Films of 2016 – a pattern emerges…

Last year I saw more films in cinemas than I’ve seen in a year before – it’s quite a nice personal record to break (without specifically trying to I hasten to add), and I still missed some films I was pretty keen on. All in all I saw 55 films in cinemas in 2016, a full list can be found here if you’re interested.

While the real world was becoming less and less palatable, I thought the cinema was a jolly good place to hole up – it was a pretty good year all told, with not a single film walked out of. And the top five? The
order is pretty flexible except for the top spot:

1.      Sing Street

2.      Under The Shadow

3.      Green Room

4.      Your Name

5.      10 Cloverfield Lane

This year I’ve noticed a pattern in my choices, which is something I haven’t really been aware of before. Sing Street is, plot-wise, an unremarkable feel-good schoolkids-form-band tale. Under The Shadow and Green Room are pretty standard horror set-ups (though of wildly differing kinds). Your Name is a teen body-swap fantasy. These are all very well-worn set-ups or tropes. The general plot beats by and large aren’t that surprising (though there’s a twist in Your Name which I didn’t see coming at all). 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t fit quite so well into an archetype, but neither does it exactly re-invent the wheel.

This was a year where I really responded to genre being
embraced. All five films grip hold of genre preconceptions and use them to best advantage. They hone all the best elements of the films they remind me of or call back to or flat-out reference and then take them on that step further. They seem like they were made with a genuine love of their genres. Even just out of my top five this is apparent. Hell Or High Water is in my top ten of the year and was a love letter to a kind of Thriller that doesn’t seem to make waves much any more. Nocturnal Animals was also fantastic, with about 80% of the narrative being a pretty standard revenge thriller – albeit one featuring the two best male performances of the year.

Whether this is something changing in my tastes, a quirk of the year’s finest films, or just me trying to find a pattern in an end-of-year list, remains to be seen. I imagine I’ll see a similar number of films in 2017 so I’ll refer back to this in a year’s time.

In the meantime, happy cinema-ing and let me know what your favourite film of the year was.

Oh, by the by, Sing Street and Green Room are on Netflix right now so I’d strongly recommend watching them if you haven’t seen them already. Let me know what you think. 



Videogame Gothic

I mentioned the game Layers of Fear in a previous post. I hadn’t played it but was looking forward to trying a horror game that didn’t become merely stressful. I have most definitely played it now (twice – it’s sensibly short) plus its dlc and enjoyed it very much. In fact the game was the subject of the last Conversation Tree Podcast episode (which I co-host) and I’d like to expand on a few of those thoughts and broaden out to include a few more games.

If you haven’t listened to the episode (and it’s worth it – Lyd loses her shit at the subtext of the game) one of the main things I spoke about was how Layers of Fear fitted very snugly in the gothic tradition. And further still, I idly wondered if games could be the best medium yet for the genre?

Let’s backtrack a little. What does gothic actually mean as a genre label? I went to a great exhibition on gothic at The British Library a couple of years ago and there was a definition from Neil Gaiman along the lines of:

‘If the book cover could feature a woman wearing a nightie, holding a candelabra, running away from a mansion at night, and the windows of the mansion are dark except for one at the top… and in that window is the silhouette of a man…then it’s definitely gothic.’

There’s more to it than that of course, but it’s a good starting point. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto set the genre in motion with an apparently found historical manuscript detailing the plight of a woman exploring a ruined castle beset by spirits. Ancient buildings, the supernatural and ancient tomes are all key features. There’s an otherness too, an atmosphere of slow, dawning doom. Or does doom set rather than dawn?

A great recent film example is Crimson Peak (which I also wrote about). This ticks all the boxes, with Mia Wasikowska’s ghost-seeing ingenue beguiled by Tom Hiddlestone’s aristocrat-with-a-secret. She’s whisked away to his crumbling ancestral home that he shares with his austere sister. Blood red clay oozes through the floorboards. There are mysterious documents and recordings, and the whole place seems ready to morph into The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the twitch of a cloak. There’s a knowing morbidity which stays, for me at any rate, just shy of descending into camp or kitsch.

In Layers of Fear you play as an artist trying to finish his masterpiece: a portrait of his wife. He’s dealing with tragedy and completing this painting is his attempt to move on, but all is not well. As you walk through the house to gather the materials you need fragments of letters and scrawled notes reveal an unhappy home and encroaching madness. The house starts to reshape itself, becoming more and more labyrinthine and ruined as the painting nears completion. Ordinary objects are possessed. A ghost stalks the halls. And the materials you are scavenging? Flesh, hair, bone, blood.

