30 April 2009

Vale JG Ballard

Earlier this month (19 April, to be exact), something happened that escaped my notice -- JG Ballard died. I don't know how I missed this news -- probably busy with my head in a book -- but it's something I should've taken notice of. It was only this morning, reading Time magazine over breakfast, that I saw a tribute to Ballard by Bruce Sterling. Sterling writes: "...the orderliness of his personal life allowed him to create a surreal, visionary fiction that was often frankly pathological".

If you've read Crash, it's easy to agree with this. Ballard is, no doubt, best known for this and for Empire of the Sun. Although I own the latter, I must confess to not having read it yet. Or have I? The more I think about it, the more I think I have. In any case, I did enjoy the movie. On the other hand, I've definitely read Crash, a disturbing book, but haven't seen the film. But it was neither of these that spoke most loudly to me. It was one of his short stories: "Billennium". 

"Billennium" is set in an overpopulated future, where humankind has solved the problem of feeding its burgeoning population, so that the main problem now facing humanity is the lack of space. It is the story of a man who lives in a cupboard under a staircase (hmm, sound familiar? Ballard visited it first!), but who discovers a secret room, a large room, which he can have all to himself. Or can he? He gives up his cupboard and moves in, and the story goes somewhere unexpected but completely inevitable. It's one of those stories that left me thinking, and thinking. And a few days later, still thinking.

Ballard wasn't a discovery of my early science fiction years, but of my middle ones. In my early years I read mainly Asimov and Clarke and Hoyle. 

I loved Fred Hoyle's The black cloud as a teenager. Years later, I read it again and it felt dated -- not so much in the science but the way all the characters were always smoking, which annoyed the hell out of me. (I had this gripe about Nevil Shute's On the beach, too -- another book I otherwise loved.) I read some of Hoyle's other books, mostly co-written with his son Geoffrey, but these didn't grab me quite the same way -- though I do remember a wonderful scene where someone skated down through Jupiter's atmosphere... Going a bit hazy there.

In my early days, I was a purist who preferred Clarke to Asimov -- mainly because of Clarke's ideas. Rendezvous with Rama was one of my favourites, but I also particularly enjoyed Childhood's end. And then of course there was the esoteric film 2001, which intrigued me (and I enjoyed "The sentinel, which it was partly based on, and loved the idea of Michael Collins considering telling Houston he'd seen a big black rectangle on the farside of the moon -- if only he had!). You know, though -- I think I preferred the less intriguing, more traditional  2010, at least at the movies. I can't remember which book I preferred. I do remember going on to read 2061 and perhaps even 3001. Did I finish it? I can't remember. I do remember that I found the lack of characterisation difficult to deal with, and these last two signalled the end of my reading Clarke.

Asimov grew on me first with a robot -- R. Daneel Olivaw -- in The caves of steel and The naked sun, but then even more in the Foundation series. Until then, I think I had mainly read his short stories, and I never liked any short stories as much as novels -- mainly because I always bought them by accident, and then would do the work and just be getting into them when they would finish. I've since learned to appreciate the form. 

Then I made the discovery that the unsophisticated but fast-paced Lucky Starr books I'd read when I was younger were by Asimov too, writing under the pseudonym of Paul French. 

But the Foundation series -- initially, just three books -- really blew me away. What a concept! How amazing. And then R. Daneel turns up in the Foundation series, tying this series with the robot series. More, more, more. Give me more. Eventually, I think I read the whole Asimov canon, and was amazed at how he'd set all his novels in the same universe -- in his universe. It was so cool. Later, after he died, I tried to read some of the follow-ons to the Foundation series, written by other authors. Greg Benford's was just too dry to engage me. I almost wept with disappointment.

Strangely, both Clarke and Asimov had their own three rules, though Clarke's were more about writing (apart from no. three), and Asimov couldn't count because he cheated and snuck in a Zeroth Law, which seemed totally right and necessary when reading the later Foundation novels. I imagine most people would be more familiar with Asimov's laws of robotics, and I confess I'm more aware of Clarke's third law -- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic -- than his other two.

The purists may prefer Clarke to Asimov, and indeed I've heard many of them snigger about Asimov, but to me Asimov's writing had a warmth, a human interest that I just couldn't find to the same degree in Clarke's books. It was this factor that I found in abundance in fantasy, which was why I responded so well -- and indeed shifted my allegiances -- to this genre.

