Saturday, 15 August 2015

Opening Chapters: Trap, Pamper or Gatekeeper.

First chapters of a novel -- or indeed the first paragraph, first sentence, first word -- are very important; every writer knows it to be true. We sweat and labour over them like you wouldn't believe. Blood has been known to be spilled getting the first chapter just right, and it's not always the author's! Often the last thing to be completed on a novel is the first chapter. Every author wants the reader to finish their book because, hot damn, they spent a year+ of their lives writing the bloody thing -- a year that could have been spent drinking beer, playing with the kids, having kids, listening to music, flicking cards against a wall or getting a degree in economics -- and to have them stumble at the first chapter, well that's just wrong. They want the reader to like the book so they will pick up his or her next book, and the one after that, and the one after that. Also, canny readers who still frequent book shops (heroes, even single one of them) will often pooh-pooh the cover and the back-cover blurb and go straight to the first chapter to see if it's really what they're looking for; and if it isn't, well back onto the shelf the book goes and on they search.

But here's the thing: there are three types of opening chapter.

The first type is what I shall call the Trap Chapter.

The Trap chapter is there to capture the reader's attention, preferably in the first sentence. Usually the Trap chapter will start in the middle of the action, or present the reader with a mystery that won't be resolved until much later in the novel; maybe not until the very end of the novel. Descriptions and dialogue are often terse and to the point, sometimes verging on the daft, or overly-dramatic. Lots of exclamation points! Thrillers, mystery, horror and adventure novels often use a Trap Chapter in the hope of hooking the reader into the narrative. "What happens next?" screams the reader in frustration. “Give it to me now!” Ha ha, you've gotta wait, chummy! The problem is that sometimes the Trap has been tacked on simply for that purpose: to get that credit card out of your wallet, and it's not until you reach the end of the book that you realise that the Trap was either addressing a relatively minor aspect of the book, or it simply had nothing to do with the story at all, or failed to resolve the mystery in a satisfying way. You've been duped, buddy!

Books with Trap opening chapters are NEVER found on coffee tables, and infrequently in bookcases, as if one is ashamed to be seen with them, but frequently in bedrooms, on aeroplanes, trains and beaches. Such books are usually given away with undue haste and later found in jumble sales and charity stores. They are often well-thumbed, with broken spines and more than a few coffee stains. Their authors usually live in yachts floating somewhere off the coast of the Caribbean, or chalets in Switzerland.

Next up, the Pamper Opening Chapter.

Unlike the Trap Chapter, the Pamper Opening Chapter is there to beguile the reader with its sheer beauty: the beauty of the prose, the beauty of the characters; the lyrical, almost poetic dialogue, although the novel might not actually be about beautiful things but about war and nastiness, because war and nastiness can be beautiful too, you know, if you look at them in a certain way. Pamper chapters are usually well written, maybe over-written, and the description of a sunset over a lake can take up as much as two pages, bombarding the reader with such sights and smells that they can actually imagine themselves being there. The power of nostalgia and wanting is important here.

Such books are often found on coffee tables just after their glowing release, and then quickly bundled away when their star has faded, or, in the bookshop’s recommended section if they have endured. Their authors live in North London.

And then, finally, there's the Gatekeeper Opening Chapter.

The Gatekeeper opening chapter is the opposite of the Trap. It's like a test the reader has to endure, an obstacle course of words that needs to be cleared before the rest of the book opens up. In essence, the gatekeeper opening chapter says: if you can get through this, then you're ready to proceed. Often the opening sentence will be about something really clever that will make the reader's mind boggle and think "wow, this writer is one damn clever cat, I better read more, it might rub off on me", but for the life of him he won't be able to actually fathom what the chapter was about, and take that to be a sign of his own stupidity, because it had to mean something really deep, man. In fact the whole chapter will make little or no sense, but give a veneer of logic and intelligence that the reader of these novels will be irresistibly drawn to. Quite possibly the narration will be occurring in the head of a person in a mental asylum, or a wounded soldier on a battle field, ruminating on the craziness and futility of life, or even from the perspective of an inanimate object, like a pencil sharpener. Things will pop in and out of reality and the dead will talk riddles and dogs will talk philosophy. Dialogue will be obtuse and sentences will be constructed in such a way that nobody will ever be able to tell if they're actually well written or not. By the end of reading the first chapter – or indeed the opening paragraph – one will probably have a throbbing headache; but that will be perceived to be a good thing in that the brain has just received a judicious stretching.

Such books are always found on coffee table, often with a bookmark placed about quarter of the way in, but the pages are pristine, as if no human thumb has ever thumbed them. They have usually won many major literary prizes and their authors live a perilous existence in Parisian garrets, chain-smoking Gauloises and drinking espressos outside Shakespeare & Company on the Rue de la Bûcherie while they fix the hole in their shoe with a stale croissant.

