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Saturday, April 25, 2009


Cinema and its dicontents, part 5

Today, we conclude a week of cinema grumbles...

Cinemas nowadays seem to be looking for an experience people couldn't reproduce at home, such as 3D, in the hopes that audiences will reject the DVD alternative. The thing is, though, people don't go to most films because they have major technological advantages. They go to films because they want an evening out, or because they want to see the film now rather than wait for the DVD release. Both of those are things the cinemas are perfectly capable of offering. What they can't do, though, do not outweigh the alternatives of going down the pub instead and renting the DVD later if the cinema is offering an unattractive environment. A pub with sticky floors puts off punters however shiny their pint glasses; most people would stay away from a restaurant where somebody kept coming between them and their food. If the place is nasty and you can't concentrate on what it's offering, there's no reason to go.

To be sure, a cinema does offer a big-screen experience that's somewhat different from a television, but even assuming someone has a small TV, that's not as big an advantage as it might be. The human brain is a concentrating organ - which means it's excellent at ignoring certain things. Things that stay still and don't make any noise. That rules out obstreperous punters, but it doesn't rule out your living room. As long as you've been reading this post, have you really been that aware of the area around the screen? I certainly haven't; there's a picture of a bird on the wall above me, a printer to my right, and a certain amount of jumble, but all my eyes have really registered is a page of text, with the occasional interruption from my cat Mika, who's sitting on the window outside making silent mews in the hopes that I'll decide it's teatime soon (reasoning, I think, that as lunch appeared when she was out in the garden, maybe tea will as well) - which is to say, the only thing that broke my focus was an object that a) I'm very fond of, and b) was in motion. Watching a movie on DVD is similar: if it's good enough to hold your attention, then your brain cancels out your surroundings, providing a fairly close equivalent to the big-screen experience.

So the upshot is that going to the cinema feels more and more like going to the theatre: an experience somewhat different from the one you have at home, but not something you run to on a regular basis. And that's the nice cinemas; with the affordable ones, it's more like going to an underground theatre only without the sense of sticking it to the Man. On the whole, cinemas feel more like the Man is sticking it to you - and if he's going to do that, he can do it on his own dime.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Cinema and its discontents, part 4

So, cinemas are overpriced ... but some of them do try to keep things affordable. I'll take my local cinema as an example.

It never charges above £6.50 (though that's still steep compared with a decade ago). To keep these prices manageable, it has to cut expenses where it can, and some of its methods are rather crafty. For instance, they try to increase impulse snacking and cut back on staffing at the same time by making customers buy tickets and food from the same counter. If you want a ticket, you can't just swing past the concession stand: you have to queue in front of it until, theoretically, your resistance to food has been worn away by having to stare at it for the last five minutes. It doesn't work on me, and I'm not mad about the queues, but I admire the ingenuity.

But because they've cut back in other areas too, the price still feels more than it's worth. Ushers, of course, are a thing of the past, but our local has cut back on cleaning expenses as well, and for £6.50 I'd like to walk on a floor that doesn't squish.

This is something of a vicious circle: by keeping itself cheap and cheerful, the cinema attracts a heavily teenage audience, and teenagers tend to be the biggest messers. Adults are more likely to stay away, so they need to keep going for teenagers, and the place just gets grottier and grottier; again, for comfort as well as price reasons, I have to really want to see a film before I feel like going in there ... and if I really want to see it, the prospect of hearing it compete with a lot of chatty kids doesn't much appeal. I'm glad they've all got friends and are having fun together, but again, if I could hear their conversations for one pound on the top deck of a bus, I'd rather not pay £6.50 to hear them in a cinema.

The cinema's options are limited. Either it could spiff itself up and charge more, or it could do what it does, which is stay grubby and lower the lights - which probably saves it still more money on electricity bills. I admire the spirit ... but I don't feel like it's a fun treat to stay there.

In result, it's not much of an occasion going there. I end up going to that cinema only for films that I sort of want to see, on days when there isn't much else do do, a perfect storm of mild willingness and disinterest that's very difficult for a marketing department to whip up. Whatever a director had in mind when he or she first decided to helm their project, I'm sure that's not it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Write to Obama

I've been running a series of posts on cinema and its discontents this week, and I'll be continuing it shortly. But I've also been following the news, and you know what makes me really discontented? Torture.

