Monday, 14 September 2020

"I may run an elevator, but I'll never write a hack story"

"[Frank Belknap Long] has stopped looking for the real spirit and essence of a work of fiction, but has begun to appraise fiction according to the popular, commercial standard, laying favourable stress on such meretricious tricks as plot twists, exaggerated dramatic tableaux, jack-in-the-box climaxes, snappy dialogue, scene-shifting pageantry and all the other superficial, artificial devices."

The good folks at the H P Lovecraft Historical Society regularly read and discuss his letters, and I found this one on the writing process particularly interesting. Listen from 8m 30s in, as the first part is housekeeping between HPL and his agent. But when he gets onto writing, and how success in writing (as opposed to success at selling books) can only be measured against your personal standards of the craft -- then it gets fascinating.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Is the world ready for two-speed fiction?

The writer Fay Weldon provoked outrage a while back. (It’s the dream of every writer to still be doing that in our eighties, and boy is the Internet making it easier.) Ms Weldon’s heresy was to suggest that writers in the future might need to produce two versions of each novel: one opening with a bang and racing through the story, the other taking all sorts of leisurely detours into character.

If I’d read only the headline, maybe I would have been spluttering at that myself. But here’s what Ms Weldon actually said:
“Writers have to write now for a world where readers are busy, on the move, and have little time for contemplation and reflection. The writer has to focus on writing better, cutting to the chase, and doing more of the readers’ contemplative work for them.”
“Writing better” seems pretty key there. Leaving aside the possibility that she was indulging in a certain amount of hyperbole, she is acknowledging that all well written books are page turners. Literary fiction – if we must use the term – is not the plotless meandering indulgence that its detractors would have you believe. War & Peace goes down a lot smoother than a Dan Brown novel, let me tell you.

The refutation of Ms Weldon’s points seem primarily to take the form of: “Pish and tosh, I read Fifty Shades of Grey in print and Ulysses on Kindle; so there.” At least I took that to be the thrust of Alison Flood’s argument as she delivered a sound Johnsonian kick to Ms Weldon’s assertion:
“Weldon’s reading of the situation just makes me think she doesn’t have an e-reader. And that she hasn’t looked at the current physical bestseller charts, stuffed with commercial fiction, either.”
And yet nothing Fay Weldon is saying particularly contentious, or even new. Nor surely would she claim it to be. Dial back eighty years and zero in on a Brooklyn newsstand. Black Mask and Argosy and The Shadow were selling north of a hundred thousand copies a month. Had Hemingway been willing to dumb down To Have and Have Not just a teeny bit (you can suggest that to him while I wait in the Tardis) then it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the pulp magazines. In good writing, the contemplative and the exciting happen at the same time.

Still, you couldn’t pull that dumbing-down trick with just any quality novel. The Sound and the Fury, say. So there always was a spectrum from pulp to highbrow, even if nobody could quite point to the boundaries. And Ms Weldon’s proposal that authors write two versions was common practice even back then. To Have and Have Not germinated from a short story Hemingway wrote for Cosmopolitan.

There’s nothing revelatory about saying that medium influences content. The novel a Victorian would expect to read in paper-bound partwork would be more of a sensational affair than he’d look for in a hardcover. Chinese and Japanese publishers, who experience the future a little sooner than we do in the West, were finding ten years ago that classic works like Dream of the Red Chamber weren’t what strap-hanging commuters wanted to read on their phones. As so the thumb novel was born. Or rather reborn, like a Water Margin hero, from the spirit of the Shadow and Doc Savage.

But was that the device, or was it the price? Zipping back to mid-30s New York, a brand new copy of a short novel like To Have and Have Not or Of Mice and Men is going to set you back $2.75, while you can take home Black Mask for 15 cents. Pulp fiction and literature were separate Galapagos islands – as far apart as news-stands and bookstores, as pocket change and a billfold. The digital market has lowered the ocean so that those ecosystems are joined, and so self-publishers can push the pulp formula to its ultimate expression: a horizon-blanketing tsunami of genre novels at a penny or less. Under such conditions even Sturgeon’s Law breaks down. We look back longingly at the days when only nine-tenths of this stuff was crap.

