Saturday, June 07, 2003

Today's Guardian has a fascinating article about how the sorting and cataloguing of Roald Dahl's papers has led to the discovery of early drafts of some of his works. It does make you ponder the question of whether Charlie's Chocolate Boy and James and the Giant Cherry would have been as popular as the works they eventually became.

It's one of the parts of writing that isn't given that much prominence - the various metamorphoses an idea can go through before it becomes the final story. In my own writing, I've become aware that there are two types of rewriting process. There's the obvious rewriting of correcting spelling, grammar, cutting bad passages, switching words to get a better meaning etc - what Hemingway referred to as 'getting the words right' - but, deeper than that, there's the matter of getting the story right or, more aptly in this case, getting the right story.

In Misery, Stephen King refers to the phenomenon of 'the hole in the page' opening, that moment when an idea takes on a life of its own and becomes something grounded in a kind of new reality. In my experience, it's when you tap into an almost subconscious reality that the idea has created and you're no longer creating, but describing what is happening in this reality. Characters become real people, settings become places and only part of your mind is actually focused on writing the story, the other part is exploring this new reality and discovering that it may have a few surprises lying in wait for you. Writers often talk of characters going off on their own paths, not following the plot the writer thought they would.

As an example, on the project I've just completed with my writing partner, I had the sudden realisation one day that what we had assumed to be a character's assumed name was actually his real name and the backstory we were thinking of for him was something he had created himself to hide his true origins. Introducing that wasn't a case of having to change everything around to make it fit in, but instead it was making sense of a lot of things in that world. Plus, it made perfect sense in terms of the overall theme of the piece - the thin line between what's real and what's fake.. It wasn't a case of 'let's make this character do that' more 'this character is that, and we've just not noticed it before.'

It's both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because you have this sense of a whole new world to explore, with real people and places to write about and tell stories of, but also frustrating because it can reveal that there's a story there that's not the one you set out to write. Or, you discover the story you set out to write, but it's not the one you are actually writing at that time. There's a story at the core of this world, but you have to tunnel down through it to get to it. Sometimes you get lucky and hit it dead centre on your first attempt, other times you get close, and only have to backtrack a little, take your bearings and then hit it. Then there are the times when you go wildly off course and you have to go right back to the beginning and start again from another angle.

It's why the 'getting the right story' part of rewriting can be the most frustrating. In basic rewriting you're just getting rid of the bad parts and things that don't work, but when you're trying to find the story you came looking for you might have to throw out things that are perfectly good in themselves - interesting characters, fascinating scenes - but aren't part of the story you're looking to tell. Sometimes those characters can go on and have a life in another story, but a lot of the time they end up just dumped by the wayside, their stories only ever told in drafts no one gets to see.

A couple of years ago I went on an Arvon Foundation course on 'Writing Science Fiction' taught by Ken Macleod and Molly Brown. On one of the nights of the course, Molly read her story 'Doing Things Differently' and talked about the process behind its creation from the original idea through a number of different drafts (17 in total, if I remember rightly) to the final published story. Each draft might not have been an improvement in terms of style, but it was getting closer to the story at the heart of the idea, the one that expressed it best. Ken tells a similar story about the creation of The Star Fraction, that it didn't seem to be working until he turned it around and realised who was telling the story.

There's a saying that 'art is never completed, only abandoned' and in a sense that does apply to the search for the story at the core. It could be argued that no author ever gets to the actual core and it remains as some kind of ur-story, always just out of reach no matter how many attempts you make to reach it from however many angles. The version of a story that gets published is just the final draft, after all, the one that gets closest to the goal and lets the author think they can hit the core story for the next idea.

Going back to the Dahl papers, I think the reason they're of interest is that we never normally get to see these drafts and works-in-progress, we only get to witness the final product, the story that we believe to be the correct one, as it's the only one we're offered. Maybe that can explain why writers don't like people seeing their early drafts of a project - we know they're not the story we're looking for and so don't want people to see them and think that we have found it then be disappointed in the story we finally produce.

