Saturday, 30 October 2010

Mr Benn, or bust

Although I’ve been making great strides to broaden my personal reading repetoire over the last decade or so, I still have a soft spot for the so-called science fiction genre. My memories of English Literature at O-level (taken in 1980) are not fond: the novels were Great Expectations and Jane Eyre, the play was Romeo and Juliet, and for poetry, a Twentieth Century Poets anthology. For a budding cosmologist these old relics were a personal nightmare; not one mention was made of tachyons in any of them.

Of course, I realise now that these are all true classics, and I have revisited them. I still find the old language painful to get through, but the rewards are plain to see. Once I left school to become an engineering apprentice (ugh!), I was introduced to the fantastic worlds of EE ‘Doc’ Smith and F Paul Wilson; easy to digest, and perfect for a non-literary teenage boy. I was hooked. Over the next few years I devoured the entire back-catalogues of Smith, Asimov, Clarke, Anthony, Heinlein, and many more. I have, however, neglected more recent authors for fear of becoming hooked again, but I really miss those fantastic concepts and adventures.

"Blasted wind blew away my bowler hat." (dailymail.co.uk)

I always thought that it was those teenage years that had formed my love of sci-fi, but looking back, I realise now that 1970/71 was the real genre initiation for me. At six years old, it wasn’t books that switched me on to sci-fi, but TV. This was the period of Mr Benn, Timeslip and Marine Boy – absolute classics. At that time there were also repeats of US TV series like The Invaders, Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants - great adventures all. And when Look-In magazine was launched in 1971, I was introduced to Timeslip in comic strip format; it was even better than the TV series.

I’ve read comics ever since, but never revealed it to anyone for fear of being ridiculed. Of course, everyone and his dog reads comics now, thanks to Hollywood’s normalisation of the genre (despite most of the adaptations ending up as utter tripe). All these upstarts think they’ve discovered something new. Pah!

As we, the MA students, enter the Professional Contexts semester, I am forced to consider seriously about where I sit, author-wise, in the literature spectrum. I’m trying to be all literary, but I just don’t feel the love. I don’t get the currents giants of novel writing, especially in the UK, such as McEwan, Morrison, Mantel and Rushdie; perhaps I’m just not mature enough. In any case, they bore the arse off me, so it’s time I stop pretending and nail my colours to the fiction mast.

"What do you mean you didn't get past page 31 of the novel?" (webomatica.com)

I've slated the likes of Dan Brown (quite rightly) for a lack of any kind of writing ability, though I will own up to being envious of his ability to generate zeitgeist material. My recent guilty pleasures are Michael Crichton and Clive Cussler, and while Cussler’s stuff is throwaway pulp (in an enjoyable rompish way), I have a lot of time for Crichton’s a-few-minutes-into-the-future style of sci-fi. Perhaps it appeals the physicist in me.

So, over the next month or two, I really need to sort out what my final project will consist of, and whether it will satisfy my tutor as well as my inner six-year-old self.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Sticky, not stinky

The time has come for me to select the third semester module of my MA course. Do I continue with the novel, digging a little deeper? Try out short story writing? Or move on to something completely different, namely business and editorial writing? I know the chances of making money from novel writing are slim, so while I will continue with my novel for my project piece, I am tempted by the business and editorial module as an opportunity to earn while my novel does the rounds (on its way to becoming a best seller).

Words can do this too (funnyhub.com)
I logged on to the first lecture of the module to see what it was like, and I reckon I’ve struck gold – but not in the expected way. One of the first items mentioned is ‘stickyness’, the idea that some writing sticks in your head, while others fall on stony brain cells. This passage taken from the book Made to Stick demonstrates this graphically...

“A friend of a friend of ours is a frequent business traveller. Let's call him Dave. Dave was recently in Atlantic City for an important meeting with clients. Afterward, he had some time to kill before his flight, so he went to a local bar for a drink. He'd just finished one drink when an attractive woman approached and asked if she could buy him another. He was surprised but flattered. Sure, he said. The woman walked to the bar and brought back two more drinks — one for her and one for him. He thanked her and took a sip. And that was the last thing he remembered.

Rather, that was the last thing he remembered until he woke up, disoriented, lying in a hotel bathtub, his body submerged in ice. He looked around frantically, trying to figure out where he was and how he got there. Then he spotted the note: don't move. Call 911.

A cell phone rested on a small table beside the bathtub. He picked it up and called 911, his fingers numb and clumsy from the ice. The operator seemed oddly familiar with his situation. She said, "Sir, I want you to reach behind you, slowly and carefully. Is there a tube protruding from your lower back?"

Anxious, he felt around behind him. Sure enough, there was a tube. The operator said, "Sir, don't panic, but one of your kidneys has been harvested. There's a ring of organ thieves operating in this city, and they got to you. Paramedics are on their way. Don't move until they arrive."

You've just read one of the most successful urban legends of the past fifteen years. The first clue is the classic urban-legend opening: "A friend of a friend . . ." Have you ever noticed that our friends' friends have much more interesting lives than our friends themselves?

