Sunday, 31 May 2015

Second Progress Report on the Novel: Life Gets in the Way

Hmm. Turns out I was a bit ambitious in the last post talking about this - instead of maintaining the average daily word count between 500-1,000 words, in May I dropped off a bit and stuck mainly around 500 words whenever I sat down to write. I also didn't replicate the 3-week streak I managed last month, although I did manage an 11-day streak, so I won't complain too much.

The more frustrating thing is that the story is starting to wind down toward the end, but I'm still barely halfway to the word count I'd set myself. This is less banal than it seems, since a lot of publishers have rather strict limits at around 80-90 thousand words, and I don't want to have to (eventually) shop around a novella - because does anybody even publish those anymore?

I have some thoughts for expanding the story, of course - certain characters that I've introduced who could have their roles fleshed out a bit more (I don't dare cut them at this point), and I might be able to add some more descriptions of people and places. If I do that, I'll have to make sure I don't waffle on too much, and that I do heed Elmore Leonard's advice to not write the boring parts that everybody skips over.

As far as why the word counts went down and the streaks got shorter, I'm trying to figure out what happened. Surely some of my other life stuff interfered, as there were a few nights that I was up in San Francisco for work or for fun, and my birthday was this month, too.

I also suspect that intensity is easy to maintain at the start of a long project, when you're excited about it, and at the end, when you're finally tying everything together again. Or to put it another way, I don't know if I like the second act as much as the first or third.

This doesn't refer specifically to my own work, by the way. I find that the start of a novel, movie or TV show always seems to grab me more, and then in Act 2 things settle down a bit until the end. I'm curious if this is down to attention spans, or the particular work I'm reading at the time. I know that in my case, there are some good set pieces in Act 2, but a lot of the other stuff has been glossed over quicker than I expected when I outlined the story; and there's also quite a lot of new stuff that wasn't in the outline (not that this is a problem, because I enjoyed writing it).

It's maybe a bit sad, but I think I'm going to have to refer back to Save the Cat to flesh stuff out. I do know of a couple of authors back in London who use it to make sure their stories are flowing well enough, so there is some applicability to novel-writing. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine George RR Martin needing to refer to Save the Cat for his own books.

Of course, he had to start somewhere, too...

Anyway, on to Month 3 and the end of the story. And I shouldn't stress too much anyway - this is the first/rough draft, so I won't have to worry about too much other stuff until I start on the revisions.

Just need to ignore Stephen King's advice that the second draft should always be 10% shorter than the first...

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Avengers: Age of Crossovers

Thanks to the Memorial Day weekend, I got let out of work early on Friday, so I decided to use that time to its best advantage and go watch a 2-hour movie in a darkened cinema. My choice was Avengers: Age of Ultron, since it's the oldest release on my current shortlist of movies I want to catch (Mad Max: Fury Road and Tomorrowland being the others), and because it was starting at the perfect time for me to make my way over from work and find a seat.

I don't know if I've mentioned, but the first Avengers movie, from 2012? I quite liked it. All the Marvel movies had been building up to that, from the first Iron Man back in 2008 with its Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury cameo, so it was great to finally see the characters together and kicking ass.

It helped that I generally liked the movies preceding it - Iron Man remains my favorite of the Marvel movies, and Captain America was also a pretty fun romp. I never got to see either Thor film, but I'm assured that they aren't bad either.

That said, I think there have been a number of diminishing returns since then, as some franchises have taken stumbles (Iron Man 2 was pretty awful), or just weren't very good to begin with (I hated Guardians of the Galaxy). I also gave up on Agents of SHIELD after the end of season 1, since the acting and storylines weren't really doing anything for me.

Age of Ultron wasn't too bad, but neither was it a particular high point. There were nice touches, like the relationship angst between the Black Widow and the Hulk, or the scenes with Hawkeye's family, which did a good job of grounding the team with some humanity. I also enjoyed the hammer scene at the start, including the look on Thor's face when Captain America almost budges Mjolnir and comes close to ruling over Asgard.

It also had a reasonable plotline running through it, with Ultron trying to destroy humanity (will he never learn?), and Iron Man's fear of failure after the previous movie spurring him to create Ultron in the first place.

The only problem is that too much of it felt like putting the pieces on the board for the next movie. Some of it made some slight sense in the context of previous films, like one of the Infinity Gems popping up, but other parts were just shoehorned in to tie in to movies that aren't coming out for another two years.

The main offender is this scene toward the end, where Thor runs off with Stellan Skarsgard, before the climactic battle, to wade around in some underground pool. He takes off his shirt, waves his hammer around, lightning strikes, and then he makes his way back to the fight against Ultron, with no obvious answer for why that scene is in the film.

As near as I can tell, that (and the weird dream sequence with Idris Elba) is only there to set up Thor: Ragnarok, which doesn't come out until July 2017. And there's more stuff setting up the next double-part Avengers movie, Infinity War, which is scheduled to hit cinemas in 2018 and 2019. I'd say more, but spoilers, so...

