Time versus Work

Writing is a strange thing. There's less corollary between the time spent on it and the amount and quality of what's produced than you might think. Stephen King's spent a couple of decades producing massive doorstoppers with just four hours of writing a day; and what you see on the shelves doesn't include the stuff he abandoned halfway through (though sometimes, as with Under the Dome, he picks up on it again much later). The American writer Dean Wesley Smith appears to produce an insane quantity of writing - short stories, books - a year. I'm sure I read somewhere Iain Banks spent maybe two or three months a year writing each new book to the final draft. Any numbers of writers I know or follow online write maybe two thousand words a day (as I do), and it probably doesn't take them much more than a couple of hours. Others, like Tony Ballantyne, with a busy day job schedule and a family, I seem to recall, can afford maybe fifteen minutes out of each day.

I had a hard time waking up today and felt fuzzy, despite a good night's sleep, until maybe 1pm. It's now 2.12, and up until lunchtime I couldn't find it in me to write a damn word.  It just doesn't come. I keep getting that sense of misplaced guilt that I should be working, damn it: but that's silly. It's silly, because sitting bashing out words for eight hours a day produces work of less quality, not better. The brain is an organ of the body, after all, and can only sustain intensive work for so long...or so experience suggests to me.

In that past hour, I wrote maybe a thousand words. The writing comes like that: in fast, intensive spurts of activity. It's been like that from day one. I spend most of the day beforehand feeling guilty I'm not writing, and then when my brain tells me it's ready, boom. Out it comes.

Now I'll probably have some lunch, potter about, and boom (hopefully) another thousand words.

It's at times like this it's worth reminding myself I'm actually very lucky to get to do this job. 


Pacific Rim: a review

Pacific Rim is probably the best bad movie I've seen in a while. By which I mean, it is not a movie that inspires you to actually bury your head in your hands, or to stare, appalled, through fanned fingers while thinking: what were you thinking? What were you thinking? Which is the effect a lot of recent 'blockbusters' like, say, Prometheus or the Star Trek reboot have had on me. That it's not actively bad is not the same thing, however, as saying it's necessarily great

There are two things that persuaded me to see this film: good reviews from sometimes surprising corners, and Guillermo Del Toro. Essentially, Del Toro did the best that could be done with the material, and with the plot and leading characters essentially demanded by a studio keeping a close eye on the returns. Financial necessity demands burly, not very bright leading characters, and a lot of monster-on-robot action. Anything else would likely have led to a box-office failure and less chance for Del Toro to gain the funding for the much more interesting and more personal projects that have so far made his career. And that's how I like to think of Pacific Rim: essentially a fundraiser for the movies Del Toro really wants to make. And that's fine. In that respect, the movie is more interesting for its implied politics than for its own story, what little there is of it. 

It says a great deal that three secondary characters prove far more interesting than the leads, who don't really need to do much more than stand on their mark and flex their muscles. I've seen it noted that the movie, unlike many of its type, actually has some character development, and while that's true, in the main it's only really sketched in. There's nothing there - in terms of the leads, at least - that you can't easily predict. That this has been noted as a positive attribute is not so much a reflection of the quality of the film's character development as it is a reflection of the lack of it in other, similar, big-budget CGI spectaculars. 

And, again, that's okay, because the world is full of hyper thirteen-year olds overdosing on sugar water and with a deep-seated need to see robots fighting monsters, and they deserve entertainment too. But it's in the details you can see the better, if considerably less profitable, movie that might have been made. 

Specifically, the two 'comedy' scientists, along with Ron Perlman's Hannibal Chau, are far more interesting than anyone else in the film. As I watched, I found myself imagining a far better movie: one in which the Kaiju (monsters) are simply an ongoing and occasional fact of life, with no immediate solution at hand to satisfy the Hollywood need for a climactic ending.  In this better movie, the two scientists, Geiszler and Gottlieb - particularly Geiszler, with his Kaiju tattoos, and Chau, the underworld kaiju organ dealer - are the leads. The monsters, to a very great extent, are in the background (in this movie in my head), and only glimpsed as the story leads our much more interesting 'secondary' characters through an adventure in many respects only tangentially related to the monsters. 

The fact is the movie only becomes genuinely interesting when it focuses on the culture that grows around the kaiju: whole districts of cities built around the remains of fallen monsters, and an entire black market industry dealing in kaiju skin, organs, bones and even parasites. The point where Chau is first seen, in a vast hidden marketplace of Kaiju organs, bones and teeth, is the one truly Del Toro moment of the movie. Every time we moved away from Chau and the scientists, I felt disappointed. I wanted to see more about this world, because it was fascinating. But every time it felt like we were about to discover more about a world that's learned to cope with the presence of skyscraper-sized rampaging monsters, we instead had to watch a robot and a monster hit each other a lot. 

And this is all why Pacific Rim is the best bad movie I've seen in a while. It's not really a bad movie, because it does precisely what it's intended to. It's disappointing, in the sense that I've seen very good reviews of it by people whose opinions I usually respect, so that's more of a personal thing. But oh, to see a film that focuses entirely on Chau, and his kaiju organs recovery team, and Geiszler and Gottlieb as his two most devoted customers...

(a side note: I again find it deeply interesting that once again, the heroes of the day are brooding Hollywood hulks with grim expressions, while the smartest guys in the room - Geiszler and Gottlieb, without whose combined brains humanity is entirely doomed - are treated as light comic relief. I'd hesitate to suggest it signals the end of Western Civilisation, but neither would I say it's a positive reflection on our culture.)


New blog piece up at Torbooks.co.uk

I've written another piece for torbooks.co.uk, the website for my publisher, on the path that led me to being a full-time writer:

The first time I sold a book, I got an email from a friend saying ‘that’s it! You’ve got a book published. You can die now.’

Writing a book – or rather, writing it and then seeing it published – is the kind of thing that turns up on bucket lists of Things To Do Before You Die. A while back there was a survey – I think it was in the Guardian – where they asked people what careers they most aspired to, and ‘novelist’ came out top of the pile. So speaking as a published author of some ten years standing, I guess I’m doing pretty well.

But it takes a lot of work and dedication to get there. And even having one book out isn’t enough. If you actually want to make a career out of it – and there’s an unspoken assumption that you do – you need to write another. And then another. And yet another. Preferably at a rate of one a year.

You can read the rest here.