Sunday, 20 September 2015

Back in London

After what felt like an eternity of waiting, my vacation for the year has finally rolled around and I'm back in London for a couple of weeks. It's been a tough one to wait for, since I booked the trip back in March (!) and hadn't actually left the US since September of last year (when I went to Singapore). That officially makes this the longest stretch I've spent in any one country since I went back to the US for graduate school eleven years ago.

Since arriving I've made the most of my time here: traveled on the Heathrow Express, visited the British Museum, bought a couple of books (including one at the brand-spanking new Foyle's) and watched Match of the Day. I haven't seen any friends yet, but that cycle of hanging out with people begins today, and continues pretty much unabated until I leave. 

As far as what I still want/need to do while I'm here, well, I've promised my sister a visit to one of the bars in the Shard, and there's a bunch more books I need to pick up, particularly at Big Waterstones on Piccadilly, which remains my favorite bookstore ever. I've also penciled in a visit to the BSFA's monthly meeting near Old Street, so I can hobnob with more SFF writers (something I've been sorely missing since I moved back to California).

And then I get a week totally offline in Italy, where I'm going for a cousin's wedding. So I might not be blogging as much as I'd like, but hopefully I'll be able to come up with the odd bon mot to keep folks entertained...

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A Catch-up on Writing Goals

At the beginning of the year I listed a number of writing related goals that I've set for myself, with the idea that if I set a lot, I'd be more motivated to accomplish them. I'm happy to say that I'm mostly right, but it's also worth noting how naive some of that was.

I never got around to properly revising any of my movie treatments from last year, for instance. But I have finished a first draft of a full screenplay with a friend back in London, so I'm counting that goal as broadly done. And I've been thinking of ways to expand these old outlines (or, um, finish the one that I didn't complete last year...), so that I can actually write them into full screenplays.

As far as the new screenplay treatments, I'm well on track with those. I set myself the goal of doing three, and as of mid-September I've done two. They aren't necessarily the ones I planned on at the start of the year, or as long as I was thinking, but they're done, so this goal is pretty comprehensively on the road to completion.

The comic's been a bit more difficult, in part because I haven't really looked at how to write comics in almost 15 years. It also doesn't help that I got through a version of the first issue and then re-imagined the entire story, so I'm effectively a month behind with this one. On the plus side, because it's the same story as one of last year's movie treatments, it means I'm moving ahead with revisions on that one, too. #winwin

And then there's the 90,000 word novel I planned to write. I blogged about my progress on it a couple of times, but never did part 3 of my progress reports - but suffice to say, after a blinding start in April, where I was routinely knocking out over 1,000 words in a night, progress came a lot slower for the next couple of months, and although the story ended, I didn't come anywhere near 90,000.

This isn't necessarily an arbitrary goal, by the way, as DAW requires books to be at least 80,000 words, and Angry Robot's guidelines specify 90k. This means I'm left with two choices - either expand it by at least 35,000 words, or pare it down and turn it into a novella. I'm leaning toward the former, as I don't know if a market for fantasy novellas even exists, but probably my main focus for right now should be just to get on with revising. And the first step of that would be putting the 136 pages I printed out the other week in order - always remember to put page numbers on stuff!

The final goal I listed was submitting stories 20 times, for which I've reached the halfway point as of last night. As I mentioned at the start of the year, this required some revisions and rewrites, as I had two stories ready for submission; I've sent a couple of others, but the revising and rewriting remains beyond me, to some extent. This is probably an action point for me, of course - learn to revise properly so that I can actually get a few more stories out the door...

I mention all of this to illustrate a point made by Tim Ferriss in the Four-Hour Work Week (which he was citing from elsewhere), that tasks expand to fit the time allotted. For me the best example was the novel. In previous years, with previous novels, I wouldn't exactly set myself a deadline, I'd just write -sometimes I'd get to the end, and sometimes I wouldn't.

This time, following suggestions by Stephen King in his book On Writing, I set myself the goal of finishing the first draft in 3 months, and I'd say it helped. I let myself off the hook from all other writing during those three months (except for the blog, of course!), and just got on with it. Sticking to 1,000 words a day may have been a bit too ambitious for someone working 9-5, but on the other hand, my problem ended being too concise, rather than not having enough time...

The other thing that benefits from all these goals I set is consistency: because I had a million things I wanted to do this year, it meant I pretty much have to do something every day. Sometimes it takes hours, and sometimes it's just 15 minutes, but I'm finding that in the last couple of months I've had fewer days where I didn't do anything at all. I broke everything down into quarters, months and then weeks, and from there I just got on with it.