But don’t forget what bobbed up from the bottom of Pandora’s jar. Hollywood may be in a creative nose-dive, but that hasn’t prevented the rise of ten-hour movies (Breaking Bad, The Americans, Chernobyl) of a quality and story depth von Stroheim could only dream about. The ubiquity of McDonald’s doesn’t stop me from chowing down at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen. And a million overweight dads booting footballs around the park doesn’t damage the standard of play at Old Trafford. (I have to confess that last example is purely theoretical; I never watched a game in my life.)

The truth, as Fay Weldon said right at the start of all this, is that we could all do with better writing. The gripping immediacy of a Robert E Howard or Walter Gibson yarn is something even Will Self might aspire to. And just to show that under the sun there is no new thing, let’s give the last word to Anthony Trollope writing a hundred and thirty years ago -- though it could as easily have been just last week:
“Among English novelists a great division is made. There are sensational novels and anti-sensational, sensational novelists and anti-sensational, sensational readers and anti-sensational. The novelists who are considered to be anti-sensational are generally called realistic. I am realistic. My friend Wilkie Collins is generally supposed to be sensational. The readers who prefer the one are supposed to take delight in the elucidation of character. Those who hold by the other are charmed by the continuation and gradual development of a plot. All this is, I think, a mistake — which mistake arises from the inability of the imperfect artist to be at the same time realistic and sensational. A good novel should be both, and both in the highest degree. If a novel fail in either, there is a failure in art.”

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The green comet has arrived

Finally, and only 119 years and four and a half months behind schedule, here comes that comet. It's a once-in-120-centuries occurrence and it's only coming within about fifty million miles of Earth, but if that's near enough for one wish I'm going to hope for some way to carry on with Mirabilis, the project that's still the dream of my heart. Never say never, I keep telling myself.

Monday, 30 December 2019

The shows that rinse and repeat

Who watches the Watchmen? I will, but only if you can assure me that the story is properly wrapped up in one season. I've seen too many TV shows that throw a bunch of plates in the air, keep them spinning for a dozen episodes, adding more until it looks like they'll all come down either in a triumphant flourish or a crash of broken crockery -- only for the season finale to tie up no loose ends whatsoever; merely saying, in effect: "Come back next year for more of the same."

I know why writers do it. Well, yes, there's the lure of another payday, obviously. That's not nothing. But also it's because bringing a story together is hard. The job is so much easier in the early stages where you can throw everything in. The only limit is the writer's imagination. But then, around the midway point, the terrible hectoring inner voice can be heard that speaks up for the craft. Things that have been set up must pay off. Threats must be faced and dealt with. Promises that have been tacitly made with the viewer must be kept. If you're lazy, you tune that out and try to keep the throw-everything-in stage going forever.

Serious offenders include The Fall, whose first series followed a nail-biting cat-&-mouse between the detective heroine and a serial killer. How would she catch him? And what would the personal cost be? As it turned out, she wouldn't catch him. Rather than dream up a new adversary for season two, the writer just had him slip away so that the high jinks could resume next time. Nothing was resolved.

Likewise with Killing Eve, where after a season of queasy death-wish teasing between the antagonists, the psycho we're meant to like slips away with a knife-wound in her side. "Go after her!" I wanted to yell at the heroine (the eponymous Eve; the show's title was another promise never kept) who could even then have brought the story to a satisfying conclusion. "She's literally ten seconds ahead of you and she's bleeding out." But no. Somebody else comes in and says, "It's too late. She's gone." And you can almost hear Eve thinking it will go on and on, this chase, like the plot of The Worm Ouroboros, only in this case not because of an elegant reflection of the story's underlying themes but just to ensure ongoing pay packets for those concerned and an endlessly interrupted coitus of spy-porn wankery.

