The non-writing bit
So, lately, I’ve found a little more spare time than I expected to, and I’ve been able to expand my entertainment horizons a little. Firstly, I finally completed Silent Hill 3 — that’s a nine-hour game from start to finish, and I somehow stretched it out to last around fourteen months. On the reading front, I’ve been concentrating on H.P. Lovecraft, which has been an interesting experience; and when it comes to television and movies, aside from watching some truly excellent South Korean productions (including the superb I Saw The Devil, which I recommend unreservedly) I’ve been watching a number of sci-fi and fantasy shows that I’d been meaning to try out.
Seriously. If you haven’t seen it, go and watch it.
First amongst these, as mentioned earlier, has been Doctor Who: it’s a series that spirals from crap at one end to pretty good at the other, and is good enough in its good moments to hold my attention (and has an excellent Doctor), though after six or seven episodes it still doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Also in the list is the (apparently unfairly-cancelled) Dresden Files, which is mostly decent but occasionally descends into the realm of naff, predictable tropes. And to cap it off, I’ve also watched the first third of the first half of the pilot mini-series of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. (As I’ve said before, I like to come to shows quite late.)
But so far, given what I’ve seen, Galactica fails to grab me — and I’ll try to illuminate roughly why. So far, the story is as follows: There was a war between Cylons and Humans, the latter group apparently having never read any Isaac Asimov. Then the war ended, and the Cylons went away for a while, presumably a nice vacation with beaches and a massage chair.
Forty years later, the Cylons came back in a Little Red Dress and kissed a guy while things blew up for no apparent reason. (I assume the reason for the blowing up will become clear; but the reason for the kissing is certainly ratings, no matter what spurious reasoning they offer later.) Then, the Red Dress Cylon snapped a baby’s neck before having sex with some other dude and glowing a bit. Either that, or there are multiple red-dress women who all look the same, which could be possible, since she’s apparently a robot, and you can make two of them look the same if you like. However, two other non-Cylon people had a pointless and obviously pre-sex fight which began to become sex, and…by this point I was completely, painfully bored. Galactica is, so far, apparently all I feared; a bad soap opera that happens to be set in space.
“By the way, I’m sleeping with your evil twin Boris. And your sister Marge.”
What keeps my attention is the stuff that is, currently, lingering around the edges of the crap bits. That stuff is interesting, it’s legitimately science fiction, and it seems like it could become something good. But it damn well better stop hanging around the edges and get into the middle, or I’m going to get bored.
And that’s it, really. I can live with crap, but not boring. That’s how I survived the early episodes of Doctor Who, as I was amused, bemused, and confused, but never exactly bored. And I’ll watch Mega Shark versus Crocosaurus, and as crap as it is I’ll enjoy it, because the nonsense is rarely dull. But predictable and boring will make me turn off, and make me very hesitant to turn back on again.
The Writing Bit: Part 1
To begin with, I come to Mr. Lovecraft. Not his writing, which a friend summed up for me succinctly, and which is excellent for what it is. But more to do with something he wrote about writing, which is something that I think proves perfectly that not all writers are the same. It’s from a list of points that he wrote about what writers should and shouldn’t do:
“It would not be amiss for the novice to write the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be.”
Firstly, this almost entirely describes the process of what I would do if I wanted to hate my writing and never return to it. I can’t write this way. I may have the ideas of a plot, perhaps, but I don’t always know where it’s going, and the idea of sitting down and drafting the plot out makes me inclined to chew off my own feet. But secondly, I think it deeply highlights Lovecraft’s shortcoming, as well as his strength. His work is seemingly rich in description and idea, but generally weak in character; and that’s a really important fact when you look at the above quote.
Sometimes, fiction is plot-driven, as with Lovecraft and some others. Other times, it’s character-driven; and when it’s driven by the characters, sometimes they’ll take it places you don’t expect. I used to read quotes from other writers, talking about how their characters had lives of their own, and I used to laugh at the idea because it sounded like nonsense. But now, I’ve written enough to know it’s true. Sometimes, I may expect a certain set-piece to come up, or for certain events to happen, for certain characters to end up in certain places. And then, when it comes down to it, they end up doing something completely different. The set piece never happens, and the characters end up in all the wrong places. But I don’t complain about it, because when it happens, it’s almost invariably right. And it’s nothing that I could predict in a plot synopsis; the only thing I can say for certain about a plot synopsis for me is, if I write it before I write the story, it’ll be wrong by the time I’m finished.
However, there’s another quote from another author — one Mr. Vonnegut, who you may be familiar with, and who I am somewhat ashamed to say I’ve read very little of (though he, like Lovecraft before him, is on my List To Read — I will get to him, hopefully sooner than later). And he had this to say, with regard to eloquence and editing:
“It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”
This echoes greatly what Stephen King commented in his own book, “On Writing”, when he talked about having learned about the importance of editing. Removing the superfluous and the unnecessary is like making Scrumpy; you’re not weakening, you’re concentrating, turning your story into a more potent brew. Sometimes, words can be left, because they add beauty to what is written; but sometimes, the words simply add words, like the unnecessary water in that barrel. Getting rid of them is a good thing.
The Writing Bit: Part 2
Away from other authors, I come to myself, and the strange function of the unconscious mind, and specifically the way that information creeps into the brain — sometimes incomplete, and sometimes only shadows of things — without you noticing. I have a terrible memory for many things. I remember story names, author names, actor names, people’s names, with unerring inaccuracy. In my attempts to describe a movie, I may well describe it as “that movie, with that guy who was in that other movie with the thing”, or something equally helpful. I will eventually remember some key detail that lets someone else remember what it is I’m talking about, in essence using other people’s memories as a kind of external storage device for my own.
However, things get in without me knowing, and that happened to me today. I was reading the news briefly, and noticed that: A) An Everton defender had been denied a goal in his match, and B) the name of the Everton defender looked worryingly familiar. It turned out that one of the more important second-tier characters in my novel had exactly the same name; and seeing it come up in print was a shock, because until that point I believed it was a name I’d made up. Somewhere in my brain, though, the names must have been linked. The character’s first name was given to him over a year before he acquired the second, and somewhere in that time I must have seen this name in passing. Not important enough for me to remember it, or remember who it was; but it still made it into my brain somehow, and then treacherously crept back out when I was trying to think of a surname for my character.
And he looks almost exactly how the character in my novel doesn’t.
So, now I need a new surname for him. However, as much of a shock as this was, it’s still not too terrible — the name may suit the Everton chap, but in all honesty, the surname never really suited the guy in my novel. So I get a kick to think of a new one! Hurrah!
(And, also, I get a fine reminder to Google all the names in my novel before I’m done. Mr. Distin is the second name I’ve had to scratch because of something like this.)