Author Archives: mjhearle

Why didn’t my book sell?

Last week I wrote a post detailing my thoughts on having the unsold copies of my novels, Winter’s Shadow and Winter’s Light, liquidated by the publisher. I went to great pains to establish that I wasn’t seeking pity, that I was grateful for the luck I’d had as an author so far, and the same disclaimer goes for this post as well. The experiences I’ve had in the publishing world have been nothing but positive. I’ve met some amazing people who I hope to keep working with in the future and overall feel incredibly blessed.

To repeat myself, this is not a pity piece.

It is, however, an opportunity to explore some thoughts and theories as to why Winter’s Light , the sequel to Winter’s Shadow, didn’t sell as many copies as the first book. I would also invite any readers out there to put forward their own theories in the comments section. I’m genuinely curious.

Theory 1: The book was rubbish

Obviously, I am in no position to argue against this point objectively. I did receive enough positive reviews though, to suggest the book wasn’t terrible. In terms of notices, Winter’s Light had roughly the same amount of good reviews as the first book. My personal feeling is that Winter’s Light contains much stronger writing than Winter’s Shadow. Not only was I a more experienced writer when I attempted the sequel, I also didn’t have to worry as much about clogging the story with boring exposition because I’d already established the characters and world. The narrative moves faster and from a language point of view, the prose feels tighter and more stylish. This is, of course, open to debate.

Theory 2: Poor publicity

A lot of writers complain about their publisher not supporting their book enough. Not me. I was blessed with an incredibly passionate PR agent (Hi Charlotte!) on Winter’s Light and did even more radio and newspaper interviews than the first time round. Granted, I was not always the best interviewee (it’s damn nerve wracking being interviewed) but I warmed up as I went along and by the end of the junket could actually string a couple of sentences together without stuttering. I didn’t get the subway and bus side posters that some authors get, but I honestly didn’t expect to. Winter’s Shadow wasn’t a huge bestseller so there wouldn’t have been much financial sense for the publisher in spending money on a massive outdoor print campaign for the sequel. Would I have sold more copies of Winter’s Light if there’d been a bigger advertising spend? Yes, but I don’t know how many more. It would have been a gamble and in these tight economic times, publishers are less likely to roll the dice. You can’t blame them.

Theory 3: Generic cover

This theory actually holds some water. I was never overly fond of the cover for Winter’s Light. It looked far too similar to other YA paranormal novels. Absolutely, there is marketing sense in targeting a specific demographic with familiar imagery but I think we didn’t do enough to stand out from the crowd.  Another potential issue was that while the Winter’s Light cover looked the same as other paranormals, it deviated considerably from the style and colour palette established with Winter’s Shadow. Most book series (see Twilight/Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.) retain visual similarity from cover to cover to identify them as part of a set. Browsing the shelves of a book store, a casual fan of Winter’s Shadow wouldn’t necessarily recognise Winter’s Light as a sequel as there aren’t enough consistent visual signifiers. If the publisher wasn’t interested in continuing the style of Winter’s ShadowI would have preferred they went in a completely direction. Do something quirky and unexpected rather than try and follow a visual trend. The Winter books aren’t like other paranormals; their covers should reflect this.

Theory 4: The story wasn’t YA paranormal-y enough

And now we get to an issue that concerned me even before the book’s publication. When I wrote Winter’s Shadow, I was well aware of the YA paranormal genre conventions and how I was honouring them with my story. I had the wide-eyed ingenue, the handsome and mysterious stranger, the tragic love story, the teen angst, the supernatural paraphenalia – all elements I knew fans of the genre would gobble up with relish. Unfortunately, I did something stupid with Winter’s Shadow – I killed my love interest. This meant, Winter’s Light, couldn’t contain a strong romance element. It also meant the book was shot through with a very real sense of melancholy and grief. Not the most commercial of themes and certainly not the sort of story material the YA paranormal genre is popular for. I tried to compensate for the lack of romance by ramping up the thriller and mystery elements of the book and in the process think I created a much more compelling narrative, but still the romance element was missing. I hoped that readers would respond to a different kind of YA paranormal, something a little darker and weightier than the traditional fare. However, even some of the most favourable reviews mentioned their disappointment at absence of romance in the story. YA paranormal fans are some of the most passionate in the reading community, but they also know what they like, and it seems, are wary of stories that stray too far from the established model. Ultimately, I feel like this was the main the reason Winter’s Light  wasn’t as popular as Winter’s Shadow. It was too different. Too unusual. Not romantic enough.

You know what? I don’t care too much about the book’s lack of commercial success. Sure, I feel bad for my publisher that they didn’t make more money but I like Winter’s Light. It’s the best continuation of Winter’s story I could have written. And I think it sets up what’s promises to be one helluva third book.

M.J.

What happens to unsold books

I received a letter from my publisher last week. Usually these letters are cause for excitement – royalty statements and what-not. Not this one, though. It was informing me that all the unsold copies of my books, Winter’s Shadow and Winter’s Light, were being pulped unless I wished to purchase them back from the publisher at a reduced rate. Looking at the book figures quoted in the letter it seems I sold about eight-five percent of my first run of Winter’s Shadow. That’s a big win in today’s publishing climate. I sold a considerably lower percent of Winter’s Light. I have a few theories as to ‘why?’ but that can wait for a later post. 

