Thursday, 31 December 2009

Dances With Blue Wolves

I went to see Avatar.

The short review: Wow. Just wow.

The longer review:

I’ve heard a lot of comments on the “predictability” of the movie. Often this is mentioned in a sad way, along the lines of “but he could have done so much more if the story wasn’t so predictable”. Sometimes it’s harsher, as in “pretty to look at, but such a hokey plot”.

But I’m thinking that “predictable” isn’t such a bad thing.

I’m thinking, for instance, every time I pick up a fantasy novel I know, in a larger sense, what’s going to happen. The protag will face many dangers and adventures but in the end good will triumph over evil, more or less, depending on the level of sophistication of the particular book. People who read crime novels know the crime will be solved and the criminal brought to justice by the end. In every romance novel the hero and heroine will overcome their differences and find love by the end.

I like knowing there’s a feelgood ending coming. Predictability in this sense is a good thing. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re reading a romance and three-quarters of the way through the book the heroine kills the hero and goes off to become a nun to atone for the crime instead. (Not that I ever have read such a book, but you know what I mean. People have expectations they bring to the reading experience.)

Movies are no different. Nobody goes to see a romantic comedy expecting exploding cars and a high body count. Nobody thinks the characters in an animated movie are going to sit around drinking beer and moaning about property prices.

Occasionally there’ll be a “cheater” movie like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects which produces a twist ending that changes everything you thought you knew about the movie you just saw. Such movies are a delight but extremely rare. And I don’t think anyone was expecting such a stunt from Avatar.

If you saw the trailer you knew exactly what to expect. Big bad business wants to pillage and destroy natural beauty and resources, native greenies (blueys?) resist, led by soldier-with-a-conscience who changes sides. Soldier goes native, romance ensues. Plus there are all the characters and elements you’d expect – the power-mad warmonger, the “voice of reason” scientist, the ruthless businessman, the battles, the explosions, the “let’s humiliate the new guy” scenes as the hero tries to learn the native ways …

I suppose that’s the “predictability” people mean. Same old characters in the same old situations we’ve seen so many times before. It really is a lot like Dances With Wolves in many ways, though more upbeat. I can see why some are asking why it always has to be the white guy who has to become a better native than the natives themselves and save everybody. Why can’t the natives save themselves for a change?

I wonder if this is why they made the hero a paraplegic, to head off these accusations of white privilege. Yes he’s a white male, but he’s in a wheelchair, so he’s also a member of a minority.

So … predictable on a larger scale: yes, but that’s not a bad thing. Predictable on the smaller scale of the plot line: yes as well. Which may or may not be a problem, depending on your expectations. Me, I like a surprise as much as the next person, but I wasn’t going to see this movie for the storyline.

I was there for the magic, and I got that in spades.

People who know about such things have talked about the groundbreaking effects, the historical cinematic significance of this movie. What that means is that when the hero took a corner at dizzying speed through the treetops I felt the world tilt. Everything seemed so real I’m still thinking about it and feeling disappointed that it doesn’t really exist somewhere. There was no sense that you were watching actors dressed up in funny outfits, the way there is when you watch Star Wars. There was no feeling that the exotic beasts didn’t quite come together. I could never quite believe in the wargs from The Lord of the Rings movies, for instance, much as I loved those movies. They were a little jerky, somehow not quite “real” enough for me. Not so with the denizens of Pandora’s forests.

The thing that this movie pulled off better than any I’ve ever seen, and the reason I enjoyed it so much, was that elusive “sense of wonder”. Watching it is like being a child in fairyland, enveloped in a magical dream. Admittedly things in fairyland don’t eat you quite as much as things do on Pandora, but wow. Just wow. And so I’m back to the short version of my review.

It was such a visual treat. It’s an unashamedly pretty movie. The Lord of the Rings movies were beautiful, but in a grown-up grey and grungy way. Avatar can do majestic too, but in glorious colour, full of ultraviolet delights and gorgeous plants and creatures. Even the blue people are beautiful. And that Hollywood tape! Man, I wish I knew how the female lead kept her necklet arrangement plastered so cunningly to her breasts through every death-defying leap and battle scene.

So I was dazzled and delighted, but didn’t entirely lose my objective senses. Some minor plot holes annoyed me, though not enough to stop me loving the movie. Naming the McGuffin* “unobtainium” seriously irked me – come on, guys, if you can’t take yourselves seriously, no one else will – but again, not enough to stop me loving it. Having a McGuffin in the first place, ditto.