A lot of games have used trappings of the gothic in their presentation – the Castlevania series is an obvious example, stuffed as it is with vampires and gargoyle-studded castles. That’s surface detail though; the Castlevania games don’t have gothic right through the core experience.

The core of Layers of Fear is about something reaching out of the past that the player/artist must confront and either overcome or succumb to. There isn’t much more to it than that – there’s no combat, a few puzzles, little gameplay in the traditional, now almost antiquated, meaning. And boy does it have the gothic trappings.

The house crumbles around you as you investigate. PT is the obvious comparison gameplay-wise, but where that involved looping through the same two corridors with minor changes each time, Layers of Fear substitutes a constantly shifting geography to echo the mental descent of the main character into some kind of psychosis. Reach a locked door, turn around and the corridor behind you has changed into a claustrophobic room. Try the other door which has appeared and find it’s also locked. Turn again and the room has changed once more. You can’t trust the house or the artist.

Bioshock is a spectacular example that works both in more traditional gameplay and in fusing the gothic right into its core. Rapture is effectively a gothic castle, isolated, largely abandoned and haunted by thudding armoured apparitions accompanied by scuttling ethereal girls. Audio logs piece together the history of Rapture, which is itself coming apart at the seams, and you are in a way piecing together something of yourself. These aren’t optional collect-for-a-trophy audio logs, these are crucial for continuing. Finding out the secrets of Rapture is the point of the game – shooting splicers is the set dressing.

This idea of finding out the history of a seemingly abandoned space is one which games do very well. Recent horrors Soma and Alien Isolation play with this to mixed effect – Soma rather better for my money, though the first half of Alien Isolation is a pretty spectacular experience. In both there’s a supernatural horror stalking the sci fi corridors, a personal history to unravel. Alien Isolation is less satisfying because that personal history is less integral to the experience. It’s a macguffin which, rather perplexingly, is resolved half way through.

Witcher 3 played with the gothic well too – it does everything well, so it’s probably not much of a surprise. Even in a game stuffed full of supernatural beasties the quest to Fyke Isle that sees Geralt strolling into an abandoned, crumbling, isolated tower is the gothic nadir. In true genre fashion it’s a story of a doomed romance told by ghostly apparitions, and it does not end well.

Games excel at creating architecture to explore – they’re better at it than any other medium (apart from experiential theatre perhaps, but the architecture is more limited by reality there). Stuff it full of ancient tomes, scribbled notes or audio diaries that illuminate the history of the place, and you’re well on your way to the gothic. Turn the lights down low, make sure the location’s history is intrinsic to the player character in some way and you’re even closer. A sprinkling of the supernatural, a sense that things aren’t going to end well and… yum.

It’s often said that cinema was the best medium for the gothic in the 20th century. In the 21st it is surely going to be videogames.


Let’s Play Hunt-The-Agent

And hope they’re playing Hunt-The-Writer…

Well-thumbed and much fretted-over...

Well-thumbed and much fretted-over…

This is the latest in my series charting my misadventures as I try to get published for the first time. In the last post I promised I’d write about researching literary agents, and that’s the topic for today. But first…

Yay me! I finished the (re-re-re-)redraft. Every sentence is shiny and polished and ready to parade its wares in front of an agent, so huzzah! Today has been spent buffing my query letter (more on that in the future) and tomorrow will be redrafting my synopsis. And then… off we go.

Back to the topic at hand: agents. Those who know me or have been paying attention to previous posts will know that I trained and worked(ish) for a few years as an actor, so I’m well versed in writing query letters to acting agents. I always found it to be a fairly soulless part of the job and had been dreading this part of the publishing process. The trouble is that I found it impossible to really tell whether an acting agent would be any good for me (this was before Twitter, so maybe it’s got a bit easier now… maybe). Essentially all I wanted to know was whether any of their clients ever got any work, and all I could really tell them was that I wanted work and had been in this or that and by-the-way-come-and-see-this-play-I’m-doing.

There were various bibles for actors to consult full of agents to approach, and the same is true with literary agents. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook seems to be the biggie, so that’s where I started with a somewhat heavy heart. Once I’d discounted all the lit agencies that don’t deal in fiction or only deal in historical romance or whatnot, I was left with a fairly hefty number of agencies to look at. Fortunately most of them have websites, so off to internet-land I went, and I discovered an amazing thing. They seem to want to find decent writers. By and large they actually seem properly engaged in the hunt for talent and new voices. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I never ever got that impression from acting agents (maybe I’m just being cynical – I did have an agent for a bit though, so it’s not all sour grapes).

