Sweating it out

I am currently in the process of becoming a slightly less rubbish runner; as I have been for the last several years. Last night, for the first time, I managed 3 miles in less than 13 minutes a mile. I know, I know, not exactly Olympic standard; but considering that when I first started I couldn’t run 30 yards without feeling as though Death had decided sit on my chest while he had a smoke, it made me feel pretty good.

I did, though, wake up at 3 this morning due to a set of loudly-complaining back muscles who wanted to let me know that they didn’t appreciate this nonsense, thank you very much.

The Other Half comforted me with the assurance that this is because they are getting stronger. Somewhat grumpish from lack of sleep, I tried to feel it was a worthwhile sacrifice.

But it did strike me that this isn’t dissimilar to getting better at writing. It’s a long process. Small amounts on a regular basis work well, and are less likely to burn you out; after all, if you’d never run in your life and attempted a marathon it would be pretty agonizing and almost certainly doomed to failure.

And yes, sometimes you seem to be getting nowhere. You’re slower than you were last time. Everything aches. You get rejected. The piece you’re working on goes into a slump. Sometimes you don’t want to go running – it’s horrible weather, you’re tired. Sometimes you don’t want to get up early, or sit down after a hard day at work, and hit the wordage.

But eventually, if you keep at it, you start to see some results. You get faster. Your technique improves. Other people notice the difference. You start to sell your writing – or, you start to feel like a runner, not just a jogger. A writer, not just a hobbyist.

Aching muscles and all, it is worth it.

(Oh, and on a completely different note, in response to the drive-by gentleman who said I was ‘just looking for attention’… Sir hasn’t been taking his irony pills, has Sir?)

Too much fun

I’m having fun with the new book. This, of course, is worrying.

This will be the third in the Babylon Steel series; the characters are sparring enjoyably, cool stuff is happening, and I’m pretty much hanging on with both hands going ‘whee!” This is making me rampantly insecure for two reasons. Three reasons. Four…I’ll come in again.

Firstly, I am by nature a worrier. I worry about bills, illness, climate change, getting old. I worry about whether every cool individual shop and pub in existence is being eaten up by boring-pants monolithic chains and one day every high street in the world will look exactly the same and I’ll get lost even more easily than I do now. I worry about what that strange sticky stuff is on top of the cupboard and maybe something in the roof is leaking or maybe there’s a dead alien in the attic and its evil fluid of doom is infiltrating the house and I’ll wake up with tentacles and worse, it will totally trash the value of the house…you know. The sort of stuff anyone worries about.

Secondly, the minute I realise I am having fun and the book is actually going pretty well, it is inevitable that the Gods of Writing are going to sit on my head and afflict me with boils, or worse, a character I didn’t want who insists on doing the wrong thing or a scene that simply doesn’t want to get written, then, when I’ve done it six times, still refuses to work and then has to be cut.

Thirdly, and this is the kicker; am I having too much fun?

Hear me out. I do believe that you should have fun when you’re writing; that passion drives creation, and that if you don’t care about what you’re doing, or are just slogging through it, it shows. On the other hand, if you are simply enjoying yourself, and not thinking about the reader…will you end up appealing only to yourself?

There are authors I’ve gone off – or not read past the first few pages – because their books seemed too self-indulgent. This can take a number of forms; having fun at the expense of the reader, beating the reader over the head with their opinions on stuff I don’t care about and even if I did I should be hearing what your character thinks, not you, constantly referring back to the author’s own work, or just going off on a wild ride to places they wanted to visit, without bothering about whether I might prefer to go where I was led to expect I’d be going and, you know, had packed for.

And yet, rampant hypocrite that I am, I can see that I might want to do the same things, and probably have. And will. So what is the solution? Is there one?

Maybe I should just enjoy myself, and I can start angsting over it all in the rewrite. After all, it’s not as though I don’t have plenty of other things on my mind.

Oh, and the fourth reason? You know, I can’t remember. That’s something else to worry about.

Prometheus – review with Dave Gullen

Went to Prometheus on Friday with my partner, the splendid Dave Gullen. Having stayed up rather too late dissecting it, we decided to do a joint review. So here ’tis.

