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The Rise of Disappointment

(December 15 – 21)

I’m on the home strait for the short story. I even worked on it over the weekend, which is a habit (writing on my weekend mornings) I’ve slipped out of in recent weeks. Regardless of whether the story gets read or not, I’m reasonably gratified that I’m managing to maintain a schedule towards this self-imposed deadline.

Watching

This week’s big viewing was The Rise Of Skywalker, which I ended up seeing just a few days after release as it seemed unlikely I’d get a good chance to see it otherwise.

I went in really, really wanting to like it, despite the middling reviews—mostly because I don’t care to fall either side of the ‘JJ Abrams vs Rian Johnson’ divide, and also because Star Wars has become somewhat toxic in the last two years and I want no part of that: I just want to enjoy the films.

Unfortunately, I had a sinking feeling right from the opening crawl that things weren’t going to turn out well. I’m typically not one to fault the dramatic choices people make with their stories, so my main problem with TROS is the structure. I generally expect that people being paid millions of dollars to craft the final movie in the ‘Skywalker saga’ should come to it with a basic understanding of how to structure a good story.

Instead we get something that should be a first act reveal right in the opening scenes (along with, arguably, something that should be a second act reveal moments later) and things just keep happening from there. And happening. And happening. There is almost no pacing in TROS: a lot of Star Wars things keep happening on the screen, and that’s it for the whole movie. There are maybe two moments where we get to pause for breath, and they’re the best bits in the movie, otherwise it’s a dazzling roller coaster ride (but one that you probably wanted to stop after about the tenth time around).

My other issue with the film is that it completely throws out what Rian Johnson was trying to in The Last Jedi. I won’t go into detail, to avoid spoilers, but you can’t craft a trilogy (especially the final part of a trilogy) if you’re going to work your hardest to ignore what has taken place in the second part. It’s not so much the specific story choices, as it is failing to build on the story blocks that have already been established. Imagine watching Return Of The Jedi, and Yoda says “Oh, your father he isn’t. Made that up we did. Also, Han and Leia: best friends they are.” Sure, we follow the basic events that happened in TLJ, but thematically that movie gets thrown out with the bathwater. It come across, at least to me, as a cowardly/lazy/disrespectful (delete as appropriate) decision on the part of the filmmakers.

Worst of all, Rose Tico—having been a main character in TLJ—is reduced to barely a supporting role here. The treatment Kelly Marie Tran received a few years ago should be a clear sign to Disney that representation is more important than ever. Instead we’re left with the impression that they’ve once again folded to a small, vocal, toxic subsection of ‘fans’ by sidelining her presence here. It’s unlikely that this is actually the case, but it’s still hard to wash that bad taste out of my mouth.

Reading

Having finished Dead Mountain in fairly short order, I once again found myself without a book to read. I’m feeling a bit of a non-fiction vibe at the moment, but ended up going somewhere halfway between by starting Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Pretty much anything I know about Norse mythology comes from Marvel movies (and therefore is barely has anything to do with the mythology itself), therefore I’m quite interested to learn more about the source tales, and read them as retold by Gaiman.

Grosse Force Trancers

(December 8 – 14)

First draft (of the second version) of the Christmas story is complete! This means people may actually get to read it this side of Christmas 2019. It still needs work, but it’s looking good.

Watching

Got a few viewing highlights this week, so I’ll zip through them quickly. 

I gave the Elderbeast the choice of film to watch over the weekend, and he opted for a rewatch of Grosse Point Blank (which scores him some serious credit). I spent this viewing trying to figure out the exact combination of things that make this film so special. Is it the script? The direction? Is it the chemistry between John Cuscal and Minnie Driver? Is it the tonal disjoint provided by an assassin attending his 1980s themed high school reunion? It’s probably all of those things. It’s not quite a perfect film, but it’s still one of the most perfect films to have come out of the nineties.

Later in the week I rewatched The Force Awakens with my Awesome Partner as prep for seeing the third part of the sequel trilogy. TFA remains a fun film, and I will never forget the joy of going to the cinema and *finally* seeing a new Star Wars film that felt like a proper Star Wars film. Sure, it’s a hugely derivative retread of A New Hope, but as an reboot of the Star Wars franchise it does an outstanding job.