First of all, I’d like to assure you dear reader that this is not a pity post. I am not seeking consolation or sympathy. I have had far too much good luck to feel hard done by. As most struggling writers know getting published at all is something of a miracle. Plus, the many beautiful emails I’ve received from fans of the book series are more than enough to keep me from getting maudlin. So no, this is absolutely not a pity post. Instead, I hope it merely serves as a sobering insight into the current publishing climate.

Winter’s Shadow was in bookstores for two years. Winter’s Light has been out for just one. During that time it has not found a big enough audience for my publisher to risk keeping it on the shelves longer. In the past, books were given more time to build an audience. However, with big chains like Borders closing and shelf-space in independent stores limited, it seems publishers and (more to the point booksellers) simply can’t afford to give titles that much of a chance anymore. They either sell or they don’t and if they don’t then they’re pulped to make way for new books. It’s as simple, and as sad, as that.

And I understand the fiscal sense behind this model. People are buying less books so publishers and booksellers have to be ruthless in their business decisions. Why throw your support behind a sequel to a book that wasn’t financially successful to begin when you can gamble on something new? Something that might be the next Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games or – god forbid – Fifty Shades of Grey.

So, where does that leave the Winter series? After all, readers will know that Winter’s Light ends on something of a cliffhanger. Rest assured, I will be writing a third book which, if everything goes according to plan, should be ready midway next year. Whether it is published conventionally remains to be seen. If I can’t find a publisher I may float it as an ebook or publish it myself. Whatever happens the book will exist and it will be available. If nowhere else, then on this very site. That should hopefully comfort those concerned readers out there who were fearful I was going to leave poor Winter and Blake’s story unfinished.

In the meantime, I have my novella Claudette in the Shadows, coming out as an ebook later this year through MOMENTUM. The story isn’t so much a prequel to Winter’s Shadow as it is a character study of Claudette Duchamp, Blake’s troubled sister. There’s lots of magic and mystery and a healthy dash of romance as well. I’m very proud of it and can’t wait to see what the fans think.

I’m also nearly halfway through LUNE and it’s shaping up to be something special. I’ve shown what I’ve written to a few folk I trust and the feedback has been universally positive. Whatever I’m doing seems to be working. Hopefully, I can keep it up.

As for all those copies of Winter’s Shadow and Winter’s Light waiting to be pulped? I’ve decided I’m going to buy them back. Every single book. I just can’t bear the thought of them being destroyed. The plan is I’ll sell the recovered books on this site at a reduced rate. On the surface, this might not seem like a fiscally responsible decision but I feel like if you’re gonna gamble it might as well be on yourself. I’m gaining new readers every week. At least some of them might be curious about picking up the first two Winter books. Especially, after Claudette in the Shadows and the final Winter novel are released.

I don’t look at writing as a career. I look at it as a journey. I’m just at the beginning now and I have no idea where this twisting path will lead. Let’s find out together.

M.J.

Lune Diary: Chapter Two

I’d like LUNE to have evocative chapter names.

The Hobbit does this extremely well with names like ‘Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire’, ‘The Gathering of the Clouds’ and ‘A Thief in the Night’. Chapter One of Lune is called ‘The Boy in the Tree’ but I have yet to name Chapter Two. It would help, I suppose, if the book was structured like a collection of short stories with each chapter serving as an almost self-contained narrative episode. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds. Chapter Two is full of largely connective tissue which I feel is essential for character development but doesn’t necessarily rocket the narrative forward. Which is probably why I’m having trouble naming it.

After getting into a fight with some bullies, Lune is called to Principal Wadkins office to explain himself. His mother attends as well and we get a glimpse into Lune’s not very pleasant family life. Both the principal and his mother don’t listen to him and seem annoyed by his very existence. The ‘cruel guardian’ figure is a pretty familiar fairytale –not to mention Dickensian – trope and I questioned myself before including it. Originality should always be the goal in writing but I find genre conventions are a useful shorthand in quickly communicating ideas to the reader. In this case, I need the reader to understand why Lune might be so eager to leave this world behind.

Lune’s mother is not a monster. She doesn’t beat him or force him to live in a cupboard under the stairs ala Potter. We learn that she had Lune when she was very young. Sixteen. This would make her approximately twenty-nine when the story begins. If she resents Lune for holding her back from enjoying her late teens and early twenties then I think that’s an understandable, if not condonable, human reaction.

It’s important that the world of LUNE is described in shades of grey. Frankly, I find the notions of absolute good and evil to be boring and dramatically inert. Like Lune’s mother, I want the perspective of the villains to be clear and relatable. That doesn’t mean they need to be sympathetic. In fact, villains are much more frightening if we at least partially know where they’re coming from.

Chapter Two ends with the arrival of the piano. Ah, yes the piano. One of the first truly fresh concepts I’m bringing to the story. So far everything might feel a little familiar. The piano will change that. Perhaps a good title for this chapter would be ‘An Unexpected Piano’. A nod towards The Hobbit‘s opening chapter ‘An Unexpected Party.’ I like it.

On to Chapter Three.

M.J.

Lune Diary: What’s in a name?

The title ‘Lune’ first occurred to me somewhere between Fethiye and Efes in Turkey. I was on a pre-wedding honeymoon with my soon-to-be wife and the weather was apocalyptically hot. With skin paler than milk, it’s hard enough for me to endure the Australian summer let alone endure the middle east’s seasonal heat, so I was spending a lot of time indoors. While my wife was off exploring, unbothered by the malignant orb in the sky, I took to writing.

