aspiring professional – I have no real ambitions in that direction, as I already have a job I love and which I suspect is better for me than full-time writing would be, even if I had the talent and perseverance to think about taking it more seriously – but sitting down on November 1st with the first 37 scenes of a 50-scene novel already planned out was an enormous advantage, and without Brooks I would not have had this map to start with.

What I wrote is, in all likelihood, not very good. Ray Bradbury said that the first 500,000 words you write are inevitably going to be rubbish, and as far as long-form fiction goes I suspect I still have several hundred thousand to go before I hit the good stuff. But, whatever the problems with the characterisation, exposition, theme, description, and – yes – the structure, it does at least hang together on one level.

And, more importantly, I feel like I have fiction writing back. After the great disaster of 2010, apart from the abortive NaNos of 2012 and 2013, I’ve barely written a word of fiction. Plenty of reviews and other nonsense, as you can see, but nothing else. And I always missed it. I couldn’t figure out what my blind spot was in terms of long-form fiction, but now perhaps I have. It feels good to have this option back – the process of writing the NaNo 14 project has been a very satisfying one and I suspect it will be well before November 2015 that I have a go at something else. But not yet. Now is the time all-consuming and wholly unjustified smugness, which is something else I’ve always had a talent for.

 

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A brief glance at the stats for this blog tells me that, as of this writing, there are somewhere in the region of 650 film reviews hereabouts. I have been writing these on and off since 2001, and fairly solidly since 2010 (sometimes at the rate of three or four a week). At a conservative estimate, I must have written about 600,000 words about films, all told (the last two novel-length stories I managed to finish, in comparison, amounted to only 230,000 words between them). I have never really thought very deeply about the nature of film writing in all this time: or at least I hadn’t until I read Hatchet Job, the latest movie-related tome by Mark Kermode.

Kermode’s first book was the story of his life in film; his last one was an extended series of moans about the things he finds particularly irksome about modern films and the contemporary movie-going experience. I liked it, even if I found it a bit on the negative side. Hatchet Job, despite the title, is a bit more balanced.

kermodeHJ

Kermode opens by celebrating the most memorable result of the film critics’ art: the devastating negative review, kicking off with ‘Forest Gump on a tractor’ (The Straight Story) and taking in ‘Miss’ (Battleship), ‘an explosion in a stupidity factory’ (A Good Day to Die Hard) and some of Kermode’s own most vitriolic utterances, such as ‘An orgy of dripping wealth which made me want to vomit’ (Sex and the City 2), before going on to question, if not the value of film criticism in the modern world, then certainly the need for professional film critics as a species.

This is the core theme of Hatchet Job, which Kermode comes at from a number of angles: the decline in the respect in which critics are held, the sometimes strained relationship between critics and film-makers, the current crisis in the lot of old-school print critics in an increasingly digital age, and so on. Along the way Kermode gets to indulge himself on many topics which will be familiar to long-term followers, such as the plight of the skilled projectionist, the careers of Ken Russell (Dr K like) and John Boorman (Dr K very no like), and how lovely Silent Running is, as well as some which may be new, such as the unreliability of the automatically-moderated reviewing system on Amazon.com and the pernicious influence of test screenings on film storytelling.

He is, as you’d expect, very good company throughout, even when dealing with unpromising material without a great deal of interest to anyone not specifically interested in the lot of film critics (he is touchingly eloquent when paying tribute to two deceased giants of the field, Alexander Walker and Roger Ebert, even though it is clear he is rather more simpatico with one than the other). If you know much about films, you are unlikely to learn a lot, but at least you will hear things for the second or third time in a highly entertaining way.

You might expect Kermode to be precious and possessive about his status as someone who’s paid to watch and talk about new films for a living, and perhaps he does come across as slightly self-mythologising when he expresses his belief that ‘[f]or a critic’s opinion to have value beyond the mere joy of the savage put-down or the well-constructed defence, I believe they must have something personal at stake, something about which they care, and which they are in danger of forfeiting.’ (He’s talking about the bubble reputation, by the way, not an actual job.) Yet his argument does sort of hang together. I rarely make much use of critics myself, especially since I stopped listening to Kermode’s own radio show (sorry Doc), but this is largely because I just found myself writing my own reviews as a response to theirs rather than to the film itself, but on an instinctive level I know that I’d rather read a review from someone with a track-record and a real name than by some anonymous username on the internet.

On the other hand, though, doesn’t this just make me a massive hypocrite? My own name isn’t on this book review, after all: why should you give a damn what I think? Why should my opinion have any special value? Well, you might well say, in the case of a cruddy little blog like this one, which on average is read by no-one at all, what does it matter? Speak or stay silent, it doesn’t make any difference.

And yet, and yet. All other things being equal, I wouldn’t write at all if I didn’t think there was at least some chance of getting read (to do otherwise would be, to quote Stephen King, ‘quacking into the void’). And yet Kermode himself argues that ‘writing for free in an arena where someone else is getting paid eventually undermines the possibility of anyone being properly remunerated’. This sounds a little protectionist, I suppose, but there is a grain of truth here, surely – if the reviews on the blog are any good, then I may be taking bread from the mouths of film critics’ children – if they’re not, what’s the bloody point in them anyway?

I don’t know. I suppose the brutally honest response would be to say that if a professional critic with the resources of a national paper behind them can’t come up with something more useful and entertaining than an amateur nobody sitting behind a laptop in a garret, they don’t deserve to be in the profession anyway. And perhaps this is true. It has still made me question exactly why I am so rigorous about writing up every new film I watch, even the really boring ones.

As I’ve said in the past, I have a pronounced OCD tendency, and I think doing the reviews helps control this – also, feeding the OCD helps fend off the depressive tendency I also possess. So perhaps there is a therapeutic aspect to all this. Thinking about this has also made me realise that starting writing this blog regular coincided fairly closely with my stopping writing ‘substantial’ fiction suspiciously closely. I said in an ‘interview’ (it was a webzine feature where completely obscure individuals took it in turns to ask each other silly questions every week) a few years ago that writing is just about the only thing in the world, other than watching the 1970s Doctor Who title sequence, guaranteed to make me happy, and so perhaps obsessively writing endless film reviews has taken the place of producing fiction.

In which case it looks like that the main purpose of this blog is not to actually share opinions and judgements on films, but to shore up my mental equilibrium. If I actually ever say something worthwhile and useful about a film it is a fortuitous fringe benefit and nothing else. I’m not really sure how to process this little nugget of increased self-knowledge, but then that has largely been the story of 2014 so far for me. If you are the starving child of a professional film critic, I apologise, but I fear it may be pathological on my part. And if you are not, but you are at all interested in films and serious film writing, you will probably find Hatchet Job to be an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

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