Method Writing

944620_10151825472503200_1656221356_nYou’ve heard of Method Acting, where an actor “lives” his character even off set. (Daniel Day-Lewis spent months in a wheelchair for “My Left Foot”, although I hope Anthony Hopkins didn’t take it too far during “Silence of the Lambs”.) I’m a Method Writer.

Method writing is where, as an author, you do your R&D by doing the same things your characters do. In thriller fiction, that means you climb vertical walls, jump out of planes, explore dark alleys late at night and treat the London landscape as as free-runner’s playground. (That’s me in the skydiving pic – in the middle of the FC*, yellow striped jumpsuit.)

Several prepress proofers have commented my protagonist is an amped-up version of me. Not an ex-cop, not ex-military, just a normal business consultant with an unusually self-actualised approach to … reading stuff on the Internet and putting it into practice.

Perhaps it’s why my first novel’s a thriller, rather than my natural preference for sci-fi: I can’t exactly take a One-Day starship piloting experience as research material. (Ouch, just realised how limiting that sounds. Of course I can; there’s a dozen great space-trading MMORPGs out there.) But if this book’s to be any good, I believe the second-most important thing (after telling a good story) is to get out there and do what you’re writing about for real.

 

* FC = Funky Chicken. A “random” skydiving formation usually done as a celebration. (In this case my 50th jump some time back.)

Free

This weekend I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time: got rid of all my books.

Well, not all of them. A couple of cherished volumes remain. An edition of Ulysses I was given at 16;  a few textbooks peppered with notes from b-school; rather too many graphic novel trade paperbacks, my guilty pleasure. (If you so much as think Kapow or Biff, I’ll hunt you down; “Sandman” and “100 Bullets” are high art.) But I think I’ll get rid of even those, in time.

Because I’ve completed the transition.

All those word-filled bricks everyone keeps forever – because they’ve owned them since teenhood, or make a shelf look dressed, or plan to read sometime but never get around to – are now boxed up into giveaways.

My literary life’s now entirely digital, and I couldn’t be happier.

My KindleI came late to Kindle, buying a fondlepad only in 2011. But now there’s a hundred volumes on there, including a fair few I owned already and bought again for the convenience, and it’s started me reading again because it’s just so simple. I don’t pay heed to the Booker list or Times Literary Supplement; too new (literature needs time to let the good bits bubble up) and the pop-science works are too bulky when released and out of date when they reach paperback. Business strategy books come and go, and any good review gives you their main ideas; ninety-nine out of a hundred you never need to read and even fewer are worth keeping, while investment texts tend towards thousand-page epics that put too much weight in my backpack. My Kindle is as close as I’ll ever get to an addiction, because…

I’m all about the kilograms.

Minimalists don’t own much. Storing everything I own during a year away took a single lock-up cube a metre and a half along each side. And most of that – eight 50cm cardboard boxes, about four hundred kilos – was bookware, the old fashioned ink-on-paper sort with spines that crease and dogears that take decades to delete themselves.

The photographs I own that use paper as their substrate… fit into a small worn envelope. I haven’t bought a single CD since I came back to the UK early this century; all went onto my hard disk years back. I don’t buy DVDs any more; what’s the point in the era of LoveFilm and NetFlix? (And the 400 or so I bought in more stuff-obsessed times fit into two wallets if you strip away the boxes.)

But books … they were my last holdout. About six hundred of them, masses of fiction and nonfiction amassed over thirty years.

The travel guides went first. In a summer of injury I surfed the globe in DK’s illustrated technicolour instead, and never lost the habit. But they’re gone now. Then textbooks, many on stuff that just interested me at the time: molecular biology, nuclear physics, electronics and nanotechnology and supramolecular chemistry. A step closer to the bestseller lists came the popsci: Gleick and Deutsch and Dawkins, papery chaos reduced to bits and forced into extinction. Then a torrent of penguins: Dickens to Melville and and Burroughs to Pynchon, Shakespeare to Thompson and Wolfe. (Not because I don’t want them, but because I’ve got them in a format without heft or inertia; classics in particular cost pennies in e-book format.) Gibbon was declined, and fell; no element of Euclid had solid reason to remain choate; Plato and Aristotle failed to justify their existence. Old Oxford anthologies – monster kilobricks of two thousand pages apiece, six of them – crumbled into memories flakier than a Don’s potato. MBA Required Readings got skipped; Operations textbooks were surgically removed.

With every handful heaved cartonwards, I felt a little more free.

And I hope this is the way we’re all going.

A state of mind where we can all be free. Footloose and open to opportunities, living lives free of compromise beholden to no-one.

Free of the suffocating paperstuff that weighs us down and anchors us in one place because it creates too much inertia to do anything else.

