Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Published in 1987, Watchmen was hailed as peerless, groundbreaking and a masterwork. It has sat in the recesses of my mind as cipher to something I could never even contemplate. I'd never read it, never even seen it and yet, somehow, that image of the smiley yellow face, soiled by the blood stain was ingrained on me.

It is only now as I read Alan Moore's amazing piece of work in its entirety that I begin to see what a wonderful creation it is. It has so many themes and ideas, works on so many levels, and weaves intricately between the characters and the plots, sifting through back stories of these multi-faceted, psychologically complex adventurers that I am amazed that it was conceived in a time so backward as 1987.

How could I not have read this earlier? As a child? As a teen? As a writer? This stuff is dynamite.

From Wikipedia:
Watchmen is set in 1985, in an alternative history United States where costumed adventurers are real and the country is edging closer to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union (the Doomsday Clock is at five minutes to midnight). It tells the story of a group of past and present superheroes and the events surrounding the mysterious murder of one of their own. Watchmen depicts superheroes as real people who must confront ethical and personal issues, who struggle with neuroses and failings, and who - with one notable exception - lack anything recognizable as super powers. Watchmen's deconstruction of the conventional superhero archetype, combined with its innovative adaptation of cinematic techniques and heavy use of symbolism, multi-layered dialogue, and metafiction, has influenced both comics and film.

Since it is due out next year in movie format (a scenario the writer, Alan Moore, detests the thought of - neither V for Vendetta or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen faired particularly well) I had to get my hands on it, and I insist that you do too.

Not least for the following reasons:

From XKCD:
  • Watchmen isn't a world of moral absolutes. None of the characters are Superman or Spidey. Their lives don't revolve around the notion of wholly good logic and what must be done to save people. The Watchmen are driven to protect their own ideology of what is good, or patriotic, or best for the planet, or best for themselves.
  • They angtsy, driven by human desires and character flaws that we've only seen in the likes of poor dark Batman (you'll have to forgive me as I'm only a pseudo-comicbook geek)
  • These aren't superheroes. They wear costumes, but aside from Ozymandias and Dr Manhattan, they operate on technology and strength alone. They're vigilanties, not superheroes.
  • Sub stories cross over one another, linking disparate scenes and or dialogue with each other to match or symbolise what is happening in another scene.
The themes run very deep throughout the entire plot. It raises the question about men with causes (women too... obviously) - people who have given their entire lives over to a certain issue or situation, for example, fighting against racism or homophobia, antiwar, save the rainforests. What happens to these people when their cause is gone or removed from them. When they no longer have to fight that which they have elected to fight?

While by the end of the story we have the overarching theme of "Who Watches the Watchmen", particularly in its attempts to show the characters going to whatever odds to preserve peace, throughout we are struck by the sadness of losing one's place in the world, and being misunderstood because of it.

It is also interesting to think of how very special this piece of work is and how lucky we are that Moore has so brilliantly devised his plot, especially considering what it has given us as off shoots (just as George Lucas gave us so much when he created Star Wars). However, there is a flipside... there are so many novels and comic strips, and movies, and songs, that are so derivative of that standard formula that Watchmen has eschewed. These derivatives, created after the likes of Watchmen and Star Wars still leak out into the ether as if wonderous and complex creations such as Watchmen never existed and never raised new questions about character and plot creation and moral issues.

I am set in my mind now to write a young adult novel that is as morally ambiguous as Watchmen, that isn't oh-so Harry Potter in its appeal, and that changes allegiances between books from one side to the other... because life is complicated and it isn't all cut and dried. And most importantly, people lie to protect themselves and their ideologies. So few of us our good, moral people. We always let slip, don't we, just to make our own lives easier.

I think it's time we had a YA novel that reflected that.

Here's hoping I can pull it off.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

There's a funny story to tell with how I came to read this book... I had seen the trailer over on Apple's Trailers site and it piqued my interest, so much so that I avidly watched for its arrival at my local cinema... any one of the four. Of course, what with me living in the anti-cultural capital of England, none of them felt the need to show anything that didn't appeal to children or Horror-meisters.

Alas I will have to wait.

And so it was that midweek, MG Harris said she'd spotted her book Invisible City on the shelves in Oxford (two weeks early), and I raced out to the local Waterstones to see if I could buy it too. And again, the local businesses let me down. But instead I stumbled upon Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Hazarr!

Bought it half price too, and finished just minutes before we did last night's Litopia podcast.

I'm in two minds over the book itself, or is that I'm in one mind over the book and in another mind regarding the writer?

The book is constructed in two separate povs. Since the title and the subject of the piece regard Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones in the movie) we open with a monologue of his:
I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited with him two or three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his execution. I didn't have to go but I did. I sure didn't want to. He'd killed a fourteen year old girl and I can tell you right now I never did have no great desire to visit with him let alone go to his execution but I done it. The papers said it was a crime of passion and he told me there wasn't no passion to it. He'd been datin' this girl, young as she was. He was nineteen. And he told me that he had been plannin' to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he'd do it again. Said he knew he was goin' to hell. Told it to me out of his own mouth. I don't know what to make of that. I surely don't. I thought I'd never seen a person like that and it got me to wonderin' if maybe he was some new kind.
And then we slide into the chapter proper, with a third person pov that allows us to shift easily between characters at separate locations. It's all good stuff, nice and simple prose that any reader can understand without too much concentration, and yet in these main narrative moments I was driven to great distraction by McCarthy's choice of structuring:
He ran cold water over his wrists until they stopped bleeding and he tore strips from a hand towel with his teeth and wrapped his wrists and went back into the office. He sat on the desk and fastened the toweling with tape from a dispenser, studying the dead man gaping up from the floor. When he was done he got the deputy's wallet out of his pocket and took the money and put it in the pocket of his shirt and dropped the wallet to the floor. Then he picked up his air tank and the stun gun and walked out the door and got into the deputy's car and started the engine and backed around and pulled out and headed up the road.
How can I recommend this book to anyone when every other word is surely and? It isn't easy.

