Essential writing skills: how to avoid being ‘derivative’ at all cost

News that Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara books are going to be made into a TV series for US distribution, in New Zealand, set alarm bells ringing in my mind.

Plus side is that, twenty years on from Hercules: the legendary journeys, Auckland will once again be venue for a major US TV production. That’s excellent. I am certain Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings movies wouldn’t have been made in the same way – maybe not at all – had the ground work not been laid by Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi’s Hercules and Xena during the 1990s. They didn’t just draw attention to what was possible in New Zealand, they reinforced and built production experience here. So it’s good to see something new happening. Who knows where that will lead for the New Zealand film and TV industry?

Gandalf and friend...

Allanon, I mean Gandalf, and friend…

But Brooks? Gaaah! I read the eponymous first Sword of Shannara book in 1978 and my jaw dropped. It came across to me as a blatant and execrably bad fan-fic re-write of The Lord Of The Rings. I wasn’t the only one to notice, at the time and later. Just perusing the online comments today, nearly 30 years on, paints a clear enough picture.  ‘Almost parodically derivative of The Lord of the Rings,’ one blogger noted. ‘A shitty, lifeless point for point rip off of Lord of the Rings, said a Goodreads reviewer. I could go on, but I think the point’s clear.

To me that highlights a key challenge all authors face. Being ‘the same, but different’. One of the reasons why tales such as Tolkien’s catch popular imagination is because they capture story archetypes – proven forms that address key elements of the human condition: ambition, pride, good versus evil, and so on. Stories that do something radically different risk losing – or never gaining – an audience, because nobody can identify with them. They become fringe literature – fodder for torturing schoolkids during English lessons, devices for pretentious wannabe literati to assert their supposed intellectual superiority. But not something that offers an accessible emotional journey for ‘the rest of us’.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

That’s why ‘the same’ is actually a virtue for most writers. But that doesn’t mean ripping off somebody else’s narrative. It means driving to the heart of the story concept and idea – something at the very depths of its foundations, well below the superficial artifice of narrative, and springing a wholly original narrative from that. This is the ‘but different’ part. Shakespeare was a master at that particular art, and so was Tom Stoppard whose play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead used Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the archetypal tale of the foolish hero) as the setting for something original.

Tolkien did much the same with Nordic mythology and deep western symbolism to create something both new and – yet – absolutely classic, a mythology with which we can all identify. His approach was first exemplified by The Hobbit. Would you believe it was exactly the same story – at this archetypal level – as the original Star Wars? It is. Both are mythic ‘hero journeys’ with the classic elements and character arc. But at narrative level they are utterly different; and that, to me, is the key point. Same theme, same idea – but totally different stories. And that, to me, was also where The Sword of Shannara fell down.

Yes, by all means, address the mythic archetypes Tolkien used in The Lord Of The Rings; challenged heroism, faded glory, pride, hope, the loss of innocence, and above all of the conflict between the light and dark sides of the human condition, framed around events of utterly epic scale. All these things are keys to a great story. But don’t write a monkey-see-monkey-do narrative!

Apparently the later books in Brooks’ series are way better. But I haven’t found out for myself. And won’t. Once bitten is enough for me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why I felt let down by The Hobbit movies

As the end credits rolled up on The Hobbit: Battle Of Five Armies, I said ‘well, that’s 144 minutes of my life I won’t get back.’ That followed the 169 minutes I lost with the first one (my wife said ‘it felt like out-takes from The Lord of The Rings’) and the 161 minutes I lost with the second.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

My main problem this time was a fundamental structural failure – the dramatic pacing associated with the big battle, which didn’t build to anything and diverted instead to a one-on-one combat on a skating rink. All of which puzzles me. Jackson is a genius film-maker. He’s nailed the current trend, he can get tremendous performances out of his actors – all of them masters of their craft – and he’s got an awesome team behind him.

But the movies weren’t The Hobbit. Not The Hobbit I grew up with, the delightful kids’ book that Tolkien published in 1937. I’ve been a Tolkien fan since forever. I must have read The Hobbit 20 times, and I hugely enjoyed Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings.

I know full well that movies can’t exactly follow books. But this adaptation had, to me, missed the spirit of the original, largely through a mis-match of scale. You see, I am pretty sure that Jackson and his team know what they’re doing. About a decade ago one of the scriptwriters who’s worked on all six movies – Phillipa Boyens – told me that they, themselves, were fans. She also outlined how they’d done The Lord Of The Rings, and why it’d been adapted as it had been – for instance, dropping the Tom Bombadil sequence. All very sound, sensible reasons with which I agreed, princpally flowing from the fact that a movie demands very different structure and pacing from a book.

Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?

Check out the battering. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

Yet The Hobbit movies came across as disproportionate to the scope and scale of the original story – in effect, as very, very bad fan-fiction – a mishmash of Tolkien’s world with cartoonish bad guys and plots and characters that never existed in anything Tolkien wrote, an Elf-Dwarf romance that was the reverse of Tolkien’s own mythos, and lots of biff-bang-wallop adventuring. All presented with glacial pace and over-long set-piece chase sequences such as the goblin tunnels and the barrel ride, which seemed more designed as entrees for a video game than dramatic film scenes.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to prone to take this picture at the Hobbit Artisan Market in 2012.