Anyway, my point is that we're getting perilously close to comic-book-levels of continuity here, and I don't think that's a good thing. Marvel and DC, having decided that their characters would all interact within their respective universes, have since had to make retcons and reboots part of their strategy, just to help keep everything straight (or to present a monthly comic for new readers that looks superficially like the movies).

The problem is that this then turns continuity from a neat thing (hey, Batman's hanging out with Superman!) into an end in itself. We're quickly getting to the point where stuff actively doesn't make sense in Age of Ultron if you haven't seen any of the characters' solo movies. Also, I'm curious why only one dude from the current season of Agents of SHIELD got a cameo, but none of the others - not that this makes me curious enough to check out the series again.

I rather suspect that Marvel's shot itself in the foot with this Marvel Cinematic Universe business. They got everybody all worked up last year when they revealed what the next movies would be, all the way through to 2019. But now they have to stick with that, and set up loads of stuff along with it. So in Age of Ultron we get mentions of Wakanda and Ulysses Klaw, but no Black Panther - what's the point? Why can't that stuff get the attention it deserves in the Black Panther movie, which doesn't even come out until 2018? Who's going to remember all this crap?

And because nobody can succeed in Hollywood without everyone else ripping them off, now DC and Warner Brothers have started using individual superheroes' franchises as backdoor pilots to set up their own shared universe. So the upcoming Superman vs Batman movie keeps getting characters added to it (Wonder Woman and Aquaman so far, possibly also Cyborg), to better set up the upcoming Justice League movie.

Marvel may not have much of a TV presence to worry about, but DC does, in the shape of its rather well-received (and entertaining) CW shows, Arrow and the Flash. Apparently Warners is looking at putting out a Flash movie to tie in with Justice League, but it won't have anything to do with the TV show. That's kind of a fuck-you to Grant Gustin, who plays the Flash, and to fans like me.

What both Marvel and DC seem to have forgotten, drunk with power on the returns from a bunch of movies that, let's be honest, have varied widely in quality, is that doing shared universes for the sake of shared universes is what's killing comics. Nobody wants to pick up the monthly books, because they don't want to have to deal with decades of backstory. If the studios expect movie audiences, who aren't used to this sort of crap, to keep up, then I think it's going to blow up in their faces.

OK, let me qualify - I'm sure they'll get asses in seats (including mine), but I think that the novelty is going to wear off soon, particularly as actors age and stories get ever creakier with continuity. And we're diving deeper and deeper into those universes, dredging up characters that may get me excited, but not necessarily anybody who doesn't know the comics as well as me.

Let's let the movies get back to telling one story, and leave the crossovers as nice treats for the fans, rather than stuffing them with crap that won't pay off for years and years.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Politics of Batman: Are Superheroes Inherently Right-Wing?

I recently lent a friend at work my copy of the Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller's seminal Batman story that launched decades of grim and gritty superhero stories and revitalized the genre. After he gave it back, I decided to have a look at it myself - I've been reading some more recent Batman stories, particularly the Grant Morrison run that started in 2006 and culminated in Batman Incorporated, so I wanted to go back to an old favorite.

Now, the narrative is that Miller's gone pretty clearly right-wing since then. He denounced the Occupy Movement in 2011, for instance, calling them "louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid self-righteousness". He then brought in the War on Terror, suggesting that America's enemies were getting a "dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh" at the sight of people demanding accountability from the folks who'd wrecked the world economy (disclosure: one of my sisters marched in the initial wave of Occupy Wall Street, and was arrested on completely frivolous grounds).

He then released Holy Terror, a story that began as Holy Terror, Batman, but took him about five years to write, during which he decided to have his own original hero running around rooftops, beating up Muslim terrorists and generally advancing racist stereotypes of Middle Easterners. I haven't read it, but the consensus seems to be that it's a pretty awful story.

What's interesting, though, is that this side of Frank Miller has been around for quite a while. We just never noticed because, at the time, all of pop culture was reflecting the idea that society was going to hell in a handbasket. DKR came out in 1986, and Robocop 2, for which he wrote an early draft, came out in 1990. Media at the time was full of portrayals of cities turning into war zones, police being unable to stop the flow of drugs into the streets, and law-abiding normal (ie, white) families being subject to rape, robbery, murder, etc at complete random.

I'm not arguing that American cities weren't awful, of course. I wasn't around then, but I'm aware that New York in the 70s and 80s was pretty dangerous and sleazy, and that some cities were worse (East St Louis was the basis for Hub City in Denny O'Neil's acclaimed run on The Question - incidentally, created by the well-known Objectivist Steve Ditko).

But it does seem that a lot of the people writing these urban types of comics swallowed some sort of Kool-Aid and filled their stories with a sort of perpetual left-wing straw man - a big part of chapter 1 of DKR involves leftwing people calling Batman a fascist and arguing against his methods. We as readers are meant, instead, to root for him because he gets results and he's sick of standing by and letting Gotham City go to hell.