President Obama has been shifting position somewhat over the last few days, but his general trend seems to be against prosecuting those who decided that international law and common humanity could go screw itself, they wanted torture to be legal. How much it's his call versus how much unofficial influence he can have is a debatable question, but any influence against prosecution is too much.

This is a terrible idea. The torture legislation has permanently damaged the good name of America and its allies, and the good name of democracy itself; until those responsible are brought to justice, we can have no moral standing in the world. There can be no reconciliation without justice; Obama talks of 'moving on', but it's not his place to say that. He's not the one who got tortured. If someone's predecessor gets you tortured, they've got no right to demand you move on until they've made reparation. No one will be ready to move on until justice is done. Add to that the fact that if the wrongdoers aren't punished, it sends a message to future wrongdoers that you can break any law you like as long as you're powerful enough, and we've got a serious problem on our hands.

Don't get me wrong; I like Obama. Considering the mess we're in, I'd rather have him than anyone else. But if he opposes prosecuting the torture legislators, he's seriously in the wrong.

As it's being thrashed out at the moment, this is the time when politicians are going to be subject to the pressure of public opinion. So please, take a few minutes out of your day and write to Obama, urging him to support any and all measures to bring those who created a policy of torture to justice. If you're in a hurry or can't think what to say, feel free to cut and past anything you like from this post or to write something very brief, but please, write to him and express your opinion, whether as a citizen of America or a member of the international community.

It's being decided as we speak. The more people speak out for justice against the torturers, the more likely justice is to be done. Let's all put our names down while there's still time.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Cinema and its discontents, part 3

Here's another financial problem for cinemas that rebounds on audiences: the intersection between concession stands and film length. It's generally remarked that cinemas depend on concession stands now to keep their profits healthy; even the great old Cambridge Arts Cinema, to my sorrow, closed down its original premises several years ago (which is now part of an enormous Borders), and moved down the street. The new place is fine, but it's notable that it has a cafe attached. A nice cafe, selling gastropub-style sandwiches and nibbles and alcoholic drinks, a pleasant place to eat before the film - but still, financially, more or less an upmarket concession stand. If customers aren't coming in big droves, you need them to spend as much as possible while they're actually there, and charging a high mark-up on inexpensive food is one way of doing it.

Now, this would be fair enough, if a bit gouging, if that was all there was to it. But there's a problem with that: films are getting longer - and unlike older long films, have done away with the intermission. Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked that 'The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder,' and mundane though it sounds, it's an excellent point. However good the film, it's very hard to concentrate if you're in pain. 'How long can I go without wetting my pants?' might not be the deepest question in the world, but when it applies to you personally, it will probably seem more compelling that whatever artistic or philosophical dilemma the characters are wrestling with up on the screen.

In Boogie Nights, porn auteur Jack dreams of making a skin flick so exciting that it'll keep customers in their seats post-orgasm: '...When they spurt out that joy juice, they just got to sit in it until they find out how it ends.' If that sounds ambitious, try stacking up the 5-odd millitres of an ejaculation against the 400-600 ml capacity of a human bladder: now there's a problem that can't be addressed with a discreet tissue and some baby wipes.

Worse than that, by straining the audience's loyalties between the story and their comfort, you actually create a needless acid test: I can think of at least one film where the best way to express my distate for it was to remark that I hadn't minded taking a bathroom break in the middle. An audience member debating whether or not to nip to the loos and miss some of the story, in fact, is asking themselves at what point they're prepared to say, 'Oh, stuff this film,' - and that's not a question you should encourage audiences to consider any more than you absolutely have to.

Which is where the concession stand will take a hit. If the film lasts an hour and twenty minutes, a drink might seem like a pleasant accompaniment; if it lasts three hours and ten minutes, do you really want a pint of liquid running through your kidneys? Pretty much every time I go into a cinema, I go through the same thought process: It might be nice to take in some popcorn, but if I do that I'll get thirsty, and then I'll want a drink ... nah, I'd rather be able to concentrate on the ending, thanks.

