Monday, 24 September 2007

The Dark Has Risen

I learned the other day of an imminent film entitled The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. A glance at the poster made me excited: it was clearly an adaptation of Susan Cooper’s classic. Don’t ask me why, but film adaptations of favourite books always make me wide-eyed in anticipation. Actually, do ask me why. Why?? Experience should have taught me to dread such things. It looks as if I am right to dread “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” (“Even the smallest of lights… shines in the darkness”).

To be fair on me (and you should be) I blame Peter Jackson. He bucked the trend of lame literary adaptations in the most spectacular fashion. After “The Lord of the Rings” it seems less unreasonable to expect classic fantasies to make it to the screen more or less intact. Jackson may have changed as much as he preserved, but he nailed his colours to the spirit of the original story, defiant in the face of forces under which most directors would have crumbled. Jackson knew that the spirit of the story was his greatest ally. Not so the makers of The Seeker. No, they’re after the mass market.

But… butbutbut… hang on. I was just talking about “The Lord of the Rings”. One of the most financially successful film trilogies in the history of history. A hit with both the critics and the paying public. You don’t get more mass-market than the Rings. Surely it set a precedent? Surely it proved that to sell tickets you don’t need to pander to an outdated Hollywood rulebook, just take a well-loved text and bring it to the screen as best you can? And, for the love of almighty Bob, surely it demonstrated that you don’t have to feed your young hero lines like the following: “I’m supposed to save the world? I don’t even know how to talk to girls!” No, I didn’t make that up. I wish I had.

Before I get into the horror of imagining young Will Stanton on the pull, I want to try and crack this mystery. It has been proved categorically that you can make ultra-commercial cinema by a broad faithfulness to literary sources. Yet the same old tired mistakes continue to be made. Why, when you have an existing fan base that must total millions worldwide, do you start off by alienating the lot of them? Why, when they could be your greatest free marketing tool? (“Go and see this film! It’s based on this great book, here, borrow it, read it, then go and see it.”) But no, the enigmatic, introspective Will is replaced by a walking cliché, an American teen with a messed-up family and (oh the originality) girl problems. (Ain’t nothing wrong with Americans, of course, but I notice they’ve still got a Brit as the baddie. Could it get any more Epic Movie?) He has to be a teen, of course, because an 11-year-old protagonist might alienate that vast teenage audience (strangely this logic didn’t apply to Harry Potter). Also, if Will is 13, they can give him that all-important lurve-interest. Welcome to the final statement from the bankrupt Hollywood imagination. Let’s graft adult problems onto juvenile protagonists, because we’re too dim to remember what it was really like to be a child.

Oh, I’m sure the film will be great fun. I haven’t seen it and would love to be proved wrong. I’m sure that if it retains even a trace of the original Cooper mythology it will have something going for it, and, well, Christopher Ecclestone is always fantastic. I’m just puzzled, that’s all. Why take a classic novel, tear out its heart and replace it with canned spam? I suggest that some books, like many old buildings in the UK, should be classed as “listed”, with certain renovations that are simply not allowed.

p.s. The film rights to “The Cat Kin” are available if anyone wants ‘em.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Answer the five questions... best you can. I don’t often pick up on memes, but I too thought I'd play 7-Imp's Trudy White inspired Could You? Would You? game.

How would someone find you in a crowd?
Assuming mobile phones are not allowed (too obvious) you’d have to get inside my head. What is this crowd for? If it’s to see a mesmerising prog rock band, start looking near the front. If it’s for the January sales, assume I’m not there at all.

If your house had a secret room, what would be in there?
If I told you, it wouldn’t be secret, would it? Oh, all right. I’d definitely put my writing desk in there. Boring I know. I would also keep spares of all the things that get lost, like a stapler, a hairbrush and anything smaller than a car.

Where do you like to walk from your house?
There is a great expanse of meadow near my house that leads to a path along the River Lea. It’s my favourite part of town.

How will you change when you grow up?
I haven’t changed, I just hide it better in public. Admittedly I am a lot taller.

