The Ten Books That Changed Me- TGBOL

The prompt for the Great Book of Lists this week was to list books that “transport” us to another time or place, out of our daily lives. I found this difficult, purely because every book that I enjoy transports me into that particular world. If it doesn’t, I stop reading it – life’s too short, and my reading pile too big! Choosing just a handful on this basis was also beyond me…

So below is a list of the ten books (not necessarily novels) that have had the greatest impact on me, that have transported me either through the power of the storytelling, or in the influence they have had on me personally, or both.

In no particular order:

1. Cormac McCarthy – The Road
The book that put me off wanting to be a writer, because I’ll never write anything as good as this.

2. Nick Hornby – High Fidelity
The right book at the right time can have a huge effect. This tracked and amplified my obsession with list-making… and look where that’s got me!

3. Julia Donaldson – The Gruffalo
I could have chosen one of half a dozen of her books – she directly inspired me to write children’s stories in rhyme.

4. Shel Silverstein – Where the Sidewalk Ends
I was recommended this by my American critique group (I hadn’t heard of him at that time), who paid me the great compliment of being Silverstein-esque. I only wish!

5. Max Brooks – World War Z
A great book, bold in scope, unique in vision. This was unfortunately made into a distinctly average film of limited scope and generic, by-the-numbers vision. (Note to film-makers – zombies DO NOT run. They are the reanimated dead, not Olympic sprinters.)

6. Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory
I can still picture every detail in this slightly bizarre, yet surface-normal, world, even though I haven’t read it for at least a decade.

7. Douglas Adams – The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
A huge influence on my sense of humour. I was too young for the radio series, but grew up with the original TV show, and even remember playing a text-only computer game of it. Must read this one again.

8. Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
A children’s story with both lyricism and darkness.

9. George RR Martin – A Song of Ice and Fire
I’m not normally a fan of fantasy, but these had me gripped. I raced through all the novels one after the other (courtesy of a friend’s generosity in lending me them… There isn’t room on my bookshelves for this weighty series!). After reading one of the books, I read Hunger Games. It was like drinking lemonade after a fine wine.

10. Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book
Gaiman is the writer I most want to be, and The Graveyard Book is the book I most want to have written.

So, feel free to analyse away about what this list says about me… What books have transported you, in one way or other?

 

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The List of My Desires (TGBOL)

The prompt for this week is to “list our desires”.

Instead of listing material things to buy, I suggest we list things we feel like doing in 2016, things that really inspire us, make us smile, giggle. It’s not a resolutions list.

Obviously, with this prompt, my first thought was to have a little fun with the “desires” part, and list some famous people who’d be on “the list” (you know, “the list” of 5 people that you’re allowed to fantasy cheat on your partner with, should the opportunity arise… it’s best not to list people in your social circle on this one…) At this point, I realised that I currently have no idea who’d be on said list… I can remember some from the past, but can’t think of anyone from the present… This shows either:

(a) I’m growing up, and no longer play such childish games (yeah, right… how do you think this train of thought started??)
(b) Being a parent of two young monkeys, most of my time revolves around them, doing what they want to do, and watching what they watch… Octonauts just aren’t sexy (although they are wonderfully educational)…

I digress…

So, here’s some stuff I feel like/ need to be doing this year, in no order of priority!

1 – Focus. Spend one day per week COMPLETELY offline, so that when I spend time with my family, they have my full attention.

2 – Self-publish. I am still working on children’s picture book stories with the help of my SCBWI critique groups, but I also have some ideas for self-publishing some poetry collections, and non-fiction.

3 – Fail more, and faster. Enter more competitions, both for poetry and short stories, and send off submissions to agents/publishers for picture books.

4 – Family fun! Finally arrange that day trip to the Natural History Museum that we’ve been considering for ages (our 6 year old, especially, will love it – his favourite person in the world is David Attenborough!). Hopefully we’ll get an opportunity to go on holiday later this year too, but as ever that will depend on our finances.

5 – Learn more. Learn to play the ukelele, at least to a very basic standard. (You have no idea what a low musical baseline I’m starting from…) Sign up for the FutureLearn screenwriting course, and make time to complete it.

