Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

…or, possibly, Finding the Character.

So, this is going to be about the way in which the presentation of a certain class of TV character has changed over the last forty to fifty years and what this may tell us about changes in UK culture. As I’m mainly going to talk about British genre shows, particularly action-adventure and SF (the latter is almost invariably a subset of the former), there’s going to be a lot of stuff about Doctor Who and Sherlock (yeah, sorry about that, people who aren’t interested in them) but also some other shows that no-one seems to care about any more (yeah, sorry about that, people who are interested).

What got me thinking along these lines was a discussion about – yes, you guessed it – Sherlock and Doctor Who, wherein a friend of mine argued that the two lead characters were presented in a fundamentally similar way. Regular readers may recall that I have visited this topic before in the not too distant past, and I’m not planning to go over it again here in too much detail. But anyway, as I suggested to my friend, this may well be a bit of an optical illusion inasmuch as this is how all TV action-adventure heroes are presented these days, and it’s only the scarcity of this type of character that’s clouded the issue.

Certainly British action-adventure TV shows are a lot thinner on the ground than they used to be. Casting our minds back to the 1960s, surely the golden age of the genre, we encounter The Saint, The Avengers, Man in a Suitcase, the original Randall and Hopkirk, The Champions, Danger Man, The Prisoner, Adam Adamant Lives and many other less celebrated examples – to say nothing of the early years of Doctor Who (albeit a rather different show in those days) and no fewer than two BBC-produced Sherlock Holmes series (starring Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing respectively). Wind on to 2012 and all we really find are Doctor Who, Sherlock, and – still just about current – Primeval. (Oh, and I suppose the grisly Merlin qualifies, but I can never watch more than five minutes at a time without losing my temper and switching over, so I can’t really discuss it in any detail.)

The reasons for the decline in this genre’s presence are, I would suspect, mainly economic: most of the 60s shows I mentioned were made on film and largely shot on location, with lengthy runs – mainly because they were made by ITC with more than half a eye on selling them to the lucrative American market. American sales were what made a lot of these shows viable propositions and the major American networks are a lot less open to foreign product these days – the only British show to get a major network slot since The New Avengers in the late 1970s is Merlin, for reasons I find utterly impossible to work out.

So this may be why this kind of show is no longer such a fixture, but what’s more interesting to me is the change in the way these shows are written. Many years ago on the BBC Doctor Who message board I remember laboriously trying to explain the difference between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. I think I settled on saying that in a plot-driven story it’s events that dictate the actions of the protagonists, while in a character-driven one it’s the personalities of the protagonists that motivate the events. This probably sounds rather circular – to simplify things still further, I would go on to say that a plot-driven story is primarily about what people do, while a character-driven one is about who they are. This is not to say that plot-driven stories can’t have an interesting cast, or that a character-driven one must be wholly bereft of incident – it’s a question of focus and emphasis.

Looking at The Avengers or Danger Man these days one of the most striking things about them is how little attention is paid to the histories and emotions of the leading characters beyond the strict demands of the plot. The backgrounds of Steed and Drake remain almost entirely vague; we know nothing about their families or any relationships they may have had in the past. None of this matters in an Avengers or Danger Man episode – it’s all about the case or the mission in that particular episode, the leads are there to fulfil a set of plot functions. This is most striking in the case of Mrs Peel (also from The Avengers) – she’s introduced as Mrs Peel in her debut episode, but her exact marital situation is never addressed or even alluded to, until the closing minutes of her final episode in which it is revealed her husband is a test pilot who’s been lost up the Amazon for years.

Stiff upper lips were the order of the day in Ye Good Olde Days.

If The Avengers were being made today, in the modern style, I cannot imagine an episode going by in which Mrs Peel’s angst over her missing spouse is not given a little moment to itself. Whole episodes would no doubt be written wherein she helps to reunite people who have been forcibly separated from their loved ones, concluding with bittersweet moments – no doubt taking place to a piano or power-ballad soundtrack – where she sees the happiness she has brought about but is confronted yet again by her own loneliness. It would, if you ask me, be totally and utterly awful, mawkish, charmless dross – we can perhaps get a slight impression of what it would be like by looking at the New Avengers episode Obsession, a deeply atypical and rather underwhelming outing focussing on Purdey’s unhappy love affair with Martin Shaw’s character.

I can’t begin to imagine how an updated version of Steed would work – but then again, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part a tenth as well as Patrick Macnee, so it’s really an empty question – the same kind of applies to the Prisoner, but it’s interesting how much more conventional and less interesting the central character of the updated version is.

These days it isn’t enough to just be an interesting and engaging screen character who resolves fun and imaginative plots – there seems to be a distinct sense that audiences won’t care about that. Every character these days has to have some kind of emotional baggage, which not only allows us access to their psychological hinterland, but seems to insist we visit it virtually on a weekly basis.