Oh, and Westworld. Great first season. But by the finale they clearly have nowhere interesting left to go, so it ends with the gnawing sense that new rails will be laid in front of the engine forever. It even looks like it's ending on a cliffhanger. That's the worst crime for any ongoing series, if the cliffhanger comes simply as a break in the ongoing plot rather than being a new threat emerging after old strands have been tied up. The show's writers are saying, in effect, that the whole season you thought was going to have a beginning, middle and end has in fact been just the bringing together of pieces so that the real party could begin in season two. Aristotle would punch 'em in the kisser.

But look. It can be done well. Vinyl built up over ten episodes as multiple narrative trains hurtled towards collision. The finale brought all the immediate threats to a conclusion while setting up the basis for another season. Instead of just breaking at the end of the season as though it were just another episode, there is closure there and in the closure the seeds of a new direction. Unfortunately Vinyl never got a second season while less carefully crafted shows hurtle on and on towards the eventual heat death of the medium.

A conscientious writer (Alan Garner, for example; or arguably J Michael Straczynski) won't start until they have the end of the story planned. As Andrew Stanton explains below, it's "knowing your punchline, making sure that everything... is leading to a singular goal". That's why I'd ask every show creator about their ending in the first pitch meeting. If you have a destination in mind, the journey will be much more enjoyable -- and, if the Fates are kind and it turns out the dollars are there for another trip, you'll have satisfied customers queuing up to go again.

Friday, 20 December 2019

How not to script an action climax

Picture this . You’re at a Hollywood pitch meeting: "And as the LEM descends towards the moon, Armstrong has a crisis of confidence. 'I can't do it, Buzz!' he says. But then he has a dream in which he's standing in the Midwest somewhere with a baseball bat, and Chuck Yeager is there dressed as a giant eagle and he's about to pitch the ball. Neil drops the bat, but Chuck tells him to pick it up, he can do it. And as he reaches for the bat we're back on the LEM and he's reaching for the controls. Determined look from Neil, admiring look from Buzz, swelling music, and then we cut to Houston and after a long tense pause: 'The Eagle has landed.'"

That’s terrible writing. Yet it’s the sort of thing that’s all the rage in superhero movies. We’re at the climax and the hero is on the brink of defeat. They go into a dream sequence, get a pep talk from a (usually dead) mentor, then snap back to the present and "with one bound" they’re free and turn the tables on the baddie. Thor: Ragnarok, Captain Marvel, you name it.

To be clear, I'm not complaining about mentors (though they are overused because every screenwriter swears by Joseph Campbell these days), I’m complaining about the interior vision in which the hero is given a boost of wisdom or courage: ‘Here’s your elixir like Campbell talks about on page 497. Now get back and fight.’ It's lazy writing. The dream sequence approach is no different from fixing all the loose ends in a story by dropping a god out of the machinery.

It’s bad writing because it’s telling, not showing. It kills momentum by building to what ought to be a nail-biting moment and suddenly swerving off into a fantasy scene. In effect, rather than crafting the story, the writer is taking a time out to try and convince us why his or her story should work. Those writers are so used to notes and rewrites that they don’t know that’s not how the finished thing should look; it’s as though you arrived at a building and found the only way to the upper storeys was by way of scaffolding left by the builders.

Good writing would be to have already done the work throughout the story so we are able to see the character’s arc leading inevitably to this point. Examples: Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger. Or, returning to the building analogy: put the bloody stairs in.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Talk to the hand

Each week Prof Bromfield and Dr Clattercut roll up their sleeves and plunge into the mail sacks that have arrived at the Royal Mythological Society's offices. (Dame Sepia wisely stays out of it.)