6 – Go on dates! Rope the babysitters in more often to have date nights with my wife. Watch new films at the cinema! Plays at the theatre! Eat grown-up meals! Crazy stuff!

Wish me luck!

 

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Picture credit: flickr.com/photos/joybot/8624907691

Star Wars countdown… The Revenge of the Sith

This is the second in a series of blog posts as I re-watch the Star Wars films with my 5 year-old son in the build-up to The Force Awakens hitting the cinemas in three weeks’ time. I was away at a SCBWI Conference last weekend, having a fantastic time (https://altheauthor.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/how-the-scbwi-conference-blew-my-mind/), so missed Attack of the Clones (a bullet dodged). This week it’s the turn of Revenge of the Sith.

There is much to enjoy in this one, and it almost works as a film on its own merits (leaving aside the last ten minutes when they try to join every last dot with the original trilogy). One of the main reasons for this is that the “comedy” has been largely cut. Jar Jar and 3-PO barely appear in the film, to keep it darker, edgier. BTW, if all this Star Wars talk has just whetted your appetite for more, check out this blog post: http://www.avclub.com/article/star-wars-prequels-dont-deserve-your-hatred-226732 . Needless to say, I disagree with this, but it is well worth a read!

Some thoughts…

War! The first word of the opening scroll promises much, especially compared to previous set-ups (although I’ve at least found one fan of a good historical trade dispute through this). BUT then we’re straight into another space battle that feels like a cartoon. Everything’s too busy. And if you’ve got buzz droids at your disposal now, why do they disappear in less than twenty years? Continuity (both forced, and failed), and consistency, are two of my biggest overall criticisms of the prequels.

General Grievous is a great idea for a bad guy – collecting lightsabres! four arms to use them! – ruined by that over-used trope, comedy emphysema.

R2 flying… Did George Lucas get amnesia about what this astromech droid can do? It’s stupid and unnecessary. This is Exhibit R in the “case against” the prequels.

– The Dooku fight is well-staged, both in terms of choreography and showing Anakin’s descent. Also, the way Obi Wan says “Dooku” makes me think of “doo-doo”, every time.

– The opera scene is Machiavellian brilliance. Wonderfully acted, paced, scored and with visuals beautiful and original. Palpatine tells a story of the power to defeat death. Anakin is hooked. “Is it possible to learn this power?” (A pause) “Not from a Jedi.” The best acted scene of the prequels, by a mile.

– Then, “Exhibit S” in the case against… Obi Wan riding that lizard thing around… Ropey effects, tonally wrong for the film. Just wrong, and stupid. Honestly, was George trying to add crap into the film to make the other bits seem better?

– At the writing conference last week, I attended a workshop on story structure. There we talked about the midpoint of the film, whereby the central character is not the same again. Well, one hour and ten minutes into a two hour twenty minute film, we have Anakin defending Palpatine against the Jedi (Mace Windu in particular), then pledging himself to Palpatine. “Henceforth, you shall be known as Darth Vader…” Cue John Williams theme… Great stuff, but all this analysis of structure is in danger of ruining movies for me!

– The Jedi temple attack, and Order 66 is a wonderful sequence, taking in a host of different worlds and tragic deaths for the unfortunate Jedi. And when Anakin lights his lightsabre in front of the younglings with murderous intent, it brings a lump to my throat every single time. So dark, and sad.

Yoda’s dialogue is overdone, to the point of parody. “Not if anything to say about it, I have…” My son’s reply, reasonably, was “what does he have?” This line made everyone in the cinema groan first time round, and it made me wince this time.

– The fight between Obi Wan and Vader should be the emotional climax of the prequels, and there is some great work from Ewan McGregor with the material, but… it doesn’t quite work. The lightsabres (both blue) are not distinguishable, the movement is too fast (contrast the Obi Wan – Darth Maul sequence, which is fast but believable), and you just get the impression of a lot of twirling rather than a fight to the death. When they start leaping around on ridiculous platforms over the molten rock… it takes it all too far. It adds complication, when it needs simplicity, to strip everything back to these two brothers fighting to the death.

