I didn't get out to see anything new over the last week, but still managed to watch some old favourites, and catch up on a few films I've been meaning to watch for a while.
You Were Never Really Here - with a stunning central performance from Joaquin Phoenix, this noir from director Lynn Ramsay is haunting and demanding in equal measure, eschewing the standard hitman movie thrills for something altogether darker and more unsettling. The violence, when it comes, is brutal, but its in the quiet moments where the nastiness often lies. A wonderfully constructed and unique vision, but definitely one where you have to be in the right frame of mind to watch it.
Broken Arrow - When this came up on a random watchlist, I realised that back in the day, I never actually saw this one. I adored Woo's second Hollywood movie, Face/Off, so I decided to give it a shot. Its defintiely a film made in the 90s, with all the slightly cheap camerawork that entails, and a script that has ever chance to give its female lead something to do and never really does (although at least they don't horn in a pointless romance subplot, as much as the script hints its going to at every opportunity). The final train heist is nicely done, though, and John Travolta proves why he'd go on to play a brilliant bad guy in Face/Off, but here the script is so perfunctory he never gets more than a couple of chances to really ham it up (That said, "would you mind not shooting at the thermonuclear weapons" is a deservedly memorable moment). Basically, its aged pretty poorly, and the abruptly cut ending just feels disorienting.
Con Air - With a bad day in the middle of the week, I needed to watch something that is the movie equivalent of comfort food, and here it is. With everyone's favourite is-he-good-or-is-he-awful actor, Nicolas Cage playing an army ranger sent to prison after accidentally killing someone, its a deliriously indulgent action picture that delights in its own idiocy. With a brilliantly weird supporting cast, including John Cusack as a wide-eyed DEA agent, and Steve Buscemi as the most notorious serial killer in the USA, Con Air sort of flows over you and pulls you in with its sheer madness. A flight full of the most dangerous convicts in America (and Nic Cage's character returning home on parole to see his daughter) gets taken over due more to a series of coincidences that any real planning on the part of John Malkovich's mastermind, Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom, and from there on in things get increasingly weird. But the film carries itself with such confidence you can't help but enjoy every ludicrous moment of it.
JFK - Oliver Stone's controversial 1991 movie is a miracle of concept and passion over structure. One of the most talky movies ever made (there's a 20 or so minute sequence that is literally two people sitting on a bench), it manages to sucker you in through the sheer power of its argument, and the commitment of its cast, as to the truth of the Kennedy assassination. Whether or not Stone fudged the facts, and whether or not you believe in the lone gunman theory or the conspiracy, this film makes you wonder whether there might be something in it. Costner is at a career best as Jim Harrison, the New Orleans DA who decides to dig deeper into the connections between his home town and the assassination, and the supporting cast are solidly believable. Its made with passion and conviction, with the only real low point being Joe Pesci and Tommy Lee Jones's appalling wigs. But in this movie, everything means something, so maybe there's more to those hairpieces than meets the eye...
The Dead Zone - I'm a sucker for Stephen King novels. Well, some of them. But there was a real period where it felt like King could do no wrong (aside from Cujo, a novel I never really understood the appeal of), and The Dead Zone is definitely from that era. The story of Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who falls into a five year coma following a car crash, and awakes with the ability to see people's past and futures when he touches them, it moves from a serial killer thriller through to a moral quandary as Johnny discovers the extent of his powers (in some visions, there is a "dead zone" where he realises there is the ability to change the outcome of events) and realises he may have a chance to stop a man from becoming president and starting world war 3 -- but to do so he must take drastic action. This 1981 adaptation stars Christopher Walken as the everyman who becomes something else, and while this seems odd casting given Walken's reputation now, it really works here. In the first part of the movie, he plays off as kind and goofy before events turned him into a haunted, gaunt figure. Its an episodic movie, but due to the focus on Walken's character, this approach doesn't feel too stop and start, as it might have done in lesser hands. There are some mild moments of horror here, but its more psychological than body horror. Having suffered through some terrible King adaptations in the past, this is definitely one of the better ones.
Get Out - Normally, Lesley doesn't like horror movies, and leaves me to watch them on my own, but when she said she'd heard good things about Get Out and perhaps could watch it, we fired it up on Netflix. To me, Get Out isn't a full on horror, but rather a creepy weird little tale that plays with elements of the genre. That said, I must be inured to horror, as the tension definitely started to get to Lesley, especially when the true extent of the weirdness behind the overly-liberal-acting white family was revealed. But where Get Out works is by relieving the horror with moments of humour and relatable moments. We made it to the end intact, but it was nice to see someone reacting to it the first time round in exactly the way they should have -- tense, but willing to go on and see just how Chris extricates himself from the weirdest meet-the-parents scenario in contemporary cinema.
