Sunday 14 July 2013

Really don't watch this movie

I watched Skyline today. Yes, I know I'm three years too late, but time runs different in the alternate reality that is my brain, because it seems like only yesterday that I remember the movie coming out.

Like Monsters, another movie I discussed not so long ago (five minutes, wasn't it?), it's a low budget affair, set almost entirely in one luxury apartment, with unknown actors and a lot of CGI, and it's divided audiences, who can't agree on whether it's good or bad.

But wait. It wasn't actually a low budget movie at all - it just feels like one. Monsters cost half a million dollars to make, and is testament to what can be achieved with modern techniques and technology. Skyline, on the other hand, cost a mindblowing $20 million to make.

What did they spend the rest of the money on? Drugs? Call girls, alcohol and wild orgies? I sincerely hope so, otherwise they've been robbed. And the bit where I said that audiences are divided on this? Well, actually they aren't. The overwhelming majority appear to hate it with a passion. They certainly feel they were robbed.

"Look, they're taking our money."

They certainly didn't fork out for a decent scripwriter. The cast, as one reviewer put it, resemble a bunch of swimwear models. Beautiful, bland and dumb as a box of frogs.

The bimbos look shocked and declare, "What are we going to do?"

The beefcakes look shocked and declare, "We gotta do something."

They come up with some really stupid ideas, to which the bimbos reply, "We can't do that."

And that's pretty much the entire plot of the movie.

The film begins with a rich, gun toting hip hop artist throwing a launch party for his friends in L.A. (surely the most alien invaded city in history now). That peaked my interest at first - maybe he'd call all his homies to go out and kick ass. But it goes nowhere and he becomes just another bland character who's going to die soon anyway. And according to the wiki entry, he wasn't a hip hop artist, but manager of a special effects company. My bad, but that just makes it worse anyway.

So they're stuck in this apartment while the city outside is ravaged by aliens that look like they've been ripped straight out of the Matrix movies. Do they start revealing interesting back stories, crushed hopes and dreams, interesting snippets that make you look at them in a different light? No, not at all. They just stare out of the window while the airforce fights a losing battle with the alien motherships. And they stay clueless and stupid for almost the entire movie. You'd think that maybe the director would throw in the reliable cliche about folk pulling together in a crisis, becoming a real group, but the fact is, they never do. They all live urban, individualistic, selfish lives, and when their mobile phones stop working, they're all stuck. One character, who's pregnant, has a tantrum about someone smoking in the apartment. The aliens are devastating the city's inhabitants, but she's still got time to worry about the effects of second-hand smoke. Yes, it really is that petty.

The only other mildly interesting character (apart from the hip hop artist who actually wasn't) is the hispanic apartment complex manager. He doesn't look like a model, and he does appear able to actually think. He certainly gets the best death scene. But looking interesting isn't difficult in that company, and he's largely wasted in the movie.

You kind of look forward to seeing the aliens slaughter such a shallow bunch of idiots. And slaughtered they get, as mankind appears helpless before the alien onslaught.

But then, at the end there's a twist. As the main guy and his pregnant girlfriend make a doomed attempt to escape the fate of their yuppie friends, they are captured and sucked up into the mothership. All appears lost, and the end credits look ready to roll.

Another scene follows, however. The girl wakes up in the bowels of the ship, surrounded by comatose victims. Tentacles pick up her boyfriend and rip his head off, removing his brain for insertion into waiting alien bodies. As he's been infected by something the aliens have done to him earlier in the movie, his brain glows red, unlike the other brains being fed into the tubes. The red brain is inserted into an alien head, and the alien comes to life, with red eyes instead of blue, and looking like he's having trouble with his new brain, like something's gone wrong.

Meanwhile his girlfriend is picked up by the tentacles but spared when they realise she is pregnant. Obviously she's being saved for some sort of breeding program. Suddenly the red eyed alien appears and saves her, fighting the other aliens and carrying her off. The end.