I can only speculate as to what happened. But a large part, I think, is the direction film-making has generally taken in the last decade, partly in response to the capabilities of CGI and a new generation’s expectations, partly on the back of an increasingly risk-averse film industry. Films won’t get funded without meeting the market, and studios are increasingly aiming to get best bang-for-buck – capitalising on development costs by spinning multiple franchise movies out of a single investment.

Another issue is the fact that The Hobbit of 1937 is a period piece, these days – a tale framed by 1930s thinking. It lacked female characters. That stands against modern needs and ideals. Hence, I gather, the need to introduce one, Tauriel. All three Hobbit movies were excellent examples of modern film-making. Jackson’s unquestionably nailed that.

Tolkien did epic too – not least in The Lord of The Rings, more so in The Silmarillion, which is packed with tales that absolutely demand the Jackson big-screen treatment. But The Hobbit wasn’t among them. It had its epic moments, but they unfolded against a quieter background, as Bilbo engaged in his journey of self-discovery, and that to me was the spirit of the tale. To turn that into three multi-hour epic movies also meant the original themes and ideas were buried. Obviously a book has to be adapted to film; but to my mind the scripting went well beyond that. Largely, I suspect, to meet that need to make three movies.

And this, I think, is the problem; the fact that huge-and-epic stands against what Tolkien envisaged with The Hobbit, which was a short-ish childrens book with simple plot. Bilbo’s hero journey. Aspects of it were there – and Martin Freeman captured Bilbo’s character arc. But it was well buried amidst a panoply of other plot, characters and story line. As I say, to my mind the spirit of the original had been lost.

Given that, I can only lament the fact that the Tolkien estate hasn’t released the film rights for The Silmarillion and some of Tolkien’s other works. Jackson could certainly do them justice. But as I understand it we’ll have to wait until 2048, when it enters public domain, to see anything more on screen.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

I give Russell Crowe an F in Gallipoli history

If Russell Crowe had put what he’s reported to have said yesterday about Gallipoli in a history paper I was marking, I’d have given him an F.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The interview, on Australia’s Seven Network, included Crowe’s suggestion that the landing by Australian forces on 25 April 1915 – part of a wider landing on the peninsula – was the invasion of a sovereign nation that, he is reported to have said, ‘we’d never had an angry word with.

Sigh. The Gallipoli landings of 25 April 1915 weren’t an unprovoked invasion of sovereign territory. The British and Ottoman Empires went to war on 28 October 1914, on Turkish declaration. By the time of the Gallipoli landings there had already been fighting around Suez, also Ottoman sovereign territory.

Gallipoli was an attempt to end an existing war by knocking out the belligerent. Crowe is right to the extent that there was no earlier dispute between the Turks and the Australians or New Zealanders. Nor was there later, a point made clear in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal – Kemal Ataturk – who commanded the defence against the Anzacs and later became President of Turkey:  ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country … You mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away the tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace after having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well…

However, the fact remains that the soldiers of both sides were doing their job, and the ethics of the war were not defined by the military operation intended to end the fighting. They flowed instead from a far broader picture, including the reasons why the Ottomans felt obliged to declare war in the first place. In this, Britain was not blameless, though it is facile to point to their taking over two Turkish dreadnoughts completing in British yards, in August 1914, as the provoking factor. The factors ran deeper than that, and German realpolitik cannot be discounted in the mix.

The cover of 'Shattered Glory'. Now out of print.

The cover of my book ‘Shattered Glory’ with a marvellous painting of the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli, by Ion Brown. Now out of print, but I have a few personal copies. If you want one, contact me.

From both the Australian and New Zealand point of view the more crucial historical issue remains the way the Gallipoli campaign has been mythologised. In New Zealand, Anzac Day – the anniversary of the landings – has become a nation-defining moment, upheld as the day when New Zealand strode forth on the world stage and began asserting itself as something more than just a scion of Britain.

I won’t go into all that here, other than to point out that the men were motivated to join the war not to assert New Zealand, but for Empire –  for ‘our nation’, Britain. This was the age when New Zealand was Britain’s imperial Boy Scout, all enthusiasm and jingoism, to the amusement and ridicule of everybody else.

New Zealand’s reinvention of that day as a nation-defining moment began in 1916 with the transformation, largely at the hands of the Bishop of Auckland, of the Gallipoli defeat into a victory. It was still defined as an Imperial victory; but the road led, eventually, to the re-conception of the whole campaign in that nation-defining sense.

One of the outcomes is that our day of remembrance, along with that of Australia, is 25 April – the day we landed in another country. Not the day the First World War effectively ended, 11 November, which is how just about every other Commonwealth country remembers it.

Because we are still buoyed by that mythology, few have yet questioned it – and given the way history works as a discipline, we probably won’t for another generation or two.

As for Crowe – well, sorry, mate, I know you’re a fellow Kiwi, fellow Wellingtonian and all that…but that really is an F-grade historical comment.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: using weather to create a mood

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am something of a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien. A lot of a fan, actually. And the more I look at what he wrote, the more impressed I get.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.