Today is the last day of the Aye Write Festival in Glasgow. Its been running for years at the Mitchell Library, and I've been lucky enough over the last four or five years to be asked to moderate a number of authors (as well as appearing myself!) for the festival. I do quite a bit of this work for festivals, which was an extension of some of the work I used to do as a bookseller, chairing and interviewing authors for instore events.
Its a funny gig, really. Moderating a panel or interviewing an author means that you have to at once be welcoming and entertaining, but also make sure that you are not the centre of attention. Its something of a balancing act, but when it goes right it can be hugely rewarding. I do my research before I go in to any event, reading at the very least the latest work by an author, but also doing a little research to see what they tend to talk about and whether there's anything interesting worth exploring. But what's most rewarding is when I can go off script - when the conversation lurches in an unexpected direction.
One of the reasons I love Aye Write, too, is that they're one of the festivals who let me spread my wings outside of crime fiction. As much as I love my crime and thrillers, its great to be able to to talk about other topics. For example, I got the opportunity to resurrect my past as a philosopher by chairing the excellent Julian Baggini on a few occasions (in fact, the first time was on precisely the topic of my MLitt dissertation, which I think was more a coincidence than anything, but hugely welcome). I've also done a number of SF panels (my second love) as well as diving into more unexpected subjects, such as a panel on PTSD in the military, and a fascinating event this year on "Weird Maths", which was a great topic for someone who was utterly terrible at maths at school (and still is, on a general arithmetic level, but as this panel proved, maths is about far more than just adding and subtracting numbers).
Chairing/moderation at festivals is a subtle art, and I think sometimes people forget that. Its easy to get things wrong. I still get shudders at one panel where I was a little nervous,. and ended up laughing a little too loud at the author's jokes. Someone online slammed me for this later (although they also slammed me years later for coughing at an event I'd been chairing where I'd literally come from hospital after an asthma attack, so maybe its just they don't like me personally!). And when you get an author who doesn't want to talk (it happens) things can feel tense. But when it goes right -- and it does most of the time, as long as you let the authors be themselves, and give them room to talk about their books and work, and the things they love -- then it can be a hugely joyous experience. I also love it when an author surprises you. There was one author I chaired for the first time a few years ago, and was terrified that they were going to be a little like the characters in their books (who are, let's say, a little violent and unpredictable) but they turned out to be one of the loveliest people I've met.
I've had a blast again at this years Aye Write, and I'm hoping I'll be at other festivals as the year moves forward, meeting new authors, introducing new and familiar voices to readers, and just generally helping to spread the love of books. I'll keep you all updated here as and when things happen, and I hope to see you out there at some of these events, too!
Over on Twitter, I do two hashtags that you'll only find on my feed -- #russelreads and #russelwatches.
#russelreads is all about books. Because of the nature of my day job (as an editor) its updated less often, as my time for pleasure-reading is less due to the nature of that work.
But #russelwatches is all about my second passion: movies. I adore movies - with a particular love of late 60s/early 70s stuff - and have made no secret of the fact that my dream has always been to move into scriptwriting, alongside my career as a novelist.
I'm going to try and do a weekly roundup of #russelwatches on the blog, as sometimes I miss or forget to do a twitter tag of what I'm watching. And hopefully, it'll help you guys find a few things you might fancy watching (or know to avoid!)
Anyway, this week on #russelwatches
US - Caught the new Jordan Peele movie at the Glasgow Film Theatre at an afternoon showing. Anyone expecting a retread of GET OUT might be slightly confused. This is a different movie, although again he's playing with horror tropes. If you're looking for a clear and concise message, again you might find yourself confused, but this is a movie all about the performances. Lupita Nyong'o is particularly superb as both the mother looking to save her family and her terrifying, guttural dopelganger. A last minute twist may seem obvious to some, but this movie really is about the journey - and its a damn fine one!
DEADPOOL 2 - Caught on demand, and, you know, I was slightly underwhelmed. Ryan Reynolds does a great job as the "Merc With a Mouth" who was one of my favourite comics characters back when I was a teen, and his double act with the incredibly serious Mutant-from-the-future, Cable (Josh Brolin) is superb, But the movies at its best riffing off cliches, and slows down a little whenever it actually has to move the plot forward. That said, I laughed a hell of a lot, especially at several jokes pointing out the po-faced seriousness of DC's recent crop of big screen adaptations.