So my recommendation is to be ambitious with your goals... within reason. Or to put it another way, set a bunch of small goals, rather than only a couple of big ones. Break them down into smaller goals with clear milestones, and set deadlines. And then don't get discouraged (as I often have to remind myself) when you don't meet one or two goals - after all, writing is subjective, and you're relying on a lot of factors you can't control to make you successful.

And after you've set all those goals, get to work!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Importance of TV Theme Songs

I was listening to my TV themes playlist on Spotify the other day, just to make a change from the usual routine of my 80s playlist and the ones I've set up with notable songs from 2014 and 2015 (current total: 15). Somehow this inspired me to go looking on YouTube for the video depicting all of the themes from Star Trek shows, from TOS to Enterprise, and it struck me again how important a tool the opening theme can be in setting the mood for a show.

In this case, the main idea was around the two themes that Deep Space Nine had during its run. For the first two or three seasons, the theme was very stripped down and stately - you hear the opening fanfare as we pan across the field of stars to where the station itself sits, alone in the night. The music rises only when we see the station in its entirety, and when the dissolve arrives we launch into the tune, with a single horn underlining the theme of being alone and far from home.

It's probably the most understated Star Trek theme, and my favorite. And then in Season 4 they ruined it all.

The second version, which also appears on this video, is sped up considerably from the previous one, and doesn't sync up as well with the visuals. The reveal of the station occurs a bit earlier in this new version, and then once we go into the main theme the single horn has either been joined by others or has been mixed considerably higher. And the rest of the orchestra, which in the previous version maintained a noticeable but very subdued presence, is almost intolerably loud here.

I mention this, not just to bitch for the umpteenth time about how my favorite theme got ruined between one season and the next (seriously, it was about eight years ago and I'm still traumatized), but also to underline my point about the opening music's importance in conveying the themes of the show.

Deep Space Nine was different from the others, by virtue of not being set aboard a ship with a crew that was exploring space. This meant that the writers could explore more political themes, such as war with dangerous new enemies (the Cardassians and then the Dominion), as well as the fact that your allies back home aren't necessarily on your side any more than the enemies in front of you are.

It's a pretty complicated set of ideas for Star Trek, and I can understand why they felt the need to add a new ship, the Defiant, and add a fan-favorite cast member in the shape of Michael Dorn, to keep it going. But in changing the opening music they basically threw all of those ideas out the window, which I think is unwise if you're trying to get your views in the mood for your show.

Another example would be the themes from the first two seasons of True Detective (I haven't embedded these videos, because it seems HBO has asked people to disable that function when they post them on YouTube). When I wrote about Season 1, I highlighted the opening song as an important intro to the themes the show was exploring. By laying religious and sexual imagery over the silhouettes of the characters, the show's producers were making a comment on how unreliable memory can be, and how easy it is for people to obscure the truth from one another.

The second season of True Detective was generally less successful than the first, and its opening music is no exception. We still have the silhouettes of the actors overlaid with scenes from the show's settings (California's forests and highways this time, replacing the bayous and refineries of Louisiana), but here they don't make the same kind of sense as in the first season. At the same time, the song, Nevermind by Leonard Cohen, doesn't have an obvious relationship to the show's visuals or themes the way Season 1's song did.

Which isn't to say that it's a bad song. But as I watched the second season, I realized that the producers were using industrial landscapes of Southern California in the same way they'd used rural Louisiana - where in Season 1 the landscape shots were meant to show how nature creeps up on us and gradually covers over the past, Season 2's shots of freeways and refineries were in keeping with the themes of how power and money flow, and also represented how the characters built their identities over traumas and other aspects of themselves they wanted to hide.

Or, put another way, it showed how we try and control nature (or our own natures), but that in doing so we replace it with something ugly, artificial and stifling. The problem is, almost none of this is evident in the theme (to me at least; your mileage may vary).

The point, again, is that a well-done theme sequence is meant to do a good job of explaining what you're about to see, and get you in the right frame of mind to take in the messages the show wants to convey. Good theme songs, like for True Blood, the Wire or Season 1 of True Detective, are evidence that the producers have a good handle on what they're trying to say. Even if, as in the case of True Blood, they eventually let it all get out of control and go a little silly.

On the other hand, silly isn't always bad: