Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Ten rules for writing fiction

These aren't my rules. They have very little to do with me. But I do agree with them. They're good rules. This isn't the sort of blog where you'll read about the magical essence of being a writer, and I have no interest in suffering for any art. I just write stories sometimes, and sometimes advice is needed. This week some newspaper or other asked authory types what their rules were. There's a long list. Some are philosophical. Some are sensible. I've put my favourites down here.
  1. Only bad writers think their work is really good. - Anne Enright
  2. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. - Elmore Leonard
  3. Do not search Amazon for the book you haven't written yet. - Roddy Doyle
  4. To use an adverb is a mortal sin. - Elmore Leonard
  5. Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. - Elmore Leonard
  6. It's doubtful anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. - Jonathan Franzen
  7. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Ask a friend or two to read it. - Margaret Atwood
  8. Never use the words 'suddenly' or 'all hell broke loose'. I have noticed that writers who use 'suddenly' tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points. - Elmore Leonard
  9.  Don't go into detail describing places and things. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill. - Elmore Leonard
  10. Fiction that it isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money. -  Jonathan Franzen
The rest are here. 

Monday, 22 February 2010

Prawns vs. monkeys

District 9 starts off with some big, meaty themes. Aliens being segregated from humans. Treated like savages but having more intelligence than their oppressors. Through the eyes of the 'documentary' camera the aliens are the enemy, the audience is given a narrow view. These are dangerous, viscous 'prawns'. But if the film is telling us that humans are basically bad, then we can't trust what the documentary crew are showing us. Humans are bad and the aliens are victims. Probably. And all this is happening in South Africa, so somebody could write a clever essay about it. I was just interested to see that, given the chance to be the oppressors rather than the suppressed, humans don't do a better job than evil aliens would. This is what would happen if aliens turned up.

Then the film changes. The idiotic, comedy character of the first twenty minutes turns into a action hero. Everyone is after him. His first scenes seem completely disconnected from his real character. But then getting sprayed with alien DNA fluid would make anyone a bit moody. And the action's good too. With the weight of the situation behind it, every laser-splattered guard is more entertaining. It was interesting to think that, as the protagonist jumps inside a huge mecha-suit, how different it was to Transformers. There's a big robot with guns but there's a real character inside it. Turns out that robots can be fun.

The style is confusing though. It starts as a 'documentary' but then changes, without anyone noticing, into a proper 'film' film. Occasionally the documentary will pop back up, with shady executives talking straight to the camera, but it's mainly just done conventionally. Surely it has to be one or the other. I thought they were going to run with the 'can we trust what the camera is showing us' angle, but it moved away from that. Admittedly a lot of the film wouldn't have worked as a 'documentary', and it is almost seamless. It's just confusing, that's all. But apart from that - good film.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

how to be god - Episode 5

The curse has been lifted

The cat that was killed by curiosity and not complacency has lifted its curse. I've put the cursed dialogue into an episode without anything going wrong. Episode five of how to be god is done. It's been filmed. It's been edited. And it's looking nice. No longer the rubbish 'sitcom' episode or the one where people hide in the boiler room. This has story and characters and significance. Everything that the first few drafts were missing. Admittedly I'm the only person who's seen it, but I'm confident it'll survive my co-producer's scrutiny. This episode has been holding us down for too long. There's a story to tell here. I can't afford any more reshoots.

Remember episode four? That was ages ago. We made the next one on a wave of confidence and didn't notice that it wasn't any good. So I rewrote it and then rewrote it again. Now I have it. If all goes to plan the episode will be around these parts soon.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

He's turning into a bird

Sigur Rós music videos are good. But I've only recently disovered that the creative force behind them might come from elsewhere. Arni and Kinski, who I can find hardly any trace of on the internet, have directed six Sigur Rós videos, including 'Glósóli' and 'Viðrar vel til Loftárása'. They seem to have a visual bond with the band and are responsible for the vibrant energy that makes up most of the videos (they didn't direct Heima, but you can't have everything). Now they've directed Jónsi's new solo single, 'Go Do'. Above all else, they seem to have turned him into a bird.

The sheer amount of stuff they fit into these four minutes is incredible. Barely half a second goes by without jumping into the next shot. Intricately designed but also chaotic and unpredictable. All with a visual style that I can only dream of at the moment. I'm still not entirely convinced by the song, but I do enjoy the animal theme. The stage show will be full of them, with animation and art falling out of his ears. It's all shaping up nicely. Watch the video here.

Friday, 12 February 2010

How to infiltrate a film festival

I submitted Talk to Hoshuu to a film festival. It wasn't accepted. I couldn't get in through the front door so I snuck in using a cunning disguise. I became staff. One of the volunteers who has to keep the whole thing going. I didn't win any awards but I did get to look important. Strut around the place with a pass and hope nobody expects to actually know anything about the festival. And the thought occurred to me, while sitting in a dimly lit projection room, that I could easily pop my own film into the DVD player. Nobody would notice. They'd just think it was part of the 'International Experimental' screening. I didn't, because I didn't have it on me, and because I'm not, you know, evil. I was showing some pretty good shorts, nobody needed to be confused by mine.

