Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bridport Prize 2008

Fancy your chances much?

The Bridport Prize has been running now for 30+ years, with many thousands of entrants and two competitions open every year - the poetry and the short story prizes.

Obviously, I'm not one for the poetry. I'd be worse than old McGonagall. So, this year, for the first time in my amateur writing career (career? Ha!) I've entered two short stories - both of which I had critiqued and used on my NAW writing course last year.

In both cases my choices had confused the readers (when hasn't that happened?) and the pieces of work were a chronological nightmare - In the development of the first piece (the largest of the two - 5,000 words - and my entry for the Fiction module) had already undergone a vast change to its theme and subject matter. No longer the opening to a novel it had to change direction, background, and I performed a massive feat of shifting the time in which it takes place, back 55 years (yep, a major shift).

For the Bridport entry I had another mammoth task to carry out. Namely the resetting of the flashbacks. I had relied heavily on these and the story was still somewhat confusing since I had two moments in cars - which was happening when? It didn't matter that the tenses were different. So, I reset the order and had everything run smoothly from beginning to end, changing tense only for the last section. This meant, of course, revising certain elements of narrative development, but that is expected.

The second piece required far less work. Having already worked on it with Jim Crace during the Prose Stripping session at NAW, the biggest heft of the work was, again, the redesign of the narrative and the resetting of the time shifts - I'd confused the readers with my flashbacks (all of which were set within a boat) and which I washed back to time and again as my mind felt compelled.

There were minor necessary changes - namely my over use of sea and fishing terminology (still all largely present but altered for appropriateness and pov) - but nothing on the par with the first. It is a much smaller, easier read. Very light weight in fact (for me) at 1,600 words.

Here's hoping I at least place somewhere - though I find that doubtful. Yes, we can all hope. But I won't hold my breath. Lots more things to be getting on with.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Understanding Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - No Spoilers

There are certain types of film - I believe - that can only be properly reviewed by the people who have previously enjoyed them. A successful franchise can only be appreciated by those that have championed their greatness.

Imagine listening to Christopher Tookey (from the Daily Mail) as your be-all and end-all critique on the latest Indy flick knowing that he's rated the original three poorly (on the grounds of childish excess and fast-paced but limited story). It's just not a fair review. The bases are already loaded... so don't do it.

You want to listen to me instead... though, I rated the Phantom Menace 5 stars (just like Empire Magazine did) when it first came out. I'm sorry people, please forgive me. I won't make the same mistake twice!

That is exactly why I'm having so much trouble reconciling myself with the latest Indy movie: I saw Temple of Doom first, aged 7 or 8. Mum and Dad had rented it in 84/85 and I chose to watch it on a Sunday morning instead of Gummi Bears. Raiders I watched first at my grandparents, and then Grail I saw with my Mum in the cinema, aged 10, back in 1989.

All three are adult-orientated action adventures, but rated PG to allow kids to enjoy them too, and of course that's where the magic is. Kids buy into a lot of stuff that adults find jarring or difficult to accept. But, the Indy series has prided itself on being action first and foremost, mcguffin to keep the ball rolling and ensuring that the fantastical doesn't arrive until the last reel:

In Raiders we have no manifestations of the Ark's true power until it's on the boat, searing the Nazi symbol from the crate and making the rat go crazy - by the time we reach the opening of the Ark, we expect something horrendous and ghostly to manifest.

In Temple of Doom, voodoo, possession and ripping of hearts before sacrifice come midway, but these are examples of earthly-based "magic" that has never been proven or disproved (heart rending aside, Derren Brown could prove voodoo magic through the power of suggestion, I bet). Besides, you never seen anything physically manifest. No devils or demons arrive on behalf of Kali or Shiva to wreak their vengeance. And though the Sankara stones glow and are too hot at the end for Mola Ram to hold, the suspended-disbelief has been earned.

Let's not go into the dining scene with the eyeball soup and monkey brains - Lucas and Spielberg were trying to play up the comedic assumptions of the west against the east. Knowing that it's tongue in cheek and watching just a few weeks ago (I'm purportedly an adult now) just shows it up to be seriously misjudged, and wryly amusing.

So, Grail, in which the quest remains legitimate until the final reel again - the Grail Knight is a grey surprise in an earth-toned film. For me he never did work properly (I mean, what would he really have done in there for 700 years?) Anyhoo, it's even more jarring by the fact that the three trials Indy faces to get to the Knight are physically realised traps and puzzles rather than ghostly effects. The Grail itself is a great idea

Lucas and Spielberg go to great lengths to bind these movies in realism, and then tweak the mythologies to provide a little freakishness, something different, and for the public to bite into, and to maintain their "high-concept idea"

For Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the goodwill of the audience is stretched right from the start - and I don't mean in the age of Indy, (it is jarring and we feel sorry for him being that old) we very quickly forget he's 60 and the adventure rolls on. You can't help but get caught up in it all, to laugh, to tense and to be moved by John Williams's score - it's all expertly constructed to maintain audience enjoyment and with Lucas and Spielberg the two people we should feel most comfortable with.

However, the "mumbo-jumbo", if you will, is there from the beginning, and though the story follows the template of the previous three with maintaining ground-based, earth-realm concerns, chases and peril, the film-makers sprinkle the "other-world" bits a lot-lot more. At least it feels that way. But, when the mcguffin is on screen almost as long as Indy, that's going to happen. And it's all there as a means of getting you used to the final reel in which, I'm sorry, you're going to be tested in your support of story, film-makers, and, as I said, goodwill.

However, I think I love this film!

I love Indiana Jones, what can I say?

