Saturday, 28 March 2015

Getting Back Into Novel-Writing

Tomorrow, a couple of days earlier than scheduled, I'm embarking on a big new project - my first new novel in four years. I've set myself the goal of writing it in three months, for a total of around 90,000 words, which comes down to 30,000 words per month and 1,000 per day.

I'm feeling a certain amount of trepidation with this, as it'll be my fourth novel (more if you count the ones I started but never finished), and the first I attempt to write in such a short time. Those other books all ended up being trunk novels, although I'm reusing some characters and settings from the very first one, The Golden Circle, which I started writing in the fall of 2001, when I was fresh out of college, newly living in London and aiming to write my own answer to the Lord of the Rings.

This book won't be another attempt at that rather lofty goal, of course. In fact, I'm going for something a little easier and breezier, more swords and sorcery than epic fantasy. I'm also thinking of having it be the first in a wider series, but I haven't spent much time thinking about the next books, as I'd really like to get through this one first.

Another reason for my trepidation is the above-mentioned goal. I've never written a draft of a book that quickly, but I recently read Stephen King's On Writing, and he recommended banging them out as fast as you can, so that you can't second-guess yourself or spend too much time waffling on. It sounds like fun, to be honest, and I've scheduled all my other writing projects in such a way that for April, May and June I should (hopefully) be able to concentrate on it alone.

The other thing I'm trying out with this book is a slightly new approach to plotting. I've spoken here before about story structure, particularly the three-act structure favored by Hollywood films, and this book represents a lot of what I have hopefully learned from books like Syd Field's Screenplay and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. I'm not following the structure slavishly, but I'm at least giving it a backbone, to try and hold everything together. So far, so good.

I've even written an 8-page treatment, of sorts, similar to the 20-page outlines I've been doing for the movie ideas I've come up with. It isn't even broken up into chapters or sections, as I usually do, in favor of trying to get everything down and then worrying about the rest when I start on the edits.

It's fair to ask if I'm going to meet that deadline I've set for myself, of 90,000 words on June 30th, but it's probably not that important in the grand scheme of things. I will, of course, set aside an hour a day to crank out my thousand words, and hopefully this goal hanging over me will keep me focused when I'd rather be watching superhero cartoons on Netflix. But I'm letting myself off the hook if once or twice I miss a weekly word count or something like that (I'm trying to balance this writing business in with work, dating and fitness too, you know).

As far as working on other stuff, I expect I'll find some time for some vague plotting and odds and ends, as well as blogging, of course. But I don't plan on cranking out any movie treatments or anything too sizable until July at the earliest.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Green Lantern: The DCAU show that wasn't

I was going to write something about the pervasive influence of the Silver Age on comics, but for whatever reason I couldn't get it to work, so instead I'm going to go with a positive this week and talk about Green Lantern: The Animated Series.

I've been seeing it hanging around on Netflix since I signed up, and I was a bit suspicious, since it looked CGI and for whatever reason, it reminded me of that awful Ryan Reynolds movie (which I haven't even seen, but it seems to have replaced Daredevil as one of the worst superhero movies ever).

On the other hand, after finishing Justice League and its sequel, Justice League Unlimited, I was in the mood for something in the same vein. Those two shows were so well-done that I felt I wasn't quite done with superheroes. Young Justice didn't really hit the spot, though, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, while charming, felt a little light. And then I started on Green Lantern.

There's a reason they say not to judge a book by its cover.

Now, it is all-CGI, which gives everything a weird, plasticky look, but for all that, the action sequences are really good. Moreover, the animators did a good job of making every Lantern's constructs distinct and inventive - John Stewart in the JL shows seemed to only shoot lasers and make bubbles, whereas here you get big green hands, baseball mitts, hammers... It sounds a bit silly, but that's one of the things you go to Green Lantern for.

Then there's the stories, which really are resonant and grown-up enough to appeal to kids as well as parents. The first half of the show's single season was taken up by a single storyline involving the Red Lanterns, who are seeking revenge on the Green Lantern Corps and its Guardians, whom they blame for the destruction of their home sector. The second half, which I haven't quite finished yet, deals with the return of the Manhunters, the robot police force that's responsible for that destruction.

Amid all of that have been themes like the futility of revenge, the destructiveness of emotions like rage, and how authority figures shouldn't automatically get our trust. There's been an interesting subplot for two characters who are (or were) falling in love, and the show has been up front about certain characters being killed, right from the very first scene.