And yet through this style we know exactly what and where and how - but it doesn't half begin to grate! Use a comma, a full stop or something... please?

The next problem for the reader lies in the lack of quotation marks for dialogue (single or double). Narrative runs into dialogue and others follow without attribution to characters, often leaving a lazy reader (or tired, as I was) a little lost, and in need of some backtracking.

And yet, the story is cracking and the idiosyncrasies of the characters bring them alive enough that any hate I had for McCarthy's style had to be endured to find out what happened next - and I was surprised by the turns in the story. I'm not sure if I like the direction it took at the end (but I guess that's what you get when you're riding shotgun with a writer like McCarthy).

I can recommend this on story and character alone - it may be better just to watch the movie (at least that is up for Oscars). And on a side note, I do enjoy watching the trailer for a movie and then reading the book, all the characters are fleshed out for me - it helps that the movie seems to follow the book faithfully (don't get me started on I Am Legend).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Heath Ledger - RIP

What is it about some stars (I won't call him a celebrity - because he actually does something I feel is of some importance) that the loss of them feels like you've lost something / someone personally?

We were shocked this morning to switch on the TV and between the Police pay-deal and the weather, GMTV blithely reported that Heath Ledger, the one and only Patrick Verona whom we all first saw on our screens in the brilliant 10 Things I Hate About You, had died in some drug overdose related death in his apartment in New York.

What a way to wake up to the world, I tell you. But why, aside from psychological tiredness, do I feel the way I do? I don't know him personally, and to be honest I've only seen him in:
  1. 10 Things I Hate About You
  2. A Knight's Tale
  3. The Patriot
  4. Monster's Ball
  5. The Order
  6. The Brother's Grimm
  7. Brokeback Mountain
7 films! It will be 8, when The Dark Knight finally comes out in July of this year (and I bet the credits will be revised to add In Memoriam... But, 7! And they're not particularly great - 1, 2 and 7 are his calling card.

So, what is it about him and his loss that makes me feel sad (I, no, I don't believe it's because we had the sadest day in the world on Monday.

Is it his age? He was only 28... like me! Is it that he eschewed celebrity? Or that he played identifiable characters? Is it that the role of his career is coming out in July, as the Joker? Is it that we will all watch The Dark Knight and find that we're all rooting for him instead of Batman?

I just don't know, and I think that this is why it makes reactions such as mine all the more scary and sad that I don't have that answer. Back when Diana died (yes, I feel sure a lot of conversations these days can't go long without referring to Diana, Hitler, or the number of Polish immigrants leaving out of that office-cum-apartment), anyhoo, when Diana died, we woke on the Sunday morning and watched the news coverage in some shock, but nothing like what we're both, Laura and I, feeling this morning.

But does it say more about us, and our attachment to people we admire and respect, than it does about our real empathy towards the person and the loss of their life, or what their family will be feeling.

While I sat in bed, wide eyed with shock, Laura was the one to say, "But, he's got a baby and Michelle!" And promptly emphasised with them.

Long live Heath Ledger; roll on July, we look forward to your greatest role yet.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Narrative Focus

Narrative, narrative, narrative... what a wonderful thing. Aside from dialogue I think one might find narrative a very important entity within a piece of written work. How else might one transport one's eyes, and thusly their grey matter from point A to point B in a coherent manner without having to consider who said what and why?

Ah, it be narrative. Shame that I often have so much trouble with it. In the Figurative Language post, we saw that there is a right way to construct a sentence as part of the narrative structure, but we didn't consider what we can do with the narrative, and there lies the rub.

You see, I was reading a book t'other day and I came across an h'epiphany regarding the very different ways in which narrative may be constructed, and I don't mean first person present tense and all that fandangleness. No, pay attention.

So much of my prose can be confusing to the reader, but worse still it is confusing because I have failed to consider what elements I can focus my narrator's attention on, and thusly the reader's. How so, I hear you say?

I've tried to distill a concept for narrative choices, and it may be wrong, or not entirely complete, but this is an experimental blog and thus the mind that creates it hasn't yet had its premises inspected and signed off by the building commission.

Reflection - narrator / character reflects on the past / present / future
And for many, for Father, for me now, the risk of missing a catch through fear of foul weather is too great. If you aren’t out there catching, you’re not paying your way.

This is the living; what it is to live from hand to mouth.
Action - physical movement, physiological movement / reaction, interaction with others / object
And if I pause in my work to watch the motion, my body braced against the open-air cabin as I cast the last clove hitch between the port railing and my stash of pot traps, it looks as if he’s master of all the sea.
Intention - decision / impetus / drive to perform an act
He was my only companion for the journey, his head cocked to one side or the other, eyeing the bait I worked between my fingers. I regarded him but gave him nothing, promising instead the spoils if he stayed with me. There he lingered on my promise.
Observation - senses, dialogue delivery
Father’s lineage has bestowed me with his waxy, chiselled features, a sailor’s skin rigged to withstand the constant saltwash. I have his strong hands and the same sturdy disposition surges through my bones against the sea’s heave-ho.
Perception - like observation but subjective
He could manage all that and more, winching, knotting, securing from port to starboard; all the while grinning windward as only true sailors can. Alone, I barely had time to secure myself. I’m certain to this day that he’d made a pact with the sea. In return for having a storm’s forewarning he’d commit himself to her deep bosom one day, as if I’d been right all these years and Mother had meant nothing to him.
Wish / Need - future reflection
That first time alone, my entire catch scuppered by the dirtiest of squalls, I prayed. Whilst I’d had none of my father’s nous, I hoped I’d been blessed with some of his luck.
Feeling - how the character feels generally or their observation towards a situation / object / person (with feeling)
In the roar, the swoosh and the whoop of the squall I could hear nothing else; not the bilge pump I hoped was still running, nor my own screams of despair.
Relating - reflection vs feeling / observation towards a situation / object / person
He has a herring gull’s determination: fixed and stoic and calculating. It’s the same expression worn off ship by my father, whether skulking about the house, swigging whiskey from his favoured tin mug, or flipping mackerel in a skillet.
Resolving - intention vs feeling / observation towards a situation / object / person
On my maiden voyage, the first I made in the wake of his death, lying ahull was the only option. In my eagerness to get underway and my anxiety to honour his memory I failed to prepare.
All examples are from a short story of mine.

Reaction Before Explanation

Just a quickie... I was popping my nostrils through Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (as you do), looking for a description of the Mirror of Erised, and the room in which it is sitting, because I am trying to make sure that if (and when) I finally get back to writing my children's story, I must keep my writing less flowery (if you must know).

Anyhoo, I came across how JK Rowling presents a surprise to the reader when it affects her characters - she does so by dealing with the most immediate element, and in the case of Harry looking into the mirror - his reaction. This keeps the reader slightly distanced, as if pushing them away so that they can't see what Harry sees, making them want to know more:
His panic fading now that there was no sound of Filch and Snape, Harry moved nearer to the mirror, wanting to look at himself but see no reflection again. He stepped in front of it.

He had to clap his hands to his mouth to stop himself screaming. He whirled around. His heart was pounding far more furiously than when the book had screamed - for he had seen not only himself in the mirror, but a whole crowd of people standing right behind him.
The lady can write. As for the screaming book, that's another example of sudden surprise, but this time rather than dealing with the character reaction, we have the most pertinent element of the shock, that being the scream that breaks the quiet:
He pulled it out with difficulty, because it was very heavy, and, balancing it on his knee, let it fall open.

A piercing, blood-curdling shrief split the silence - the book was screaming! Harry snapped it shut, but the shriek went on and on, one high, unbroken, ear-splitting note. He stumbled backwards and knocked over his lamp, which went out at once.
So, surprise or reaction first... works both ways but it's dependent upon the specifics. There's no point in her writing about Harry's reaction to the screaming book before we've read that it's screaming. Similarly, we lose any suspense and / or terror if we see the people in the mirror and not Harry's reaction.

Oh, and as for the mirror itself:
- but propped against the wall facing him was something that didn't look as if it belonged there, something that looked as if someone had just put it here to keep it out of the way.

It was a magnificent mirror, as high as the ceiling, with an ornate gold frame, standing on two clawed feet. There was an inscription carved around the top: Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on whosi.
Functional description linked in with character action (it was facing him - relates back to character position so that it doesn't feel as if we've stopped to describe it).

POD, DRM and E. S. Posthumus

We were discussing again in Friday's Podcast about Print On Demand (POD) publishing and whether or not it has any place in publishing legitimately, official and of appropriate quality (in the writing, not in the printing) works of fiction / non-fiction.

There is still a massive lack of faith in it - despite overwhelming stats suggesting cheaper, more efficient publishing (even though one POD publisher said they'd managed 10 million prints in 10 years, and are now able to do 10 million in 11-13 months) - however there is a time and a place. Certainly, I believe established writers would be better off following this route to cut out the middle man of the publishing industry (that ultimately takes all the money) just as Radiohead attempted with their latest album (obviously ignoring the "choose your own price" philosophy). George Michael has promised to release his next album free on the web too, DRM free!

As part of this unrelenting drive towards MP3s and eBooks, the big companies must protect their investments, therefore relying on DRM - Digital Rights Management - iTunes do it to prevent users from downloading their music from the store onto more than 3 PCs. iPods plugged into pcs won't allow DRM'd music to be downloaded. If you want any control you have to burn the music to CD and rip it out again.

Microsoft's XBox 360s won't allow users to upgrade to a newer / bigger XBox and take all their files with them (saved games / downloaded movies). Saved games can only be transferred by buying a cable from Microsoft that must be destroyed afterwards ("This cable will self destruct"!)

There was recently an article bemoaning the use of Netflix and newer HD monitors / TVs. As far as I'm aware, Netflix allows users to download movies to watch and keep (just like iTunes and their MP3s - which aren't really MP3s, but... just don't question, alright?). By connecting a new HD screen forces the software to update its drivers / software, resulting in any files / movies that it does not deem as Netflix official being deleted from your system - any movie the user has downloaded from another service provider!

Then, of course, there is the Amazon Kindle, preventing users from sharing their eBooks, preventing portability, and even suggesting that if Amazon suspects misappropriation of the Kindle / eBooks, the service will be revoked from that user... for ever - Muwahahahaha!

But what is DRM for? Who does it protect? The Artist? The Novelist? Or the Man... the Company?

Last night, I stumbled... finally... upon E. S. Posthumus's website for the 1,000 time in eight months. And there, after 6 long years of waiting, I discovered that their new album - Cartographer - that I had for so long waited, was finally, finally available to buy!

You have no understanding of how long I've waited: E. S Posthumus were instrumental in really invigorating a lot of people's love for the music in movie trailers. Their calling card Pompeii was used in the original Spiderman trailer back in 02. Quickly followed by hundreds of other trailers - you all remember when Moby released his multi-platinum selling album Play back in 99, and it was suddenly everywhere, in movie trailers, soundtracks, TV adverts? E. S. Posthumus had similar success, albeit still in the independent circuit (it was still three years after I first purhcased the album from that I saw it in the shops over here in the UK - three years).

Anyhoo, why is this important? I'm off to New Zealand at the beginning of February and having watched E. S. Posthumus's website like a nerd waiting for the postie to deliver the next piece in his monthly subscription to "Build your own woman from matchsticks in 20 years" for yonks, eyeballing the meager updates and the promise that there will be more news about the album in the Summer of 07, then October, then November... the promise that the album will be released in December, then the beginning of January 08, and finally sometime in February.