That we're moved ahead 20 years, and it's the 50s with all that that encompasses: Elvis, Greasers, Reds, Atom bombs, nods to what's happened in between for "Colonel Jones" - sorry couldn't resist that (it's a wonderful little moment when we learn he's done a lot of work for the war effort), and also that in his job he's taken on the name "Henry Jones" as a nod to his deceased father.

The movie's opening salvo stutters through the first 5/10 minutes as we try to get up to speed with Indy's situation, push ourselves to accept he looks as old as my dad (and I don't want my dad to be in that kind of danger), and force ourselves to accept we start at Area 51 in the Nevada desert (yes, we are at the Ark's final resting place - ooh) and everything that that encompasses.

But it hits its stride almost immediately afterwards. And what a ride. You cannot be disappointed. Because the film ticks all the right boxes, makes all the right nods to the films past and is Indiana Jones (for crying out loud). You can't despite it's momentary failings (a horrible-horrible-horrible Tarzan swing through the trees for Mutt), the ants take it a bit far and the Vulcan mind-meld is... sorry, wrong film (!)

But, I think the film really speaks well for the time in which it's placed. It's not better than the others, but it "mostly" fits well in the Indy cannon. I can't say anymore than that because you need to form your own decisions about which way you swing when you realise the real intent of the film (I personally feel the film-makers have been a bit over self-indulgent, yet, I think I love the film). I'll have to see it again.


Okay, I have to get one proper spoiler in - though it happens within the first 15 minutes -

Be careful now, you'll have to highlight the text to read it:

When Indy escapes from the Russians he finds himself in the perfect world of the Atomic bomb testing site in Nevada valley. It is the most surreal, awkward and upsetting scenario, not-least for the fact that it's another jarring point against what Indy Jones films have been about (deserts, jungles and earth tones). Here we are in the staid and pressed formica world of mid-class America, except its a setup to see the results of the 200 kiloton bomb hanging over the city... and Indy's only got 1 minute to escape!

Now, that was nail-biting stuff - real horror (and I'm 29). They can make you squirm with delight even though you might be an adult.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Emotional Resonance

Further to my previous post (check down)... protagonist goals is something we discussed last night - MG and I - about giving the protagonist ample emotional resonance and necessity to follow their quest. An editor had wondered about her choice of ladening on some emotional weight to her protagonist in order for him to "want" to pursue his goal. Was it necessary? We agreed that a writer should, in finding an identifiable protagonist, always give them a quest that is of the upmost importance to them or the world or to avoid jeopardy.

We talked about Endymion Spring:
Endymion Spring has a double storyline. The first story follows two children in current day Oxford, Blake and Duck Winters. Blake is twelve years old and his sister is a few years younger. The two happen to come across a strange book in a library in Oxford, which is entitled Endymion Spring. After finding out that it leads to a book of all the knowledge in the world, all the knowledge Adam and Eve tried to obtain from eating of that forbidden tree of knowledge but lost, they then embark on a quest to find it. However, when they do, the story then becomes a battle against the Person in Shadow, a person whose heart has turned black with evil and desire for the knowledge and power of the book. The second story line follows the journey of a young printer’s devil who works in Gutenberg’s workshop named Endymion Spring from his hometown in Mainz, Germany to Oxford, which was then a settlement of monks. The two story lines are about 600 years apart, with Spring's story taking place at the epoch of the printing press in 1453, and Blake's taking place in the late 20th or early 21st century.

MG, and more importantly her agent, are very hot on emotional resonance between protagonist and reader. The reader needs to buy into the goal and the quest. In the latest Indiana Jones film, Indy has to get the crystal skull and stop the Ruskies from using it for their... well, what ever evil deed they wish to do - fact is, at the height of the "Red Scare" the Russians pose a serious threat to America during the cold war. That's reason enough for Indy to want to save the world, and obviously, he being an archaeologist is enough for his interest in the skull.

With that in mind, could someone explain to me why the Book of Knowledge be of any importance to two kids? I'm certain there must be some big badguy to act as foil, but that doesn't come across at all in that synopsis.

Pah! I say. Pah!

Identifiable Goals

Writers should fear treading unwarily in the creation of their epic. I've recently slogged my way through the smallest of King's Dark Tower installments - The first, the Gunslinger - and I feel absolutely bereft of care for either the Gunslinger or his world.

Where did it all go wrong? King's series has a stalwart following of millions and it's written well - I've seen some choice skill uses that have helped to inform my writing - but its sprawl has a single purpose - to find the Dark Tower... oooh!

It's not clear why, and though the Gunslinger's world has turned to pap and there seems nothing else for him to go back to, I am left wondering what the point is (and let's face it, there's 7 titles in the novel series, and I started out by reading the interesting Gunslinger Born graphic novel - so, I cheated and Wiki'd the whole thing to find out how it turns out - shudder).

It's clear to me that while King has his reasons for putting the Gunslinger on his quest, it doesn't come across to the reader with any emotional weight - "I've just got to go there". It's all kind of Neo from the Matrix going to the Architect's room and realising the loop of things. Sigh! Do readers want that kind of ending? To go back to the beginning?

Oh, sorry, didn't I say Spoiler alert?

Anyhoo, there it is. A wasted journey - I'm sure it has its themes and messages, but where's the resolution, and apart from a very personal mission for the Gunslinger, where is the feeling of world-in-jeopardy, or other people at least (I'm talking again about the first book here). The third main character of the book is off'd without ceremony and plenty of foresight and no one cares - least of all the reader.

That King rewrote portions of the version I'm holding to make it work within his finished series proves the point: he was writing blind.

Needless to say, I didn't hang around to read the first chapter of the next book.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

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