The thematic similarities with the DCAU shows is not entirely an accident, as Bruce Timm executive produced Green Lantern too, which also means he brought the character designs from the earlier shows. If the voices aren't as distinguished as in JL/JLU (they didn't bring back Andrea Romano to do voice casting), then they certainly aren't bad, with talents like Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants) and Josh Keaton (Spectacular Spider-Man), among others, lending their pipes.

Another thing I like about the show is that it's made sense of a lot of the plots of the comics from the last 20 years or so for me. I stopped reading Green Lantern in the 90s because I found the Ron Marz/Darryl Banks run, which introduced Kyle Rayner, kind of boring. And every time I've glanced through issues in comics shops I've found new stuff to confuse me - there were now Lanterns Corps of many colors! Hal Jordan was back! The Guardians and Kilowog weren't dead anymore!

There was also a big crossover event called Blackest Night at one point, where you got the Black Lantern Corps, an excuse to bring back dead characters as zombies. Not really my speed, man. So it's nice to see the various colors (Green, Red, Blue and Purple, in the form of the Star Sapphires) woven organically into a single story that stands on its own while also paying homage to the comics.

It's just a shame there's so little of it. I'm aware that animated shows typically have a shorter lifespan than live-action, but with 5 episodes to go (out of 26), I'm wishing there was more for me to get stuck into. Hal Jordan has been running around as Green Lantern for over 50 years, and even ignoring the worst silliness of the Silver Age, there are plenty of stories the creators could have lifted for the TV show.

But them's the breaks - it came out too close to the movie, which spawned disappointing toy sales, and that's apparently what killed it. Still, I'm glad that DC managed another good show featuring one of my favorite characters. It'll probably only ever be a footnote in the history of DC animated shows, but well worth tracking down once it disappears from Netflix at the end of March.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

RIP Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series and much else, passed away on Thursday at the age of 66, eight years after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.

I first encountered his writing back in high school, when I read Good Omens, the novel he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman. I picked it up because I was a fan of Gaiman's Sandman, and was intrigued to see his name on something other than a comic. And after I read it, I was curious about this heretofore unknown author.

At first try, though, I found the Discworld books a little impenetrable, for a variety of reasons. There were a lot of them, for one thing, even 20 years ago. Also I couldn't seem to find the very first ones - not that you needed to read them in order, but I was always methodical, even then. More importantly, though, I just wasn't ready for it; I didn't like fantasy yet, and had read hardly any, so a lot of the humor kind of went over my head.

It wasn't until I'd lived in England a few years and had plumbed the depths of epic fantasy (as well as sword and sorcery) novels, that I was able to pick up the Discworld books - from the start, with The Colour of Magic! - and appreciate them. To date I've read five novels in the series: The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort and The Truth (which was the Discworld's take on journalism, and a birthday present from colleagues at my old job).

In some ways his books are very English, in a way that I used to describe Neil Gaiman's work, but it's also notable how he used this sprawling, chaotic world to talk about, well, everything, evolving from his original concept of a parody of sword and sorcery novels.

The closest I ever came to meeting Sir Terry was at World Fantasy Con 2013, in Brighton, where he was interviewed briefly. It was clear even then that he was quite ill, but he soldiered on gamely in a packed room. Because of his illness, however, there was no signing or meet and greet, and so this remains my one encounter with him.

But a near-miss, if you like, also stands as a big memory I have of Sir Terry. In the months after I'd moved to London for the first time, back in 2001, I passed by the Forbidden Planet on a weekend when he was due to have a signing. I'd headed over in the expectation that I'd finally get to lock eyes on this mysterious author who'd co-written Good Omens, but was surprised to see a huge line stretching down the block. A lot of the fans were goths, or goth-looking, at least, and both factors - the types of people who read his books and his massive popularity - indicated that this was an author to look out for.

So I'm glad that I did manage to read his own work, and hope to resume soon. I'm also glad that, although there won't be anymore Discworld novels after the upcoming Shepherd's Crown (at least not from him), I'm far enough behind that I have a lot still to discover.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Distributed futures: William Gibson and J-pop

This past week I discovered Japanese idol pop, thanks to the AV Club's Primer article offering an introduction to the genre. I was after something interesting to listen to while at work, because I was doing a lot of data entry, and I seized on this after having read and sampled the music from the more recent Primer article on UK synth-pop (which, incidentally, reveals the secret link between "Round & Round" by Dead or Alive, "I Should Be So Lucky" by Kylie Minogue and "Never Gonna Let You Go" by Rick Astley. Mind blown).

I didn't spend too much time actually reading the article, or even watching the videos, as I was looking for something to listen to while burning my retinas out staring at spreadsheets. But the little I did read confirmed my suspicion that Japan is a sci-fi society already.