Teenage boys are the main target of blockbuster movies for a lot of reasons, but I can't help wondering if one of them is simply that they're equipped with a functioning prostate and no uterus to, as it were, press for their attention a couple of hours into the film. And if that's the case, given the limited number of major features for anybody other than teenage boys, I intend to nail 95 theses to the bathroom door.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Cinema and its disconents, part 2

So, what are the effects of cinemas trying to cope with falling audiences by saving money?

Here's a big one: to save on wages, cinemas no longer employ ushers. This is what my dad refers to as a 'false economy', or 'spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar.'

If you're going to pay the high ticket prices, it's probably for a film that you really want to see. And that means you want to hear it too - but without ushers around to shine the Torch of Civil Discipline, odds very much favour there being some jackass yapping away throughout the experience. As an audience member there's little you can do about this except start a fight (and it's hard to weigh up your opponent in semi-darkness, but the one thing you do know is that they've got friends with them to back them up), or go complain, which means you have to miss at least five minutes in the middle of the movie while you do so. You miss less if you just try to tune the jackass out. But when a bit of patience and half the price will rent you the DVD, which you can watch in privacy and peace, why would you bother? I'm sure I'm not the only one to have movies in my past where I remember the noisemakers more vividly than I remember the film itself, and noisemakers you can get for free.

By losing the ushers, cinemas make it a lottery whether you'll actually get to enjoy the film or not, and with the ante so high, many people don't feel like gambling.

Some cinemas seem to have gone with the solution of playing the films louder, but that has disadvantages of its own. For one thing, I'd personally like to keep my hearing into old age, but for another, it doesn't necessarily drown out the chatterboxes. In some cases, it simply provides enough cover that they feel comfortable talking in their regular voices - which, in fact, they have to use if they're going to hear each other. A cinematic experience moves ever closer to a clubbing one; I can't but suspect that one reason why Mamma Mia was such a hit was that it actually suited usherless conditions unusually well. Given that cinemas are turning into nightclubs anyway, you might as well get up and dance.

I say this partly as a joke, but not entirely: Mamma Mia tapped into the vast female audience that studios often don't bother to seek out, but it's no Mildred Pierce: watching it is oddly like watching the background for a party you're expected to create yourself, and it wouldn't have felt that inappropriate if we'd all got a free wig and boa with our tickets. Many movies release soundtracks, but Mamma Mia basically is a soundtrack, with a bit of dialogue and some pictures thrown in by way of accompaniment. In itself, it's a perfectly agreeable little thing, but a film that's all accompaniment and relies on its plot and dialogue being ignorable says something about the state of cinemas.

Another method is to try and direct the noisemaking, but that only works with certain kinds of movies and certain audiences. On holiday in San Francisco, fiance and I went to the movies to see a big blockbuster film - I think it was X-Men 2 - and found something interesting: if that audience was a representative sample, American audiences love to make noise. Boy, did they like to make noise. Big laughs, cheers, responding to the movie as if it were a sports event, were all a big part of their fun. But not all audiences do that; English audiences very seldom do unless the movie's a big cultural event and everybody there is part of the same subculture, and even then they tend to be quieter. We save our yelling for footie. Pass a pub with satellite TV on an FA Cup Final night and you'll hear it; some spectacles encourage a kind of spectator response that's almost a game in its own right - let's call it 'synchronised shouting' - but the cinema isn't the place, or at least not here.

The really interesting thing, and the thing that made me suspect this audience was representative, was that the director had clearly factored the noise in. After the moments that raised a cheer - a wisecrack, a stunt, a heroic-looking shot - there was a pause; characters just stood and glared at each other, the camera swooped while they stayed still, and a few plotless seconds went by while the noise played itself out. It worked well enough, and in fact broke the action up quite nicely, but having seen the audience respond so loudly, I started seeing it in other US blockbusters: for an American audience, the director must tap into his vaudevillian subconscious and remember to pause for the laughs.