My final movie of the week was Trancers, a low budget eighties sci-fi thriller which I developed an irrational urge to rewatch recently. As I always do, I checked to see if anyone was streaming it and found a service called Tubi TV—which is free (ad supported). Not only did Tubi work with my chromecast, and even had an app for my TV, it also has an amazing selection of truly terrible films that I can’t wait to get stuck into.

Reading

This week, while gorging on more episodes of the Radio Gaga podcast, I started Dead Mountain: a book about the Dyatlov Pass incident, in which a group of Russian hikers were found inexplicably dead after being reported missing during the course of a hiking trip in 1959. I won’t spoil the eventual outcome, but I really enjoyed this book. The author made a really smart choice to present the narrative in three concurrent timelines: the first detailing the hikers’ expedition (and giving us enough of their personality that we develop a proper sense of dread knowing what’s coming); the second describes the official investigation from the point that the hikers were reported missing; the third follows the author’s own investigation, including a hike to the Dyatlov Pass itself. 

The Dyatlov Pass incident is a dark mystery that I’ve had a sideways fascination with for several years, so I enjoyed finally getting into the detail of the affair, and I’m chuffed that I picked such a good book (out of the range of books written on this topic) to explore it with.

The wha..? of the worlds

(December 1 – 7)

The Christmas horror story continues (the actual story I’m writing; not a reference to my christmas plunging into despair and chaos). As mentioned last week, I’m taking a first-draft story from last year (which, much to my surprise, turned out to be complete) and working it into something new. That first draft never felt quite right. So, for this ‘refreshed’ version I’ve kept the bones, but twisted a few bits into new shapes, added a few new scenes here and there, and tried to generally improve the language. I like where it’s heading so far.

Watching

After spending several years waiting for the BBC’s new adaptation of War Of The Worlds to land, it was something of an anticlimax when it suddenly arrived with minimal fanfare—especially as I was expecting it to be more of a Christmas schedule ‘event’. Unfortunately, I found the adaptation itself to be a bit anticlimactic as well.

It was one of those curious affairs (a little like the last season of Doctor Who) where I liked almost everything about the show–every choice made, all the visuals, etc, etc–but found something lacking. In this instance I think the writer forgot that he was meant to be doing a War of The Worlds adaptation and opted instead to tell a story that happened to be set against the backdrop of the classic H.G.Wells narrative. 

I’m generally in favour of disrupting traditional storytelling, especially when there’s a good analogy to be struck, or outdated conservative mores to be played against, but it’s important to tell a compelling story first and foremost. If you don’t do that then everything else you’re trying to do with your narrative comes to nothing. In the case of War Of The Worlds, you also run the risk of commentators deciding that ‘woke’ narratives just don’t work and I worry that we’ll end up sliding back to standard white male heroes, and traditional ‘safe’ stories.

Reading

My exciting new listening experience this week is the Radio Gaga podcast (and I can’t remember who told me about it, but they would be receiving my profuse thanks right now if I could). Simply put, Radio Gaga tells the stories behind famous albums (and, occasionally, famous songs). I love getting the behind the scenes scoop on films, books, music, anything, so this is right up my street.

The first episode I chose to listen to focused solely on Elton John’s song, Tiny Dancer. After listening to this, I genuinely have a new appreciation for the song. I then listened to the episode on Bohemian Rhapsody (also excellent), before checking out my first album-focused episode covering Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill.

With every episode I’ve learned things I had no idea about, and have come away wanting to re-explore the music—to the extent where I’ll likely be checking out episodes about albums I don’t know just so I can be led into some new music.

The host, Justine Piehowski, has a huge passion for music which comes across abundantly in her narration (and she has a voice I am more than happy to listen to, which isn’t always the case with podcasts). The production and sound quality is also top notch, which makes a huge difference. If you’re into music, then I’d say this is a must listen. I’ve already got another dozen or so episodes lined up in my queue.