I’d been toying with the outline for a children’s fantasy story – a story I had initially called Sebastian Wolf and The Clockwork King until I discovered there were a million books with ‘clockwork’ in the title (not the least Cassandra Clare’s bestselling series) – and needed a title. Some writers can work without titles. I can’t. Even if it’s going to change, I need a title to hang the story on. And there ‘Lune’ was. A title that suggested the mystery and magic I hoped my story would possess.

Would ‘Lune’ have occurred to me in Australia? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Travelling has a stimulative effect on my imagination. It has something to do with being outside my comfort zone and breaking up the usual routines. Nevertheless, I don’t think the word was directly inspired by my travels. No, if I think deeply about ‘Lune’ I can identify a couple of clear antecedents. 

Dune2

The first one is Frank Herbert’s, Dune. I’ve always found this an enormously evocative title. ‘Dune’ spoke to me of otherworldly vistas and adventure. Phonetically, I like the way ‘Dune’ sounds. There’s no real explanation for this. I simply dig that particular combination of vowels and consonants. Swapping the ‘D’ and ‘L’ doesn’t change that. If anything, ‘Lune’ sounds even more melodious in my head. 

Going back further, I think I can spot another signpost on the neural pathway leading to ‘Lune’. When I was a kid, I was mad about video games. I didn’t actually have a computer until I was eleven or twelve but I was well into video games before then. I used to pour over video game magazines in the newsagency and visit video game stores where I would spend hours staring at the box art, imagining the most stunningly crafted games inside. Games that were far beyond the processing power of nineteen-eighties computers. One of the games I never played, but whose box art has lingered with me over the decades, is Loom

loom-fmtowns

It’s so strange. Who is that figure in the hood? What power does he possess? Who are those odd looking characters suspended in space? I could probably find the answers to those questions somewhere online but I’d rather not. I want the game to remain in my imagination. Unchanged. Perfect. Magical.

Dune. Loom. Lune. Seems like a pretty obvious progression. Or maybe I’m just imposing logic on something that is defiantly illogical.  

Whatever the case, ‘Lune’ felt right the moment it occurred to me. It would refer to the magical land I intended to have my character, Sebastian Wolf, explore. But before I could go ahead and lock ‘Lune’ down there was something I needed to check. You see, I’m a bit of a storytelling magpie, constantly stealing bright and shiny things from the various different media I consume. Sometimes I’m aware I’m recycling someone else’s idea, other times my thievery comes as a complete shock to myself. It’s always depressing to discover you’re not as clever as you think you are.

Fearing this, I jumped onto Google and did a search for any other books called ‘Lune’. Google didn’t turn up any. What it did reveal, however, was that ‘lune’ was most definitely not a word of my own invention. For one thing, it’s both French and Latin for ‘moon’. This shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. I guess I’d never drawn the connection between ‘lunar’ and ‘Lune’? Everyone has blind spots. I’ve got plenty of them.

Delving deeper into Google, I discovered ‘Lune’ is also the crescent-shaped portion of a plane or sphere bounded by two arcs of circles. So, not only does it mean ‘moon’, it’s a mathematical term. Apparently, it’s also a river in England. Sorry, two rivers – one in Cumbria, one in Durham. Oh and, the character, King Lune, appears in The Chronicles of Narnia. Discovering this, I no longer felt comfortable using ‘Lune’ as the name of my story’s magical lands. The ‘moon’ association in particular bothered me. I kept imagining the confused expressions of French children as they read the book – how could the characters breathe in space?

But still, the title felt right…

When I closed my eyes and imagined the cover of my book, it remained Lune. I had to figure out a way to justify the title. So, I looked to my own work. Winter’s Shadow was named after Winter Adams, why couldn’t this book be named after its lead character? I wasn’t married to ‘Sebastian Wolf’. It had always struck me as a little mannered. Of course ‘Lune’ was a weird first name for a thirteen year-old London boy, but I saw no problem in it being his last name. It emphasised his ‘otherness’. Most boys at school call each other by their last names so it wouldn’t be strange if he was referred to in the story as ‘Lune’, though he needed a first name too. I settled on ‘Howard’. It’s got a nice rigid formality to it that contrasts with the oddness of ‘Lune’.

So the boy who had been named Sebastian Wolf became Howard Lune and I got to keep my book title. Of course, once the book goes to the publisher that could change. Winter’s Shadow was called Shade right up until the final stages of publication, when it was discovered there was another book coming out at the same time with that title. This could happen again. There might be a book called Lune sitting in a publishing warehouse right now, waiting to be shipped to bookstores. For now though, ‘Lune’ belongs to me. 

MJ.

Lune Diary: Chasing Clive Barker’s Thief

On first sentences:

“The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.”

So begins Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always. It’s one of my favourite opening sentences. Both lyrical and menacing it perfectly encapsulates the dark fairytale tone of the book. This is what an opening sentence should do.

Cover of "Clive Barker's The Thief Of Alw...

Cover of Clive Barker’s The Thief Of Always

Here is my first attempt at matching Barker’s eloquence.

“A tree stood on a small hill overlooking the football fields of St Josephs Secondary School. It was an old tree with knotted grey bark and thick twisting branches and on the lowest branch of this tree there sat a boy.”

Not quite right. The main problem is ‘Lune’ doesn’t appear in the first sentence. It feels like he should – like Thief’s Harvey. He is our protagonist. It seems almost rude to hold off introducing him.

This is my second attempt:

“Of all the hiding place in St Agnes High School, the one Howard Lune favoured the most was the fig tree which overlooked the soccer fields.”

