Getting under the skin of the reader

Every writer desires that their work will somehow affect the reader, getting under their skin as it were. In fact, sometimes bad reviews are preferable to good ones if the writing has made the reader frightened, sad, angry, offended, or otherwise provoked them in some way.

Occasionally I read reviews of my work that clearly demonstrate I have achieved this with a particular reader. For example, here is a review from an Amazon reader, David MacGuire, reviewing my novel Children of the Folded Valley.

“I generally review only the books that I really love or hate passionately. I neither hate nor love the book, it has its flaws, but the story has stuck with me. This is a good, original story. The concept and characters are engaging and appealing. There are places where the writing gets a little thin, but I hope to see many more books by this author. It has a happy ending, of sorts, and yet left me profoundly depressed. I think it was that the author hit it right on the head; even in a perfect paradise, people are going to be perfect s***s to each other, given half a chance. Even so I recommend it.”

Mr MacGuire’s review sounds as though he is still struggling to figure out what he really felt about the novel, which I am pleased about because it demonstrates the story got to him. I am not ashamed to admit that reviews like this provide great encouragement, so thank you David MacGuire.

Children of the Folded Valley is available to download for Kindle (see below link):

Print copies are available from Lulu.com: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/children-of-the-folded-valley/paperback/product-21836029.html

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How long should a chapter be?

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How long should a chapter be?

Like so many writing related questions, my answer is: it depends.

Many contemporary thrillers seem to consist of literally hundreds of chapters, with each lasting no more than two pages. I am Pilgrim is a good recent example, and anyone familiar with the works of Michael Crichton will also know what I am talking about.

Other texts, surprisingly often stories aimed at children, contain chapters that at times seem very long. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix contains many lengthy chapters, for example.

Both approaches work well for their respective formats – fast contemporary thriller, versus more traditional fairy tale. The short chapter approach doesn’t necessarily mean the writer considers the reader to have the attention span of goldfish. Other novels have a mixture of short and long chapters for artistic reasons – Life of Pi, for instance.

In my own writing, I generally stick to average length chapters in both my novels for children and for grown-ups, regardless of genre or subject matter. My stories seem to naturally gravitate to a relatively straightforward format. However, the stories themselves are often anything but.

On a related note, I generally do not title chapters in a novel aimed at grown-ups (with rare exceptions), but I always do in a novel aimed at children. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps chapter titles in books aimed at children just sound cool.

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Film Review – A Most Violent Year

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A Most Violent Year, the latest from writer/director JC Chandor, is an interesting if muted and slow moving drama/thriller, featuring a couple of very good performances from Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.

Isaac is rapidly becoming one of my favourite actors (Chastain is already one of my favourite actresses). Here he plays entrepreneur Abel Morales, recalling Al Pacino’s performance as Michael Corleone in The Godfather. That is a comparison I do not make lightly.

The rest of the film doesn’t live up to the afore-mentioned masterpiece, although the plot is interesting enough. It concerns Abel’s efforts to keep his business interests alive in the wake of targeted hijackings, intimidation and impending legal action from DA Lawrence (David Oyelowo). Abel’s wife Anna (Chastain), provides a Lady Macbeth-esque power behind the throne, often urging drastic solutions which Abel is reluctant to take. All of this is set in 1981 New York, which, as indicated by the title, was a particularly violent year in that city. The film has an admirable realism, helped by stark cinematography and good use of locations.

On a moral/spiritual note, the film is makes a few blunt if effective points about the nature of capitalism, and the human cost that sometimes follows in the wake of entrepreneurs. These insights are nothing new or particularly profound, but provide an additional layer of interest. The usual warnings apply about swearing and violence – the latter depicted with considerable restraint and imagination, particularly through the use of sound effects.

All things considered, I think All is Lost remains Chandor’s best film to date, but this is also a fine, if low key, piece of work.

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Oscar winners 2015 – my reaction

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Surprised, delighted and disappointed. That pretty much sums up my general response to this year’s Oscars, in which I got my predictions spectacularly wrong in almost every one of the main categories (in stark contrast to last year, which I predicted almost 100 per cent correctly).

