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Novel Writing – An Update

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Some books. Yesterday.
Some books. Yesterday.

Right now I’m drafting the novel I wrote in the summer of 2015. I’ve posted about this project elsewhere on this site ( a long time ago!), but for now I wanted to update you on my drafting progress.

And I have to say that it’s going rather well.

After putting the first draft away for nearly a year (and a failed submission attempt to Gollancz in early 2016 – more on that perhaps another day), I’ve come back to it with fresh eyes.

That awkward first chapter

The whole first chapter has been ripped out and I’ve started again. In my opinion there was too much in the way of scene setting.

Instead I’ve changed focus, bringing in my lead character immediately. This establishes the story without waffling on about why the Eden (that’s the ship) is in space.

From a narrative perspective it is much better, getting into the story as quickly as possible. I think when I first wrote that opening it was more so I could get a feel for the world I had created more than anything else.

So, in the interests of trying to make sure the reader is entertained (and I include myself in that category), that section will be completely different to the first draft.

The Editing Process

As of this moment I’m also making slow progress on editing the rest of the book. I’ve read through the first draft and there are characters that don’t need to be there. Plus, I’ve written scenes that either don’t make sense or don’t contribute to the plot, or where character motivations aren’t as clear as they need to be. A good start. This links to my piece about first drafts. I know full well that this one was not appropriate for people to see.

My editing process in this instance is relatively simple. I’ve read through each of the chapters and noted down the characters in the scene, the purpose of the scene, and highlighted any inconsistencies – these could be plot, characterisation or anything in the middle.

Then I spent a bit of time away from the draft, jotting down my first thoughts on how to resolve the issues I’d found. For example, I had introduced a highly religious group whose opinions were at odds with the rest of the ship.

Then I introduced another group who would be responsible for widespread damage later on (no spoilers!). On review, iit made sense to combine those two groups into one. It’s a little cliche that the religious group have a background of terrorism, but hopefully I balance that out with a few of the other characters in their group who are not so inclined.

The hurry towards the finishing line

Then there is the final act of the book which, again, I’m not going to spoil for you. In general terms I’m happy with the last couple of chapters, but the climactic moment was lacking. It seemed that the plot was driving the characters rather than the other way around.

It’s also entirely possible that I was hurrying towards the finishing line on the first draft and not giving the narrative the attention it deserved. But then, this is the first full length novel I’ve ever written, so it seemed appropriate to at least finish the draft.

In any case, it was another change that I needed to make. It took quite a while to think up a suitable finale, but I think I got there in the end.

There’s opportunity for strong character moments and a much more interesting action element to it. Both of these things are, arguably, missing in the first draft.

At least I have this first draft as a reference point. For my first attempt at a novel I don’t think it’s that bad on the whole. True, there are some admittedly awkward problems to resolve, but that’s common across most authors I think.

So, now I have to just finish my second draft. Then it’s time to get the story out to beta readers before a final polish. Then I can start thinking about the equally scary prospect of releasing the book into the wild. But of course, if anything of interest happens before then you’ll be the first to know.

Film Review Roundup – 21 August 2016

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Welcome to the first Film Review Roundup!

I used to upload these reviews every day, but that was getting a bit much for both you and me. I’m trying something different going forward, it might make life easier for all of us.

Rather than bombard you with daily posts, I’m now compiling them in, at most, weekly drops. This means I can still write my film reviews as and when I have chance and not worry about maintaining a regular schedule.

The posts will still be available individually, the only difference now is that you won’t get daily updates as I post each one. Much better all round, I’m sure you’ll agree.

In future I’ll do a few themed drops, but this will depend on what I’ve watched recently and/or written up. For now here’s the first batch of links to a few random reviews. Click the title to visit that review.

Fail-Safe (1964)

The threat of nuclear armageddon is explored when an American bomber suffers a technical malfunction and prepares to drop its bombs on Moscow. Released around the same time as Dr Strangelove, this is a chilling take on the subject.

Closer (2004)

Four people cross paths in London and their increasingly complex love lives are explored. This started life as a stage play from one time The Day Today collaborator Patrick Marber. The stage play structure is all too obvious, but otherwise there’s some good performances to enjoy.

Love Streams (1984)

John Cassavetes stars and directs as he focuses on the messed up lives of a brother and sister. It’s an interesting piece, and not necessarily one I would go out of my way to watch again.

Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper and Stephen Spielberg’s supernatural classic. Who actually directed it, though? And, in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? Well, if you’re Tobe Hooper then perhaps, yes.

Hellboy (2004)

A demon is summoned in WW2 but is raised by the good guys. He has to fight undead Nazis and Rasputin. You know, standard.