It’s better, though still a little unwieldy. I like the drama that ‘hiding place’ conjures. I’m not sure about including the school’s name but I can live with it. Another option will inevitably occur to me later on. I must have re-written the opening line of Winter’s Shadow a hundred times.

Originally, I had the opening scene begin with Howard sitting in his room on a rain February afternoon drawing monsters. I scrapped this when I realised I was emulating Barker’s Thief too closely. I want to write a book as good as Thief but not simply mimic it. There’s a particular timeless feel to Barker’s language I find particularly attractive. Thief could have been published fifty years or five days ago. Lune should be an easy read for a twelve year-old but no less enchanting for an adult. However, if I write too simply then I’ll risk alienating sophisticated readers; pop into too many flowery adjectives then younger readers will be turned off. 

It’s a tightrope act. 

So much of this is instinctual. Or feels instinctual at the time. It’s only in the re-write that any miscalculations reveal themselves. At the moment I should just push on ahead, get the story down and trust that the tone will work itself out. It usually does. I guess that’s the magic part.

On influences:

I do not want to give the impression that The Thief of Always is the primary influence on Lune. It is one of many. Some of the others are: Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, A Wizard of Earthsea, His Dark Materials, The Magician’s Nephew, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and The Graveyard Book. Enid Blyton will probably work her way in there as well, though I promise never to write the phrase ‘lashings of ginger beer’.

Re-reading A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin I was struck by its greatness. This is an important fantasy novel. Curiously, I remember being bored senseless when I first read it as a teenager. I can only imagine this was because the novel’s action is predominantly of a philosophical nature – Ged’s greatest battles are with himself rather than some external force. This is a much more exhilarating concept to me as a man, than it was as a boy. Le Guin’s poetic prose is frustratingly beautiful. I will never have her facility with words. Her description of Earthsea is evocative, the archipelagos easily imagined (I wonder if this was an influence on Barker’s Abarat series?) and I love the rich ethnic diversity of her characters. Earthsea is a benchmark of world-building. When I create my own fantasy world I will endeavour to do so with the same level of care and detail. 

The dragon Yevaud on the cover of Ursula K. Le...

The dragon Yevaud on the cover of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Cultural Cringe:

Lune’s school is in London, though its name is taken from the one I attended in Port Macquarie. Why aren’t I setting the book in Australia? Moreover, why isn’t Lune Australian? Is this some kind of fundamental cultural cringe on my part or a sensible stylistic choice? I don’t know? I plan on writing stories set in Australia in the future. It’s just that this country has such a strong cultural voice. I feel like it would clash with the classic form of storytelling I’m attempting. Clive Barker, J. M. Barrie, Enid Blyton, Lewis Carrol, Neil Gaiman and C.S. Lewis are all English writers and their stories (for the most part) have a distinctly English feel. They are the the forebears of Lune so it follows that Lune should be an English story. Maybe I should worry less about my cultural heritage and just concentrate on the story. Let it be what it wants to be.

Back to the words.

M.J.

A Gambling Man

My wife was away for work recently so I found myself with a free night. Unsure what to do  I decided to try for a cliché – poker night with the boys. This, despite the fact I’d never played poker before. So the boys came round and we started playing poker – texas hold ‘em to be exact. The first few rounds we played for nothing but our pride and then, once we were all comfortable with the rules (I wasn’t the only naif) we started playing for money. Not a lot of money but enough to keep things interesting.

An image of a person playing the poker varient...

An image of a person playing the poker varient, Texas Hold’em (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was keeping my head above water until midway in the game when I decided to gamble big. This was my hand – Ten of Hearts, Queen of Hearts, King of Hearts, and Ace of Hearts. All I needed was the Jack and I would have had a royal flush. A pretty much unbeatable hand. Three cards had yet to be turned over and I became convinced one of them was going to be the Jack.

Why, was I so certain? In every movie I’d ever seen about gambling when the hero was faced with a similar set of odds they bet big and won. Fate, according to Hollywood, rewards the brave and I had no reason to doubt Hollywood. It’s telling of my generally whimsical state of mind that I was shocked and disappointed when the Jack didn’t magically appear. Of course, it didn’t appear. The odds that it would have appeared were ridiculously poor. Not for the first time I was punished for confusing Hollywood reality with actual reality.

When I revealed my cards, Lee, one of the more experienced players, was shocked I’d bet so high when I had such a rubbish hand. I explained to him that I was banking on the Jack being turned over and geez, well wouldn’t that have been cool? A royal flush! How often does that happen? Lee shook his head sadly and offered me this advice – ‘Play the hand you have. Not the hand you hope to have.’

This struck me as being probably the greatest, most sensible advice of all time. For a while, anyway. And then I started thinking how often in my life I’d played the hand I hoped to have. When I asked my future wife out on a date, I had no reason to believe she’d say yes, when I bid at an open auction for our future house there was very little chance we’d win, when I decided to write my first book the chance of ever getting published was slim to none. And yet here I am married to a wonderful person, living in a beautiful home and two books sit in the shelf with my name on them.

So, I think I’ll keep I’ll keep betting big on nothing but a dream. Sooner or later that old Jack will turn up. I know it.

M.J.

Write great scenes

I’m not a big Tumblr guy. It’s nothing personal, I just feel with Facebook, Twitter and this blog, I spend enough time on social media without adding another platform to procrastinate with. There are a few Tumblr accounts I keep tabs on, however, one of them being Joe Hill’s Thrills.