CALIBRE - Scottish-set thriller on Netflix about two friends who go hunting in the Highlands and accidentally get into a lot of trouble with the locals. Cleverly eshcewing Deliverance cliches, and with a great central performance by Jack Lowden, it promises a lot but slightly misses its landing in the third act, where you get the impression that you've missed a lot of character motivation from the local villagers. But its watchable, and has a number of nicely tense wee sequences.
INFERNAL AFFAIRS - On Blu-ray, the movie that influenced THE DEPARTED, you can see some scenes that Scorcese lifted wholesale in his adaptation. so its not full of huge surprises. That said, its a lot leaner than Scorcese's epic, and once it gets going, the two leads have a great intensity. Really looking forward to the next two films in the trilogy.
"Where the hell have you been?"
I've actually had a lot of people ask me that lately. Ed's Dead came out in the UK in 2017, and since then...? Well, its been a little quiet, let's say that. Not that I haven't been working -- I've been editing a LOT of books, and I've been writing a number of articles (for the latest, see the April issue of Writer's Magazine, where I talk about the lessons prose writers can learn from screenwriters) as well as taking part in the excellent Write4Film program from the Scottish Film Talent Network. But between all of that, where I would normally find the time to write, things have been slow.
It started at Bouchercon in New Orleans, at the tail end of 2016. Some people who were there will know I had a small asthma attack while I was there. I didn't think much of it at the time, but what then happened was that my asthma got worse over the next year, to the point where I was hospitalised for a few days during the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2017. I came out, thinking all was well, and things were for a bit. But we had something of an issue where we had to find a new place to live at short notice, something that went on much longer than it should have. And then, in 2018, I found myself struggling with kidney stones for about six months. If you've had kidney stones, you'll know how painful they can be. And what I now know is that when they get stuck on the way out, the pain ramps up even further. They were finally removed after three attempts at the tail end of 2018, and since then I've just been trying to get everything back in order.
But I'm writing again -- a new book is slowly forming, and I'm really excited about it. It'll see me return to writing about Dundee, although many years before McNee showed up on the scene... yes, I'm writing about the past, and I'm hugely enjoying it. I just hope my publishers will like it!
I may also have a few other exciting projects on the go, so while I haven't seen many publications since Ed, please don't worry -- I'll be back! I'm so grateful, however, the superb community who've supported me through this. From my partner - the brilliant Lesley McDowell (go read her book, Unfashioned Creatures, and do it now!) - to my agent, Al Guthrie, and the publishers of Ed's Dead, the wonderful Saraband, along with many others, people have been hugely understanding.
But 2019 feels like a fresh start. Which is why I've updated a few areas of the website, and intend to try and keep this blog up to date with a mix of thoughts, writing tips, and general insanity.
Watch this space, folks. I'm baaaackk....
Anyone who's worked with me will know my love for author, agent and editor Allan Guthrie's superb essay, HUNTING DOWN THE PLEONASM, which is all about cutting the unnecessary from your work to make your voice and your story truly shine. It used to be hosted on the Hi Arts website, which has recently gone AWOL. However, since Al is actually my agent, I approached him and asked if I could possibly host the essay here on my website. Luckily, he agreed, and you can link to/download the essay (in pdf form) right here
The essay changed my writing for the better, and I know its worked for a number of authors who swear by it. And if you like that, you should check out Al's books - HARD MAN in particular remains a favourite of mine, but each and every one of them is a little slice of hardboiled wonder.
I may have covered or mentioned this in several places, but I think it bears repeating. Dialogue tags are important in writing prose - but not in the way you might think.
Over and over again, I come across characters who "extemporise" or "exclaim" or "pronounce", which just makes me cringe (and none more so than characters who "quip") as it draws attention to the dialogue that precedes the tag in an unwanted manner.
For example, when you have something like,
"I want to kiss you," he pronounced
You have a tag that adds a weird imagery to the dialogue. A pronouncement that seems like he's got on a soapbox to say it. Take it away, the dialogue feels more natural. Unless, the idea was that he was saying something in an unusual fashion (in which case, I would always say that surrounding detail should do the work - show us that he's pronouncing something by talking about his actions and tone).
Then you have,
"You're a damn moron," she quipped.
Where a) its clear that this is a joke or a witty aside from the words and the context and b) if we have to be told something's a quip, you might want to rewrite it so that it is a quip.
