In Reality

In another life somewhere, I'm making money drawing comics. Lucky bastard.

In my ongoing bid to read more books than I have written…well, I’d rather neglected to do any actual writing. I’m not suffering from writer’s block; in point of fact, I’ve had the bones of several stories rattling around in my head for some time.

I think my main struggle in all of this has been knowing these stories so well that writing them feels like an uninspiring prospect. When one reads a favourite book for the umpteenth time one can find oneself anticipating favourite moments, perhaps even skipping ahead. Knowing the outcome can make the journey feel like a hike. Translate that to writing, and I find myself hitting a wall.

It’s not that I’m not interested in pacing the journey and having it unfold in an interesting way, but that I find my patience tested wanting to skip ahead and write one of the “big moments” that plague my imagination and inspired the writing of these stories in the first place, or worse still, abandoning one story to go off and write the big moments of another.

I once embarked on a project to write and illustrate a full length comic; the first problem I hit was wanting to skip the scripting and get stuck in to the drawing so I could see it take shape. Constructing panels and drawing scenes proved an even more laborious task, and I soon abandoned it. I will return to it; I need to.

Plainly, having these stories exist as theory in my head is no good, and so I started thinking about how I might go about getting one out quickly so that I could stop thinking about it. One of these ideas, I reasoned, could not only be told satisfyingly in a short story format, but may in fact benefit from a concise and pacey narrative.

This week I wrote a short story, “In Reality” which is a tale of regret, envy and self-destruction with a science fiction framework. I tried to take care to avoid writing a straight science fiction with elements of humanity, and instead write a human tale in which the science fiction serviced the emotion. The defining trait of science fiction, it is said, is to show how scientific advancements can affect our lives; my aim was to look at a particular, popular staple of science fiction and pinpoint its appeal to the human condition. It’s been well received by its limited audience, and is still a first draft, but it feels good to have made the transition from dream to reality, thoughts to words. Rewrites will follow shortly, and once I’m happy with it, all that remains is to figure out how best to get it seen by the people who might care to see it, and make that dream a reality too.

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If you should buy a book without taking a quick look at the contents

You read the caption. The caption is amazing. I won't bother writing an actual caption, because I've written captions before and I know they'll be equally read whether good or shit.

You are reading his blog. You clicked the link he posted several seconds before you read this sentence. The blog you read is terribly post-modern, the way that wearing a t shirt bearing the legend “I Am Stupid” with an arrow pointing at your own stupid face is post-modern. It’s also extremely condescending; it suggests that you usually only like that blog with the lolcats, and to find you reading is a surprise.

Are you bored yet? That’s roughly the number of sentences it took for me to decide that my impulse purchase of Italo Calvino’s If On AWinter’s Night A Traveler was a huge mistake.

The unfinished title should have been a tip-off; this reads like a book written by a man who really can’t be arsed writing a book. He’s written books before;you bought them, you’ll buy this. You know what books are like, you don’t need to read another one. Read this instead, which is like an idea for a book, but you fill in the blanks. It breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, but not in the way a novel formatted like a journal might; rather, as though the author is watching the reader and describing not only what the reader is doing while reading the book, but also assumes the reader’s thoughts and feelings in doing so. It’s not as confusing as it sounds, but it is a little infuriating. I’m sure in literary circles it might be seen as a deeply clever, original and true depiction of what the experience of reading a book feels like, but it is utterly dull as a result, failing to draw the reader in on any level. Which is why after only an hour or so I took it straight back to Waterstones and traded it for a book I read and loved in school, and had been meaning to revisit for some time: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day.

I'm currently reading 'Never Let Me Go'. It's like he knew.

It neatly filled the time I spent inhabiting Costa coffee like some bookish young thing while waiting for my girlfriend to finish work, and as I left it with her on the last day of my visit, I will be careful to avoid spoilers; suffice it to say, this is a deeply involving and moving, realistic portrayal of a human being who allows his misplaced sense of pride to interfere with the living of his life.

If you’ve only seen the film adaptation, do please read the book, as your experience of the tale is altered dramatically when viewed solely through the eyes of one character, who sees himself as an unreliable narrator, and who internalises constantly.

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Residential Care

"It wasn't me, guv"

With the latest instalment of the bafflingly popular Resident Evil movie series set to impose itself on our screens this “summer”, I am once again given cause to think of what might have been.

As a fan of the game series, I anticipated the first movie eagerly. With its pre-rendered visuals, recorded dialogue, constrictive controls and locked cameras, the original Playstation game that sparked off the famous survival horror series always played more like an interactive movie than a game. The upside to this was a deeply engrossing plot, endearingly awful quotability and spectacular set-pieces. So it was with some anger that I left the cinema after the credits rolled on a movie so loosely based on the game that it was barely recognisable.

