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Making a difference: one me at a time

One of my not-resolutions / aspirations for 2020 is to make better, more ethical, more environmentally-conscious decisions about the products that I buy and the services that I use. Just two weeks into the year and I’m already making changes and investigating options for other changes. So I thought it might be a good idea to blog about it all on a semi-regular basis, so I can share my experiences and hopefully get a few tips from other people who have been down this road.

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2020: Week 0

(January 1 – 5)

Before we begin, a few quick notes on the blog format for 2020. As with last year, the intention is to have my blog posts focus mostly on writing. I also want to make them a little more straightforward to write (and as a consequence, one hopes, better to read). Last year I ended up getting a bit drawn into endless write-ups on films and books, and while I do like writing about films/books/podcasts that inspire me, I’ve decided that I don’t need to write something about every single bit of media I consume. Therefore you’ll see two brand new sections below this one, with a little intro on each.

For the curious, I’ve labelled this first post as ‘Week 0’ partly because it’s not a full week (I’m stubbornly starting from Jan 1, instead of the closest Monday) but also because this week has been less about actual writing and more about setting things up for this year.

So what needs setting up? One of the first things I habitually do at the end of the year (or, more realistically, at the start of the new one) is to analyse my writing stats from the previous 12 months. That typically requires some extra time to update all of my daily totals in my tracker, to write them up in a blog post, and to then set up the tracker for the new year (and if anyone’s interested in checking out the spreadsheet I use for this, I’m always happy to share).

Next comes the blog. I’m usually a fair bit behind on the blog by the end of the year, but I always have my notes written up, and the Christmas break gives me the free time needed to turn them into readable blog posts. Once that’s out of the way, I finally feel mentally ready to set up the blog for the new year. This is usually requires nothing more than setting up a fresh Google Docs template to use, but as always part of the thrill of the new year (for me) is getting to start something new. That means I like to tweak the format (as covered above) and make sure the template is juuust right. 

For this year, the main change has been putting a table at the top of the template for me to log everything I’ve watched, read and listened to. Clearly this is not something that’s going on the eventual blog posts, but I find it tremendously helpful to have an ongoing log such as this.

And now, once all that’s done—cleaned up the old and prepared the new—I’m ready to begin.

Learning from the good

This new-ish section of the blog is for me to pick one thing that I’ve learned from something that I’ve watched, read or listened to, and which will hopefully contribute towards me becoming a better writer. That’s it. A bit like last year’s blog, but more focused.

One of my very modest ambitions for the two-week Christmas break was to finally sit down and watch the new Watchmen series. Now, watching nine episodes over two weeks might not seem that ambitious, but having two kids means I can only watch in the evenings (once the Kinderbeast has settled down—and sometimes one episode can take a loooong time to get through if the beast is not settled), and Christmas shenanigans means that my available number of evenings is also reduced (but for the best reasons).

I’d held off watching the show until now mostly because of Damon Lindelof who, in my experience, is a writer who distributes massive plot-holes and dangling threads throughout his work, and then fails to stick the landing. For that reason, I’d already decided to wait until the show had concluded before considering it safe to venture forth.

Well, the short version is that I’m now ready to completely reappraise my view of Lindelof because Watchmen is an incredible show that holds together from the very first moment, to the final scene. In a year that has seen some incredible television, this is easily one of the best shows I’ve watched.

But what have I learned from Watchmen? One of my favourite aspects of the show is the way it parachutes you directly into its world without any hand-holding. There are things going on which don’t get explained until towards the end of the series. There are numerous tiny details—things which distinguish this as a very different world from our own—that the viewer is not only required to notice by themselves, but are trusted to. Because of this, far from feeling lost and confused, I was utterly gripped right from the first scene. I didn’t always know what was going on, but I knew I wanted to find out, and I knew that I would be given all of the information eventually. Every moment was like its own little cliffhanger, built with the promise of a pay-off to the patient viewer.