Too many educated people are in thrall to their libraries, their natural impulses to explore held in check by the gravitational pull of a hundred groaning bookshelves. I’ve seen apartments in this town where every wall is covered and doors only open as far as the stacks huddled behind them allow. Old people yellowing in synchronicity with the foxing on ancient hardbacks: best case = lost in the words they love as their lives trundle towards midnight, worst case = trapped by them and prevented from giving the world beyond a last hurrah. I’ve seen young people already circumscribed by what they own, life choices inexorably narrowed because they’ve got too much stuff to carry around.

Where are they going? To the Sahara. There’s a lot of decent reading in there, and a charity’s willing to take them off my hands. A part of the world where, sadly, too many maniacs with too few ideas are running amok. Men who follow an apocalyptic antithesis of my idea: that only one book matters, and no other knowledge should be allowed.

They burn ancient libraries that give the lie to Africa being a land of oral tradition. They shoot girls in the head for going to school. They contort ancient beliefs into laws that benefit themselves, and rule by terror and blood. These men must be stopped.

Perhaps by throwing a few hundred kilograms of books into the endless desert, a boy who’d otherwise pick up an AK and a headful of hate will pick up a book instead. And step onto another path.

Perhaps today, I’m stopping one bullet from being fired in ten years’ time. And that can only be a good thing.

“Looper”: sheer loopiness

And this week’s Sneak-Out Wednesdays movie is… Looper!

For the first 30 minutes, I honestly thought it was a turkey. It commits that laziest of all directorial sins: the narrative track that explains the film for those in the audience who shouldn’t really be let out unsupervised. (“I’m too untalented to show you, so I’m going to read it out instead.”) It probably came from a focus group rather than the Director’s hand, but it’s intensely annoying nonetheless.

Fortunately, after the first half hour the director gets the upper hand over the focus group again (there’s definitely going to be a Director’s Cut) and it turns into this amazing piece of art. Tarantino on his best day would have trouble getting close.

I didn’t come with high expectations. Time travel films annoy me, travelling the arrow backwards being one of the few things that’s really impossible. But let’s face it, a world where Bruce Willis speaks French and Mandarin is already pushing the disbelief scale skywards…. and the subgenre’s so full of hackneyed cliches I didn’t think there’d be much creativity here.

But somehow Rian Johnson pulls some real characters out of the Kansas canesugar. It’s believable how a young runaway might grow up into a jobbing assassin trained to kill without motive or reason and think himself the Man for doing it. There are the right motives for jumping into a time machine when you’ve got a chance to escape. The whole narrative is well-constructed and pretty coherent within its own frame of reference. (Although I’d have taken a gun back with me, Bruce.)

The way Joseph Gordon-Levitt presumably trained for days (possibly fixed in post) to get just the look of a young Bruce Willis in his eyes for one of the film’s opening sequences … the way his older self might still find the killer within him unreconstructed after all… I’m not giving anything away here; this much is in the trailer and voiceover. But there’s a couple of not-quite-foreseeable plot twists – and I left the cinema happy. 8/10, Rian Johnson.

SNS Special Alert: Long Live Science

Mark Anderson of the SNS Newsletter has used the successful MSL landing to skycrane this poignant piece into the rarified atmosphere of public science awareness. It’s aimed at a US audience, but with religionists and public sector workers – and worse, those who misguidedly pander to their reality distortion fields – on the march in the UK too, it has relevance here too. Here it is in full.

To All SNS Members:

Many of you have already written in asking for permission to re-distribute this piece.  Please feel free to distribute to as many people and publications as you wish, with the caveat that it be complete, and have attribution.  I hope it does good in larger circles – and thank you for your willingness to do so. – mra.

To Our Members:

As you are no doubt aware, at 1:38 a.m. this morning, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech succeeded in landing a one-ton rover named Curiosity on the surface of Mars.  This effort required years of scientific, technical and engineering preparation, resulting in a novel multi-stage process for getting heavy equipment onto the red planet, rife with steps which, if any failed, would likely cause mission failure.

The landing occurred without a single problem, including minutes during the critical last phases of the flight when the spacecraft was out of communications with Earth and ran autonomously.

While this effort will no doubt have a great impact in improving our knowledge of the Mars geology and surface, including habitability for future human missions, and perhaps information on past life in the targeted crater, there is a deeper meaning to this effort:

Science is reality.

At a time when a large and increasing fraction of the U.S. population does not “believe in” science (i.e., objectively provable reality) – or, worse, has bought into the idea that science is just one choice on the reality menu – NASA has again given concrete reason to understand that science works, and that science is not an option, not a theory, not a menu item, but instead represents the finest efforts of human minds in understanding, and addressing, objective reality.

Those on Earth who currently think that science is a political football should take note: not only are you endangering your own reputation, you are endangering the welfare of your constituents, and today, of the planet itself.

Any person or party which mocks science should be considered for what he or it is: a threat to the welfare and future of us all.  Under the influence of political propagandists, misled religious zealots, and truly dangerous television and radio empires (such as Fox (Not) News and Rush Limbaugh), too many people today have been led to believe that science is in some way an option to opinion.

Science is as optional as gravity.  Ignorance is the only real option.