I also got to sit in on the awards ceremony that I wasn't part of. After standing by the doors for a bit I went in and sat at the back. Interesting but also a bit subdued. The amount of people who don't turn up to collect their own award is a bit confusing. Especially since it's a big shiny transparent glassy thing. All deserving winners but not as good as mine. I'm joking, Of course I'm joking. Yes.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

No Mandyville for The Wire

I've written before about how impressive The Wire is. But having just finished watching the fourth season, I've gone into whole new realms of appreciation. The obvious thing to write about here is how every season builds up to a captivating finale, but the really impressive thing is how every season builds on the last. Literally nothing is forgotten. No character or plot thread ever goes to Mandyville. It's like one 60-hour long episode. Every season actually deals with different situations and investigations, but it always feels like a progression of the same story. I occasionally find myself rewinding a scene just to watch it again. Not because I didn't understand it, but because it's that good.

The fourth season looks at children's place in Baltimore. The four boys - Dukie, Namond, Randy and Michael - all find adopted fathers - Prez, Colvin, Carver, Chris. It is the success of these fathers to look after the boys that contributes to the 'Final Grades' of the last episode. Some boys have the ability to be gangsters and murderers, other's don't. Others are just lovably pathetic. The portrayal of the school is also disturbingly realistic. It seems that Maths class is the same in Baltimore as it is in Wales (just with more knifing). Outside the 'ordered' classroom the streets are being ruled by a cold new drug king, who's doing away with the old code and making his own rules. It's the inability of some of the 'old' gangsters to adjust to the new climate that makes up another interesting thread.

Which brings me a statement that I find a bit troubling. Something that changes what I've always believed. I might regret this. I might have nightmares about it. But here it is: The West Wing is the best television ever. But so is The Wire.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Who's afraid of episode five?

Yesterday I wrote that I was going to re-shoot parts of episode five to get it 'right'. But now, the night before shooting, I have decided to rewrite the entire episode. It is now completely different. No more silly sitcom episode. No more narrative hole. The new episode five keeps the story flowing with a nice dollop of mild drama and jokes about death. The night before shooting the script I sat down and wrote it off the top of my head. This is not advisable. There's a nice creative urgency about it though. Every other episode was written about three months earlier. This one is barely a few hours old. I'm confident that is has everything that the 'wrong' five was missing. It will work this time.

This brings the number of ditched episodes to two. Two whole episodes that weren't good enough. They sit in the corner and cry. To add to their problems, I'm pretty sure they're cursed. They both feature one of my favourite bits of dialogue, something that I've been trying to fit into an episode since we started. It goes like this:
"Complacency killed the cat."
"Wasn't that curiosity?"
"Well the cat's dead. Just think about that."
I don't trust cats. Cats don't like me. This is their revenge. Cursing anything I put this dialogue into. Which includes this post. And the new episode five.

Monday, 8 February 2010

The problem with episode 5

Episode five is meant to be here by now. It really is. But after watching it, and watching it again, we have decided that it isn't good enough. Yet. Certain things have to be re-shot. Certain things have to be re-written. It turns out the easy 'comedy' episode is one of the hardest to get right. Without any drama we're relying on these jokes to keep the show going, and without the right pace and the right delivery, there's no point in showing it to anybody. Have I dug myself into a narrative hole here? Am I delaying the story by five minutes for no good reason? Only reshoots will tell.

Some things to consider for episode five:
  • Is Dylan actually insane? Rewrites suggest he's not.
  • Why is Wash eating so many custard creams?
  • Why does nobody care about Gareth?
  • Can there be comedy in a boiler room?
  • How many lines can I plagiarise from The West Wing?
It will all come together. And then on to episode six. Which is considerably more beautiful.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Jónsi's getting louder

With most of Sigur Rós busy with babies and sleeping, there won't be any new album this year. Jónsi has decided to take this time to release songs that he has 'collected over the years'. His upcoming solo album looks to be the polar opposite to the quiet ambience of last year's Jónsi & Alex album. This is energetic and 'ecstatic' music, pounding and joyous. Interestingly, he originally intended the project to be an acoustic album but was convinced to go 'out of his comfort zone' and write something louder. After hearing an acoustic version of the song 'Go Do' on a radio podcast, and then hearing the album version, I'm slightly concerned that these songs have been needlessly converted into 'big' versions. The acoustic version is nice, the album track a little bit too 'dancey'. I shouldn't worry though. The other track I've heard, 'Boy Lilikoi', is great. Full of all the vibrancy that you'd expect.

And now he's singing in English (not for long hopefully) it's easy to get an insight into what the album is actually about. I'll quote a reviewer who's actually heard the whole thing - 'If there's a theme to be found in the lyrics of Go, it must be that life is fleeting and is here to be enjoyed...It is soulful, fun, naïve and sad in its own fantastical world; if only life really were this good. This is a record that will make you believe it could be.' (musicOMH). I can't argue with that. No complaints at all. The album is released in April. I expect, because these Icelandic people never let me down, that it'll be wonderful.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

There's something in the boiler room

Most of how to be god episode five is all filmed up. I tried to write this as 'the sitcom episode'. Unlike the others this is a real-time episode that's filmed entirely inside the house. It's inspired by the best episodes of Frasier, where someone is running around trying to hold everything together. Obviously it's still five minutes long, but it has a single focus. There aren't four plot threads going on at once.

There's not even any drama. Death isn't mentioned and nobody gets punched. But unfortunately for these characters this is also the last episode before everything goes downhill. The last one where they're all happy. Which is a shame. I'm hoping that the comedy won't disappear entirely in the later episodes, but I might struggle to fit in the jokes. If you've watched the first four, you're probably thinking that they aren't happy at all. They are. They just don't ever show it. A lot of the show is based around the characters not saying what they're really thinking until it's (probably) too late.

Episode five is also called the 'what's in the boiler room?' episode.Could be anything really. It's making sounds. It's good to use obscure rooms in the house. Especially if they're warm and you can lock your cast in there.