Cover of "Heart-Shaped Box"

Cover of Heart-Shaped Box

Joe Hill, for those who don’t know, is the incredibly talented author of the spookfest Heart-Shaped Box, the magical realist novel Horns (soon to be a major motion picture starring Daniel Radcliffe), and the upcoming NOS4R2. Say that last title aloud and if it makes you smile you’ll probably dig his stuff. Joe’s Tumblr page is a cornucopia of geekery – Doctor Who, Star Wars, Victorian book illustrations, and comic books feature heavily. He also uses his tumblr to answer fan questions and post writing advice.

One such response to a fan’s question really stuck with me. The question asked of Joe (I’m paraphrasing) was ‘should you spend two years writing a novel that might not potentially sell?’

Joe’s response:

The first is to stop thinking about writing a novel that’s going to take you two years. That’s too overwhelming. Instead, just focus on what you’re going to do today, which is write another great scene: a scene that does something unexpected and fun and is going to make people want to read on. Something that explores the characters in a way that’s real but surprising. Don’t write about someone waking up, unless they’re waking up to find a dead body next to them. Don’t write about someone making breakfast unless there’s a head in the fridge… or his wife is going to call halfway through his eggs to tell him she’s leaving his drunk and lazy ass for an alligator wrestler and part-time evangelical preacher. That would be a great scene to write and that’s all the job comes down to. Your job is to write one great scene… and then write another great scene. When you have a whole stack of them, it’s a short story, or a novel.

The whole ‘Your job is to write one great scene…and then write another great scene.’  might seem obvious but it hit me with the force of an epiphany. You see, I’ve never approached my writing like this. Instead, I’ve focused on writing a great story. The individual scenes were less important than the whole overarching narrative. Pick-up Winter’s Shadow and you’ll see, particularly towards the beginning of the novel, plenty of, what I call, ‘bridging scenes’. These are scenes where nothing particularly interesting happens but they’re necessary to move the story forward. Most of the scenes of Winter at home, listening to music, brooding etc fall under this category. I don’t enjoy writing bridging scenes and try to add flavour when I can but sometimes it’s impossible. Or so I thought.

After considering Joe’s advice I’ve come to the conclusion that these bridging scenes might have been unnecessary. Ill-planned. I should have approached every scene with the same goal – make it great. Make it dramatic, unique, quirky. Make it pop. When I was going through the editorial process with my agent and publisher the critical feedback I consistently received was that the first half of Winter’s Shadow lagged. I could never figure out why or how to rectify this problem. Now, I think I can. There were too few great scenes and too many bridging scenes. I’m just about to start writing my third book and Joe’s advice will be at the forefront of my thoughts. Write great scenes and trust that a great story will follow.

M.J.

A glass and a half of full cream magic

Open any book and chances are you’ll find a dedication. I dedicated Winter’s Shadow to my wife, Greta, and Winter’s Light to my Dad. The third Winter book will be dedicated to my Mum (if not, she’ll kill me). These dedications are more than gestures. They’re gifts. A way of immortalising a sentiment. Authors don’t dole them out willy nilly. Which is why it might come as a surprise to readers when they open my next story, Claudette in the Shadows, and see a dedication to Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut Chocolate.

Cadbury's Fruit & Nut

Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut (Photo credit: Prato9x)

Let me explain: I hate getting up in the morning. Absolutely loathe it. If I had my way, I’d stay in bed till noon. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that…well…no, I’m just lazy. Unfortunately, the morning is the only time I can write. The day job occupies 9 to 6.30, and most nights I’m busy eating, having a relationship with my wife and sleeping. So basically I have from 6am to 8am to get anything done. Those precious two hours (more like an hour and half when you subtract showering, coffee making, and dressing) is guaranteed to be ‘my time’ so long as I can get to my desk and utilise it.

Which is where I hit a snag. I can set my alarm for 6am but that doesn’t mean I’m going to acknowledge it. Or even hear it. In the past, I’ve slept right through only to be woken by a well placed elbow courtesy of Greta. Even then, I’m more likely to go back to sleep. Some people spring from bed full of energy ready to tackle the day. I hate these people. It’s always a struggle for me. The Sandman is a wily jailer.

In the past, a publisher deadline has been enough of a motivator to get me out of bed. Something about knowing there are people expecting your work by a due date – have actually already paid you for it – can really light a fire under your arse. Laziness or not, with a deadline I generally get things done. Without one…there’s a reason the third Winter Book won’t be coming out this year. I watched 2012 slide by with an increasing sense of guilt and frustration as stories went unwritten. Yes, I had a wedding to plan for which ate into a lot of my free time and sucked my mental energy like a greedy vampire, but I wrote Winter’s Light under similar stressful circumstances (changing jobs, living with in-laws, buying a house).

The simple truth is, I didn’t write last year because I muster the discipline to drag my lazy arse out of bed, and plop it down in front of the laptop. Over the Christmas break I had a good long think about how to remedy this situation. Here I was, afforded this amazing opportunity to write books and have them actually be published and I was squandering it due to bad discipline. Something needed to change. I needed to change. And so we come to Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate.

I don’t like candy. I never have. You can keep your boiled sweets, milk bottles, and jelly snakes. Chocolate, on the other hand, is my vice. I love the stuff. A good book/movie, a block of chocolate and a hot drink is a perfect night in. Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut is my brand of choice. It’s a little fancier than your standard Milk, Dark or White chocolate but not as outrageous as your Top Decks, Rocky Roads, or Bubbly Blocks. Just like bread, milk and butter there is generally a block of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut in our fridge. It’s a standard item in our grocery inventory.

