Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Inspirations #3: Haiku

In the 6th Form of my school I chose to study lots of Maths and some Physics too. Why? I was good at them. I really had no idea what I would do with them, though I had known for 6 years that I liked programming computers, and that's what I wanted to do.

During my mock 'O' Level exams I had written my first novel, excitingly called Genesis. It was a strange synthesis of all the SF/F I had been absorbing for ten years, but mostly combined the Lord of the Rings with E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series with some "Space:1999" thrown in for good measure.

It was really really bad. I wish I still had a copy of it.

Useful tip: Always keep a copy of everything when you're a creative because sometimes it's important to see how far you've come. This tip was first given to me as a guitar player, when I felt I wasn't really progressing, the book I was following suddenly (very timely-ly) suggested turning the guitar over and trying to play left-handed. That was what I was like when I started.

Proof I had progressed.

The same goes for writing. Somewhere I do have my second novel which I wrote fairly soon afterwards. But already I had progressed, the first was utterly derivative. The second opened with a scene that I developed from my own experience of living in London "high-quality" slums. For the first five years of my life I lived in a two-room flat with the rest of my family (4 others) with no toilet, gas lighting and cold-running water down the hall. Barely half a mile from the Houses of Parliament in London.

This second book was still SF but it was purer, grounded in reality and the characters were real with emotions. It was still rubbish. I still had more nonsense to get out of my system.

But I digress.

Our headmaster in his wisdom decided that all the arty types should have one lesson of science per week and the science/maths lot should have one lesson of English, which actually was a good idea. But I think I was the only person who thought so at the time.

Our teacher for this lesson, bearing in mind this was an all-boys school which had never had a female teacher (I think), was a strikingly attractive young woman, probably only a couple of years older than us. For some reason I always thought of her with the name Shadowfax. (Particularly silly since Shadowfax was a stallion.) It's also possible she wasn't that beautiful, but we were adolescent males.

So she had us study poetry and then hit us with haiku, and our homework was to write a haiku.

I wrote 18 of them. I just couldn't stop. A structured poetry form that encapsulated a visual and emotional image, and they just poured out of me. As if a dam had broken.

I discovered I could write. Something 150,000 words in rubbish novels had not taught me.

So for the next few years poetry became my medium. It wasn't long after this that I went to a big art event and sold poems that I made up on the spot with the subject supplied by the customer. The process is simple: (a) Get the person to describe the subject of the poem from their viewpoint; (b) write the poem expressing the emotions given to you.

And payment? I said "Pay me what you think it's worth." I was very well rewarded.

But even more rewarding was when, 20 years later, a young man came up to me and asked me my name, he pulled out his wallet and extracted a crumpled piece of paper. The poem his father had asked me to write for him when he was a baby. (Time to hand out the Kleenex.)

Must admit I'm almost choking up over it even now. That's real life.

Other inspirations:
  1. The Art of Words
  2. "It's a tragedy!"
  3. Haiku (this one)
  4. Art of Words addendum
  5. Perspiration

What's on the turntable? "Carey" by Joni Mitchell from "Blue"

Monday, September 29, 2008

Inspirations #2: "It's a tragedy!"

No, the Bee Gees are not one of my inspirations. Not that I have any animosity towards them.


As was previously mention (Inspirations #1) I was the Great Devourer of SF/F fiction - and fact, as it happens, my parents still own a copy of the Tomorrow's World annual from 1968, with its flying cars and two-mile high skyscrapers.

Now all those SF/F books tended to be in the heroic vein, a huge variety of heroes it's true, but in the end the protagonist would always win. Which is nice, of course, and very encouraging to a somewhat introverted young lad, a bit of a misfit older than his years.

My school had a decent library and it contained SF books, among all the rest. And there was one book called "Andra" by Louise Lawrence, which I duly checked out and began to devour.

Teenage female protagonist, no problem; dystopian future Earth, lovely; protagonist fails

... and dies. O! M! G!

Yup, a fatal tragedy, and aimed at teenagers too.

I have a copy of this book to this day. I love it. It taught me the power of tragedy. (And how to write a convincing dystopian society.)

(By the way, the first book to make me blub out loud was not Andra, that was just a shock, by "Mr God, This is Anna" by Fynn. A book with phenomenal imagery and a compelling tale. And it wasn't the end that made me cry, but the middle. OK, the end did as well, but not as much. It's a book I've had to keep buying because I give it away and it just gets passed on out of reach.)

