Monday, March 19, 2018

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Slayer Stats

My new infographics book, Slayer Stats, marks 21 years of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer with all the graphics-based data a slavering demon can eat.

#BTVS - Slayer Stats
“Hilarious,” says Popsugar’s preview of Slayer Stats, blithely overlooking the many dogged months of diligent, cool-headed research. *wipes glasses on handkerchief*

Slayer Stats preview: Buffy Profile

Slayer Stats preview: The Web

Slayer Stats – The Complete Infographics Guide to All Things Buffy is written by me and Steve O’Brien, illustrated by Ilaria Vescovo and designed by Stuart Smith. It’s published by Insight Editions on 24 April. I’m not saying the fate of the world depends on you buying a copy, but probably best to get one just in case.

Oh, and Steve and I previously wrote the Doctor Who infographics book Whographica.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, by Patricia Highsmith

Last week, I ran a workshop for the Hastings Writers' Group on writing science fiction, my brief that this was a bunch of enthusiastic, hard-working writers - many of them professionally published - who had mostly never dabbled in sf. No pressure.

Seeking inspiration, I nosed through guides to writing in a bookshop and fell upon Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by best-selling author Patricia Highsmith, originally published in 1983. It's a great, breezy, enthusiastic and honest account of her process, from where she gets her ideas to dealing with publishers' notes on the manuscript. She's often specific, giving insights into her most famous novels, so it's a book for fans of thrilling fiction as well as for would-be writers.

Among the gems imparted is to base the events of your story on real "emotional experience", felt or observed first hand. Even small events that affect us should be recorded in notebooks to be exploited later. The reason for this is that suspense stories - and the kind of sci-fi nonsense I write - often involve events far outside the author's direct experience. But emotional responses are transferable. Highsmith's example is some teenagers larking about outside her window who made her feel uncomfortable - a feeling she then applied to more tangible, thrilling events for a novel.

While much of the advice is very useful, it's clear it comes from another age. For one thing, even though the book entirely consists of Highsmith's own perspective, she refers to the author - and reader - in the third person as "he" thoughout. The feeling is that she's a rare exception in an otherwise male domain.

For another, there's a lot on the mechanics of writing in the age before word processing computers. She counsels us not to make carbon copies when typing up our first and second drafts, and advises us to retype whole pages or sections only if the earlier draft is too covered in notes. Even though she says she reworks and revises as she retypes her work, the sense is that - because of the technology involved - there were many fewer revisions made in the old days. That's not to say it was better then, or now; just notably different.

Given the slow plod of manually typing a new draft, I found it particularly bruising when Highsmith talks about her novel, The Two Faces of January, being turned down by the publisher Harper & Row, with whom she'd enjoyed years of success. They were not turning down a first draft, but the revised second or third version - a proper, professional submission. Ouch. So how did Highsmith respond?
"I let time go by and wrote another book, which was accepted, and then returned to January and rewrote it, but without referring to the first manuscript, because I completely changed the plot, the age and character of the wife and the character of the young hero - everything except the layout of the Palace of Knossos; three-quarters of a page was all I used of the first manuscript. The charm of that musty old hotel in Athens [her real experience] and the fascination of the young man on meeting a stranger who resembled his father (and a stranger who was a crook) [her seed idea the novel had grown from], these still held me fascinated, and inspired me to write another two hundred and fifty or three hundred pages in order to use these characters. The second and present version of The Two Faces of January was also rejected out of hand by Harper & Row, and this time I thought they were wrong, though I shelved the book, mentally at least, and did not know what to do except write another book. These little setbacks, amounting sometimes to thousands of dollars' worth of time wasted, writers must learn to take like Spartans. A brief curse, perhaps, then tighten the belt a notch and on to something new - of course with enthusiasm, courage and optimism, because without these three elements, you cannot produce anything good."
Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, p. 113.
The cost of it, in time and money, is something that resonates all too strongly. By coincidence, last week a spec novel I've written was turned down by yet another publisher, but with notes that have helped me clarify my own thoughts about how it should be reworked - drastically, from the ground up, but retaining the basic plot and the seed ideas that first excited me when I thought of them. It's a gruelling prospect to have to start again, and I'd already decided to write something else first. Highsmith has quite inspired me to push on.

(It's some solace that Highsmith tells us The Two Faces of January was taken up by another publisher, Heinemann, and went on to win a prestigious award from the Crime Writers Association.)

