Saturday, 26 May 2012

Three Simultaneous Approaches to Writing

Just the other day I heard Chris Hardwick's Nerdist podcast from last year in which he interviewed Neil Gaiman, and I was interested to hear Gaiman liken the process of writing to laying a brick wall. Essentially, he said that each word is a brick that you're laying on top of all the others, and how strong the whole structure is depends on how well you've fit the words (or bricks) together.

I like the analogy, since I've been thinking about writing in a similar way for a while. Now, you can liken writing to any number of things: Joe Abercrombie refers to plotting as architecture or gardening, depending on how comprehensively you do it at the start; Haruki Murakami wrote an entire book drawing the parallels between writing and running marathons; and Marcus Sakey manages in a single blog post to liken writing to house painting, relationships and children. I list these examples because I think they're all absolutely right, and because I've thought of writing in each of these terms (uh, apart from house painting or children).

When working on a novel, I've frequently visualized it as a structure that I was creating, from the foundations up to the walls and roof, the foundations here being the premise and setting and the characters. If these aren't done properly, or don't fit together well, then you can't build the action on top of them, which means you can't get to the end you've envisioned (ie, putting the roof on).

Now, what Abercrombie was describing related more to the actual outline of a novel, but I think his analogy is valid, because the way he outlined it influenced how he wrote it. In his view, architecture is when you lay everything out as clearly and exhaustively as possible from the start, so that all you need to do next is fill in the blanks with dialogue and sex scenes and what-have-you. On his own blog he's detailed how he switched to more of a gardening approach for the novel he's currently writing, which meant he just arranged everything in the broad shape that he wanted and tried to grow a bunch of things on that arrangement. I read his comments since then to mean that he found the transition to a more free-form type of plotting difficult - the proof, I suppose, will be in how well the finished novel reads.

(Incidentally, Stephen King is famously disdainful of really rigid plotting, as he feels it's too restrictive. It's clearly a subjective issue, as on the few occasions when I've tried to plot a long-form story a little less rigidly I've come up against obstacles that caused me to abandon the project altogether.)

The running analogy is another one that appeals to me, because I also run long distances. I've done a few 10ks and a few half-marathons, and I'm training for a full marathon later this year (in fact the idea for this post came to me while I was out running this morning). In my experience, long-distance running is pretty intimidating if you've never done it before, but once you've done it you see that it's actually pretty simple: you just keep putting one foot in front of the other until you get to the end.

It's not hard to see how this applies to writing. Once you've written a few stories or finished a whole novel, you realize that the key is just to keep writing words, one at a time, until you're done. Moreover, the length of what you're writing changes how you approach it: once or twice I've had an idea for a story and then dashed it off all at once, just like I got through my first two 10ks by practicing running for an hour at a time. However, now that I'm training for a full marathon I've been told by those who've done it that there's a more strategic element to it, and the training is more regimented. Just like with writing a novel, it's not advisable to just start doing it until you're done (again, pace Stephen King); you need to plan out how you're going to get to the end.

I'd also like to point out that I've learned training properly - ie diet, weights, etc - gives you better results than just hitting the road for increasingly long stints each week; just as in writing it's better to actually learn how to structure a narrative, flesh out characters and write dialogue than to rely only on your natural genius to carry you through each time.

The final analogy I want to look at is writing's similarity with relationships. This is maybe a shaky one for me, since I'm by no means an expert on dating or relationships, but indulge me: starting on a new novel is like getting a new girlfriend, in that you just want to spend all your time with it in those heady early days. I started on a new project last year (incidentally at the exact same time I started going out with somebody new), and managed to finish the first draft in just four months - by the end I was averaging around a thousand words per writing session (by contrast the relationship with the girl fizzled out after a month).

Fast forward to now, and I'm coming up on the end of the second draft. This has been much more work, in part because I've set myself a minimum number of words per chapter, to get the whole book up to a publishable length (you wouldn't believe it from this blog post, but my writing is extraordinarily concise), but also because I've been fleshing out characters, places, histories. These days I'm lucky to write more than six hundred words at a sitting, let alone a thousand. Which isn't to say I'm not enjoying it - but the initial excitement of being constantly between the sheets (of paper) has given way to something I have to actively work on, if I want it to progress to the next level. If I knew I didn't love it I'd stop and look for something else to do.

So to wrap up, where does Neil Gaiman's brick-laying analogy fit into all of the blather above (pun intended)? I'd say it informs each of the other analogies in its own way: as with architecture, it's all about making sure all the pieces fit; like running it's something you do one step at a time; and like relationships it's something you can't just ditch when the going gets tough.

But it also stands on its own, on a stylistic level. It's not enough that you've written 80,000 words - they also have to be damn good words. And that's where the questions of fitting them all together, and using the right materials, and having the right training, come in.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

You Can Call Me Statto

In honor of last night's Champions League final, I thought it would be fun to have a look at the last few years of the competition, and try to tease out some trends. Just from the outset, I'm only looking at the last eight years, because you could make the case for this period being an era of English dominance in the tournament. I'm also looking only at each year's final, so impressions will of necessity remain just a bit superficial. But I think the table below is still illuminating:

AC Milan
3-3 (Liverpool win on penalties)
AC Milan
Manchester United
1-1 (Man United win on penalties)
Manchester United
Bayern Munich
Manchester United
Bayern Munich
1-1 (Chelsea win on penalties)

As you can see from the table, at least one English club has made it to the final every year but one. In those seven attempts, the English club has won three times, and curiously enough, always on penalties. A Spanish club has won three times, and an Italian club has won twice, always in open play. A German club has made it to the final twice during this period, and has lost both times.