This may be a strong statement to make about manufactured boy- and girl-bands purveying willfully inoffensive pop for tweens and teens (pervy old dudes). After all, Britain's Girls Aloud got their start on a TV "talent" show, and we've subjected ourselves to countless boy bands from the New Kids on the Block to N*Sync and the Jonas Brothers. Hell, even Menudo has a rotating cast of singers and a set of draconian conduct rules.

But where Japanese idol pop stands out is in its naked exploitation of talent for the explicit purpose of cultural supremacy. Here and in Europe, the manufactured pop bands always some kind of nod, half-hearted or not, toward artistic integrity - not there. It's not uncommon for bands to have strict rules about age (ie, can't have the singers be too old and gross, like over 20), and musical innovation and individuality appears to be pretty ruthlessly stamped out - I love the anecdote in the Primer about girl band Perfume's single Polyrhythm, for instance.

My favorite, however, is AKB48. The article notes that AKB48 has around 130 members, divided up into teams and subgroups. This division allows the band to be present at multiple events all at once - one group could be playing a live concert, while another does a TV appearance, while another opens a 7-11 in Chiba, etc. They also provide vouchers for meet-and-greets with the band in their physical CDs, which has ensured that listeners actually buy the music, rather than downloading or pirating it.

Reading about all this, it struck me that William Gibson's comments about the future being here already were really true - this all sounds like something you'd get in a dystopian novel, but it's actually happening right now. This article from Wired does a nice job of encapsulating why his fiction has focused on nearer times, rather than on predicting trends - which is what a lot of people seem to think SF is for.

There's a vein of writing that likes to point to all the things that SF has accurately predicted (like iPads) and an equally strong vein that likes to point out all the things that SF didn't predict, such as flying cars and robot butlers. But I find it interesting in that Wired article how Gibson realized that to make the future weird - which is the actual job of an SF writer - he needed to get a sense of how weird the present was.

And I think that's becoming a much more difficult task, as the rate of change, if not innovation, accelerates. Back in high school, I read Earth, by David Brin, a novel set 50 years in the future. In the preface, Brin notes that 50 years is a pretty difficult time range to create - if you only go 10 years into the future, all you have to do is take a particular trend and amplify it, whereas if you go 1,000 years forward, you can create pretty much any kind of society you want.

I suspect, though, that 10 years is starting to become difficult to portray now, because despite the fact that most of us will still be around, we really don't have any clue what it'll look like. Ten years ago Google had just gone public, Apple was rebooting the music industry, and Facebook was for college students only. Now they're some of the biggest companies in the world, but it's by no means implausible that their positions will be usurped by some other company.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that, if you want to write about the future, you need to do a lot more research about what's going on now. Positing a future where child sexuality is normalized by teen pop stars being leered over by grown men loses some impact when you learn that it's actually happening right now, in Japan, with that AKB48 group. A presidency that's both degenerately corrupt but insinkable exists in Italy, with Silvio Berlusconi's refusal to be excluded from national politics. And Russia's 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko could be the plot of a number of SF stories - as could the downing of MH17 over Ukraine this past summer.

Or to put it another way, there's a lot going on that we could be incorporating into our stories - our responsibility as writers is to make sense of it for everybody else. And if it seems too outlandish for some, well, we can always point to the real story that inspired us - which is half the fun of writing this stuff anyway.

Monday, 2 March 2015

RIP Leonard Nimoy

Like everyone, I saw the news on Friday that Leonard Nimoy had passed away at the age of 83. I have loved Star Trek since I was about 4, watching reruns of the original series, and Spock was impressive even then - alien, with the distinctive ears and eyebrows and haircut that would influence later actors who played Vulcans. To say nothing of the performance - calm, collected and only occasionally letting emotion seep through.

Years later, when I discovered Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was excited to see he'd made it into that show as well, and into the Simpsons too - a lot of the reactions on Twitter and other internet message boards to his death was to quote the lines from his appearances in the monorail and alien sighting episodes ("Hey Spock, whaddaya want on your hot dog?" "Surprise me!"). Even more recently, I was happy to see him pop up on Fringe, both in person and lending his voice to several episodes even after he'd officially retired from acting.

