... or your warm, summer break, if you're reading this in northern climes. These freebies come courtesy of Longreads, so you can be pretty sure they'll be worth a book mark.
I dips me lid to Beeso for the heads up.
... or your warm, summer break, if you're reading this in northern climes. These freebies come courtesy of Longreads, so you can be pretty sure they'll be worth a book mark.
I dips me lid to Beeso for the heads up.
But not in tweet form. CoriolasDave sent me this link and said I wouldn't regret reading it. It's a novel literary form, but reminds me of some old school Stephen King stories, or maybe a Twilight Zone treatment.
I took the commission to write The Biggest Loser recap the day before the finale. The entertainment guys at the Sydney Morning Herald had enjoyed the essay I'd written about recapping here and asked if I'd be interested in doing any myself. For the right price I'm interested in doing most things. But also for the right reason. Payday is a pretty good reason, but there is so much work involved in writing a recap that you're unlikely to recoup the investment in your time. There was the possibility of recapping Agents of SHIELD later on, however, and that alone was enough to entice me.
Actually, that's a lie. That and getting paid was enough to entice me. I hadn't bothered watching this series of Loser. I knew from previous years how it could be both addicting and pointless. A little bit like comfort-eating in that sense. So the first time I encountered the 2013 contestants was when I went to the show's website yesterday to do some research and preparation.
The whole recap experience was interesting and, for me, a novel enough a form of writing to be worth recording here. The first point I would make is that recapping is a very particular written form. Having just teed off on a whole bunch of high profile Game of Thrones recaps, I was standing there, pants down, arse out, waiting for a good kickin' if I didn't do at least a half decent job on this one. A simple recounting would not be enough. But nor would a more traditional review, or review essay.
The Loser finale offered a challenge in this sense. Unlike a fictional show it offered no obvious narrative arc, character development or subtext on which to riff. The show has all of those things, of course. Along with a keenly developed, if somewhat perverse moral sense. But not in the way that well produced fictional narrative has those elements. To avoid the trap of merely skipping from one thing that happened to the next thing that happened, from what Haley said to what the contestants replied, I'd need a couple of alternative through lines. The rumored 'relationship' between Michelle Bridges and Commando was an obvious pick – especially as the nature of that relationship remains unknown to anybody but the individuals themselves.
The cognitive dissonance, and blatant amorality, or even immorality, of selling fast food advertising during a show putting itself about as a 'cure' for obesity was another. A through line made all too easy to follow because of the preponderance of junk food advertising during the breaks. Having watched the previous two series I was also aware of the strange gear-grinding effect of having fallen into the mind set of the trainers – a censorious, judgmental and punitive psychology, especially as regards food — just before the network turns through 180° and rushes off in the opposite direction towards the launch night of MasterChef. This tied in nicely with the point I wanted to make about the junk food advertising.
Not that I'm expecting even half of the readers to recognize that point. But it's enough that some will.
Then of course there are the three lines which the producers of the show have established over the length of its run. The 'journeys' of the 'characters' and the resolution – there is always a resolution – of their personal challenges. That would be enough to frame a series of jokes about the two-hour broadcast, and hopefully negate the fact that I was using exactly the same linear structure I'd criticized in the earlier essay.
Having missed the entire series was a drawback, but not a serious one, since it was easily remedied by spending a couple of hours on The Biggest Loser website. All of the episodes are available for streaming, but they are not available en bloc; each individual episode being broken down into six mini eps, and each of those loaded out with their own advertising package. Grinding my way through season 2013 in this way was painful enough to make me wonder whether there's any regulation regarding advertising in streamed TV shows. At a guess, you seem to be subjected to about twenty minutes of advertising for every hour of the show.
The Biggest Loser website's UI didn't help. It was clunky, poorly coded, counterintuitive and designed, badly, to serve up as many minutes of advertising as they thought they could get away with before viewers abandoned the site. Still, I can't complain. I was being paid to be there.
The task of building out the recap can best be described as 'live tweeting' the show to yourself. I sat on the couch with a stiff drink – a very large stiff drink, frequently topped up – and watched the broadcast live on my iQ box, which allowed me to pause and rewind as necessary. I didn't want to lose the flow of the show, however, so I made the barest of notes on the first run through. And yes, I watched it all the way through, twice. Even went back multiple times to some sections. God help me.
