What Jason Bourne Can Teach Us About Agendas and Suspension of Disbelief

Let me start by saying, if you watched this and liked it, or you plan on watching it sometime soon, don’t read on. There will be spoilers and there will be honesty. Brutal honesty. This film was a mess. A glossed up pile of poo, the budget was spent on a paintjob when it should have gone to the script. What I am about to discuss doesn’t even begin to cover the problems it had.

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The plot is not only painfully simple, it’s a rehash, a watered down summary of the last three: Dead girl he feels responsible for, evil government program trying to clean up after him, as he hunts a secret from his past with an asset on his tail.

However, Bourne was never really about the complexity of its plot, nor did it preach any particular message, it was about the depth of its characterisation, the humanity and intimacy it displayed in a genre that epitomised mindless spectacle, and the skilful way this was delivered. It became a turning point in modern film making, a masterclass in physical storytelling; and it managed to take a genre that was all about the unbelievable, and make it believable, without actually removing any of the established tropes. The car chase wasn’t ridiculous. It ran up and down stairs and somehow, evidenced by small touches, the concentration on the almost mundane, the way he checks the systems, the brakes, before he begins, made us fully invest in the possibility of what we were seeing.

It forced a complete rethink of Bond and countless other tired franchises. World War Z tried to copy it with a fresh credible take on the zombie genre. Unfortunately it focused on all the wrong parts, copying the grey tinted cinematography and the pared down dialogue, missing the point that when someone needed – needed by dint of who wouldn’t?– to scream in Bourne, they screamed. They threw up, fell down, they knew in essence who they were and what they were feeling, they weren’t just working to someone else’s agenda of what they should be.

There were no heroes in Bourne, there were only characters. Marie was foolish, naive and frequently showed that she didn’t fully grasp just how bad this was. Vikander’s character was a cypher in a suit. Perhaps in some recognition of just how ludicrously young she appeared in the role, she played it so seriously she was a virtual non-entity: a po-faced non character without charm, warmth or humanity. We saw Joan Allen, in a similar role, slowly shatter under the pressure, like a brittle figurine.

The tragedy is that there was a ready made character with an amazing potential arc in Julia Stiles. Nicky Parsons in the Bourne Identity was exactly the character Vikander should have been in this. And the way she developed from eager, frightened young analyst to whistle blower working on the outside made the screenwriters job easy. She was poised to finally step into the centre of the story and instead they reduced her to a trope, killing her off in a repeat of Marie’s tragic death in what I can only guess was meant to give our reluctant hero the motivation to see this through. Even though throughout the rest of the film his motivation was repeatedly referenced as his need to understand the truth of his past. The number of threads on IMDb detailing the disappointment of the fans over how Nicky’s character is treated, actually restores my faith in the viewing public.

I don’t know if its as simple as Hollywood being ageist, as many have surmised, not consciously at least. Julia’s been off the radar for a while now, while Alicia is the current It girl. And there is nothing Hollywood  – and certain directors  – love more than the hot, young muse. She and Jennifer Lawrence are both consistently miscast in roles that should have gone to women with at least a decade on them.

26 year olds don’t move and shake the ranks of the CIA. They climb, they conspire, but they don’t lead. In the American education system you’re likely to be near this age when you first apply, not running a major division. By the end of the film we are expected to believe she’s just secured herself the Assistant Directors job. Fiction needs some plausibility in its foundations if we are to justify the leaps we are about to take. If you make one obvious poor decision it can have the effect of turning a lens on all the other flaws, that might have slipped beneath the radar otherwise.

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I’ll confess to being a cyberdunce but even I was rolling my eyes at the cartoonish programming. They even conveniently distinguished in primary colours between the asset and Bourne’s phone trackers as if the photoshop guys had come in after with the highlighters. They probably had. Everything was simple, glib, answers had in under a minute – unless we needed to stretch the tension.

Bourne was stupid. I mean flat out stupid, although he did seem to acquire some new technical skills, impressive for a man who spent the last few years bare knuckle boxing in the dusty nowhere. The guy who had sized up a room and its occupants, exits, cameras and weapons before he ordered his coffee was now happily striding about with no worries about being recognised, using old passports and never thinking anyone might possibly be listening in.

Maybe it was nervousness on the part of the producers. They felt the need to ensure success. And producers it seems always reduce that to the lowest common denominator. The silly end stunt scene, the last twist, the unnecessary body count, the idiocy of staging a meet in the middle of a riot, all point to people making bad decisions, the kind of decisions that would count for miscasting the latest pretty young thing. Or – perhaps worse – actually imagining this will play to the feminist culture of the day.

This was a film that seemed painfully crammed with contemporary references in a desperate attempt to seem culturally relevant. Why else other than a nod to the current political – faux political – climate of the day, would you arrange a meet in the middle of a riot? Firebombs make pretty effects but the likelihood of being accidentally taken out by a panicking mob somehow undercut this.