From that discovery, it was then pretty exciting to research particular agents at agencies, starting with a look at their blurb about what they like on the company’s website, to add them to the ‘maybe’ or ‘no’ piles. Then I took the ‘maybe’ pile a step further and looked at the authors and books they represented and whether I’d be a good fit with them (reading some excellent and some miserable debut novels in the process) and any interviews I could dig up. Also, a good bit of Twitter-stalking helped shortlist a few of my maybes.

So now I’ve got a shortlist of nearly twenty agents, each from different agencies. Some people caution against sending loads of queries, others encourage it. Some even say to send only one query out at a time. Bearing in mind most agencies say to allow six to eight weeks to hear back I’ve decided to go with the middle ground. I’ve got four agents at the absolute top of my list, all of whom specify they’re interested in launching new writers and sound like a good fit for A Calling-on Song in terms of genre and market. When I’ve finished up my last little bits of redrafting on the query letter and synopsis I’ll send them the goods and see what happens.

Which will be really bloody soon.

And then I’m going to have an excruciating wait as I bide my time (if you don’t hear within eight weeks assume it’s a no, is the general consensus) before sending out the next batch. So. How do you deal with that kind of nerve shredding anticipation? I’m going to attempt to lose myself in redrafting another novel, but I just know it’ll be hard to concentrate. Any tips?

I’ll post any news here if and when I hear it of course, and will go into a bit more detail about my query letter next time.

It Took You How Long?

A while, my friends, a goodly while.

There have been a lot of these.

There have been a lot of these.

This is the second in my regular series following progress as I gear up to sending a novel off to agents for the first time, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to give a bit of background on the journey so far. The long long journey.

I’ve been a long-time advocate of National Novel Writing Month, so those who know me might be forgiven for thinking this novel was dashed off in a month but, as NaNoWriMo themselves say, it’s not quite that simple. NaNoWriMo helped me write the beginning, middle and end of something for the first time. It gave me the confidence and some of the tools necessary to turn an idea into something vaguely novel-shaped. Vaguely is the important word here.

This novel started life in 2007 when I was just beginning to explore writing for fun. I wrote 20,000 meandering words with only a very loose sense of what was going on and no sense of where it was heading. As with a couple of other projects I’d started, it then languished on a hard drive for a while, unloved but not forgotten. In the interim I discovered NaNoWriMo and in 2009 and 2010 wrote a pair of pretty short novels in a month each. I was excited with having got to the end of things finally and was starting to think more seriously about actually doing something with my writing. That in turn raised the dread spectre of redrafting, so to distract myself I returned to the idea that kept popping back into my head, the one that had budded and sprouted and grown in my imagination in the intervening years. Yeah, the one languishing on 20,000 directionless words on a semi-corrupted hard drive. In 2011 I used NaNoWriMo to finish it and ended up with a 70,000 word first draft. It even had a name finally: A Calling-on Song.

All this time I was learning more about the writing process, about breaking things down into scenes, about goals and stakes and obstacles and all that good stuff. And so, after another hiatus and plenty more research, I finally felt ready to tackle a redraft. I’ve no idea how long it actually took, but somewhere in the region of six months later it had ballooned out to a 110,000 word second draft. A quick note for the uninitiated – the general consensus is that debut novels should be around 90,000 words if a publisher is going to consider them. That’s somewhere around 350 pages. Rules do, of course, exist to be broken.

I let it sit for a while, distracting myself with yet more projects (an important part of the process which I may discuss in a future post), then in 2013 tackled the third draft to tighten it all up and kill a few of those lovely lovely darlings. I finished in October, ready to plough straight into a nice shiny new novel for NaNoWriMo, but by now I felt like I was getting somewhere. My wife, also an aspiring writer, had provided some invaluable feedback on the second draft (no-one saw the first draft but me) and now I felt like it was time to gather a few outside views. After all, it’s hard to look at something completely objectively when it’s been floating around in your head for six years.

So that’s where I am now. I’m in the process of collecting that feedback and next week will begin the fourth draft. From the opinions so far this should be a much quicker redraft, so hopefully by the end of March I’ll be ready to submit. To whom? How? I shall be covering all this and more in future posts.

How about you? How long have your novels or other creative projects been going on? Do you like having multiple things on the boil at once, or do you need something to be drafted, redrafted and redrafted again before you can contemplate moving on?