The horror of Christmas

(November 24 – 30)

Every Christmas I like to write a ‘Christmas horror story’. It doesn’t always happen, but last year was one of the years that it did and I’m keen to repeat the effort this year. These stories are usually inspired by M.R.James (you’ll understand why if you’re into Christmas ghost stories) and for this year I’ve decided to revisit an idea I started working on quite some time back. As occasionally happens, I had a good hook for a story but wasn’t quite able to wrap the right story around it. Rather than start it from scratch, I’ve picked up the pieces that I abandoned and given them a light shuffle. Based on progress so far it’s feeling like the right choice.

Fingers crossed I’ll have this done and dusted in time for Christmas.

Watching

Not too much to write about this week. I started watching The Mandalorian, about which I’ll have more to say when I complete the series. Most significantly, I watched my first ever episode of Black Mirror! I really have no idea why it’s taken me this long, as Black Mirror is 100% my sort of thing. The episode in question was called Playtest (from season 3) and revolved around a young traveller earning some spending money by testing out a new augmented reality game. Needless to say, things go … poorly.

The main character, I later found out, was played by Kurt Russell’s son which explained why he looked so familiar (his smile, in particular, is stolen right off his Dad’s face).

Reading

This week I went straight into another Doctor Who audiobook by Big Finish, this one simply called Master. This one came with an irresistibly gothic presence—four people trapped in a mansion on a stormy night—and delivered on that in spades (in fact, it was very reminiscent of Sapphire and Steel). The story, inevitably, didn’t quite live up to the premise but this was a superb production overall.

Go fourth

(November 17 – 23)

Okay, we’re back on chapter four of the novel this week. I’ve tracked backwards a few scenes and restarted midway through the chapter with a much better idea of both how to keep the pace up and where to go from here. This experience is making me debate whether I need to more plotting before I start writing each chapter. On the one hand, it would probably make the writing progress faster if I go in knowing what needs to happen in order to get from the start of the chapter to the end. On the other hand, I’m kinda enjoying discovering the story as I go …

Watching

This week I watched two movies of interest, each from from polar opposites of the cinematic scale (which is a thing I just made up). On Sunday evening I checked out The Wandering Earth, a Chinese ‘blockbuster’ that quietly got added to the service some months ago (much to people’s surprise). Given it was based on a novel, and sorta fell under the category of ‘world cinema’, I was expecting a measured, artful masterpiece which dwelled deeply on issues relevant to the meaning of life and future of humanity.

I was so, so wrong.

The Wandering Earth is, in fact, one of the most gloriously dumb movies you will ever see. It’s so dumb I had to double check the credits to make sure it hadn’t been directed by Roland Emmerich. It has terrible characters, bargain basement CG, and the most outrageously idiotic premise that I’ve ever seen in a movie. I loved every minute of it.

Friday’s horror movie, also from Netflix, was Head Count, which came recommended by a friend. This was genuinely superb. It takes the basic, almost cliched, premise of a group of teenagers on holiday who accidentally awaken a vengeful demon. BUT … this is that type of movie done exceedingly well, and also terrifyingly. The teens are, for one thing, extremely well written—none of your stock, irritating teen horror film characters that you actively want to see get horribly murdered. There is very little gore (and the only shot we see of the demon is probably the film’s only misstep) but there is a sense of menace and dread that starts early and keeps building. Very, very highly recommended.

Reading

A month or so ago I wrote about Doctor Who Unbound, and a particular episode which featured David Warner as an alternative third Doctor teaming up with Nicholas Courtney’s (ex)Brigadier. This week I found out that there was a sequel, Masters of War, which continues the adventures of the alt-Doctor and the ex-Brigadier and reimagines the Doctor’s first encounter with Davros (while also serving as a direct sequel to the Doctor’s first encounter with the Daleks). Totally sold on that premise!