Anyway, why surprised, delighted and disappointed? Surprised, for the afore-mentioned reason, delighted, because for once I agree with the Best Picture, and disappointed, because… well, you’ll see. There weren’t any Gandhi-beats-ET type outrages to get my blood boiling, but certainly a few winners raised my irritation levels. Here are my thoughts on most of them.

Best Picture: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – For the first time since 2008, I agree with a Best Picture choice. That said, I wish to protest – again – at the continued snobbery the Academy demonstrates at the nomination stage. Genre fiction movies, however brilliant, continue to be disregarded because of an idiotic notion that they are somehow inconsequential. Yes, they can be, but so can serious Oscar-bait drama. Interstellar (science fiction), Gone Girl (noir thriller), The Babadook (horror) and Nightcrawler (thriller/satire), were among the very best films of 2014, but they were all shamefully overlooked in this category. All that said, I will put my axe down and admit a deserving win for Birdman. I will also acknowledge that Boyhood, which I expected to win, is a very fine piece of work too.

Best Director: Alejandro G Inarritu (Birdman) – I think I predicted Inarritu would have the edge in this category, and I’m pleased he did. The faux-single shot direction for the majority of Birdman’s running time is stunning.

Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) – Very surprised and disappointed in this decision. Of all my Oscar predictions, I was fully convinced Michael Keaton would get this, and thought he deserved it. Yes, Redmayne’s performance is very good, but as a whole I found The Theory of Everything to be typical Oscar-bait and comparatively ordinary.

Best Actress: Julianne Moore (Still Alice) – I haven’t seen Still Alice yet (it’s not out in the UK presently), but Julianne Moore is a terrific actress, so I look forward to it. That said, I really, really wanted Rosamund Pike to win this.

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) – I wanted Emma Stone to win this, but Patricia Arquette did steal Boyhood’s most powerful scene.

Best Supporting Actor: JK Simmons (Whiplash) – At the time I made my predictions I hadn’t seen Whiplash, and favoured Ed Norton’s terrific performance in Birdman. But in the end, I’m glad Simmons got it.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) – Moore did a terrific job on The Imitation Game, but I really wanted Gillian Flynn to win for adapting her own novel, Gone Girl. Alas, genre snobbery strikes again. She wasn’t even nominated.

Best Original Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo (Birdman) – I can hardly argue with this one. A well-deserved win.

Best Animated Feature: Big Hero 6 – I enjoyed Big Hero 6, but why on earth wasn’t The Lego Movie nominated? Also, I have yet to see The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Given my penchant for all things Studio Ghibli, that could well end up being a favourite so at this point I’m reserving judgement on whether Big Hero 6 was a deserving win amongst the nominees.

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida – I thought Ida was a stark, melancholy, beautiful masterpiece, so no argument from me there.

Best Cinematography : Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman) – A very strong list of nominees, and perhaps a deserving win. But I would probably have gone with Robert Yeoman and his phenomenal, aspect ratio switching work on The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Best Visual Effects: Interstellar – I feel a bit torn on this. On the one hand, I wanted Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to win because of the sheer scale of motion capture involved, and the fact that at no point did I think “what a great special effect”. However, Interstellar’s old-school, real sets, real spaceships, real back projection approach really paid off in a visual effects world dominated by CGI. Effects wise, Interstellar is the yin to last year’s winner Gravity’s yang.

Best Film Editing: Whiplash – I’d have gone for Boyhood, purely for the seamless way the passing of time was depicted without drawing attention to itself.

Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel – A well-deserved winner.

Best Score: Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) – A good score, certainly, but I preferred Hans Zimmer’s work on Interstellar.

Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel – Another well-deserved win.

Best Documentary: CitizenFour – I have yet to see CitizenFour, but by all accounts it is essential viewing.

Best Sound Editing: American Sniper – This really should have been Interstellar. Those spacecraft rumbles were wonderful.

Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash – Again, see above really. Interstellar fully deserved both sound awards.

So there we have it for another year. The usual disappointments but some delightful surprises too this time. I wonder how long it will be before I agree with another Best Picture winner? Who knows? Perhaps next year I’ll score two in a row.

