Sunday, 27 April 2014

Food For Thought (literally)

What if books were food?

Okay, it is a strange question to ask, but bear with me on this one.

Starting at the top, literary fiction would belong in a Michelin starred restaurant. Here would be the prestigious prize winners and favourites of highbrow critics everywhere. Though with their complex flavours they are certainly an acquired taste and not suitable for all.

Next we have the wide ranging realm of popular publishing. Whether it be a gourmet pub, a roadside cafe or a good, mid-level restaurant, there is something to cater for all tastes and we expect a certain level of quality for our cash. The downside is that with quality control, comes standardisation. As a chef can only cook what is on the menu, it is the publishers and not the authors who have the final artistic say.

Supplemental to the restaurant trade is the fast food industry and this represents the tackier side of publishing. There are successful authors whose name has become nothing more than a brand - a franchise. They produce books at the rate of a dozen a year, using "co-authors" (or ghostwriters) to keep up with demand. It is trashy with no nutritional value whatsoever, yet also highly addictive and consumed by unfussy eaters and readers alike.

Then there is self publishing. Nothing beats a good home cooked meal. Unless, of course, a person cannot cook. This is the area with the most potential, but for disaster as well as success. When it is done well, it can rival or even surpass the food on offer in any restaurant. When it is done badly, it can be so bad that had this food been served in a restaurant, the place would be closed down.

So the next time you are looking for something to read, why not treat it like hunger. Do you want to try something new or stick to what has been tried and tested? Do you want something that is good for you, or just something that tastes good? And finally, is it fair trade - do you want to support the farmers or the supermarkets?

I hope you found this post interesting. If so, you can sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two lovingly home cooked novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are suitable for vegetarians*. Please click on the links for full nutritional information.

* May contain nuts.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Connecting With the Literary Past

In the UK, there is a scheme whereby places linked to famous/historical figures are marked with a commemorative blue plaque. The main criteria for inclusion is that the place has a strong link to the person (ie - they were born/lived there) and that the person has been dead for 20 years or passed the centenary of their birth.

There are several in my home city of Portsmouth and in each case, I came about them by chance, whilst on my travels around the city. Quite fittingly (for me, at least) these include some notable literary greats.

The first plaque that I found is located just a two minute walk from my front door and it marks the childhood home of Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book.

He and his sister lived at this address with a couple who took care of the children of British nationals serving in India. Though the house proudly wears the blue plaque as a badge of honour, Kipling himself did not look upon this place quite so fondly.

In the author's own words: "I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this was calculated torture—religious as well as scientific. Yet it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell: and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort" (Kipling, Rudyard (1935). "Something of myself". public domain.)

So for what are not-quite-the-right reasons, the place did leave an impression on the would be author. Though not a positive influence, it was an influence nonetheless.

The next notable residence I came to was the birthplace of actor and comedian, Peter Sellers (perhaps most famous for playing Inspector Clouseau, as well as being a part of The Goon Show).

Most people are born in a hospital or at home, in keeping with his surreal Goon Show persona, Mr Sellers was born in a Chinese Restaurant (although it may have been converted after the event - I have not checked).

Unlike with Kipling, this time there are no negative connotations associated with the childhood home, although again, it did shape their future career. Peter Sellers made his stage debut at the King's Theatre in Southsea when he was just 2 weeks old!

The next and most notable of the blue plaques in Portsmouth is dedicated to the early childhood home of a writer second only in fame, to Shakespeare and that is Charles Dickens.

Despite the fact that his family moved to London very soon after his birth and that the man himself failed to locate the house upon returning as an adult (I cannot think how he failed - it is extremely well signposted), the house has been converted into a museum and is a local tourist attraction.

And although Dickens had no memory of the place, the city itself does to this day suffer from many of the social problems that he highlighted and strove to change through his writing. Only recently, the naval dockyards closed, adding to what was already one of the UK's worst employment black spots.

He does at least add a certain amount of pride to the city and his literary legacy is often used to promote the arts within the city.

Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (creator of television's Sherlock and US spin-off Elementary) also has strong ties to the city, but if he has a plaque - I could not find it. However, any article on famous former Portsmouth residents would not be complete without a reference to the most legendary of all. Sadly, there is no blue plaque this time. This is for several reasons; the person is still alive, they are not British and finally, it may just be a legend. I did, at least, find the following mural, painted on what I assume to be a disused public toilet block.

It is, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator lived and trained in the city for a brief period in the seventies. Now THAT is a famous resident.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Trilogy vs Ongoing Series

I recently took a break from blogging (and pretty much everything else, apart from work) in order to concentrate on completing the first draft of my fourth novel. The fact I am writing this, confirms that the extra effort paid off. The (as yet untitled) sequel to Diamond Sky has now been put aside, to allow me some distance before beginning the redrafting process. There is still a lot of work to do on this one. Possibly more than on any of my previous books.

My first two novels, The Outback and Stealing Asia, were standalone thrillers. They each contained neatly resolved conclusions and more importantly, the character arcs were fully developed. As well as the story, each character also had their own beginning middle and end. This was particularly satisfying, because as every good writer knows, a story is about the characters, plot is merely what happens to them.

Now  that I am midway into penning my first trilogy, I am beginning to see how problems can arise regarding character development over multiple novels. Diamond Sky was original a single story, but when I finished it, I realised that there was still a great deal of story waiting to be told beyond the books 400 pages. This was not so much about extending the plot, but more to do with continuing the journey of the characters.

When working on the follow up, I sometimes found myself writing too much plot and too little character. The problem was that I knew my returning characters too well. They had already been introduced in the earlier novel and I also knew that (some of them) would be coming back in the next, so that took my focus off providing them with a beginning and an end. This is bad. A static character is a weak character. Many of these problems have now been addressed, but I still have a great deal of rewriting ahead of me to get the character arcs right. We cannot allow familiarity to fester. Our characters must constantly be challenged in ways that develop our understanding of them.

To better illustrate the above points, I will use some examples from popular culture. Where better to start than with superhero movies. At the moment, Marvel dominates and that is because they seem to have hit upon a magic formula (although this will run its course). Previously, however, the dominant superhero on film was Batman and the studios certainly did not get it right first time.

The original (modern era) Batman movie starred Michael Keaton as the eponymous hero and pitted him against Jack Nicholson's Joker. It was not an origin tale as such, but it did have a strong character arc in the way that it tied the villain to Bruce Wayne's past and more specifically, the murder of his parents. The follow-ups, each with differing lead actors, lacked this depth and they became increasingly dull as all they did was insert a different super villain into the same formulaic plot for domination of Gotham. This all changed when Christopher Nolan took over the franchise.

Batman Begins represented a new way of telling the superhero story. It was no longer intended as an ongoing series of unrelated plot lines, but had become a pre-planned trilogy with a neat beginning, a middle and an end. As anybody who has seen The Dark Knight Rises can attest, the full story has now been told. The character arc is complete and although Christian Bale's Batman did not get to face The Penguin or the Riddler, there is simply no way to bring him back and tell a satisfactory character driven story, which ties in with the trilogy.

A similar process is evidenced in the Tobey Maguire Spiderman series. The first film has our hero develop his powers, in the second he becomes jaded and weary and in the third he is arrogant and turns into his own worst enemy. By the end of the trilogy his character arc has come to its natural conclusion. Sure, there would always be an endless line of new and bigger villains for him to battle, but the essence of the story is already gone. That is why the series needed a reboot. A new Spiderman has a new story, but Spiderman 4 would have been no story at all.

With the two examples above, we also have the case where the third film not only follows directly from the second, but has just as strong a link to the first. With Batman this centres around Ra's Al Ghul and his daughter. With Spiderman, it relates to the murder of Peter Parker's uncle, Ben. Essentially, what this means is that to produce an effective sequence of films, the movies must all relate to one another rather than merely the adjoining in the sequence.

What about longer, ongoing (even never ending series)? James Bond springs to mind. Here, opinions will greatly differ (everyone has their favourite Bond), but for me, all of the movies before Daniel Craig were pretty terrible from a writer's perspective (note - I am not saying they did not entertain from a viewer's perspective). With Connery, Moore, Lazenby, Dalton and Brosnan, there was no character development. It was all empty calories. It was only when Daniel Craig took the part that the character actually became interesting. Now we had a story instead of a series of interchangeable formulaic plots.