It was released on the 17th January and I only realised last night - my problem still being that there is no way that the album could ship over from the US in under two weeks in time for me to rip it to my MP3 player (stay with me here... I do link this back to writing). My choice was one of two things. Buy and download the double disk album (yes, two amazing CDs) legally from iTunes, or from

iTunes were selling the CDs separately. You'd have to pay £7.99 for each. So £15.98. CDBaby, on the other hand were offering both together for $19.98 (£10.20). Of course I purchased through CDBaby, but the price wasn't my only consideration, and here is where we finally return to my thoughts on the future of POD.

iTunes use DRM. It's possessiveness to protect its own music prevents me from copying the files onto my MP3 player, take them to work, and most importantly, prevents me from copying them onto my music server at home, thus preventing me from listening to it through my Squeezebox (the most amazing bit of musical kit I've ever bought - I love it!) and the wonderful world of surround sound. As I said, above, I'd have to burn the music to CD, then rip it back to MP3 (all the while losing sound quality).

CDBaby avoids DRM because of two things: 1) they respect their users, and 2) they respect the artists who sell through their site. I suppose the clincher was that they give 91% of the sales to the artist themselves. 91%! So, from my purchase, E. S. Posthumus have just made at least £9. That is far more than I'd imagine they'd make by selling through an outlet - far more than the overpriced iTunes.

It is clear to me that DRM works to protect only the man and his company. The Artist hangs on the far end, waiting for their meager cut. Is this right? Should we, the consumer, be supporting this? I don't think so.

The counter argument is that these artists, and / or writers who sell through independent websites, and POD publishers aren't going to generate the same amount of sales - well, last night when I hurriedly paid my money, I couldn't get on the site to download the music I'd just paid for. It was fine this morning, but I guess there were just too many people getting hold of their much anticipated music.

Word of mouth is a wonderful thing when those speaking the words truly love the product and aren't getting paid a penny to do so. My money is on POD having a future in the publishing industry, sans DRM and with more of the loot going to the creators.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Comedies - Relying on the True and the Tested

Comedy is a hard thing to pull off, not least because you need to be funny, but because you need to be funny in so many ways and with such assuredness, while moving the plot... somewhere. Here, I've given four episode 1s a brief analysis of what the what and what the how, so pay attention.

Firstly, Good old Chrono posted a great article recently on his blog (Journey of the Scribe): Things I Learned from Improv. And, made this points (that are as important for Comedy as they are for Drama):
  1. Every scene needs conflict.
  2. Once you have conflict, escalate it!
  3. When telling a story, avoid thought words such as 'decided', 'pondered', 'considered', etc.
  4. Avoid 'talking heads' scenes. Characters should at least be doing something while they talk.
  5. Fart jokes and scenes about gynecologists make most people groan or cringe, unless your audience is 5-year olds or horny teenagers.
  6. In each scene, try to ask yourself, 'What is my character trying to accomplish this scene?'
  7. Characters all have unique mannerisms and ways of speaking. Try to avoid defaulting to your own voice.
  8. If you're not enjoying a scene, chances are no one else is either.
  9. Subtext is amazing when you can pull it off.
  10. Make every scene and every character larger than life, but still believable.
Black Books - Season 1 Episode 1

There are three plots - one main, and two sub-plots:
  1. Bernard can't do his own accounting or fill in his tax forms and is desperate for assistance
  2. Manny is overly stressed by his accounting job, but having mistakenly swallowed the Little Book of Calm, could die.
  3. Fran's trying to solve the riddle of the latest purchase for her shop - what could it be, and will her trying to work out the answer keep her from being with her friend during labour
And the following is a list of the comedic elements in use:
  1. Blagging / Lack of Knowledge/ Trying to Impress
  2. Character - general funny act
  3. Character - Idiosyncrasy
  4. Character - Out of Character Response / Take on Persona of Another
  5. Character - Over the Top
  6. Character - Specific Saying / Way of Speaking
  7. Contrasting / Reversal (Happy <-> Sad / Idyllic <-> Hell)
  8. Escalate Situation / Responses
  9. Forgetfulness
  10. Getting Caught Out / Saving Face
  11. Harming Oneself / Putting Self in Harms Way
  12. Inability to cope with inanimate objects
  13. Irony
  14. Lack of Self-Awareness
  15. Lack of Social Skills
  16. Malapropism / misuse of Word, Phrase / Off-Cuff Wrong Saying
  17. Obstructing another character (verbally / physically)
  18. Offensive / Blunt / Rude
  19. Reaction to Incident
  20. Reminder of Something Character is Trying to Avoid
  21. Repeat Something (Twist it on the repeat)
  22. Sarcasm
  23. Song / Poetry that doesn't Rhyme
  24. Stating the Obvious
  25. Stereotyping
  26. Surprise Response (abnormal in situation)
  27. Taking Anger Out on Others
  28. Unexpected / Unexplained Act whose Outcome Leads to Explanation
  29. Unexpected Observation / Link

Scrubs - Season 1 Episode 1

Scrubs is more gangshow that Black Books, and the plots resolve around a mural of life in the hospital, introducing us to the characters and following themes of fitting in (place in the hierarchy) / committing to the work / overcoming fears of inadequacy / making friends and rivals.