You've probably heard the Kidney Heist tale before. There are hundreds of versions in circulation, and all of them share a core of three elements: (1) the drugged drink, (2) the ice-filled bathtub, and (3) the kidney-theft punch line. One version features a married man who receives the drugged drink from a prostitute he has invited to his room in Las Vegas. It's a morality play with kidneys.

Imagine that you closed the book right now, took an hour long break, then called a friend and told the story, without rereading it. Chances are you could tell it almost perfectly. You might forget that the traveller was in Atlantic City for "an important meeting with clients" — who cares about that? But you'd remember all the important stuff.

The Kidney Heist is a story that sticks. We understand it, we remember it, and we can retell it later. And if we believe it's true, it might change our behaviour permanently — at least in terms of accepting drinks from attractive strangers.

Contrast the Kidney Heist story with this passage, drawn from a paper distributed by a non-profit organization. "Comprehensive community building naturally lends itself to a return-on-investment rationale that can be modelled, drawing on existing practice," it begins, going on to argue that "[a] factor constraining the flow of resources to CCIs is that funders must often resort to targeting or categorical requirements in grant making to ensure accountability."

Imagine that you closed the book right now and took an hour long break. In fact, don't even take a break; just call up a friend and retell that passage without rereading it. Good luck.”

Now, this may be an extreme contrast in styles, but I’ve tried to read novels that might as well have been written like the business passage for how readable they were. So, while the business and editorial module will be useful in its own right, I reckon it may well help inform me about the stickyness of my novel writing too. 

Friday, 22 October 2010

What a howler!

Dr Strangelove, Mary Poppins, A Fistful of Dollars. and Onibaba; 1964 was not a bad year for movies. It also spawned one of my favourite childhood films: Charles H Schneer’s First Men in the Moonpenned by Quatermass creator, Nigel Kneale, based on HG Wells’ classic novel. It’s no surprise then, that similarly-aged-to-me Extraordinary Gentleman and sci-fi and horror fan, Mark Gatiss, when offered, grasped the opportunity to remake the adventure tale for the BBC. But, as Stan Lee said, speaking through Uncle Ben’s mouth, "With great power comes great responsibility."

The thing is, Schneer's movie is brilliant. Not only did Kneale cleverly adapt the book for a film audience by bookending the Victorian main story betwen a 1964 moon-landing, Professor Cavor was played by genius character actor Lionel Jeffries. It’s worth remembering too, that the film was made five years before Neil Armstrong clogged his soles with moondust, so some of the lunar surface scenes were fairly impressive. And with the news that the Moon may be lined with silver, the prospecting idea of the story holds up well.

The original love story upon which Wells based his novel (education.scholastic.co.uk)

The 2010 version starts in beautifully muted 1960s tones, when little Jim loses his parents at a summer fete on July 20th, 1969. He enters a tent promising ‘extraordinary kinematic delights!’ to find a bitter, elderly gentleman, Julius Bedford (Rory Kinnear), who claims that he was not only the first man on the moon, but the first man in the moon. He regales the lad with the tale of the time he first met Professor Cavor (Mark Gatiss), a throat-warbling scientific investigator, seventy years earlier who is on the verge of an Earth-shattering discovery.

Cavor demonstrates his gravity defying substance (cavorite) to Bedford who sees the business potential, and they set about building a sphere that, once painted in cavorite, will take them to the Moon. Once on the Moon, they discover a thin atmosphere and a race of Moon-dwellers that Cavor names Selenites, all recorded by Bedford on his kinematograph.

"No Greedo, I won't pay you; I brought a can of Raid with me." (shareseeking.com)

Gatiss has blended the bookended plot and some of the design elements of Schneer’s movie, while staying reasonably failthful with Wells’ book. Somehow,however, the charm of both has been lost with this version. The pacing of the story was dull from start to finish, each scene strolling into the next with no real sense of drama. Kinnear, with his RSC experience, came across as an earnest, but rather unsympathetic Bedford, but Gatiss played Gatiss with a fine set of lamb chops on his face. He is no Lionel Jeffries. There was never a sense of adventure, nor even danger.

Tellingly, there was a complete failure of plausible impossibilities; the ultimate no-no of sci-fi. The sphere was no match for the 1964 model, with a particularly flimsy structure (just look at Victorian engineering) and not decorated for the 'posh posh travelling life', and oh what fun could have been had with filling Cavor’s ceiling with gravity-less objects. The reused explanation (from the novel) of how the Earth’s atmosphere would be ‘peeled off like a banana skin’ should a plate of cavorite be left to do it’s business is utter tripe, and Cavor’s correction of Pythagoras’ theorem was stated incorrectly. It gets worse: the idea that ten days on the Moon feel like two on Earth doesn’t make sense, and neither does the very Earthlike running and falling when escaping the Selenites, nor the proximity of the Sun to the Moon during Bedford's escape.

"When I grow up, I want to be a scientific investigator." (bbc.co.uk)

More? The English-speaking Selenite reminded me somehow of Jar Jar Binks (and if that doesn't send a shiver up your spine...), and how the hell did Bedford end up just a few miles from where he started after travelling an unpropulsioned, satnavless 250,000 miles. Finally, what was that Selenite doing on the Moon in 1969, and how was he breathing seeing how his atmosphere had been peeled off like a banana seventy years previous? A nod to Apollo 11’s ‘1202’ warning on the Moon approach, and the clever use of the greedy man at the end to lose the sphere are not enough to save the day.