Love Streams (1984) review

I’ve said before how I don’t fully appreciate John Cassavetes’ work, and Love Streams is no different. There’s something about the features he directed that don’t quite gel with my appreciation of cinema. It’s entirely likely that I misunderstand the purpose of his films, what he’s trying to say in each of them. On the other hand it could be as simple as saying that we don’t get along.

In the case of Love Streams, it feels like a meandering, confused mess. There’s a plot in there somewhere, something about a drunken, cigarette smoking playboy type Robert (Cassavetes) and his genial but equally broken sister Sarah (Rowlands). They haven’t seen each other for years, so their reunion is a bittersweet moment. More so when he immediately gets out of the house and disappears for a short while. To be emotionally close to somebody else is inviting more pain into your life. Better to be distant, to drink, smoke and sleep with a random assortment of women.

The only thing that really stood out for me was the characterisation. There is a real depth to Robert and Sarah at the very least, their sorrow and malaise mixing to form what would otherwise be a nonsensical and completely obtuse production. Sarah’s the opposite of Robert in some respects. She’s coming out of a messy divorce, marriage being a subject that he would never entertain.

But then even this fails in some instances. Robert’s introduction to his son is handled well, but the boy’s reaction to his long absent father is a mess of contradiction. At first he hates him then, after an impromptu trip to Vegas (thus proving Robert is incapable of looking after anybody except himself), and Robert gets a punch in the face from the stepfather, the boy suddenly loves him. I think it was the punch that sealed the deal, but it doesn’t ring true.

In other areas it does work, if only for being completely loopy and off the wall. Sarah returns from one trip with a cavalcade of animals in tow, as if owning them all will somehow fix whatever emotional pain she is experiencing. The answer of course is that it won’t. For most people one pet, perhaps two would be enough to set you on the right path. When you’re basically bringing the whole zoo home with you, something is clearly amiss.

As it happens I’ve watched four Cassavetes films including this one, and it is perhaps my least favourite of the bunch. If it hadn’t been coloured by Cassavetes discovering that he had six months to live then it’s arguable that it wouldn’t have as much character as it does.

Judging by the high praise that Love Streams received in other quarters I am perhaps in the minority in not hailing this as a classic. It has its positive aspects for sure, but ultimately I was left cold, stood on the doorstep peering in and wondering why all of the people inside looked so depressed.

Poltergeist (1982) review

I’ll admit, I did go about this the wrong way round, watching the remake when it came out in 2015 before I’d seen Tobe Hooper’s original. The story and imagery are both things that most are now familiar with. A family are haunted by a poltergeist; the static noise on the television; the house being built on an old gravesite. These have since become significant horror tropes that have been played to death in other pictures.

The fact it’s a PG rated horror film from Tobe Hooper, with Steven Spielberg attached as executive producer, almost goes by you without being noticed. It’s still a scary film, no matter what rating it received.

In context the Tobe Hooper original makes much more sense than the remake, what with it being from the age of VHS, television static and burgeoning commercialisation. It also plays out much better – in the 1980s the structure of the family unit hadn’t changed all that much, not when compared to its structure here and now in 2016.

The special effects, too, are impressive for the era. The touchy feely tree, as I shall now dub it, is particularly impressive, as is the similarly touchy feely clown doll. These are important set pieces, if nothing else than for setting up the horrors to come.

Craig T Nelson and JoBeth Williams are a strong and resilient presence as parents Steve and Diane Freeling, determined to protect their three children from whatever it is that is haunting them. Intrigue at the poltergeist’s ability to stack furniture and move objects from one side of the kitchen to the other is soon replaced by terror as youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is abducted and taken to the other side.

Communicating with Carol Anne through the television, a group of paranormal investigators are brought in to try and recover her and return her to her family. It’s another thing that has since become a genre trope, but here it feels fresh.

Zelda Rubinstein is a wonderful presence in the story, a tiny, squeaky voiced presence as the paranormal expert intending to get Carol Anne back to this world. As great as Jared Harris is (in general and in the remake), Rubinstein is just better for this character. Time hasn’t been kind in that she’s been parodied left, right and centre, but that if nothing else shows how important a role and a film this was.

It’s not necessary for us to travel through to the other side and see what lurks there – the power of the imagination makes it all the more horrifying a notion. It’s a classic Spielberg approach to the unknown.

And on that note it raises an interesting point. Historically there’s a discussion around who truly directed Poltergeist. Did Spielberg ghost direct the film (no pun intended), or was it a full-on Tobe Hooper venture? It’s an argument that’s inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, especially when you take into account the tragically early deaths of both of the actors playing the daughters.

Still, with that unfortunate situation to one side, Poltergeist is a classic of the genre.