And why did the CIA follow them in? Why not simply monitor the perimeter and move in when the targets reveal themselves? And there’s the plausibility issue in the number of active agents who are clearly onsite (even the CIA can’t defy the laws of physics and fly several thousand miles in less time than it takes Bourne to put his shirt on and wander down the road.) Not to mention their spec-saver-tastic ability to follow an average sized brown haired man through the rioting darkness. Although the real clincher was the moment a vanguard of Greek policeman decided the one guy fighting in the train was more important than holding the line against the dozens throwing firebombs and started to chase him as well.

There are frequent references to Snowden, which makes their decision to keep all their covert files internet accessible especially questionable; a privacy sub-plot which seemed shoehorned in; even a ‘con’, not the the bait and switch kind – although this whole film could be termed as that – no the modern kind, Exo-con, where we can justify flying to Vegas and blowing a lot of shit up under sparkly lights.

The logic holes are so gaping it seems nonsensical to imagine that one small casting change could remedy that. I personally would’ve voted for a script change and put Nicky Parsons front and centre. But like tipping over the first domino, the simple act of casting an actress more of an age with Bourne himself, or removing the intended romantic friction (there wasn’t any anyway) and casting an eager male hungry to prove himself and take the top job, creating a dynamic more akin to what we saw in Michael Mann’s Heat, would have subtly but significantly altered the way we watched.

Political correctness would hold that being young and pretty shouldn’t be a detriment to getting ahead. That you can cast attractive men and women alongside each other and somehow not bring romance into it. That we can in fact simply rewrite the way society works to how it we think it should work.

Should is a dangerous word if you want to introduce any sense of realism, even just basic credibility. When Vikander’s character randomly begins helping Bourne, we don’t think double cross, it might tickle the back of our mind, but the first loud thought – romance. We suspect (wisely, I suspect) they want to manoeuvre the two together. If it had been Joan Allen’s character, while some might have questioned whether her reaction, her willingness to see him not simply as a target might be ‘too feminine’ we’d still believe her motives, not revealed to us, were to manipulate the situation. In short, that she had some sort of plan.

Vikander’s casting was a constant and undermining distraction, inviting us not to assume more depth than was actually present in the onscreen twists, but telling us to see the film as it truly was, an empty, pretty spectacle.

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The First Cut is…

..the shittest.😀

I realised I hadn’t written anything for my Common Writing Advice series in a while so it seemed  – providential? Foruitous? summat of that nature  –  that I have been churning this phrase around in my head for a while…

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Now I don’t spend the time I used to on writing sites, but whenever I chance to pass one there is always someone quoting this. And it’s not necessarily on a thread titled ‘Why is my first draft so shit?’ It can manage to crop up anytime, anywhere..

Adverbs – well you know, the first draft of anything is utterly shit and totally full of adverbs…

Love triangles …. I wouldn’t worry, the first draft of anything is shit and you can always turn the other guy into her pet tortoise later.

And it’s FUCKING BRILLIANT ADVICE.

Yes, I was yelling, I apologise. It’s still fucking brilliant advice though.

Essentially said by every writer ever, it boils down to, just write.

It almost feels like its not writing advice at all, more a matter of reaching in to the ether and pulling truth out. Because..

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You gotta crack the marble, sully the page – and it does often feel like that, like we’re staining something pure with something less than.. something a bit shit. Whatever confidence I have – there’s gotta be some somewhere, as my mammy says, if I really didn’t believe in myself would I still be trying? – so whatever it is that keeps me trying, it’s not what I haven’t written, it’s buried amongst what I squeezed out… okay I’m a bit squeamish about the shit metaphors so I’m dropping them now..

The writer must write and they must stop expecting perfection every time. If you aren’t sorely disappointed then you’re probably frighteningly delusional. Though I’ve heard that works in Hollywood😀

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However…

This might be the one piece of advice that I can’t question, would probably need my head examined if I did, and yet knowing the wisdom in doing something and actually doing it are two very different concerns. Worse – for me – is when you do manage to do something and it doesn’t remotely end up the way you expected. The good advice about writing shit, just leaves you with a lot of shit (okay last excrement word play.. promise)

For many writers however much sense it makes, actually powering through is a very difficult task. Unfortunately I know no neat little tricks to get round it. If you fall of the wagon one day, get up the next and try again. And the next. And the next. This isn’t just a matter of the first draft. Writing, like exercise, is a battle of will.

For me it can be a peculiar form of torture, alleviated by all too brief Eureka moments, a sudden realisation, twist, revelation (entirely textual not spiritual, though it feels almost as if it were). On the odd occasion I have attempted to explain this no one gets why I would do it, how I can still love it. But I do. Passion can be painful. But if its there, you’ll find a way to endure. And if its not, you’ll probably still be working on chapter three a decade on. That’s okay. It’s a personal battle and the true measure of the results is yours alone to judge.