Here are the comedic elements in use:

  1. Adopting a Funny Voice
  2. Being Anal
  3. Belittling Others
  4. Blagging / Lack of Knowledge/ Trying to Impress
  5. Character - Idiosyncrasy
  6. Comedic Dreams / Words Put in the Mouths of Others
  7. Contrasting / Reversal (Happy <-> Sad / Idyllic <-> Hell)
  8. Fish out of Water
  9. Gesturing / While Others are Talking
  10. Giving Names (Derogatory) to Others
  11. Going off on One
  12. Humorous Observation
  13. Hypocrite
  14. Making Enemies
  15. misleading People
  16. Oneupmanship
  17. Pop-Culture References
  18. Sarcasm
  19. Slapstick
  20. Stitching Someone Up - Personal Gain / Avoidance
  21. Talking Behind Someone's Back
  22. Trying to be One of the Gang
  23. Worrying the Wider Public with offhand Comment
Red Dwarf - Season 1 Episode 1

Red Dwarf, like Scrubs, opens with a lot of characters, but manages to shirk them pretty quickly with a heavy dose of Cadmium. There isn't a unifying theme, but the plot lines set up the main situation for the show along with Rimmer's perpetual subplot:
  1. Lister is put in stasis because he won't reveal his cat, leading to Rimmer not fixing a drive plate that kills everyone with Cadmium, making Lister the last human alive
  2. Rimmer fails his exam
  3. Cat is the last surviving member of the cat race
Here's that all important list:

  1. 1 of the 7 Deadly Sins
  2. Barefaced Lying
  3. Bending Rules for personal gain and claiming its not
  4. Character - Idiosyncrasy
  5. Choice of Clothing / Tools
  6. Conflict / Winding Each Other Up
  7. Crossing Objects / Animals (Woolly-Jumper)
  8. Delusions of Grandeur
  9. Dissing / Ignoring Authority
  10. Escalating a Wind Up
  11. Fish Out of Water
  12. Going the Wrong Way
  13. Hamming - Grand Literary Acting
  14. Inappropriate Music to a Scene
  15. Inappropriateness
  16. Indirect Double Entendres
  17. Jade comments - Lack of Knowledge (history, geography, science) / Incorrect Terminology
  18. Losing Mind
  19. Making a Fool of Another / Getting them to Make a Fool of Themselves
  20. Me-First Ideology
  21. Misunderstanding / Not Bothering to Understand
  22. Nerdy
  23. Offensive / Blunt / Rude
  24. Punchline Interruption (of someone else's dialogue - funny or otherwise)
  25. React to Incident / Situation but leave it for Someone Else
  26. Repetition and Ignorance (They're all Dead Dave… Everyone's Dead)
  27. Saving Face
  28. Slapstick
  29. Superiority
  30. Trying to be Careful and Making it Worse
  31. Twisting Meaning of Someone's Statement
IT Crowd - Season 1 Episode 1

And finally we have the IT Crowd, the newest of the four, and not necessarily the funniest (some of the character idiosyncrasies are vaguely annoying), but it's still a masterclass. Here we have the introduction of all the characters meshed in with two plots:
  1. Power play within the team
  2. Raising the profile of the team
And the list:
  1. Anticlimax - from the big build up (McGuyver / A-Team sequence)
  2. Blagging / Lack of Knowledge/ Trying to Impress
  3. Caught Out
  4. Character - Idiosyncrasy
  5. Conflict against 3rd person bring 1st and 2nd together (then in-fighting)
  6. Contrasting / Reversal (Happy <-> Sad / Idyllic <-> Hell)
  7. Determination (To Do / Not Do Something)
  8. Diffusing Situations
  9. Failure to Listen / Lack of Interest
  10. Hiding / Avoidance
  11. Increasing an Alert Status
  12. Jade comments - Lack of Knowledge (history, geography, science) / Incorrect Terminology
  13. Job Specific Cliché
  14. Mania
  15. Matching Banter (Down a Blind Alley)
  16. Mirroring Someone / Object
  17. Missing the Obvious - Stated / Visible
  18. Mistaking the Secret Nod / Talk / Handshake
  19. Not Picking up the Vibe
  20. Odd / Incorrect Analogy
  21. Playing on a stereotyped lack of knowledge
  22. Private Joke / Job Specific Joke - not got by others
  23. Proving them Wrong
  24. puerile Humour - Self Aware
  25. Repetition (normal)
  26. Self Loathing
  27. Slapstick
  28. Slow Response / Reaction (Purposeful)
  29. Stress Induced by Others
  30. Sudden Outburst
  31. Telling the Wrong Story
  32. The "What did they say?" or "I'm not talking to them, tell them this…" 3 way
  33. The Kitten -> Tiger Unexpected Unleashing
  34. The Only One Who Knows - Being Ignored
  35. Toilet Humour
  36. Used / Abused - Bemoaning Treatment at the Hands of Others
  37. Wordplay
Having knowledge of these terms however doesn't make for great comedy. It's all in the choice of topic delivered in the form of one of these listed items, and of course the delivery itself. So, finally, altogether... the full list (just to show you what you can call on):