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Film Review – Shaun the Sheep Movie

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Another day, another terrific family film. After Big Hero 6, the half term fun continues with the latest Aardman animation, Shaun the Sheep Movie. It’s another bull’s eye for producer Nick Park and writer/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak.

For the uninitiated, Shaun the Sheep first appeared in the classic Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave, before ending up in a superb spin-off TV series. In the film, the world of Shaun (ie the farm) is expanded as the Farmer ends up – through a series of farcical, surreal and utterly hilarious circumstances – in the big city with amnesia, thinking he is a celebrity hairdresser. Shaun and the rest of the sheep, along with Bitzer the dog, head into the city to find him, whilst trying to stay one step ahead of villainous animal catcher Trumper.

The animation is superb as usual, with Aardman’s genius for stop motion facial expression better than ever. The plot is every bit as whimsical and gag-laden as any previous Aardman outing, but what really sets this one apart is that it is essentially a hugely entertaining silent movie. Like the TV series there is no dialogue at all, other than incoherent human ramblings from the point of view of the animals.

Shaun the Sheep Movie is a fine expansion of the TV format, finding time for understated yet poignant themes about being thankful for what you have, the importance of taking a break from routine, and (with tongue only partially in cheek) the plight of homeless animals. All of this is woven into the superb mayhem and frequent belly laughs. Zany, offbeat and delightful, this might not quite reach the high water mark of Wallace and Gromit, but it comes fairly close. And did I mention it’s really, really funny?

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Writing horror for children

The term “horror for children” might appear to be an oxymoron. However, I am personally of the opinion that no subject matter or level of scariness should be off limits to children, provided the treatment is appropriate.

I am currently writing a very dark fairy tale aimed at “the Harry Potter demographic”, although I suspect many will categorise it as horror. Think Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and you’ll get an idea of the tone.

Coraline

My novel is, without question, the scariest book I have written that is primarily aimed at children. I think open-minded adults will enjoy it too, even if some are uneasy or disapproving – hopefully for all the right reasons.

Frankly, all good fairy tales should make parents uneasy – or else I question their parental veracity. Wherever we find abused, traumatised or terrorised children in literature, in everything from Oliver Twist to Hansel and Gretel, children often identify with the journeys taken by these characters, whereas parents are rightly predisposed to be appalled by their treatment.

However, just because something is dark, scary and difficult does not necessarily mean it should be out of bounds to children. I accept that parents are always the final arbitrator in these matters, as they know best the temperaments of their offspring, but children know when they are being patronised, and talking down to children is a terrible mistake.

The thing to bear in mind when writing horror for children is to keep the treatment appropriate. No subject matter should be off limits, but how this subject is approached is what makes the difference. Here is one simple principle: depict all horrifying events through the eyes of your child characters. That way, you can place them in the most terrifying situation imaginable, and it will still read in an honest and innocent way. Example: the Holocaust. How do you tackle that darkest of subjects in a way appropriate to children? The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas manages, by depicting events through the eyes of a child protagonist. By contrast, horror for adults that features children is generally seen through the eyes of adult protagonists, with all their terrible knowledge of what the world is really like.

By the way, viewing events through the eyes of a child doesn’t necessarily mean keeping blood and gore out of it – quite the contrary in fact, since children often have a lurid fascination with such things (witness the enduring popularity of the Horrible Histories series if you don’t believe me).

Finally, and most importantly, horror stories for children are about confronting difficult truths in a way that is ultimately empowering. The afore-mentioned Coraline - both the book and Henry Selick’s film adaptation – provide excellent examples of this principle. Amid all the scariness, that story is about encouraging children not to take their parents for granted, whatever their shortcomings.

By contrast, horror stories for adults do not necessarily offer such empowerment. One could hardly accuse Stephen King’s The Mist of being particularly empowering. Adult horror can also contain political allegory or satire often lost on children, or else it is designed to shake the reader/viewer out of their apathy with dire warnings of one kind or another. For example Threads - a 1984 BBC television production about nuclear war – is quite possibly the most frightening and horrific warning of any kind I have ever witnessed.