Weird? I'll say so, but it's actually the most original part of the whole movie. I have to assume that the producers have a sequel in mind, where the monster, or alien, with a human soul uses his strength to save the girl and thereby mankind. Or something.

"I'll save you from the aliens. Oh, wait..."

I hate to say it, but Disney has already produced the sequel. It was called Beauty and the Beast. Is that what's being planned next? Somehow I can't see the producers getting funding for that, so we'll perhaps just have to imagine it ourselves.

Or, on the strength of this showing, hope that it never gets made. This really is a movie that you do not want to watch, unless you like unintended comedies. With a few beers and a few of your mates, it could actually be quite funny.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Supercharged vision thing

I mentioned in this post, and this post, how the X-Troop series got started: essentially on the back of disillusionment with my previous attempt at a series, and possibly the writing process itself. I got all hung up on being a proper writer, doing things the proper way and a whole bunch of neurotic hangups that really just sabotaged whatever I was doing. A common newbie writer trap, I'm sure. Or maybe not. All I know is that when I finally said, 'fuck that' and just did my own thing, it started to come together a little more harmoniously.

Influences, you see. That was my main stumbling block - and I just couldn't see it.

I was writing science fiction, and science fiction authors that I researched kept going on about their biggest influences - 60's, 70's or 80's written science fiction - and how it shaped their reading lives and, ultimately, writing lives. Writers like the late Iain Banks kept mentioning the importance of knowing the SF 'canon' (with a view to criticising the pesky outsiders who dared to write SF without such vital knowledge). All the Brit SF writers would go on about how they loved SF.

And that was a problem for me. I didn't love SF. I didn't particularly love any genre. I mean, it's just a bunch of books. I love my wife. I love my children. But books are just things that I like to read. I have shelves of them, but I also have shelves of CDs and DVDs. I like to be entertained, and I find some books better than others. The ones I like, I keep, and the ones I don't get given away. I have a couple of favourite authors, but I don't slavishly read everything they've had printed. And I certainly don't love a genre. Some books I liked happened to be science fiction. Most however tend to be scattered randomly among the genres, and I don't care.

I'll certainly never qualify for the die-hard fan in stormtrooper costume at a sci-fi convention. And the thought of queueing for ages to get some author's signature on a book I've purchased strikes me as pointless. I mean, why?

Clearly there was something wrong with me. How could I hope to compete with all those other authors if I didn't have the correct genre gene?

The first adult novels I remember reading were war novels, and for a while I consumed a lot of them, all set in WW2. I enjoyed Len Deighton's war novels and from there I went on to read a few of his spy novels. Eventually I tired of those and gravitated to fantasy novels, sparked probably by the fantasy RPG games I played with my friends, which were a lot of fun. I tried out some science fiction, and then a few crime novels. Then I read spiritual memoirs like Richard Bach's Illusions and The Bridge Across Forever. In between I consumed non-fiction books on psychology, philosophy and history. There was never any pattern, and I don't recall the need to ever stick to one. If I saw something I liked, I'd lurch off in that direction, and that was that.

But while I was struggling over my letters to agents, listing my influences and trying to sound impressive, I forgot what was probably the biggest influence of all on my reading.


From the age of seven I was nose deep into a comic every chance I got. And not the magazine type comic like The Beano or Victor, but stuff by Commando or Battle Picture Weekly: small, self-contained picture novels essentially, not serialised.

Any chance I got, I'd go to the corner newsagents opposite my house and buy another for 20p. I had drawers full of them. I wish I'd kept a couple, just so I could see what I liked about them, but my parents were keen on throwing them away every chance they got. I think they were disturbed by my geeky insistence on reading them rather than going out to play. I don't know what the fuss was about, as I remember playing out in the streets a lot, but I couldn't get enough of these comics - both for their stories and their graphics.