The thing with dialogue is that the words and the tone should immediately be able to conjure up the sound of the words and their meaning in the reader's head. Its an art, and a damn hard one at that, but writers should be able to convey tone and layers without getting lazy about it and drawing attention to themselves. And that's the thing - "said" is the invisible dialogue tag. It helps us identify who's speaking (which can help with knowing the way in which we should read a line of dialogue)
Here's a little bit from a work in progress where you'll see that for whole lines of dialogue I don't use tags except for said, and imply tone through both construction and details:
Silence for a moment. Parks takes a drink.
Stark says, “You knew Caulder?”
“The detective who killed himself? Only by reputation. You weren’t a fan.”
“Only to anyone who was in the morning briefing.”
Stark nods. Tight smile. Blood rushes from his lips. “I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
“A good quality.”
“For some people. That morning? I’m not so sure.”
“Its the reason we’re here, now.”
Parks nods. “I’m not some wide-eyed little boy coming into the polis, thinking its all about being Dixon of Dock Green or whatever. I’m not a fucking idiot.”
“With your father, that would be a disappointment.”
“He wasn’t a man who liked to be disappointed.”
“I can imagine.” Stark takes another drink. He keeps looking around, like he’s expecting to find someone watching them. But the evening drinkers are involved in their own conversations, or else their own pints. They don’t give a toss about the two men at the corner table. “So, Caulder’s where it starts. He was in bed with Kennedy. Professionally, I mean.”
That tight smile, for example, shows that Stark's trying for a joke but might be realising he's avoiding the truth. The fact that Stark looks around before starting his story about Caulder tells us that he's speaking confidentially, maybe even whispering. But the dialogue itself is what does the heavy lifting, and with no attention-calling tags to do the work, I think it works okay, especially for a first draft (one of those character names will be changing, given they're way too similar)
I recently re-read George Pelecanos's debut, A FIRING OFFENCE, where the dialogue is so good, Pelecanos rarely needs tags beyond said. Action and tone do all the heavy lifting, and the result is that the reader feels closer to the action because there are no words directing them how to feel - they're being shown it all the time. Its the same with the late, great Elmore Leonard - look at how many of his characters pronounce, proclaim,
Now, sometimes you will need a tag or two when something's unclear or you need to be specific, but using them all the time simply because you want to show that your vocabulary is larger than said has the opposite effect than the one you want: it gets in the way of your writing and trips you up. Its puts the artifice of your dialogue on display where, if you're good enough, the words that fall out of your character's mouths and their actions should be more than enough.
Which brings me to a final point - never ever have your characters "action" their dialogue.
By which I mean,
"That's great," he shrugged.
"God, I love you," she smiled.
These are actions, and not dialogue tags. Its impossible to shrug dialogue, although you can shrug while speaking.
The other thing about using "said" as a dialogue tag is that it will make you work harder at your dialogue so it reads natural, smooth and clean - if the tone and the intent are in the words, your dialogue will, believe me, sing off the page.
Clarity is king in my - forgive the pun - book. And one of the things that I find time and again when reading drafts is that people forget the reader is a book reader and not a mind reader - in other words the author assumes the reader knows what the author is thinking.
This stretches into pronoun usage in many cases - the author knows what they mean by "he" but it can be confusing to the reader. Take this example where two characters of the same sex are in a room at the same time (let's call them Ed and Fred)
Ed walked into the room and glowered at Fred. He looked at him for a long time until he couldn't take it any more and punched him in the face.
Now with a bit of work, you might work out who is doing what to who, but unless you're a mind reader you can't be one hundred percent which he the author means at all times.
Ed walked into the room and glowered at Fred. He glowered at the other man for a long time. Finally, Ed couldn't take it any more and punched Fred in the face.
The pronoun usually refers to the last person or object mentioned - unless it is perfectly clear that it doesn't (in the example above the first "he" clearly refers to Ed rather than Fred if we're in Ed's POV). But where it isn't clear you should be specific about who you are referring to. Sometimes this means you might have to change your sentence structure as in the example above.
But what's important is clarity. If you confuse your reader too often with unclear pronouns, chances are they're going to put your book down and go take an aspirin for the the headache.... before picking up another book which might be clearer and more comprehensible.
One of the extra-writing jobs I do on a freelance basis is slushpile reading for a few publishers. After a while you start to notice patterns in manuscripts, and one of the things I've noticed recently is a propensity to give character's body parts an odd level of autonomy, even in close POV.
His eyes looked at the table.
Her legs started sprinting across the street.
This is definitely a weird construction in any situation. Just trying saying that our loud and think about how it sounds. In most situations we know what body parts will do sprinting or looking, so all you're doing is filling empty space on the page; a huge sin.