I’ve mastered for the most part the powering through. It’s a fight every day, so that answer can change every day, but the books are balancing in my favour. My first novels were masterclasses in ‘don’t stop, just write’ and testament to how hard that is. So much so I had to cut 70,000 from the first one. The problem is that’s pretty much where my editing days ended.

I don’t edit.

I read through and tweak. Sometimes. But shit needs a lot more than mere tweaking.

I could argue my first drafts have improved with time. It could be that I still struggle with reading my own work. I’ve heard some actors feel this way. I don’t know much about the practical realities of acting, but I know a writer needs to read their own stuff. And in a sense I do. I read as I write. Sometimes the flow carries me to the end of a chapter, but often I stop every few lines, to read and tweak (if necessary) and think where the direction is taking me and where I might prefer to direct it. And if I don’t like what I read, or the direction its going in, that’s where the ‘don’t stop, just write’ mantra gets particularly painful.

I have one sequel I’m 40,000 words into, and was really quite enjoying it, til I wrote a scene and now, I’ve tried but I just can’t seem to pick it up again. All I can think about is that one wrong scene.

I have another which earned me a kind rejection from an editor,  who advised I get an agent, rework the issue she’d flagged and re-sub. I haven’t looked at it since.

I have a start on a kids book that I totally bungled the voice on. I could probably write it in about two months, it’d be exactly the kind of thing I would have loved aged ten, but I think the only way I’ll return to it is if I start completely from scratch.

The list goes on. Having mastered powering through step one, I now feel like I have to master powering through step two. I often feel that the only good edit looks like this

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I’m sure I’m wrong.

It’s fucking brilliant advice. It is…

But… if you are having some issues with putting it into practice and making it work for you, this might help.

1… Don’t stop thinking.

Its easy to get caught up in the word counts, deadlines. To put your head down terrified that if you pause those fingers for longer than it takes to find the capslock key, you’ll end up frozen. If you allow yourself to think, maybe all you’ll think about is how bad it is. Thinking is the untalked about part of writing, which is a shame because thinking is the most important bit. You have to discipline your mind as much as you have to discipline your fingers, it’s as easy to get caught up in a cycle of ‘oh my god I suck’ as it is to get caught up in Candy Crush Saga. But you can’t stop thinking, questioning the path you’ve chosen for your character, the dialogue you’ve written, decisions made and you have to learn the difference between something being wrong and something just needing  a bit of finessing.

2…Don’t stop listening to your gut

If something feels wrong, it’s wrong –  nine times out of ten –  but you need to learn the difference between fearing its wrong and knowing its wrong. Every word I write leaves me unsure, but some few leave me a little more unsure than usual. They tend to stick. This is why I find it useful to go back the next day and read over what I wrote. Most often they still feel wrong. In the majority of cases it’s a story issue – a matter of driving the scene in the wrong direction, putting the wrong tone or emphasis on it, rather than feeling there were better words I could have used. Dusting off the prose is the easier side of editing. This leads me directly to…

3… Don’t ever be afraid to rewrite

There seems at times to be a blurring of the concepts of editing and rewriting. We use them interchangeably, yet when looked at closer, often you’ll find the average writer has a real fear of rewriting, especially rewriting that involves scrapping anything.

I’m a scrapper. Sometimes for the wrong reasons but..

If you continue to write – to power through rather than listen to your gut – you could end up spending a lot of wasted time going in the wrong direction. One small mistake can knock everything out. Go back to where things were last good and start again. If you think you can tweak it into shape, by all means try, but don’t be afraid to scrap. I’ve heard a lot of advice – all writers in fact that I know give this advice – that nothing should ever be thrown away. That’s not something I would necessarily agree with, although I won’t insist upon it either way, but I would say, a writer should never be precious about their prose, any more than a painter should be precious about his paint. He doesn’t save his dirty palette wrapped in clingfilm to preserve the mix for his next painting. He trusts that his eye will guide him to know what is needed when it is needed. The words aren’t going to run out and neither is your ability to put them together. Each story will require its own peculiar configurations, recycling and pasting in never feels organic or stable to me. Perhaps my issue with editing in a nutshell.

It might be another way of saying kill your darlings, but there is something incredibly liberating about scrapping. You just have to know when you’re being insecure and when you’re being brave.

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Reality Bites: Is fiction failing us?

Is there a reason beyond mindlessness, or dumbing down, or even cheapness, that reality tv and celebrity culture in general, are so popular?

Are they meeting a need that fiction no longer is?

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They offer an up-close lens that lets us examine other people and allows us to compare them, and their lives, to our own. Consider those slightly dodgy fantasies (no I’m not confessing, fill in the blank yourself), does anyone else have them? You feel like a fraud, does anyone else? We vilify the magazine-cellulite exposing, fat shaming society as shallow and fake, but is it offering the opposite of this, a glimpse into a real world, however fractured that glimpse is, a chance to be anthropologists of our own kind?