Bradbury, as I think I've posted about before, was my first induction, and I will be forever grateful to him for the two seminal stories that changed my life: "A sound of thunder" and "The scythe". But the discovery that they were by the same author was for the future -- at that time I read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and liked it, but didn't feel the need to dip any further.

Then I entered my middle years -- which involved Ballard and Larry Niven through his wonderful story "Neutron star". I have these two in a book of ten SF stories everyone should read, but these were the two that resonated. (And I loved Asimov's footnote about how he said to Niven that he could have written "Neutron star" because he'd written a paper on the idea behind the story. And Niven had replied that he knew -- he'd read the paper and it gave him the idea for the story! Asimov said he was kicking himself.)

My later years gave me back the terrific Bradbury (with an 800+ page book of his short stories! Just heaven.). And with his more writerly Zen in the art of writing. A great book every writer should read. But in the meantime, I'd found fantasy.

So that leaves me with Ballard, who has just died. Such was his influence that a word was coined after him: Ballardian. It probably doesn't need explaining. Orwell is the only other author I can think of offhand (I am pretty tired) with his own adjective! Perhaps you'd like to remind me of the ones I missed.

20 April 2009

Movie and live show reviews

Well, I've been a bit remiss here and haven't posted for a while -- partly because my wrists are sore, and I'm trying to give them a break from so much typing, and partly because it's been school holidays, and I've been busy editing a book for a small press publisher, leaving my kids to take over this computer.

I have seen a number of movies in the last couple of weeks and one live show, so I thought it might be good to review them here, as much to sort out my own thoughts as a writer, which is how I always look at things now. It's been a spec fic bonanza for me, as three of the five films have been spec fic, and so, I guess, has the live show. Perhaps I'll start with that.

Wicked is the prequel to The wizard of Oz, and tells the story of how the Wicked Witch of the East and Glinda the Good met, and of course subverts all the well-established conventions of just who the good gal is. I loved this show: it's big, bright and boisterous, though I could've done without Glinda's whiny stage voice (part of her character, not the actress playing her -- I did love her one truly operatic moment, however). 

But I have to say I thought there was a little too much subversion -- it's rather like reading The mists of Avalon and comparing it to every other book on the Arthurian legend. Or seeing how Sara Douglass reworked her characters in her second trilogy of the Axis series. In the case of Wicked, I was happy to have things changed around -- and, after all, that adds to the story's freshness -- but I'd like more shading, more darkness in Elphaba's character. After all, she made a truly terrifying antagonist in The wizard of Oz, and I came away from Wicked finding it difficult to reconcile the two. Glinda's character was easier. 

But, for all of that, it's a satisfying story and entertaining. We bought the soundtrack afterwards, and my daughter seems to have it on a permanent loop! My favourite song is "For good", though I wonder if I'm biased because my daughter and one of her Victorian State Singer friends were singing this together for a performance that never eventuated. It's a beautiful song, heartfelt and moving. But my daughter seems to have settled on the more uplifting "Defying gravity". Well worth a listen, and worth seeing. (The soundtrack and the show, that is.)

The reader is a story of seduction and its consequences -- a young boy is seduced by an older woman who later abandons him, and then, at a Nazi war criminal trial, he learns more about her than he ever wished to know. 

I wish I had taken my kids to this film. After the movie, we could have sat down and had an in-depth discussion about morality and ethics, the type of discussion I love to have with them. On the other hand, the first half of the film is so steamy that I'm sure I would've been squirming in my seat had they been there: my son would have been leaning forward in his seat to make sure he never missed a second, and my daughter making gagging motions behind her hand. 

This is a deep and complex film: slow moving but compelling. Kate Winslet is a stupendous actress and at the top of her form here; she is mesmerising on screen, beautiful and ugly at the same time: a terrific performance. The reader is a movie I'm still thinking about -- on many levels -- and will be awhile yet. It's one I'll have to buy and watch with my kids later -- when they're older, perhaps, so I can have that discussion I so want to have. This is must-see cinema.

Race to Witch Mountain is an action film on steroids. It's go-go-go with barely a breather anywhere. The action starts right at the beginning and never lets up, which makes for breathless viewing. That's great if you like this kind of movie (and I do), but not so much if you want something deeper. This wasn't a film that left me thinking. Plot -- two aliens, being chased by the government, co-opt the help of a taxi driver in their endeavours to return to their crashed spaceship and escape. It's a fun film for kids and those who love an action movie. (And funnily enough, there was a reference to The wizard of Oz in this one.)