There may be those who haven’t seen the 1964 version, or come from the Russell T Davies school of ‘it’s only sci-fi, so who cares if it doesn’t make sense’ and will have enjoyed this romp. But, the facts are that the characters were paper-thin, the acting iffy, the action lame, and the credibility AWOL. The League of Gentlemen remains one of my favourite TV series, and Dr Chinnery, and Mickey are brilliant characters, but Gatiss has shown his limitations with this effort. He should think twice about making another vanity project.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Cum on, you zombies!

As someone who believes that our planet would be better off with the eradication of the human race (preferably through a zombie apocalypse), being asked to be sociable, even if in cyberspace, leaves me a little bit cold. Unfortunately, writers are being told constantly that they do not exist if they lack an online presence, and my course requirements mean that I have to step out of my shell, creating my own website,as well as blogging and twittering. One wonders how on earth Dickens, Austen, Dahl, et al made it without iPads.

Amongst the doom and gloom reports about the death of the pulped wood book, to be replaced by e-readers (I’m tempted by the Kindle myself), there are also obituaries being written about traditional publishing. The current process is writer pens novel, fires off manuscript to agents, agent thinks it worthy and sends to publisher, publisher agrees and assigns an editor, editor makes notes, writer amends manuscript, publisher publishes novel and find shop shelf space (or Amazon link), reader thinks the cover looks great and buys it (taking the book home or downloading to their kindle). It isn’t perfect, but there is some attempt at quality control, a filtering process, if you will. So, how else can it be done?

Save the planet; hug a zombie (moviemusereviews.com)

There’s self (or vanity) publishing for starters. This has been around for hundreds of years, and publishers such as Lulu and Grosvenor House have taken advantage of digital innovations with print-on-demand to reduce costs and attract those authors who have received a constant stream of rejection slips, can't face being rejected, or simply want to see their novel in print. Here, there are no guarantees of quality for the reader, and no guarantees of success for the writer. In fact, without considerable marketing, the overwhelming chances are that the author will make a loss on the deal. Of course, Kindle self-publishing improves profitability, but faces the same marketing issue: how does a reader get to know about your fantastic book?

Of the ‘new publishing’ thinkers, one voice being given air time is former CEO of Soft Skull Press, Richard Eoin Nash. His approach is one of connection rather than publication, and to that end he has started up Cursor, a publishing brand made up of several genre-based imprints, which themselves consist of a community of writers and readers. Depending on the level of engagement there is a subscription fee, which to the cynic might sound a little like vanity publishing. The benefits to the successful author (whatever that means, community-wise) have not been worked out yet, so we wait with baited breath.

There are other avenues to pursue: website publishing - through subscription perhaps, iPhone app selling, and podcast production on iTunes. All of these, like vanity publishing, require the author to have the right contacts in the right areas, which for already-published or well-known personalities is fine, but for anonymous lone wolves like me, it’s a mysterious and dangerous world. Surely all this leads to is the publication of talented PR folks, not talented authors.

The cost of warehousing my unsold self-published books is exorbitant (foleypod.com)

In terms of my course requirements, I’m blasé about the website idea – I simply don’t understand why someone who isn’t published needs a website, and even if I had a bestseller, why would a reader want to visit my website? Just buy my books, damn you. Twitter I enjoy; some of the people I follow have great links, but it’s really a tool for procrastination, and no-one follows me anyway, so what’s the real point. Blogging is perhaps my favourite: I can mouth off (I have an opinion on everything), and I get to write, which is what I love doing. It's a shame then that I'm being judged on how many words each blog has rather than how good/bad (delete as applicable) the blogs are as pieces of writing.

Let’s be realistic, I’m blogging to my family and one or two UCF students only. No-one of any influence is reading my tremendously pithy mini-features with hilariously-captioned photos, and despite following many other blogs, and leaving generous comments with a link to my own blog, I have just four followers – all UCF students. Like financial matters, social networking is a complete mystery to me, and frankly, it’s taking up real writing and reading time. Until I’m able to write as a career, thus freeing up the fifty to fifty-five hours a week I spend working in brain-dead automotive manufacturing, I have no interest or time in gathering a network of ‘friends’ in the pursuit of a lottery's chance of sales; I'll be sociable because I like someone. I'm a writer, so when it comes to selling my work, I'll leave that to the professional sellers.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Lucky bleeders?

There are probably more books on how to be successful than there are successful people, depending on how you measure success, of course. Then, there are age-old adages to spur us on, like Edison's 'genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration', and yet I've never seen a sweaty, stinky genius. Or, there is the brilliantly inane 'you make your own luck' statement, usually trotted out by someone who has won something through sheer chance.

However, in any walk of life, there are those that seem to defy all logic by being thick, lazy and successful. But is that perception from the envious (a.k.a. me) strictly true? Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers attempts to dig deeper into how the extraordinarily successful reach the pinnacle of their realm. Using a mixture of anecdotes and psychological research, he investigates the impact that opportunity and legacy have, enabling certain individuals to rise, helium-filled, out of site of the rest of us.