  1. 1 of the 7 Deadly Sins
  2. Adopting a Funny Voice
  3. Anticlimax - from the big build up (McGuyver / A-Team sequence)
  4. Barefaced Lying
  5. Being Anal
  6. Belittling Others
  7. Bending Rules for personal gain and claiming its not
  8. Blagging / Lack of Knowledge/ Trying to Impress
  9. Caught Out
  10. Character - general funny act
  11. Character - Idiosyncrasy
  12. Character - Out of Character Response / Take on Persona of Another
  13. Character - Over the Top
  14. Character - Specific Saying / Way of Speaking
  15. Choice of Clothing / Tools
  16. Comedic Dreams / Words Put in the Mouths of Others
  17. Conflict / Winding Each Other Up
  18. Conflict against 3rd person bring 1st and 2nd together (then in-fighting)
  19. Contrasting / Reversal (Happy <-> Sad / Idyllic <-> Hell)
  20. Crossing Objects / Animals (Woolly-Jumper)
  21. Delusions of Grandeur
  22. Determination (To Do / Not Do Something)
  23. Diffusing Situations
  24. Dissing / Ignoring Authority
  25. Escalate Situation / Responses
  26. Escalating a Wind Up
  27. Failure to Listen / Lack of Interest
  28. Fish Out of Water
  29. Forgetfullness
  30. Gesturing / While Others are Talking
  31. Getting Caught Out / Saving Face
  32. Giving Names (Derogatory) to Others
  33. Going off on One
  34. Going the Wrong Way
  35. Hamming - Grand Literary Acting
  36. Harming Oneself / Putting Self in Harms Way
  37. Hiding / Avoidance
  38. Humorous Observation
  39. Hypocrite
  40. Inability to cope with inanimate objects
  41. Inappropriate Music to a Scene
  42. Inappropriateness
  43. Increasing an Alert Status
  44. Indirect Double Entendres
  45. Irony
  46. Jade comments - Lack of Knowledge (history, geography, science) / Incorrect Terminology
  47. Job Specific Cliché
  48. Lack of Self-Awareness
  49. Lack of Social Skills
  50. Losing Mind
  51. Making a Fool of Another / Getting them to Make a Fool of Themselves
  52. Making Enemies
  53. Malapropism / misuse of Word, Phrase / Off-Cuff Wrong Saying
  54. Mania
  55. Matching Banter (Down a Blind Alley)
  56. Me-First Ideology
  57. Mirroring Someone / Object
  58. Misleading People
  59. Missing the Obvious - Stated / Visible
  60. Mistaking the Secret Nod / Talk / Handshake
  61. Misunderstanding / Not Bothering to Understand
  62. Nerdy
  63. Not Picking up the Vibe
  64. Obstructing another character (verbally / physically)
  65. Odd / Incorrect Analogy
  66. Offensive / Blunt / Rude
  67. Oneupmanship
  68. Playing on a stereotyped lack of knowledge
  69. Pop-Culture References
  70. Private Joke / Job Specific Joke - not got by others
  71. Proving them Wrong
  72. Puerile Humour - Self Aware
  73. Punchline Interruption (of someone else's dialogue - funny or otherwise)
  74. React to Incident / Situation but leave it for Someone Else
  75. Reaction to Incident
  76. Reminder of Something Character is Trying to Avoid
  77. Repeat Something (Twist it on the repeat)
  78. Repetition (normal)
  79. Repetition and Ignorance (They're all Dead Dave… Everyone's Dead)
  80. Sarcasm
  81. Saving Face
  82. Self Loathing
  83. Slapstick
  84. Slow Response / Reaction (Purposeful)
  85. Song / Poetry that doesn't Rhyme
  86. Stating the Obvious
  87. Stereotyping
  88. Stitching Someone Up - Personal Gain / Avoidance
  89. Stress Induced by Others
  90. Sudden Outburst
  91. Superiority
  92. Surprise Response (abnormal in situation)
  93. Taking Anger Out on Others
  94. Talking Behind Someone's Back
  95. Telling the Wrong Story
  96. The "What did they say?" or "I'm not talking to them, tell them this…" 3 way
  97. The Kitten -> Tiger Unexpected Unleashing
  98. The Only One Who Knows - Being Ignored
  99. Toilet Humour
  100. Trying to be Careful and Making it Worse
  101. Trying to be One of the Gang
  102. Twisting Meaning of Someone's Statement
  103. Unexpected / Unexplained Act whose Outcome Leads to Explanation
  104. Unexpected Observation / Link
  105. Used / Abused - Bemoaning Treatment at the Hands of Others
  106. Wordplay
  107. Worrying the Wider Public with offhand Comment

Litopia After Dark - Arts Council Funding

Another Friday... another Litopia Afterdark Podcast. And this week, my first this year, we included a live uStream so you could watch and listen live as it was recorded. A very trippy experience, especially when I popped over to another live podcast that included a conversation with the keyboardist from Maroon 5.

Anyhoo, this week, we turn our attention to a trifecta of cuts from the British Council, the Arts Council and Public Lending Right. We consider whether print-on-demand coupled with self-publishing is really an option for authors, and look at some of the ground rules for success in writing for the children’s market.

Check out the player on the right, plug in those headphones and start listening.

Masterclass with the Agent Luigi Bonomi

Some facts

The market is overcrowded – very competitive.
  • of 200,000 books sold per year, 190,000 sold less than 3000 copies.
  • of 85,000 new (first-time) books published – 60,000 sold an average of 18 books
  • it costs a publisher £7500 to publish a book (printing, marketing, design, distribution) and that doesn’t include any advance – generally it is reckoned that 20,000 must be sold to cover costs
As a result lists are being dramatically cut.

The new writer therefore has to stand out. The question is how? First look at the market – what is selling?

The market is divided between literary fiction and commercial fiction (a distinction that is beginning to dissolve)
  • Literary Fiction takes about 5% of the market. Important to have a big concept, big theme, not parochial small town ideas. Often what sells it is Prizes, and programmes like Richard and Judy (which is ending). Original structure and good writing is important – e.g. The Book Thief.
  • Commercial Fiction takes about 95% of the market. Despite reports sales are vibrant – but in specific areas – sci-fi is quiet, crime is overcrowded, thrillers and romance are thriving. The pending recession suggests that like in the 80s (look at trends then) ‘sex and shopping’ is a likely to make a comeback. Other strong areas: (post Dan Brown) adventure and history (with esoteric references), male relationships (with father, with son, with woman).
  • Children’s market is strong – especially 7-12 years

How do you get an agent?

The agent’s goal is to find the next talent – but they are overworked so they aim to reject – to weed out. The writer’s aim is therefore not to give the agent a chance to reject you.

Provide – a synopsis (3-4 pages maximum), 3 chapters or less, 1 short page covering letter. Luigi’s agency receives approximately 5000 submissions a year (100 a week). – of these they will look at 60 (5 a month).

What happens when a submission is received?

The parcel is opened. If there is anything more than a simple rubber band for binding it is rejected.

The cover letter is read. If there are any spelling mistakes or it is badly presented it is rejected.

The first paragraph of the first page of the text (not the synopsis) is read – then the second paragraph – if it looks interesting it is put aside, otherwise it is rejected.

In half an hour he will process 40 submissions and put aside possibly 4, of those he will read pages 2 and 3 – and probably reject – resulting in perhaps 1 a week.

He will then read that submission (the first three chapters – or less).

If he likes it he will ask to read the rest of the book.

There will be no feedback or suggestions re-revision – though if he is really interested he may send it to a reading agency for a critique.