Dear gents

I’m not one for fancy words so I’ll come right to point. I’m the gamekeeper for the Earl of Derby at his Whitley estate. Few days back, there were a right exodus from the woods up by his coverts. Squirrels and birds and mice and frogs, insects too, all come pouring out. You’d think whole forest were aflame. And dead quiet after. I went on me own to take a look, none of the beaters would stir an inch, and you’ve never heard the like of that silence. Right in the heart of wood all the trees were down like skittles, and in the midst were a great gigantic hand, knuckles like boulders and each nail as big as a coal cellar door. Hairs on it like barbed wire. The old dog would have nowt to do with it, no fool him.

It’s just the hand, like, no blood or bone showing. You’d mark it clay but for the plain fact it’s warm flesh. And it lies there, cupped with the palm down, but not limp like a dead ‘un. More like your own hand if it were resting on the arm of a chair, now and then moving just a bit, a twitch or a scratch.

Well, there’s no shooting to be done while it’s there. No wildlife will come within a mile of it, you see, except for adders. And I can’t think what it’d take to move the thing. Any notions?

Yours, Ben Gummer, Great Heck, Yorkshire

Dr Clattercut replies: This is a curiosity indeed. From the scale of the extremity, I think we can surmise it belongs to a giant, god or titan. It is unfortunate, Mr Gummer, that you omit to say whether it is a right or left hand. The god Tyr, of course, famously had his right hand bitten off by the Fenris wolf, whereby the Old Norse word for the wrist was “wolf-joint”.

Prof BromfieldIt would be a bit chewed up in that case, wouldn’t it? Not to mention that Fenris swallowed the hand, so you’d expect to see industrial quantities of wolf poo around. As Mr Gummer specifically says the wrist is clean of blood, I take it to be more in the nature of a supernatural dismemberment. Didn’t the Egyptian god Set use magic to sunder Osiris’s body into fourteen parts?

Dr ClattercutBut none of those parts, I think, would logically turn up now in a wood in Yorkshire. More likely, I feel, the hand is a fragment of one of the giants Gog and Magog, who were disjected by Brutus of Troy when he founded Britain. This could also explain why snakes, which owe their allegiance to older gods, are comfortable in the hand’s presence.

Prof BromfieldAs to the practicalities: it’s obviously too big to get on a cart, even if Mr Gummer could induce the horses to approach it. So what about tickling it with a feather. It’d take a bit of patience, but that way it should be possible to get the hand to twitch and convulse enough to drag itself out of the woods.

Dr ClattercutAnd, always assuming it didn’t flick its tormentor away, unless you would take the trouble to tickle it all the way to the sea that would still only result in a giant hand blocking the road. Personally I’d advise putting a fence around the woods and moving the coverts elsewhere. No doubt it’s a bother, but it’s the lesser of two bothers.

Monday, 10 September 2018

The future back then

I had an odd introduction to Star Trek. Before I even knew the TV show existed, I came across the first ST book by James Blish in the newsagents on Wych Hill in Woking where I used to hang out in the hope of grabbing occasional US imports of Conan and Lin Carter books. The Pokemon Go of its day, that book-hunting. This must have been late '68 or early '69.

OK, so I'd heard of Blish and I figured this was in the same vein as Eric Frank Russell's Men, Martians & Machines. It was only when I got home and read the blurb that I realized the stories were adapted from TV episodes which were not, as it turned out, going to air in Britain until the summer of '69. My mental image of the characters was informed solely by that cover. So I read the stories envisaging Spock as green and Bones looking like an older Jimmy Olsen.

I gave the book to a friend of mine at school who was taken to hospital with rapid-onset diabetes. He and I used to swap Ace Doubles (back-to-back SF books) that you could buy super-cheap in Woolworths back then, so I figured he'd enjoy Star Trek. A few months later the BBC started running the show and all my friends became Trekkers. But I got there first.

With its grown-up storylines and in-built socialist humanism, Star Trek was always going to appeal more to me than the reactionary trend in SF typified by tropes like - well, royalism and mysticism and black-&-white morality and libertarianism. Naming no names. It was another era; an age of reason and hope. We were boldly going together towards a future that never contained the likes of Trump and Brexit.