What sort of animal would you like to be?
Do I get to keep my human brain so I can appreciate it? An eagle then (with a necessarily bulbous head… which probably precludes flight… er, scratch that). Hmm. It’s hard to move beyond the obvious, a domestic cat. They have got it so made. In fact they must be the pinnacle of evolution. Unconditional love, food, shelter, sleep, medical care – right down to the promise of euthanasia – and what do they have to do? NOTHING.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

How do you like these apples?

The never-ending process of revising a book…

I’m not a gardener, but this fact interests me: when you have a fruit tree that starts to bud with fruit, it’s good practice to pluck off all the smaller ones before they are ripe, so that the most promising ones can grow even bigger and better.

That’s what I’m trying to do with the draft of my latest book. It’s a fruit tree. Ergo: leave only the most promising apples and prune off all the lesser ones that would sap their strength.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Rule 3, glue and the gecko’s foot

I was listening to a radio programme about glue last night. I got stuck halfway through. Only joking. Actually the glue programme was real. At first I was fascinated by their sheer nerve: putting on such a dull-sounding discussion. Of course, it was anything but dull.

Apparently glue isn’t particularly sticky. Everything is sticky. Glue just has its molecules assembled in such a way that their stickiness can be felt. It got me thinking (oh, I have such a one-track mind) about stories, as usual. I was simultaneously reading a Stephen King, you see, and I noticed that King’s words were having a similar glue-like effect on my brain. Why were they sticking? What makes stories stick?

My Rule 3 of writing is more of a reminder: Fiction is memory. What I mean, I think, is that fiction isn’t an imitation of reality. It’s an imitation of memory. Fiction isn’t anything like reality, which is full of extra gumph that is irrelevant or tedious. But fiction is like our memory of reality. We construct our memories like stories – and, by the same token, the stories we read stay in our heads like fabricated memories.

I believe this is because both memory and fiction are constructed not of events, but of meanings. We remember what has meaning for us. Suppose you live near a wood. You won’t remember any random tree. But you might remember the biggest, oldest oak. If this oak has someone’s name carved in it, you’ll remember it more. If it was you who did the carving, the significance is greater still. And even greater if you carved it with your childhood sweetheart. So we have a scale of significance, from weak to very strong: tree>oak>oldest oak>my oak>OUR OAK. Towards the top end of the scale, you could imagine it playing a part in a real story. E.g. “Let’s meet up at Mike’s Oak.”

If you read Stephen King’s best work (I’m now reading “Lisey’s Story”), you find the text absolutely alive with details like this. Nothing is flat; everything juts out from the page gluey with meaning. These are the details you are likely to remember; they stick to your mind, like those sticking-out molecules in the glue. Apparently, one of the stickiest things in nature (apart from a stick) is the foot of the gecko. It sticks to anything, even glass, because it has thousands of tiny hairs that use the adhesive force between molecules. Mind-blowing or what.

The best writing acts like the gecko’s foot. (Yes, I know I come up with some weird comparisons). Only the thousands of tiny hairs are the little details, the observations of character and everyday life, that stand out from the page and turn a smooth, flat text into something that grips you like superglue. Maybe that’s what they mean by a gripping story.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Shark tales

As mentioned in an earlier post, I have three writing rules:

  1. It’s all about the people, stupid.
  2. Always entertain.
  3. Fiction is memory.

Point 2 I sort of explain in the post about wrapping paper. Point 3 I will probably come to at some future time. Today I feel like looking at the least cryptic of the three, Point 1. And I plan to look at it through the medium of a rubber shark.

Everyone loves the film Jaws. Well, I do at least. Yet at heart it’s just another monster movie. Aside from the Durham, Durham theme music, I believe that one of the things that made this potential B-movie into a classic was its attention to character. If you really care about the people, you stop noticing that the main threat to them is rubbery and strangely unconvincing. (Just compare the more recent film Deep Blue Sea, with its hyper-real CGI sharks… I had to struggle to remember its title, which tells you all you need to know about it.)

The scene in Jaws that most people remember (that doesn’t involve sharks, blood or Ben Gardener’s verdigrisly corpse) is simplicity itself. It’s the “Show me the way to go home…” scene. Brody, Hooper and Quint are sitting in the cabin drinking and talking. This scene is full of character moments that turn the carnage to come into real human drama, as opposed to mere fishy spectacle.

