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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.

The End of The Peace

(October 6 – 12)

This is the last week of the school holidays, and my last chance until Christmas to take advantage of the relaxed morning routine. I ended up making pretty good use of this bonus time by completing rewrites of two stories: one being the second edit of the story I finished last week (which is shaping up nicely); the other a rewrite of a story I wrote last year (and which I really enjoyed revisiting).

The most exciting news of the week, however, is that a friend of mine (who has spent the last year building an impressive side-career as a voice artist) sent over an audio recording of another one of my stories. It’s fascinating how different the experience of listening is from reading. I could edit a story a dozen times, but there are things that jumped out at me in this recording that I really wish I’d captured and fixed earlier. 

This is the first of the stories that I hope will fill the first season of my upcoming podcast, and I’m finding myself really keen to re-experience some of my other stories in this way.

Watching

This week I started watching NOS4A2 (or, more correctly, NOS4R2 if you’re british in persuasion). It’s one of a long list of shows I’ve been excited about (in this case, having read the book) but have generally failed to watch with any great urgency. I’m liking it so far: I particularly like the characterisation of the two main players (Vic and Maggie). I’m also enjoying the slightly unconventional way that it’s filmed—more like an indie drama than a horror movie/show. Given these other stylistic choices, the extremely on-the-nose makeup for Charlie Manx, the main villain of the piece, seems rather misplaced. I’m engrossed thus far, but I do worry if the slow pace and general unwillingness to capitalise on the out and out horror opportunities buried in the story may find my attention waning.

For Horror Friday we went for a repeat viewing of The Cabin In The Woods (which I think I’ve only watched once). I’m still blown away by how funny, clever and properly horrific this film is. It boggles my mind that it was almost left on the shelf due to lack of confidence. 

Reading

This week I finally finished Wool. Yay me! I went straight from that odyssey into the sequel, Shift, which I’m pretty excited about reading again because I remember almost nothing about it—except that it was interesting. Sure enough, I’m racing through it so far, but I expect it’ll take me a few weeks as it’s a bit of a chonker.

In audio news, I also discovered a podcast all about M.R.James stories—entitled A Podcast To The Curious—and checked out a pair of episodes dedicated to Casting The Runes (which, you should all know, provided the basis for one of my favourite movies, Night Of The Demon). It was pretty good and I’ll definitely be checking out some more.

In less successful listening, I picked up the audio comedy series Heads Will Roll from Audible. This has been on my wish list for some time now, mainly due to the involvement of Kate MacKinnon, who is a comedy goddess, and probably just a goddess in all ways. It was, as expected, really, really funny but somehow lacked something for me. I’ll most likely check out the rest of it, but it wasn’t the compelling listening experience I was hoping for.

Holiday planning

(September 29 – Oct 5)

This week marks the start of the school holidays, which means a two-week reprieve from preparing lunches and dropping the Kinderbesten variously at bus stops or schools. It also means a chance to get back into a more productive writing routine in the mornings (my morning routine has been flagging a lot lately, partly on account of having to spend much time coercing kinderbesten into action, but mostly because I just need to get up earlier).

Things got off to a pretty good start with me wrapping up the first draft of a new story I’ve been working on. I’ve been pretty keen to get back into my novel again, but it requires little more plot scaffolding first, so I chose to jump right into a second draft of the aforementioned short story instead.

However, I did develop a pretty cool planning spreadsheet for the novel. I spent the best part of an evening on it and I think it’s really going to help. I’ve got rows for each chapter, and various columns to cover things like character beats, plot developments, and relationship shifts that I want to track. I even worked out a neat way of getting a bullet point plot summary for each chapter in there. I don’t think I’ll need to add a wealth of detail to this spreadsheet, but it’s already helping immensely by giving me a single view of the plot and showing me where things need to happen, or where various plot points can be moved to for best effect.

Not bad for a night’s work.

Watching

On Sunday I decided to check out the new Netflix movie, In The Shadow Of The Moon, on the basis that the trailer looked pretty interesting, I like the premise, and the word of mouth has been good. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a damp squib in the end. It was perfectly well made, and built up an interesting mystery … only for things to go exactly where I was expecting them to go to and then … stop. Maybe I’ve watched too many time-travel movies, but I expect a lot more timey-wimeyness from them these days.

Things didn’t improve much later in the week with Moon 44, which to be fair I deliberately chose because it looked terrible (and I love a good bad movie). This was Roland Emmerich’s first movie, but played like a straight to video sci-fi actioner than desperately, desperately wanted to be seen in the same echelon as Aliens and Bladerunner. I have to say that the production design was first class, and with a more artistically inclined director at the helm this might have been more fondly remembered. However, things were further let down by a fairly laughable script. Overall, it passed the time, but wasn’t good enough to particularly interesting, and wasn’t bad enough to be fun either.

Reading

I left the Nest Cottage Chronicles behind this week in favour of another Doctor Who audio tale. I love What If tales (which typically posit an alternative version of familiar stories based on the impact from one minor change, in case you didn’t know what I was talking about), and Big Finish did a series of these with their Doctor Who audios at one point. The series was called Doctor Who Unbound, and I picked up a particularly well reviewed one called Sympathy For The Devil for peanuts on the Big Finish website.

