Break coming up

So Christmas is coming up, and that means time off work. This year, the day job has been particularly time-consuming, and a large part of the work has been writing articles, grants, abstracts, presentations, more articles… This year, I have more often than not put the pen down at the end of the work day, not able to produce a single extra word. I am, and have always been, an opportunistic writer – one who writes when and if rather than at set times. This approach is particularly vulnerable to other tasks encroaching upon writing time. I have written much less than normal this year, which is annoying and depressing in equal measures. But Christmas is coming up…

Every year, I always hope to spend a part of the Christmas holidays catching up on writing (a futile hope, as the year is long and the Christmas break is short). This year, the hope is more desperate and more important. I know the day job will return in January with just as much, if not more, pressure, and the writing habit will need to be solidly in place by then. So this year’s Christmas writing is not just a band aid on a meagre output, but a tool to get the train back on track. Fingers crossed!

Wishing you all a nice run-up to the holidays, and here is a Christmas tune for the occasion:

(Why, yes, this blog post was partly an excuse to play the Darkness a few times. Thank  you for noticing, and keep those bells ringing.)

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The road ill-advisedly taken

I have been given a slot to write a very short creative piece for a small publication as part of the Academic Writing Festival at my University. Exciting stuff, and I am looking forward to getting my teeth in, except… I am not quite sure how to go about doing it.

Not in the sense that I don’t know what to write. I could write the piece in half an hour with time to spare for editing. It would be a quasi-science mock-up poking fun at academia, because I have been in the business long enough to see the foibles and caricatures. Heck, I embody a great deal of the silliness I want to convey. Easy-peasy. No, I’m stuck because I want to write it differently. I want to try on a new hat.

I want to write it to be read as spoken word. Sadly, however, I am not a particularly experienced poet, and I have a strong suspicion that my talents (if any) lie elsewhere. Having read the feeble poetry written by my teenage self, I should possibly know better than to revisit this particular brand of writing. Nevertheless, I think it is useful to try something new every once in a while, if only to explore (and rule out) roads not yet taken, scary though they may look.

So, wish me luck?

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New places, new roads. What could possibly go wrong?

[UPDATE: I got the piece written and submitted. Not sure how well it worked, but am happy to post it here if anyone is interested in giving feedback]

On the worst of villains

There is an interesting post up at ejfrostuk‘s blog, on the implacable villain. If you are interested in the workings of villains and how to write them, I recommend you go read it, as there are some interesting ideas on what makes a villain truly scary. But I also thought I’d add my own thoughts on the matter here.

The question raised on the blog is whether it is realistic with an opponent that simply won’t stop. My answer is, that depends.

For villains such as the Terminator or the vampires from 30 Days of Night, it is absolutely reasonable to go about their business (in these cases, killing the protagonist(s)) with relentless persistence. The Terminators are machines that act as such, and the vampires are predators that behave in their natural way as well. Both operate under rules that do not afford humans a special place, and so there should be no reason for them to hesitate or turn back as long as there is a war to be won or food to be eaten. This, logically, means continuing until the humans in their way are dead or devoured.

But what about a human villain? Is it realistic for a human to be relentless? My gut feeling is that it would take special circumstances. Villains without empathy could be one such circumstance. The psychopath would have no reason to stop. But we don’t always want to write psychopathic villains. What about villains that are empathetic in some ways, maybe even most ways, just not when it comes to the protagonist? That is a harder sell, in my opinion. Still, it is not impossible.

One way in which a ‘normal’ human might fit the bill would be if they have utterly dehumanised the protagonist. Why stop if what you seek to destroy has no inherent value? We find this in real-life crime, where the victim is not afforded human status by the perpetrator. We find this in assaults, in murders, and in war. The victim is not addressed, is not even talked to, and when the victim is discussed by the perpetrator(s), he or she may be referred to as animals, lesser-than, even an ‘it’. This allows the perpetrator to act without hesitation, relentlessly and without apology. This is the villain that won’t stop, that won’t negotiate, that might not even talk to their victim. Is it realistic? Yes, unfortunately. Is it going to work in a story? Yes, in some stories. Is it scary? I honestly can’t think of anything more frightening.

Go read the post over at ejfrostuk. It’s good.

This is Halloween

Happy Halloween, everybody!

All Hallows’ Eve, the night of all saints, martyrs and deceased believers, a mishmash of religious and pagan tradition, placed at the end of the harvest season when gods, both old and new, wanted their due. The beginning of winter. No wonder this night is teeming with ghouls and ghosts. It is about endings, about death, and about the dark months to come.