As a case in point let us look at the male leads of Primeval, who have the advantage of being new-minted characters unlike Sherlock Holmes or the Doctor and are thus more amenable to being crafted to fit a specific role. The three guys in question are Nick Cutter, Danny Quinn, and Matt Anderson, and they are the successive male leads in a show which largely revolves around people being chased around by CGI monsters who’ve wandered out of holes in time. They are a scientist, a cop, and a soldier-turned-zookeeper, and yet despite this diversity and the nature of the show they all fit the same template: each of them isn’t just chasing CGI monsters because it’s their job. All of them have Personal Issues involved with loved ones who have got mixed up in the holes-in-time business.

Or, to put it another way, everything these days has a much stronger soap opera element than it did in years gone by. This was one of the main accusations flung at the early Rusty Davies series of Doctor Who, certainly, and while I don’t have a problem with the attention paid to extended family lives of most of the regular characters I do sense and slightly object to an ongoing attempt to load the Doctor down with baggage of various kinds.

Specifically, things which were nicely underplayed and subtextual in the 1963-89 version of the series – the loneliness of the Doctor, the grounding influence of his companions – are dragged out into the centre of episodes. The mostly-implied affection the Doctor shares with his friends is replaced by operatic and overblown excursions into sentimental navel-gazing such as conclude most of the Davies seasons. As you may have sensed, I am not a tremendous fan of this kind of thing – I’m quite capable of having an emotion off my own bat without having it wholly specified by whatever it is I’m reading or watching.

Sherlock Holmes is a character who dates back much further than any other I’ve mentioned so far, hailing from an era when angst was an unknown concept and upper lips remained entirely solid. Presenting him not just in a modern context but in a modern style thus presents a bit of an issue. In my initial discussion on this subject, the point came up that Holmes and the Doctor really do mirror each other – one is a superbeing with human emotions, the other is a normal man with superhuman faculties.

Conan Doyle pays lip service to giving Holmes a few weaknesses – most famously his occasional depressions and his ignorance of many basic facts about astronomy – but most of the time he’s an almost superhumanly accomplished individual – an accomplished musician and highly-skilled martial artist in addition to his prodigious talents as a detective. However this clearly will not do for a modern TV hero and so in Sherlock he is assigned a dreadful personal flaw with which he must contend. It’s interesting that Sherlock has received quite so many plaudits for being utterly faithful to Doyle, when the depiction of Holmes as someone quite so socially incompetent and often downright rude is really not to be found anywhere in the original canon.

Holmes and the Doctor have a number of similarities, to be sure, but these are only emphasised by the fact that both have gone through the modern-genre-TV-baggage-attaching process. Heroes are not allowed to simply be heroes any more, nor are we allowed to work out for ourselves what the deeper elements of their characters might be. It’s not enough for a character to simply be likeable or interesting, we have to be able to Emotionally Invest in them, no matter how absurd that might be in the case of a soldier-turned-zookeeper whose job is to chase prehistoric monsters into holes in time.

Why has this happened? It seems to be a recent phenomenon, though the near-total absence of British action-adventure TV shows between the mid-80s and the mid-00s makes it difficult to be sure. Certainly the leads of Bugs (launched in 1994) are in the old style, as were the central characters in Crime Traveller. This takes us up to 1997, an interesting year inasmuch as the death of Princess Diana provoked scenes of wild emotion on the streets of Britain of an intensity and on a scale which was previously unthinkable.

Certainly in the 15 years since, British culture seems to have become considerably more emotionally articulate, if not in fact emotionally incontinent. Quite outside of the action-adventure TV genre, even the main TV variety shows rely on the ’emotional journey’ of the participants to provide a hook for the audience. Basically, everything has gone very soapy and sentimental at the the expense of reason and wit and restraint.

Once again I suspect my personal preferences may be apparent. I suspect my dislike for the modern Emo-style of genre TV is not solely because I object to cheap and obvious sentimentality but because this has supplanted so many of the elements I really like in the older shows – wit, inventiveness, and so on. Certainly they still exist in the modern shows, which is why Sherlock and Doctor Who remain so watchable for me, but often they seem less important than people’s character arcs and emotional foibles. Maybe the wheel will turn again and they will come back into fashion once more. I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.

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Oh, guys, I have what feels like a terrible confession to make. It’s ten to five in the afternoon on the last day of April, which is Scriptfrenzy month. For those of you who don’t know what Scriptfrenzy is, it’s a bit like NaNoWriMo. For those of you who don’t know what NaNoWriMo is… I should probably stop this now and assume that we have at least some shared understanding of the world or else this is going to turn into Descartes’ Philosophical Investigations and my oven’s too small for me to fit into so that would never work (this is an obscure philosophy in-joke about the life of Descartes in case you were wondering).

