Friday, 30 July 2010

Doing it for the Kids

Who will inspire the next generation of writers? That seemed to be the unspoken question that hung over the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Buckinghamshire when I visited last weekend. And the answer? Well, it's us.

The museum is, in many ways, a celebration of the writer as great British eccentric, of a life spent amassing experience and somehow transmuting that into story. For all of its focus on the remarkable Dahl, the Story Centre finds room for the voices of other notable children's writers - Jacqueline Wilson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Anthony Horowitz etc. Great pains are taken to show the accessibility of writing - the children are given a story book to fill in as they enter, and encouraged to mix and match ideas with abandon. We are invited to walk around a replica of Roald's writing hut and think of it as inspirational - rather than a rickety old shed that should probably be condemned!

As an adult and writer, I found it fascinating in other ways. There is a shamanic feeling to the descriptions of Dahl's rituals - the carefully selected materials (yellow lined A4 pads and 6 carefully sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencils) and the way he described going into a trance as he wrote, his carefully allotted two hours passing "as if they were minutes". Time and again, writers are portrayed as helpless vessels for the all-consuming power of story. I'm not saying this isn't true - we all get carried away by the force of our imagination sometimes - just a tad fanciful.

The stationery fetishes of writers are well documented - Stephen Poliakoff once threatened to stop writing because the only kind of paper he could use was discontinued and Miriam Halahmy's recent post on the Scattered Author's Society blog attracted a whole slew of stationery related comments (yes, including mine). This all seems neurotic - which it is - but it also serves a deeper purpose, the achievement of that trance-like state. Writing is all about tricking our conscious mind, using familiar cues (environmental, musical or tactile) to descend into a subconscious state that's very close to meditation.

I spent some time away from writing recently, and it was only when I returned to it that I realised what I'd missed. I think it really does fulfil a very strong subconscious need for me, a way of finding focus and precision in a turbulent and uncertain world. Ultimately, we need to show today's children that sitting quietly in a room - either reading a book or writing one - is a noble and rewarding enterprise. From what I saw of the children's reaction, the Roald Dahl Museum was doing a pretty good job of that.


Friday, 23 July 2010

The Gore the Merrier

I've been up to my armpits in grot and gore this week as I give Back from the Dead a Darren Shan makeover (I'm picturing him following in the footsteps of Gok Wan here, with a TV show called How to Look Good Dismembered) Anyway, I've been reflecting on how odd it is that I'm a vegetarian writing this stuff and why I'm not working on a lovely picture book about Carla the Friendly Cow, or something.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not being forced into anything here - I have loved gory books and movies for most of my adult life. In fact, I've also been a vegetarian for nearly the same amount of time. Could the two actually be connected?

I was a late starter with horror. I read Steven King and James Herbert in my teens, but twenty years ago, most horror movies were 18 certificate and we didn't have a video recorder at home. Worse than this was the fact that I had a friend at primary school(!) whose parents let him watch the most inappropriate films - A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Evil Dead, even stuff that was banned like Last House on the Left. He would tell me about them at school the next day in loving detail - not in a malicious way, but just how kids do when they want to show off. Unfortunately, I was an extremely sensitive child with an active fantasy life and his stories were not always what the (mad) doctor ordered. Reoccurring nightmares very often followed...

Years later, it was inevitable that the films themselves could never live up to the crazy pictures in my head - which was also frankly a relief. Another thing surprised me - some of these films were really funny. I got hooked on the early catalogue of directors like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, and the "splatstick" style they developed in films such as Evil Dead 2, Bad Taste and Braindead. Even now, these films are endearingly strange slices of gore and slapstick farce, auteur movies in a genre that usually attracts journeyman hacks. And, of course, both these directors have since gone on to much, much bigger things.

Being a vegetarian has actually helped me to have a stronger stomach for these kinds of gory movies. I think that I was quite a conflicted carnivore, never wanting to ponder too deeply where my dinner came from. Like so many people, I ate cheap processed burgers throughout the BSE crisis and still didn't really join up the dots. When I finally did give up meat in my early twenties, I could at last face some of this stuff without feeling complicit. I remember an incident in my teens, sitting in a restaurant with a supposedly well-done steak in front of me. I plunged my knife into it and watched a pool of blood spread across the plate, ruining my chips. Nowadays, I stick to having salt and vinegar on them.

For all the talk of media gore and violence desensitising us, I am still really traumatised by actual dead animals (and I presume actual dead people too, but luckily I don't see many of those). While doing some research the other day I came across a delightful site where people posted and rated their favourite pictures of roadkill. That was more disturbing for me than watching all of the Saw movies in a single evening.