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Essays could easily be written about the Celts and their Samhain, harvest themes, beliefs and myths – the origins of Halloween – but Halloween is relatively far removed from its historical roots. Today, it is mostly about sugar and delightful, lightweight scares.

So why does it thrill so much? Why are creepy costumes donned with excited giggles, why does every channel cheerfully put on horror films, why is every store decorated with skulls, slime and spider webs? A possible explanation is that Halloween offers an opportunity to explore disgust and fear in a safe context. Halloween allows us to process the gruesome elements of life, including death itself, without actually having to face it straight on. Dress like a ghoul? That’s exciting, because it is pretend. Actually becoming a ghoul? Not at all amusing. Dress like a monster? Fun with friends. Be a monster? That’s also being a social pariah, an outcast. For social creatures aware of their own demise, these are terrifying prospects but coated in sugar and glitter.

Halloween lets us dance on the edge without having to stare into the abyss. It is a small thrill, exciting because it reminds us of the fears behind and because it is wrapped in the opposite of death: party, community, fun. Coated in layers of safety. There is no real dread and terror in Halloween, just an opportunity to glance at horrors from the corner of your eye, whilst having both feet firmly planted in the joyous now. It’s like watching a horror film: the monster may be scary, but you can be pretty certain it will stay on the silver screen. It gives us the feeling of being alive in the face of threat, but without risking more than a sugar rush.

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Halloween also lets us be someone else for a night. Want to be a witch? Cackle away. Want to be a mummy? This is the night to stagger about. Play a role, enjoy the make-believe. It is playacting on a grand scale. Children love it, and so, apparently, do a lot of adults. I enjoy putting on my goblin costume for the day for this simple reason: being a goblin is fun. Goblins know of dark places and swords and old secrets, and they do not concern themselves with long laboratory meetings, statistics problems or annual performance reviews. One night a year, it is nice being the other.

The opportunistic writer

Here’s a confession: I don’t write every day. I don’t follow that most cherished piece of advice from writers much more successful and no doubt better than myself. I don’t apply my bum to my chair every day and work on my craft. Not for a moment do I think that it isn’t possible for me to find the time every day. I could. I simply choose not to.

Sometimes, 24 hours aren’t enough. Not enough to do well at the day job, to eat, sleep, relax, and then also to write. I am very fortunate in that I’ve got a job I enjoy, but this also means it can be hard to turn it off at the end of the day. It means I’m frequently so engrossed that I work long days, leaving little time for anything else. Certainly, little time for anything that requires more brains than a remote control and a sofa at the end of the day. Add a strict writing regime to that, and it can become a bit much.

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I have tried to develop the habit of daily writing, adopting quite a few strategies to force myself to carve out a writing-shaped piece of the day. A notification app to remind me to write? The app was too rigid and my day too fluid, and when my writing invariably decoupled from the notifications the whole exercise turned into one of pointless nagging. A set time for writing? That was swallowed by early-morning experiments, surprise lunchtime meetings and late-night broken equipment. I still wrote, but I felt bad about not writing at the right time. NaNoWriMo? Nope, November is deadline month in my field. A writing group? Ate my best writing hours, and filled it with talk of writing.

Every strategy was sub-optimal, frustrating or downright counterproductive. Tools are no substitute for will. And by squeezing myself into a daily regime, that will dwindled and was replaced by guilt and frustration. I found that it hindered more than helped. So I don’t write every day, at a set time, like a professional. Instead, I write as and when it works. I just make very sure it works a lot of the time. I know which times are likely to work, and I aim for them, but don’t beat myself up on the days that I fail.

I am a contented opportunistic writer. I’ve got a lightweight laptop, a notebook and no schedule. Some days, they gather dust. That’s okay – I just write when the deadline has passed or the conference is done. Or before, after or in between. There’s always an opportunity. It may take me a bit longer to finish a book, but I always finish it.

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How do you find time to write?

World War Z (the film)

I reviewed the Max Brooks bestselling zombie horror in September last year, and made the following remark about the film:

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Max Brooks) was the zombie book I couldn’t be bothered reading, mostly because the trailer for the film left me a bit underwhelmed. (I have still not seen the film, having had it described to me as ‘Globetrotting Brad Pitt’, so any advice as to whether it is worth my time would be greatly appreciated.)