Check out those pits. It's like Death Valley in there. (d6.allthingsd.com)

By opportunity, Gladwell means factors such as age-grouping, where, in sports, older children within the group have a huge physical and experiential advantage, giving them more chance of being picked and trained to the next level. Opportunity also means practice. There is a ridiculous phrase, 'naturally gifted', where the words 'naturally' and 'gifted' are euphemisms used by the lazy that actually mean 'obsessed' and 'doing something about it' respectively. Gladwell calls this the 10,000-hour rule. In other words, while most people are losing brain cells watching TV soaps, or strangling their liver at the pub, the 'naturally gifted' are, hour after hour, physically and mentally honing their skills until they achieve their goal, and not giving up at the first hurdle because 'it's hard'.

Gladwell's chapters on legacy talks about the cultural factors – memes - whereby some people grow up in a strong work ethic environment, or where each generation is determined that the next will have better opportunities. Gladwell also shows that in some cases, the rigid, deferential structure of some cultures, has the opposite effect, such as in the 'ethnicity of plane crashes'. Even if this book doesn't increase your success quotient, it will save your life.

"Who is the Master now old man? It's still you, isn't it?" (ffbsccn.wordpress.com/20thC Fox)

Gladwell writes in an easy-to-read style, using layman's terms, and his anecdotes are interesting in their own right – real watercooler jobs. This isn't a scientific paper, and some of Gladwell's conclusions are slightly stretched, but he gives the reader something to think about while demystifying some of the processes, which, when understood, could improve the reader's lot. But he cannot advise on what is perhaps the biggest influence: being the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

This is something about which Obi-wan Kenobi speaks (in the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster) when Luke learns how to use the Force to deflect laser beams while blindfolded, and Han Solo attributes Luke's success to luck. The Jedi Master responds, 'In my experience, there's no such thing as luck, only highly favourable adjustments of multiple factors to incline events in one's favour.' Gladwell could do worse than stand on the shoulders of the wisest man in the Universe.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Plotting failure

So, it’s about time I started receiving reject slips; the things reputedly used by poor writers to paper their walls. I’m still raw as a writer, and I suffer from a huge lack of confidence. The only way that I’m going to find out exactly where my work sits in the literary spectrum is to start putting it about, so to speak. One such avenue is competitions.

An opportunity for a novella trilogy publishing deal has dropped into my inbox: the Page Turner Prize from Contact Publishing. The deadline for presenting an outline of the mini-series, a synopsis of the first novella, and two sample chapters is November 1st - eminently doable, and for just £10. All I have to do is find one of my ideas that can be split into three connectable stories, oh, and it has to fit into the ‘suspense’ genre.

Unfortunately, the scientist and the stopwatch were fried before they were
able to time how long the urine sample took to evaporate (drugtestkits.ca)
This is the point at which you realise that while you thought you knew what suspense genre was, when you try to put your finger on it, it evaporates like a puddle of piss on the surface of the sun.

My ancient Concise Oxford suggests that suspense is ‘a state of anxious uncertainty or expectation’. Essentially, it's on the edge of your seat, nail-biting stuff, which covers quite a bit of ground. The obvious candidates are fast-paced thrillers (The Bourne Trilogy), and creepy horrors (Halloween) – except horror (and fantasy) are not allowed. But I guess careful plotting will allow suspense to stalk just about any sub-genre.

Sorry Mike, you're not allowed to play (hollywood.com)
Whichever form it takes, what is clear about a suspense novel is that the reader has to root for the protagonist; the hero must be the audience’s representative in the narrative such that when bad shit happens to him/her, the audience is worried for them. Also, large doses of dramatic irony need to be poured on, so that audience expectation levels are ramped up to the max.

Six weeks to write 1,500 words of outline, and around 3,000 words of story. I can do it, I will do it, I can do it, I will do it, I can...

Friday, 17 September 2010

The tears of a clown

The reprobate will always exist. That kid whose underdeveloped sense of humour, or overdeveloped sense of mischief means that they will, at some stage in their school career, let off a stink bomb, flood the boys toilets, or stick a ‘kick me’ sign to the school bully’s blazer, signed with your name. He, and it always used to be a he, would construct a reputation with the teachers that was so bad he would be blamed even when it wasn’t him who covered the Headmaster’s car with spitballs.

Billy Casper is that reprobate, and Barry Hines’ council estate terror is instantly recognisable to most people. His dysfunctional family life is typical of a good proportion of British children more than forty years after A Kestrel for a Knave was written. Hines’ unpretentious attitude towards writing allows him to admit that there was no deliberate intention to write social commentary, that’s just how the story can be decoded in hindsight, by those who wish to do that sort of thing.

Barry Hines was not a reprobate (bbc.co.uk)
An absent father, a self-centred mother, and an embittered older brother combine to make Billy’s life a misery at home. Add to that a lack of encouragement, and no academic confidence, and Billy finds subversive means to occupy his mind, bringing him to the attention of cane-happy Headmaster Gryce. Billy lives out a continuous cycle of ‘well if I’m going to get the blame, I might as well do it’.

