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.