Other inspirations
  1. Art of Words
  2. It's a tragedy (this one)
  3. Haiku
  4. Art of Words addendum
  5. Perspiration

What's on the turntable? "Coyote" by Joni Mitchell from "Hejira"

Breakfast and bed

It's almost 8:00am, Monday morning, and I've been at work for the last 23 hours ... awake.

I got home half an hour ago, had some breakfast and now I'm going to bed for about 3 hours before going back to work.

Hopefully the dust will have settled, we didn't make the target and we are so close.

What's on the turntable? "Kid Charlemagne" by Steely Dan from "The Royal Scam"

Friday, September 26, 2008

Inspirations #1: The Art of Words

So Stuart's non-specific meme about inspirations...

When I were a lad, knee-high to a grasshopper, my dear old Dad used to read to me each evening before I went to sleep. I'm not entirely sure but I think he only ever read me "The Lord of the Rings", but that took long enough.

He also possessed copies of the Astounding Science Fiction magazine, from the early 1950s, and he had Asimovs, Heinleins and Clarkes. Pulp paperbacks in profusion.

I gobbled them all up, then I discovered that the publisher Gollancz put their Science Fiction imprint on yellow covers which made them easy to spot in the library, I ate my way through their entire collection. I discovered Andre Norton, and her psionics stories.

There was no stopping me. Any SF and Fantasy, I would just read it all, and I read fast. I lived in this alternate universe and, to some extent, shunned a world that was grey and lacking in any adventure. (Although I did have a few adventures.)

At school one day I sat down in the Maths class next to a window and there was a book on the sill next to me: "Cider with Rosie" by Laurie Lee. I knew the TV adaptation had had naughty bits in it so, hopeful of something naughty in print, I opened it and began to read.

Reader, it changed my life.

It wasn't what he wrote about, it was the words. The poetry of prose. The magic of individual meaning. I won't claim that it drove me to be a writer; it was a couple of years before I started to write poetry and my first novel. But he caught me from the first sentence, almost the first word. And it was autobiography, no action, no heroes, just life.

It was "Cider with Rosie" that taught me how beautiful words can be, and since that time I've have striven to make my imagery as beautiful as his; though I know I fall far short of that ideal.

Other inspirations:
  1. Art of Words (This one)
  2. It's a tragedy
  3. Haiku
  4. Art of Words addendum
  5. Perspiration

What's on the turntable? "Tales of the Future" by Vangelis from "Bladerunner soundtrack"

I shouldn't be here...

... but I am.

It's Friday evening and I should be in my real home with my wife, kids and pets. But I'm not. I'm still in Reading because my job demands it. The website navigation that my team works on must be complete and running at a usable speed by Monday 9:00am (and miscellaneous other bugs fixed).

If it's not then 5 months work (mostly mine) gets thrown out the window.

Interesting to be in on this actually as I've never really been in this sort of situation before: I've run businesses, been part of businesses, but nothing bigger than, say, 50 people. And the ones I ran never exceeded 10 employees, usually just 3.

More to the point of writing: Stuart Perry has been blogging about 5 inspirations to who he is as a writer. It wasn't a meme but he suggested that other bloggers might like to take up the baton. As I'm still waiting for feedback on "Une Nuit a Paris" I shall take up this challenge. Starting in the next blog which I will write directly.

What's on the turntable? "One More Kiss, Dear" by Vangelis from "Bladerunner soundtrack"

Sunday, September 21, 2008


There's a thing.

My last three posts this evening all mentioned that Mike Oldfield's Incantations album was on the turntable ... currently it's the original Tubular Bells.

I realised that, apart from liking his music, I know virtually nothing about him.

So I looked him up. Wikipedia is generally great as long as the subject is not contentious, but as soon as you get into areas of dispute it's about as trustworthy as a compulsive liar.

Anyway, turns out Mike Oldfield was born and raised in Reading, Berks, where I am now. And that he moved with his parents to Harold Wood, Essex, which is where I was brought up. Though he is 5 years older than me, I might have passed him on the street.


What's on the turntable? "Tubular Bells, Part One" by Mike Oldfield from "Tubular Bells"

BBC's Merlin

I have no doubt, seeing as the BBC's Robin Hood has been popular, that Merlin will be considered a success; it was given a go on the second series before the first started airing last night.

I think it's fair to say that Merlin is better than Robin Hood but, in my world, that's not saying a lot. Personally I considered Robin Hood to be a travesty. I watched two episodes and gave up. When I was told it had "got better" towards the end of its run, I watched an episode. Better is a relative term.