It is time for the U.S. to catch back up to the world in this matter, and recognize the value of scientific study and theory, the use of scientific consensus in guiding public policy, and the wonders that we can achieve when we abandon self-aggrandizing political fantasy in favor of objective scientific knowledge.

We should use this marvelous achievement to create a new cultural change in the United States, returning us to the group intelligence of past eras, when no one doubted that an experiment, done with the same result several times, demonstrated an objective truth.  Not an opinion, not a religious position, not a political chip, but another addition to human scientific knowledge.

The world owes much to the people of NASA, of JPL, and to the taxpayers of the U.S., who have achieved the most important step in space exploration yet attempted.  This was done by a willing and informed government, working with private contractors, paid for with taxes.  It stands as one of the greatest of tributes to human intelligence yet achieved, shoulder to shoulder with decoding the human genome.

I highly recommend that you take a moment to watch the scene inside JPL headquarters in Pasadena, as Curiosity makes its way safely to the Martian surface.  We owe a great deal to those pictured in their moment of triumph, and citizens of the U.S. owe it to themselves, if they wish to remain a great nation, to put a rapid end to the rise of ignorance in their country which threatens scientific endeavor, and the acceptance of scientific findings.

Our thanks go out to all of the people who, using Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, just flew a car-sized laboratory across the solar system, landed it safely at the end of four lines under a crane under a rocket under a parachute, to bring us yet more scientific knowledge about the world.

It is time for all Earth inhabitants to recognize the value of science.  In doing so, we will find common ground for agreeing on other important things.

Here is the video:

<http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=149948191>

Long live Science.
Sincerely,

Mark Anderson
CEO, Strategic News Service

When does a good concept make a bad ad?

One of these ads is good. The other one is bad. Why?

Pope and ImamThe concept is classic Benetton: shocking and iconic. This time it’s about clashing cultures. The first execution – the Pope kissing a Muslim cleric – is shocking in the right way, because it’s got a message: two religions not noted for their, er, *tolerance of alternative lifestyles* coming together in a liplock.

Fair enough. Even if you recognise the individuals, this isn’t an ad about two men; it’s about two belief systems coming together, and that’s a reasonable subject for an ad campaign.

(Actually, since both believe in supernatural beings it’s really only one belief system, but we’ll let that pass.)

The second ad, however – featuring Hu Jintao and Barack Obama – isn’t a good ad. Because this time, the execution isn’t about a clash of cultures, however different China and the US may be. It’s now just an ad about two straight men having a gay kiss, no more shocking than party lesbians in the West End on a Saturday night. (Well, OK, just a bit more shocking.)

And the message is lost, overshadowed by the actors.

Just goes to show: a campaign concept can so easily be obscured if you don’t get the execution exactly right.

In a display of the same intolerance both religions display towards gay men in real life, the Pope/Imam execution’s apparently been withdrawn after complaints.  (Benetton won’t mind; nothing builds a brand like having your ad campaign in the headlines.) While the politicians can continue slurping away, although I’m surprised Chavez the Chavster hasn’t said anything yet…

News of the World to close on Sunday

So what are we to make of it? Perhaps – just perhaps – that lynch mob justice works.

The News of the World, with its phone-hacking shenanigans, is to close on Sunday, and not a day too soon. Newspapers tapping phones, buying information from cops, and politicians too scared to do anything about it. Parliament, most of whose 651 members have been put on the rack by this newspaper at some point, has been in spluttering uproar for days… perhaps sensing blood, and that the time was right to give some of it back.

I think this story, ultimately, was about one thing. Journalists are great at dishing out the dirt on people… but very poor at taking it. Unable to accept their methods weren’t in anyone’s interest but theirs, phone-hacking became an accepted technique, unquestioned by the people doing it. It’s an attitude shared by many in newsrooms: I still remember my surprise when a letter written to the Daily Mail many, many years ago brought not an acceptance or rejection, but a personal note from the newspaper’s editor telling me (scoldingly) how wrong I was.

Has mob justice, for once, worked? This didn’t need a law change; phone hacking is illegal. It didn’t need new penalties; those for interfering with a crime scene (arguably the case if a kidnapped girl’s mobile phone messages have been deleted) are already severe. It’s notable that without public outrage nothing would have happened here. Look back at the scandal, and look at the cross-connections. Police strangely reluctant to investigate? Well, a fair few of them were making a nice little income selling confidential information to journalists. Politicians without a taste for looking deeper? All of them scared they’d be investigated by Murdoch’s titles. We’ve got institutional breakdown here.

What is clear is just what a couple of tough bastards Mssrs. Murdoch and Brooks are. (As if we needed further proof.) No sentimentality: when they saw the scandal was engulfing an arm of their business to a degree it’d never recover from, they shut it down. One of the UK’s biggest-circulating and most profitable newspapers. They shrugged and tied a tourniquet on its bloody stump. That’s what it takes to succeed in business at this level: a will and resolve shared by very, very few.