This was Resident Evil in name only (a point I understand was conceded in the subsequent sequels with the addition of cameos from some of the series’ well-loved protagonists, though I am unable to confirm this, as the damage done by the first movie ensured my distance from the series) and that fact presents a conundrum: how far should a movie stray from its source material?

Invested audiences can be peeved by the most minor of alterations in an adaptation; I myself was mystified by the changes made to Walter Tevis’ triumphant novel The Hustler when I watched the overrated Paul Newman movie of the same name. By the same token, a movie can be derided for sticking too closely to its source material, as was the case with the loving Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and the ambitious but messy Watchmen. Still, with a reputation for making largely bad videogame licences secured firmly under his belt, one might have imagined that landing Resident Evil with its rich mythology and cinematic structure would have been a dream come true for director Paul Anderson*, but what we get is a 28 Days Later/Matrix mash-up cum shoot-em-up which throws out not only the plot of the game, but also its popular and recognisable cast, as well as side-lining its infamous setting.

Now I can see the need for a movie to differentiate itself from its source material, be that a game or a novel. The way the audience experiences each format is, of course, vastly different. But for a studio to buy a licence, only to veer so violently from the integral spirit of its source seems not only an unconscionable waste, but a block on more faithful iterations.

It has long been my (vague) dream to see the franchise rebooted under its original name Biohazard, resurrecting those infamous scenes and dialogue either with conviction or irony as the need presents, and servicing both old and new fans in a manner more befitting both them, and the series.

“Don’t open that door!”

*You may be aware that there are two directors named Paul Anderson currently working in Hollywood, and that the expanse in quality between their respective works is a lovely irony; Paul W.S. Anderson is the man who shat Resident Evil on the starry boulevard, as well as such other examples of gratuitous slow motion as Mortal Kombat and Alien vs Predator. Paul Thomas Anderson on the other hand brought us the well received There Will Be Blood and the rather good Boogie Nights and Magnolia. I may institute a sliding scale of Paul Anderson when reviewing movies in the future.

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Revolution In The Head

I never want to see the phrase "now a major motion picture" on the cover of any copy in my collection.

In my continuing quest to have read more books than I will write, I took some time out to read Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road last week, and to disturb my girlfriend by excitedly informing her that I was beginning to identify with the male character to a degree I described as “a little existential epiphany”. I should explain. I have not seen the film, and at this stage I was only at the end of the first act in the book, before things turn really sour. I’m not going to review the book, it’s a recognised classic and rightly so; suffice to say it is a must read. Instead, I’m going to explain why, by the end of act one, I felt this strange affinity for Franklin H. Wheeler, this tragic bastard who never learns; and how I have learned from the experience.

So what engendered this feeling of epiphany? Frank works a job he hates Frank works a job he likes to think he hates. He feels his ambitions are stifled, that he is destined for greater things. People always told him they expected great things of him, naturally he started to believe it. The problem is, he has no particular ambition. Sure, he’s ambitious, but completely unfocused; driven, but directionless. Moreover, the truth is, Frank is very comfortable in his job. He shows up, clocks on and switches his brain off for the day. It’s only when his wife reveals her plan to drop everything and fund a dream life for them, wherein Frank will finally be able to “find himself”, discover his greater purpose, that he discovers his natural aptitude for the job he already has.

Now, this is me all over. I got far too comfortable in my job, far too used to complaining about it yet doing nothing about it, believing it was stifling my creativity, and I got lazy. Now along comes my girlfriend and shows me the promise of this life we could have, where my creativity will be nourished, and sure enough, feeling impending freedom, I suddenly find I am good at my job. I could do it in my sleep, because, well I have been doing it in my sleep. But here’s where I differ from Frank; I am not pleased to find I’m good at my job, and I’m not afraid to pursue a vague dream. My ambition is slowly being revealed; I do at least know that writing a novel is one goal I intend to fulfil. Most importantly, I have a real goal upon which to focus: the life we will build together. She is everything to me, and not in the way April is to Frank; not an elusive shadow of a dream, but a true partner. Through her I have done what Frank could not: I’ve found myself, prosaic as that sounds.

So this was my epiphany, my awakening from the slumber of years in my comfortable life; I always knew I was destined for greater things, and now I know what they are. To be with her. If I’m successful in my career aspirations, it will be with her help. After all, she told me to buy this book. But I was the one who hunted out the original, Leo & Kate free cover. Teamwork.

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Chick lit- or is it?

Stephen King was desperately scraping the barrel in trying to pad out the 'U' section of his collected works

As part of my commitment to evade the trap of becoming one of those to have written more books than I have read, each time I visit my girlfriend I ask her to select a book for me to loan from her superior library. Well read as she is, when asked, she will often tell me that she is currently ploughing through some trashy, fluffy novel, light reading aimed at women and commonly referred to as ‘chick lit’. When she handed me Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, that’s as much as I was expecting. This shouldn’t suggest that I’m devaluing the merit of fun, fluffy, escapist novels; simply that I got more than I was expecting.