Inkheart is the story of a man who can read characters out of books (can I borrow him?), and the consequences. I must say that having seen the trailers for this film, I thought part of the story involved our real-life characters entering into the world of the book -- that there was some kind of portal that they crossed, but that wasn't the case at all. Rather, the characters who had come out of the book brought their own little world to life in the real world. While this made more logical sense, given the film's premise, I was disappointed as I wanted to see the real-life characters enter the world of the book, giving this world a larger canvas. Perhaps that's just my own thwarted desires as a writer coming to the fore. And I did spend part of the film wondering what would happen if I were able to meet my characters, but I've already explored such things in a short story I started once about where book characters go after a reader finishes reading them. 

Aside from my expectations, which is not the fault of the writers but whoever made the trailers (and this isn't nearly as bad as it is for the comedy film you go to see and realise you've seen every funny gag already in the trailer!), I found this film both fun and interesting. It was meatier than Race to Witch Mountain, but had enough action to satisfy those who like a fast pace. (And it too contained a Wizard of Oz reference -- they seem to be following me.) Well worth a watch.

Knowing is the story of a mathematician who "inherits" a piece of paper that has been buried in a time capsule for fifty years and that predicts accurately every disaster that has happened in the last fifty years, and a few more that are about to happen. The paper is written in code, so we track his unravelling of this code, his disbelief, his trying to convince others. This was a solid spec fic premise, so the writers had me from the beginning.

My son had auditioned unsuccessfully for a part in this film -- he was a bit too old anyway, and always has looked older than he is, which is not a benefit for a child actor -- so we felt we had a personal connection to the film. This was intensified when I was speaking to a friend who is friends with a girl who did get in (and she was very good!). And I have to love an apocalyptic image of the end of the world happening around the State Library of Victoria. Very reminiscent of On the beach. (I'm sure Ava Gardner would have found that appropriate! Or perhaps not. And isn't that disappointing to learn!) Anyway, I've digressed...

I loved this film. I always like Nicolas Cage, and it was funny seeing some American city with the West Gate Bridge in the background (another touchstone for me), and there was a great mixture of intrigue and darkness and action and fear. It ends with Biblical symbolism, which may colour the response of some viewers, but didn't bother me. This will be another I have to buy.

Duplicity is the story of two ex-spies (CIA and MI6) who get together to organise their own corporate sting. I have to say it's a very brave screenwriter who puts together a movie where nobody has any idea what's happening for the first third of the movie. And I mean no idea. I went in prepared to love this movie, but by the time I realised it was a puzzle I had to put together, I'd already lost interest. My son said this was the first film he'd ever considered walking out of. It wasn't quite that bad for me, but I felt all of its length (unusual for me), and, while it did end well, this wasn't enough of a save for me to ever (and I mean ever) want to watch this one again. 

After my summer of "Spooks", I was really disappointed not to be gripped by this. Once the pieces start to come together, it does become more interesting, but as I said it was way too late for me. The first fifteen minutes are meant to establish what type of movie it is, what it's going to be about, the characters, the tone and atmosphere. And I was just sitting there wondering where all this was leading and whether I'd missed something crucial. I hadn't come in late, had I? The first hint that something more was going on was a repeated scene -- the dialogue repeated but in a different location, which piqued my interest, but I still had no idea what the hell was going on. Some time after that, I did have an inkling, and had put the whole story together by the end, but it annoyed me to be in the dark for so long. Be warned. See this one at your own risk!

09 April 2009

Not settling for the first thing

The other day I was watching a film with my children, one none of us had seen before, and I said, "Oh, I know what's going to happen next. He's going to . . . and then . . ." And sure enough, he did.

My kids looked at me and asked how I knew that. And I said I just knew. "Actually, no, it's more than that," I said. "It's because that's how I would've written it."

I never used to be able to do that. Or only very occasionally. But the longer I've been writing, the more I have my prediction-meter turned on. At some point in the TV show, or movie or whatever, I'll just know.

Of course, I'm not always right, and the best films and shows are the ones that don't end up where I've predicted, that subvert my expectations and surprise me. I'm not talking the old-fashioned twist ending here, but an ending that grows out of the characters and the story.