Friday, 16 July 2010

Let's Twist Again

Lots of books and films have a twist ending - probably too many. Rather less have a twist in the mid-section and almost none have a twist beginning. I guess the reason for that is down to marketing - it's very hard to sell something with a major reversal in the first act. We've all seen or read stuff where the big surprise for the characters is made obvious to us from the start - The Truman Show, The Matrix, Twilight.

With the rise of high-concept and blanket advertising, it's often hard to come to something with no preconceptions, and I think our capacity for genuine surprise as an audience has diminished. Film trailers are particular culprits in this department, but book reviewers are no strangers to the spoiler either.

So, the final act twist seems to offer a perfect compromise - it allows the main premise to be clearly spelled out, while also stoking audience anticipation by mentioning the "astonishing twist ending" in every bit of promotional material.

Unfortunately for me, I view the words "astonishing twist" as nothing less than a challenge - one that I will beat by guessing the ending no later than mid-way through the book/film. Regrettably, this also completely spoils the experience. The zenith/nadir of this came with The Sixth Sense, a film that I deliberately saw at an early preview, avoided reading any reviews of and knew only the following information:
  1. Bruce Willis helps a boy who sees dead people.
  2. It has a big twist at the end.
Despite this, I managed to guess the ending before I entered the cinema and spent 100 minutes with a sinking feeling in my gut as all my expectations were confirmed. A lot of people saw that film a second time to see how all the pieces fitted together - I felt like the first time was already once too many.

At the other end of the scale is the twist that is so outlandishly stupid that your sense of disbelief explodes in a cloud of purple smoke. The kind of ending that causes you to throw the book across the room or spend five minutes numbly sitting in your seat as the credits roll, thinking about all the gaping plot holes that have swung into view.

A good twist ending reinforces what you liked about a story and makes you see it in a different light. It should be able to utterly surprise you but also to perfectly fit the tone of the story. This is perhaps why really good twists are hard to find, but also worth hanging onto. It's rather ironic that the former king of the twist - M. Night Shyamalan - has had his own surprise reversal by turning into one of the worst film directors in the world. Did anyone see that one coming?


Sunday, 11 July 2010

Who Ate My Stuff?

The world does not need another opinion. Seriously. Wander onto Amazon or IMDB or Metacritic and you will find literally millions of people who think it's a good use of their time to type an ungrammatical plot summary of Fellowship of the Ring or to complain that their Lady Gaga CD case came with a crack in it.

So why, I hear you howl, am I starting a review site? I refer you to a scene in the film True Romance. Patricia Arquette's character leaves the cinema with Christian Slater and says:
"When I see a really good movie I really like to go out and get some pie, and talk about it. It's sort of tradition."

And that's the way it used to be for me - go to the cinema, go to a gig and then go on somewhere afterwards to talk about it. But then I had children and my friends had children and suddenly getting together became really hard. And my friends moved away or moved on, and I got new friends and they lived all over the place and we only ever met up on the internet.

When I see a movie or read a book or listen to an album nowadays, I mostly do it on my own. And there are pleasures to that, sure - no-one takes a phone call or gets up for popcorn or asks me who that guy is and what they've been in before. And afterwards, I can eat as much pie as I like, but the discussion is seriously one-sided.

I'm not sure if there's a way to fix all this, but at least I have a plan:
  • Set up

  • Post every few days reviewing something I've read/seen/heard.

  • No format or genre restrictions.

  • Go easy on the spoilers.

  • Don't bother with the information you can read anywhere.

  • Talk about why I liked something or didn't like it.

  • Hope you might have read/seen/heard that thing too and want to offer comments. Or that my review might make you want to seek that thing out and form your own opinion.

  • Have somewhere that I can review all the lovely books and other things that my friends are producing.

  • Not worry too much what the blog is for or where it's going. Plenty of blogs never get past the first couple of posts, after all.

  • Maybe other people might want to add their own reviews in the future or we might have homework to read/watch/listen to something. Who knows?
So there you go. You gotta have a plan. This blog will continue as normal, every Friday.

The first review (of Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones) is up on right now.


Friday, 9 July 2010

Nice Guys Finish First?

A publishing person - who I happened to meet last week - said that she had never met a person she didn't like in the world of children's publishing, which I thought was an extraordinary statement. In retrospect, given that she was talking to me, I guess it was a compliment too - but you know I have trouble with those! Anyway, it set me to thinking about how nice (in a good way) children's publishing is, and how much (consciously or unconsciously) that influenced my decision to write for children.