In her final pages, Highsmith makes some general comments - on her discomfort with genre labels, on raising the quality of novels, on her works being adapted as films. But a few grumbles aside, she concludes with some words on the joy, and freedom, of being a writer. It's a book full of practical tips, but Highsmith's most important lesson is her attitude. 

Friday, March 09, 2018

Bath, Bristol, York

It's British Science Week and tomorrow I'll be talking at the Bath Taps into Science festival on the scientific secrets of Doctor Who - and it's free to come along. I'm on at 2 pm at The Edge, University of Bath.

On Wednesday 14 March, Dr Marek Kukula and I will be speaking at the Basingstoke Discovery Centre, again on the science of Doctor Who. The event starts at 7.30 pm and tickets are £5.

We're also due to speak at the York Festival of Ideas in June - more details of which nearer the time.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Dusty Answer, by Rosamond Lehmann

This is a novel of yearning. Judith Earle is an only child, a teenager living a lonely life in a nice house in the Thames Valley. She recalls with a thrill the times in her childhood when the next-door house was home to five cousins, who would sometimes involve her in their games. Looking back to those days with a pang, she longs for them to have noticed her, to have thought well of her, to come back to her again.

Then there is news: cousins Charlie and Mariella have married, young, and Charlie has gone off to the trenches. There, that beautiful boy is killed, leaving his young wife with a baby she can't quite deal with. The cousins return to the next-door house, and Judith still yearns for their attention. But they're older, sadder, broken - and beset by thoughts of sex. They speak of mistresses rathet than wives. Judith is observed swimming naked in the river, and each of the cousins seems to fall for her in turn over the next few years.

Judith has strong feelings, and is quick to fantasise events to come - at the mention of a cousin's name, she will be consumed by thoughts of how she'll teach or nurse or marry them. There's a sense this longing comes from being so lonely at home - her parents spend most of the book abroad. But there's also a great well of emotion inside her that yearns to be fully expressed.

Then Judith starts at Cambridge, and immediately falls for a fellow student, Jennifer. Their relationship is passionate and loving, and scandalised readers when the book was first published in 1927. But it's surprising, now, how little this three-year affair actually involves. Later, when Judith is carried away by one of the (male) cousins to a secluded spot on an island, we're left with little doubt as to the physical act that occurs - without it ever being spelled out. But between Jennifer and Judith, there's lots of mutual admiration, entertaining friends and gettiing a little tipsy... And that's all. Their kisses might be the kisses of affectionate, platonic friends.

Judith also makes time for a strange, sad girl called Mabel, who everyone else is rude about. On her first day at college, Judith worries that by just making polite conversation with Mabel, the girl will be a burden to her ever after. And though there's an element that Judith is too embarrassed, too cowardly, to break off from Mabel entirely, we also see her kindness and care when Mabel gets into a fix over her exams. Seeing Judith's kindness and compassion make it all the more galling when others are cruel or uncaring to her.

In the last year at university, Jennifer abruptly dumps Judith for another woman, and Lehmann keenly makes us feel the loss. Judith's beloved (if absent) father also dies, and Judith is left in fug of confused, desperate emotions. It's here she encounters the cousins again, swimming naked with Mariella and facing advances of different kinds from the men. One of the cousins treats her particularly badly - using her, then casting her off. We keenly feel the affect this has on Judith, and the risk to her reputation and future should her actions ever be spoken of. And yet she can't stop yearning for those people who have treated her so badly.

For all her misery, Judith is a smart and witty young woman, an accomplished ice-skater, swimmer and student. It is fun to be in her company. But there's a constant feeling, whatever her best efforts, that she's trapped by her class and gender and time. Required to join her widowed mother in Paris after completing her studies, it seems Judith's academic accompishments can only be a hindrance.
"'If you were a little more stupid,' said Mamma, 'you might make a success of a London season even at this late date. You've got the looks. You are stupid - stupid enough, I should think, to ruin all your own chances - but you're not stupid all through. You're like your father: he was a brilliant imbecile. I never intended to put you into the marriage-market - but I'll do so if you like. If you haven't decided to marry one of those young Fyfes... They're quite a good family, I suppose.'"
Rosamond Lehmann, Dusty Answer (1927), p. 259.
There is more loss to come, and the novel ends with Judith never more alone, and unsure of her future - but also at some kind of epiphany about these people who have so consumed her thoughts and desires for so long. She is still yearning, but not for them. There's just a chance she is free. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Court Jester

Out now, The Court Jester is the latest volume of The Wife in Space series by Neil & Sue Perryman, in which they watch all of Doctor Who. This one covers the adventures of the Sixth Doctor (1984-1986).