Society is a veneer of perception and ego, never more so when its crafted, sculpted and CGI-ed by an expert team months before it ever reaches us. If we are to be bombarded with perfection is it necessary for us to understand that perfection, to see the reality it attempts to obscure? And beyond that initial need to pull down the stars and see the grit amongst the diamonds, has their role shifted to become a microcosm of the wider world? A chance to really see beneath the skin of how others live?  You can’t examine your best friends cellulite, she’d think you were a bit odd and anyway it’s your sworn duty to assure her you never noticed a thing. You can’t measure how often your friend and her husband sit untalking side by side at night playing Candy crush saga, he’ll swear it was hot and heavy all night long, she’ll back him up moaning about the hours of ironing she did.

We are hierarchical by nature. It’s our primary currency. We’re constantly figuring out where we fall, better than, on par with, weighing up how many assets everyone else possesses and where we stand in comparison. Despite the lofty and oft quoted opinion of Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people’, people of all minds are fascinated by people. Because the reason communism failed is people. The reason children starve is people. The reason you toss and turn each night unable to sleep is people.

We’re obsessed with the need to know are we normal? Are we desirable? We’re driven to know and once upon a time, fiction offered some means to answering that.

But fiction has become obsessed with fiction. Even at its most base root, it is asking questions, not about what drives us, makes us who we are, what will undo us, but about itself. It has become, like society itself, a veneer of ego. We’re locked into tropes, formulas and clichés and we seem unable to break free.

People do deride the quotation: Write what you know. As if it limits us, but I wonder if they are addressing it too superficially. Does write what you know simply ask you to be honest? Even if you find yourself on the battlefield yielding an orc-slaying blade, who are you truly, in that moment? What are your fears, your needs? What bleeds through that is undeniably human?

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Reality tv and celebrity culture work in some ways almost opposite of fiction – or at least in terms of how fiction once worked. They too have a veneer, they’re human after all, and the ‘reality’ part is scripted some say, but the lens finds them despite their very best attempts to conceal. It unearths the puffed up lips, the stolen kiss, the backdoor shenanigans. (The paparazzi as literary novelists? It’s an interesting idea.) They’ll lie, justify, obfuscate, and in doing so reveal themselves more. But we have to do a great deal of the work ourselves, which just adds another layer. Who is the villain if David Beckham cheated? Is it David? The mistress (I forget her name), Victoria? Or is it us, the women who shame other women, the men who uphold a cheating patriarchal system?

Realism in fiction, in our entertainment, or at least the perception of it, is constantly rewarded. Game of Thrones, True Detective, Breaking Bad. From simple tics such as swearing, toilet shots, sex, adding the ordinary or seamier, the forbidden side of life can create an illusion of reality. It can be a cheap illusion. But one of the biggest things this new breed of fiction offers is a world without heroes and villains, where any can walk both lines, admittedly most tend to make them walk on the dark side but it’s still something fiction too often fails to offer. One of the things that always fascinated me about the old Greek legends was how ambiguous they were in their portrayal of heroism. How selfish, flawed and even cruel they could be, while at the same time brave, determined and passionate.  Ambiguity isn’t really about uncertainty, we don’t really like that too much, it’s about connection, about that messy human reality underneath the perfection, about allowing us to understand ourselves, our actions, our world, really understand, not just accept one more opinion. One more preacher. But understand by seeing through that up close lens, what’s really going on.

We have to begin by questioning why this is happening, has it always been the case or has the internet contributed to the change?Online communities are famed (mostly amongst ourselves) for setting down rules, rules that, rather than bring honesty, create more veneers, more tropes, more fantasy escapes that refuse to deal with reality.

Computers are useless. They only give you answers ~Pablo Picasso

We have to begin with our selves, with the hard questions, to cast the fat heroine, the spotty guy who doesn’t have a genius IQ. It’s not about happy endings versus sad. We can offer hope, love, redemption, the answers don’t lie in the bigger plot arcs but the nitty gritty of world and character, relationships and dialogue. Even in our new fiction we’re already seeing degradation, the inbuilt Hollywood sickness of mimicry.

You’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool. They’ll be green lighting films “like Deadpool” – but, by that, they won’t mean “good and original” but “a raunchy superhero film” or “it breaks the fourth wall.” They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do

I disagree with him, as I actually think that Deadpool is nothing but a mass of symptoms of a disease that is already too far progressed. Meaningless violence, and moral vacuum. Cheap, glib posturing that says nothing. I agree with him, in that we will likely only continue to see more mimicry.

When fiction fails to question the veneer but instead upholds it have we passed from fiction to entertainment to propaganda? Right now Hollywood is caught in a reboot loop, but it’s not the Amazing Adventures of SpiderBusters that needs rebooted, its the entire system.

Fiction exists to answer the questions we cannot ask, but also the ones we’re scared to ask.  Do you recall anyone putting their hand up in sex education? It can offer answers to things so nebulous we couldn’t even put them into words. It can stand  – once stood? – as a role model, not in the sense of leading us astray, despite our tendency to mimic, such tendencies in terms of slang or hairdos, are at best symbiotic and superficial, rather it allows us to find a sense of ourselves and our potential. A place, somewhere between goth and hippie, environmentalist and scientist, those tiny niches where self and world meet, that can without the reflective mirror of fiction feel alienating, and liberate us to be ourselves.