I'd gotten hooked into the visual form of story telling. Not that I was interested in telling stories myself, but I did get into drawing. I drew tanks, planes, battles and, later, spaceships and space battles in competition with a friend who was into that sort of thing. I was never really a great artist, I don't think, and I certainly never went on to study it at college, leaving school instead to work in a textiles factory, but I kept on drawing in my own way, doing cartoons just for the hell of it (and hanging them up in the break room). By then I was reading novels and I didn't really think about those years of influence until just recently, when I completed Amped.

Amped was a big departure for me in writing style. Rather than write tons of description or exposition, as I thought I was meant to, I just wrote scenes, one after another. I didn't bother with chapter headings. When the scene ended, I inserted a line break and then started on the next one. I stayed in one character's POV (point of view) and, after setting the scene briefly, let them tell their story through their actions and dialogue. I resisted the temptation to go too deep into motivations or meanings. I wanted speed and I just surfed straight through to the final scene. Then I went back through it, editing the odd word, then I proofed it (checking grammar and punctuation). And that was that - a completed story.

Not a long story, obviously, and that helped with the speed of the thing, but it was all there the way I wanted it, and I didn't feel the need to pad it out in any way. It was, for me anyway, a liberation. The transfer of the story in my head, straight onto paper (so to speak), with no distractions or hangups. And in the new age of ebooks, I could publish it straight away, without some agent saying it wasn't long enough.

I had essentially written, in literary form, a comic book.

I didn't realise it at the time, of course, and when I started X-Troop, I wondered if I really should be tackling a longer story in the same way. It felt like I was bucking a trend or breaking some rules - you know, doing something wrong.

Did I mention that self-doubt is one of the most common traits of a writer?

Anyway, while I was mulling this over, I walked into a specialist comic shop. Adult comics - wall to wall superhero stories. I've never been into superheroes myself, so I wasn't sure what I'd get out of the experience, but it turned out that there were many crime and thriller comics too, and as I browsed through them, I realised that the story style was similar, albeit in picture form, to what I'd just written in Amped. And that's when the light bulb came on over my head. The clouds parted, the angels sang, and I remembered, finally, my true story heritage.

One comic that caught my eye was The Boys.

I can't say too much about the contents, as it was £15 (a far cry from 20p) and I couldn't really afford it, but it seemed to involve the 'boys' beating up a lot of caped superheroes. All in a good cause, I'm sure. But I liked the look of it, and all worries about writing X-Troop in the same breathless comic style pretty well vanished. A visual, fast moving narrative would be fine after all.

Are Alex Harvey and his lads based on the 'boys'? Not really, as I'd dreamed them up already, but I think The Boys certainly gave me the confidence to stick to the story, from a bruiser's point of view. I stopped worrying about whether it was right for the science fiction market, or female readers, or whatever. I also stopped worrying about whether it was too shallow, relying on such a visual, fast paced style. In the end, none of that mattered. Readers who like deeper, slower works will always find them elsewhere, and worrying about it certainly didn't help my first aborted series.

I got into writing for the same reason I got into reading - to get away from the mundane life of school and crap jobs. I get inspiration from reading books, but I also get inspiration from art - a lot more than I realised. I think in pictures. One of the biggest challenges for a new writer is finding their own 'voice'. We all start by mimicking the styles of authors we like. It just took longer than it should have to realise that my 'voice' is visual rather than verbal. It's the voice I think in. I still can't draw it. But I can write it.

When it comes down to it, I just love art.

And if you're interested in The Boys, I've just found it on Amazon and Amazon UK for a lot less than fifteen quid. I think I may be getting a copy myself after all. Enjoy.

New book, new direction

The new book is out! The second story in the X-Troop series, called, as you can see, er, X-Troop. That's going to look odd on Amazon as it will be listed as X-Troop (X-Troop). No matter. It's a 40,000 word novella, compared to the teaser Amped which was 17,000, and it sets the tone for the rest of the series as Alex and his boys go into action against the alien threat. Lots of action, squaddie humour and aliens being sent back home in body bags.