Prometheus, dir. Ridley Scott.

Dave & Gaie: As the credits rolled, we just sat there. We said ‘Hmm.’ Then we both got up and left the cinema. That says it all, really. However…

Dave: This was a film I was really looking forward to seeing. I love the first two Alien films, and I’m a big fan of Scott’s work: Kingdom of Heaven (you have to see the director’s cut), Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Body of Lies.

Gaie: Me too. I love one, three and four of the Alien films: admittedly I loathed Gladiator, but I do adore a lot of his stuff. When he gets it right, he really gets it right. Here, though…

Dave: Overall, the film is incoherent. OK, I trained as a biologist, so the wilful science bollocks got to me:
Q: Are we throwing away three hundred years of Darwinism? (The biologist character asks early on.) A: Yes, we are, apparently. Anyway, under your spacesuit is a RED SHIRT, so it doesn’t really matter what you say.
This hand-waving was the real problem – trying to paper over the cracks results in drawing attentions to the flaws.

Gaie: Yes, If you’re going to have pseudo science, do it. Don’t try and jam it together with real science. I’m no scientist, and even I was going, ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, that makes no sense.’
It would be far better to just use the unobtainium, and go ‘it just does, guys, the interesting stuff is over here, look!’ instead of trying to rationalise a massive logic fail.

Dave: Absolutely. With explanation, less is always more, in the same way scenery is always better on radio. More is always too much. Imaginatively, it doesn’t leave anything for the audience to do.

Gaie: Exactly. And one of the great things about the first Alien film was the way the monster was seen only in terrifying glimpses; your own mind supplies the rest, and it always knows what scares you the most. But this? I had heard there was supposed to be some sort of subtext about invasive penetration, etc. etc. But there was no ‘sub’ about it. It looked, at points, like tentacle porn – and judging by the giggles coming from the row in front, I wasn’t the only one wondering if they’d bought some of their monsters from the local branch of Lovecrafts.

A shame that Scott didn’t take his cue from the first film and keep things mostly hidden, rather than almost literally slapping us in the face with a big wet penis; (a particularly startling experience in 3D). Or, for that matter, smothering someone with what appeared to be a starfish blessed with a ring-a-rosy of vaginas. Was this last an attempt at gender-balancing the whole monstrous sexuality thing? It’s the only feeble excuse I can possibly muster. Anyway, it was mainly just rather icky, in a faintly amusing way that I can’t imagine was intentional.

Dave: Each scene in Prometheus works pretty well, but that doesn’t mean when you string them all together you’ve got a film. There were too many references to the oeuvre that Prometheus seemingly felt obliged to pay homage to, or subvert – the eggs, the space jockey, the Alien itself – while also denying it was a real prequel. Some of these are in the film, some are not, but it felt like this stifled creativity and originality – these references had to be in there and each and every time they killed the great thing that SF does so well by refusing to explain the unexplained: Sensawunda. So they went ahead and explained it, inconsistently and nonsensically.

Gaie: The whole thing felt like a sort of closed loop; like playing a video game where you can’t get past this particular door, and however pretty the scenery, eventually you get bored and go play something else.

Dave: Actually, the actors are pretty good – Idris Elba plays a believable, pragmatic, and, in the end, heroic, jobbing space captain, Michael Fassbender a sinister, malevolent Jeeves of an android, and Noomi Rapace is a very human female lead – who goes through hell, and back (but more of that later).

Gaie: Yes, Rapace was good; it was a shame she was given such wildly improbable things to do. I ended up unable to concentrate on her acting because of the words, ‘You what? You’re kidding,’ ringing through my head. Fassbender was also excellent; potentially far scarier than the monsters. And as for Elba, his was the best-realised human character of the lot, to my mind; a shame he wasn’t foregrounded earlier.

Dave: I also thought the characters behaved inconsistently. The biologist, at first sight of a dead alien, takes fright and runs away, leaving it to the archaeologists. Then, when he sees a slimy little worm creature he plays with it – and guess what, bad things happen, not because he’s an idiot, but because the script says he has to. He’s also part of a very uncomfortable comedy duo with the geologist, the brittle dislike they have for each other disappointingly turns into half-baked silliness as the script throws them away.

