Wednesday 24 June 2015

Earth 'Entering New Extinction Phase'

Words written: c30000
Stories completed: 2
Rejections: 59
Acceptances: 1

Earth 'entering new extinction phase', screamed the BBC news headline.

Except it didn’t.

When I first stumbled across the story it was number four in the pecking order, somewhere behind a baby being chewed by a terrier.  All highly unfortunate for said baby and its family, but not really on an all-enveloping scale compared to the story that caught my eye.

Later that day it fell to number eight, and was thence ejected to the ‘magazine’ section.

Douglas Adams would have loved it.

I’ve always been impressed by the human animal’s ability to see the relatively-trivial here-and-now and miss the glaringly relevant on the horizon.  A case of admiring the tattoo but not seeing the skinhead.

It’s inextricably tied up with wanting our jam today rather than the full cream tea tomorrow.  Human foibles that have a genetic basis in wanting our jam today because by tomorrow we’ve probably become somebody else’s cream tea (just ask that baby).

We may have invented the internet and self-checkouts and mortgages, but genetically we’re still hunting mammoth.  Talk about a species getting too big for its boots.  And we know where such hubris leads to, don’t we kids?  If not, cast your eyes back to the title of this post…

Thursday 11 June 2015

Star Trek - The Next Generation

Words written c28500
Stories completed 2
Rejections 54
Acceptances 1

I have to come to terms with the fact that the bairns don't like the original Star Trek.  In fact, scrub that: they hate it.

They find all the standing around talking boring.  They find the lack of shoot-first-ask-questions-later alien encounters boring.  They find the lack of whizzy CGI boring.  And when the obligatory science officer or ensign with a waist smaller than her hat size but a centre of gravity just below her neck appears, they practically hide behind the cushions in the expectation of Captain Kirk's impending sexual harassment.

I try to tell them that Star Trek is pure science-fiction: the fiction of ideas.  Each episode is like a science experiment, where you change one variable and see what effect that has on the world.  Except the variable isn’t pressure or temperature: it’s being able to implant ideas with a machine or what if the Athenian Gods were real.

I try to tell them that Star Trek has been the inspiration for more of the current generation of scientists than anything else (I may have embroidered a throwaway piece of anecdotal evidence I picked up somewhere).

But they just find it boring.

I find this odd.  Yes, it’s a bit static and talky and much more 1960s than twenty-third (or whatever) century.  But, they're nine and eleven, and bright, the sort of combination that should be intrigued by the ideas - and the best sci-fi is always about ideas, not robots hitting each other.

Thinking about this has led me to ponder two trends, but I’m struggling to decide whether they contradict or complement.

The first, let me illustrate by way of anecdote.  The Film Program on BBC Radio 4 recently ran a series of reminiscences over first film memories.  One man fell in love with cinema in 1950 at the age of nine by being taken to see The Third Man.  Chris Nolan watched 2001, mesmerized, at a similar age.

My point is this.  Fifty, sixty – even twenty - years ago there was a limited diet of what a young mind could be presented with.  Whatever Walt and Looney Tunes could provide was quickly consumed.  Get past a few cowboy B-movies, that week’s Children’s Film Foundation output, and very quickly kids were left with ‘adult’ movies (by which I mean The Third Man, I mean, not Shaving Ryan’s Privates).  Kids got to glimpse a more adult world, and in so doing had to get used to thinking.

Nowadays a child need not have their minds stretched unless they want to.  I’d like to show the kids The Third Man (we tried 2001, with disastrous consequences).  Instead, recent cinema trips have been for Big Hero 6, Paddington, Shaun the Sheep.  And when it’s not the cinema, there are DVDs, 24-hour kids’ TV, Minecraft, Fifa15.  There’s been an infantilisation of, not just cinema, but popular culture.

But, at the same time, we’ve got bloody good at it.  Compare those three movies I mentioned - Big Hero 6, Paddington, Shaun the Sheep – to, say, Doctor Doolittle, Mary Poppins, and Swiss Family Robinson – and I know which I’d prefer.  I even have a soft spot for Frozen, that cinematic equivalent to Slush Puppy.

Even so, it’s like we’ve taken baby food to a new level.  It’s haute cuisine baby food, two Michelin star baby food.  But it’s still baby food.  You have your teeth: use them.

And that, I think, is why Star Trek falls on deaf (non-pointy) ears.  Yes, its static and talky and badly acted and full of sexual harassment of the most jaw-dropping sort.  But its also full of ideas, challenging, stretching ideas.  But we don’t do ideas much any more when there’s so much plain vanilla available letting us get away with being superbly entertained whilst being barely challenged.

Bread and circuses and robots hitting each other.  Progress of a sort, I suppose.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

A Word on the Numbers (Three)... and Originality

Words written c28000
Stories completed 2
Rejections 48
Acceptances 1

The numbers quoted here are getting less and less meaningful - except, of course, for the acceptance and rejection tallies.  On the latter count I can report a 'near miss' from Triptych Tales for 'May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door' which made it through to the final round of evaluation but fell at the last.

The main reason the numbers now don't add up to very much is that I've spent the last few weeks cutting down a 91,000 word novel to 39,000 to squeeze it into's short novella submission window.  So, does that add up to minus 52,000 words written because I've deleted them?  Who knows?  Who cares?  I'll continue to log the new material I produce on stories going forward.

A more pressing conundrum concerns originality: originality in general, and of that cut down novel in particular.  The fact of the matter is that the first act of the original novel was workshopped on, some 30,000 words.  Which means that there's significant overlap between the first 9,000 to 10,000 words of what's gone to and what appeared on Jukepop.

However, not only have huge swathes of text gone for a Burton, it's had a rewrite; the main character is now a clone whereas he wasn't before.  It's not identical, albeit identical in places.  And the latter three-quarters of the novella are absolutely new to the world.  I could have changed the names of people and places but, frankly, that would have looked like a cynical attempt to hide things.

I haven't mentioned this in my submission as I want them to love it before they discover its baggage; in pitching the novel I mentioned jukepop as a strength (it was selected as one of the opening 30 stories), but several publishers used it as a reason for not even reading it.  But I mainly haven't mentioned it to because I regard it as original.

Meanwhile, a large chunk of the backstory that has been removed can stand on its own feet, having begun life as a short story in any case about twenty years ago.  I think it may even have gone off to Interzone in an earlier life.  But that has appeared  in its entirety on jukepop.  So I will change the names, locations - and, no doubt, in the process, give it an unrecognisable rewrite - and submit that as original because it will be by then.

Raymond Chandler, I think, quite frequently rewrote short stories into novels, virtually taking each sentence as expanding it into three or four in places.

And here's the rub.  If I were an artist I could repaint the same picture over and over and nobody would regard it as anything but original.  If I were a musician I could gig the same tracks over and over - in fact, it's what the moshpit demands.  How many sculptors or potters just turn out the same thing (hares? why hares?) week after week.  They become much loved signatures.

But, as a writer, try a variation on a theme?  A cover version?  You'll get edited out with extreme prejudice...