Batman in particular can seem like a law-and-order right-winger's dream. He's meant to be this avenging angel, taking on crime that the police are too corrupt or ineffective (because of pesky rules) to tackle. This portrayal, however, ignores the fact that initial versions back in the 40s were more of a masked adventurer type, like the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro. That then turned into the crazy psychedelia of the 60s, of which the Adam West TV show is the best example. While the back story remains the same - parents killed by mugger, young Bruce swears revenge, etc - the execution isn't nearly as dark or tortured.

On his more recent run, Grant Morrison tried to re-introduce some of the earlier playfulness of the 1940s-60s Batman, while at the same time having Bruce Wayne form a foundation to help tackle the root causes of crime. It's telling that Batman as written by Morrison (whose parents were anti-nuclear campaigners in Scotland) spends more time going after people like Ra's al Ghul or the Joker, than common street criminals.

Similarly, Superman started life as a sort of proto-Occupy figure, bringing slum lords and corrupt billionaires to justice in the 30s and 40s, before being coopted for propaganda purposes during World War II. Morrison also tried to incorporate that into his own reboot of Superman in 2011, as part of the New 52. But the intervening decades did leave Superman as more of a fusty, establishment-type figure, prompting former Punisher writer Steven Grant to wonder whether Superman would have marched with Martin Luther King Jr at Selma, or if he'd have been holding one of the firehoses instead.

The simple answer is that these characters are mirrors for the creators' own preoccupations. Your definition of truth, justice and the American way may differ from mine; likewise, you may prefer stories where Batman beats up street criminals to ones where he tackles international baddies like Ra's. I just think it's a shame if we let a single, narrow definition of Batman (ie, Frank Miller's right-wing and slightly racist one) stand as the definitive statement on a character that could be a lot more interesting.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Progress Report on the Novel

I've been back on the novel writing for a month, and thought I'd share some reflections on how the story's going, as well as stuff I've learned in the doing.

First is to take stock of where I am, which I'm pretty happy with. I set myself a goal of between 27,000 and 30,000 words for April, which I scraped through with a last push between Sunday and Thursday of last week. It helped that I started a few days early, back in March, but I don't want to dismiss the effort that I put in - I didn't miss a single day between 29 March and 15 April (something I can't say about May so far...). In total I missed just six days of writing throughout the month, generally as a result of tiredness or poor time management (see, for an example of the latter, last week's blog).

On the plus side, most days I added about a thousand words to the manuscript. My best day was 11 April, when I knocked out 1,886 words. I wasn't able to hit these giddy heights every day, but even when I targeted a shorter writing time, I managed only three days where I was under 500 words. And the important thing is that I sat down on those days to do it.

As far as learnings, I took a new approach with this one. Whereas for previous novels I broke it all down into chapters at the start, this time I approached it more like I would a movie treatment, by dividing it into acts and inserting plot points to make transitions between the acts. It's made the manuscript look a little unwieldy, but I can admit that not worrying about chapter breaks for this draft means that I can simply tell the story as it comes. This is a suggestion I've adapted from both Terry Pratchett and Shelly King, who I heard give a talk at a local bookstore in March.

Another tactic that I used for the previous book has come in handy this time around. Following Rachel Aaron's suggestion on her own blog, whenever I sit down to write, I spend five minutes writing out what I intend to get done. As soon as the five minutes are done, I get to putting it down into past tense, third person narrative with dialogue and what-have-you. What I found interesting is that on one day I thought I didn't have time for this, so I tried to just sit down and write, but found that my brain wouldn't spit anything out. I ended up taking a couple of minutes to do it after all, and the words came a lot easier after I did.

I suppose the reason it works, as Aaron says, is that in those first five minutes you've figured out a lot of the beats and the back-and-forth of the scene, which means you can just get on with it. If you don't do it, you're spending a lot more time thinking about what comes next, determining whether or not it works, and deleting or back-tracking more than you need to. When I first came across her advice two years ago, it helped me knock out around a thousand words in an hour, which I consider to be pretty excellent going for nights when I've been to the gym, made dinner and only then sat down to write.

As far as what I'm actually writing, I'm not worrying about that overly much at this point. I try not to edit too much as I go along, especially in a first draft, although when something's been really glaring I've put in a marker to remind myself for when I start on the first round of revisions. I can say, though, that I'm quite happy with some of the character work that's been developing - that'll probably change after I've put the manuscript away for a while, but for now I'll take whatever wins I can.

And looking to the future, I'm aiming for 27-30 thousand words again. I'd also like to maintain a streak like last month's, although I'll have to be careful not to fall into the trap of letting myself do less than a thousand every night. The plan is to have the entire first draft done by the end of June (or thereabouts), so I've got my work cut out for me.

But on the other hand, I'm reminded of one of those motivational slogans the sales team in my old job had on their white board: If it was easy, it wouldn't be fun.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a thousand words to write.