The language, style, rhythm, sound – is very influential. So it is important to listen to other people reading it (reading aloud to yourself is valuable, but hearing other people read shows better how it will be received).

Then plot, storyline and characters.

‘Me too publishing’

There is a tendency for (especially big) publishers to follow a successful trend. He gave the example of Atlantis by David Gibbins. This was initially rejected by many publishers, so was sold to a small publisher. It became a best-seller, and the big publishers went back to the agent to ask for some the same (not similar but exactly the same!). Then they went back through the slush pile to find something – and did.

The Agents Association has a list of accredited agents – and it is best to look for agents on the list (marked in the Writer’s Handbook).

If you are lucky enough to have different agents interested, look at how you feel you could work with that agent, the types of book they have sold, their market share etc.

The agents work really starts when they take you on – then they or an editor may work with you, though the publishers too will often want a further level of editorial input.

The relationship is essentially with the agent – not the agency. If the writer work on different types of book it is acceptable to use a different agent – though often in consultation with the initial agent.

The going rate is 15%, though there are moves to try and increase this. Advances are very variable – and there has been a suggestion that the agent’s commission should be on a sliding scale linked to the advance.

The Writers Yearbook , and the Writer and Artists Yearbook have lists of agents – but to find who represents a specific writer look initially in the acknowledgements page of the book or contact the publisher (or Google the writer).

Small versus large agencies

Small agencies are more responsive, more accessible, and you get to know the team – and they may promote you harder.

With larger agencies you may have less contact, more competition but possibly larger advances.
However in most cases you will go with the one who will take you on.

Are Agents proactive in looking for new talent?

The masterclass wasn’t a proactive exercise to find new writers. He stressed that people should not think that agents are charities or see promoting new writing as their role. They simply don’t have the time for that. They operate a business.

Remember however that the selection is very much a matter of personal taste – so it is important to send out to as many agents as you can. Don’t worry if agents have rejected you in the past – they will not remember your name.

- My thanks to Roger for his notes

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Charolastra's Treasure 2

As sequels go, it's a very typical premise...

Back in June I brought to you the Secret of Charolastra's Treasure, a single idea on emotional content and context. Now, she's come up with a gem of a discovery - research - and something in particular for the children's market that I wouldn't have stumbled upon on my own: Children as Audience.

This is indispensable stuff seeing as I'm intent on writing a children's novel for my final project this year (oh, I haven't written anything of length for such a long time, I'm afraid).

As an aside note, Sequels and second parts have raised plenty of discussions between my brother and I in the past in response to advertising that marks the difference between what should be termed a sequel and what should be termed part or chapter two/three/four, etc.

It's a similar rub to the misuse by journos and marketers of the word "epic" which didn't originally mean lots of people fighting in the woods/desert/mountain/sea. Neither did it mean a long and arduous journey - alas we subvert the true meaning of something and make it our own.

Anyhoo, a sequel is another story using the same characters (main characters at least) but where the story does not link up with the first. The situation and badguys are different. The Spiderman films, X-Men, 48 Hours, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc. These are all examples of sequels. You can watch one without need to have watched any of the others and they standalone.

Star Wars does not consist of sequels. Neither does Lord of the Rings - I do get upset when people describe them as such. Erm... sorry, gone off on one - I only raise this to point out that Charolastra's treasure (the first one from June) is completely separate from this latest topic... I've lost you haven't I?!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Masterclass - Catherine O'Flynn

Her first novel, ‘What Was lost’, was long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize (it’s also just won the Costa First Novel Prize)

Catherine told us about her previous jobs (which included a brief stint as a postwoman, which is something the press have picked up on for some unknown reason), the most important of which was in a branch of HMV in a shopping centre (Merry Hill) in the West Midlands. While working there, she became interested in the contrast between the shops during the day and during the night, for both customers and staff.

Each night when she got home from work, she would scribble down notes and thoughts about her experiences – this I think was some time in 2003. These notes helped her to structure her story and write up a full synopsis. She then moved to Barcelona for some time with her partner, and being fortunate enough not to have to work she was able to spend a lot of her time honing her story and beginning to write the novel.

Having already written a thorough synopsis and extensive notes about different characters and outcomes, the actual writing part came fairly easy to her. She cockily announced that the writing part of it would be relatively simple, and went for it.

She prioritised what she thought were the easiest and most fun parts before tackling the trickier bits, a method she found to be very helpful since by the time she’d reached those trickier bits, she’d already built up enough writing experience to feel confident enough to tackle them.

The book became stalled with her agent as they’d suggested changes she didn’t want to make. This was resolved by a friend’s recommendation that she change a key relationship between characters in the story, and also slow down what had, up to then, been a very sudden and rushed ending. This she found to be very helpful, and everyone was happy.

Her partner had also been very helpful with her writing, being a patient listener to each day’s writing every evening (helped by the fact that they didn’t have a TV, so had to find other ways to entertain themselves!) Though he seemed to invest a lot of emotional energy in the book himself, disagreeing with certain recommendations friends and publishers had made. He also told her at one point that he thought her idea so good, if she didn’t write it, he would.

She eventually went with the publishers Tindal Street as they struck her as independent and a company who really look after their writers. Unlike some larger publishers, they push their writers and books much harder for industry prizes and awards and expend a lot of energy to promote them creatively.

In her novel, ‘What Was lost’, Catherine found that she preferred writing from the POV of a 10-year-old female character – Kate – she found it the easiest to write of all the voices, most of whom were adults.

Jeff, NAW student, said that he enjoyed the disembodied voices that occasionally dropped in and out of the narrative; though this was something Catherine herself liked a lot, the agent and publishers didn’t, but nevertheless decided to keep them in.

As far as the sources for her inspiration and abilities are concerned, she simply reads a lot – this she thinks is the best font of her talent. Otherwise she only did one actual writing course, some sort of Open Arts college (?) which was a distance learning institution. Her university degree was in Anthropology, and her first job in journalism, perhaps her only other job which had anything to do with writing.