Well anyway. In NaNo the challenge is to write a 50,000 page novel in thirty days. i’ve kind of managed this the last two years, mainly because I had two big advantages both times – firstly, long-term unemployment and secondly, a total inability to recognise that what I was writing was, structurally speaking, lousy. Only figured that out later. Better later than during, I suppose. Would probably have been best to figure that out beforehand and written something better, but it isn’t a perfect world.

In Scriptfrenzy you have to write 100 pages of script. There are a lot fewer words per page in a script than in a novel manuscript. I can knock out about a page of script every ten minutes or so quite easily (it isn’t always good script, but in Scriptfrenzy that’s hardly the object of the exercise). I just find the process of writing a script much easier, you only have to worry about dialogue and movement, diction is much less of a problem, and you have the fun of watching your own movie in your head while you’re doing it.

So I didn’t take the Frenzy very seriously, compared to NaNo, and in fact I was just going to do it at weekends – ten or fifteen pages a day would see me comfortably over the line. And yet here we all are with seven hours left to go, forty pages left to write, and a dawning realisation that it just isn’t going to happen for me.

I’m not sure why this should be. I could write forty pages of script in seven hours, no problem. I’m just not feeling the story, I’ve no idea what the climax is going to be in more than the roughest terms (leading lady would turn into a cat due to her repressed libido being unleashed – and in case you think that’s a rip off of Cat People, gold star to you, that’s the point I’m going for), and while I like the idea of the movie – kind of The Expendables but with horror movie characters – I’m finding it hard to really invest in writing a movie script that a) isn’t seriously intended for production and b) would be impossible to make anyway for all sorts of rights issues. Maybe I should’ve written something else but the tank’s been pretty dry since the crushing realisation that the two NaNo things were both junk and maybe I just can’t hack it as a proper writer of anything except smart-mouthed film reviews after all.

Why do I feel the need to blog about this? Well partly it’s because I feel bad about starting stuff and not finishing it. There are a few undercoated Eldar harlequins on top of the microwave I’ve been meaning to paint since January and I just feel a bit bad every time I warm up a croissant or something and they’re still sitting there waiting for me. So, if you know me and you see me please give me a hard time over not finishing my script even though it was simply an exercise in writing for pleasure because I really feel I deserve it. I think I will have to go over to the OLL website and donate some money to them in an attempt to salve my conscience. Come to think of it I was going to donate some money to a cancer charity because of Lis Sladen and I haven’t done that yet either. Boy, sometimes it seems like I never get anything done.

Anyway, as attempts at atonement go this is a pretty lame one (I’ve been reading a lot of stuff by Vern recently, if you’re wondering why my writing style has gone all weird), but it’s the best I can do right now. You have my permission to diss me until I finally take on a project of substance and finish it properly.

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The Fine Art of Winning Pretty


I was walking down the street today when I happened to pass a guy who I don’t know that well, but who once gave me a fairly spectacular drubbing at a game called 40K (the kind of game where you want to apologise to your opponent afterwards for wasting their time). It occurred to me, as it often does, that for someone who’s been playing these games on-and-off since the late 1980s my win-loss record is not that great. And as usual I consoled myself with the thought that my armies, while far from all-conquering, are aesthetically pleasing selections of miniatures.

I don’t mean that I’m the world’s greatest painter when it comes to individual figures, but I’m fairly confident in my ability to paint what looks like a good army when they’re gathered en masse. And beyond this, I’m also happy that they are thematically coherent: I used to get a bit peeved when confronted with Space Marine armies led by Captains with jump packs and Chaplains on bikes, who would operate unsupported and terrorise my own force. I could never bring myself to take that kind of terror unit, simply because I couldn’t imagine it happening in the fictional universe of the game.

There you go, I referred to it as a game: an exercise frequently concluding with a winner and a loser. Given that it is a game, surely I should just abandon my ridiculous scruples about staying in-character for my army, and making aesthetic choices of units, and just go all-out for the win? Well, maybe, but I just can’t bring myself to do that. It would be winning ugly. Losing a lot is one of the consequences when you write your lists for beauty rather than victory.

Musing on all this I was reminded of some of the comments my writing tutor has made about the problems often experienced by people when knocking out their first couple of novel-length stories: rather than writing a story about the problems and motivations of actual characters, they try to write about grand themes or ideas with the result that the whole thing falls a bit flat. To be even remotely successful as a writer of this kind of story, you have to get that base – a strong, involving story – covered. And people are, just on that basis: look at Jeffrey Archer and Freddie Forsyth. Not great prose stylists, no deep themes or insights, just rather basic craft. They’re winning ugly, but at least they’re winning.

You can win pretty as a writer, of course – it’s entirely possible to incorporate big themes and subtleties and startling ideas into a novel, but only as supplements to the basic story. Which leads me to wonder whether it’s also possible to win pretty when writing an army list for a wargame.