If you can get that working, it's actually a decent way of dealing with the noisemakers: most people are making a noise that works in harmony with the movie, and the chatterboxes are probably going to be drowned out. But for that to work, you need a big, loud film with lots of action; dramatic silences and fraught pauses are out. X-Men 2, fine; Sense and Sensibility, not so much. It's got its uses, but they're limited, and personally I like films that don't suit the noisemaking vibe.

Apart from the 'direct the noisemaking' film's style limitations, it also seems rather to be going the long way round. A director can't possibly anticipate who will come into every cinema, and managing the amount of noise they make is asking a lot. Most auditoriums are reasonably soundproof - the Arts Cinema of nostalgic memory, I must confess, being a bit of an exception; I have rather vivid memories of all the anguished silences of Bent being punctuated by a busker in the street outside, armed only with a penny whistle and about half the melody of 'Greensleeves'. He was a regular beggar-busker and normally somebody I felt sorry for, but my inclination to give him my change was at a bit of a low ebb that day. But this, at least, was somebody outside the cinema, and a member of staff eventually went out and asked him to move up the street; if he'd been a customer, it's hard to know what they would have done.

Ushers require wages, but if their absence is keeping away customers, their absence costs more money than it saves. That's one problem with modern cinemas right there. Tune in for more curmudgeoning tomorrow...

Monday, April 20, 2009


Cinema and its discontents, part 1

Last month, I declared that what with wedding planning, various home improvement projects and writing as well, I'd had it absolutely up to here with making decisions, and I wanted to have a day of fun that was planned for me. Rising to the occasion, my fiance planned not one but two surprise-fun days, after which I felt considerably better. Reflecting on them, one in particular stands out. We had a vaguely India-themed day, meaning we went to a highly-rated Indian fusion restaurant in the centre of town (Moti Mahal, if anyone's interested), and then we went to see Slumdog Millionaire.

That's right: on a planned day-of-fun, we went to the movies. As a special treat.

Ten years ago, I would have considered this a bit of a low-key way to spend a special day. Last month, though, it was a big thing, and not just because Slumdog Millionaire was charming. It was a treat because the cinema has become something of a rare excursion for us - and I don't think we're alone.

On the face of it, this is odd. There's a cinema within walking distance of our house. We both love movies. When we were undergraduates - at the same university, though we didn't meet until after graduation - we both went to the cinema a lot. I dropped by the Cambridge Arts Cinema board every week to see what was new, and quite often I'd buy a ticket: the place was amiably small and a little scruffy, the tickets were cheap, and I could pretty much be sure that whatever they were showing would be at least an interesting experience. Both of us dropped by the local multiplex regularly as well: the tickets were cheap, especially for students, it was within walking distance, and it showed whatever was on. He'd go regularly with groups of friends; my friends and I tended to do other things when hanging out but I went regularly on my own, often as a rest from revising - it would be a total distraction that lasted a limited amount of time, the perfect study break. Sometimes I just walked there and bought a ticket for whatever was showing next, with predictably mixed results, but that was fine; Patch Adams might not have been the most sophisticated film in the world, but it was a pleasant, manageable break from routine, and I was hardly the poorer for the experience.

You'll notice a phrase recurring in our reasons for picking the various cinemas: 'tickets were cheap.' This is a big part of what's changed. There are a few issues that have changed cinema-going over the past few years, and this week, I'll be posting about them.

At the risk of sounding like some old bat lamenting that ice cream used to cost a penny, money is the first one. Ticket prices have risen far out of proportion to income. This is not good for cinemas: it drives away custom. If it costs three pounds to see a movie, you may well drop in just on the off-chance you like it; if it costs three or four times that - and in the central London cinemas it does - then you'd better be sure that you'll really, really like it. Otherwise you might as well do something else with your money. Cinema tickets are getting as expensive as the more moderately-priced theatre tickets, and people don't often go to the theatre. Well, I used to, again as an undergraduate ... but you know why? It was student productions, and tickets were cheap.

So going to the cinema has become a big deal now. It seems to me that cinemas are trying various ways to keep afloat, and have been for some time, but most of their methods aren't very effective. To stay in profit with falling custom, there are two tactics - you either cut costs or increase prices. Cinemas seem to be doing both ... and it's not good for customers. Tune in next time for the first example...