The premise is that the third Doctor, starting his exile on earth, arrives much later than planned and is therefore not around to prevent all of the catastrophes that Jon Pertwee spent his early years as the Doctor dealing with. Further piquing my interest was the casting of David Warner as the Doctor, and Mark Gatiss as a new version of the Master. It was also a treat to hear David Tennant, with full Scottish accent, playing a particularly angry UNIT sergeant some years before he scored the role of the Doctor himself.

None of that will mean anything unless you’re a Whovian of course.

Great listening (though I gather not all of the entries in the Unbound series are as satisfying as this one.)

Silent writing

(September 22 – 28)

This week’s writing efforts have solely comprised more work on the new short story. I’ve got a good feeling about this one – which more or less translates to me enjoying writing it. It combines a lot of the things that I most enjoy: oddball humour, a slightly dark and twisted view on things, and some satisfying ewww moments.

I suspect work on this one will wrap up next week.

Watching

Continuing with the Elderbeast’s goal of watching all of the films in the IMDB top ten, I was very excited to introduced him to 12 Angry Men over the weekend as I’ve not watched it myself for many years (indeed, my bluray copy was still in the wrapper). I deflected an initial comment along the lines of “but how can it be good if it’s in black and white” and we got stuck in. Obviously it remains a masterpiece, and the Elderbeast remained absorbed throughout. Excellent.

I love films that revolve around locking a group of diverse characters in a room and seeing what happens. Because the premise forces the writer to focus on character rather than plot, films like this usually end up being pretty rewarding (although 12 Angry Men is, of course, in a class of its own). 

Friday’s horror film was a Netflix oddity called Munafik 2, which I had hoped would fit into the line up of pretty cool international horror movies we’ve delved into from time to time. While it had its moments, it turned out to be more of religious tale featuring some (admittedly very effective) supernatural moments. It’s certainly unusual, as a Western viewer, to be exposed to a story that is so thoroughly steeped in Islam as this one was, but we figured no different than The Exorcist, which is obviously a heavily Christian film.

The weekend also delivered a viewing of Aliens with my Awesome Partner, which was naturally awesome. Nuff said.

Reading

This week I delved into a set of Doctor Who audio dramas I picked up on Audacity, collectively known as The Nest Cottage Chronicles. These particular stories, released by the BBC in 2015, marked the first time Tom Baker properly returned to the role of the Doctor since leaving the TV series in 1981. The entire saga comprises 15 tales, running more than 17 hours and was an absolute bargain given I was able to grab the whole collection with a single credit.

While the production and performances are uniformly good, there’s a curious narrative choice made to tell the stories in flashback. In short, this means they revolve around the Doctor sitting there and telling his companion about things that have happened in the past. While those past experiences are all fully recreated via the magic of full-cast audio, it stills keeps me, as a listener, one step removed from the events. It tends to emphasise that these events are happening to someone else, rather than allowing me to be some sort of omniscient observer passively participating in them. Odd choice. Not sure if I like it.

A podcast by any other name

(September 15 – 21)

Planning for the podcast took a few leaps and bounds this week. My Awesome Partner came up with the perfect name for the show: Slightly Odd Tales, and this inspired me enough to put together some basic artwork, which you can see below.

I spent the rest of the week putting this artwork to good use by setting up placeholder Medium sites (where the written versions of the stories will live) and Patreon pages (where people can throw money at me should they feel so compelled). While the podcast is still several months away, this all felt like great progress.

I also started a new short story which I’m pretty excited about.

Watching

I watched two films with the Elderbeast this week, starting with Friday The 13th Part 3 for horror friday. I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one, except it remains as much fun as the first time around. One of the tropes of the Friday The 13th films seems to be that at least half of the characters must be as annoying as they can possibly be, so that we end up really, really looking forward to their inevitable deaths.

For Saturday night, continuing with the Elderbeast’s bid to watch the top ten IMDB movies, we watched Pulp Fiction. This was borderline age-inappropriate, but I made the call that the Elderbeast could handle it—and I’m glad I did.

Pulp Fiction arrived in cinemas at the same time that I was studying film at university, and watching it again reminded me how hugely exciting it was at the time. Revisiting it now after many, many years was a real treat, and it was a joy to see how easily the Elderbeast connected with it.

It’s interesting to note that, even with his second film, Tarantino displays a certain indulgence in some scenes, when he would have been better served reaching for the editing scissors. This is most obvious in the early parts of Bruce Willis’s segment which features a lot of ‘character building’ that doesn’t really move anything forward, and suffers deeply in comparison to the overwhelmingly brilliant John Travolta / Uma Thurman segment. However, it’s one minor dip in a movie that otherwise remains excellent—and this weekend’s viewing was a welcome reminder of why Pulp Fiction is so highly, and rightfully, regarded.

Reading

This week I felt compelled to revisit the audiobook of The Dispatcher (written by John Scalzi, performed by Zachary Quinto). I listen to this a year or two ago, and enjoyed it a lot, but was thinking about it last week and realised that I couldn’t remember a great deal about it. I remembered that it had something to do with people no longer dying, and that the idea was wrapped around a pretty decent detective mystery … and that was about it.

Well, I’m obviously not going to spoil the story for you here, but it was a rewarding listen, even the second time around, and John Scalzi did a good job of exploring the themes brought up by his central concept without them overloading the story. A great example of a big idea wrapped up into a relatively neat little novella.

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