Bad case of the blues…

Avatar PosterWent to see The biggest film ever in the world, it’s official  in 3d yesterday. Darling Husband (or DH, as Mumsnet would have it) weirdly decided it would be an ideal Valentine’s Day treat – though it didn’t exactly create a romantic mood as we both ended up with cracking headaches (3d always makes me feel as if my eyes are bouncing round a pinball machine and my brain is being squeezed out through my earholes…)

Anyway – Avatar left me feeling decidely unnerved, and not just from my 3d hangover. For pure visual spectacle, it is the most amazing film I’ve seen; the scenery of the world of Pandora is stunning, almost literally, as tree branches and fern fronds seem entirely likely to snap back and hit you round the head as the characters leap through their fabulous forest. The 3d adds to the trippy experience, making the film incredibly immersive – I noticed a young girl a few seats away from me reaching out her hands to try and catch dandelion-like seedpods that seemed to float only inches from our faces. Some audiences have formed support groups to deal with the loss and dejection they feel when the film ends, devastated that they have to ‘leave’ beautiful Pandora behind in the cinema (I’m guessing they were Americans.) I even felt a little trace of that strange artificial nostalgia for a place and a time that doesn’t actually exist, for I am secretly sad that I will never get to walk through the beautiful nighttime phosphorescence of the Pandoran rainforest, with the lush moss lighting up under my bare feet at every step, like some kind of eco-friendly Michael Jackson video.

But still… although it is a feat of astonishing technical wizardry, there is something faintly depressing about the film, quite apart from the rather heavy-handed enviro-message being perpetually undermined by the director’s pornographically lustful eye for a huge explosion. The quality of the story, for example, when looked at with a writer’s sensibility… well, it’s formulaic, verging on parodic. There are certain shots (for example, the hero accidentally pushing away his wheelchair in a moment of crisis) that are entirely predictable, places where the plot creaks with convenient devices, characters that are archetypes rather than people, dialogue that never rises beyond exposition or cliche. And then there’s the uneasy, queasy sensation you get when your brain catches up with your eyes and you realise that nothing you are watching is ‘real’, in an even more dramatic way than with most films, for the majority of the characters have been computer-born, spun from pixels and electricity. (Even more disturbing when you realise you’re starting to find these pixellated creations faintly attractive…)

So is Avatar the future of filmmaking? Now the technology is there, and the bar has been raised, I can only imagine that  big-budget films will be getting even bigger (though the role of the actor may be diminishing…. discuss.) Terry Gilliam, for one, has expressed dismay at Avatar‘s success, worrying that the big bang boys are going to squeeze out all the small and quirky films that are driven (at least in part) by art rather than commerce. The temptation to create bigger and more spectacular visions has always been a part of filmmaking, but so has the desire to reflect, explore and illuminate human truths and emotions. So I’m just waiting for the film that manages to combine the beautiful landscape of Pandora with a warm and beating heart.

Happy Hundredth!

pd246llThe New Writer magazine celebrates its 100th issue this month – and I’d like to offer congratulations to all involved.

As a magazine, it pretty much does what it says on the tin – offering a valuable forum for newbies by printing  articles, poetry and short stories every issue, as well as giving useful information about upcoming competitions and possible writing markets. I must admit a wee bias here – the magazine has published three of my stories and an article over the last couple of years, but then that’s exactly the reason I would thoroughly recommend it to any other author…

Their annual poetry and prose competition is also well worth entering – keep your eyes on the website for the closing date (usually November), or subscribe to the brilliant TNW monthly email bulletin, which contains a summary of forthcoming competitions as well as useful snippets of publishing news.

Visit for more details or to subscribe.  There’s even one of my stories printed this month for you to read…

Brain food

Just come back from holiday – only a couple of days in Cornwall, nowhere exotic, but ohmiGod it was fab. I don’t know whether it was the unbroken nights of sleep, the salty fresh air, thirty lengths of the swimming pool before breakfast everyday, or the vast quantities of fabulous seafood and fish I consumed, but my brain seems to have been working on overtime ever since. I realised I’d made a little booboo in my last short story (to do with the orientation of the Tate St Ives – could only be solved by seeing it for real, not working from memory) and also came back with the most marvellous idea (I think) for another novel. Hurrah! Just have to finish editing Lookeylikey now, though a few days away have given me renewed enthusiasm for that task as well. Hurray for holidays, and BTW, if you are ever in St Ives, try having dinner at The Hobblers House. It’s quaint verging on twee, but serves the most fabulous, simply fresh fish dishes I’ve ever had. And as for their ambrosial homemade date and pistachio icecream…. mmmmmm… (makes contented drooling noises, eyes glaze over at the taste-memory….)