Anyway, Merlin. I'm writing this on Sunday, on the train back to Reading from Manchester while it's fresh in my mind. I watched it a couple of hours ago, recorded from last night.

I'm willing to suspend my disbelief a long way, especially if the writing is good. The script of Merlin has played havoc with the Arthur myth, but that wouldn't be important if the script was good. I can't comment on the original script, since I haven't seen it, but I'm tempted to believe it was better than what we finally got, because there were flashes of brightness in a mire of unpleasantness.

Most of the acting was good, considering the material they were working with, apart from Guinevere who was certainly the poorest - then again so was her dialogue.

Alright, let's take Merlin's character: who is this idiot who picks fights with nobility? He just wouldn't. He's a nobody in a world where nobility have the power of life and death. His first encounter with Arthur (where Arthur is taunting a servant) Merlin treats Arthur like an equal – and suffers some consequences though there is no sense of danger.

Merlin apparently has the ability to do anything, any magic, without the need for mucking about with spells. He doesn't take anything seriously, even being put in jail or thrown in the stocks. Why not? Obviously there's no threat, he can do anything. He's Superman: A total goody-goody with unlimited power. Where's his inner conflict? He has none. In fact he's better than Superman because he can do it with his mind, at a distance.

This initial fight with Arthur? Merlin didn't need to say anything, he could have just had Arthur's trousers fall down. But there was the perceived structural need to set up a conflict between Arthur and Merlin and they go about it in the most unrealistic and gauche way possible. But if Arthur had picked on Merlin directly, then Merlin's response would, at least, have been more logical.

I'll just mention Guinevere's first dialogue: "Hi, I'm Guinevere but people call me Gwen." And this while Merlin is in the stocks and Guinevere has no reason to speak to him at all. They committed a fundamental no-no in script writing.

There are serious problems with the setting: Apart from being mock Medieval instead of early Dark Ages, the idea is that Uthor Pendragon (played by the inestimable Anthony Stewart Head) kicked all the dragons and sorcerers out of Albion.

But it is quite clear that these sorcerers were very powerful, never mind the dragons. So, how on earth did Uthor manage to defeat them? In fact he's far more likely to have used sorcery because that is power. This could have been mitigated by the introduction of Christianity – which could have provided a real threat to Merlin in the form of a powerful behind-the-throne figure.

Then there's the fact that not only can the nobility read and write, so can Merlin and his mother. Give us a break. Almost the only people who could read and write were the Clergy, and they maintained their power by keeping it that way.

No, there's no logic or consistency to the setting.

What about the initial set-up with the witch who wants to kill Arthur because Uther killed her son? (The "story of the week".) Why didn't she do her teleportation trick, or something else, to stop her son being killed? After all, she had plenty of time to prepare.

Then there's the dragon in the cave under the castle: It was just an excuse for CGI as far as I could tell.

One thing I did like, though I suspect many might claim it was unreal, was the singer, Lady Helen. Curiously enough I had recently listened to a radio programme that showed that concepts like the travelling troubadour (such as Robin Hood's Alan a'Dale) probably didn't exist. But members of the nobility with particular musical talent did travel about performing at feasts, celebrations and Holy days. So she was, perversely, one of the real elements.

Arthur's character was reasonable, no depth yet but the arrogance was nicely played. Uthor was probably as good as could be played. Morgana was nicely done. Making Guinevere a servant is slightly insane. (The fact that she is not white would have been far less of an issue, in this story, if they had set it in the early Dark Ages, shortly after the disappearance of the Romans, as it should have been; since citizens of the Roman Empire came from anywhere.)

But, ultimately, the character of Merlin is totally wrong. He has none of the sensibilities that anyone in any feudal period would have, even one with powerful magic. Even if he isn't at risk, what about his mother? He would keep his power in check for her, wouldn't he? He has no inner conflict at all, and wanders through the story like a simpleton as if it's all some game.

I had desperately hoped that I was going to like this. And the problems with the setting would have been tolerable had the script been decent. Unfortunately, for me, it wasn't.

What's on the turntable? "Incantations Part Two" by Mike Oldfield from "Incantations"

Being 50

Oooh, another blog in quick succession.

I am 50 today. Happy birthday to me. It now means that, according to last year's survey of British feature screen writers, I am now old enough to be employed as a writer of features. Hurrah!

I had a pleasant weekend, thank you for asking.

Yesterday morning I opened my presents. A couple of weeks ago Pam and I had gone to look for presents for a friend and in a tiny shop we found some great paintings. One of which was of the eyes of Dusty Springfield. Okay, I love Dusty Springfield and have done since the 60s.

My wife bought it for me, limited edition prints but the painter always writes something different on the back of each print and signs it, so each one is unique.

Yesterday evening the family went for a meal (that's the four of us, a nuclear family) at a local Indian Restaurant. Excellent food, excellent service, friendly atmosphere, and very busy.

Then today we went for a long walk with the puppy (the cats still hate him) and dabbled in industrial archaeology. The area we walked through was once filled with the mills so hated by Blake, but now its green and filled with trees. But you can still find traces, like the half-buried narrow gauge railway tracks running beside the reservoir.

Then we had fondue for lunch. The boy demonstrated the saxophone he's now learning to play (he already plays the tenor horn and piano).

I always claim that there's nothing special about being 50. I don't feel 50 anyway and most people assume I'm younger (which is nice). But I found the card I got with the big "50" on it a little disturbing. Could I be in denial?

Anyway that's 50 for you. Personally I'm planning on living forever.

So far, so good.

What's on the turntable? "Incantations Part One" by Mike Oldfield from "Incantations"

I can't write!

No I don't have writer's block ... I have a day job that seems to be eating into my nights.

More late nights this week re-writing some stuff that drives this big website, so that now it operates at a reasonable speed. The end of this week is the code freeze before launch which means that we're not supposed to write anything new, only correct things that aren't working properly.

We shall see.

What's on the turntable? 'Incantations Part One" by Mike Oldfield from "Incantations"

Sunday, September 14, 2008

That's a wrap (for monsters)

I think Monsters is as good as it's going to get for now so I need to package up my application form for the Red Planet competition and the first ten pages and get them into the post tomorrow.

And then there's the question of what next. Not really much of a question.

"Une Nuit a Paris" gets moved to the front burner from where it's been simmering at the back. Particularly as I just discovered the 8th Sept deadline was the early submission date for BFSC/Kaos and I until Nov 14th. This means I can get some decent feedback as well.

Which is good.

On the day job there was the final demonstration on Friday afternoon - after I had departed for northern parts. (They invited me to attend the demo, I declined. It was also my wife's birthday, not that it would have made any difference even if it hadn't been.)

Nobody got fired. Apparently the Powers-That-Be were satisfied with the progress. Now I just have to make it work fast enough to be useful in the real world.

What's on the turntable? "House Carpenter" by Pentangle from "Light Flight".

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What a week!

Talk about ups and downs.

Downs: Work has a been a bit of nightmare. Shouldn't really go into too much detail but there was the risk of people getting kicked out if a certain part of the project wasn't seen to be working by people higher up. Not me personally - but my team is implementing the bit that wasn't considered to be "working". Late nights all round. Had 5 hours sleep last night.

Hence no blog.

Ups: It can now be seen to be working. Big demo at 4:30 tomorrow, everything should be fine. Nobody needs to get fired and I don't have to be responsible for it. Phew.

More ups: On the script front I've wrapped up my Red Planet Prize entry, Monsters, which I've been refining over the past year with the help of script consultant Philip Shelley, plus David Bull and, more recently, Stuart Perry gave the first 10 pages a look over and made some very useful comments. (Lest we forget, the winner of the first Red Planet Prize had worked with possibly the world's most influential script consultant. It's essential.)

If you read Philip Shelley's website you'll see that he offers an extra service to the writers that he really rates: using his extensive contacts to help get them awareness in the market (maybe getting an agent or work). No guarantees, of course, but in this business that kind of patronage is worth its weight in gold.

As it happens I have, off my own bat, managed to secure the willingness of one agency (courtesy of the Screenwriters Festival) and BBC Wales (Dr Who, Torchwood etc) to at least read Monsters. But with Philip's help I hope to get my foot in the door right up to the thigh. (As it were.) And possibly squeeze all the way through.

Definitely a week of contrasts. Life can be fun!

What's on the turntable? "Omie Wise" by Pentangle from "Light Flight"

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Plot vs Character (again)

This is the perennial question ... what should comes first? Plot? Character? Both? Neither?

I was thinking about "Monsters" on the walk back from work, did I think of the characters first? Or the plot? Or the setting?