I would like to think you can. I am somewhat encouraged by the fact that my most successful tournament list was what I’d call a fairly pretty one. At the time the fashion amongst competitive players of WFB (the game in question) was for armies composed entirely of heavy cavalry, fast cavalry and skirmishers. You only saw infantry blocks in certain specialised army lists. I always felt slightly uncomfortable leaving all my footsloggers at home, but happened upon the old Beastman list. From this I was able to contrive an army containing large numbers of skirmishers, attack dogs, centaur cavalry and fast monsters, which ended up competitive while remaining characterful. All right, I still stuck a block of heavy infantry in there, but I already had the models at home.

The result got me my only ever placing in the top half of a UK results table, and I was paid the ultimate compliment of having my army design ripped off by one of my regular opponents (although he chickened out of painting the army shocking pink and metallic turquoise, as I had). I think the lesson here is that writing an army list is not that dissimilar to writing a novel – you can be as high-minded or thematically-focussed as you like, but you won’t meet with any success deserving of the name. Get the basics down – landing the reader, winning the game – and then start worrying about the additional whistles and bells.

I have recently come to the conclusion I need to completely rethink my approach to writing long-form fiction. I now have to accept that my approach to writing army lists is similarly in need of root-and-branch reappraisal. All I can say, having come to this conclusion, is one thing: buggeration, more work?!?

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It was with bemusement, shading into horrified disbelief, that I realised not long ago that the classic BBC adaptation of The Day of the Triffids is thirty years old this Autumn. Thirty years? Thirty? But I remember watching it on-broadcast so vividly. It would mean that I’m… well, anyway, how old I am is irrelevant (honest).

The BBC had another go at adapting John Wyndham’s classic novel at Christmas 2009, and the result was an ugly travesty, which did no justice to the book and can’t have inspired anyone to read it. But seeing the 1981 version was a key moment in my life, one of those things which are so influential you can’t imagine how your life would have developed otherwise.

The Day of the Triffids was the first piece of grown-up TV I was allowed to watch – probably the first piece I even wanted to watch – and I was given special dispensation, bed-time-wise, in order to do so. Even then I was reluctant to do so alone, so addictively terrifying was this programme.

It’s a story which sounds ridiculous and pulpy – and, perhaps, a little incoherent. An unexplained celestial light-show blinds the vast majority of the world’s population, with the catastrophic results you’d expect. This would be bad enough, but the survivors are also preyed upon by mobile, lethal, and borderline-sentient carnivorous plants which have been bred for their oil – these are the triffids of the title, of course. A deadly plague is also a key plot element.

Picking his way through the aftermath is Wyndham’s narrator, Bill Masen, a biochemist and triffid-expert (portrayed in the TV show by John Duttine). Masen is a very typical Wyndham protagonist in that he doesn’t start off with any particular goal worth speaking of, he just wanders around watching more than doing anything. He eventually becomes involved with a wealthy young woman (Emma Relph) and after they are separated his determination to find her propels him through a fairly large chunk of the plot.

But, on the whole, the structure of the story is… well, if Wyndham turned up to a modern creative-writing class with his first draft of The Day of the Triffids, he’d have been told in no uncertain terms to go away and have a good hard think about the idea, because in some ways it’s sort of hopeless.

Bill Masen doesn’t have a particular goal he’s looking to achieve beyond simply staying alive. Most characters drift in and out of the book for one or two chapters. Even the triffids don’t show up that often; the TV show has to write a brand new triffid sequence unconnected to the main plot in order for them to make it into every episode. There isn’t what you’d call an actual antagonist, and the ending is very low-key. Even so, it’s not as if the book doesn’t contain blatant plot devices: Wyndham spends many chapters setting up a situation out of some ghastly nightmare, with the main characters having to choose between their own survival and helping the blind survivors who constitute the overwhelming majority. It’s a terrible moral dilemma, which Wyndham eventually resolves by means of a massive cop-out: a plague of unknown origins suddenly manifests and conveniently wipes out most of the blind population, freeing Masen and the others to get on with the plot.

And yet it’s an extraordinary, haunting book, one that essentially created a new genre. It’s fashionable to dismiss the works of Wyndham as ‘cosy catastrophes’ – civilisation falls without the protagonists seeming to suffer in any real way – but this is not the impression you get upon reading the book. Masen witnesses numerous suicides in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and later assists in a mercy-killing. You don’t notice the unwieldiness of the structure: society itself has fallen to pieces, so the collapse of conventional narrative seems somehow appropriate. Wyndham even manages to pull all his elements together, near the end, suggesting that all the diverse woes he’s inflicted on his characters are ultimately the result of science gone out of control.