During my long dark tea time of the soul during Christmas, I tried to create various incentives for me to get up in the morning. Coffee was fine, but didn’t work on its own. Neither did peanut butter on toast. Watching a half of hour of TV wasn’t any good because that half hour inevitably became two hours. Whatever I tried, I was still left feeling groggy and tired and miserable. And then during one attempt, while I was getting the milk to make my morning coffee I spied the block of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Lacking serious impulse control, I broke off a row and took it with the coffee to my writing desk. As I munched on the delicious fruit and nut filled chocolate squares reviewing the feeble hundred or so words I’d typed of Claudette in the Shadows, something amazing started happen. I felt happy, energised – the combination of sugar, flavour and caffeine was kickstarting my brain.

I began to write.

The next day, when my alarm went off I felt the familiar reluctance of having to climb out of bed, except this time I had the happy memory of the previous day’s writing session to bolster my resolve. I stumbled downstairs, made myself a coffee and broke off another row of chocolate. Again, serotonin levels soaring thanks to Cadbury’s cocoa I experienced a productive and satisfying writing experience.       Claudette in the Shadows was starting to take shape. Even better than that, I was actually enjoying writing it. The process wasn’t the grind it usually was. The words were coming more easily.

A month and a half later, I’ve finished two drafts of Claudette, an outline for a children’s fantasy novel, and the first third of a horror movie screenplay. I’ve accomplished more in this short period than all of 2012. Every morning I wake up, have my chocolate and coffee and sit down to write. I no longer feel frustrated and unfulfilled. Perhaps, Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate is a Dumbo’s feather. Maybe I had the capacity to be this kind of writer all along. I don’t know? What I do know is every block of Cadbury’s chocolate contains a glass and a half of full cream dairy milk. Milk has calcium in it which is good for your bones and stuff. So eating Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut is healthy. If it also helps with your writing, then that ain’t bad.

M.J.

How to make the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie

I’m a geek.

Not that this should be surprising considering the sort of stuff I write, but I thought I should put it up front as we’re about to get into some particularly geeky territory. How geeky? Well, let’s just say if you know the difference between Hawkman and Hawkeye you should be okay. If you don’t, then I apologise in advance.

Now, many of you probably caught Joss Whedon’s The Avengers last year. Personally, I found the movie a little flat, save for any sequence featuring the Hulk. Sue me – I dig a big green guy beating the crap out of people. Clearly, I was in the minority with my luke warm response as The Avengers went on to become the number one box office hit of the year. Hollywood tends notice when a particular movie makes piles of money so news of a proposed similarly themed superhero team-up movie, Justice League, hit the interweb soon after.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, The Avengers was based on a pre-existing MARVEL comic book that dates back to the sixties. Justice League will feature superheroes drawn from the DC comic book series which also began in the sixties. Both DC and MARVEL publish stories about muscular men and women in tights yet the ethos behind the comics are quite different.

As personified by Superman, DC stories typically feature character-types who represent hyper-idealised notions of courage and strength. DC superheroes are more than human, unimpeachable – ‘super’ in every sense of the word. MARVEL stories, on the other hand, generally depict superheroes as all too human and having to contend with real world issues. The MARVEL mascot, Spiderman, is just a poor kid struggling to pay rent and keep his girlfriend. Fighting supervillains is just another pain in his ass. This characterisation is pretty far removed from the ‘lonely god’ archetypes of the core DC trio: Superman, Wonder Woman and (despite his mortal frailties) Batman.

When MARVEL first started making movies as a fully fledged studio (after watching Hollywood muck it up for years) they were careful to establish a real world aesthetic for their first film, Iron Man, that was in keeping with their grounded storytelling approach. Certain narrative aspects strayed into the realm of science fiction but the characters remained recognisably human. When Iron Man became such a resounding success, it set the template for the following films Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America. Moreover Iron Man gave Marvel the clout to employ a production strategy never before attempted in cinema – they would produce a series of origin movies featuring characters from Marvel comics existing in a shared universe. The ‘shared universe’ aspect of their plan was the revolutionary part of their plan. While Iron Man could appear in Thor or The Incredible Hulk’s comics, nothing like that had ever been done before in the movies. What first seemed to be a cool gimmick actually turned out to be a narrative device that paved the way for  The Avengers.  

MARVEL had no way of knowing audiences would embrace characters like Thor or Captain America but charged on ahead anyway. Even when a film stumbled (cough* Incredible Hulk cough*) it still served to strengthen the Marvel cinematic universe. As The Avengers box office receipts indicate, Marvel’s gamble paid off, which brings us to the proposed Justice League movie. I can see how on paper this production makes sense. After all DC characters like Batman and Superman have arguably much more traction with the movie going public than MARVEL players like Iron Man, let alone Hawkeye or Black Widow. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie featuring the two of them plus a bunch of other beloved classic superheroes?
However, Warner Bros. (the studio that owns DC Comics) doesn’t seem to understand that the reason The Avengers succeeded was not because it featured a bunch of superheroes in the same movie but because it felt like the culmination of one gigantic overarching story. Without Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America,  The Avengers wouldn’t have been half as well received because audiences wouldn’t have cared about – or even been able to identify – the characters (Who the hell is that blonde guy with the big hammer? Why is Robert Downey Jr dressed up like a robot? Where’s Eric Bana?).
Making Justice League an even dicier proposition is the previous cinematic success of DC superheroes. Green Lantern, was a massive failure, both critically and at the box office. Superman Returns bombed. Movies featuring Wonder Woman and The Flash have never even made it past the development stage. Sure, the Batman films have always been huge moneymakers but I’d  suggest that while Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are brilliant, his version of the character does not lend itself to a Justice League movie. It’s far too mired in it’s own complex mythology to be easily dropped into universe where a man flies around in blue leggings. No, if Warner Bros. are smart – and by announcing that they will release Justice League head to head with Avengers 2 this remains doubtful – they’ll leave Nolan’s Batman alone and start from scratch with the character.