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Marketing matters

To my delight, I've just recently managed to get my mittens on a DVD of Celia, an Australian film that I first saw when I was a child. The contrast between how I first watched it and how it was sold is an interesting little demonstration in the importance of marketing well.

Celia, first released in 1988, is the story of a nine-year-old girl living in 1950s Australia. Her two great desires are to own a pet rabbit and to play with the lively Tanner children next door, with whom she has sworn loyalty in vows of blood. Unfortunately, the plague of wild rabbits means that even pet rabbits are under attack from government policy, and meanwhile the Red Scare leads her father - himself the child of a Communist mother - to ban her from playing with the Tanners, whose parents are fringe Communist party members. Under pressure from the adult world to relinquish all that matters to her, largely because the government and surrounding culture are overreacting to perceived dangers, Celia's grasp on reality becomes shakier and shakier; already an imaginative child haunted by frightening fairy tales, she is also fierce, and increasingly aggressive. The film captures beautifully the passionate hatreds and loves of childhood, the strangeness of the adult world and the interplay between the two; it's a subtle, intelligent and extraordinarily memorable film.

I say 'memorable' advisedly, because I first saw it shortly after its release, when I was eleven or twelve myself. That was twenty years ago, and I remembered it so vividly that I leaped in excitement when I saw it had been re-released.

Yet if I'd been thirty-one in 1988 and seen the marketing for it, I might very well have given it a miss.

Here's why I watched it. Barry Norman, may his tribe increase, was still doing his film review show on terrestrial TV, and while watching it one night they showed a few clips from the film. Shortly afterwards, my parents signed me up for a good local-ish video library; not the one round the corner, which was dark and grotty and had what I now realise was a collection of porn in the basement (I remember being young enough not to be quite sure whether the illustrated cover of Bad Girls' Dormitory, with the blonde's head thrown back and the brunette licking her neck with predatory glee, was supposed to be sexy or a horror film). No, this new library, near the Pizza Express we sometimes visited as a treat, was located in upscale Notting Hill, with a wide selection and plenty of art-house stuff. Celia was not the only film it provided in my early adolescence - I remember going through Zhang Yimou's early work as well having seen Raise the Red Lantern as well - but its cover leaped out at me from the wall.

Its slogan was 'A tale of innocence corrupted.' Now, in an interview the writer-director Ann Turner remarks that she does see Celia as being 'corrupted into adulthood' by having her world so overset by adult concerns, but the somewhat salacious strapline doesn't quite capture that. Never mind; I was twelve at the oldest, a bit to young to find fault with the slogan, but the image was captivating - mostly a photograph of the star's expressive face. I'd seen some arresting clips of it, and more importantly, it was an adult film in which the central character was a child, and a little girl at that; when you're a little girl yourself, you don't get many of those. So I scooped it up, took it to the counter, watched it twice and have been wondering if I'd get to see it again ever since.

Celia is violent and sometimes shocking - though, as with Susan Hill's I'm The King of the Castle, the relentless enmity and vengefulness of the child characters looked altogether less extreme and closer to reality from a child's perspective that it would to a nostalgic adult - but as a film, it's definitely not a 'shocker'. But have a look at the posters. The American studios released it as Celia: Child of Terror, as if it were a splashy horror movie. Look, a child holding a rifle! One of the quotes refers to 'shades-of-Carrie horror', but stylistically and thematically, Ann Turner is a long way from Stephen King. Someone looking for a King-like experience would have felt let down by all the politics and understatement; someone looking for a film like Celia would not pick up a King adaptation.

The result of all this was that, according to my liner notes, the film 'didn't achieve the popular or even cult success that it clearly deserved,' despite overwhelmingly positive reviews and winning prizes, and has only just now achieved a DVD release by Second Run DVD. It was pitched in a way that put off its natural audience. I don't think I'd have watched it based on those posters; I only got to see it because I'd missed much of the marketing.