Gaie: Yes! This is the first biologist ever to see an alien and he’s going, ‘lemme out of here!’. The collection of characters on the ship seems to be there not because anyone had given any real thought to who might be on this sort of expedition, but in order to have someone to drop in a plot point or get nastily messed with by a slimy sex-toy.

None of the character interrelationships felt properly built or worked out; but then, neither are the majority of the personalities. The interactions seemed to be between bits of scipt, not between people. The potentially interesting characters were generally the more minor ones; but they hardly got a chance to shine. Charlize Theron can do ice-queen in her sleep, which is exactly what this felt like; Dr Shaw’s partner (Charlie/Logan Marshall-Green) actually struck me as a bit of a jerk. Poking other people about their beliefs is a tad adolescent, and just because David is an android, there’s no excuse to be unpleasant to him when you don’t even know he may have a hidden agenda.

Dr Shaw herself (Noomi Rapace) seemed little more than a bundle of angsty survival instinct held together (in the end literally) with surgical steel. She tries to save her lover, she tries to save herself, and only when poked in the spine by the plot does she attempt to save anyone else. She lacks the sense of someone who will take the right moral choice, even when it’s tough, that made Ripley so appealing.

Dave: Only Idris Elba’s character, the ship’s captain, does that. And the relationships between the characters are at times wincingly clichéd.

Gaie: Agh. The Star Wars style revelation moment was the dampest of damp squibs; like a badly chosen Hallmark card left out in the rain.

Dave: Overall, it’s all done by the numbers – the prequel, the setup, the team of disparate souls with secret agenda all fractiously rubbing along. The shock actual ending after the ending, just when you , yawn, think it’s safe. They even had the, admittedly alien, limb slapping the window. Bang! Ooh, scary! This is ripping tropes out of teen-horror, and is sadly derivative. There were too many moments that broke me out of the film with a mental ‘Hang on…’
In particular, one absolutely laugh-out-loud moment during possibly the most traumatic scene in the film.

Gaie: Yes. It should have been utterly grim and scary, but first, the horribleness was undercut by a really weird design choice, and I have no idea what sort of reference they were going for there, but what I got was a ‘huh?’. And, from that moment on I was going; no. No, sorry, that person, in that condition, couldn’t do that. Or that. Or that and certainly not that. I don’t care how good surgery is in the future. Just no.

Dave: So what was good? Cinematically the film is impressive, the design is great, and it’s very beautiful in parts.
That’s it.

Gaie: Yes. Much of it was very, very pretty; and the sense of scale was at times wonderful. But…I needed people in that fantastic landscape I could care about, and they were sadly lacking.

Dave: In a word? Disappointed. In a sentence? Oh my God, Margaret Attwood was right – it is all squids in space.

Fin.

Sitting pretty

I’m going to be signing copies of Babylon Steel at Waterstone’s in Sutton on Saturday 10 March. 10 am to 4 pm. There I will be, with my pen, a hopeful expression, a little table and a chair; and, one hopes, a source of caffeinated beverages.

I am regarding the whole thing with a combination of delight (Me! A Signing! Waterstone’s! People knowing about my book and maybe reading it and buying it and wanting to talk about it!) and a sort of practical pessimism. (Hey, if no-one turns up, it’s six hours of writing time. In a bookshop. What more could one ask?)

But, rather scarily, I have been informed by Persons in the Know that on occasion people turn up at signings simply in order to buttonhole the author and ask them what The Secret is. You know the one. The one published authors have, the Special Magic Key, that gets you from ‘I haz manuscript’ to ‘I haz contract’.

If this happens, how do you tell them, politely and fairly briefly, that there isn’t one? If someone says, ‘How do I get published,’ what is the best response?
“Read a lot. Write a lot. Next!” seems a bit abrupt. “I don’t know, it just sort of happened”, may be seen as deliberately unhelpful, even though that’s sometimes what it feels like. “Here is a list of my favourite books/blogs on writing, go read ‘em”? “Discipline! Training! Wordcount goals! Get up at 4 am every day for the next twenty years”? “Go visit that little old lady in Schenectady, the one who does ideas”?