Of course this is all very tongue-in-cheek nonsense, or is there some truth to it? Hmmm. You decide.

Friday, 3 July 2015

On Dragons.

Its official, dragons are getting bigger. Look at medieval woodcuts of the fabled beastie and you'll notice they were about the size of a spaniel, but now they've grown to the size of a house, or even a jumbo jet, and with every passing year they get bigger. At this rate they'll be the size of the moon by the time Apple have invented the iFingernail, and there's no sign of them stopping there.

Dragons are also (and we're talking here about the European dragon rather than the Asian one) scaly and often come, Dungeons & Dragons style, colour coded. Red ones breathe fire, blue ones electricity, green ones poison or just a lot of snot. There's silver ones (really important) and gold ones (even more important) and platinum ones (a dragon king), but the poor bronze ones get the cold shoulder and the less said about the tin one the better. They have long tails and snouts, long leathery wings and sly yellow reptile eyes that can see in the dark.

Dragons are really really brainy, but they're also really really greedy, which means they can easily be tricked, just so long as you're good at playing tricks and doing riddles and such. If you're bad at tricks and lousy at riddles...well, let's just say if you can't do the Times' cryptic crossword in under fifteen minutes then you're as good as lunch. Brainy dragons can often speak numerous human tongues and Mensa-level dragons are usually telepathic, which makes it easier for them to speak because dragons find forming human words difficult and often sound like they're speaking while chewing on a mouthful of bowling balls.

Dragons (at least post-cocker-spaniel age dragons) eat herds of cows or sheep, and sometimes even chickens or flocks of ducks straight out of the sky, but what they really like is a nice juicy maiden. Oh, they go crazy for that finger-licking maiden taste; but every meal has its expiry date, and when the maiden is no longer a maiden the dragon quickly loses interest in eating her, which is good news for the ex-maiden. The trouble is finding a maiden in the first place, so the wise dragon will usually resort to harassing the nearest town or village until they do the job for him and give up one of their own. Said poor damsel is then usually tied to a stake or rock outside of the town, where the dragon then usually takes the time to "air-out" the damsel somewhat (all the blubbing and crying makes them quite bitter), by which time a gallant knight has ridden past, killed the dragon and rescued the damsel from both her bonds and her maidenhood. 

Some have theorised that dragons aren't actually after the damsel at all, but after the knight, using the hapless maiden as nothing more than bait to lure the knight to him, desiring the tasty novelty of tinned meat. After all tinned meat keeps for a long time. Some have also postulated that maybe the dragons aren't male at all, but mostly female, which means they are more attracted to male virgins than female. This cannot be proven as nobody has yet managed to look under a dragon's tail and live to tell the tale.

Not all dragons are evil, some have given up eating maidens (or tinned meat) and gone veggie. A few of the really dumb ones allow stupid humans to ride on their backs they like they were some sort of winged taxi, but in truth any dragon with a shred of pride wouldn't allow a semi-evolved ape to ride on their back, let alone tell them where to go, even if they paid them all the compliments in the world, and gave them all the treasure too.
But where do dragons come from? From whence did they spring? Did ancient man come across the bones of dinosaurs and summoned up dragons by wondering what sort of beasts they belonged to, or did some mariner tell tall stories about the strange beasts he saw in far off lands? Of course in olden days dragons were often called wyrms, so maybe they're the projection of the reptilian parts of the human brain, or could it be that a grass snake gave someone a fright, and as every fisherman knows, no story would be complete without at least a little exaggeration.

Or are dragons something completely different? Maybe they were never real to begin with, but are simply metaphors for all that is powerful and uncaring in the world: huge, incredible strong, inhuman, reptilian, consuming all and breathing fire that destroys everything it touches. They lay the ground waste, reduce whole towns to ash, eat the young and the innocent without remorse and enslave all that they can bend to their considerable will.  Does these not sound like the attributes of certain persons who desire power, and will do anything (and sacrifice anyone) to gain it and then keep it? We shouldn't be surprised that dragons are often associated with kings and rulers and the very powerful, even to vampires, who are themselves metaphors for the rich and powerful. As the anxieties and pressures of the modern age grow, so does the popularity -- and size -- of dragons. They're almost neck-for-neck. In all good stories the hero slays the dragon, or tames him and flies off into the sunset on his back, and maybe this is the wishful thinking of the common folk: that every dragon can be tamed, or if not tamed, slain. But as we all know, dragons can slumber for thousands of years, and they will always awaken when we least expect it. And they are always hungry. 

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Thoughts on Star Wars, Star Trek and Thunderbirds.

(Note: I wrote this article a few weeks ago, before the Avengers 2 and the new Star Wars VII trailer were released, but I thought I'd put it up to get this blog started.)

