MST3K: At least my writing isn’t that bad

I have recently started watching the new series of Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 (MST3K) on Netflix and I’m enjoying it. It’s funny and aware, I love Felicia Day, they have some great guests, and the robots are adorable. I would like to make clear that I am in no way suggesting that I could be even half as funny as the writers for that show.

mst3k-netflix-season-11-cast

That said, the whole premise of the show is to watch really bad old movies, and boy are they bad. The acting is bad, the ‘monsters’ are bad, and the writing… I have no idea how they got away with so much crap back in the day! Sure, the amusing banter from Jonah and the robots is a good distraction, but not enough to make me forget just how badly made these old movies are, even disregarding all the limitations of the time-periods.

For one, there’s a whole lot of sexism and either casual racism or simply the whole erasure of race (such as the whole ‘only white people go to space’ yuckiness that has pervaded scifi for far too long!) going on. And in general, all characters tend to be paper-thin, with no backstory or deeper motivation or anything. The bad acting doesn’t help either (even Christopher Plummer manages to look bad! Though I blame the writing for that one – episode 6 Starcrash if you want to see for yourself).

Then there’s the plot. I get it, budgets were tight and monsters are expensive, so you can’t show them for very long. And yes, people were more used to a slower pace back then. But oh my gods things move so slow! Nothing happens for minutes, except people walking, or random scenery, or SPACE (which I guess was an impressive thing to film back then, even as fake as it possibly could be). They often blatantly reuse footage to stretch things out even further. There’s no sense of continuity whatsoever, with the plot either dwelling on something too long or skipping something altogether, with no apparent in-between. In short, nothing to write home about.

Anyway, I could go on like this for quite some time, but you’re better off just checking out an episode or ten for yourself. My main take-away from watching is not, as you might think: “Oh my gods there is so much bad writing out there!” – although the thought did cross my mind. No, it’s that people believed in this shitty content enough to invest lots of time and money into it. These things got made, and released, and people might have even watched them in a non-mocking way.

Surely we can do one better? If we believe, and put the time and effort in, we can surely make a story better than these guys got away with back in the day. And if they could get other people to invest in it too, there’s hope for everyone. So, I would suggest that if you’re feeling down about your creative efforts, go look at a terrible movie (with or without amusing MST3K commentary) or read a terrible story. Not only might you gain some tips on what not to do, but it will hopefully give you renewed vigour and confidence in your own work. Just don’t use MST3K and other suchlike things as procrastination, because really you (and I) should be writing!

Reading’s a steal: Lessons learned those who came before me [part 2]

While I have read Sir Terry Pratchett’s last book very recently, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at it with any sort of analytical eye. There are too many emotions caught up in it for me, too many goodbyes. So instead, I’m taking a stab at Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in a trilogy. I’m currently reading the second book, which has given me some more perspective on the first one.

The kindle cover of the version I’ve read

To shortly summarise the book, it’s about a boy who is the son of a crown prince and an unknown woman, a bastard as everyone so often reminds him. When he is dropped off at one of the royal palaces, his very existence causes the crown prince to put himself into exile. He is grudgingly accepted as Fitz, i.e. bastard, and raised by the stable master. As Fitz grows up, he comes to pledge his royalty to king Shrewd and the new crown prince, his uncle Verity. They train him as a royal assassin, a faithful executioner for the crown, and try to teach him the Skill, a form of telepathy. Naturally he is more inclined to the Wit, a highly forbidden form of telepathy with animals that sometimes gets him into trouble. Throughout the book, there are increasing hints of political friction between members of the royal family, which eventually leads Fitz to be caught in the middle of an assassination plot that nearly kills him as well as Verity.

Of course, there is a lot more to the story; it is a big book. I hope I haven’t given too much away as it is. Robin Hobb is not afraid to take her time, and slowly build up the world of the Six Duchies and beyond. As a result, the world seems very big and alive. She also does a lot to set up the sequel(s), by introducing a variety of different, interesting characters that clearly have more story to tell, and leaving the ending open (just like most political situations are never-ending). There’s a second trilogy that centres more on one of the minor but very vivid characters with his own secret past. Given the richness of the world, I’m sure there could be an infinite amount of books set there. If you don’t mind books that build slowly, or getting frustrated by how much the bad guys seem to keep winning, then this is a great book (series) for anyone who loves the worlds of Middle Earth, Ice and Fire, Arthur, Mazalan and Tortall.