However, the Web has opened up the process of creation, at least in some fields. For instance, sites like Drew's Script-o-Rama contain early drafts of many screenplays and film treatments given us the chance to look behind the scenes. It's not really a true look at the creation process - while scripts are called 'first drafts' that's more 'first version submitted to the studio' rather than 'first version completed' and, in a sense, the development process can turn it away from the writer's original vision of the core behind the idea into some producer's script-noted no man's land.

It does open up the prospect, though, of writers using the Web to let people see earlier drafts of published work. It's rare for an earlier (or even different) version of a book to be produced - partly because of authorial refusal to countenance such a thing, but also because publishers doubt such works could be profitable to them. While films may get re-released in a director's cut, or with additional deleted scenes available on DVD, a book is the author's property much more than a film is and so doesn't need to be recut or expanded. There are probably others, but the only example I can think of right now is the extended version of King's The Stand, restoring the sections that were cut from the original to make it affordable to publish. Or, in a slightly different format, there's Peter F Hamilton's publication of his background notes for the Night's Dawn trilogy as The Confederation Handbook.

In these days when early drafts are no longer mouldering piles of paper, but Word documents filed away in the recesses of the computer, how long will it be before an author decides to let people take a look at his or her earlier versions of a story?

This is actually the second version of this post that I've written. Obviously taking advantage of an opportunity to inflict irony upon me by forcing me to rewrite, Blogger ate the first entry which I had written directly into the posting window without saving it first.
Thanks to Harry Hatchet for introducing me to the wonderful VitaminQ - a collection of lots of pretty useless information that's guaranteed to stick somewhere in my head, thus making even less room for the useful stuff. One day, I'll get on a quiz show and be able to make use of it all...
When I quote someone, I like to ensure that they've actually said or written the words that I'm attributing to them. However, Peter Cuthbertson, operating on a higher moral plane than the rest of us, doesn't follow this practice.

In his latest 'everyone who disagrees with me is not just wrong but possesses no morality and is probably evil and in the pay of Satan as well' rant, he writes the following:

To understand how the liberal-left sees the world, one only needs to read what they think. Perhaps the best familiar example is Liberal Democrat councillor and blogger Iain Coleman, who recently wrote something which really helped me understand the way people like him think. I cannot find the exact quote, but hopefully someone will point me to it. Anyway, his point was essentially that he was a liberal because he wanted government to be there to ease the social and economic effects of freedom.

Now, if I'm about to not only attribute a quote to someone, but use that quote as a linchpin for an entire post, I'm going to damn well make sure that the person I'm attributing it to has said it, not just hope that 'someone will point me to it'. Now, I read Iain quite frequently, and I'm pretty sure he's not said anything of the sort recently, but I went looking, and I think I've found the quote that Peter was referring to:

As I see it, the state has three relevant duties (so straightaway libertarians are going to get annoyed). First, there's a duty to see to it that people don't do worse for themselves via their free choices than they need to (roughly, a market failure justification). Second, the state has a duty to see to it that neither the conditions under which people interact nor the outcomes of those interactions are seriously unjust (on some specification of what justice involves - which I don't need to spell out here - plug in your favourite). Third, the state has a duty to see to it that the conditions for free and open discourse among citizens are maintained. Partly this is a matter of laws protecting political speech, but also, in my view includes facing up to private threats to free expression, ensuring that one or two magnates don't control the media and so on.

Unfortunately for Peter, that quote is by Chris Bertram, not Iain Coleman. Oh well, I guess it's just exam stress clouding Peter's poor little mind. I hope he attributes quotes properly in his exams.
No one's got the answer to my football trivia question yet (if permalinks are still Bloggered, scroll down to the first entry on Monday 2nd), though I'll admit it is quite difficult. So, here's a few clues to help. If you still can't get it, I'll post the answer on Monday.

The number of clubs can only go down, never up.
It's possible (not likely, but possible) that the answer could be just 1 next year.
Wolves were one of last year's 5, but aren't in next year's 4.