It had flaws, but none of them were that bad. And what it got right was so amazing that I’d go see it again tomorrow. In 3D. On the biggest screen possible.

There’s a scene late in the movie where we see the paraplegic hero in shorts for the first time. His legs are wasted, as you’d expect. I spent quite some time wondering how they’d managed to make the actor’s legs look like that. Were they someone else’s legs superimposed on his body? Eventually it occurred to me how stupid I was being. I’d never questioned the entire alien world or the 12-foot tall blue people, and here I was wondering how they could make a healthy guy’s legs look wasted.

It’s that real. You’re really in this incredible, beautiful place. You can’t believe it’s just a movie. And even though it was a long one, I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to stay immersed in this amazing world.

And that’s what every creator wants – to give their readers or viewers that total immersion in their creation. For others to believe, for a couple of hours, that what they have imagined is real, that big business doesn’t always win, that the guy will get his girl and that blue people have the best Hollywood tape in the business.

*McGuffin: some object that doesn’t do anything plot-wise other than motivate the characters

Thursday, 24 December 2009

'Twas the night before Christmas

… and all through the house, not a creature was sleeping. Except Baby Duck, who’s worn out from the elevated levels of anticipation. The other two ducklings are lying in bed talking and giggling, despite repeated warnings that Santa Will Not Come until they’re asleep.

It’s now 10:30 and looking like being a looooong night. A little while ago I even threatened to stop Santa on the doorstep and tell him to take all the presents away unless they go to sleep Right Now Dammit.

“Yes, Mummy,” they say through their lying little teeth, then start giggling again before I’ve even made it all the way back down the corridor.

I can’t believe it’s Christmas again already. It feels like only a few months since we did this all last time. Where did that year go?

We went to church tonight, to avoid the rush in the morning. Ha! Us and 57 billion other people. Still, it was a children’s mass and very sweet, with a real live baby – a very fresh one, judging by the size of it – playing the part of the baby Jesus. So cute, though I don’t think I could have done it if it were mine. I’d be busy picturing the 10-year-old Mary dropping my precious bundle.

However, no babies were harmed in the making of the pageant, so it all worked out. The Carnivore sang with his usual gusto and inaccuracy. In Hark the Herald Angels he sang “late in time behold Him come / offspring of the Virgin’s wum”.

“What?” he said when I gave him a funny look. “Womb doesn’t rhyme with come. I always want to sing thumb – or something even worse …”

Is it a sin to laugh in church?

I hope you all have a lovely Christmas. And if you have children, I hope you get some sleep and that the sun is actually up when your little ones bound in full of excitement. Though I know it’s a pretty faint hope. Kids will get excited about Christmas, even if it only feels like three months since the last one to the rest of us!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Baby Duck and the Honking Big Trophy

Thank goodness the school holidays have started. Last week I watched about 400 children individually receive certificates at a series of interminable end-of-year assemblies. When the kids were younger I used to think Hell was being forced to watch Wiggles videos for all eternity, but now I know better. Hell is listening to 400+ scrambling attempts by the teachers to dream up something unique and congratulatory to say, and watching 400+ little people shaking hands with their teacher, when the only little people you care to watch are your own. And really, I’d give up seeing them get their certificates in a heartbeat if it meant I didn’t have to sit through the other 397.

Oh for the good ole days when only the kids who actually achieved something got a prize. Now no one must be left out. All well and good for the little ones, I suppose, but honestly, kids aren’t stupid. By the time they get to primary school they’re awake to the whole “if everyone’s special then no one is” thing.

Yes, I know I sound grumpy. Sorry! But I challenge you to sit through the hours of assemblies I have lately and not feel a trifle tetchy. Because the ducklings are all at different stages they received their certificates at three separate, though pretty much identical, assemblies. I heard all the speeches three times. Though it could have been worse – I felt sorry for the principal, who had to look happy and interested the whole time.

By the time I got to Baby Duck’s assembly, which was last, I was so over the whole thing I was like Scrooge sitting up going “bah, humbug!” at the cute little kindergarteners and their off-key singing. Fortunately Baby Duck made up for the lack of maternal excitement by skipping across the stage when he won an extra award as well as his certificate. He held his big blue trophy up above his head to show the world, beside himself with glee.