It was pretty good, though the first half was far better than the second. I was getting quite into the mystery of ‘who Davros is’ and the underlying discussions over what it means to be a dalek versus what it means to be a human. Then it all got a bit spoiled by an alien invasion (and with aliens whose voices were thoroughly irritating). Things got mostly back on track by the end and the story turned into quite an interesting reinvention of the Daleks, but I wish the writers hadn’t felt the need to throw in the alien invasion to liven things up. Overall, pretty good though.

Press pause

(November 10 – 16)

I’ve paused on the novel again. This is partly due to chapter four running a little off-track (and me needing a bit of distance from it so I can work out how to stitch the bits back together). However, I’ve also managed to distract myself with a short story I started writing a little while back and abandoned about halfway through … and then completely forgot about! I decided I was quite keen to try and finish this particular story as I feel it could end up being a good one. Novel be damned!

Watching

Amid more Friday The 13th, Doctor Who and Twilight Zone, this week’s main viewing of interest was Prospect, a Netflix original that received a fair amount of hype upon its release a few months’ back.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this, but I ended up enjoying it quite a lot. The dynamic between Pedro Pascal’s and Sophie Thatcher’s characters is good enough to carry the movie, and there’s a brilliant retro-1970s sci-fi aesthetic to the film’s design that I particularly liked. The main shortcoming is that there’s very little character development—you get very little sense that these two characters have been on a journey (even though they end up in a very different place to where they started). The result is that Prospect ends up a little unsatisfying, but it’s still an enjoyable watch for the most part.

Reading

I finished the audiobook of Carmilla this week. My main takeaway from this is that David Tennant does a surprisingly good ‘Van Helsing’ type accent. I read the story many years ago, but it’s interesting to note on this pass how much of a template it provides for Bram Stoker’s later Dracula. Otherwise, a perfectly good dramatisation, if a little forgettable.

When characters rebel

(November 3 – 9)

Work continues on chapter four of the novel, and we’re at that curious point where the characters have decided to only half-heartedly follow the scheduled plot. I will probably have to bring them back in line at some point, but for now I’m content to see where they go.

Half the fun of this particular writing project is having a decent idea of where each chapter is going to start and end–and having the necessary character dynamics mapped out–but leaving enough freedom for the page-by-page narrative to remain fairly spontaneous.

Watching

Finding myself solo on Sunday night and in need of something to watch, I picked out Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which has been on my ‘to rewatch’ list for a few weeks now (falling conveniently into the sub-category of “I remember it was good, but don’t remember anything else about it”). There’s a lot to love about this one, particularly the setting which feels peculiarly contemporary while clearly taking place during an unspecified period during the Cold War. It’s pretty much as if you were watching a film made in the 1970s, but using modern cinematic conventions.

The narrative style is also unusual—limited to brief snapshots of scenes, which force you to pay attention throughout–and seems almost voyeuristic in nature (to borrow from one of the behind the scenes interviews). I’m a big sucker for that specifically late sixties era of British cinema (think The Ipcress File and Get Carter).

Overall, even better than I remembered.

Reading

I managed to finish both the audiobook I was listening to and the novel I was reading on the same day, which left me doubly bereft. I’m planning a second attempt of The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes, but felt it required a fresh week (for a fresh start). In the meantime, I decided to check out the audio adaptation of Carmilla (which came free with Audibles October originals). So far so good: more on that next week.

The breakstone

(October 27- November 2)

Small milestone / breakthrough (breakstone?) in the novel this week—I finished editing chapters one through three (or the prologue and chapters one and two, if you want to make things difficult … which I do) and started writing an entirely new chapter!

This followed some minor restructuring whereby I decided that a chapter planned for later should, in fact, happen earlier in the book. I’m only 400 words in, but it already feels like the right move; the chapter formerly known as three simply felt out of place the first time I started writing it (which is part of the reason why work on the novel stalled for a little while).