The best writers don't settle for the predictable. They toss away the first idea that comes into their heads and explore other options. The best way to do this is with the "what if?" question. What if this happens? Plot out the likely chain of events. What if that happened? What about something else? Each time you ask that question, you'll move into more original territory. We shouldn't settle for the first idea, but nor should we for the second or third either. 

The further we push, the deeper we explore, the fresher and better our writing will be. If we're scriptwriters, we won't have audience members like me who've worked out the plot halfway through the movie. If we're novelists, we may still have people who flick to the end of the book (there's no getting away from them), but they'll see it doesn't end where they thought and so will still need to read on to see how we got there. But the best part of all is that we'll have something we know is ours and is good, something we can be proud of.

02 April 2009

Responding to criticism

The dynamics in class workshopping or in a writer's group's workshopping is always interesting to note. My number one rule of workshopping is that you (the writer) should only ever put up your best work. If you know it's not working, but it's as good as you can get it, then fine. But if you know there's a problem, and you know how to fix it, then you should fix it before you give it to anyone else to critique. 

If you know your punctuation has been sloppy, but your friends are ace at fixing it so you think you don't have to bother, then that's just disrespectful. Everyone's time is important. Aren't you busy? Do you have loads of time to write? Or do you squeeze your writing in around a hundred other things the way most of us do?

So, you might think you haven't got time to check the spelling of that difficult word -- and, hey, you know there is a verb "curb", and you've seen the noun "curb" in the latest book you just had sent out from the States, so it must be right, right? Not if you're living in Australia (or Britain for that matter). In Australian usage, the noun is "kerb". You mightn't have time, but if you don't do it, you're taking up your workshopping buddies' time. Some of them are going to have to look the word up. It might take you an hour to fix the punctuation, but if you have ten friends and they're all spending an hour on it, it's not very fair, is it? Trust me: their time is just as important to them as yours is to you. And, if they're not busy looking at all the stuff you know how to fix, they might just have the time to see something more in your story that they otherwise might have missed -- the forest for the trees, and all that sort of stuff!

But what about when you're in the workshop. In the typical Clarion workshop (and many other serious workshops), the person being workshopped is not allowed to speak until everyone has said their piece. There's a good reason for this. There's nothing worse than someone who argues with every point that you make. (Yes, you've swapped hats now.) If people don't want criticism, they shouldn't put up their stories for workshopping. They shouldn't feel compelled to defend every word their written. After all, it's been put up because they want feedback on how to improve it, right? Not because they want their egos stroked. Well, that's the theory. The trouble is that some people do put up their stories so they can be told how brilliant they are.

I remember spending a lot of time workshopping a story that I thought needed a lot of work, and then the author very smugly telling me and the rest of the group that the story was already published. What a waste of my time. Not just disrespectful but rude as well. Did that mean we all didn't know what we were talking about? Not at all. I'm sure we've all read published stories we thought could have been better. Perhaps the writer (who was new to our group) had no trust in our abilities as workshoppers, but from that point forward we had no trust in her as a serious writer who was making good use of our freely given time.

A good workshopper will give specific, rather than vague comments. So, not: "This sucked big time, and I hated it..." but something more along the lines of: "I thought your setting and characterisation were great, but your POV was all over the place, and all that head-hopping made me dizzy..." 

Good feedback will point you in the direction you need to go to get things working more effectively. Good feedback is constructive, not destructive -- with any negative comments justified and a balanced reporting of what works in the story as well. This is important, not just to help preserve the writer's faith in their story, but because someone else might have knocked the very thing that you loved, and the workshopper needs to know that you did love this aspect -- that it did work for some readers.

I'm currently going through reader comments on my novel, and trying to address a saggy middle. As I'm reading through the chapters, I keep seeing opportunities to expand, expand, expand. (Add more characterisation here, put a few more thoughts in there...) I'm working through, looking at scene purpose, commenting on how well I think the scene is working and how I can address any problems. I thought by now I'd be distant enough to be able to see these problems manifesting themselves, but I'm struggling. What should I do? Consider that I'm right and my reader is wrong? This could be the case -- it is always something you need to think about -- but sadly and happily for me, I don't think this is true. Why sadly and why happily? Sadly, because I know dealing with the problem is going to entail more work, and I'm going to have to keep wrestling with it, but happily because I also know the book will be stronger when I emerge out from under it. And really that's exactly why I asked my reader to read it.