So, what have I learned?

  • If you write well enough and make readers invest in your character, not much has to go wrong to cause anguish. This in turn keeps people reading.
  • There is a fine line between suspense and frustration.
  • There is such a thing as being descriptive in the right way (I have just passed a sentence in the second book that’s close to purple prose but then also just so perfect in a universal, philosophical sense).
  • I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a novel in this style; I’m too impatient for real action to happen. Also, I was right to never go into politics; I would literally start stabbing people out of frustration.
  • The book is basically a masterclass in how to build a rich, vibrant world, and how not to dump all of it into the reader’s brain against their will.

That’s about all I can come up with. Has anyone else read the book and stolen some tips from it? Have I interested anyone in reading the book? I got it when Robin Hobb was offering the ebook for free, so keep an eye out on (necessary evil) Amazon.

Reading’s a steal: Lessons learned those who came before me [part 1]

This is the first in what hopefully will be a series of blog posts on books I’ve read. It will be a hybrid between a review and a list of things that I’ve taken away from the book that I plan to apply to my own writing. Since the primary advice given to writers is (and always has been) to write a lot and read a lot, I’m trying to read with more awareness of other people’s writing processes.

The first book I’m going to discuss is quite unusual, not only in that it isn’t in the fantasy genre that I’m writing in, but also just because it’s a very strange book. I’m typing of course about the classic ‘Breakfast of Champions’ by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I’m mainly discussing this because I just so happened to have read it recently, but also because classics are a masterclass in writing regardless of how they relate to one’s own particular style.

Cover art of the version I have

In short, Breakfast of Champions is about two men who are varying degrees of insane. One of them is a sci-fi writer with a destitute life, who is only published in smutty magazines, and gets into all sorts of trouble on his way to an arts convention where he is supposed to be the guest speaker. The other is a rich white man who has lost his wife to suicide and is highly mentally unstable. The book’s supposed author, some iteration of Vonnegut who gets introduced in the preface, also eventually places himself in the novel, and conspires events so that the rich man reads the author’s work, becomes convinced he is the only person in the universe with free will, and starts beating people up. Interspersed in the book are crude illustrations, ranging from smutty to funny to just plain weird. While BoC is a lot lighter compared to Slaughterhouse Five, it still deals with issues such as racism and inequality, describing them in matter-of-facts ways that are (to me) more depressing than if the author openly took a stance on them.

To be honest, I’m still processing the book. I’m not going to pretend I’ve found the deep philosophical implications of the text that are probably covered in many BA and MA theses. As a simple reader, I can only say that the book appealed to my dry sense of humour. I especially liked the illustrations, they added a lot to the humour and absurdity of it all. It was interesting to me that the story was told in a non-linear fashion, as if it was just a framework for discussing the people (and by extension the nature of all human beings). It was also funny how the sci-fi writer character kept referring to other works he’d written, which if I believe the ‘author’ are actually Vonnegut’s story ideas that he wanted to clear from his system. Of course the many serious themes match the absurdity, making me slightly more sad than happy overall. Basically, if you are looking for an easy-to-read story with funny illustrations and deeper implications that will leave you reeling and questioning humanity for days after, Vonnegut’s your man. But you probably already knew that.

Things I intend to ‘steal’ from Breakfast of Champions:

  • A book doesn’t have to be a certain length to have a certain impact. Given the amount of space the illustrations took up, I’m sure that by today’s standards BoC would be labelled a novella. Yet the impact it has is no less profound than a much longer book like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for instance, and they are both modern classics in their own right. Content is more important than word count (which is sometimes hard to understand for a NaNoWriMoer like me).
  • A characteristic writing style can sometimes be more important than the story itself. As evidenced by my short summary, the story itself is rather short, and the main climax is given away from the start. This is not important, this is not why I kept reading, and not why it’s considered a modern classic. Instead, it’s the context that the writer places his story in, the words he chooses, the themes he explores, that kept me reading on. Now I know I can never write like Vonnegut, only he can. But it’s helped me realise how important it is to keep working on my own personal writing style, and how much difference that can make to story-telling.
  • Related to my previous point, I’ve discovered that describing things as a (mostly) neutral outsider/alien can have more impact than placing the reader in the middle of the action, at least if you’re Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not sure any other writers could get away with the way he described things like racism in the book, since it is a feature of his distinct writing style, but it is certainly worth noting that taking a step back from what is happening can be just as powerful as diving deeper into things.