I wrote down my observations in Evernote on my iPad, trusting the the Cloud to back me up. I would normally prefer to use a laptop for this type of job, but our MacBook Air was being used by Jane for real work. The iPad, paired with the Logitech Bluetooth keyboard was fine, but for that intensity of work over an extended period (two run-throughs of the show, totaling about four hours) I think a laptop would have been better. In fact thinking about it now I'd do it very differently next time. I load Dragon on to the lappy and simply dictate my notes into the speech recognition window. I suspect it would be much quicker.
[A little off-topic, but somebody is going to ask why I don't use the speech recognition on the iPad. Because it sucks. As does Dragon Dictate in its mobile app version].
At the end of the second run through I had a couple of thousand words worth of very poorly typed notes, but because I was using a linear structure I didn't have to concern myself with how to arrange them. One word after another would do nicely.
Getting the copy in on time then became a matter of racing the clock. I was still turning notes into finished text at one o'clock in the morning, at which point I was only up to the twenty minute mark in the show. This didn't bother me overly, because I had front end loaded all of the thematic material of the through lines. The back half of the essay – and it had grown to essay length by now, about 3000 words – really would be little more than an accelerated narrative. Again, this didn't bother me because it would help create the impression of urgency as we moved through the "story" of the finale. You'll notice if you look at the end of the recap the paragraphs are much shorter and more numerous than they are at the start. It's a simple technique for creating the impression of acceleration on the page.
I finished writing the essay at ten in the morning, but it took half an hour to read and edit it before sending it off. 3000 words in a couple of hours is fast. Too fast really. Errors are inevitable. But timeliness is also of the essence in publishing recaps. You have to get them online as quick as possible. Finding the balance between quick and good is the challenge. I found the subject and its inherent contradictions interesting enough that I'd have been quite happy to noodle around with the text for another couple of hours, turning it into a much grander thesis about mass culture. But in the end you gotta go with what you got when it's needed.
It's not the approach I'll take if I come to do recaps of SHIELD. For one thing, I wouldn't be doin' no 3000 words per episode, but also I'd hope that the very different nature of that show would allow me to write something much closer to the sort of think pieces you get in the best recaps.
I've been delving into the history of the Black Death, firstly to help Anna with a history assignment for school, but then for my own reasons as I realised it could help me with research for my magic vs tech books. The premise of the books, which grew out of Buttecracke project below, is the idea that demons have been so long gone from the world that we've developed to a point where our technology and capacity for organised, industrial-scale mass violence is more than a match for monsters.
The problem is that to produce the means of defeating them, societies must remain intact and functioning, and there comes a point at which the stresses on post modern civilisation push it towards collapse. Hence my interest in the Plague, which threatened to collapse European civilisation, and came close at times and in some places. Contemporary observers certainly thought it the end of the world.
Francesco Petrarca: Ad Seipsum (Epistola Metrica I, 14: lines 1-55): "I observe about me dying throngs of both young and old, and nowhere is there a refuge. No haven beckons in any part of the globe, nor can any hope of longed for salvation be seen. Wherever I turn my frightened eyes, their gaze is troubled by continual funerals: the churches groan encumbered with biers, and, without last respects, the corpses of the noble and the commoner lie in confusion alongside each other."
Henry Knighton: The Black Death, 1348: In the same year there was a great murraine of sheep everywhere in the kingdom, so that in one place in a single pasture more than 5000 sheep died; and they putrefied so that neither bird nor beast would touch them. Everything was low in price because of the fear of death, for very few people took care of riches or property of any kind. A man could have a horse that had been worth forty shillings for half a mark [6 shillings and eight pence], a fat ox for four shillings, a cow for twelve pence… Sheep and cattle ran at large through the fields and among the crops, and there was none to drive them off or herd them; for lack of care they perished in ditches and hedges in incalculable numbers throughout all districts, and none knew what to do, for there was no memory of death so stern and cruel…
A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman, Alfred a Knoph, New York, 1979. Chapter 5. "This Is the End of the World": When the last survivors, too few to carry on, moved away, a deserted village sank back into the wilderness and disappeared from the map altogether, leaving only a grass covered ghostly outline to show where mortals once have lived.