Until, one day, Billy is let down by a couple of mates for a planned nest raid. For once, events favour the lad and he ends up with a kestrel chick. Billy is transformed. He steals a book on falconry, and, despite having ‘a job to read and write’, makes perfect use of the entire text, and trains the bird. In short, Billy Casper is a success. But Billy lives in the real world, and nothing last forever.

Hines’ bittersweet story captures much of working class life during the sixties and seventies. His settings and characters are so familiar he needs minimal description to bring Billy’s existence to life. Hines uses a mild Yorkshire dialect for his dialogue, which even the narration slips into at times. And despite his opinion in his afterword that he would not write in dialect now, I think it works in this case. His prose is clean, with a light sprinkling of magical phrases like ‘great rashes of buttercups’, ‘[hymn books] bloomed white across the hall as they were... flicked through’, and ‘just because we’re in 4C [the teachers] talk to us like muck... allus callin’ us idiots’.

Kes: almost the real thing (Film4.com)
There are stand-out characters galore such as Billy and his family, Headmaster Gryce, and pathetic PE teacher Sugden. Observations of the minutiae add to the intimacy of the narrative, such as Billy getting dirt in his eye when throwing pebbles at his friend’s bedroom window, or when Mrs Casper’s skirt zip works only half-way, so she fastens the waistband with a safety pin. Hines’ descriptions of architecture are less successful, but this is rare and doesn’t detract from the story’s pace. Although not quite on my all-time favourites list, the novel is well worth a read. Billy Casper’s reputation was further advanced by Ken Loach’s sympathetic film adaptation, Kes.

Despite Hines’ protestations, A Kestrel for a Knave is a social commentary, and although the minutiae are different now, nothing has changed for the Billy Caspers of this world. In fact, watching the news these days, Billy had it easy. Instead of studying Hines’ novel for GCSE English Literature, it should be discussed in Citizenship lessons in an attempt to break the underclass cycle that turns sink estates into third-world zones within twenty-first century Britain.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

What the Dickens?

Back in the heady days of September 2007, at the start of my adventures in writing, I had just read DickensHard Times as part of my plan to catch up with some of the classics. I read it while on a family holiday in Cornwall, during which we made our regular visit to the circus at Newquay. The disappointment of the novel for me was the mention of Sleary’s Circus, from where Sissy originates, and yet not have the circus perform within its pages.

Some sub-conscious neuron firing with the above information gave me the idea of a story about a Victorian circus (awesome, eh?). The main character would be a young orphan (surprise), and the acts themselves would be highly unusual; no specific ideas, just that they would be unusual. Ideas flashed before me left, right and centre, and my little notebook became filled with characters, plot points, and even quotes. I did a little research on Victorian London, and even more ideas flooded the little grey cells.

Healthy neurons, not mine (filipinovoice.com)

During the next three years, bringing us up to the present, I have had a more than a dozen serious novel ideas, something similar for movies, plus a healthy selection of short story collections, radio plays, television series, and graphic novels. But none is as far advanced as Yellow Ostriches, the title for my Victorian circus novel, which is why I selected it for my Master’s Degree Project.

However, there is one thing concerning the novel pressing at the back of my mind: how on Earth do you write a Victorian novel without being accused of presenting nothing more than a Dickens pastiche?

This is a particularly thorny issue because 1. Dickens wrote about the period while living in it – he has ultimate authenticity; 2. He was prolific, and wrote about virtually every aspect of existence at that time; 3. He is still in print, so has been read almost everyone who can read English; 4. The #@!!&? was a genius.

Charles Dickens, the #@!!&? (Sydney Morning Herald)

I have written several passages including character descriptions and dialogue, and it all sounds like a modernised, pale imitation of the master.

So, this crunch time. I have a back-up novel that I would like to write even more than Yellow Ostriches, but it is nowhere near as well developed. I believe the story to be a unique take on a particular theme. It is very slightly SF, but no more so than a typical David Mitchell or Kazuo Ishiguro. But at least it’s set mostly in contemporary times, rather than Hard Times, so with any luck it will have my voice, and not Dickens’.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

A Rough Guide to Washington D.C.

I believe that there’s a generation of middle-aged westerners who, at an impressionable age in 1969, watched Where Are You, Scooby Doo? and for whom Mystery Incorporated shone a beacon of scepticism. The team's reductive approach to problem solving was Holmesian (they just took LSD instead of cocaine), and as such their mind-bending adventures dismissed the ridiculous, and promoted reality. Although the same age as me, the twenty-first century’s most popular problem solver, Robert Langdon, it seems, may have had parents who didn’t allow him to watch silly cartoons.

My heroes (Hanna-Barbera/Warner Bros)
If you’ve read Dan Brown’s previous Langdon novels, then his latest blockbuster, The Lost Symbol, will feel like a breath of stale air. Once again, symbol-bore Langdon leads from behind, wandering around historical monuments solving ambiguous clues worthy of 3-2-1’s Dusty Bin, and partnering the female relative of a dead or dying pillar of the community while in opposition to both a fanatic with huge physical prowess, and an institution with bottomless resources, all in the interests of bringing together the mystical and scientific realms.