The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view but with wonderful blue skies. Click to enlarge.

Take his settings. More often than not, and especially in The Lord Of The Rings, he’s telling us about the weather – which, usually, is gloomy. It rains a lot in Middle Earth.

Peter Jackson’s version – set in bright New Zealand sunshine against our sparkling landscapes – didn’t actually capture what Tolkien was describing in that sense. If you read the details in the text you find that many scenes in both The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are set against wild weather; gloomy clouds, rain, even storms. Virtually the whole of The Return Of The King was played out under the darkness of Mount Doom.

Tolkien used the sun as a counterpoint – deliberately played to create the mood, as when the hobbits left the home of Tom Bombadil after several days socked in by rain and jogged fearlessly across the Barrow Downs. Doom followed when the weather closed in.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

OK, well this looks like Gorgoroth, except for the blue skies (again). Photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau. Click to enlarge.

Quite a lot of the inspiration for it, I suspect, came from Tolkien’s experiences in France during the First World War. It rained a lot over the trenches. Weather over Europe in 1915-17 was unusually wet in any event. But there is some evidence that the concussion of artillery bombardment – which sent shock waves hammering into the air – was enough to trigger looming clouds to drop their rain early, so it was even wetter over the battlefields than it might otherwise have been.

The relentless rain created a mood of gloom among the men, a darkness to befit the dark world into which they had been plunged. It is this mood that Tolkien evoked in much of The Lord Of The Rings which was closely based – in detail – on trench life and the environment of the Western Front. Tolkien did all this quite deliberately, of course, to create a mood, a sense of darkness, a sense of oppression to befit the epic canvas of his stories.

And he was, I think, perhaps also well aware of the sense of comfort felt by a reader who could comfortably snuggle before a roaring fire on a cold and dark winter’s afternoon, enjoying his words while the wild weather raged outside.

Do you write fiction? And if you do, do you use the weather to create mood?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Tell me – have all the best sci-fi ideas been used?

H. R. Geiger passed away this year, aged 74. Probably best known as designer of the icky thing that exploded out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (1980).

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

When it comes to spooky haunted house stories – which is what that movie really was – Geiger’s Alien has to take first price for scare factor.

Also ecch factor.

The funny thing is, Alien wasn’t the first story about a parasitic alien that arrives on a spaceship and breeds using humans as hosts, defying the efforts of the humans aboard the spaceship to defeat it. That prize goes to A. E. Van Vogt, whose novella ‘Black Destroyer’ of 1939 did exactly the same thing.  The story was later integrated into his  ‘fixup’ novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. His alien, Ixtl, could also pass through solid matter. The similarities were so obvious that van Vogt reportedly raised a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox for plagiarism. Apparently it was settled out of court.

That wasn’t the only movie for which we can find Golden Age antecedents. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, most of the really good Trek stuff was devised first by Robert A. Heinlein – including medical beds, Starfleet and Tribbles, all of which featured in his novels first under other names. (Heinlein also invented the modern waterbed).

Arthur C. Clarke, meanwhile, did one better by being the only person, ever, to predict the world wide web and its social consequences in specific detail. Here he is in 1964; and here is with a spookily accurate prediction in 1974.

Which leads me to ask a question. Have all the best sci-fi ideas been used? I suggest not…but let’s discuss.

It’s certainly a challenge for writers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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Visiting Peter Jackson’s amazing cinema in Miramar, Wellington

The other day She Who Must Be Obeyed and I went to have a look at the Roxy Cinema in Miramar, Wellington. It was done up a while back in classic golden-age cinema deco by Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, among others.

Dr Grordbort golden-age sci-fi frieze on the upper floor.

Dr Grordbort golden-age sci-fi sculpture on the upper floor. I took this photo hand-held, incidentally, and apart from adding copyright info and scaling back for the blog, it’s unedited.

Upper floor atrium with Greg Broadmore artwork - Dr Grordbort himself in action.

Upper floor atrium with Greg Broadmore artwork – Dr Grordbort himself in action.

There is a magic about the cinema that we’ve lost, these days. Except here – where it’s been recaptured with a vengeance. And more. It was like stepping back in time – not just to the magic of the 1940s, but the magic of the 1940s as they never were, a bronze-and-gold world of deco-infused dieselpunk, streamline moderne spaceships and fantastic planet-scapes.

Exterior of the Roxy.

Exterior of the Roxy.

Inevitably, it featured heavy Weta Workshop influence. Not least in the Hobbit Hole entrance leading up to the second floor atrium with its amazing Greg Broadmore ceiling featuring his iconic Dr Grordbort dieselpunk artwork.

And if that wasn’t wow enough, we also found a model of the Wotwot spaceship – and a glass-encased Lego model of the cinema, which was simply extraordinary.

Even the facilities had been finished with full attention to period detail, down to the shape of the handbasins – though it’s unlikely, I suspect, that 1940s cinema bathrooms had hand-movement sensors to turn the water on and off. But maybe, in the dieselpunk alternate world of this cinema, they did.

I had only one thing to say about the whole thing. OMG!

And when can I watch the Dr Phibes movies here?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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