Friday, June 06, 2003

One last point on X-Men that I forgot yesterday. In a strange bit of synchronicity, the Beeb were showing the final episode of Buffy Season 6 last night, and it occurred to me that there are many parallels between Buffy's 'Dark Willow' storyline and X-Men's 'Dark Phoenix' plot. And I don't appear to be the first person to have drawn that parallel.
Wimbledon FC have gone into administration. Obviously, it's bad news for football when any club gets into financial difficulties, but when it's Franchise FC, I don't really feel that much sympathy for them.
This is the night mail, pulling into a siding... The Royal Mail is ending mail train services. Oh lovely, more lorries on the roads.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

Yesterday Iain Murray referred to Stephen Pollard as 'the British Instapundit' which struck me as a quite apt comparison. If there was a purely British version of the Blog Ecosystem or any of the other various blog charts, I'm pretty sure he'd come out on, or near to, the top. But, it got me thinking about whether there are any other parallels between British blogs and American ones.

Is British Spin the British Daily Kos, for instance? Junius the British Matthew Yglesias? There are interesting similarities in tone and subject matter between Au Currant and A Small Victory which makes them seem like trans-Atlantic versions of each other, and is Peter Cuthbertson the British version of Little Green Footballs?

However, while drawing these parallels is fun, thinking about it does show up the differences between British and American blogging that I (and many others) have commented on before. One thing that struck me when I re-arranged my blogroll a while ago, dividing up my British blogs into a specific politics category and a more general 'living in Britain' category was that the of the three British bloggers who've actually been elected to something (that I know of), two of them (Gert and Iain Coleman) are both firmly in the 'living' category, rather than 'politics'. Even our blogging MP, Tom Watson, doesn't stick to politics all the time - though I've not seen any mention of football by him since West Brom went down and Wolves went up. Can't think why...

And while the Pollard/Instapundit comparisons are generally valid, it's interesting that there don't seem to be any British blogs with the posting frequencies of Instapundit or Atrios (Beatnik Salad is the British Eschaton, by the way). That could just be an accident of circumstance, though - there aren't many people with both the time and the knowledge to post as often as Instapundit or Atrios and the ones who might do it in Britain could just not be attracted to the idea of blogging, or have even heard of it.

But, it does come to a rather British issue in that it can sometimes be seen as somewhat unseemly to be too dedicated to politics and not have that personal hinterland. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that a description of Gordon Brown as being 'obsessed with politics' was seen as an insult. It says something about our political culture when the idea of the second-most powerful politician in the country being obsessed with it is seen as being somehow wrong. However, we do seem to have a national desire to not take politics too seriously - the comment sections of British newspapers will run serious and humorous columns side by side and most of the broadsheet papers will run a (usually irreverent) Diary in the comment section as well. Among letters to the editor, you'll find what Private Eye calls 'Mike Giggler' emails among the serious discussion of the weighty issues of the previous day.

So, while I started this post by comparing British and American blogs, I'm not sure that it's the right comparison to be making. However, America is the 300-poung gorilla of the world of blogs and it tends to attract all the attention and comparisons. I'd reckon that Australia is probably a more apt comparison, in that I've not seen many purely political blogs from there (though if any of my Aussie readers want to correct me on that, go ahead) and those that do mention politics seem to do it in the same way as the majority of British ones do - as just one subject amongst many. It's odd, because Australian politics often seems a lot more interesting than most other countries. Whenever I read anything about it, I always get the feeling that the participants are just seconds away from deciding to settle it all with either a fight, a drinking contest or both.
If you fall off, you just jump back on and try again. Or, in cinematic terms, after being bored to the point of death by Matrix Reloaded I went straight back to the Odeon today for X-Men 2 which proved I should have followed my instincts yesterday and got to see that instead. The X-Men films are just what summer blockbusters (and comic book adaptations) should be - fun action movies that entertain you for a couple of hours, with just enough knowing winks to the fans to keep them happy. As long as they don't produce any Batman and Robin-esque cinematic disaster zones, they're going to be making X-Men movies for years to come. They don't even have to worry about recasting some of the characters - there's a ready supply of new X-Men to bring into the ranks when the likes of Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry and Famke Janssen decide to go on.