In the life hack department, I’ve been trying out a few different ways of organising my morning to ensure I can get a sufficient amount of writing done. In a typical morning I have the following things that need doing:

  1. Writing;
  2. Spend some time on the cross trainer, with possible showering depending on how much time and effort goes into the cross trainer part;
  3. Make coffee, breakfast, etc;
  4. Feed and clean out the chickens (yes, I have chickens!);
  5. Awaken the Elderbeast and ensure he gets dressed, has breakfast, cleans his teeth, packs his bag.
  6. Drop the Elderbeast at the bus stop ready for school;
  7. Awake the Kinderbeast and repeat step 5;
  8. Clean and dress myself (unless step 2a has already taken care of this);

As you may deduce there are a lot of things in that list that are not writing and, furthermore, which are generally incompatible with writing. My prime strategy for dealing with this has been to start getting up at 6am instead of 6:30am. This has worked for the most part, although the time available for writing still varies dramatically from around 30 to 15 minutes. 

I’ve found—largely because of the way in which time works—that skipping the cross trainer vastly increases the available time I have for writing, but this is not desirable since exercise is one of the things I really, really need to be making time for. However, I’ve also discovered that I my writing shifts will typically start to run out of steam after about 30 minutes which means that carving out more than half an hour in my morning for writing is somewhat counterproductive.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this gripping insight into how the first two and a half hours of my day typically gets eaten up before I’ve even left the house. Let’s move on.

Watching

This week’s viewing of interest was the first two episodes of Daybreak on Netflix, which was picked by the Elderbeast (admittedly, with my encouragement and support). I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of this, but once I twigged that it was basically Ferris Bueller Fights The Zombie Apocalypse—and even featured Matthew Broderick (brilliantly cast as the school principal)—I was on board. I love a bit of meta.

While it’s not quite up to John Hughes’ standards, it comes close enough for comfort. I’m especially impressed at the way Daybreak starts off with an isolated main character, then effortlessly paints an entire world around him while simultaneously introducing a diverse and unpredictable range of supporting characters. It’s a brilliant example of how to write an opening episode while keeping it part of the ongoing story (too many series openers take the ‘prologue’ option: set up the character(s), set up their normal world, then tear it down).

Reading

Three weeks later and I’m still ‘tearing through’ Shift, the second part of Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy. I’m really enjoying this one, and while there are bits and pieces I remember, there’s a refreshing amount of plot and detail that I’d forgotten since my first read.

The structure is pretty smart: going back to the creation of the silos, and featuring various other events from the past, but telling the main story in the ‘present day’ timeline of the world. The technique risks fragmenting the story, but Howey’s a good enough writer to ensure that all of the background material also feeds into the main story—even to the extent that the silos and their history become an integral character.

The book ends on a sort of cliffhanger, which is a bit cheeky, but since I’m planning to read the final book anyway I’ll let it pass.

Rework the words

(October 20 – 26)

I’ve been working on a re-edit of the novel for the last week or two. Things hadn’t been feeling quite with it in the latest chapter, which prompted me to stop work on it for a while, which inevitably caused me to lose my flow. Doing a bit of a second draft on the words written so far will hopefully enable me to re-engage with it and pick up the momentum once again.

Watching

The weekend brought two Star Wars viewings, starting off with Revenge Of The Sith. The Elderbeast has decided that ROTS is the best Star Wars film ever made, and I’m happy not to take that away from him. For my money, it’s still got some good moments (and, unlike the other prequels, manages to be watchable) but it still fumbles a lot of key moments: primarily Anakin’s transition to Darth Vader (despite all the plot work that goes into it, the moment when he transitions from wanting to save his beloved wife, to murdering children still comes across as a bit of an “oh well, sure, I’ve got nothing better to do today” moment).

For me the biggest lost opportunity of the prequels is making Anakin intolerable, childish and overall unsympathetic. Imagine if he’d been written more in the Han Solo mould: cocky, charismatic, able to make whole audiences fall in love with him. Imagine how much more of a tragedy his fall would have been then.

We followed this up with The Last Jedi, which I’m comfortable saying is the best of the sequel trilogy despite some minor plot niggles (mostly that the Canto Bight sequence doesn’t quite work structurally, even though it’s important for widening the universe). Now, because the Elderbeast spends his life on the internet, he’s exposed to the more … negative spectrum of the discussion around this film, so we spent much of our viewing discussing some of its perceived flaws of the movie—which gave me the opportunity to explain to him what Rian Johnson was attempting to do with a lot of the decisions he made. It turned out to be quite fun; a bit like watching a movie with a reverse commentary.