Ultimately horror, like romance, weepies and even comedy, is about catharsis. These genres all offer a way for the reader to identify with something they would never want to go through in real life and leave them either laughing, crying or shaking with terror. Or, because the reader has unfortunately been through a similar situation in real life, they identify with events all the more – even if they are metaphorical (such as last year’s horror film The Babadook, which is essentially about coming to terms with grief).

As a consequence, the reader (or viewer) feels alive. Children are no different, and can experience a similar catharsis, often a very empowering one, in spite of their innocence. That is the power of storytelling and that is why – for me at least – a horror story for children is not an oxymoron.

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Film Review – Big Hero 6

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(VAGUE THEMATIC SPOILERS BELOW)

I am aware that some parents are unhappy that the latest Disney animation adventure, Big Hero 6, contains scenes of a potentially upsetting nature to wee members of the audience. After all, how dare Disney include scenes of actual death. How dare they have the audacity to greenlight a film that refuses to patronise children. How dare they include a subtext about coming to terms with grief. Children should be wrapped in cotton wool and protected from such harsh realities, shouldn’t they?

Well, anyone who knows me will know that I disagree with such mollycoddling in the strongest possible terms. Big Hero 6 is, above all, a film that will be cathartic and empowering for any child who has lost a loved one. The inflatable robot in the story, Baymax, has been designed as a healer, and our protagonist, child prodigy Hiro, has essentially inherited him. But during a colourful and highly imaginative adventure set in “San Fransokoyo”, a bond develops between Baymax and Hiro wherein Baymax’s healing goes beyond the physical. Oh, and along the way they team up with Hiro’s eccentric friends, become superheroes, and challenge a mysterious masked super-villain.

Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams ensure the animation is never less than stunning, and they often cleverly reference other animated classics, including The Iron Giant. The vocal performances are solid, and the screenplay (loosely based on a Marvel comic series) provides a fine balance between laughter, tears and action set pieces. The film is hardly ground breaking, but it is a consistently entertaining and ultimately very satisfying superhero tale.

On a moral/spiritual level, this has the usual life lessons about not wasting one’s talents, the futility of revenge, the acquisition of moral courage, sacrifice, and above all, the afore-mentioned themes of grief and learning to live with loss. If that makes this sound very heavy and tough, believe me it isn’t. Besides, Disney has been doing this kind of thing for decades, ever since Bambi in fact. So those parents who think this kind of thing has no place in a Disney movie are quite simply wrong.

All in all, Big Hero 6 is a fine treat for all the family. One last thing – don’t arrive late and miss the delightful supporting cartoon short Feast.

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Film Review – Selma

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The Reverend Martin Luther King is one of my heroes, and he deserves a truly great film to honour his memory. Unfortunately, Selma is merely a good film, albeit one with an outstanding performance from David Oyelowo that bizarrely failed to register in the Oscar nominations.

Following the present trend of focussing on a single event rather than a cradle to grave biopic (ala Lincoln), Selma begins post King’s legendary I-have-a-dream speech and concludes before his murder. It highlights his 1965 battle to gain new legislation to secure equal voting rights, using a march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama to gain publicity and support that will put pressure on President Lyndon Johnson to see his point of view.

Director Ava DuVernay is solid, and does a good job of hiding the budgetary restrictions, but to be honest this lacks the searing anger and sheer dramatic fire that, say, an Oliver Stone at his peak could have brought to proceedings. The supporting cast – including Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland and Cuba Gooding Jr – are good, but this is unquestionably Oyelowo’s film. Selma really comes to life whenever King gives speeches, and those moments provide a hint at what the film could have been.

All things considered, this is a worthwhile biopic about a clear cut case of good versus evil from all too recent history. Selma is certainly highly commendable, but unlike the good Reverend it is not, alas, destined for greatness.

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Slow isn’t necessarily boring

A slow pace doesn’t necessarily mean a story is boring.

For some, this is an anathema. But should all stories zip by at a relentless pace; twisting, turning and generally behaving as if the audience or reader has the attention span of a goldfish?

To which I reply, it all depends.