The story is an account of a high school massacre (the second book she has loaned me covering that subject, but that’s another story- boom boom) but while such heavy subject matter in itself may be enough to set it aside from its (mis)perceived contemporary fare, it is the style, care and attention to detail with which the story is told that had me engrossed.

The narrative switches between characters and time-frames, with varying success. For the most part, this shift in time between events preceding and following the massacre is hugely successful in maintaining the intrigue of the reader, drip-feeding puzzle pieces that hint at a satisfying whole, a well-crafted and honest story. Where this comes undone slightly is in its attempt to be used as a device for revealing a last minute ‘twist’ which ultimately is not entirely as surprising as the author likely intended. This is utterly forgiveable though, when paired with the shift between the various characters. It’s in this aspect that Picoult really shines, creating believable, likeable characters and relationships and allowing them to drive the story in a way that feels entirely unforced. In particular, by viewing the story from the perspective of both the victims and perpetrators of the crime, fleshing out each to ensure none are one-note, and never quite allowing us to be comfortable with our allegiances or sure with whom our sympathies should lie, Picoult forces us to question our preconceived notions about justice, its definition and administration.

It is a nice feeling to be surprised, and to have this book challenge preconceptions I wasn’t even aware I held,  regarding both its content and genre, was as sobering as it was pleasing.

I owe the loaner of the book for this, and many other things. I’ll try to repay her by creating a story as honest, and as intricate, and hopefully as entertaining.

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Mad Men

“There has to be advertising for people without a sense of humour.” Don Draper

These people could sell ice to the eskimos and sand to the a-rabs, and get away with such awfully racist sayings,because it was the '60s

Of the many gems to spill from the mouth of television’s favourite straight-talker, this has seemed most relevant of late. I don’t claim to be an expert in the field of advertising, but I know what moves and inspires me, and I know when an ad has had an impact on my decision-making. Humour can be a powerful tool when it comes to catching the attention of the fickle masses, but humour is not only subjective, it’s divisive. i.e. hearing a bad joke once might make you groan, but being subjected to that same bad joke at regular intervals throughout the day can inspire deep-seeded hate.  An ad that tries to be funny and fails can therefore have the direct opposite effect as intended, and put you off the product. I for one, will never sell my car to any rapping twat, or compare my insurance with some opera bastard.

It’s not always the case that the humour grates, but at times can land just wide of the mark. What inspired this post is the current surreal trend in advertising for employing cuddly bears with threatening personae as spokespersons for various products. It seemed to spring from the Fox’s biscuits ad in which a squat mafioso panda warned us to eat said “biscwits” (lol, “biscwits”) or else. Juxtaposing the goomba voice with the face of a tiny panda made him cuter than Joe Pesci, so while not amusing in the least, this ad was at least not as intriguingly disturbing as its successors;

Here we have the BirdsEye frozen foods series, casting perennial Hollywood villain Willem Dafoe as a stuffed polar bear inhabiting the freezers of busy parents and making veiled threats about the consequences of not selecting BirdsEye at dinner time:

“Ho ho ho, Green Goblin!”

More baffling and more disturbing still is the Travelodge series of ads featuring a gang of stuffed animals threatening violent reprisal for anyone disturbing the sleep of Travelodge guests. The term “gang” was not an arbitrary choice of description, as the bears act and talk in the manner of Eastend fugs who don’t wanna see you raand their manor no more:

Now, I may be alone here, but the thought of these characters watching over me is not likely to help me sleep.

With the excellent series due to return to our screens shortly, I hope modern day ad execs will take a leaf from the book of Mad Men and credit the consumer with the ability to maintain focus on the product, instead of trying to hold our attention with these nightmarish puppet shows. Animated animals with stupid voices are at best forgettable and dissociative from the product, and at worst downright irritating. Just tell me why I need this product in my life and I’ll buy it. Simples!

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Esther Rantzen knew only too well how challenging it could be to write a novel.

It’s said everyone has a good book in them, and in my case, I reckon I’ve got two. The challenge is to get them out. One is a loose portrait of my father’s life and work, based on tall tales and snippets of Chinese whispers gathered over the years, so deeply personal and, in some cases, potentially incriminatory that I scarcely dare begin to commit it to print. The other is an epic love story set across three time frames, deeply British and just a little odd. It’s set to meander along bitter-sweetly through two generations of repression and self discovery before skipping ahead to the far future. A little like Kazuo Ishiguro meets Philip K. Dick, and he brings flowers. My future wife told me she liked the sound of this (the story, not the unlikely meeting of those authors) and so I have naturally committed myself to writing it, for her.

Now I just need to get it out.

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