The cigarettes, the magazines all stacked up in the rain

People have been enjoying City Lights very much. Ta muchly -- it's nice to get nice back from the web. I've written the second part of the story. I just haven't typed it up yet.

Stephen Stratford is writing. You know he will be in the home stretch when he Twitpics bourbon or reaches for an awkward metaphor like "zebra hunting."

In the last month I re-read Woodward and Bernstein's All The President's Men and watched the movie (yet) again. Screenwriter William Goldman is always good on the writing process:
"One of the things I love to do when I work with young writers is to disabuse them of the notion that I know what I'm doing. I don't know what I'm doing. I'm writing a script now, and as we are speaking, I am looking at my computer, tearing out my hair, thinking, well, is this horrible, or is this going to work? I don't know. Storytelling is always tricky."
I been reading many comments from authors about their mid-career anxieties -- what's the point, maybe it's all over, etc. Writers feel that every day, even the Nobel Prize winners. Writes Kevin Rabalais of Ernest Hemingway:
Once the 1930s rolled around, many critics believed he had seen his day, and by 1954, the year of the aeroplane crashes and Nobel announcement, he had become, for many, a parody. Following his suicide, Time magazine reported on the life "which led Hemingway himself not only to some mechanical, self-consciously 'Hemingway' writing, but to a self-conscious 'Hemingway' style of life". That life grew increasingly desperate after the crashes from which, writes [biographer Paul] Hendrickson, "he never really recovered in either his body or mind".
Writing is a lonely full-time job that doesn't pay very much. But the solitude of the task is balanced by the way fiction taps into and feeds the continuum. In the New York Times last year Pixar's John Lasseter summed this up in a story about Steve Jobs summing it up:
Steve Jobs and I were very close, and early on when I was making "Toy Story" we started talking and he said, "John, you know at Apple when I make computers, what is the lifespan of this product, two years, three years at the most, and then about five years, they're like a doorstop. But if you do your job right, these films can last forever."
On hiPod-rotate: Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine. In 2005 she explained the four-year break between her second and third albums to Rolling Stone:
"The first couple of years, I didn't have anything left in me to write about. That was a good thing, because it meant I'd done my job on the last batch of songs. I was riding a wave of independence. I wasn't trying to write; I just figured if the songs came to me, they came to me, and if not, 'Oh, well, it's been fun.'"
That's a pretty lovely way of thinking about it.

Good things

The Hollywood Reporter's Borys Kit talks to screenwriter Pablo Fenjves about the ten years it took to get his script Man on a Ledge made into a movie. Says Fenjves:
"I jokingly say that this [movie] is a metaphor for the life of a Hollywood writer... You sell something that everybody is excited about, but the next thing you know they have notes, and they are basically slowly pushing you out onto a ledge. And then they hire other people. And then things happen to the script that you are not to happy about."
I like this story because Fenjves is 58:
"I'm 58 years old... and I don't mind having a movie made now because most guys are still talking about the movie they had made when they were 38... There's an old saying that says in Hollywood things come to those who wait. It's wrong. It's good things come to those who write."
Full story is here.


I've heard a rumour from Ground Control

Jonathan King and I have a new comic out. City Lights is a science-fiction story hosted at Jonathan's tomorrow-themed site The Brighter Future. I wrote the story and scribbled some thumbnails and Jonathan drew and painted all the finished art, breaking it down into frames and making it look just like a bought one. The development process consisted of me liking everything he did, although we did debate moving a word balloon on page five. A tense moment, but it passed.

The story was inspired by astrophysicists Ed Turner and Avi Loeb's proposal to search for alien life by detecting light from cities on other worlds. The idea of discovering aliens living so far away that you can't communicate with them in any normal sense is romantic and strange, and I've always been interested in scientific communities based in exotic locales such as Hawaii (they're featured in Electric). I wrote the script in three acts: a storyboarded intro and outro bracketing a long dialogue sequence. The wordless set up and conclusion meant the story would work better as a visual piece.

City Lights was conceived with Jonathan's previous comics in mind: he contrasts big empty spaces with intimate storytelling details and frames the action in a cinematic way. When he is not drawing strips he is making movies. The above still is a good example of his style. I love the way it's 3D but flattened, naturalistic yet stylised, clean but atmospheric. You can see for yourself here.


What you like is in the limo

The Megaupload arrests are doing more to contemporise New Zealand's image than sport ever could. Reports the New York Times:
The Auckland police arrived at Dotcom Mansion on Friday morning... Kim Dotcom... ran inside and activated several electronic locks. When the police "neutralised" those, he barricaded himself in a safe room. Officers cut their way through to nab him.
Repeat: Cut their way through to nab him.

Also in the NYT, Ms Melanie Lynskey:
Melanie Lynskey has playing wacky down cold. She's done it for years on "Two and a Half Men" as Rose, the off-kilter neighbor. And she shines in dramatic parts, as when she played Matt Damon's wife in "The Informant!" Yet job offers are almost always the same: a fifth lead here, the best friend there. She's 34 and was recently cast as Aunt Helen in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." Can't she — just once — land the big, meaty, carry-the-movie role?
Does she need it? Since starring with Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures in 1994 Lynskey has gone on to make fewer movies about the Titanic and not married as many directors but her career is arguably the more interesting. (Also: sexier.)