Obviously in a certain kind of thriller, a fast pace is an important aspect of the genre. Also adventure stories and often children’s stories require a fast, attention grabbing pace that carries the reader or viewer along for a thrilling ride.

Yet frenetically paced stories – in film, onstage or in print – can sometimes come off as rushed, inconsequential and above all boring. This is what I like to call the Michael Bay effect. One hundred miles per hour is not necessarily the kind of pace required for a story like, say, The Remains of the Day, which is an utterly fascinating and gripping tale in both film and print. However the gentle, gradually getting under the skin approach is vital to the success of the story.

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Sticking with film for a moment, many great movies – including Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – have a very slow, deliberate pace. Yet every frame of those movies, especially if seen in the cinema, arrests the attention of the viewer. Well, they certainly arrested my attention, at any rate. Obviously tastes differ, but the point remains: slow does not necessarily mean boring.

Even if you are dealing with an adventure story, sometimes a slow build and a decent set-up of the characters will make the dangerous predicament of the protagonist all the more palpable. Life of Pi is a good example. Or Batman Begins, wherein the first appearance of Batman comes over an hour into the film.

Even a fast slapstick comedy needs to be properly paced. There’s a climactic point about halfway through What’s up Doc? so funny that director Peter Bogdanovich was probably in danger of actually injuring his hysterical, laughter-gripped audience. So he allows them a brief romantic interlude before throwing them back into the relentlessly funny fray.

In my own work, I try to maintain an appropriate balance, depending on the subject matter and genre. Even in a fast paced adventure like Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge (which features a monster, a mad scientist and a haunted house in the opening chapter alone) I try to make sure the reader doesn’t become too exhausted by the frantic plot developments, allowing breathing spaces and time for the characters to develop.

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Other books I have written – such as Love vs Honour, which I plan on releasing later this year – have a much more slow-burn approach, gradually building to what I hope is a climax that will satisfy and reward the patience of the reader.

In any event, I reiterate that slow and boring are not necessarily words that belong together.

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Choosing an ending

I always know how a story ends before I write it. Only when I have that ending do I then work backwards, trying to find the best and most dramatic way to arrive there.

When endings are very clear cut – for example, the answer to whodunit – writing becomes all about how you make the big reveal; what details should emerge first, how the mystery should build to this crescendo that will hopefully wrong-foot and delight the reader.

However, when the ending is more esoteric – for instance, when it is about a character’s emotional and spiritual journey – choosing the specifics of a satisfying emotional and spiritual resolution can be much trickier.

As a case in point, my novel Children of the Folded Valley presented me with a serious dilemma in early outlines. I always knew what would happen to the protagonist James Harper inwardly, but I was stuck between three different act three scenarios that would demonstrate how it happened.

(SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FOR Children of the Folded Valley)

My earliest idea involved having James buy his model train from an older man who turned out to be Paul Crow’s long lost father. They would share a mutual catharsis in that James would explain what happened to Paul, whilst the old man presented James with the long lost train set of his childhood he had sought for so long. In this version, Paul had a much more active role in the uprising prior to the destruction of the Folded Valley, and died heroically in the fiery horror of that sequence.

I rejected this version of the ending because it placed too much emphasis on Paul Crow, who is a secondary character. Thus, he had a reprieve and survived the Folded Valley apocalypse.

I then prepared a version of the ending more or less as it is now, but shorn of the supernatural elements. Arthur Lord was not an ambiguous figure, but definitely human. However, whilst this ending worked, it still didn’t feel quite right to me. I realised that however far-fetched it might seem, my own belief in the supernatural meant the ending required something a little more mysterious.

Subsequently I arrived at the ending as it is now, which can be read a number of ways. I do not presume to offer any correct interpretation, as I designed it so the reader can make up their own minds. This element of the plot was a big worry to me initially, but given how much readers have embraced the novel it seems I was correct in devising an ambiguous ending with an air of the mysterious and supernatural.

Children of the Folded Valley is available from Amazon for Kindle.

 

Print copies can be ordered from Lulu.com: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/children-of-the-folded-valley/paperback/product-21812308.html

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