It takes skill to do this, to bury exposition into every scene, but it also takes courage to trust that the viewers will join you for that ride. We see so many films and shows where everything is explained to us. For comparison, check the first episode of Daybreak (which I really liked) which makes an admittedly stylistic choice to use narration to set the scene, but still requires that you’ve fully understood the world you’re in by the end of the first episode.

In my own writing I naturally try to keep exposition to a minimum—since exposition is the enemy of good writing—but I’ll look back on Watchmen as evidence that you can trust the reader so long as the world you’re building is compelling and fully realised.

Fixing up the bad

This section is for me to look at an area of my life that requires some degree of improvement. Ideally writing related, but probably not every week since that’s likely to get repetitive in short order.

Before the New Year I’d considered taking a break from social media. There are a few reasons for this: mostly that it’s depressing to see how awful [a small minority of] people can be; but also because the people in charge of platforms like Twitter and Facebook seem to have no interest in cleaning things up and working harder to protect their more vulnerable customers (or products, if you like). So, it’s hard for me to keep supporting platforms that work this way.

But, there is also a lot of good on social media: I engage with friends there; I keep up with news; I learn things every day that help broaden my understanding of the world. Hence the idea of taking a break, just to see if I missed it or not.

In the end, I did not take a break as whatever it was that was driving me to do so seemed to diminish over the last couple of weeks of the year. Maybe it was Christmas spirit 😉

Instead, I’ve decided to take a more active approach to blocking people. If I encounter anyone that I feel compelled to engage with in a negative way, or that really makes me despair of humanity, then I simply block them: out of sight, out of mind. There’s a risk that it will turn my twitter into a bit more of an echo chamber, but my opinion remains that you should tolerate and analyse a wide range of views, beyond your own, but you don’t extend that courtesy to Nazis or to people who actively promote harm to others. You do not tolerate the intolerable, and you do not offer balance to those who have no intention of engaging in good faith in the first place.

And, so far, it’s working.

… my only friend

(December 22 – 28)

Woohoo! The story is finished! There’s not really much left to say at this point, other than let the story speak for itself. You can read it on Vocal.

Watching

With two weeks of not having to go to work, I decided that it was finally time to settle down and ‘binge’ the new Watchmen TV series. So far it’s every bit as good as everyone says it is, but my version of bingeing is a maximum of two episodes an evening (less if I get interrupted by kids) and not every evening is going to be free for TV viewing, so we’ll see how I go—and there will be thoughts when I’m done.

I did manage to finish up The Mandalorian however, so here are some thoughts on that. Firstly, this was a fun ride through the Star Wars universe; don’t expect anything more than that, and you’ll have a fun time watching it. Also, Baby Yoda is a stroke of genius—you can be as cynical as you want about why Baby Yoda was created in the first place, but he’s the character that keeps us coming back to the show each week.

There were some minor issues. The first three episodes tell a compelling ongoing story (and one of the best tricks The Mandalorian pulls is to make you think it’s a bounty hunter show, only to tell you in the second episodes that it’s a Lone Wolf and Cub show instead) and definitely earn the ‘chapter x’ prefix that each episode bears. Unfortunately, it actually does then devolve into a bounty of the week format for several episodes which, more than anything, gives the impression that the show is treading water—a bit unforgivable when the series is only eight episodes long. Things come back together for the two-part finale, but I would rather all eight ‘chapters’ had been used to tell a cohesive long-form story.

Reading

I’ve already been distracted away from Norse Mythology.

ComiXology had one of its infamous, wallet-draining sales on so I picked up a few treats. First was a digital expanded edition of Watchmen, which I shall read once I’ve finished the show. In addition to that I picked up two collected volumes of Kieron Gillen’s amazing Darth Vader comic—which does an excellent job of taking the character of Vader from the slightly risible one-dimensional villain we see in A New Hope, to the ultimate galactic badass of Empire Strikes Back. I’m particularly looking forward to revisiting Doctor Aphra and her psychotic droids that hilariously parallel R2-D2 and C3-PO.

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.

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