The highlight of their drunken chat is where the macho Quint and the nerdy Hooper are comparing their scars. The irony is that they are surprisingly evenly matched. At first it looks as if Brody can’t join in (Brody with his water phobia is unlikely to have many shark bites to date). But then he tentatively exposes a scar on his torso, only to change his mind and hide it. This fleeting gesture tells a whole story in itself. The scar is (we presume) a gunshot wound from his former life as a city cop, which is what sent him out here to Amity in the first place, in search of a quiet, safe life (ho the irony). It reminds us that there are sharks on land too, that Brody is equal at least to his shipmates, and in fact probably outdoes them as a survivor (an important plot point). But crucially, unlike them he won’t brag about his scar, because he is also a family man and thus values his life more. For him, life and death is a serious business. In short, that single two-second gesture confirms him finally as the hero of the whole piece, the valiant everyman who will slay the demon in the end. The others just don’t have the gravitas.

When directors everywhere finally realise that moments like this can make up for all the mediocre special effects in the world, maybe they’ll start wasting fewer millions on stars and grandstanding, and instead pay them to the screenwriters and character actors. For it is all about the characters…

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Gift wrapping

My ‘second rule of writing’ wot I made up myself on some long train journey, is ‘Always entertain.’ This is a simplified version of the note I originally jotted down, which was, ‘Your first duty is to this moment now.’ That is, 99% of writing is about what’s on the page NOW.

I realised this was important when buying books by Terry Pratchett. You don’t really read Pratchett for his plots (good as they are) nor emotional depth (though it is there); you read him because he makes you laugh like a drain. And the quickest way to slide into a Pratchett purchase is to open any of his books to a random page and read. Chances are you will laugh out loud in the bookshop and have to leave quickly, book in hand, before authorities are called. This happens because TP has made sure that virtually every page of his novels is entertaining in its own right, irrespective of its function in the story. Mere mortals can only stare in envy, but it’s something worth aiming at.

Reading a draft of a work-in-progress, you will often find a duller passage and try your best to justify it. Usually it’s for exposition purposes. ‘Oh, this has to be here to set up what will happen on page 138.’ Sorry, no-one cares about that. Your job is entertaining the reader now, not in some distant chapter that they’ll probably never reach. In other words, if you do have a vital piece of exposition, try to turn it into drama (or humour) in its own right. This can also have the added effect of disguising the exposition, so that the reader doesn’t necessarily think, ‘Aha, he’s building to something.’ Cheap wrapping paper is see-through; good quality wrapping paper looks as good as the gift.

Monday, 3 September 2007

The oboe practice strategy

I’m currently revising my latest book, and I’m doing it a curious way around. Many years ago someone taught me a trick which is turning out to be very useful.

Now, I used to play the oboe. I still can play the oboe, sort of, but I’m ashamed to admit I hardly ever do these days. (Sorry, Delia, if you’re reading). I had a wonderful teacher (the Delia of the previous sentence) who showed me a trick to help me practise a particularly difficult piece. You play it backwards.

I’ll explain. The oboe is a bit like ballet: it’s harder than it looks. It sounds light and airy. Playing it can be like hauling bricks. If you’re out of practice, a single hour can be exhausting. Trying blowing up balloons through two splinters of bamboo and you’ll get some idea of what it does to your mouth.

The result of this is that when I practiced an oboe piece, I got really good at the first few bars. By the last few bars I was always knackered, so I played them atrociously. Delia’s solution was simple: practice the last bar first, then the penultimate bar, then the one before that, so that each ends up flowing into the next. The genius of this was that the bar coming up was always one I’d played before, so I didn’t have that sense of sliding into the unknown. To put it another way, the more tired I got, the more familiar the landscape underfoot. It turned from an outward journey into a journey home, and we all know those are less stressful.

Where does writing novels come into this? Well, I noticed that, just as my early bars were well-practised, so my early chapters benefited from much more work than my later ones. By doing my revision back-to-front, I find that I can concentrate on making each chapter the best it can be, without being distracted by wondering “What comes next?” This makes the whole process a bit like watching “Memento” (the film starring Guy Pearce), but it seems to be working.

Maybe when I finally finish I’ll get the oboe out of the cupboard and try a C Major scale or something. I probably owe Delia that much.