- My thanks to Mike for the write up.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Playing the Race Card

What does a cracker think he's doing writing about a black kid and choosing black children as his audience?

Two/three years ago I decided to write a children's novel based upon a library in an inner city area, using a boy of African origin as my protagonist. I wrote pretty much the majority of it, even had it plotted, but my skill with the word wasn't very good back that and like all my projects it fell by the wayside.

As my NAW course now draws towards the last two modules I'm thinking again about the first book I should write - one that will fulfill the criteria of the final project and also be commercially viable in today's pro-child publishing industry. I have (what I perceive to be) a brilliant concept that has the right amount of fantasy but an ample amount of real-world issues that, if I ever were able to write appropriately to the intended age group (and I'm guessing it has to be Harry Potter's initial age group), then this would be a winner and the start of a series.

So, what's the problem? Aside from being afraid to commit myself to a project that I've picked up and put down several times already, I'm suddenly anxious about race. Not only do I not know anything about African heritage but I don't know about it in contemporary inner cities. How do the kids interact and react to the wider world? What makes me think I, a white boy, have any reason to write about black children with the intention of pitching to black children? Surely I should leave this to the likes of Malorie Blackman? She's doing a wonderful job, and dare I say it, but she has a better idea of the culture... surely?

Or am I being typically ignorant - it has been known.

That's why I decided to start reading black (I hope that isn't offensive to anyone) - though it's not easy as I've been unable to wrack my brains about any contemporary black novelists writing about inner city life and I'm going to actually have to do some research. It's a small thing, admittedly, as I only want an idea of my main character and his perceptions of the world around me. I'm worried about stereotyping or falling into cliche traps or simply coming across as offensive when I don't understand my topic.

So, I've started with Malorie Blackman - Pig-Heart Boy and next up will be Noughts and Crosses. The first thing that struck me about Pig-Heart Boy, was that it is so absent of colour - the names insinuate ethnic origins and it helps to have an black boy on the front cover, but other than that I'm not picking up any hints about how I should consider these characters. And thinking about it, I do begin to wonder if any of the other characters (incidental or otherwise) are meant to be white or black? Does it matter? It seems not, and goes a long way to prove that a good writer observes the brevity of their fiction and allows the reader to come to their own conclusions and build their own worlds around the text. The book itself isn't really the kind of text I'm looking for, but it's a start.

Aha, Page 63 (Malorie Blackman's Pig-Heart Boy):
People always used that argument whenever they wanted to use and abuse animals - or even other people. Part of the excuse used to justify slavery was that we black people were 'less than human'. And the Nazis said the same things about Jewish people.

This is brief. A momentary mention but it doesn't dwell. If I pursue my own course I will be spending a greater deal of time on these issues - how do I do that without becoming patronising, didactic or completely off base?

Anyone out there know of any inner-city kids books? I'm really interested in racism between black people and their perceptions about their place in the community.


What always surprises me about books aimed at children is their moments of brutal honesty. Pig-Heart Boy didn't end as I'd imagined and as with the twist in the book/film Bridge to Terabithia I was taken aback (as an adult) by the themes (adult themes) that both are prepared to deal with - life and death and the acceptance of that.

That's not to say that these writers dwell on the moments and drag them out but they use them appropriately, and of course... it has nothing to do with race ;) Perhaps I should stop worrying so much about creating pin-perfect characters (grounded in what ever cultural or race related identity I finally research for them) and simply create real characters

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Completion - Fiction & Reading into Writing Modules

Happy New Year to one and all. I'm still a bit dizzy from the festivities (though I was the nominated driver and drank nothing). We attended a formal dinner at a lovely French restaurant - Frere Jacques - along the river in Kingston upon Thames, only to discover it had gone a little down market for celebration time. Initially we moved the tat, party hats, poppers, streamers, cheap wind-up cars, bowl filled with tiny coloured balls and two multi-coloured blowpipes - yes, blowpipes! We felt certain that no one would take up this rather mental idea of wearing hats and parping at each other. We were all civilised adults (excepts for the kids, and even they'd dressed up).

So it was, by 10pm December 31st, we realised we'd been sat in the worst of all places. Two factions had been established between the right and left sides of the restaurant, and we were smack bang in the middle, taking flack from both sides. The coloured balls were tightly wound spitballs, meant for use in the blowpipes! We needed cover and we needed vengeance for being pelted on the heads.

When those dining outside felt the need to come to the doorway and join in, I ducked under the table and began retaliatory fire (you can fire up to four spitballs and once from those things, you know). I quickly discovered that from my mostly-safe vantage point on the floor, a pillar at my back and a line of tables and chairs to protect my front I took advantage of rebound shots - being able to judge the right point at which to fire a volley and ricochet it off the ceiling.

Similarly amusing then was to fire on the waiters and waitresses who had served up the most exquisite Breast of Pheasant with grilled Portobello Mushroom, Red Onion compote honey-roasted Parsnips and Rosemary Jus, and a divine Rack of Lamb: Roti Dijonnaise,Gratin Dauophinois & sautéed Salsifi with Red Wine Jus (naturally I had to finish Laura's meal off), and who were still stuck with taking orders for drinks and having to dart back and forth across the battlefield.

My knees were scuffed up something rotten and I've never spent so much time scrabbling around on a restaurant floor fighting an 8 year-old child for control of spitballs!

Anyhoo, on with the writing:

I have just packaged and posted my two module assignments and am now looking ahead to the Professional Development module (still much to do, and much to be done while away in New Zealand - side note: you can catch up with our antics over at where I will be blogging about our travels).

So, in the meantime, you can catch up on what I've been doing for the past four months over on my website's NAW page, or you may wish to peruse the module's pdfs:

Reading into Writing
You can now read the full short story of Morgan le Fay (that I have been badgering on about for weeks).
And included here is what was originally the opening to an urban-fantasy novel, and has now become a short literary story.