I'm vaguely aware of the negatives of his most famous role, of course - his book entitled I Am Not Spock, and the way he was effectively typecast following the performance. William Shatner seems to have succeeded in, if not breaking out of the confines of his Star Trek role, at least turning it to his advantage in subsequent shows like TJ Hooker and The Practice - I'm unaware of Leonard Nimoy having had a similar career trajectory (other than the paranormal show, In Search Of). But he eventually made peace with it, leading to the appearances mentioned above, and in a quiet way, indulged his interests in photography and poetry as well. That said, I haven't quite brought myself to listen to his Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.

My most vivid memory of him, however, is of being in the back of the car one weekend as we were driving through North Beach on our weekly trip to San Francisco, and having my dad tell me to look out the window. When I did, there were Spock and Kirk, surrounded by production people, getting ready to film one of the scenes of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. What I remember most about that sight was seeing Leonard Nimoy tying the white headband around his head, to conceal the Vulcan ears.

That was, unfortunately, the closest I ever came to meeting him for real - or any of the other Star Trek actors, for that matter. But he's left behind him one of the most iconic roles of our culture, parodied and imitated for close to five decades. He tried to escape it, he returned to embrace it, and became a legend. As so many have noted already, he truly did live long and prosper.

Goodbye, Spock, and thanks for the memories.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Lego Movie: Not Everything Is Awesome

So I'm going for that "Social Pariah" achievement today: I don't really like the Lego Movie much.

It feels good to get that out, frankly. I floated the idea today on Facebook, and was emboldened by the emphatic reaction (one like and one comment agreeing with me), so decided to phone in base this week's blog around it.

What brought this on, you ask? I happened to catch it on TV at my mom's place this afternoon, and decided to give it another shot (I once tried to watch it on a plane but I turned it off shortly after - possibly for Jack Reacher). I made it quite a bit further in than the last time, too - but that extra 20 minutes wasn't much to my liking either.

In fact, if I were being provocative (moi?), I might even go so far as to borrow some writers' reactions to Interstellar and call it an ideological monstrosity.

OK, that's kind of a strong statement, so I'm gonna backpedal a bit here. Interstellar was an ideological monstrosity because there's a pretty shocking lack of non-white characters (apart from one supporting character) and because, as my sister puts it, it implies that famine and starvation are only the end of the world when they're happening to the West.

The Lego Movie, in that light, maybe doesn't quite fit into that mold, but I find it pretty insidious in its own way. The bad guy, to begin with, is named "Business", and his whole deal is that, like business in real life, he hates spontaneity. He only wants people to follow the instructions that come with each Lego kit, and he doesn't like intermixing, ie using bricks from multiple types of kits to create wondrous new things limited only by YOUR imagination. He hates that stuff SO MUCH, that he's going to use Krazy Glue to immobilize everybody, everywhere.

If you've read my blog before, you may know that I lean slightly leftward, on the political spectrum, and that I am somewhat mistrustful of large corporations. If I could get away with it, corporations would be the bad guys in all my stories (slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean). So, uh, why is Lord/President Business such a problem?

Well, it's all so on-the-nose that it kind of deflates the magic and inhibits suspension of disbelief. And once that's gone, you start to see things about the movie: the fact that it's pretty much the exact same plot as the Matrix, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings; the fact that despite all this "anti-business" and "anti-imagination" stuff, you're still watching a movie using dozens of major licensed properties, which was released by a big studio and came with a catchy song.

And as far as the plot, I think it illustrates what I was saying recently about the dangers of following a beat sheet too closely. If you can see exactly where Blake Snyder would have put his beats, then the movie's not doing its job and drawing you in (much like if you're noticing how clever the author is, the novel's broken).

There are some cute parts of the movie, of course. Having Will Arnett play Batman, for instance, and play him as the dickhead boyfriend of the main guy's love interest, is inspired. Morgan Freeman turns in a nice performance as the mentor, and Liam Neeson does a good job as the (conflicted) evil henchman. And bringing together all of the big properties - DC Comics, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc - into one movie implies that it should be fun. But let's be honest: Wreckit Ralph did a much better job of setting up the main character, his world and his dramatic need, while pulling together characters from a bunch of classic videogames. And it had Sarah Silverman. Need I say more?

So yeah, not a big fan of the Lego Movie. I know a lot of people on my Twitter feed (comedians and the like) loved it, and many were disappointed it wasn't nominated for best animated film or some crap. I'm not. The supreme irony of the movie is that in telling kids how important it is to let your imagination run free, the filmmakers have had to rein Lego in and cram its ethos into the straitjacket of the modern Hollywood screenplay. Good job, Business.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

DC went back to basics with Cartoon Network's Justice League

Like everyone, I have a bunch of shows in rotation on Netflix, and also like everyone, I'm transfixed by one in particular at any given point. For much of last year, that series was How I Met Your Mother (and I regret nothing!), but at the moment the "it" show is Cartoon Network's Justice League.