One of the reasons the horrible 2009 adaptation is so horrible is because it attempts to fix all of the problems, by turning The Day of the Triffids into a much more conventional story: a proper bad guy is introduced (a relatively minor character is promoted to full-scale villain status), the convenient plague is snipped out, the long tail of the book (four chapters, over a period of six years, recount Masen and his adoptive family eking out a living on a farm in southern England) is collapsed into a much shorter period. And it’s awful. Awful, awful, awful. Only one moment is genuinely surprising, and that’s because a line of dialogue from the book makes an unexpected appearance.

The 1981 version is brilliant precisely because it sticks so closely to the hopeless plot of the book. Only one section has been cut, and it’s possibly the least vivid – where Masen and his associate Coker encounter a small group of other survivors and together try to set up a community – the rest of Wyndham’s story is there, entirely intact. Wyndham himself might not have approved (his family apparently weren’t impressed) – John Duttine plays Masen as rather more Northern and lower-middle-class, and less detached and wry, than he’s written in the book, and a lot of Masen and Coker’s discussions about post-apocalyptic ethics and sociology have been excised.

But, despite that, and the fact the TV show was clearly made on a fairly low budget, it works. Duttine holds the whole thing together admirably, though the biggest impression on the acting side is probably made by Maurice Colbourne as Coker – Colbourne had an edgy charisma that made him extremely watchable in this kind of drama (the reasons why such a powerful actor ended up fronting ridiculous yachting-soap Howard’s Way remain a mystery).

John Wyndham made a career out of Omegas – the destruction of Civilisation As We Know It looms large in most of his novels, one way or another. But for me he was an Alpha: not only was The Day of the Triffids the first piece of adult TV I watched, but the book was the first piece of adult SF I read. And from then on, I was surely lost. In its own way it was probably as crucial a moment in my life as my first episode of Doctor Who or the first time I saw Star Wars.

I’ve been drawn back to the end of the world, in its various different iterations, ever since – can it be any coincidence that my other favourite stories include The Death of Grass, Survivors, Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later? (28 Days Later in particular owes a massive debt to Wyndham and Triffids, which screenwriter Alex Garland openly admits.) And the last time I sat down to write for NaNoWriMo, my goal was to produce a very Wyndhamesque tale of the collapse of civilisation. And so I did, but where Wyndham abandoned structure to produce a chilling masterpiece, I only managed to come up with an unreadable shapeless mess. Still, one would have expected no less: there’s no point in copying genius. Recognising and appreciating it when you find it is surely enough.

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Hey, you know what, on this thing I write a lot about movies, a lot about TV shows, a lot about various silly things that catch my attention, a bit about current affairs,and a small amount about wargaming (less than the advertising on this blog probably suggests, but this is partly because I’m in paint-mode currently and can’t seem to get photos of my new minis off my phone and onto t’internet).

But I don’t actually tend to write about myself very much. Some may say that this is evidence of a highly-refined sense of what it’s actually interesting to read about, and others that it’s one of the saving graces of what was a fairly dubious enterprise to begin with. (There is also the fact that various family members have been known to read this and I occasionally I write things here I don’t want doing the rounds at Christmas and birthdays and family parties. Cousin Carol, this means you.)

Well, anyway. I’m in a bit of an odd place currently. This time last year I had what looked like quite a sweet job lined up, my wife and I were looking forward to finally being back in the same country as each other, and I’d just spent a month working on a piece of writing I thought had genuine merit. I was confident as a teacher, as a fully-functioning and socialised human being, and as someone who could write.

Right now I’m unsure about all of those things, to be honest. I’m reluctant to go into details of my personal life, as it’s not just me I’m writing about, but my wife and I have (amicably) separated and I’m not even entirely sure which continent she’s living on. Two out of my last three jobs have spectacularly collapsed on me, and in the most recent case my supervisor made it clear she had grave doubts about my competence to be working in a career I’d never envisaged moving on from. I got over that by doing NaNo, as regular readers (a bold assumption, I know) may recall, having had a bulletproof assurance in my ability to tell a story since the age of about seven.

Hmm, well. The writing tutor whose class I joined – a fantastically enthusiastic and supportive, very experienced professional writer and teacher – only needed to give me one critique of the thing I wrote last November – very amiably, accentuating the positives but always being wholly honest – before I realised the best title for it was probably 114,000 Words of Suck. Horribly, horribly broken structurally and impossible to salvage in terms of being the story I’d set out to tell.

I’m actually quite grateful, as this has saved me investing weeks and months toiling over and trying to fix something that I would probably not have accepted was irreparably busted for ages, if at all. Also, it removes my last excuse for not getting serious about finding another job, which is becoming something of a gnawing concern at the back of my mind.

I’m hoping to give my old line of work another try – job interview this week – and it’s looking hopeful for another stint in management this summer. But I’m not taking anything for granted any more. Same goes with the writing – fingers crossed I’m about to be paid for writing something, for the first time in my life (can’t really give details as it’s a private commission), but will I ever have a go at something book-length again? I’m really not certain. It seems obvious to me now that you can’t ignore the structure of a story at that length, but every time I start trying to frame something in those terms it’s like a steel shutter goes down in my head cutting me off from my imagination.