Unfortunately the real answer is probably some version of, “All of the above.” (Except the little old lady in Schenectady, of course. I never did manage to find her address).

There is no Magic Key. If there was, I’d have got published much earlier, at an age where there was less risk that 3pm may find me fast asleep and drooling gently onto a pile of books.

Which, of course, is likely to be exactly the moment when the photographer from the local paper turns up.

Squee! Er…gulp…

I’ve been getting reviewed, nicely too. Which is great. (You can see my ego being stroked here, here, and here, if you feel so inclined – there are a few more, too. People have been amazingly flattering).  And I’ve been doing guest blogs and an interview or two, with more due – which are fun, although I’m worried I’m going to start repeating myself and boring everyone if I do many more of them. 

See, there’s where the self-doubt comes sneaking in.  It seems to be an immutable aspect of my character.  And I’m doing a signing – my first ever official, in public signing, at the SFX Weekender on Friday at 2pm.  This is scary enough; what if no-one turns up? What if actual people actually do turn up? Am I supposed to come up with a witty, charming, individual response for everyone? I’ll have been travelling since about 6am – simply remembering my own name is going to be a bit of a strain at that point. 

Even scarier, though, is my first ever panel, at 4 pm on the Saturday.  Not only is it my first ever, it’s at the SFX weekender.  There are thousands of people at that thing, and it’s entirely possible some of them may come to this panel; because it’s stuffed with brilliant writers including China Mieville.  Dear lord, they’ve put me on the same panel as China Mieville.  No fair.  I am convinced I’m either going to sit there in gobsmacked silence, giggle stupidly, or shove my foot so far in my own mouth I’ll disappear entirely.    

Any advice gratefully received.  In fact, if anyone can come up with a way I can channel Babylon for the duration, they will be awarded my everlasting gratitude.  She’d be so much better at this…

Clothed in Splendour!

Solaris have acquired the sequel, hallelujah!  And Babylon Steel was reviewed, favourably, in SFX.  Oh the relief.

I urge readers to buy a copy of that estimable publication;  quid pro quo, and all that.  It contains many an excellent article, apart from the review, (which I am in no way planning to have laminated, framed in gold, and hung over my desk.  At least not until after I have finished the rest of the Festive Preparations).

I am now, inevitably, in panic-stricken rewrite of the sequel, and suffering the probably entirely usual fears that I will fail dismally, that people might enjoy the first one but will find the second one a disappointment and strike me off their reading lists forthwith and with opprobrium.

I also seem to be suffering, as the astute reader has no doubt observed, from some strangely Victorian influence on my prose style.

I think it’s the hat.

I bought a hat, recently.  It’s a splendid hat, I like it a great deal, but it is high, and black, and has a tuft of feathers on one side, and in combination with a full-length, severely cut, high-collared black winter coat, does rather make me resemble a Victorian funeral mute.  Elderly people look at me askance, and shuffle away down the other end of the bus.

(This may not be because I summon thoughts of mortality, of course; I may merely look like some ominously dark-clad and eccentrically-behatted person they would prefer not sit next to.  I admit to occasional strangeness, but I swear I present no threat to the elderly – unless they should happen to read one of the sex scenes in Babylon Steel and suffer a fatal conniption as a result).

Clothes do affect my behaviour; a new pair of buckled boots gives me a piratical strut; a slinky dress brings out the inner vamp, in roleplay armour I get all butched up and start challenging half-orcs to arm-wrestling matches.

Hmm.  If I bought a navy-blue power suit, would I become suddenly efficient, whisk through the undone paperwork cluttering my desk, phone all the people I should have phoned six months ago, and generally Get Myself Sorted?  Alternatively, if I bought one of those cloaks that has a deep hood and goes all swirly when you walk, would I have no choice but to stand somewhere murky and brood a lot?

Maybe I should try the navy power suit thing.  In the meantime, I would be fascinated to know if anyone else finds that the clothes they wear affect their behaviour.