It was after Buffy had finished that I decided I wanted to write something to replace it. We'd had Alias which I sort of lost contact with somewhere into the second series. Dark Angel which eventually got quite good before it was canned. There was the faint promise of Ripper, something British by Joss Whedon, Dr Who hadn't returned and neither Supernatural or Heroes had been thought of yet (well, they might have been thought of, but anything public was far in the future).

So I thought, something similar but different. Not supernatural, not superheroic in the "this defies basic physics" sense (I love superhero stuff, I'm no slave to physics, it was just my thinking process). Definitely with a kick-ass lead teenage female.

So I decide on mutation and wrote a TV series bible for it, with lots of world creation. The lead character came first, the setting came second and that dictated the plot.

For "One Night in Paris" it was different. The setting was dictated by a song. Some of the supporting cast were suggested by the same and other songs by the same band. I had a rough plot and then I needed lead characters to fill it. I had to answer the question: "Who would spend one night in Paris and meet a prostitute?" The character was dictated by the setting and rough plot.

For "Running" again it was setting, and the dictates of the production company, that lead to character and plot simultaneously.

So which comes first?

It doesn't matter. It's totally 100% irrelevant. I might even suggest that if someone thinks it matters then they haven't yet attained a professional writing attitude -- or they're trying to sell something.

What matters is characters the audience can care about in a situation that demands their attention. Something that generates an emotional response, because that is what audiences really want. They want to laugh, cry, get angry, feel loved and loving, and all that emotional stuff. That's what really counts.

And the road you take to get to a script that delivers those things is irrelevant, as long as you do get there.

What's on the turntable? "From Now On" by Supertramp, on their Greatest Hits compilation. Supertramp tell stories with their lyrics, well worth listening to.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


I'm a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to poetry. I write it, I perform my own, I've been paid relatively large amounts for individual poems written on request -- and I hate reading other people's.

It's terrible. But I think the secret is in the "I perform my own", I prefer my poetry to be read aloud, I think it works best that way. And I am perfectly happy listening to poetry.

I may have mentioned that I love Joni Mitchell's songs, and one reason is that they are pure poetry, you can read them out loud without the music and they work.

How about this from "Old Furry Sings the Blues":

Pawn shops glitter like gold-tooth caps in the grey decay,
They chew the last few dollars off old Biele Street's carcass.

The images that invokes for me ... perhaps you too. Or from "Harry's House":

He takes a taxi into town
Yellow schools of taxi fishes
Jonah in a ticking whale
Caught up at the light in the fishnet windows
Of Bloomingdales
Watching those high fashion girls
Skinny black models with raven curls
Beauty parlor blondes with credit card eyes
Looking for the chic and the fancy
To buy.

Or from "My Old Man":

But when he's gone
The bed's too big
The frying pan too wide

Can you feel the rhythm of the words just reading it? I don't know, I've lived with these songs for decades and I never tire of them.

Just wanted to tell you.

By the way, want one of my poems? Possibly the shortest poem ever written. Four words including the title, with double meanings and a pointed message?


Have a nice time.

What's on the turntable? "California" by Joni Mitchell (of course) from "Blue"

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Monsters outline

So I'm pretty much finished on Monsters for the Red Planet competition, there's one scene that needs a bit of modification because the technology doesn't match what happens in the scene after. No big.

My first 10 pages are honed to perfection and carefully edited to hit a cliffhangar at the bottom of page 10. What? Every trick in the book, I say. Bill Martell says you should try to get some sort of mystery or cliffhanger at the bottom of every page. Something to keep the reader reading.

What is big is the problem of the one page pitch. I am truly rubbish at this. My ideas are so big, there are so many interleaved plot-lines, there's so much background, that it's "impossible" to do a quick and easy outline.

So I went back to basics. Who's the protagonist and what is her story? I also recalled from somewhere that you should concentrate on the emotion and character, less on the actual events. So I wrote six episode titles, figured out that I could spare three lines per episode for the page and put together an outline. In addition I use Aristotle's Dilemma, Crisis, Decision/Action and Resolution principles in the outline so that it told the story. It worked pretty well.

I need to go back to it for some editing but it's not bad considering how bad I am at this. Just read David Bishop who also points out thrillers should be have thrilling pitch docs, comedies should have unny ones and so on. What does that mean if you have a Teen Sci-Fi Detective Action Thriller? Hm.

I also added a paragraph that mentioned that this was the journey of the protagonist and that there were major plotlines covering the other major characters.

What's on the turntable? "Magic Touch" by Mike Oldfield from "Islands", not his best work in my opinion but listenable.