More great reading

On the day that Scotland’s First Minister announced he would not be attending the Open at Muirfield in protest at the golf club’s men-only policy (yes, readers of the  21st century, you read that correctly), it was no small pleasure to discover this blog – SF Mistress – completely by accident.

I’m looking forward to spending a good few hours reading about books in my favourite genre that don’t feature a current/ former assassin/ special forces/ master criminal dude out for revenge against a vastly superior/ evil/ nefarious enemy but instead are thoughtful, well-written, undiscovered literary treasures.  Did I mention that this is a blog dedicated to books by women?  That’s right, I didn’t need to because it doesn’t matter, you just want to discover books that may have escaped review elsewhere.

(And when I spell-check this blog, I realise that this is not only the only time I will probably ever write about golf but very likely the only time that Scotland’s leading politician will appear in a blog post about women writing science-fiction… weird)

One a year, every year…

Dragon ORchid, Singapore

…is the standard expected of every new author .ie. you deliver a new manuscript every year for publication without fail.  The penalties for failing to deliver a new novel will vary from a deduction from the (now usually pitiful) advance on which the publisher signed you to a loss of contract.  Typing – as some ‘authors’ demonstrate – is easy.  As some readers quickly discover, there is a world of difference between Transition and Excession.  However, delivering one good book that demonstrates in a sure-footed narrative, a reader’s love of a good plot, attention to detail, passion and not a little imagination is difficult – as difficult and as exhausting say as running a marathon is in comparison to walking to the shops for some milk and biscuits.  To run for milk and biscuits every day is not so difficult as millions of bloggers demonstrate every hour but having stepped back into the habit of writing, that is, attempting to craft a novel-length story over a period of weeks, has proven to be an extraordinarily challenging experience.

Leaving aside those recent personal circumstances which have so caustically affected my concentration and creative yearning, I’ve done this before, several times in fact.  I knew what I was trying to get myself back into.  Endless hours of work that may result in no more than a narrative dead-end or a gang of characters that simply don’t work.  Delete.  Throw away.  Start again.

I’m close to finishing a first draft outline for a novel.  Unlike everything else I’ve written, this is a pure science-fiction novel that I’m attempting and whatever your assumptions to the contrary, if you haven’t tried writing one of these, don’t knock it.  Remember that analogy in the first paragraph that contrasted the experience of running the marathon to nipping out for milk and biscuits?  That’s writing sci-fi compared to running off a ‘contemporary non-genre’ novel.

It’s been difficult.  Trying to find two hours – at least – every day to craft something original, dramatic, captivating and on occasion, witty, is harder work than you’d think, especially when you’re working normal hours.  Trying to raise your game and put together something that is head-and-shoulders above what you’ve attempted before, while giving your best to your day job… that’s tough in the way that hauling a recently-felled tree through a wood would be tough.  You wouldn’t.  You’d build a road to the edge of the woods and start there, usually with a team of experienced dudes.   The thought that I’ve only been working on the outline and not the main text itself is sobering.

So here’s a thought: why do mainstream publishers, who commit a significant amount of investment when they sign-up a new writer, insist on a book a year?  Surely, the real return on their investment will come from giving the writer all the encouragement to write to the peak of their game each and every time they produce a manuscript (and not just banging them out with so little care for what readers will actually think?).

[That flower in the image above is a Dragon Orchid – so I’m told – and not a triffid.  It was growing in Singapore.]

Stealing Dreams

There have been many articles written about Christopher Nolan’s latest film, ‘Inception’ and most of them complimentary.  As with anything held in such high regard by so many, there are some nay-sayers but one in particular struck me as particularly off-target.  The point of the article posted on the Comics Alliance blog seems to be that comics are under threat from a film that borrows from some conventions used by graphic novels.

In describing what Jason Michelitch believes to be the film’s failings, Jason says that ‘Inception’ suffers from its choice of subject matter and that “[b]y declaring loudly that it is about dreams, the film calls direct attention to its own paucity of imagination.”  The dreams, of course, are the context, the background against which a story is told describing one man’s difficulty in coming to terms with his wife’s suicide.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, here’s a plot summary of the movie.

As with any film that reaches a large audience through word-of-mouth recommendation (the box office has sustained momentum over a number of weeks here in the UK), it is a writer and director’s understanding of the so-called ‘human condition’ which is what touches the audience: it is perhaps that the focus of the article is so definitely tipped toward some agenda, that it may be amusing for a few minutes to tear it apart, after all, with more than 160k votes at time of writing, Inception is scoring 9.1/10 on IMDB…

1. “It all doesn’t amount to that much more than an exercise in plot mechanics…”
Plot is character.  In any film, character development – taking a character or ensemble from opening titles to final credits – is what a film does.  ‘Plot mechanics’ is how one scene moves into another.