And as we say hello to a new story, we say goodbye to an old one, for Even The Dead Dance To Live, my first self-published novel, has now been taken off the market. Why? Because it wasn't really the book I wanted to write.

Let me explain. When I first wrote Even The Dead, I'd never heard of self-publishing, and I was geared to selling it to agents and publishers in the traditional manner. This was a problem because, as I'm sure you're aware, it's not easy to get your book accepted by a publisher. The general advice is that, when you're making your pitch to them, you compare your work to an established book or author whom they are already publishing. It's common sense really. Publishers take a financial risk every time they accept a previously unpublished author, and they will naturally filter out any request along the lines of, 'this original work is like nothing you've ever printed before'. Straight into the bin with you, my friend. Life's too short and money's too tight to take too many risks in the publishing business - or any at all, in fact. So for me, as a sci-fi writer trying to get into the Brit SF market (which is where I had to start), I had to look hard at novels by the likes of Iain Banks, Paul McAuley, Peter Hamilton, Richard Morgan, etc. And attempt to emulate them.

Or so I thought.

The only probem was, these guys weren't my primary influence. More on that later.

Anyway, when I wrote that story, I didn't really think about the story on its own, but rather what commercial framework that story would fit in. I tied myself up in a lot of knots over that one. The original story I had was a kind of Firefly/Star Wars mix, but that kind of stuff was, by then, considered too fantasy and seriously out of fashion. I pored over the SF boards on the net, and there was a lot of talk about 'hard science', plausibility, technological impact on future society and a whole lot of other stuff that, in retrospect, was actually just sniffy posturing. But I took it on board and tried to reshape my fantasy sci-fi into more serious SF. I researched tons of science so I could keep up with the opposition (Alastair Reynolds and Paul McAuley were both scientists) and twisted the story round so that it would be grounded in scientific questions. I lengthened the story so it would match the standard 100,000 word expectations of a publisher, and for this I had to invent new subplots, new characters and acres of padding, when what I really wanted to do was get on with the original story at breathtaking speed. The resulting monster was 130,000 words long and looked, to my eyes, like I'd taken a sports car and hitched a caravan to it. Subsequent rewrites to get it 'correct' for the 'market' added a luggage box, an extra row of seating and a sensible beige paint job. The only thing that prevented me from adding even more was sheer exhaustion. I'd had enough of the process, so I put it out as it was, but I was never entirely comfortable with it. I was in too deep to understand why, though.

Needless to say, the agents and publishers all turned it down (or simply never replied), so I then went through the whole self-publishing learning curve and put it out, to a rather unenthusiastic response. It got some nice reviews, and a few people may genuinely have liked it, but I know of several who started it but then never finished it, and many, I'm sure, were too polite to give me their real opinion on it. But the ultimate test is the market, and the readers voted with their feet. Even The Dead languished for months, dead in the water and with barely a spark of interest. That's when I realised I'd spent years going in the wrong direction.

It wasn't a complete waste of time. Pushing your boundaries never is, and I learned a lot from the process. I consider it to be my apprenticeship. But the fact was, my baby had spent too long in the mutant vat and had come out all misshapen; a bunch of killer scenes and interesting characters rubbing shoulders with dullards, spiralling counter-plots and way too much filler. What it needs now is to be stripped down, cleaned and oiled, with all the dead weight removed and a V8 supercharger added. And a new, funkier paint job. But that's for the future. Pull a cover over it and roll it into the corner of the garage, because X-Troop is on the ramp now, its exhaust growling sweetly and about to enter its first time trials.

Or sales trials. You know what I mean, roll with me on this.

So what's this new beast like? Well, read the sample or buy the book to find out. I mean, you're not going to take my word for it, are you? Take it on the road and give it a test drive. But if you want a peek behind the scenes (like a DVD extra I guess) to see it with the covers off, spark plugs and all, then stay tuned (no pun intended) for my next blog post, where I'll be exploring the book's influences and inception.