It can…

 

The Art of Being You

How do you know, really know, when doubt is just fear and when it is justified?

I’m a doubter by nature. everything in me is drawn to question. Other people latch a hold of things with such surety, absolute certainty, and they switch blindly with the very same certainty, never pausing to doubt, to observe the inherent contradiction. It is one way, it was another. I exist in the transition, the question that leads to the change.

It’s not a wise place to squat. I’m trying to find my way to the other side. How does the serial doubter reinforce their self-belief, if you can’t even find a scrap to begin with. Affirmations are not really my style, not in the general sense. But neither am I so complacent – okay I’m desperate. Taking the theory – they have thousands of years behind them – and combining it with a bit of science (social science, pseudo science.. desperate, okay) results in Amy Cuddy’s book Presence. In between the power posing (I will let you laugh at me over that later) she outlines the concept of Self-affirmation Theory. The idea behind it to understand what makes you, you, that this is ultimately where we find our sense of self and that gives us power.

Be yourself, everyone else is taken  ~  Oscar Wilde.

She asks you to take your three best core values, narrow them down to a word each, and working from there try to think of examples when you truly embodied those values and felt good because of it. If we can do this before we are put under stress, occasions when our sense of self might be challenged, we find we hold steady, and are able to perform as if there is no pressure at all.

Can we use this as writers?

We spend so much time focusing on our flaws. What’s wrong, where must we do better, what parts are letting us down. How can we make that transition to focusing on our strengths and believing in our ability, and not as I do, get stuck in the questioning? Can we in fact use our critical faculties to identify our strengths, is it the places where we see that we don’t fit, that we are ‘different’ that rather than making us flawed, make us unique. And can we use that to understand who we are as writers and believe in what we have to give?

Clichés or their kinder cousin, tropes, exist because mimicry, (again a kinder cousin to plagiarism) is what we seem to be good at. The reason might owe much to our innate desire to fit in, to being born with brains that are hardwired to seek out ways to connect or ‘mirror’ one another. We even have what are termed mirror neurons, making us mimic body position, basic gestures, the pitch of our voice, even the language we use, hence why certain phrases and words, like literally, go literally viral. Or even advice, like adverbs are evil. And some might jump in with well, its not that they’re evil, except of course deep down we know that really, that’s exactly what it means. Good writers walk wary around an adverb. We may not believe it but we believe others believe it and thus we have in hand a simple easy to apply route to better writing. To not standing out. This is the appeal.

It’s not that we are innately incapable of innovation or originality, it’s more that we fear it. It marks us out from the crowd. And the writer – well i always believed the writer was a shy wary creature uninterested in being the centre of attention, this may not be true, but lets run with it. Yet the writers we love and, perhaps more importantly, for the purposes of this article at least, the writers we are all aware of, may well be the ones who strayed. The ones who didn’t do it just like everybody else does.

The worst example I could possibly give is the example I’m going to give. Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s terrible writing. You know this, I know this. I suspect EL James knows this. I’m almost convinced she was half way to writing a parody, when she realised that folk were eating it up as straight erotica. It’s generally written off as a phenomenon of hype, of mass idiocy, of twilight devotees. Of Sex selling no matter what. Have you read some of the sex scenes – the tampon one is currently doing the rounds on Facebook, i thought it was a joke. Others will cite the story – the story was great, girl meets boy, boy stalks and beats girl, girl leaves.. not really a classic.

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None of these seem particularly credible. The marketing came after it had already sold enough to be picked up – without first publishing rights – by a big publisher. While I think the sex helped – quite a bit – there’s a lot of sex floating about fan-fiction sites. Was it a case of ibble obble chocolate bobble, this one shall become more famous than Potter? It is possible it was random. Is it also possible it was precisely because it didn’t fit, all those scenes with tampons and meringue dancing inner goddesses, scenes you’re about as likely to read in an erotic novel featuring a young vrigin and handsome power mogul as Cersei Lannister is to take up basket weaving and elope with the washerwoman. Was it the ludicrous language, the ridiculous dialogue, the awkward inner monologue that some how helped it stand out enough to become that random success story?

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We might never know and while it is an extreme example, virtually every book and writer that is a well known name, especially if they are well known outside of their own genre, tends to be known for their quirks, good or bad, the things that make them distinct from the rest of the pack.

It’s not an easy route, it’s not a guarantee of success, most writers will spend an average of ten years dedicated to the craft (not including teenage scribbling) before they achieve success. Many books, many rejections, but rather than being beaten into submission, in their cases did it give them time to find and hone that unique quality. How many others learnt to cull those adverbs, find that seven point plot arc, peruse the emotion thesaurus and refine their ‘fist clenching, nostril flaring, chest thumping’ display of flawed heroism?