– Interesting contrast between the births of the twins and Vader. Why does Obi Wan need reminding in the original trilogy that “there is another”. Why does Leia remember her mother? When the droid says that Padme has just “lost the will to live”, there is a part of me that says “I know the feeling…”

– The Vader Frankenstein moment is horrible, painful, naff, comically awful… The single worst moment in the prequels (and yes, I haven’t forgotten Jar Jar). Honestly, you’ve got the coolest bad guy in the history of the universe, and then you all but make him drop to his knees and cry. “Exhibit T”

– How come the Death Star takes another fifteen or so years to be finished, when it’s gone from design to shell in a couple of years? Contractor problems? How do they keep it secret for that length of time? It’s almost like this stuff’s being made up as they go along…

Having got to the end of the prequels, it is unlikely that I will watch them again. They are a mixed bag of great moments and awfulness. If they didn’t have the Star Wars name attached, I would have watched and forgotten them already by now, and perhaps that is how they should be judged. The original trilogy though, I can see me dipping into those on rainy bank holidays forever. So, onto A New Hope (as my son calls it), or more accurately (as I see it) Star Wars, next week 🙂

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Star Wars countdown… The Phantom Menace

Every Saturday night, my wife and I have a “film night” with our 5 year old son. This can be a mixed bag… for every viewing of an Avengers film, or the Back to the Future trilogy, we have had to suffer through Spy Kids, or Book of Life. As long as there are snacks, my son is generally happy, and it means we get to spend some quality family time together, without the 2 year old feeling left out, causing his usual brand of mayhem, or demanding Big Hero 6 or Toy Story 2 or 2 again.

In just over six weeks time, the three of us have tickets to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yes, we have our tickets already.

Putting these two facts together (film night, plus Star Wars incoming), we asked our son if he wanted to re-watch the Star Wars films before the new film comes out. “Yes. All of them.” he replied immediately, before I had a chance to narrow the options down to the original trilogy…

So, we’ve just re-watched Phantom Menace together. Have my thoughts on this changed over time? Not really. Here are the ten things that suck most about Phantom Menace:

1- Nobody cares about taxation disputes. Sure, it’s possible that there are tax lawyers out there, rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of a major film finally giving this issue the long-overdue attention it merits… go and watch The Firm again, and be merry.

2- Anakin Skywalker is just too young. Imagine if Obi Wan had met him at about the same age as we meet Luke… Then contrast father against son over time as Anakin slowly turns evil. We’ll never know now how this would have worked out. Thanks, George.

3- Midichlorians. Just don’t.

4- Every scene is too “busy“. It’s like a cartoon for kids with ADHD… Whether on Tattooine, or Naboo, or Coruscant, there’s just too much background getting in the way of the foreground detail. Less is more. The financial and technical constraints of the original trilogy made for a far more believable set of locations, all at the outer reaches of the galaxy. We need to feel the dirt.

5- The stupidly stupid racist accents, especially on Naboo.

6- Are you an angel? No, you little pervert. What are you, like ten years old?

7- Yippee! No.

8- One of the most important men in the galaxy can apparently hide his identity by wearing a hoodie, and NO ONE recognises him… I look forward to the day that Barack Obama tries that to slip out for a pizza.

9- Anakin building 3-PO. Really?

10- Comedy droids. Roger roger; I’m out.

All that, and no room for Jar Jar. (He needs his own top ten countdown, but I’m not doing that.)

So, what did work?

That lightsaber finale. Awesome. From the double ended sabre lighting up, to the final sequence between Maul and Obi Wan… Oh, what glory there could have been. Ewan McGregor is patchy in this film (hampered by the wooden dialogue and the silly hair), but he really sells the finale. When he’s itching to get through the final implausible delaying mechanism to get to the man who has just killed his mentor, I’m right there with him, and the following sequence is so well-choreographed and FAST it still gives me goosebumps every time. I’ll even overlook the (entirely unbelievable) way he somersaults over Maul at the end, without Maul just slicing Obi Wan up the middle.