All this has actually started me thinking that a) I may be in the middle of a (worryingly early) mid-life crisis and b) the way I generally engage with life, being good at big vague sweeping stuff and toothgrindingly annoying pedantry but useless and cack-handed when it comes to the normal, practical, important human things in the middle, may feed into my writing and other timepassing activities much more than I’d ever suspected.

And, you know, all new insights should be welcomed, right? So despite all this, weirdly enough I feel like I’m in a pretty good place. Even if all future prospects are as comprehensively awful as they sometimes seem to me at 4am, then at least my eyes are open about that and I’m not going to go off in some Quixotic attempt to win a Hugo or open my own school or whatever when I should really be looking to pay the rent.

Not sure what the moral of all this is. Or indeed its applicability to anyone else. I certainly hope writing this isn’t some subconscious plea for help – I thought long and hard before even starting it, on the grounds that it might come across as negative or self-pitying. I don’t feel that way. To be honest, if anything I feel liberated from all those old misconceptions about myself. So I suppose the message is that whatever happens to you, it probably isn’t the end of the world, just an opportunity to find a new angle on life. Unless, of course, it really is the end of the world, in which case your opportunities for worrying about it will almost certainly be extremely limited.

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It has been announced that Anthony Horowitz, creator of the popular and acclaimed Alex Rider series of novels (and also notorious piece-of-TV-SF-junk Crime Traveller), is to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel (given the historic difficulty of sustaining a novel-length story centred on the Holmes character – even Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t manage it – one wonders if Horowitz knows what he’s let himself in for. But I digress). This draws me back to a topic which I’ve touched on before here, albeit briefly: the phenomenon of the ‘zombie franchise’. This snappy piece of terminology (which, to be honest, I’ve just coined myself, and really hope catches on) is how I like to refer to the situation where the original writer of a character or series passes away, only for the publishers to farm it out for somebody else to continue.

Lest anyone be confused, I don’t consider this to be the same thing as fan fiction, which is where admirers of a particular character or setting feel inspired to write their own unofficial additions to the canon. This sort of thing has a long and occasionally distinguished history, although it’s many years since I’ve enjoyed the mixed sensations of comfort, excitement, and guilt that I always get when slipping into the warm waters of Fanfic Lagoon.

No, I refer to – well, this sort of thing: Night of the Triffids by Simon Clark, And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer, Licence Renewed (and many others) by John Gardner, The Bourne Upset (no, I kid you not) by Eric van Lustbader, Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, The Winds of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson … what, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom? Enough examples already.

These are all professionally-published sequels to famous novels, but (and this is the crucial thing) not by the original author – normally because the author in question has had poor taste enough to die before running his creation into the ground. And they make me nuts. Not just because they’re more-often-than-not lousy (I haven’t read all of the above, but the ones I have were substandard, not just to the original but as works of fiction generally), but because of what they represent.

But first, let’s make a vague nod in the direction of balance and see how one might attempt to defend this sort of thing. (Writer thinks himself into headspace of publisher/agent.) Well, the families of the deceased author in question have all agreed to the sequel being written and are frequently closely involved in the project (to the point where Brian Herbert has now written more Dunes than his father). There’s still a demand for stories set in these worlds, and we’re just meeting that demand. Also, it’s bound to stir up some new interest in the original books when the sequels come out…

Hmm, well. Not convinced – not convinced at all, to be honest. I don’t wish to impugn any of the authors’ families, as I’m sure their motives are as varied as the individuals involved, but I can’t help but suspect that, were one to peer into the eyes of any of the individuals involved on the publishing side, one would see a $-sign looking back at you. ‘We’re just meeting a demand’ has been the defence of numerous peddlers of substandard, overpriced, ethically dubious, or downright harmful material down the centuries, from slave traders to drug dealers to the publishers of Hello! magazine. As for ‘stirring up new interest in an old book’ – for interest, read sales, and there’s your $ sign again.

Not one of these new books has done anything to enhance the reputation of the original – usually you’re damned lucky if the original isn’t slimed by association. They are cash-ins, approved cash-ins, admittedly, and not all totally lacking in merit – but still cash-ins. At the time And Another Thing… was released I was accused of over-reacting when I described it as ‘literary grave-robbing’, but I stand by that.

The thing which really annoys me about the zombie franchise phenomenon is that, on the face of it, it treats the original writer as somehow incidental to the success of his or her book. I suppose it’s a tribute to their skill and imagination in creating a world so vivid and believable that it seems to be a real place they just stumbled into, and then returned bearing stories with them. Why not pay another writer to go there and bring back what he finds? Except, of course, that isn’t how it works. The best you can hope for are shadowy imitations and self-conscious aping of the original ideas and style. A tribute this may be, but it’s also a back-handed compliment of the harshest kind.