2. “The settings in Inception do not function like dreams.”
No, they don’t because they are designed by an architect to allow the team to move more easily through a subject’s subconscious.

3. “Everything is painfully literal…”
That would be because the audience isn’t in the subject’s head with the team.

4. “During one sequence, DiCaprio’s character spends decades building one dream world out of his utmost fantasies, and comes up with nothing more interesting than a series of sleek high-rise buildings just like ones he admired in real life.”
That would be building the dream world with his now dead wife… they were both architects and in real life, architects – as with other creative professions – design buildings that are influenced by the work of other architects.

5. “Hundreds of millions of dollars flow into making virtually anything appear on a movie screen through the wonders of special effects, enough to give even the most improbable visions substance, and what are those dollars spent on? Bigger guns. More impressive explosions.”
The budget for this film was less than ‘hundreds’ and if you haven’t yet seen the film yet, surely the big money was spent on the hotel corridor sequence which succeeds on being an unexpected thrill.

6. “In dreams we often see recurring symbols of our deepest anxieties, and clearly Hollywood’s is that the great mass audience will turn on them if they try too hard, if they act too smart, if they make people feel challenged or confused. The best thing to do is to not expect too much of the audience, to reassure them and over-explain things, and to make sure to throw in a half-clever twist so that the mass walks out of the theater feeling smart. Given that the most frequent compliment to “Inception” I’ve heard is that “it never loses the audience,” their strategy seems to have found fertile ground.”
Clearly, wrong: you pay for your ticket on the way into the theatre but further, as mentioned above, ticket sales have been consistently high with many people returning to see the film again.

7. “…make no mistake, ‘Inception’ is a quintessential glimpse into the world of big-budget film. It is Hollywood speaking through Christopher Nolan to expound its ultimate statement of artistic principles: when told to dream bigger, just think up a better gun and a more convoluted way to say what your predecessors have already said in order to seem like you’re saying something new. Don’t change too much. Don’t risk the audience turning on you. Just blend in, trick your marks out of their money, and disappear before the lights come up and they realize what happened while they were asleep.”
Conspiracy theory?  Hollywood ‘speaking through’ Christopher Nolan?
The script for ‘Inception’ was first written 10 years ago.  Nolan had to wait until technology advanced sufficiently before being able to make his film and given that Hollywood’s primary concern is money and shareholder value, it must have taken considerable negotiation – and not inconsiderable sucess with both of the most recent Batman films – for Warner Brothers to put up the money for the director’s personal project.

Rather than picking on a film that did not originate in a comic book, Jason would have been better picking a target such as the Iron Man sequel, a film which is so devoid of a moral core that it doesn’t even ask the audience to celebrate an arms manufacturer as a hero but instead invites us to be seduced by his wit, charisma and wealth.

There are more of these adaptations coming to cinema screens soon.  That a film with an original script and big budget can still be made at great risk to the studio – and writer-director’s reputation – is cause to celebrate and not to gurn.

Correctives

The shudder in my son’s left hand
he cures with one touch from his right,
two fingertips laid feather-light
to still his pen.  He understands

the whole man must be his own brother
for no man is himself alone;
though some of us have never known
the one hand’s kindness to the other.

Don Paterson

from his Forward Prize-winning poetry collection, ‘Rain

Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing

howard

A year of reading from home without succumbing to the temptation to buy yet more titles to add to our collections would still leave many of us with a huge surplus of books to enjoy.  I was fascinated by the idea of this book when given an advance reading copy.  Susan Hill leads us through a grand adventure of books, authors, libraries, reading and writing, revelling in a world whose mysteries have never faded but open up to us each time we linger over a beloved narrative, fondly recall our years of learning or a treasured encounter with a sorely-missed mentor.

Having enjoyed a life rich in the vibrant heritage of literature in Britain, Susan Hill’s epic year embraces such differing experiences as the pop-up books of Robert Sabuda to an accidental encounter with an ageing E.M. Forster.  Each step of her journey through the tapestry of a life written with such verve and passion will be the envy of writers just beginning their careers.  As an autobiography to savour on the sofa or as a brief affair with one of England’s greatest living authors, this rich pageant is simply irresistable.

Link to publisher, Profile.

Harold Pinter (1930 – 2008)

Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, who had cancer, died on Christmas Eve aged 78.

Of his own work, Pinter had this to say:

“When we look into a mirror,” he said, “we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes.

“We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.”

To see the BBC obituary, click here