We often berate one another on writer’s sites for daring to cite examples of famous writers ‘breaking the rules’. They are outliers, exceptions, and in one way they are correct, we shouldn’t be seeking to copy these writers, but we should be learning from them. The underlying pattern is not the use of adverbs, but rather the authenticity of voice. The willingness to ignore the norm.

This is not the same as being good. Fifty Shades of Grey still sucks. You can be both. You can be one or the other, you can be neither. But success, may owe more to authenticity than it does to competence. It’s possible that being you, might be as good as you need to get. And the better at being you, you get, the better your chances of success.

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The best way to know yourself as a writer, is to read yourself as a writer. I find myself torn in two by the writer and reader within. It would seem there is a little man smoking a pipe and wearing a beret inside of me, he calls himself, an auteur cherié, I loathe him a little, but I think he likes it. I’ll admit, just between you and me, description, I love writing that shit, setting a tone, I’m like Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen with taste, characters are my escape from me, cherié.. On the other hand when I read, I don’t care about the colour of the sky, I don’t want your weepy self analysis, I don’t give a shit if mamma breast fed you til you were doing algebraic equations. Tone is short for Tony, who better be about to find a dead body in his pizza oven. Authenticity lies somewhere between the two and that’s maybe a hard sell. Like the happy sci-fi writer, the giddy girly, non-kick ass feminist, the show don’t tell afficionado who doesn’t believe in veins popping..

I’m not sure those are my three defining qualities. I’m not sure ultimately that my wordsmithery is my calling card. It was for Joyce, for DFW, for Grassic Gibbon. For King, Child, Rowling the answer lies in what they present. King was a horror writer who wouldn’t know a pinch point if it pinched him. His pace was permanently glacial, his back story and characterisation triumphing over the ghosts and ghouls and gore every single page. In a world of snappy dialogue and cheesy repartee, of jaded nihilists just trying to run away from the dame who broke his heart, the heroes who were the very best of the best but still couldn’t hold back the rising tide, he wrote working joes and nerdy kids, and then he broke them down piece by sordid piece.

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I’m not sure I can narrow it down to three words. Not yet. But if I can find three examples of who I am, where writer and reader meet to bring my voice and vision to life, then I might be able to hold them in my head, any time I feel the doubt start to overwhelm me.

I’m gonna give it a try. I’m desperate, okay.

If you’re interested this is Amy cuddy’s talk. From what I remember, the emphasis is more on the power posing, but it might still interest you.

When a dreaming boy proved himself a man..

I could stay in and write a new post in honour of Andy and Heather, Jordanne and Gordon, the four Brits who made Wimbledon theirs this year. But I think I’ve said it all so I’ll just repost this as a tribute. I’m away for a few celebratory drinks..😀 Oh and I’ll have one for Henri too, the first Finn to take a grand slam title.

weebletheringskite

I always liked Andy Murray. Not because I am Scottish and he is Scottish and I like tennis. Mostly I like the idea of strawberries and cream, green lawns and sunny days..

I liked Andy, cause I felt maybe, despite a foot’s height difference, my inability to stop smiling and much better hair do, we had something in common.

I first really felt it watching him lose to Federer in the final. So chuffed that he even got that far and that he managed to win a set, but watching him, that narrow face growing narrower, with frustration tightening every muscle,  felt a little like watching myself.

I know how easy it is to choke on the emotion of the moment. The immensity of what could be and the sense that you’re not big enough to fill it. That unavoidable feeling that it simply isn’t your destiny to be.. destined. It doesn’t matter how…

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When did likeable become a dirty word?

Every where I look ‘likeable’ is being run down. We seem obsessed not with the right for a character to be who they are, however seemingly imperfect and human that might be, but with actively constructing the most repulsive and unappealing human possible. In fact, I question if it is possible. After all some of the most reprehensible men in history have been described as charming. Even when we redeem them, it feels forced, as if they are sending a nicely edited political party broadcast – Shitheads are people too..

The argument constantly returns to the notion that likeability is a condition of publication, a compromise foisted on the artiste by the bottom dollar guys. You know the ones, they paint the pink in babies cheeks and bid for each others grandmas on ebay (I don’t want to know what they do with them..) Likeability has become synonymous with selling out. Like the reviewers on amazon who are so hasty to assure us its not that they need likeable characters, as long as they are interesting, complex, engaging, before returning to the truth that belies their words.. but when these characters are just all so utterly unlikeable..

It’s just not cool to be likeable.

popular

Comedy as my favourite comedian once pointed out (in an off the cuff remark, he likely doesn’t remember, but it stuck with me) often plays too heavily on hate. Rants about life’s little annoyances, ridiculing those we find odd, bashing public figures, there is something oddly alluring about the unlikeable. A quick scan of twitter or facebook shows we spend far more time complaining about what we don’t like than focusing on what we do.

Part of the appeal might lie in the fact that it is easier. This writer sees it as a matter of agency:

The unlikable character is a one-man plot-building machine, and I wholeheartedly encourage you all to try it at least once.