One thing I did notice is that, where other films may have cameos from actors, X2, like the first film, has little cameos from characters. I spotted five - Colossus, Shadowcat and Jubilee are all present at Xavier's School, Dr Hank McCoy (aka the Beast) appears on TV and the name 'LeBeau, Remy' appears on a computer screen at one point (just above 'Lensherr, Erik' when Mystique breaks into Stryker's HQ), which is a very clever move. It's a signal to the fans that the producers are ready to bring in Gambit at some point in the future but they've not cast him, so they're free to bring in a known actor to play him when they can't use Wolverine as the lead tortured hero.

Of course, with lots of comic books being adapted into successful movies, Hollywood's attention has come back to adapting Watchmen again. Alison has been writing about this recently, and while it would be good to see Watchmen finally making it to the big screen, I'm wary about the prospects because it would be so easy to mess it up. I did read the Sam Hamm script for it a while ago (it doesn't seem to be available on the web anymore) which was an interesting attempt at adapting it. From what I remember, it would have made a good film, but it wuldn't necessarily be Watchmen as we know it. But, it did keep in the line 'I did it thirty-five minutes ago' which any adaptation has to have to be a true one. OK, that line probably doesn't mean anything to those of you who haven't read it, but it's the sign of a huge plot twist that, like all the best twists, makes you realise that the story you've just been reading is not the one you think you've been reading. Go read it, you'll understand.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

I went to see The Matrix Reloaded this afternoon. My first thought on leaving the cinema? 'There's two and a half hours of my life I'll never get back.'

I never really swallowed the hype about the first movie. I thought it was a pretty good action movie with some excellent special effects but the 'deep and meaningful' script seemed to me like it had been written by someone who'd just read Existentialism for Dummies and half a Philip K Dick book then bashed out a few over-wordy scenes that could eat up some screen time while the special effects team recovered between sequences. My only question about what was real and what was not was wondering if Keanu Reeves really was that bad an actor.

I can only think that the sequel was written after consulting with a sarcastic focus group: 'What we really want to see in a sequel is more scenes where people reel off pseduo-philosophical dialogue at each other. Oh, and by the way, we really love all those scenes in the Star Wars movies where Councils sit around discussing things for ages.' Or maybe the Wachowski brothers are just in a competition with George Lucas to see who can stick in the most pointless scenes inbetween all the action sequences. They also had a pretty good go at beating Attack of the Clones' records for 'most nonsensical plot' and 'least convincing romantic subplot', but Lucas was just too good for them.

To be fair, the action sequences are pretty good (especially the car chase) but even then, there's very little sense of danger to the heroes just a lot of 'wow, see how much money we can throw at this sequence!' I have the feeling that being able to spot the parts that are animated is going to be the 21st century's equivalent of spotting the wires holding up the models in 20th century films.

One last thought: the conflict between Neo and Agent Smith is clearly based on the conflict between the Road Runner and Wile E Coyote. Lots of elaborate plans and property damage, but he never really gets close to catching him.

Knew I should have gone and seen X-Men 2 instead.
Two important firsts in The Guardian today: Salam Pax's first column and, more importantly, my first published letter to the editor. So, I can now add 'published in The Guardian' to my CV.
Well, the latest entry went off yesterday so it's fingers crossed for the next month or so. Still, whatever happens, I got to use the phrase 'Six Feet Under in spandex'.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003

A great quote from Matthew Turner:

Another reason one cannot vote Tory is that although it's true that Tony Blair would jump into a lake if George Bush asked him to, one gets the impression that Iain Duncan Smith if asked would first drain the lake and then jump in head first just to prove how far he was willing to go.
There've been a couple of articles about the 'politics should be more like Big Brother' report I mentioned on Sunday. BBC News did an amusing 'ten things politicians can learn from Big Brother' and Zoe Williams had a good article in today's Guardian on it, which included this quote:

Texting and emailing crop up quite a bit, as if, rather than being facilitators of communication, they were actually ideological standpoints in their own right.

Which is something that happens quite frequently, really. It's a lot like the web a few years ago (and today, to some extent) - lots of businesses and organisations saying 'we must use the power of text messages' just as they were saying 'we must use the power of the web' beforehand. No one has any idea how to use this mystical power, of course, but everyone knows it's vital that it gets utilised in some way or other. Which of course leads to a bunch of half-arsed schemes and ideas that do no good for anyone and are about as useful in disseminating information as carrier pigeons.