Hellboy (2004) review

Hellboy began life in the pages of a Dark Horse comic written and drawn by Mike Mignola, a demon baby brought to Earth but rescued by the forces of good and tasked with protecting the world from evil. With Guillermo del Toro at the helm, 2004 saw the release of a live action film featuring the character. And an enjoyable film it was, too.

We meet Hellboy on his first arrival on Earth during World War 2, an unexpected addition to our world after the plan of Rasputin (you know, the mad monk) to bring forth a demon from another realm and instigate Hell on Earth goes wrong. Standard villainy, right there. His initial efforts are thwarted and the story picks up decades later in the present. Hellboy is now working for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) alongside the fishy Abe Sapien and the fiery Liz Sherman (Selma Blair).

Ron Perlman, a regular collaborator with del Toro, is perfectly cast as Hellboy. He is sardonic and generally insecure, yet more than capable of being an action hero. Unless another Ron Perlman emerges, he is almost exclusively the only person capable of playing character in my book. Rather cannily, the fact he is a big, red demon is almost of no importance. Hellboy that is, not Ron Perlman.

Del Toro is a notable director for both his extensive attention to detail and bringing to life the wild reaches of his imagination, and Hellboy is yet another example of how creative his mind can be. Much of the film is presented in a washed out, grim and grimy vision of the world, stemming from those initial scenes of Hellboy’s discovery during World War 2.

The supporting cast are no less excellent. His voice may be dubbed over by Frasier’s David Pierce Kelley, but it’s the live action performance from Doug Jones that brings resident water dweller Abe Sapien to life. Thankfully he was allowed to voice his own dialogue in the second film. Selma Blair is Liz Sherman, a woman who has telekinetic powers that have a tendency to get a bit… fiery. Our way into this world is through Rubert Evans’ turn as John Myers, an FBI agent who joins the agency and has a thing for Liz. That gets awkward because so does Hellboy. That’s not going to end well.

More often than not this sort of film is let down by a lacklustre villain. Not so here. In fact you get three for your money. The mad monk Rasputin, Ilsa von Haupstein and Karl Kroenen. I’ll throw in Sammael as well for giggles, the hell demon who has the ability to re-spawn and multiply after every death.

It is, thankfully, an example of a comic book adaptation that has everything working for it. In terms of cast, script, director and visual flair. It’s dark when it needs to be, but always remembers to balance this out with a cracking fantasy adventure story and real depth to the characters.

Fail-Safe (1964)

The threat of nuclear armageddon was a very real thing throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century, what with the United States and the USSR stockpiling enough nuclear missiles to guarantee mutually assured destruction at the slightest provocation.

And so the plot of Fail-Safe was a genuine possibility back in the 1960s, if not quite for the same reasons depicted here. There’s even a message at the end of the film from the US government stating that such a technical glitch would never have occurred. In any case, it was a scary prospect indeed.

Adapted from the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, this Sidney Lumet directed cold war thriller sees an electrical error give a US bomber plane the appropriate codes to begin a bombing run on Moscow.

I could wax lyrical about the cast here. Walter Matthau, Henry Fonda, Dom DeLuise, Larry Hagman… All great in their own way.

The droll Walter Matthau as Groet… Groetes… that political scientist guy is superb. He’s a realist, not driven by emotion. It’s arguable that his cold world view is just as dangerous to the situation than the more emotive views held by those in power. In fact it seems to be the military’s position that to engage in any aggressive manner is tantamount to destroying the world.

Dom DeLuise I only mention because he would later go on to bigger things (mostly comedic) but here he’s in a bit part role. Likewise, Larry Hagman would go on to wide fame but here puts in a solid performance as a translator for the President, played by Henry Fonda.

It’s clear why Mubi paired this up with Dr Strangelove. Both films cover miscommunication that could result in nuclear war. Both films are classics from the period, but they differ in that Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies whereas Fail-Safe plays it completely seriously.

While it mostly consists of lots of men standing around looking at display screens with concern on their faces (no women – this was 1964 after all), there’s increasing tension as the unwittingly rogue craft gets closer to Russian borders. Some of the better moments come from a telephone call, of all things – one in which we only see the President’s side of the discussion. At no point do we jump over to Moscow to see their side of things. We hear snatches of conversation, interpreted by Hagman’s character, as negotiations become more tense.

It asks a lot of very pertinent questions about the strength of the Communist belief system, the moral implications of unwittingly attacking the Russians first, whether retaliation is likely to take place or if surrender will occur. It also provides a genuinely surprising ending, one that has an incredible amount of power to it. What lengths would our leaders go to in order to avert a full scale nuclear war? There is always an element of compromise, as horrifying as that might seem. It is this message that gives Fail-Safe its power.