The sound effects in the podrace are amazing, taking you right into the pilot’s seat. Which is a good job, as the visuals are overdone and cartoony.

That Duel of the Fates song is incredible. Up there with the Imperial March for me.

When we got to the penultimate scene, with Qui-Gon’s funeral pyre, my son asked “Daddy, why are they not toasting marshmallows?”… maybe the next step should be to record a 5-year old’s “director’s commentary” DVD extra?

So, onto Attack of the Clones next week… A New Hope seems very far away, let alone The Force Awakens!

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OctPoWriMo #31 – The Song Goes On

Step off the dance floor
Draw breath. Relax. Have a drink.
Song changes; goes on.

So, OctPoWriMo has come to an end. I’ve published a poem a day during this month (actually quite a bit more, when you include other challenges), and I’ve tried to engage most days with the daily prompt… if I haven’t, it’s been at least a response to the prompt, even if in a “two-fingered” sort of way! I respond well, generally, to challenges and prompts, and have been pushed beyond my comfort zone this month, with varying results. Will I ever write a paradelle again? Not unless money changes hands…

I need to scale back for a bit now, and focus on re-drafting a picture book text ready to submit for critiquing at the SCBWI Conference in Winchester in three weeks time… poems have superseded the picture book writing lately, and I need to create some time to finish a draft of a heartwarming Christmas story… written entirely from a villain’s point of view (naturally).

So, thank you to everyone for your likes, comments and follows, and hope you will join me, at a less frenetic pace, for whatever I come up with next. What will that be? I genuinely have no idea. Watch this space and find out as I do 🙂

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Writing 201: Poetry #6

For today’s challenge, bearing in mind it is a Saturday we were asked simply to say a few lines on a poem that we love, that makes us jealous.

Mine is a poem from my childhood, that I have had the pleasure of re-discovering with my own children. Little Red Riding Hood, from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, is a parody of the traditional Riding Hood fairy tale, ending in a decidedly non-traditional way…

The small girl smiles.
One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.

She aims it at the creature’s head.
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead

There are so many reasons I love this. Hilarious use of rhyme. The unexpected twist. The hint of anarchy, using grown up words in a story supposedly for children. That imagery! Words that a child will remember into adulthood…

There is no other section of poetic writing that so encapsulates what I am trying to ultimately achieve with my poetry.

Here’s to trying 🙂

 

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10 Crucial Lessons for Rhymers… from Monty Python

or, inevitably, WHAT HAVE THE PYTHONS EVER DONE FOR US?

We are all products of our environment. Some wear their influences on their sleeves; others may not even be aware of tapping into their formative influences. I grew up in the 80s with Monty Python, a child of Python-loving parents who mercifully spared me the sketches that didn’t work (there are many), but instead exposed me to the films, the highlights reels, the comedy albums (on vinyl, no less), the Live at the Hollywood Bowl fan-fest. And here I am now trying to write rhyming picture books and other entertainments…

Here are ten lessons that rhymers (perhaps storytellers of any stripe) can take from the songs of Monty Python. Some of the links are NSFW…

1) CHALLENGE EXPECTATIONS
Have your main character do something unusual, that goes against type and challenges expectations. You’ve got a knight called Brave Sir Robin?

“When danger reared its ugly head
He bravely turned his tail and fled

Yes Brave Sir Robin turned about
And gallantly he chickened out…”

Or take a rugged, “manly” lumberjack, and then tell us that he likes to “put on women’s clothing, and hang around in bars.”

Or take the less-travelled perspective:

2) PLAY WITH WORDS
Have fun with the language, whether that’s homophones, (“sail the wide accountancy”)

lists,

or

or non-sequitors for comic effect
“We dine well here in Camelot, we eat ham and jam and spam a-lot

I have to push the pram-a-lot!”

3) GET THE TONE RIGHT
The gentle, plinky start of “Finland” sets the tone perfectly for an homage to a country “where I quite want to be”…

4) ENJOY YOUR RHYMES
Repeating the same end rhyme throughout, and even using it as an internal rhyme, can be fun…
“Half a bee, philosophically,
Must, ipso facto, half not be”

5) DON’T TALK DOWN TO YOUR AUDIENCE
The Galaxy Song, and the Medical Love Song, are examples of introducing a range of language and ideas that go far beyond what might be expected of the “everyman”. If the narrative, and the rhyme, is strong enough, you can introduce unfamiliar names and ideas very quickly.