All societies have their tipping points, beyond which they cannot recover. I'm finding it fascinating to ponder where ours lie. How many dragons swooping down on how many delivery trucks does it take before there's no more food in the supermarket? How many orcs tearing through the suburbs before soldiers abandon their posts and run home with their guns? Which cities live, and by which virtues? And which die?
So, this fan fic thing may not be quite as awesome as it first seemed. My initial reaction was an insider's take. There's a lot of control at stake in Amazon's plan, and I didn't see the old school publishers conceding it.
A couple of hours later, issues of control have come to the fore of the reaction to Kindle Worlds, but not in the way I imagined. There are significant issues over who owns and gets to exploit the IP generated by the published fan fiction.
Bottom line, not the authors. And by that I mean the fan fic writers. It seems that the licensing agreement Amazon has developed gives them and the originating license holder (the publisher, not the writer) all rights to everything. I think it's known in legal circles as the All Teh THINGZ clause.
Other people with bigger brains have already started to pore over the deets. From Wired:
Wired spoke with attorney Jeff Trexler, who expressed similar concerns, pointing to a clause in Amazon’s contact that grants Amazon and the licensor rights to the text of the stories and any original elements they might contain.
“In short, if your fan fiction includes new elements that catch on with the general public, it’s likely that you’ll not be able to profit from them outside of the stories that you write,” he said. “For example, Time Warner could launch a movie series based on a character you created and not owe you a dime. While the terms state that you retain the copyright, you also give Amazon an exclusive license to your original work and Amazon in turn licenses your work to Time Warner in a license that provides nothing for you.”
Furthermore, says Trexler, if you decided to keep using that character outside of Kindle Worlds, you’d be violating the terms of your contract.
John Scalzi, writing as 'is 'umble self, rather than in his superhero tights and underpants as the chief poobah of SFWA was massively underwhelmed.
...that really cool creative idea you put in your story, or that awesome new character you made? If Alloy Entertainment likes it, they can take it and use it for their own purposes without paying you — which is to say they make money off your idea, lots of money, even, and all you get is the knowledge they liked your idea.
Essentially, this means that all the work in the Kindle Worlds arena is a work for hire that Alloy (and whomever else signs on) can mine with impunity. This is a very good deal for Alloy, et al — they’re getting story ideas! Free! — and less of a good deal for the actual writers themselves. I mean, the official media tie-in writers and script writers are doing work for hire, too, but they get advances and\or at least WGA minimum scale for their work.
Another red flag:
“Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.”
Which is to say, once Amazon has it, they have the right to do anything they want with it, including possibly using it in anthologies or selling it other languages, etc, without paying the author anything else for it, ever. Again, an excellent deal for Amazon; a less than excellent deal for the actual writer.
Both links are worth hitting up if you are in any way interested in trying to break into publishing or even just turn a modest dollar from this Amazon deal.
I don't know that the problems are a complete deal breaker for me. I can still imagine ways of publishing AoT and Disappearance fan fic into Kindle Worlds that would protect the fan writers. But it would also constrain them very severely, which is arse. If they wanted to avoid getting ripped off, they'd have to avoid using new characters or settings, I imagine. Mick's Queen of the Seven Seas might well run afoul of this.
Arse, as I said.
And, at any rate, I have my own very special issues to work through. Which publisher, for instance, gets to sign as the licensor. US? Australian? British? Polish?
Bueller? Anyone? Bueller?
When Raymond Chandler wrote himself into a corner he found the best way to escape was to have a man with a gun walk into the room. I loved Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, and they all but founded the sub genre of hard boiled literary noir. But he did admit that by the end of The Big Sleep he’d pretty much lost track of the bodies.
We all do.
Hanging narrative threads, forgotten side quests, unfilled plot holes, they’re the hazards of working at length. There’s a couple of ways of dealing with them. First, don’t. Just accept you can’t run down every blind alley to the very end, and trust that not too many readers will notice.
(Pro tip, they’ll notice).
You could trust to your editors and back fill the later drafts, but this relies on someone else picking up the mistake. Or you could story board the whole book and do it as a paint by numbers exercise. It sounds tedious and little constricting, because it is.
