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Monday, 20 April 2015

Training Smarter vs Training Harder

Slightly quick one this week, because I'm typing this out on my work computer after-hours - my home phone line decided to die this weekend, taking my DSL with it. But I'm not here to focus on the negatives.

I ran my fastest 10k ever on Saturday, breaking my previous record by about a minute to do it in 53 minutes and 4 seconds. It was kind of a relief, to be honest, because my running experiences last year weren't awesome. After having (finally) broken the 2-hour barrier for half-marathons in 2013, not being able to repeat that feat, much less break my record, was pretty discouraging.

And particularly when I considered how hard I'd worked - my second run took place in November, and I started training for it in July. I even logged over 86 miles of running in October, as I built up to it... only to discover that I hadn't trained for hill running. At all. Fu. Cking. Balls.

So I made a couple of changes to my routine for this run, with a focus on improving my endurance (I'd noticed that my pace tailed off sharply in the second half of a run). Given that a 10k's a little under 50% of a half-marathon, I was able to do three runs a week without spending too ridiculously much time on it, and gradually got my distances and speed up to the levels I wanted.

And the funniest part is that I did it all without a trainer.

I don't want to bash trainers here, because I only managed my previous personal bests because I was working with someone who really knew what she was doing. But it just underscores how important it is to work with a good trainer - I worked with three last year, one of them for about my entire training regime for the second run, and ended up getting pretty lackluster results.

The difference this year, I guess, is that I took more responsibility for directing my own training and got serious about fixing my specific shortcomings (core strength, endurance). Which, I guess, just illustrates the point that you can have the best equipment and support ever, but it's just a prop - you have to do the work, and figure out what works best for you.

Note, by the way, that this doesn't even necessarily mean longer hours - by the end of November, I was at the gym or on a run five or six times a week, whereas this year I stuck with four workouts a week, and didn't run at all in the week leading up to Saturday.

This is all transferable, of course, to setting goals elsewhere in life. Figure out what's holding you back, and then figure out how to get past it; working harder doesn't always beat working smarter (cliche, I know); and when things don't go as planned, give yourself a break and learn from the setback.

The other important thing is, when you do reach your goal, allow yourself that moment of feeling awesome, before targeting the next goal. But don't forget to get back to work.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

True Detective: True Blood for Grownups

I just finished watching HBO's True Detective yesterday, thanks to my mom having Comcast On-Demand. Given that I caught the first episode sometime last year, and watched the remaining seven in 2015, it's taken me less time to finish than Breaking Bad or the Newsroom.

I have a tendency to check out the first episode of something, and then not revisit it for a good long while. It's not always because of the show's quality (or lack thereof) - it's simply that sometimes I don't have an easy way to follow up with something. For example, I think it was about 3 years between when I watched the first episode of the Walking Dead, and when I saw the remaining 5 episodes of Season 1.

Anyway, with True Detective I hustled a bit more - and I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be pretty good. Not great - not the Wire or the West Wing - but a good way to spend eight hours.

Possibly what caught my imagination first was the show's visuals, and sense of place. The creators seem to really like bird's eye view shots of cars, the size of ants, driving through the highways laid down onto the bayous. I suppose it's to show the scale of the landscape, to emphasize how easy it is to disappear into those bayous, and to hint at what might be lurking there.

The opening title sequence is a good demonstrator of the creators' level of attention to visual detail. Like the True Blood title sequence, its themes are sex and death, two mainstays of Southern Gothic, and there are a lot of images in common, like strippers and desolate houses in the middle of nowhere. For True Detective, some of these thematic images are overlaid onto the silhouettes of the actors, giving a curious double-take effect, where you think you're seeing one image and then the other comes into focus. Given that a lot of the show deals in memory and how stories are distorted over time, this is pretty appropriate.

Within the show, beyond the helicopter shots depicting miles and miles of bayou, the cinematography travels from the tidy home of Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) to the rougher environs of Rust Cohle's (Matthew McConaughey) home and the back country whorehouses, ruined churches and overgrown forts where the rest of the action takes place.

Another thematic point related to the landscape shots is how the landscape is continuously fighting back against the people's encroachment. The killer's home, when we see it at the end, is off in the middle of nowhere, choked by overgrowth; the devastation of the regular hurricanes that pound the Gulf Coast also provides an opportunity for the local flora to reclaim human construction.

As far as the acting, McConaughey and Harrelson make a great uneasy partnership, even if they're sometimes a bit on-the-nose (Harrelson) or almost comically gnomic (McConaughey). Michelle Monaghan is, I'll agree, a bit underused as Harrelson's long-suffering wife who has to deal with his infidelities and drinking. To be honest, I don't think I'd have appreciated the performances as much if I hadn't read the AV Club's episode recaps explaining how this show is also a sort of rebuttal to the misbehaving anti-heroes of shows like Breaking Bad or the Sopranos.

In those shows, the main characters are men who go off the rails and learn to take what they want without bothering with consequences, or have always lived outside the law. True Detective takes the question of whether it takes a bad man to keep the other bad men from disrupting society, and unlike Breaking Bad or the Sopranos, doesn't make excuses or applaud them. Both Hart and Cohle's lives are train wrecks, even if Cohle claims to see the invisible rules keeping a more conventional man like Hart in his place, even as Hart rampages through life fucking women he shouldn't and drinking too much.

A final point is the imagery relating to the King in Yellow, by Robert W Chambers. There are hints and references to a yellow king, and to a place called Carcosa, throughout the show, although they aren't explicitly supernatural like the source material, which was an influence on HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. I have to confess to being a little disappointed that they didn't go in that direction, in the end, although I appreciate how difficult it is to depict that on screen and make it work. That said, the only other work I've read that referenced Chambers's work, The Feaster from the Stars by Alan Baker, earned such a bad review from me that I eventually felt bad and took it down from this blog. So maybe keeping it mundane (and equally creep) was the right choice.

So, to sum up, True Detective is a well-done slice of Southern Gothic, in the same vein (no pun intended) as True Blood, but without the supernatural or the soap opera. And now that I've seen it, I can go check out that trailer for Season 2.

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.