Don’t talk down to your audience. Raise them up.

“Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
And revolving at 900 miles an hour.
It’s orbiting at 19 miles a second, so it’s reckoned,
The sun that is the source of all our power”

(I love the punchline at the end of this song)

6) MAKE YOUR RHYMES UNEXPECTED, OR UNUSUAL
All I know about philosophers, I know from this:

“Heideggar, Heideggar was a boozy beggar…

John Stewart Mill, of his own free will
On half a pint of shanty was particularly ill.”

And what about one of the greatest thinkers in history?

“Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle”

7) REPETITION, repetition….
A good example of repetition, and letting your characters grow, is the theme song from Life of Brian, with “a boy/ teenager/ not a girl/ a man called Brian”

“… his voice dropped down low
And things started to grow…”

8) DIVERSITY IS IMPORTANT
Monty Python made an effort to address diversity, in their own particular fashion, with “I Like Chinese” and “Never Be Rude To An Arab”…

“I like Chinese, I like Chinese,
They only come up to your knees”

It’s vital to reflect the diversity of the world we live in, to keep your characters relevant, and grounded in the reality of the time.

9) BE PREPARED TO MAKE MISTAKES
Viewed through modern eyes, neither of these songs have aged well… but how do you future-proof your material from the differing standards that will inevitably follow? You can’t. Write what’s in your heart, rather than chasing the trends of the day (or anticipated trends of tomorrow). If you never make mistakes, it just means you’re never trying.

Which leads us to our final point.

10) KEEP TRYING
There is only one way to finish this list. A song that has a ridiculously catchy chorus, a perfect balance of repetition/ variation/ progression, fun rhymes, a playful, changing rhyme structure… it’s even got whistling.

So, when the rejection emails start to pile up around you, put the kettle on, grab a slice of cake, and listen to this:
“Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say…”

I’m Back!

Hi everyone, I’ve just got back from a week’s holiday down in North Devon. A beautiful part of England… unfortunately we couldn’t even rely on decent weather in August, so had to suffer four waterlogged days, battling trenchfoot and hypothermia (only a slight exaggeration), before the sun eventually came out. Check out one of my holiday snaps below…

By the way – I think it says a lot about me that if you call your attraction The Big Sheep, then I’m going to put that on the “must visit” list! We did manage to visit a different beach every day, rain or shine… put that down to the stubbornness of those who live as far from the beach as is possible in these Isles.

I’ve come back with lots of ideas for new poems that I hope to share with you in the coming days and weeks. Hope you enjoyed the scheduled posts I left while I was off – it was a bit of a clean out of some older material, hence being a smorgasbord of poems, limericks, and zombie stories… variety is good though, right? 🙂

Thanks to everyone for your likes, shares and lovely comments. I couldn’t respond to each as I normally do, as we didn’t even have phone reception for 23.5 hours of each day, let alone an internet connection! My wife did discover on day three that if you hung off the back of the sofa at an awkward angle, you could just get a tiny bit of phone reception (as long as it wasn’t too windy… or cloudy… or a bird wasn’t flying past the window… it was very rural!)… amazing the lengths you go to to maintain a feeling of being “connected” to the world, once you’ve got used to it!

Now, if only there was some way to combine that beautiful North Devon scenery with a decent broadband connection…

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Haiku Challenge – “Bust” & “Must”

Two contributions from me for Ronovan’s weekly haiku challenge – “bust” and “must” being the theme words. Check out lots of great haiku on Ronovan’s blog: https://ronovanwrites.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/ronovanwrites-weekly-haiku-poetry-prompt-challenge-57-bust-must/

#1
My writing career
Has many needs, and one MUST:
Agent deal or bust!

#2
Raucous wedding brawl;
Black eyes, bust lips, bruised knuckles.
It must be true love.

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