I quickly discovered that I liked to be around children's writers rather than adult ones - the lack of pretension and commitment to story that everyone had was so refreshing and I had already realised by this point that I was not destined to be a literary novelist! I believe that right now is a wonderfully exciting time to be a part of SCBWI British Isles - we have so much energy, momentum and great ideas in the organisation that we can only become more influential.

Once I started dipping a toe into the actual industry of children's publishing, I was again pleasantly surprised. Don't get me wrong, I got all those rejections too, but there was never malice in them. I have to admit that winning a high-profile competition was just a teensy bit helpful in bringing the industry onto my side, but it only got me entry to the race - I still had to run it.

I'll admit that I was quite scared of agents for a while - they always seemed rather distant and unapproachable to an insignificant, unpublished squit of a writer like me. But I think that agents, by the very nature of their job, have to keep some emotional distance from writers who they don't yet represent - it's much harder to give objective criticism of someone's work when you know them! But no-one likes to give bad news, and I wonder sometimes if that is why the form rejection gets so much use - those bland, generalised comments are a way of letting the poor writer down (relatively) gently, while allowing the agent or editor to get on with their job and sleep at night. Let's face it, unless you're an unpublished fantasy writer in a supermarket picking up a Stephanie Meyer, no-one really wants to hate a book!

At the same event last week, I got talking to an editor who, it turned out, worked for a publisher that had recently rejected my book. Now this could have been super-awkward, but she was so complimentary about my writing and honest about why they passed on it, that it instantly defused the tension. I feel very privileged to be spending time in the company of actual real people who actually publish real actual books, and I continue to be impressed by how much genuine love they have for the quality of what they produce. Ok, sure, we all need to sell books and make money, but let us never forget that it is the readers we have to please. And readers are not always nice - they demand difficult things like proper characters and exciting, surprising, original stories.

It's a pleasure to be involved in an enterprise that seems to thrive on cooperation rather than backstabbing. I find myself coming back to the question I posed many blogs ago. Is this what a matriarchal society would look like? If so, I say bring it on!


Thursday, 1 July 2010

Who's Laughing Now?

It's often been said that I have trouble taking compliments. I have no trouble at all in taking them - I just don't know what to do with them afterwards. Therefore, it took circa twenty people to tell me that I wrote well, before I accepted that as fact. Similarly, I've been compiling empirical evidence over the last month or so and am finally prepared to admit that I, Nick Cross, am funny (and not just in the peculiar sense).

But now that I have this awesome power, when should I deploy it? Unlike a stand-up comedian, I have no explicit commitment to being funny in my work. If I'm having an off-day (or an off-week), should I try to get myself into a mental state where I can write comedy? Or should I focus on something more heartfelt (and therefore probably a bit miserable)

Humour is one of the rare areas in the craft of writing that cannot be taught or learnt. You can learn where best to apply it, sure, but if you don't have a sense of humour then your attempts at comedy will be more painful than a post-apocalyptic animal cruelty drama set on the Isle of Sheppey. So with the knowledge that this skill is something that not all writers have, is it my duty to use it? Where does humour enhance a scene and where does it detract from it?

This is an especially apposite question when it comes to writing horror. Comedy and horror may seem like the perfect bedfellows, but they have a long history of petulant arguments and sleeping in the spare room. Many horror fans believe that a bit of gallows humour is all well and good, but that adding too much cheapens the experience. Witness David Gatward's comments on this very subject this week on tall tales & short stories.

I have to disagree with this viewpoint - most of my favourite horror films are funny. And that doesn't stop them being tense and frightening - last year's Drag me to Hell was both extremely goofy and proper scary.

So, egged on by my lovely agent, I made with the funny as much as possible when rewriting Back from the Dead, weaving the humour further into the scary scenes than I had before and hopefully enhancing the effect. I love that shift in tone between funny and scary - it's something that Quentin Tarantino uses extensively in his early films and it really puts the viewer/reader off-balance, to the extent that they don't know whether to laugh or hide behind the sofa/bookshelf.

Tone, as ever, is vital. If your reader knows broadly what to expect after the first couple of chapters and feels that you have confidence in the material, they will be happy to go along with you. If this means subverting a funeral scene with slapstick comedy, then so be it. But you can't have 50 pages of brow-furrowing ruminations on the essential evil of mankind and then segue into a custard pie fight. At least, I don't think so - feel free to try!

Because I can "do funny" I am leaning towards the view that I should. I think it will be something that readers expect and look forward to from my work. More than that, writing comedy actually cheers me up. In fact, there's nothing I like more than reading back what I've written and laughing at my own jokes. Well, at least someone's enjoying them, right?