People never go on about how 'we must use the power of the telephone' or even 'we must use the power of the printing press', do they? Even though they've been around for a lot longer and people still don't know what they're doing with them a lot of the time. But then, all these new technologies are going to make the old ones obsolete so no one has to worry about them anymore. After all, television did a good job at completely removing the need for radio and cinema, didn't it?

So, what comes next? I can already hear the first distant shouts of 'we must use the power of the blog' sparking up, but what communications methodology is next to be misinterpreted after that?
There's something about the headline 'Email virus uses Bill Gates' that conjures up bizarre and disturbing images in my head. Bill sitting round in a sleazy motel room, waiting for the phone to call, gradually becoming aware that this virus has happily got into his operating system with his assistance but now isn't going to call back. But it's probably just me, right?

And for those of you thinking it, yes, I probably do need professional help. But amateur help is so much cheaper...

Monday, June 02, 2003

Watching Have I Got News For You last Friday. I was struck by the thought that it seems the BBC are definitely looking for a new permanent host for the show, probably with the aim of getting someone in place for the next (autumn) series.

After Angus Deayton left, there was a lot of talk about who the new host was going to be, but it seemed the BBC had decided to go along the route of having a Saturday Night Live-esque weekly guest host. Some people would host more than one show over time, but there wouldn't be the same host every time. After Deayton left, they had a range of hosts - Anne Robinson, Boris Johnson, Charles Kennedy, Liza Tarbuck, Jeremy Clarkson, but, apart from William Hague and Charlotte Church, the hosts for this series have all seemed like ones the BBC are trying out to see if they're up for doing it permanently - Martin Clunes, Alexander Armstrong, John Sergeant and Hugh Dennis. Plus, unlike the last series, there haven't been many rumours of new guest hosts to come, aside from Michael Parkinson. Having guest hosts helped them in the ratings for a while (when they could call on big names like Robinson, Kennedy, Hague and Church) but having names who are only vaguely known isn't going to help the show much, and could do long term damage to the ratings if people don't see 'big names' coming on every week.

My tip is Alexander Armstrong - he had a good show as host, has a good track record in comedy (I've always thought Armstrong and Miller was underrated as a sketch show) and he has the 'new Angus' vibe by having done a lot of adverts. Clunes would probably be too expensive (if he wanted to do it), Sargeant is a good host, but much better as a guest and Dennis had a poor show on Friday - not entirely his fault, as it seemed a dead audience - but these sort of things count against people in TV.

Some have suggested that Deayton could come back, but I don't think that's at all likely. While the BBC might take him back, Paul Merton's been quite clear in interviews (especially on Parkinson) that he and Deayton didn't get on before the scandal, and from what he's said it appears, Ian Hislop feels the same. It seems quite likely that Deayton's lack of support from those two was the reason the BBC let him go.

So, given how my predictions usually go, by the time the autumn series rolls around, expect to see anyone other than Alexander Armstrong as host.
OK, here's an English football trivia question I've come up with. I'm interested to see if anyone knows the answer.

In the 1991-92 season there were 11 clubs who had done this.
From 1992 to 1995 there were 8.
From 1995 to 1996 there were 7.
From 1996 to 2002 there were 6.
From 2002 to 2003 there were 5.
From the start of next season there'll be 4.
Who are they and what have they done?

If you're completely stuck, this site might help you find the answer.

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Today is World Naturism Day, if you weren't already aware. I shall be celebrating by remaining completely naked underneath my clothes.
Just ten days into this year's Big Brother and The Observer wins the prize for being the first paper to link it's popularity to the supposed apathy of people towards politics. And, of course, it uses the favourite pseudo-statistic of the 'Big Brother is more popular than politics' argument:

Almost twice as many votes were cast in the last series of Big Brother as in May's local elections

Yes, but you can only vote once in proper elections. Do them by phone vote, with people allowed to vote as often as they like, and then they'd probably get more votes. When there's no restriction on how many times someone can vote, the number of votes cast is not the same as the number of voters.