But oh! the irony! This is the boy who asked me every morning if it was the weekend yet. The boy who suggested nearly every day that it might be better to stay home in case he gave his classmates his (fictional) cough/sore throat/runny nose. (And then gave me looks that managed to be tragic and filthy at the same time when I told him he had to go anyway.) The boy who said school was boring because they made him work.

What was the trophy for? “Most creative attempts to get out of attending school”? “Best dramatic performance in the dying swan category”? No – “Outstanding Effort”.

He’s so proud of himself. It’s like none of that resistance and tears ever happened. He’s decided he’d quite like to win it again next year. I’ll have to remind him of that next time he sits on his bed in his pyjamas for half an hour when he’s supposed to be getting dressed for school. Can’t win any trophies if you don’t go.

Maybe they should give out awards at those assemblies to the parents instead. That would make things more interesting. “Most Patient Homework Supervisor”. “Most Creative School Lunches”. “Most Persistent in Dealing with Reluctant School-goers”.

I’d be a shoo-in for that last one.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Bunfight at the SF corral

There’s been much discussion on the internet over the past couple of weeks about pay rates for short stories. John Scalzi, author and respected member of the sff community, pointed out in this post that people who are serious about building a career as a writer shouldn’t virtually “give away” their work to low-paying or “for the love” markets unless they are getting some other advantage from the deal.

Some of the semi-pro magazines have experienced editors who can bring out the best in a story, for instance. Some of them get a lot of critical notice, leading to awards or inclusion in best-of anthologies. Some just cater to a particular niche that might fit a story that wouldn’t find a home elsewhere. All of these could be good reasons to forgo the big dollars – though with five cents a word counted as a professional pay rate, no one’s going to make their fortune on selling short stories.

Some leapt to hot defence of their beloved non-pro magazines, seeing slights where none were intended. The resulting debate has been enlightening.

Yes, I can see how people are happy to submit anywhere, just to get into print. I’ve done it myself, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s a great feeling to be able to say “I’ve been published”, even if it’s in a magazine that only the other contributors have heard of, like my ZineWest publication.

And yes, it may be good to experience the whole submission/working with the editors thing. It’s fun and it can be instructive, depending on the editor. And at least your work gets some readers rather than languishing in your drawer, though obviously not the wider exposure a big-name mag can bring.

But if you’re trying to build a career, people like Ann Leckie and Patrick Neilsen Hayden – people who ought to know – are saying not only are these minor credits not helping, they may actually be harming your efforts.

Obviously not all publication credits are created equal. Editors may be inclined to take a closer look if I can say I’ve been published in Asimov’s, whereas telling them I’ve been published in ZineWest means nothing. So much I knew. What I didn’t realise was that listing a string of unknown credits may actually put the editor off. Patrick Nielsen Hayden says in comments “speaking as a sometime short fiction editor, I find I’m much more encouraged by ‘Here’s a story, hope you like it’ than ‘Here’s a story, here are 25 mediocre small-press publications I’ve managed to eke out sales to over the last eight years thus making it highly unlikely that I am an undiscovered genius, hope you like the story.’ ”

Making it as a writer isn’t like climbing the ladder of promotion. You don’t get points for “serving your apprenticeship” in the smaller mags and working your way up. This from Ann Leckie: “I’m just telling you, if you’re submitting somewhere only because you think it’s necessary to have some credit, any credit! on a cover letter, that any credit at all that you can scrape up will make an editor pay more attention to your story, you’re absolutely dead wrong … Don't worry about credits. Just write better.”

Which leads to the point somebody raised (sorry, I can’t remember who, I’ve read a lot of comments all over the place) that getting published in the easier markets may lead to complacency. “Hey, they think I’m good enough to publish, so I’ll send more stuff to them”, rather than striving to improve enough to make it at the big end of town. Again, not a problem if your goal is the fun of seeing your work in print, but if you want to be published by the pros you have to learn to write at pro level.

So the take-home message is: if you want a writing career, submit to the pros first, and move on to the semi-pros if you get rejected by the pros (unless you have some particular reason for aiming at the semi-pros, as discussed earlier). Aim high and keep working to improve your writing. I’d heard this advice before, from Jay Lake, but I have to admit I haven’t been following it. I guess I hadn’t thought it through properly. I’ve just been sending things out rather randomly, without formulating a proper plan of attack.