Much easier to write:
He looked at the table
She sprinted across the street.
(Side note: there's no need to say "she started" unless something happened before she could really get going)
I think part of this is to do with thinking in terms of being specific - the author believes that they're somehow making things clear to the reader. But where is obvious to anyone (you don't have to be a scientist to know that a person hears with their ears) or its not about to lead to a big surprise (Her legs sprinted across the room - even after her upper body had been seperated from them by the killer's giant scythe) you don't need to be specific about what body parts are doing what; just what character is doing what.
I’m sure we’ve all encountered this remarkably overused but remarkably useful cliché (first coined in the sixties as a design principle by the US navy) but it’s amazing how many of us forget about it when it comes to writing fiction.
A panic often seems to set in about how writers should seek to use language in unusual and interesting ways. We start to think that we need to sound like writers; that every line must be a proclamation of our innate genius (signalled by the use of language in a “writerly” manner).
It’s possibly, in part, the fault of well-intentioned teachers who prescribe to programs like this in the mistaken belief that it’s the words we know and not how we use them contextually that matters within writing.
But such a writing philosophy means we end up with lines this:
“Hey, if I have five oranges in this hand, and five in the other, what do I have?” Alasdair inquired, his tone attempting to permeate the disconsolate atmosphere that had pervaded the preternaturally darkened room, and elevate the mood into the upper echelons of good humour.
That line, by the way, is influenced by genuine slush pile entries (but comes from none of them - the details are non specific to protect the innocent), all of which made the error of thinking that prose should be dense and “worthy”. But, here’s the thing, try reading that out loud. It’s impossible. The meaning is lost in the attempt at being sophisticated. And the sophistication is lost in the effort to use those “worthy” words.
Good prose should always feel natural on the tongue. Consider that audio books are a growing market. As my dad asked when he read an early draft of the manuscript would become my debut: “can you imagine Martin Jarvis reading this on CD?” My dad is, obviously, of a certain age. You might like to imagine David Tennant or Olivia Coleman, perhaps.
Attempting to “sound like a writer” ironically often disguises your voice and muddies the clarity of your storytelling. The above works much better when you do this (although I admit its still not great writing, but hey, this is an example only):
“Hey, if I have five oranges in this hand, and five in the other, what do I have?” Alasdair smiled warily as he spoke. You could cut the atmosphere in the room with a knife. Someone need to say something, to lighten the mood.
The difference here is that the language is plainer, and also more “inside” Gordon’s head (close POV is a hallmark of most modern fiction, whether told in third or first – or even second – person). Sure, “cutting the atmosphere with a knife” is a cliché, but it’s better than tying yourself in linguistic knots trying to sound profound (we’ll talk about clichés another day). Also note that Alasdair smiling warily not only eliminates the need for dialogue tags, but shows the reader that the character is making a joke, even if he’s uncertain about the reaction he’ll get. (“showing and not telling” is something we need to discuss, someday – again, its one of those how-to-write standards that is often misinterpreted).
The basic advice I would give is to keep your sentences clear, direct and simple. That is not to say you shouldn’t use sophisticated words at all, but rather that you should use them when contextually appropriate, and not only because you want to seem smart. We have large vocabularies because there are large contextual uses for them. The job of a writer – of anyone in communications, whether factual or fictional – is to use the right word in the right situation. Keep it clear. Keep it clean. Keep it simple.
Related to this, you should only use words that you are sure of the meaning of. The same goes with phrases, too. I have recently seen manuscripts use the word “nonchalant” to describe someone’s nose, and “translucent” to describe breasts; both of these uses of words sound great but mean something far different than the author intended.
On the theme of keeping things simple, there is a great resource that I point a lot of clients towards; an essay called HUNTING DOWN THE PLEONASM by Allan Guthrie (you may remember it from the previous post on this blog). The essay is an excellent and accessible guide to keeping your prose direct and simple, so that you can stop trying too hard and allow your prose to feel natural, sophisticated, and most of all, comprehensible to the reader.
As you'll know if you go to the bio page on this website, my agent is the most wonderful Allan Guthrie at Jenny Brown Associates. Al is one of those people who really knows and understands the craft of writing. We agree on a number of things, but I think that Hunting Down the Pleonasm may be one of the most practical and useful essays on the craft of line by line writing I've ever read. Simple, direct and actionable, its an essay I give to almost everyone I work with. Veterans newbie writers alike have found it to be useful. There's a link in a later blog post, as the old link is no longer working.