(Pic: Ann SummaNYTimes)


Short cuts

Joe Brown about his favourite pocket knife:
I check luggage when traveling so I can bring it with me because, for my purposes, it's perfect. You never know when a pocket knife will come in handy. The world is full of things to cut.
My favourite pocket knife was the sort you used to be able to buy at any dairy or tobacconist's: about 1.25" long, single blade. Excellent for peeling apples, cutting string or quietly sawing articles out of newspapers that belonged to other people, it stayed on my keyring until it cracked. It has since been replaced with a 1.75" Laguiole.

Because I also like to watch TV seasons all in one go I was interested to read what Marty McNamara in the LA Times wrote about the effects of binge-viewing on modern TV:
Serialization has served many masters — the Greek gods, Charles Dickens, Wonder Woman — but none so faithfully as television. No other genre, save the comics page, is as eternally open-ended, elastic to the point of incredulity. The beauty of the successful television show is that it uses a finite number of characters to tell a never-ending story or a story that ends only when the audience and occasionally the creator loses interest.
Full article is here.


Do you like my tight sweater?

The Danish Broadcasting Corporation has been hitting it out of the park with crime series like The Killing and, now, Borgen. The dramas are complex and gory, subtitled, made with relatively low budgets and yet have gone on to enjoy international success. OMG how do the Danes do it? A clue: it has to do with writers:
[DR's] annual income is an eighth of the BBC's, and slender resources of about £20m a year for drama mean the emphasis is on picking winners. Over the past 20 years, executives, producers and writers have refined that art to develop the classiest, most efficient drama factory in world television.

The rules are straightforward. Commissioners insist on original drama dealing with issues in contemporary society: no remakes, no adaptations. The main requirement is material for the 8pm slot on Sundays, when gripping drama helps Danish audiences through the long winters. Writers have the final say. Hammerich said: "We give them a lot of space and time to develop their story. The vision of the writer is the centre of attention, we call it 'one vision' – meaning everyone works towards fulfilling this one vision, and very few executives are in a position to make final decisions. I believe this is part of the success."
You can tell. The Killing isn't perfect by any means -- the second series wanders off -- but it has a voice and a tone and a mood, which is all a story really needs for you to fall in love with it. "Trusting the writer" was once the mantra of the BBC: AMC and HBO now chant it every day. Writers, of course, knew this already but now and then a broader industry discovers it, to its profit.

Full article is here.


2012: The Year in Review (WIP)

  1. Escape From New York (1981)
  2. Die Hard (1988)
  3. Fleetwood Mac, 'Over and Over' Tusk (1979)
  4. How to check your drinks for roofies. Kind of.
  5. William Gibson, Zero History (2011)
  6. Richard Price, Lush Life (2008)
  7. Quantum reality.
  8. The limits of intuition.
  9. The far side of the moon.
  10. "Accused Picasso Thief Pleads Guilty" Article @ NYTimes. (This will become important later on.)
  11. Woody Allen's first version of Midnight in Paris was a 1971 short story
  12. Modern polling research
  13. Boss (2011) 
  14. Diana Krall, 'Let's Face The Music and Dance,' 1999 (Irving Berlin, 1936)
  15. Eve Arnold
  16. Janwillem van de Wetering, The Corpse on the Dike (1976) ("I can never hit anything after I have been riding my bicycle; it seems that the vibration of a cycle affects the muscles of my arm." pp. 46-47)
  17. 1970 Camaro data. (This will become important later on.)
  18. "Alien lights on Pluto" article @ Time magazine. (This will become important later on.) 
(Pic: Oscar Wilde's tomb, Pere Lachaise 2012)


The Zebra Hunter Problem

As a writer I am often asked if I have anything "lying around." Coming from producers this is code for "something to be had for free" and the answer is "no." If the request has come from another writer or artist things get more interesting. A manga artist is working on something that was once lying around on my laptop. The rest are composting.

I use a MacBook Air 11" with a solid state drive. It's still amazing to me that so much thinking can fit on a chip the size of a cameo brooch. With the wifi off I can tap away on TextWrangler or Final Draft for up to eight hours so inevitably things accrue. There's the Manuscript I Never Finish which is unlikely to ever see the light of day because I never get around to finishing it. Then there's the novel I finished last year -- the first in a series -- and the novel that comes after that (all going quite well). In between -- lying around -- are some short stories, a stack of anonymous sections of dialogue, a pulp noir and another novel that split like a roux.

The split novel was frustrating. Every now and then I would go back to it and stare and scratch my head. I knew it had gone wrong but couldn't see where, or why, or how to fix it. At the same time I knew that the answer was right in front of me. Wood / trees. Nose / face.

It's what I call the Zebra Hunter Problem. You write 200 pages about a zebra and 200 pages about a zebra hunter and then grind to a halt wondering how the two elements could ever fit together. Any fool looking over your shoulder can say, hey, you know what would work? But you reply no, that would be too obvious. And you go back to staring.

Then one day, much, much later you open the file / legal ringbinder / shoebox / paper sack of Post It notes and locks of her hair and think, hey -- you know what would work?

It's not a Eureka moment. It's a Zebra moment. So that novel is fixed, now. It's lying around.

(Pic: Nicholas Ray / Burnett Guffy)