Casino Royale was an origin tale in that it introduced Craig's Bond to the world of international espionage and it was not an easy transition for our hero. He was tortured, conflicted and the man who ended the movie was not the same as the man who began it. The fights scarred his body, the women scarred his heart and the killing scarred his soul. This was real story telling. Onto the sequel, Quantum of Solace, and again we find a character in continual flux. Bond was left jaded from the events of the earlier film and this influences how he conducts himself in the second. By the end of the movie, he has finally overcome his demons and another arc has been scaled. In Skyfall, we begin with a Bond who at first appears to be the finished article, but again the character undergoes a great deal of change (both internally and externally). He loses his fitness, his confidence and his motivation. In rebuilding all of these things he has to undertake a journey that leaves us once again, with a very different man at the end of the novel to the one who began it. You never got this with Roger Moore. It also brings his relationship with Judi Dench's 'M' full circle, thus tying Skyfall to Casino Royale. Where Bond will go from here, I am not too sure. Perhaps a fresh face and another reboot may be on the cards.

Of course, this is not to say that stories cannot extend beyond a trilogy. Harry Potter was composed of seven books (eight movies) and that managed to continually develop the characters. Of course, this again is down to the fact that it was always conceived as a finite story. A lot of people are crying out for more Harry Potter, but what would that give them? The books were about a very specific character arc. They begin with a young boy starting school with a scar inflicted by an evil foe and end with the boy, now a man, leaving school having defeated the one who gave him the scar. There is no continuation of that story. It has been told in full. Any further adventures of the boy wizard would never recapture the essence of the original story line.

I am sure that anybody reading will be trying to think of exceptions to these rules and I am sure that there are many. Indiana Jones springs to mind. Taking only the original trilogy, we can at once see that none of the films are interrelated. They were not even told in chronological order (Temple of Doom, though the second in the series, was set a year before the events in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Unlike with the pre-Craig Bond era, there is at least character development within each movie.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is pitted against the perfect nemesis in Belloq. This character is similar to the hero in so many ways and throughout the course of the movie, we see the very thin line that separates the two being drawn. In Temple of Doom, the hero sets off on the trail of "fortune and glory", but comes to respect a higher power and meaning along the way. Last Crusade then takes us into the history of the intrepid adventurer and develops a growing relationship with his estranged father. Though the trilogy as a whole is not cohesive, there is some meat to each individual component.

Of course, I cannot pretend that Indiana Jones ended as a trilogy. There is also Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to factor into all of this. Many did not like this movie, but in a way, it is the one with the strongest characterisation. As with Batman and Spiderman, the final installment relates back to the first. Indy is reunited with Marion and the relationship is complicated and developed by the introduction of a son that only one of the pair was aware of. It may not be to everyone's taste, but there was at least a story there that does add some value.

Perhaps a good way to test the level of characterisation within a series would be to take up all of the movies or books and give them a good shuffle. If one cannot put them back into correct order easily, then I would say that the characterisation has been weak as we are not seeing any measurable growth over the course of the series. You could even do something similar by writing down each major event in your own life and then mixing them up. As you put them back together, you will see how there is a natural order and that each event has in some way been influenced and shaped by those before it. So it should be in fiction.

This brings me back to Diamond Sky. I want to tell a story that has depth and is ultimately satisfying to the reader. I think it will take three novels to do that. Any more, and I am no longer developing the story, but merely prolonging it. Sure, I could always come up with another plot, but like I stated earlier, it is character that counts. Like many things in life, we should not tell a story simply because we can. We should tell a story because it needs to be told. Any more, is too much.

Diamond Sky is now back in my hands after having a more objective pair of eyes go over it. I am currently working on some editorial suggestions and it will be ready for release in the coming weeks. It is my most ambitious work yet and centres around a team of scientists in the Australian outback that are conducting experiments in astral projection. More details and teaser excerpts to appear on this blog soon.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.