As does this one

We need bad characters because plots are so often advanced by people doing bad things

I’m not sure he’s wrong, in terms of what we read, I’m damn sure he is wrong in terms of what it is possible to write. Yet again and again it is the less than angelic characters who do seem to create ‘problems’ – what we call plot. Even taking the notion of true evil (blow the world up Loki style) out of the equation and looking at a show like Sex and the City, we see this morality and alignment in action. The sexually amoral and ravenous Samantha creates situations – from getting down and dirty with the Fed-Ex guy, expecting a little extra from the massage guy, getting naked pictures of herself taken – situations that we know will end up with her red faced, humiliated and probably thrown out of somewhere. Yet without her arrogance, vanity and promiscuity, presumably, the writers felt the constant whine of ‘does he love me/is he the one?’ created by the more virtuous characters clearly wasn’t enough to hold our attention as every episode was split between these threads. The real question is, was our attention negative and judgemental or did we revel in her adventures?

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We’ve aligned agency with the ability to create conflict. In itself something we seem to be identifying as a negative trait. Intriguing in the current climate of twitter-warriors. Theseus, the apparent inspiration behind Katniss in the Hunger Games, decided to become one of the tributes for the Minotaur so he could slay the beast, ending the sacrifices and essentially freeing his people of a tyrannical monster, ie he decided to mess with the status quo.

Does anyone see him as an unlikeable character?

Katniss’s motives are much more passive. She has no intention of being involved in the games until the games claim her little sister, then she is forced to volunteer. Once within the games she has no intent to do anything but try and stay alive as long as possible, no subversive motives for exposure or overthrow of the tyrannical monster. Yet even those who like the books call her unlikeble. This writer describes her as ‘prickly and occasionally cold’

She goes further listing one of my all time favourite heroine’s, Emma Woodhouse. It bewilders me that anyone would describe her as unlikeable because well, I like her. While someone who might be described as fitting into that ‘narrow likeable girl category,’ Lizzie Bennet, I really don’t have any time for. She is the for me a Mary Sue, who has become the writers favourite staple, perhaps because so many of us are bookish types rather than flirty beauties and we want our wit and ways to be appreciated. The problem is in doing so we have vilified those who are different and put a polished halo around our heroine. Some may like this, but for me, it’s arrogant, presumptive and something in all honesty I cannot relate to. And I am guessing I am not alone, as even in her defence of unlikeable this blogger came to the same basic conclusion..

“Sometimes there are heroines who are meant to be paragons of perfection–who are clearly intended to be “likable”–whom you’d really just prefer to stab with a fork because the narrative doesn’t recognize or address their accidental flaws”

I can’t pretend Emma and I superficially have much in common, but I relate to her slipping up, falling down, to others reactions to her. As one of those bookish types, one of the things I share with Lizzie, is that I am very good at watching life, even judging, not so good at jumping in and getting my hands dirty. Something Emma excels at. On a deeper level, I can connect, on a superficial level I can enjoy stepping out of my own skin.

lena

The fact that some of your characters might be unlikeable is not really an issue, the issue is whether you have given your reader something to care about. Might there be exceptions? Would Catcher in the Rye have been a better book if more had been able to like the protagonist? I suppose you can argue purpose but to illuminate without persuasion seems contradictory. A broken boy full of pain and bravado and selfishness yet desperately wanting to be good and real at the same time? Seems like a lot of boys I know, who still struggle to be vulnerable in this enlightened future. Why would any book of that nature not benefit from a likeable character?

What about Lolita?

One of the main claims of the unlikeable camp is the idea that a likeable character doesn’t challenge you.

But in what way does Humbert Humbert challenge you. An unlikeable character doing unlikeable things doesn’t seem remotely unsettling. You can – as I did – simply choose to not finish it. I wasn’t interested and in fairness even if he had been likeable, perhaps even more so if he had been likeable, I wouldn’t have been willing to see it through. A likeable character doing unspeakble things? Nothing seems more challenging.

No one can tell you what to write. Not even your editor or publisher. You can always walk away. If you feel utterly compelled to write, to actively construct, a character from an array of unpleasant attributes with no notion of redeeming them you are free to do it. I would just ask, that you ask, why?

Contrary to the constant claims of challenge, of dark, subversive material, unlikeable often seems the easy option, the quick and dirty route to avoid the tricky question of emotional investment. In part it seems as though by excusing ourselves from the idea that a complex character with depth might in fact still be likeable, we can avoid the task of getting our readers to care. Much like high school being liked might be the trickiest test we ever sit. Easier to write those popular kids off as dumb, shallow, simplistic.