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Like jabbing my tongue into the gap left by a knocked-out tooth, I find myself drawn back again and again to the writing-style analyzer at iwl.me. Here one can paste in a slab of text and be told instantly whose writing style yout own work most closely resembles. I know this is in every meaningful way a pointless exercise, but anyway.

So anyway, just to get a meaningful sample of results I stuck into the analyzer my last blog post (the one about the connections, or not, between Israeli nuclear capability and Doctor Who), the climactic chapters of my last two novel-length stories (they’re not really novels until they’re published) and seven extracts from short stories in my soon-to-be-available collection (don’t fail to miss it). The results were somewhat mixed.

On the one hand, there were the authors I was declared to be like who I personally admire (revere may not be too strong a word for some of them). The only name that came up twice was that of Kurt Vonnegut. Also in the hurray category were Arthur C Clarke, H.G. Wells, and J.R.R. Tolkien (I’d like to say that this isn’t an accurate representation of the kind of stuff I write myself but I fear that would be a lie).

Moving on we come to the hmmm category where we find people I’ve either never heard of, don’t know enough about to comment on, or whose presence gives me reason to suspect the iwl.me analyzer is, in fact, silly. Here we find Gertrude Stein, David Foster Wallace (I’ve just Wikipedia’d him and I have never heard of anything he wrote), Daniel Defoe, and Jack London.

Lastly, and (thankfully) alone in the oh bugger category is Dan Brown.

I’m starting to suspect that this has nothing to do with ‘style’ but instead just looks at things like word frequencies. For example, the Dan Brown result came from a character piece with a (for me) fairly high hard SF content. I think the programme just locked onto the fact I used the word ‘data’ more than I usually do. The Jack London-esque story includes the words wolf, forest, and snow. The Tolkien result came from a piece of writing with some made-up names in it.

Where this all falls down, of course, is when one considers the fact that Alastair Campbell (charming media-enforcer for Tony Blair) had his memoirs fed into the same software and was told his writing style was very much akin to that of H.P. Lovecraft. I’m astonished that anyone gets a Lovecraftian result, to be honest, especially for their diaries – and it does sort of torpedo the word-frequency theory. Unless of course Campbell is in the habit of using words like paleogean and chromaticism (or indeed fhtagn or mglw’nafh) when setting down his daily doings. Maybe we are all missing a trick and The Call of Campbell will be the next big thing in horror role-playing. Fingers crossed, eh?

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Scribbling to Freedom

I love finishing a short story, especially when it’s a good one (you can always tell). The only feeling that’s actually better is when it gets its first rave review. Actually, I suppose the feeling you get when you actually sell a story for the first time is the best one of all, but I wouldn’t know how that feels, of course.

Both times I’ve finished a really long story (to reiterate, I don’t feel comfortable calling anything of mine a novel until it’s published, and nothing meets that criteria yet), though, I’ve come away with a colossal feeling of anticlimax. It was like that last November when I finished Night Republic, and it’s similar (but not so bad) at the moment, when I’ve just finished the current thing (which is currently trading as Sky, though I think I like The Waking Sky more even if it does make the story’s rip-off origins painfully obvious – Xenonephus briefly occurred to me but it doesn’t really have much to commend it beyond a spurious mystique).

Sky eventually clocked in very slightly shorter than Republic, though the word-count on the latter was far from exact. As usual I will now abandon it to settle and rise and ferment for a few weeks, and then – well, the plan was to get back to Night Republic and beat it into shape last Spring, but nothing happened as I had to go to Sri Lanka and… you get the picture. Maybe the same will happen to Sky. I hope not; I have a much better idea of what it needs doing to it in order to improve it. This is mostly to do with characterisation – not knowing who any of the people were or what they were going to do when they first appeared, some of them didn’t get the introduction they deserved or changed personalities quite drastically between stints in the story. I think the structure is mostly sound, though the very beginning needs a bit of a kick up the bottom.

At the moment, though, I just feel tired, and this (I hope) is why I’m not as exhilarated as the good people at NaNoWriMo HQ seem to think I should be. At the start of this process I described the writing as feeling like weaving a tower out of a whirlwind – well, the last few days have felt like tunnelling the last few feet out from under a giant boulder. This is natural, for me, anyway. I can’t think of how else I would’ve preferred to spend this month.

Standard advice at this point tends to be ‘go and do something else’. I tried this last year, but ended up abandoning painting the Astartes drop pod I’d been putting off for months in favour of a 16,000 word story about a zombie apocalypse (told from the zombies’ point of view). This year – well, I would like to get some painting underway again, but there’s also the short story collection to be polished. I don’t want to stop writing completely, anyway, as it’s increasingly looking like the most fulfilling part of my life. I’m not sure whether that counts as ‘sad but true’ territory or not; it may or may not be the former but it’s certainly the latter.