In it to win it…. part two


ES with super bestselling author Fiona Walker. I'm the blurry one. She's thinking "Crikey - got a right one here..."

OKAY… so it wasn’t the BBC National Short Story Prize (see earlier blog), but it was still wonderful to win something. Top prize in the International Short Story comp at the 2009 Wells Festival of Literature, to be precise, and I am still glowing from my fabulous day out.

Wells is a beautiful city (WELL worth a visit, LOL) and the Festival was brilliantly organised and hosted by the friendliest folk you could meet. It was great to be handed my certificate and cheque and bask in a little praise, but the highlight for me (apart from my secret visit to Wells Cathedral chained library, more about which another time) was meeting bestselling novelist Fiona Walker, who judged the competition and dished out the prizes.

I’ve met other successful authors, and have been variously inspired or dismayed (e.g. Terry Pratchett – towering genius with oddly squeaky voice, Stephen Fry – extremely tall and  howlingly drunk), but Fiona was something else again. She gave the most insightful and amusing talk about the perils of the publishing industry and her life in writing, and then gamely accompanied us to lunch.

It’s lovely to meet someone whose work you have read and enjoyed, and then find that not only are they exactly as warm and funny and inventive as you’d imagine them to be from their writing, but that they are kind, supportive and encouraging to other writers as well. I’ve got a signed copy of her latest book , ‘Love Hunt’ , lined up as my next  bedtime read and am looking forward to buying the one she’s currently editing, which sounds like it’s gonna be a real ripsnorter!

So thank you Fiona for making the day so much fun, and for being everything a writer should be…

Dive straight in…

I’ve recently had a query from a new writer called Nick Thompson, essentially asking the question – “But where do I start?” I know how he feels; even if you’re writing an autobiographical piece, it can be daunting, when faced with piles of research notes or a head full of stories and ideas, to work out where the narrative should begin. How many novels, I wonder, languish unwritten simply because the writer lacked the confidence to get started?

Well, the best advice I can give to any fledgling writer is, in the immortal words of the NIKE advert slogan – just do it. Don’t worry about beginnings or endings, about structure or form, simply apply bottom to chair and pen to paper and write.  Jump straight into the juicy bits, the stories that obsess you, the tales you have to tell, the anecdotes that are so familiar they can almost write themselves  – and please don’t worry about crafting that perfect first sentence.  All the technical details of structure, timeline and linking narrative can be tightened and tinkered with at the editing stage – by which time you’ll be feeling more confident anyway.

I think this is particularly important when you are writing (as Nick plans to) a memoir or family history. Personal histories vary tremendously in tone, from the ‘heavily embroidered for humorous effect’ of Gerald Durrell to the melodramatic ‘misery-memoirs’ that have recently been in vogue. By writing down the parts that fascinate you, you’ll find your voice, your style, even your overarching themes, and discover whether you’re writing a comedy, a tragedy or a poignant mixture of both.

Once you’ve got a good chunky word count, read it and discover what your overall tone should be. Better still, work with sympathetic (but not sycophantic) friends or a writing circle and gather some feedback. Then you’re in a position to start mentally editing your work and jotting down a structure, chapter plans, character notes, plotlines. And yes – even for non-fiction, it’s good to have these things; one trend with non-fiction at the moment is to structure it in the manner of fiction, working in a non-chronological order and using flashbacks and reveals to heighten suspense.

My second tip is – don’t ever write anything just because you feel you should – unless of course you’re getting paid stacks of money.  If you’re bored or unengaged by what you’re writing, then why on earth should anybody else want to bother to read it? It’s not so much a question of ‘write what you know’ but ‘write what you love’. That way, even if you never get published (and I hope you will) at least you’ll have had fun in the process!

I do hope that helps, Mr Thompson, and the very best of good luck…