I've written the foreword for this volume, which has given me a chance to revisit what it was like to watch these episodes first go out, and to confess my love for Timelash.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carre

"I, who was taught from the cradle to deny, deny and deny again - taught by the very Service that is seeking to drag a confession out me?"
John le Carre, A Legacy of Spies (2017), p. 161.
This is an extraordinary lap of honour, almost a pastiche of le Carre by le Carre himself, the sort of thing in anyone else's hands we would call fan fiction.

It returns us to the world of the Circus and George Smiley, not seen since The Secret Pilgrim (1990), but it's really revisiting the events that led to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) - le Carre's third novel, and the one that made his name. Along the way, we catch up with characters and events from his two other most successful Circus novels - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) and Smiley's People (1979). In fact, since this new book is recounted by Smiley's loyal underling, Peter Guillam, I had Michael Jayston's voice in my head (he played Guillam in the BBC adaptations of those latter two novels; Benedict Cumberbatch played Guillam in the more recent Tinker Tailor film.)

A friend had read and enjoyed this new book without knowing any of this history. I'm now eager to reread those other books to see how well it all fits together. It feels seamless, the only glaring thing being Smiley himself - recruited as a spy to the Circus in 1928 or 1937, depending which book you refer to, but still alive and in good health whenever this new, modern-feeling book is set. It is very contemporary, and though the word "Brexit" isn't used, George tells us he is and always was a European, and is horrified by the idea of England on its own as a "citizen of nowhere".

Yet given the age Smiley must surely be, the only concession to the passing of time is that he no longer wears a suit. The one character to have died since we last visited this world is Smiley's nemesis Karla. Jim Prideaux is still working at the same school as he was in Tinker Tailor, more than 40 years ago.

The story sees Guillam called back to London because there's likely to be a parliamentary inquiry into the events of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. He is reticent, but slowly we unpick what happened - a little ahead of the investigators he is speaking to. There's a real sense of menace in the jovial lawyers who seem ready to hang Guillam out to dry, and in the character of Christoph - a man out of revenge. It's an absorbing read, full of well drawn characters and telling detail. Indulgent, but perfectly done.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Women & Power - A Manifesto, by Mary Beard

This is a timely publication of two lectures by Mary Beard, one on "The Public Voice of Women" and the efforts to silence them, and the other on "Women in Power." I've long been impressed by the eminent professor's extraordinary patience in dealing with online abuse, from the obscene to the vexatious. Here, she's characteristically considered and considerate in laying out her case that,
"When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice."
Mary Beard, Women and Power - A Manifesto (2017), p. xi.
Concisely and engagingly, she covers a lot of ground, with references from Penelope in The Odyssey to Professor Holly in Pokemon Farm. Images inform the text, in part because these were originally delivered as lectures but also because Beard has always used non-textual sources to add depth and detail to her examination of history.

Some of her more academic books I've found hard to keep up with, but this book is very accessible. That's not to say it's all put very simply - she embraces the complexities and nuances involved. Elizabeth I's speech at Tilbury and Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" would both advance her case, but Beard doubts either woman really spoke the words attributed. She won't take the easy path.

There's much to mull over, whether in relation to politics and public discourse, or applied to my own attitudes and behaviour. Following this example, being more considered and considerate, is not a bad place to start.

But if this is a manifesto, what is the call to action? In her second lecture, she identifies the problem as one of elites holding power over the powerless. Now, various people in the news have been calling out elites for some time, but the danger - especially when wealthy, well-connected politicians claim to be anti-elitist - is that it's about replacing one group in power with another. The system isn't changed and the inequities continue.

Beard concludes her second lecture with the wish to rethink power not as a possession to be fought over, but as a verb, "to power".
"What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually. It is power in that sense that many women feel they don't have - and that they want. Why the popular resonance of 'mansplaining' (despite the intense dislike of the term felt by many men?) It hits home for us because it points straight to what it feels like not to be taken seriously: a bit like when I get lectured on Roman history on Twitter."
Ibid., p. 87.