So the three countries who have the most Champions League places - England, Spain and Italy - have dominated the competition for the last eight years, while Germany continues to threaten to muscle its way into this club. The last time a country outside of the Big Three won the competition was 2004, when Porto beat Monaco.

Eight clubs have played for the title, and six have won it. Of those six only one, Barcelona, has won more than once. Barcelona has, in fact, won all three finals in which it participated.

As I said above, it would be fair to call the last eight years an era of English dominance in the Champions League, since they've reached the final so many times. But given that no English team has won in open play during this period (the last time was 1999, when Manchester United beat Bayern in the last two minutes of the match), I'd also argue that proponents of the English game shouldn't get too excited - as we see every two years during the international tournaments.

There's an idea that the key to the English game is fast-paced, attacking play, and this is true to a certain extent. But I think that the real reason for English success in the tournament has been in the disruptive play that Chelsea, in particular, has been so good at. Chelsea plays best as a unit, rather than as a collection of stars (as we saw when talismanic players like Michael Ballack, Hernan Crespo or Andriy Shevchenko struggled to make a ripple at the club). It's not quite catenaccio, because they're strong on the counter-attack, but you know the score's going to be low when two of the big English teams play one another, in any tournament.

Last night's match is a good test case. Although Chelsea came away winners, Bayern had the clear advantage in ball possession, shots and shots on goal. Large portions of the match occurred in front of Chelsea's goal. In fact, as good as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry were, if Bayern had had better strikers up front they could have probably walked away with the game (Mario Gomez was pretty terrible).

This was also the case on both occasions when Manchester United played Barcelona. United is probably the most "English" club, in that it still relies on a more direct attacking approach, but in both 2009 and 2011 Barcelona ran rings around them. Part of it was, of course, that Barcelona essentially the best team in the world, being comprised so heavily of players from the Spanish national team that won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. But it's also simply that on the continent, football clubs know how to pass around their opponents - Wayne Rooney can run until he's blue in the face but he'll never catch a team with a good passing game.

Just to wrap up quickly here, Spanish success in the Champions League is due more, as I said, to Barcelona's dominance than to any particular strength in the Spanish game; Real Madrid hasn't made it to a final in ten years, after all. And frankly, the Spanish league is about as uncompetitive as the Scottish league - what with only Barcelona and Real Madrid ever winning the domestic league.

And finally, turning to Italy: like Michael Myers they just won't die. People have been talking for ages (and not without cause) of the decline of the Italian game. But the last two times an Italian team played in the final, they won pretty convincingly; I don't want to take anything away from Liverpool's achievement in 2005, but it's probably safe to say that Milan peaked a little early by going up 3-0 by half-time, and sat back a bit in the second half. Still, it's telling that no matter how close Italy gets every year to losing its fourth Champions League spot, Germany is still not quite able to capitalize. I think that's a good demonstration of the gap between the top three countries in Europe and the rest of the pack.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Magnetic Fields at the Royal Festival Hall

I was lucky enough to catch the Magnetic Fields’ concert at the Royal Festival Hall on the 25th of April, for their one and only performance in London as they tour to promote their new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea. This was the second time I managed to catch them (the first time was at the Barbican two years ago, when they were touring for Realism, their previous album), and it was just as satisfying as the first time.

I’ve been a big fan of theirs for a few years now. Unlike most people, the first I ever heard of them was i, the follow-up to 69 Love Songs. I didn’t know anything about them or their back catalog, so I came to it fresh. They were certainly different, both in terms of subject matter and sound. But no matter how varied the styles of music, they had a sharp wit running through all their lyrics, and this really appealed to me.

Since then I’ve managed to pick up the rest of their back catalog, so I came to the concert pretty well prepared. And they didn’t disappoint – the band played music from almost all across their career (the only full albums they didn’t play anything from were the first two, The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees).

Given the range of sounds they’ve used over the years, and the fact that they use a more limited, mostly acoustic, set of instruments on-stage, a lot of what they played sounded very different from the studio versions. Not only that, but a lot of songs were sung by different vocalists than on the albums – for example, Claudia Gonson sang “Swinging London”, which was sung by Stephin Merritt on Holiday, while Stephin sang Shirley Simms’ part on “Drive on Driver”, from Distortion.

But I did enjoy it, as it gave me a new appreciation of some of the songs I already knew. For example, this version of “Swinging London” was more piano-driven than the original, giving it a musical theater vibe that I thought worked for it.

Much of the rest of the set was given over to songs from the new album, with “Goin’ Back to the Country” and latest single “Andrew in Drag” the particular highlights. 69 Love Songs also (perhaps understandably) accounted for a big part of their set; the high point for me was “All My Little Words”, which is my favorite track from that album. They also played a couple of songs off last year’s compilation, Obscurities, and “Smile! No One Cares How You Feel”, from the Gothic Archies’ Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events.

All in all, it was a good concert, and a nice chance to see one of my favorite bands play live again, for a too-rare London appearance. And hopefully I’ll get to see them play the entirety of 69 Love Songs one day, too.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Adam "MCA" Yauch

Just heard the sad news yesterday that Adam Yauch has died, after a three-year battle with cancer.

Whatever you thought of them, the Beastie Boys were one of the most innovative groups of the 80s and 90s - they mixed hardcore punk and rap with samples taken from decades of music, and created a sound that was pure New York. Their masterpiece is still 1989's Paul's Boutique, though casual fans should also check out The In Sound from Way Out!, a collection of instrumentals from Check Your Head and Ill Communication.

Condolences to his family and friends.

The Beastie Boys eulogize their friend and bandmate here.

The BBC's write-up of the news is here.