It ran in the early 00s, and was a follow-on to the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series and its companion Superman: The Animated Series. It shares the art style of the two previous shows, as well as a few of the same voice actors, notably Kevin Conroy as Batman, who's widely held to be the best actor to play the role, at least of the last 20 years (sorry, Christian Bale).

The immediate impetus for starting up with the show was the Nerdist Podcast's wonderful interview with acclaimed voice director Andrea Romano, who was responsible for casting the voices that helped Warner Animation become a powerhouse in the 90s - she did Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Batman, as well as Justice League (which I started because, frankly, it was the only show in that sequence available on streaming). She and Chris Hardwick talked so much about that era of cartoons, which I remember so fondly, that I was moved to revisit it.

Now, I didn't see Justice League when it was on, but based on what I have seen so far (I'm about 20 episodes into Season 1, out of two seasons in total), it really does hold up. It succeeds in capturing the feel of the early Justice League of America comics from the 60s, while maintaining a modern sensibility reminiscent of what Grant Morrison was doing with JLA at the time. That's probably because, like Morrison's run, it's focused on the big names - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman - along with the Flash and Green Lantern. Hawkgirl adds another (sorely needed) female to the cast, while comics mainstay Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onnz rounds out the lineup.

There are a lot of cute nods to the comics, as well. In the first sequence of three episodes (every story was a two- or three-episode arc), the team splits up into pairs to fight the invading alien hordes in different parts of the world (Metropolis, Paris, Malaysia), just as they did in the very earliest comics. Later on in the season, there's also a reference to the classic JLA/JSA teamups of that era, when several members of the League encounter a 40s-style team called the Justice Guild, with stand-ins for the Golden Age Green Lantern, Flash, Wildcat, Black Canary and the Atom.

With that episode in particular, I was also pleased to see that the new show retained Batman: TAS's ability to tell a moving story. When the parallel world on which they encountered the Guild is revealed to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the illusory heroes - who were an inspiration in particular to Green Lantern - give up their own lives so that the few genuine survivors can finally start to rebuild. "We gave up our lives once, after all," says one of the Guild members.

Another reason I'm so enjoying the show is that, continuing on from my post a couple months ago about DC losing the plot a bit, it tells Justice League stories in an uncomplicated and, most importantly, fun way. I haven't picked up a Justice League comic in years, but perusals of Wikipedia show me that I'm not missing much. That might be partly because the characters (and creators, for that matter) keep getting dicked about every year or two for yet another company-wide crossover and retcon. This means that characters die and get resurrected and die again, team rosters chop and change according to the writer's whim, and everything's just a bit stupid and confusing.

That's a function of trying to tell stories about the same characters for decades - in the case of Superman and Batman, we're coming up on 80 years. But at the same time, it's nice to have the TV show, which by necessity can't lean too heavily on all that continuity, to present the stories in a simple and still engaging manner.

The TV show's other big advantage is that it knows exactly who it's aimed at. The comics seem to have this weird split personality, where sometimes they want to get kids reading, and at other times they fall over themselves to show how "grown-up" they are by amping up the gruesome. Or to put it another way, the only way DC found to follow up Heath Ledger as the Joker, with his self-inflicted scars, was to have the comics version cut off his own face (eh?) and then continue wearing it. Which, let's be honest, all sounds like he went to a lot of unnecessary trouble.

I don't believe the stories should be simplistic, or even exclusively aimed at kids; I've had a look at the more recent Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon, which is more kid-friendly and leaves me slightly cold. But the Justice League TV show's limited run and strict rules about, for instance, no blood, at least let the creators find better ways to tell a story that could appeal to all four quadrants (bit of movie-biz talk, since I've been reading all those screenwriting books).

This is, incidentally, why I continue to enjoy the Flash and Arrow TV shows. There's a lot of fan service (in the form of little nods and references to some pretty obscure DC stuff, e.g. Felicity Smoak), but it all becomes a way for the creators to tell stories that make sense to today's viewers, instead of being bogged down by a million issues of continuity.

Anyway, I'm coming to the end of Season 1, and expect to power through Season 2 pretty quickly too. And after that I can look forward to even more references, as the follow-up series, Justice League Unlimited, took a look at the even more obscure characters that made up the League during its long history.

Frankly, I'm just happy we've already had an appearance from Kanjar Ro, one of the weirdest characters to come out of the early JLA comics. It's just a shame they couldn't work his Gamma Gong into the story.