Reading

This week I went back to my Audible account to listen to the ‘autobiography’ of Alan Partridge (entitled I, Partridge). For those of you who aren’t aware, Alan Partridge is a fictional chat show host, and erstwhile radio personality, created by Steve Coogan. This autobiography is, therefore, written by Steve Coogan (and a number of collaborators) but more importantly, Coogan narrates it in his Alan Partridge persona—which obviously makes this essential listening.

For once the book lives up to its promise. There’s a lot of what I’ll call British High Street Nostalgia in it, for which I am the absolute target audiences. However, the main strength is Alan Partridge’s absolute conviction that he is some sort of media legend, while revealing his deficiencies with almost every word. He remains a genius comedy creation.

Press ‘record’

(October 13 – 19)

I found myself with a few hours of solitude this weekend, so I made my first real attempt at recording some audio versions of my stories. I’m not a great fan of my voice, so this is not something I ever expected to be doing, but enough people have suggested that my voice is relatively listenable that I figured it was worth a shot.

It was something of a challenge to get started as I’m relatively self-conscious, even when I’m on my own. I’ve had extensive experience of reading stories to my children over the years, but I tend to trip and stumble over words quite frequently and I’ve noticed that my voice gets tired and croaky in fairly short order (basically I’m just not a fan of speaking). 

I wasn’t sure how well the recording process would go but in the end it was pretty successful. I don’t know that the results are quite ready for prime time—there were a few stumbles, and I still need to stitch all the bits together—but I was able to record two complete stories without too many stops and starts. In short, the recording went better than I expected.

It’s an interesting challenge. Simply reading the story isn’t enough; some performance is required. You need to bring life—and voice—to your characters. You need to build the pacing, tension and atmosphere with your narration. In the end, you’re potentially stealing the reader’s voice and replacing it with your own, which is a pretty daunting enterprise.

Watching

Viewing highlight this week was a filmed called The Villainess (which came to my screen courtesy of Netflix). A brilliant, but inconsistent, film, it starts off with one of the most amazing action scenes I’ve seen to date (an impressive attempt to replicate a FPS action scene in movie form). This is matched by a remarkable motorbike chase, and a breathless conclusion. However, the middle sags a bit after transitioning a little too far into personal drama … but more or less makes up for it with some neat twists and turns. I think a little editing would have helped get rid of the excess weight here, but if you’re a fan of well-executed action movies you’ll want to check this one out.

Reading

While I may have stopped, started, and generally dithered with Wool, I’ve been tearing through Shift (the follow-up). I suspect this is because while I remembered Wool in relatively clear detail, all I really remember about Shift is that it added some pretty interesting background to the overall story, and had some good twists here and there.

I’ve also had one of those weeks where I’ve been listening to podcasts, and found unexpected themes running through them. Specific episodes were:

All are worth a listen, but OOAC did a particularly great job of exploring how much of modern horror is related to the patriarchy’s fear of women (specifically, of women attaining power, or attaining the same power over men that men currently possess). It includes a particularly great discussion about the differing lenses that men and women view the world through, and how that affects what we find scary.

In Scriptnotes, which always includes an assortment of topics of interest to any writer, one discussion jumped out at me. It revolved around whether a joke in a comedy film would be undermined by showing a topless woman, and went into fascinating detail about how male and female nudity, particularly onscreen, are very, very different things.

Finally, Imaginary Worlds looked at the history of the anime series Evangelion, including some fascinating background on the fan reception. However, this episode also featured some interesting commentary about character nudity, whether it was appropriate or not, and how much influence the context of the surrounding scene has on that nudity.

While the nudity aspect, of course, won’t have a great deal of impact on my writing, the knowldge that I see the world through a white, male, heterosexual lens is often at the forefront of my mind when I write, and frequently check my writing to see if I’m presenting a characters view authentically, or if I’m simply reflecting my own. 

Fingers crossed I’m successful at least some of the time.

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