A symbologist ahead of his time (Yorkshire TV)
Having boosted tourism figures in Rome and Paris, Brown has responded to the global downturn by keeping the tourists’ dollar within the United States. Either that, or Langdon has used up his air miles in the previous novels. In fact, he may not even be able to spare shoe leather because he spends the first one-third of the book in the Capitol Building, which, according to the novel,

... stands regally at the eastern end of the National Mall, on a raised plateau that city designer Pierre L'Enfant described as "a pedestal waiting for a monument." The Capitol's massive footprint measures more tnan 750 feet in length 350 feet deep. Housing more than sixteen acres of floorspace, it contains an astonishing 541 rooms. The neoclassical architecture is meticulously designed to echo the grandeur of Ancient Rome, whose ideals were the inspiration for America's founders in establishing the laws and culture of the new republic.

Each time Langdon relocates to another historical (in the American sense) landmark, Brown prefaces that particular chapter with similarly edificating (spellchecker wants to place defacating here) descriptions, each sounding like a snippet from a Washington DC tourist brochure. Is it possible that Brown is risking another plagiarism lawsuit – this time from copywriters?

Langdon is again paired off with the crème de la crème of the scientific community. Rather than a biophysicist whose fish have outmanoeuvred Einsteinian physics, or a cryptologist with a 260 miles-per-gallon SmartCar, we are introduced to pioneer of Noetic Sciences, Katherine Solomon. A little Internet research soon raises suspicions that the ‘Science’ part of Noetic Sciences is on a par with the ‘Scien’ root of Scientology.

Historical, apparently (allposters.com)

Katherine is the sister of mega-Mason Peter Solomon, whose high-ranking, public servant brothers are concerned that should their bonkers rituals be placed on YouTube, then the public might think they are-- well, bonkers. Why one would consider political leaders rolling up their trouser legs, drinking ‘blood’ from a skull, and talking mystical gibberish as less than normal is beyond ‘sceptic’ Langdon – after all, it’s just harmless fun.

Brown portrays Langdon as a sceptic, but I find that his scepticism is the open-minded type whereby, as described by Richard Dawkins, Langdon’s mind is so open that his brain has dropped out. He has no problem with Masonic rituals, California-crazy science or pyramids with mystical powers to transform.

Langdon’s Brown-vaunted intellect and symbological prowess are about as well formed as his scepticism. Early in the story Langdon is foxed by the Roman numerals IIIX tattooed on the amputated hand of Peter Solomon. It should be possible to show that, statistically, every person on the planet except Dan Brown thinks that upside-down Roman numerals are not a world-class puzzle. It took Langdon several chapters to solve this, and the solution came by accident rather than from a churning of the great man’s huge cranial computations.

No sweat, Langdon can't read it

Katherine Solomon’s brain must have become so full of Noetic nonsense that she fails to notice for three whole years that a ninety-second stumble in the dark, to and from her secret laboratory, could have been easily eliminated by technology known about for thousands of years: the torch. Except that it would have meant rearranging Brown’s unimaginative effort to produce drama by having a beast of a man chase a poor damsel in a dark room.

All of Brown’s plot-driven characters are one-dimensional, except for Langdon himself who, lacking even that, should be nicknamed the human singularity, and the antagonist, Moloch, the inhuman monster of the story, whose failings and disappointments in life give the novel its only human insights. Each character speaks with a banality that Spock would find overly formal, and any variations their speech patterns are so indiscernible that in dialogue heavy text, it helps to annotate the pages script-fashion.

The ultra-omniscient third person narration drifts from person to person, sometimes several times within a few paragraphs. Even the innermost thoughts of minor characters are splashed about like Brut 33, so that the reader feels like one of Katherine’s ‘scientifically-proven’ psychics who are unable to filter out mental chatter. This omniscience occasionally naps, like when events ‘apparently’ happen or are due ‘possibly’ to some reason or other that the character can’t be bothered to recall. Then there are the blocks of Brown’s preachy narrative voice that vacillates between mild scepticism and a wish for the ‘at-one-ment’ of mysticism and science.

SJG, 'Non-overlapping magisteria' (stephejaygould.org)

Brown’s already low metaphor/simile count drops like a symbologist with a handkerchief for a parachute for this novel. Though with Brown’s likening of the Washington Monument to a ‘grand ship’s mast’ being one of the few, perhaps this is a good thing. The inability to name a ‘grand ship’ shows Brown’s interest in the historical is not quite as strong as that implied in his protagonist, though the make, model and serial code of every aircraft, elevator and gadget is brandished with pride (or advertising revenue).

The chapter lengths are arbitrary, bordering on random. Some last almost a page, while a few reach double figures. This may be an endeavour to inject pace into the geographically static story, but diving from one person’s flashback to another’s has the opposite effect. These constant digressions are merely clumsy attempts either to give a character back story, or to bolster a lame eureka moment. This invites the hypothesis that if the characters had all just sat around talking about their personal histories at the beginning, then events may have worked out by themselves, thus avoiding the need for the novel. On the rare occasion that the action is in the present, the story rattles along like a good old pulp page-turner.