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Well, it’s just gone 12.30 on November the 16th and the first draft of the NaNoWriMo story is, in theory, just about two thirds of the way through. The third act will, once again, open some years after the second closes so I am taking the afternoon off and seeing a movie in order to generate the sufficient sense of narrative distance (I would have done this anyway but now I can justify doing it, I hope).

As things currently stand I am on a shade more than 72,000 words and 160 pages on MS Word (this translates into about a 250-page paperback if the NaNo formula is to be believed) and feeling quite cheerful about the story itself. Somewhat to my surprise this middle section ended up being more about the characters’ personalities and relationships, and the complicated political situation the world has become entangled in (another rather obvious steal from The Kraken Wakes), than the actual main plot motor of the alien life-form. I’m worried that all this stuff is rather melodramatic and unconvincing – I thought this was going to be a story about meteorology, not the failure of couples to properly communicate with each other – but I suppose fixing it will be one of the things I do in the second draft, should I decide to do one.

At least now I can relax in the knowledge that all the characters and major locations have been introduced, all the plot seeds sown (well, a new one’s just occurred to me, but I think that’ll have to wait for Part Three, for reasons to do with plausibility and not telegraphing the ending), all the character dynamics sorted out, and so on, and I can just cruise through the scenes of collapsing civilisation and the desperate struggle to survive that are the main thing that attracted me to this story in the first place.

I’m still talking about it in terms of a three-act structure, which I suppose still just about holds water. Parts One and Two, more through luck than anything else, have clocked in at roughly the same length in both words and pages. At one point it looked like Two would be coming in rather short, and – purely for my own sense of structure – I had been contemplating splitting Part One in two. There’s an obvious junction point about six chapters in where the story skips forwards a couple of years… yes, I know this isn’t very interesting.

I may still do this, but if so I think I’ll split Part Three as well. it looks like it’ll be a lot longer than either of the other two, and there is another natural junction point some way into it – not quite sure exactly how far, but that’s the fun of it. There’ll still be a three-act structure, ish, but spread over five actual chunks of story. I think that’ll work. I’ll let you know how it pans out.

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Well, it’s just gone midday on November the 9th, and I’m about 36,200 words into the NaNoWriMo story. As the NaNoWriMo benchmark is theoretically 50,000 words for a win, it would seem I am way ahead of schedule. On the other hand, I’m only roughly a third of the way through the idea (plot seems like too strong a word for it) I came up with – possibly a bit less than that, though I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the rest of the book.

I’ve reached the end of the first part, though – the three-act structure is just one of the most obvious ways in which this story is a loving rip-off of The Kraken Wakes – and I’m about to skip forward quite a few years in story-time. Therefore, I feel it’s appropriate to take a bit of a break at this point (not too long, I still have 1634 words to do today), and so I can feel like I’m working on it even while I’m not I thought I would reflect on the process so far.

Well. From my point of view I’m finding it a bit easier to knuckle down and work this year – last Autumn days would go by when I did nothing but cruise the internet playing online games and watching strange clips on YouTube and DailyMotion, but I’ve done at least 2000 words every day, normally more than 4000, and on day four (when things really seemed to be flowing well) over 6500. It’s easy to get jazzed early on when everything is still fresh and interesting, but you do reach a point after about a week when self-doubt rears its ugly head, and it’s here that you just have to start plugging away regardless in the hope that some spark of life still inhabits the story – it almost always does, if you dig deep enough.

From the story’s point of view, everything seems to be ticking over. There has been a bit more sex than I’d expected (tastefully off-screen, before you ask), no-one has died, and all the characters are behaving roughly as planned. The problem with writing without an outline, as I tend to do, is that after a while you realise you don’t really know who any of these people are. While to some degree they will show you this as you proceed, I do suspect some judicious rewrites of early chapters (when they were still deciding who they were) will become necessary if this story is to go anywhere beyond my hard-drive. One character who I wrote in just to give the main person someone to talk to decided to make a bit for power and ended up becoming much more important and likeable than I expected, to the point of marrying the main person. Somebody else turned out to be much less sympathetic than I’d anticipated, but still a key figure. The character I’d half-expected to become everyone else’s mentor vanished without a trace after chapter six. Nearly everyone went off to Alaska for four or five chapters, which was a surprise, and I had to cold-email a NaNoWriMo writer there for some local details (they were very obliging).

I am still concerned that the dialogue is often crushingly obvious and expository, and that the balance between the relationships between the characters and the ongoing problem with the sky is not quite as it should be. But on the whole I am fairly happy with things and can’t think of a more fulfilling way to have spent the last week or so.

On to chapter twenty – and someone’s going to die! (Bwa ha ha ha.)

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