Being a genre-juggler myself, and knowing that genre-mixing artworks are most vulnerable to bad marketing decisions, this is the kind of issue I take seriously. But it's a shame for Celia as well; good films don't deserve to fall into obscurity. If you look on Amazon, you can see a few clips from it; in any case, I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Easter Mikalogue

Kit: Happy Easter, sweetheart.

Mika: Is there food in it?

Kit: Possibly a fish treat.

Mika: Aha! Is worthwhile holiday.

Kit: Glad you think so, secular puss. Though it's a bit of a shame we can't have an Easter egg hunt this year.

Mika: Mika the mighty hunts! Clearly you know place. Cannot compete.

Kit: Well, that's true. I was more thinking that we've just turfed the garden so we can't walk on it or we'll mess it up.

Mika: Ah, yes. Has complaint on that score.

Kit: Is it about covering up all that earth you liked to dig in? All those piles you were heaping up that we had to spend ages levelling out?

Mika: Had just sculpted that. You is jealous. Wants to be only artist in house. Sabotages Mika.

Kit: That's not fair, sweetie.

Mika: Then why destroy Mika's mounds?

Kit: Well, honey, we thought you might like some nice grass to walk on. Softer on your paws. Less dirt to lick out.

Mika: Suspects this not your only rationale.

Kit: Well, we were tired of the garden being a big pile of dirt as well.

Mika: But was fine how it was! You has selfish green.

Kit: That's 'selfish gene', honey. Have you been into Daddy's bookshelves again?

Mika: True too, you garden in selfish jeans. Is selfish from pants to pelt.

Kit: So you don't want the fish treat?

Mika: ...Okay, happy Easter.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


Reading my reviews

Amaryllis asks whether I read my reviews. Short answer: this time round, as little as I can.

When Bareback first came out, I waited for my reviews like exam results; I particularly recall an awful night where I couldn't sleep because I knew a review was coming out in the next day's paper, and wound up sitting in front of the paper's website at four in the morning obsessively refreshing until the review was finally posted. (It wasn't even one of the better reviews, as it turned out.) It was such a wretched night that I've never been able to look at that desktop picture again without feeling the horrible, drowsy-eyed tension again.

Mug's game. So this time, I'm going a different way. If my publicist sends a review my way I can't stop myself from reading it, but I'm keeping myself as much out of the way of reviews as possible.

Like a lot of writers, I'm subject to what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy calls 'disqualifying the positive': I can read a glowing review and come away totally depressed because there's one negative comment in it. (And, in fact, I actually did just that recently with a review my publicist sent me: the review said some extremely nice things with a few quibbles, and I spend a couple of days feeling so discouraged that I found myself wondering if there was any point in writing books if this was what happened to them.) This is entirely my own irrational thinking, but I've got more writing to do, and it's bad for it: it's very hard to solve writing problems if your main attitude is despair, because you're liable to reject every solution you can think of.

In saying this, I anticipate a certain argument: I've read a lot of readers talking about how writers should listen to their reviews because they need to hear feedback. Now, feedback is important, but the thing is, reviews are not the only source of it. And in fact, there's a technical reason why looking too heavily to reviews for feedback can be problematic. This is to say nothing against reviewing: it's a fine profession, and its members are smart people who work hard and often have intelligent things to say. The drawback, though, is this: they work under difficult conditions. They have to read several books a week. This means they have to read all of them fast. I've seen reviews of earlier work where the reviewer made some very basic factual mistakes about the book - not mistakes as in 'they didn't appreciate it enough', but as in 'they got things wrong about the plot'; I think one even got the protagonist's name wrong. I don't blame them for that; I assume they were working to a tight deadline, had to review the book from memory and didn't have time to fact-check. (Well, it wouldn't have taken more than a glance at the jacket blurb to check the protagonist's name, so that was a bit sloppy, but the other stuff is understandable.) But it does mean that if you want serious feedback on your stuff, you need to ask people who can take the time to read it slowly and think about it in detail, such as agents, editors and friends. A reviewer can convey an overall impression, but the really constructive feedback is detailed, and it's asking a reviewer to go above and beyond their job description to give you that.