Who parked HMS Victory on the White House lawn? (visitingdc.com)

While the mystery of how Brown has sold more than eighty million books may seem like material for nothing less than a Robert Langdon adventure, the answer pleasingly simple. He has cleverly combined three of the best-selling books of all time: the Bible, for its mysticism; the Guinness Book of Records, for its facts (and remember, each Langdon novel starts with the word ‘facts’); and Sudoku (and other books like it), for its puzzles. Brown has added a dash of the swarming belief in conspiracy theories for good measure.

For all Brown’s self-reported liberal tendencies, his novels feel as if they would be more at home on the ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ shelf, or wherever it is bookshops stock the ravings of Erik von Daniken, Graeme Hancock and David Icke. If, as in speculative fiction, we accept Langdon’s universe as a weird perversion of our own, then I invoke assistance from the Scooby-Doo universe, whereby a group of meddling kids will come along and unmask Dan Brown - as an algorithm. Like the book’s theme, I live in hope.

P.S. There really is a hidden message in this blog. A hardback copy of The Lost Symbol (only once read) to the first person to post the correct answer.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Who reviews the reviewers?

I’ve developed a couple of techniques when selecting novels for me and my wife to read. 
First, I listen carefully to the conveyor belt of brilliant reviewers who inhabit Radio 4’s A Good Read. Second, in the case of my wife, when she gives positive feedback for a book, I use Amazon listmania to find readers who share literary common ground with her, and then select books from the list that she hasn’t read. Going the extra mile by checking the Amazon reviews from the public for those selections places a very sweet cherry on top of an already luscious cake.


Trust Sue, she's a CBE: BBC

Why do I put so much faith in Joe Public’s views?

Well, I’ve learned that given enough responses (sampling: it’s a statistical thing) the average score tends to tally pretty well with my view. For instance, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the best book I’ve read in the last twelve months: twenty-two 5-stars and one 4-star (99% average). My other favourite of the year, The Road: 83% from 544 reviews. At the other end of the scale, The Resurrectionist received 44% (89 reviews), and middle-of-the-roader, Cloud Atlas, scored 74% (187 reviews). My wife’s favourite, The House of Sand and Fog: 85% from 41 reviews. All about right.

What if you suspect the average has been artificially dragged down?

Then it’s time to check the veracity of the 1-star reviews. I do this because I have found that many 1-star ratings are given because the delivery was late, or the item (if electronic) isn’t compatible with Apple (serves you right), or the reviewer hasn’t got a clue. The last kind – particularly if it’s a book review - can be spotted easily by the grammar used, specifically: a lack of capitalisation; ludicrous punctuation; the word ‘definitely’ spelt as ‘definately’, and/or ‘disappointing’ spelt ‘dissapointing’.


Do not trust PDF, it's statistics: support2.dundas.com

Here are some classic 1-star reviews:

“i have not read this book yet. but there is one interesting thing on its cover, the word "sand". it looks like average american mentality is set to mention this word when it comes to anything iranian. in other words, no matter what the scenario is, this word has to be included in there to signify it iranian. despite your brainwash, iran does not have as much desert as you have been programmed to think it does. as a matter of fact, other than sands of the persian gulf beaches and the caspian sea, there is no other place in iran that is covered by sand. another piece of information for your geography that you did not learn in the high school: all together, iran has less desert than the state of california. the world has changed; it is time to join the planet earth and learn about it.”

“I didnt like this book. I am currently studying it for an English exam and after reading it twice i;m affraid i do not like it. I did not like the way the book jumped around i feel it had no story to it. I feel this is ashame because i have read and loved all of Clarke's other novels.”

“1984. I read this classic piece of literature recommended by friend Rupert a Aussie bloke But i was very dissapointed indeed with it This could never happen the people would not allow it .Its just to far fetched to be true Life is to be enjoyed not to be mulled over in so called historicism memorabilia

So if you find a review with 1-star examples like these, you know to ignore them, and recalculate the average. Still, no system is perfect, and it is possible to get false positives. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight received 85% from 928 reviews, yet it is unreadable drivel – popular, but drivel. So, when you come across a novel that has crossed beyond the hype-barrier, you’re on your own.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Never judge a book by its theme tune

I often cite Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) , Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as typical of excellent television programmes that are preceded by brilliant theme tunes. Books, we are told, should not be judged in the same way, and, unfortunately for James Bradley, his novel The Resurrectionist has a superb cover.

I have a sneaking regard for the reading public’s star rating on Amazon’s reviews; rarely does it fail (I have theories about Amazon review scores which I might share one day). The Resurrectionist averages forty-four percent, which I think is a little generous. However, there is a decent story within the book that’s dying to get out.

Irresistible, isn't it?
My first point is about ignorance on my part. I didn’t realise that ‘resurrectionist’ is a euphemism for ‘graverobber’, so I thought the book was a take on Frankenstein. Second, on revisiting the blurb, I realise it hands out information not covered in the novel – bizarre. Third, what a dirge this novel becomes.

Set in 1826, the narrator is main protagonist Gabriel Swift, apprentice anatomist, the day-to-day business of which is beautifully rendered, if somewhat gruesome, in the first chapter. However, the first person perspective fails to deliver for Bradley. Throughout the novel, we get no sense of Swift’s personality from the narration (think the opposite of Holden Caulfield), and the start to some chapters feels very third person omniscient.

We follow Swift in this near-linear story as he falls foul of colleagues, resurrectionists and whores, descending into the most unconvincing opium habit ever, and finally attempting to reconstruct his life abroad. Thinking about it, the title is misleading: Swift is a resurrectionist for no more than ten percent of the book’s three hundred and thirty three pages.

Shelley's inhuman character had more personality than Gabriel Swift
Despite its promising start, the novel deteriorates into a monotone record of minimal drama, split into one and two-page chapters that give a disjointed feel. There is simply no energy in the prose whatsoever. Bradley tries to create suspense by using what can only be described as reverse dramatic irony, where a character interacts in plain view of Swift, who he knows, and who we have already met, yet remains nameless at that point in the text. Ridiculous.

There is a general lack of characterisation throughout, including the protagonist-narrator. With Swift, we start off feeling neutral about him, and then, as we read on, we discover reasons to dislike him. Perhaps if we understood the motivations for his actions we might identify with him, but Bradley insists on telling us what to think instead of showing us, and in the end we just don’t care. The blurb promises a classic gothic antagonist in Lucan, but he turns out to be a damp squib.

Resurrectionists, apparently
The final quarter of the novel, set ten years after the resurrectionist events, has some redeeming features. In fact, if Bradley had been given a half-decent editor, this would have been where the story starts. We would have seen Swift in his ordinary world, tutoring the offspring of Australian landowners, and painting his beloved stuffed birds; a picture of sweetness and light. The chance arrival of former anatomist colleague, Robert Newsome, throws Swift’s happy existence into turmoil, dragging up the miserable existence he suffered in London ten years ago, affecting the relationships he has built up. The ending, of course, would be the memory of the bird crashing in to the mirror (p,251), thus making sense of his birds-only portfolio (how sad).

All-in-all, the book fails to deliver in character, drama and style, and takes no advantage of its gothic appeal. If it had a theme tune, it would be something like The Love Boat, and then we’d know not to read it.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Yes, no, maybe - could you repeat the question?

Forget gluttony or sloth; vacillation and procrastination are the two mortal sins in my possession that I abhor the most. Too often I find myself in a situation where either I bounce between two options like a rubber ball in an evacuated room in zero-gravity, or I am frozen in a tangle of indecision resulting in several hundred consecutive games of Mahjong on my laptop.

So, when I was asked to choose the specialism of my MA – fiction novel, screenwriting or non-fiction – I was torn. Quite quickly I decided I did not have a strong enough knowledge base in any single subject to sustain an entire non-fiction book, ergo strike that one. Now I just have to select one of the remaining pair.

At the start of my creative quest three years ago, it was simply to garner techniques and strategies to enable the writing of a novel – after all, everyone has a book in them, don’t they? However, my Open University coursework in 2009 explored screenwriting, and I found that my stories were already film-like in my head. I felt a natural affinity with part of the writing process for film and television.

There are strategies for people like me

I enjoy reading fiction and watching movies equally. I would be happy to be successful at either. I have more than a dozen ideas for both. Both sets of course notes were very attractive. Both UCF lecturers seemed equally enthusiastic about and able at their craft. How on Earth could I decide? In the meantime, my win-lose ratio at Mahjong was improving dramatically.

There are many commentators who will offer opinions about whether it’s easier to move from one field to the other later on in a career, or which profession is more worthy. Strangely, these opinions tend to fall in line with the profession in which the author of them inhabits. A co-founder of internet-based screenwriting magazine Twelvepoint, Julian Friedman, in an article, says that ‘writing prose is relatively straightforward and it does not require the same obsessional adherence to structural templates that scripts need’. On the other hand, the snobbery inherent within fiction literature, even against other novelists let alone other genres, is well documented.

Novelist/screenwriter Richard Price, whose screenplays are probably more well-known than his novels, when interviewed at the 2009 Istanbul Book Fair, pretty much mirrored the reasoning I used to make my decision. He says, ‘Writing novels is a very solitary occupation. When you’re done, it’s all yours. Screenwriting is anything but solitary, you’re working with directors, actors, studios, agents and you have no control over that.’

Richard Price almost won an Oscar: Touchstone Pictures

Of course, agents, publishers, and editors are still present to throw a spanner in the novelist’s fragile works, but because, like many others, I don’t (yet) work within the writing industry and I rely on a ‘real’ job to pay the bills, I have no choice but to work in solitary way. From what I can gather, much screenwriting relies on selling an outline to a producer long before there is a need for a script. Waiting for someone to give me a green light before I’m allowed to write is untenable at this stage in my embryonic career.

So, novel it is for the MA. But it doesn't stop me from wondering if I've done the right thing, so I plan to write a first draft screenplay at least for this idea for a movie that I just can’t get out of my head. Next up: which of my ideas shall I use for the novel? Oh well, I imagine I’ll be a Mahjong grandmaster by the time I nominate my project.