Having (finally) seen the film, I am disappointed to say that I stand by my earlier ‘meh’ stance, although I think ‘globetrotting Brad Pitt’ is perhaps a bit too harsh. I knew the film would not be faithful to the novel, but this is not even remotely the same story. The theme is not the same, the characters are not the same, and even the zombies are a different type of monster (think 28 days later zombies rather than shambling hordes). The elements I thought were excellent in the book (the social commentary and all-so-human failings including ineptitude, greed and selfishness) were ignored in the film (action, action and more action, plus Brad Pitt being a bit too stoic in the face of flesh-eating monsters). It is a pity, because a more faithful adaptation could have been fantastic. A social satire, District 9 kind of film. As it is, World War Z is a perfectly adequate zombie film feeling like a thoroughly wasted opportunity.

wwz_brad_pitt(Brad Pitt looking mournfully at the world burning)

World War Z is a good reminder not to underestimate your audience. The book does not, and is all the stronger for it. The film does, and I fully expect it to age as quickly as its special effects.

City of Lost Children

If you have not seen La cité des enfants perdus, directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, you have missed out. This film, although now more than 20 years old, is glorious. It is a French dark science-fiction film with steampunk and surrealist elements. It is visually stunning down to the smallest detail with gloomy canals and streets, atmospheric bars and old decrepit buildings, often presented at an almost grotesque, distorted angle. Even the costumes are top-notch, signed Jean Paul Gaultier. It is complicated, unnerving and almost claustrophobic, but beautiful in its unpleasantness.

For those that write, this is the kind of film that tickles the brain. Here, in viewing, sneaky plots are hatched and oddball what-ifs are born.

Synopsis (some spoilers ahead): The story revolves around the kidnapping of children from an unnamed port city by a cult of cyborgs, called the Cyclops. The children are delivered to a man-like creature called Krank, who steals their dreams for himself. Krank, unable to dream and aging rapidly as a result, keeps the children in his lair at an abandoned oilrig, guarded by his creations (six child-like sons (clones), a dwarf and a brain in a vat). One of the kidnapped children’s adopted elder brother, a carnival strongman named One, is hired by a gang of orphans to steal a safe, but spots the Cyclops during the theft. He then joins forces with Miette, one of the orphans, to save his brother. [End of synopsis, to avoid major spoilers]

The story contains conjoined twins that are also criminal masterminds, trained venomous fleas, a dream-stealing machine, a lost scientist and a fair few fistfights and explosions, in addition to everything mentioned in the brief synopsis above. Still, in my humble opinion, it is not that strange. Of course, the surrealism is present, but the story is quite easy to follow despite making the odd jump. My preferred mode of watching this particular film is letting it drift past, slowly sink in, and not worry too much about the details. To me, the City of Lost Children is more about emotion and ideas than about plot.

So what are the emotions and the ideas? It has been discussed in some detail, brushing upon the dual nature of capitalism and the different faces of human nature, to name but a few. My own thoughts go towards greed. Both sides of the story’s equation contain protagonists and villains. One and Miette are clearly heroic figures in this tale, foiled by very human (and very criminal) elements. At the same time, Krank’s creations are often innocent, foiled by their creator. To me, the overarching theme is how greed and personal gain at the expense of others (the twins, Krank, the Cyclops) conflicts with altruism (Miette, who helps One; One, who seeks to save his brother). It may not be a particularly advanced take on what is arguably a rather complex film, but it is a convenient umbrella for many of the finer discussion points (capitalism, human nature etc.).

I also think there is an interesting contrast between innocence and experience. Both the human side and the mechanical/created side has a sharp divide between those who are innocent versus those who are not. This is perhaps the most obvious in the relationship between One and Miette, where One is the innocent despite being the adult. It is a lovely contrast, and it allows Miette a very interesting role as the responsible person in their relationship, acting as the guardian of the interests of One. The difference in strength (highlighted by one scene in particular) serves to accentuate this unusual balance. This deviation from traditional roles and relationships is something I always appreciate in storytelling, and The City of Lost Children has it in spades.

Miette is, in fact, one of the most interesting characters in the film. Her experience and cynicism are believable, given that the landscape of the film is that of exploitation of children by adults (either by kidnapping and dream-stealing, or by forcing them into criminal activities). The city of lost children, and lost childhood, indeed.

The performances are solid. Particularly Daniel Emilfork as Krank, and Ron Perlman as One. Perlman was cast on the back of his role in Guillermo del Toro’s Kronos (another great film), and his performance as the taciturn, child-like adult is excellent. Again, it plays wonderfully against Miette, less than half his size and more than twice his intellect and experience.

Angelo Badalamenti (of Twin Peaks fame) created the soundtrack, with the theme sung by the amazing Marianne Faithful. The result is light and ‘carnivalesque’ at times, but with an underlying seriousness and a sombre feel. I particularly love the main theme, L’anniversaire D’irvin and Miette’s theme, but the entire soundtrack is worth a listen.

Have a look at the trailer for a taste of what the film is like: