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." (

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?" (

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 (
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 (

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." (

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." (

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 (

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 (

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.