Star Wars.

A recent perusal of the shelves of a Forbidden Planet in London made me come to the conclusion that if Disney isn't careful, they're going to kill the Star Wars franchise deader than anything George Lucas could have done (and he had a pretty good go at it), simply by over-exposing it. How many more comic books are Marvel intending on launching? Is there going to be a Han Solo #1? C3PO #1? How about Salacious Crumb#1, or even The Adventures of Jar Jar Binks #1? And then there's the novels, the computer games, merchandising and whatnot, not to mention the actual films, of course, of which they're planning on squeezing out one a year. Yes, I'm as interested as everyone else to see what Part VII is going to be like (I wouldn't say excited yet), but all fans have a breaking point, and if they feel they're being treated like idiots they'll turn their backs on Star Wars and go elsewhere. Maybe I'm wrong and it will turn out that the fans have an insatiable demand for all things Star Wars, but all it takes is a few stinkers and the Star Destroyer will go straight down into Endor, just like it did in Part VI.

I hope this doesn't happen because I love myself a bit of Star Wars, with some notable exceptions (I'm looking at you Return of the Jedi), and I hope I get to see a few more good Star Wars movies before my midichlorion count reaches zero and I do an "Obi-Wan" style fade-out.

Another worry for me regarding the new Star Wars film is that this time George Lucas is completely missing from the creative process. Whatever people say about the Prequel Trilogy (and they said some real nasty things), without George there would have been no Star Wars, and for me the world belongs to him. For all its many flaws the Prequel Trilogy actually contains a very powerful message and does things that no other Hollywood studio would dare do, either then or now. This was only possible because Lucas financed all the films (bar the first one) himself. Now that George Lucas has been put out to pasture, can Star Wars retain that story telling daring, its identity, or will it become just more homogenised Hollywood pap? We won't know the answer to that one until December.

Star Trek.

Unlike Star Wars, but like Thunderbirds, Star Trek has been with me since year dot. I thought the recent reboot movie was entertaining but nothing more than that, while 2013's "Into Darkness" was a rather dull affair. The main problem with these films is that Captain Kirk is portrayed as a cartoon version of himself (watch the TV series, he doesn't act like that at all) and that Spock has been repositioned as the central character. The whole point of Kirk (and the main strength of the TV show) is that his personality has been split into two individuals, who stand to either side of him like those angels and devils you see in old cartoons, sitting on Daffy Duck's shoulder, giving him guidance. On one side you have "Bones" McCoy: human, caring, flawed, impulsive and rebellious. On the other is Spock: cold, calculating, brilliant, loyal and as straight as an arrow -- also a bit of a sex maniac when the mood takes him. They are Captain Kirk's character externalised, allowing us to witness his thought process, the battle between his humanity and the expediency that command sometimes requires. Move Spock into the middle and suddenly the equation doesn't balance. Recently it has been revealed that Simon Pegg is involved in writing the new Star Trek movie, and I can only hope they return Kirk to his rightful place, as captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.


Like Marmite, I think you have had to have grown up with Thunderbirds to really appreciate it. I used to sit with my sister in the living room, eating our Sunday lunches while watching the adventures of the Tracy brothers, and it's as part of my childhood as Star Trek and Doctor Who. A few days ago (Saturday 4th March) the first episode of a new series was broadcast on TV. For me nothing can beat the old marionettes, they're part of the show's charm, and not even Team America (itself brilliant) has dented my enthusiasm for visible wires -- but what was always more important was the amazing vehicles International Rescue used. There was nothing like them at the time, either on TV or in the cinema, and I really think Gerry Anderson could have become the UK's version of Walt Disney. The vehicles were really the stars of the shows and the makers knew it. Anime owes a lot to Gerry Anderson, as do I, although I would say Captain Scarlet was a bigger influence on me than Thunderbirds. Watch the first episode of Captain Scarlet on YouTube, and be amazed at how much incident and invention they manage to pack into twenty minutes of TV.  My dream is to see James Cameron make a 300 million dollar movie of Captain Scarlet.

My impression of the new TV series was mixed, but I have to concede that while the original show was aimed at a family audience (and the one thing you could always say about a Gerry Anderson production was that it never talked down to you), this one was aimed squarely at kids, which is a pity (for me, not the kids). I didn't like the character designs much, although they may grow on me, and some of the voice acting was weak -- there's also an annoying "Iron Man" style robot around to provide the comedy. The story was rushed and I have no idea why the Hood (the show's main villain) was wheeled out so soon, to stand there and go "I'll get you, International Rescue! BWA-HA-HA!" Of course what really matters is the action, and this is where the show came to life. I shall stick with the new Thunderbirds for the time being.