I have recently given this proposed Justice League movie significant thought (see first sentence of this post). Probably, too much thought considering I have absolutely no power whatsoever in effecting its outcome. Fan wanking I believe it’s called. Nevertheless, I offer my suggestions here on the off chance that these words will find their way onto a Warner Bros executive’s BlackBerry and help avert not only a financial disaster but a storytelling one.

First of all, don’t release Justice League against Avengers 2. That’s just a colossally stupid move. At best you’ll be the year’s Deep Impact, to The Avengers Armageddon. Why not wait a year to have that summer spot all to yourself? Or hell, why not wait six years and spend the interim time following the Marvel model by crafting a series of origin pictures featuring the revamped Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman existing in a shared universe. Oh that’s right, you want to make your cash quickly before this whole superhero thing goes the way of the Western, which lets face it, is only a matter of time. Just like denim cut-offs, movie trends fall in and out of fashion with frightening abruptness.

Okay, so you’re locked into the Justice League movie – the first thing I’d do is hire the guys and gals behind the Justice League cartoons of the early naughties to oversee the script. Folks like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini who were also responsible for arguably the greatest Batman movie, Mask of the Phantasm. Clearly they know the DC characters inside and out, and more to the point understand good storytelling. I’ve been re-watching episodes of Batman Beyond recently and am constantly struck at just how well written these episodes are. It baffles me that Warner Bros. animation consistently outshines the live-action division yet goes unrewarded. Green Lantern would not have happened under Paul Dini or Bruce Timm’s watch.

Now as for the movie’s story, internet rumours suggest it involves the Justice League facing off against Darkseid, an intergalactic superbeing. This sounds pretty interesting and nothing at at all like The Avengers 2 which has Iron Man and co facing off against Thanos, an intergalactic superbeing…oh wait! It’s the same story! I dearly hope this rumour turns out to be false because while releasing a superhero team film against another superhero team film is bad strategy, releasing a film with the same basic storyline as your competitor is borderline retarded.

Don’t use Darkseid. DC has a roster of fantastic villains including the ever-charismatic Lex Luthor. Get Gene Hackman out of retirement or even bring back Kevin Spacey and his kryptonite shiv. I sincerely believe audiences would rather watch superheroes facing off against human foe rather than a CGI monster. It’s an empathy thing. Monsters made of pixels will never be as compelling as a human character portrayed by a charismatic performer. If you use Die Hard as your model and create a villain worthy of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, then you’re already ahead of The Avengers in my book.

Finally, my big suggestion for the Justice League movie is an aesthetic one – make it a period piece. Superman and Batman first appeared in the late nineteen thirties. By setting your story in this decade not only do you immediately imbue the film with a timeless quality, but it’s also befitting the characters. Superman’s old fashioned boyscout persona will certainly play more comfortably in this decade (I dread to think of the studio notes suggesting the character be made *ahem ‘edgy’ to better suit these cynical post-modern times. See Man of Steel trailer for evidence of this. Or don’t.) Also, who wouldn’t want to see an art deco Batman? We’ve already had the gothic Batman (Burton), disco Batman (Schumacher), and techno Batman (Nolan).

Perhaps most importantly, from a marketing position a 1930′s aesthetic will also allow you to visually differentiate the film in audience’s minds from the inevitable brushed steel, lens-flare heavy look of The Avengers 2. It doesn’t have to be sepia toned, hire a talented production designer to create something stylish and beautiful. Continuing this aesthetic, think of the poster/banner/billboard campaign you could run – classic character portraits of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman painted in the art deco style. As for multimedia, how about this – instead of derivative Inception BWAMM! scored teaser trailers, you could release period appropriate black and white newsreels featuring Batman/Superman’s/Wonder Woman’s exploits. It would be a great way to introduce audiences to this particular cinematic re-imagining of these properties. Hell, put them on YouTube and watch them go viral. Don’t worry about chasing The Avengers – let them worry about being hip. Hipness is temporary. Justice League can be classic.

M.J.

My Favourite TV Shows of 2012

I need to watch more television.

This might sound like an odd confession from someone who constantly moans about not having enough time to read books but the truth is there’s no shame in wanting to watch TV these days. Delving into a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be just as rewarding as cracking open a novel. There’s a reason wags have labelled this a golden age of television.

Mad Men

Mad Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember the scene in the pilot episode of Mad Men that made me realise this show was something special. Don Draper, stressed and hungover, lies down on the couch in his office and glances up at a fluorescent light. A fly is trapped behind the plastic guard desperately trying to escape. There’s no music – just the low hum of the light and the frantic buzzing of the fly. In retrospect, the imagery might be a little heavy handed – yeah, Don Draper’s the fly trapped in a prison of his own making – but it’s the sort of elegantly wordless scene that rarely pops up in television. Mad Men isn’t that concerned with plot, instead it rambles down narrative avenues and cul-de-sacs, more interested in the journey than the destination.