That needs to change, and I’ve found some recommendations of good markets through all this discussion, as well as discovering the amazing website I’m ashamed to say I’d heard of it before but never got around to looking at it. It’s a fabulous tool for a writer looking for places to submit.

Time to get serious!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Reader/writer schizophrenia

Some months ago I read a review of the movie Disgrace, based on the book by JM Coetzee. The reviewer praised John Malcovich’s performance, saying “his Lurie is such a proudly unrepentant predator”.

No doubt it was a fine performance. It was probably even a thought-provoking and interesting movie. But I didn’t go to see it. “Proudly unrepentant predators” are not my idea of a good time, and I go to the movies to be entertained, pure and simple.

Call me shallow, but I love me some happily ever after. I’m like this as a reader too. Occasionally I’ll try something challenging, but most of the time I like to lose myself in fantasy worlds where good conquers evil and all my favourite characters end up in a happy place. I blame my youthful obsession with fairy tales. If Once upon a time doesn’t lead to and they all lived happily ever after, I am not a happy camper.

But when I put on my writer’s hat that all changes. It’s such fun to kill, maim, destroy and generally blight your characters’ hopes. Not so much in novel-length works, because that would be too much depression, but in short stories I do dreadful things to my characters and love every minute. And then my poor writers’ group reads my stories and goes “well, that was a bit of a downer” – and I’m surprised. I’ve had such fun writing it that I haven’t even realised that it’s a miserable story that leaves the reader wallowing in depression.

The first time I did this one of my writers’ group said, “it was well written but I don’t like depressing stories. If it was a novel I would have been really annoyed to get all invested in the character only to have it end like that”. And the little light bulb in my head went off and I thought, hey, me too! So how come I wrote it? Obviously my writer self is looking for different things than is my reader self.

So now I understand better where all those authors who write depressing books come from. Why things never seem to end happily in “literary” novels. It’s fun to write like that – to explore sadness and realistic consequences and the kind of things you generally don’t find in fantasy novels. (Of course I’m generalising here, and there are fantasy novels that don’t follow the common pattern, but on the whole I think happily ever afters are one of the conventions of the fantasy genre, just as in the romance genre.) I could never see it before I started writing myself – why would people want to write something that leaves the reader miserable? Now I know.

It seems a bit perverse though, doesn’t it? To write something that I wouldn’t want to read if somebody else had written it. Not that I do it all the time, but often enough that I’ve started to notice it. Does anybody else find their writing preferences are different to their reading ones?

Or am I the only weirdo?

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Nano round-up

You may have wondered about the long silence here. No, I haven’t fallen into a hole. I have merely become incapable of stringing words together after my mammoth efforts in November.

I reached 50,000 words with three days to spare, which is a new record for me. Even better, I didn’t stop immediately, but managed to add another 3,000 words to the total, fulfilling my promise to myself not to miss a day of writing in the whole month. This despite Real Life throwing all manner of obstacles in my way towards the end.

The Carnivore needed me to edit the accounting training course he’s just written, which is painfully convoluted stuff for a non-accountant. Moreover I am now convinced that all accountants are complete whackjobs.

Drama Duck needed me to help her write her campaign speech for the elections for school captain next year, and design a poster for her as well. She finished Nano comfortably on the 22nd of November.

Demon Duck needed me to help her finish her Nano novel. She’d written 1500 words on her own but had given up. When she got home from school on the 30th of November I forced her to sit at the computer with me. She dictated and I typed and we got another 1500 words done, which was enough for her (revised) goal and finished the story off too. She kept saying how much fun it was to write this way – maybe I need a secretary too!

End result: I didn’t complete the first draft. One day I would love to finish the whole story in November, but this year it wasn’t to be. I have a broad outline of what needs to happen and I’m pretty close – less than 10,000 words probably. I’m a bit sad that I didn’t get there, but hey, that’s life. We have three happy, still more-or-less sane novelists in our house. We braved Nano and lived to tell the tale.

The worst thing about Nano being over is I now have no excuse to avoid The Christmas Conversation with my mother. She likes to start The Christmas Conversation about mid-October. Me, I’d rather chew my own arm off than spend two months fretting about what I’m going to get everyone for Christmas. Doing Nano gives me a convenient excuse to stick my fingers in my ears and go “la, la, la, not listening” every time she tries to have The Conversation.

Now, alas, my shield has been ripped away and the sound of the telephone strikes fear into my heart. But I must be brave.

And I really must start my Christmas shopping!