Even more than this, though, it's not a reviewer's job to give feedback. It's to tell potential readers whether they think the book is enjoyable. Which is to say, the reviewer isn't actually talking to me. They're talking about me. In a sense, reading my own reviews is eavesdropping. What they say is assessing rather than constructive: a reviewer is totally free to say 'This sucks' and leave it at that, but what a writer learns most from hearing is 'Your pacing would suck less if you speeded up events in the middle section, and while you're at it there's something sucky about the antagonist's motivations you might want to look at.' That's not a reviewer's job. Their job is to recommend or to dismiss. They're not talking to me.

A review almost always means more to you than the person reviewing your work. They write hundreds of reviews to your one novel. As a result, a writer can get terribly hung up on an off-hand remark, or inflate one person's opinion to the voice of society. And that can be bad for your writing. The heroine of Bareback was written to be a flawed person, and I find that flawed characters tend to draw my best writing out of me, but something that interfered with the first draft of the book I'm currently trying to rewrite - and damaged its quality - is that I worried about whether people would dislike the heroine. The main reason was that a couple of reviewers had said their difficulty liking Lola had interfered with their enjoyment of Bareback. Now, rationally this wasn't the voice of the majority: the majority of reviews were positive, and many people found Lola's prickly personality enhanced the book rather than spoiling it. But those one or two reviews were echoing in my head, and those echoes were bad for the writing, because I was doing what I've often counselled against: thinking about the audience rather than the work.

So this time, I'm staying away as much as possible. I don't lack for people who'll give me feedback in my life; I have a terrific agent and good friends, and I'm usually able to admit to myself when I'm not satisfied with my own work. Reviews haven't been my best source of advice, but they have been a source of avoidable angst, and as it's hard to write when you're stressed, it makes better sense to stay away from stressful sources of feedback when less stressful ones are available.

Having said that, the few reviews I haven't managed to dodge have been very positive. This review was one I felt I had to see: it was the Times, among other things, and my publicist had told me it was coming. So here's what the splendid Lisa Tuttle says about my second novel:

...rich, strange, utterly absorbing and weirdly convincing.

Not bad, eh? SFX also gave me a five-star review, though I can't seem to find it online to link, and a brief search gave me the horrors as I realised I might stumble upon other reviews and thus get sucked into the vortex. I felt like a dieter being invited to a cake-tasting party, an alcoholic passing a bar; like anyone who's tried to swear off something bad for them who finds themselves at risk of being unable to stay away. Those are the reviews I've had shown to me, but I don't think I want to see any others. I don't handle reviews very well, so I'm laying off them.

LATER: the lovely SFX reviewer turned up in the comments section and very kindly pointed me towards the review, now posted here on her blog, for which many thanks. I'd recommend you to check out the blog anyway, as it's interesting.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


Oh, those sweet rewrite blues

If I'm seeming quiet lately, there's a reason: I'm settling down to a major rewrite.

It's very hard to judge how a book's worked out when you've just finished a first draft, but my agency has confirmed what I suspected: my third novel needs a lot of rewriting. It's been an interesting experience, because you make different mistakes with each book. My first two books, I set myself challenges I sometimes felt were impossible to meet, and as a result would sometimes jam up for weeks at a time. My third book, I'd gotten a bit more confidence in my ability to plough through, but a certain proportion of the time was spent ploughing in the wrong direction.

So I'm going at it with an axe. Certain characters are going to die. So are certain plot strands. Some characters are going to change sex. Others are going to be created. It will be a eugenic bloodbath, and a massive headache as well, because I'm restructuring as well as rewriting. But I wasn't happy with the first draft, and this is the kind of thing you have to do if you want to be professional about it.

There's an old saying that if you can be discouraged from writing, you should be. Being dissatisfied with your own first draft is discouraging, and rewrites are scary; in truth, I find myself fantasising about a nice straightforward job in admin some of the time. But it's not going to put me off; all I can do is try again and hope for the best. This book may or may not see the light of day, but I can promise that I won't try to palm off work that I know I can do better.

I may be a bit quiet for a while; if so, that's the reason. Any subject requests, while I'm at it?


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