I’m going to confess something: I write to forgive. Not you personally, although possibly. I write to understand emotionally, not intellectually, people who seem on the surface very different to me. Likeability, for me, is about compassion, connecting with the humanity within. When I encounter unlikable characters or even the author arguing for their right to write such a character, my instinct is that this character was never loved, they were a science experiment, seen, dissected, analysed and weighed from the outside. Much like this writer:

It’s my badness, my evil, metastasised. Werner Deyer has a mean spirited misanthropy, which stems from his belief that the world has failed him. He is vain, gluttonous and has an unedifying craving for affirmation, adulation even (a reason many people write, in fact).

But even in his description he has named and shamed the character. He’s judged him as worthy of all of his worst traits. Is that liking a character, or liking your depiction of your own self loathing? We can admire something without liking it one teeny bit

When you are willing to walk in your characters shoes, you’ll find ways to forgive them their sins, to excuse their weaknesses, to understand their fears. You forgive them, because them is I. And we always forgive that guy.

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Readers, Writers and the Almighty Dollar..

http://www.sarahmadisonfiction.com/2016/06/dear-broke-reader-your-sense-of-entitlement-is-killing-me/

This is a heartfelt post, one that strikes a chord with many an author. It isn’t personal for me yet, and I can’t say how I will feel should the situation one day arise, but I will say I am one hundred per cent with her in principle. Stealing is stealing, calling it piracy doesn’t negate this by Sparrow-washing it into coolness.

I have to admit I think she is kinder – she has a fan base, so perhaps she feels she needs to be – than I would be. I think entitlement is part of the human condition. I see it everywhere, in friends and family and even, yes in myself. I don’t read certain online magazines because they refuse to pay their writers, I don’t shop places where I know they treat their workers poorly no matter how cheap they are, but I can’t claim my clothes are all fair trade and I can’t pretend I’ve never watched a pirated film. We’re all guilty of taking what we need or want, when we want it and finding ways to justify it.

The internet has made stealing that much easier, in fact its so easy that not doing it is almost impossible. Kinda like resisting eating grapes at the supermarket. When I first started this blog it never occurred to me to think about where my pictures were coming from. But that’s somebodies art. Somebody’s time and effort.

It can feel like one big scrapbook and we’re all throwing our scribbles out there, for everyone’s pleasure. Is sharing stealing? If we acknowledge credit is that good enough? Where does appreciation end, and theft begin? Is the dividing line somewhere in the profit margin? There is an allure to sharing, to putting stuff out there for the sheer joy of it, and I don’t believe that most of us want to define ourselves by the bottom line. The idea that we can be read, loved, call ourselves writers and artists regardless of whether its ever earnt a penny is one many feel naturally drawn to, but I’m not sure we should be quite as dismissive of money. First we all need to pay the bills, second it takes time, time we waste at work if we’re not getting paid to create. But more than that I would question the belief that money is what is involved when writers sell out, stop creating art and just churn out pulp. Maybe its a working class ethic, but whenever I know I am getting paid I want to be ten times better than I was. I don’t proof this blog, I don’t check my apostrophes. I write, give it a quick read through and post. This IS my scrapbook. Its fun, it gets my creative juices flowing and hopefully it might spark something in other people or just be a fun way to while away ten minutes. I put this here to be free, to be shared, read, I’m asking for nothing, and in truth I don’t believe I have the right to ask for anything, because this is not a product, it’s not finished, polished, nurtured or matured.

The terrifying thing to me is that unpolished as this may be, its still frequently head and shoulders above the things I read on professional sites. Online newspapers and magazines with global readership. Many have taken to posting blog posts, opinion pieces and human interest stories written, I can only presume, by up and coming writers for free. And no one is proofing them. I’ve read some – actually I have attempted to read some that literally did not make sense. And yet the reason I attempted this read was because a friend shared it.

Maybe I am alone, but I value good art, I treasure great art. I’m all for the wonder of the internet as an inspirational springboard, spitballing ideas on wordpress and brainstorming via tumblr, but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse to steal or to stop striving for better. Sarah Madison claims we’re hungry. Kinda like a dieter on a mission to sin, I find the best cure for hunger is satisfaction. That’s rarely achieved by more, rather by better. Ten stale biscuits or one slice of creamy cheesecake heaven? Guess which is likely to be free.

happy day #100

And on my last #100happydays post, something I never imagined I would be writing about. I’ve heard its good to push yourself out of your comfort zone😀

Today marked a happy day for many in my town. After 114 years and god and geeks only know how many near misses, almosts and not-a-chances, Hibernian Football Club finally won the Cup. My dad’s waited his entire life for this moment. Not quite as long as this man though..

http://www.newstalk.com/106yearold-Hibs-fan-finally-sees-his-side-win-the-Scottish-Cup-on-their-12th-attempt

What would you wait 114 years for?

happy day #99

Nearing the end of my happy days run and I feel a desire to return to my sci-fi origins.

The final Frontier..

Not sure how I feel about this. I felt Voyager was a step down (several flights really) from DS9 and then Enterprise managed to turn one of my favourite childhood heroes into a irritating pontificating old man. But its still a very rich deep world to explore with plenty of fan love to draw in the audiences. They are hardcore tho, so tread lightly CBS😀