One episode stands out in a season of brilliant episodes – I’m talking about episode four, MYSTERY DATE. Mad Men has always had an undercurrent of simmering tension, however this episode really ramps it up by including a real-life serial killer, Richard Speck, into the proceedings. Again and again, the seemingly unrelated murder case intrudes on the narrative, appearing in newspaper headlines or overheard conversations. Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic theory that suggests if a gun is introduced in Act 1 then the audience expects it to go off in Act 3. And so we viewers are kept on the edge of our seat during MYSTERY DATE, waiting to see how this serial killer stuff is going to impact story. For a show that prizes character over action it’s a surprisingly suspenseful episode, and one that culminates in a typically obtuse, though satisfying, manner.

Breaking Bad (season 1)

Breaking Bad (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Mad Men had a particularly strong season, Breaking Bad has remained consistently strong throughout it’s five seasons. Still, I find myself waiting for the upcoming final season with some reservations. These stem from the fact that I don’t really like Walter White anymore. When  Breaking Bad first began, it was thrilling watching this mild-mannered high school teacher outwit violent drug dealers and gangsters but now Walter has transformed into such a cold and despicable character I find myself caring less about his plight. The show’s called Breaking Bad, so I shouldn’t be surprised by this turn of events but I can’t help but think it would be better if Walter showed a glimmer of remorse from time to time. The moments of black comedy which once alleviated the oppressively dark tone also seem to be coming in shorter supply. That stated, I’m committed now and will follow Walter White’s story to the bitter end if only to see how the whole tragic mess plays out.

Perhaps because it’s filtered through the lens of the fantasy genre, I find the similarly grim Game of Thrones to be a much easier watch. GOT, survived the loss of Sean Bean’s noble Ned Stark to deliver a second season just as strong as the first. For my money, Tyrion Lanister (brilliantly performed by Peter Dinklage) stood out as the most compelling character of the season, closely followed by the plucky Arya. And that last shot with the White Walkers marching on The Wall – Wow! Talk about a rousing way to close out a season. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

From hour long dramas to half hour dramedies, I watched Lena Dunham’s GIRLS after having my curiosity piqued by no small amount of online controversy. Because Dunham is only 26, there was much written about her being given a TV show to write, direct and star in, with the general thrust of the arguments being she didn’t deserve it at such a young age. Nonsense. Dunham was given this opportunity because she’s damn talented. GIRLS is clever, hilarious and peppered with scene after scene of emotional honesty. At times cringe-inducing in its rawness, the show nevertheless consistently entertains and I can’t understand why it would provoke such scorn when bland entertainment like How I Met Your Mother is infinitely more risible.

True Blood, was okay this year. I’ll stick around for next season but it’s not appointment TV. Jason Stackhouse still cracks me up, and I do love mimicking Bill’s ‘Sookie’. The ample gore and nudity is, as always, appreciated but the showrunners better whip something special up or I can’t see it surviving much longer.

Dexter (season 2)

Dexter (season 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was writing my Favourite Movies post, I included a bit of a wildcard (John Carter) and suspect my next choice will be equally controversial but, dammit, I enjoyed the hell out of Dexter. Isaak Sirko was a great antagonist this season, rich in pathos and acted superbly by the always reliable Ray Stevens. I was disappointed he didn’t make it to the end. Deb is still an annoyingly emotional basketcase, but it was a smart move making her aware of Dexter’s true nature (still think the incest stuff is boneheaded) as this complication added some much needed drama. Dexter’s central romance with Hannah was surprisingly sensitive and compelling. I suppose, it didn’t hurt that the Aussie actress (Yvonne Strahovski) playing Hannah was absolutely gorgeous – I’m gonna have to check out Chuck. It will be interesting to see how her character impacts the next season. Hell hath no fury like a sociopathic poisoner scorned.

Community, was patchy but when it worked there were few comedies that could compete with it. Much better than The Big Bang Theory and its canned laughter ilk. In terms of reflexive, post-modern comedy Arrested Development is still the reigning champ

One of the shows I loved most this year actually finished in 2006. I discovered Deadwood on BluRay and hungrily devoured all three seasons over a couple of weeks, luxuriating in the profane/poetic dialogue and marvelling at the exquisitely grimy art direction. In a perfect world we’d get a new season of Deadwood every year. As it stands, I’m grateful to have three.

Promotional poster of American Horror Story.

Promotional poster of American Horror Story. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And finally, we come to a show which probably shouldn’t be on this list, as it is in no ways ‘good’ but I include it to be honest with myself and with you, dear reader. American Horror Story: Asylum ramped up the lunacy of the first season by introducing all manner of shenanigans. Ghosts, demons, breast-obsessed serial killers, madmen, madwomen, nymphomaniacs, horny nuns, nazi scientists, zombies, exorcists and aliens all popped up, sometimes overlapping each other in a single episode. The result was perhaps not what the creators intended. Instead of terrifying, American Horror Story is often hilarious in its desperate urge to horrify and titillate. While, this may not be the classic genre series I initially hoped, I’ll gladly accept more American Horror Stories if only to see if the creators can maintain this fever-pitch level of crazy.

That’s it for my thoughts on TV in 2012. Let me know if you agree with my selection or if there’s any great shows I missed out on.

M.J.