In the George R.R. Martin interview somewhere down the page, the big guy talks about the two types of writers he knows – the gardeners and the architect. The first throw out a story seed and wait to see what grows. The latter don’t write a word until they’ve drawn up detailed blueprints and specified ever single nail and nut and bolt they’ll need.
There are no such creatures in real life, of course. We all sort of plan and we all let the story run wild, but he’s right. Most of us lean towards one method or the other. Having had the experience of getting deep into Weapons of Choice and realising the half dozen previous books I’d written hadn’t prepared me at all to write it, I went into Designated Targets determined not to get painted into a corner, or lose track of the bodies, or tofall back on random guys blundering into every chapter with a gun.
It worked, sort of. I had much better control of that book than Weapons, and the writing went a lot easier. It was less frustrating, a hell of a lot better structured and I had none of the deadline slippage problems that dogged the first of the trilogy titles.
For book three, however, I went back to the gardener method. Mostly. I had a couple of plot points I knew I had to hit and a rough idea of how to get there, but I gave up on following a strictly mapped out path through the story.
I’d found that although the work flowed with fewer blockages and spills, I didn’t enjoy having to brute the characters through. They had their own ideas about what to do in any given situation and their intentions didn’t always sit well with mine.
It sounds odd, a bit of a wank, even. But I think it’s inevitable when you write point-of-view stories. Or at least it is for me. Why?
When you’re writing third person PoV you’re inside the head of that character. If you’re doing it properly it doesn’t take long before you become the character. I recall Martin saying something about this during the interview. He often finds himself staying with one character for long stretches of writing time, just to stay in their heads. I’ve done something similar with the Disappearance novels, writing whole arcs from, say, Caitlin’s POV, before going back and starting on Milosz.
When you’re writing in-character you really do end up shape shifting into that person. You see the world differently.
It’s just not possible to do that – or I don’t find it possible, anyway – sitting at a drawing board, mapping long narrative arcs for particular characters before you’ve written a word of their story. I found that as soon as I set them in motion, my fave characters had quite different ideas about how things should play out.
So now, I try to have some idea about where a particular book will go, and perhaps a few points it’ll pass through on the way, but I don’t schedule everything like a package tour.
With one caveat.
This method breaks down for shorter titles. Stalin’s Hammer: Rome got out of my grasp because I just set Harry and Ivanov loose on the city with vague orders to bring me back a vast Stalinist plot within ten or twelve chapters. Turns out vast Stalinist plots are harder to wrestle to the ground than you’d think. I also had some issues with Ivanov’s journey under the old city taking up much more time than I’d imagined it would, leaving Harry with less ‘page time’ than I wanted.
For Cairo, then, I’ve reverted to story boarding. I’m trying to be flexible about it. I just cut a couple of chapters because I could see they were going to lead me wildly astray and blow the word length out from 35 to 70K. Good value for you. But not so much for me. And not for you either if you’d like me to be getting on with the series.
How do other writers approach the problem of plotting out? Some crime writers go to the trouble of writing entire alternate arcs where any one of half a dozen characters could be the perp, then when they’ve settled on who they want, they just go back and delete anything which isn’t relevant. Or rather they delete most of the irrelevant content. The few bits and pieces remaining in the final draft stay there as red herrings. I seem to recall Agatha Christie did something like this.
Others, who look like they plot, don’t. Lee Child has some fiendishly complicated story lines which look as though they had to have been planned out to the last comma. But no, he insists he is a gardener. He gets the idea and runs with it, even using Chandlers ‘random man with a gun’ device if he writes himself into a corner. He’s also a lot less concerned with real world veracity than, say, Freddy Forsyth. If Child needs to make some shit up to get himself out of a hole, he makes it up and, like a magician, spends his efforts on distracting your eye from the rabbit in the hat.
Should you be plotting out?
I dunno. I’m not you, but I suspect that certain forms lend themselves to it more than others. Big sprawling fantasy epics can afford to sprawl and spread and take three or four hundred page detours because they’re as much about world building as anything. But even they have their limits.
I imagine that Game of Thrones (yes, yes, I know, It’s A Song of Ice and Fire) will have to bring the white walkers and the dragons together in the final battle. But the pace at which the story is advancing for now leaves me wondering whether Martin can get us there in two books – which is all he has ‘planned’.