How will I use these things, if at all? I’m not sure. But in the meantime I’ll keep on reading and writing and trying to improve myself.

Best. Gig. Ever.

On Friday, to celebrate my 5th(!) NaNoWriMo-win, I went to see Jamie Lenman, the former Reuben frontman who has just come back with a new album of his own. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it turned out to be the best gig I’ve ever been to.

AKA sexy moustache man

Jamie Lenman himself

Why, you may ask, was it so amazing (and why am I talking about something seemingly not about either brains or writing)? Well, the song I liked most off his new album, ‘I ain’t your boy’, was all about how he couldn’t be the person he was back when he was in Reuben, and so I never thought he would perform any of those songs. Imagine my surprise when the first bars of one of my favourite Reuben songs started playing!

What I learned from this, what I wanted to convey in this post, is how unexpected events can spark and energise you. Sure it was going to be a good gig anyway, because I love his new music, but there’s nothing like an unexpected boon to get the neurotransmitters all excited.

This is similar to what a good novel can do, if something unexpected happens in it. If one can create something new, unique, one can transform the reader. To write something you hadn’t thought about before, something that comes up naturally, it can give the same kind of high. So, that’s why I participate in NaNoWriMo, that’s why I’m a pantser (i.e. someone who writes without outlining first, not a panther like autocorrect keeps trying to change it to); to surprise myself. Sure, more often than not I surprise myself with the utter drivel that I’m writing, but occasionally, just every once in a while, I am pleasantly surprised by what on earth my characters are doing, or where the plot takes me. And that feeling, that unexpected-Reuben-songs feeling, is why I keep writing.

Now, time to get back to it.

In case you are interested, here’s the double Jamie Lenman single:

Ode to a software package

For my first proper post, I thought I’d introduce my top choice in writing software, Scrivener. There are several reasons why I love Scrivener:

First of all, it makes it really easy to look at and edit a giant manuscript. After using Microsoft Word for my PhD thesis, it’s a great relief to open Scrivener and jump through all the different scenes of a book, switch them around, and play with the cork-board. Not only is it easy to separate huge chunks of text into sections, but also just as easy to combine them again. This is my number one reason for loving Scrivener.

Second, I love the fullscreen option. It allows for (in theory) distraction-free writing time, and is easy on the eyes.

Third, and most useful for NaNoWriMo (I think) is the ability to set deadlines. You can not only set the 50k (or in my case 60k) goal of NaNoWriMo for the end of November, but also set daily goals, and see the little bar at the bottom turn from red to yellow to green. Instant motivation.

Fourth, the research section. You can add pictures, scraps of dialogue, character/place descriptions and/or deleted parts of text to your research section for referral and, again, mixing and matching. It’s separate from the main story so that once you’re ready to finalise your manuscript it gets left out, but you can still see it all the time while writing.

This brings me to five; compile i.e. saving as doc/pdf/whatever. Now I have to admit I’ve had some problems in the past trying to compile large manuscripts using my Mac, but  Scrivener support have been very quick to respond and help. Overall, the compile option is not only handy, its ultimate goal is to turn your work into something that can be sent to a publisher, and this is something where I need and welcome all the help I can get.

Now there are many more features in Scrivener, and I haven’t used nearly all of them myself yet, but these main five benefits is why I would recommend anyone taking part in NaNoWriMo this year to try the free trial and allow yourself to fall in love too (also 50% off if you win!). If you’re not NaNo-ing, but want to become an author like me, then it’s a great investment, and in my opinion a lot easier to use than Liquid Story Binder, which is the only comparable software that I’m aware of.

So that’s my tools of the trade; a Macbook with Scrivener. And it’s worked for me for the past 5 years. Feel free to ask me anything about using Scrivener, although their website covers most everything.