La la la, la la la la la, la la la…

ac

I mean, how else to start this ramble?

No, I know it’s almost been a year since I wrote anything here, but it’s been a terribly long and not particularly pleasant one, and if you don’t have anything good to say, sometimes it’s okay not to write thousands of words across the internet.

But I have a few good things to say. Mostly because I’ve started going to the cinema again, after Odeon finally decided they would introduce the Unlimited thing that Cineworld did for so long, and I could justify going to see films that weren’t necessarily going to be £15-good (what, realistically, can ever be that good?!).

I have two films to talk about. 1. LaLaLand. 2. Assassin’s Creed.

1. Now, I am not at all sure that LaLaLand is deserving of 14 Oscar nominations (certainly not those two songs – if any song in the film was good enough to be up there it was the John Legend one, that was decent), but I am very glad I went to see it in the cinema.

I’m just not quite sure I saw the same film as everybody else. Mind, I increasingly feel like my experience of life is not quite the same as everybody else, so at least it was consistent in that.

I thought it was beautiful. Really, truly beautiful and fascinating, but not at all beautiful because it was colourful, or because it was “like 1940’s coloured-in cinema”. At best, it was a cold pastiche of that, a wonky, bitter, tired pastiche of it. The song and dance routines, such as they were, owed as much to the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as they did to any Singin’ in the Rain, and trust me, no trust me, nobody has seen the Buffy musical more than I have.

Midway through Gosling and Stone’s first big number together, I got the image of Xander and Anya’s “I’ll Never Tell” in my head, and from thereon in, it was rather difficult to shake off. Same moves, same tone, same we’re-not-professionals-here thing; same influences, quite possibly, but that’s a lot of similarity.

And the relationship was very similar, too – it’s not healthy, it’s not positive, and these are not good people in any real sense of the word, but they each get something out of it.

One thing I felt very clearly about: the film hates Gosling’s character. Hates him. He’s called Sebastian, for starters, and Sebastians are rarely heroes (is the lobster one a hero? Is Sebastian a lobster? I’m trying to make a Little Mermaid reference but I’m too much of a snowflake to watch Little Mermaid so I’m falling flat on my own joke), and he is straight up awful, hideous, vile, from the moment we meet him, to the moment we leave him. I do not, cannot understand why anyone would find him to be a romantic lead. He’s a nightmare. But a useful one.

Mia, too, is a nightmare. Mia (the name of every secondary school student’s drama exam character) is tired and jaded and she’s probably a really good actress but we don’t really see or know enough of her to know, and I like Emma Stone’s voice but a lot of people don’t so it doesn’t really matter. She doesn’t really like Sebastian but he’s interesting, and interesting is enough, sometimes, because she isn’t really relying on him until she is because she wasn’t paying attention, and then that’s what happens sometimes in life: you fall into things that aren’t good for you in the long term…but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good for you eventually.

The thing I particularly like is that both Sebastian and Mia are pretty grim. Sebastian is objectively and excessively so, from the white-boy saviour of the jazz that is quite ready to save itself aspect, to the fact that he has textual experience of stalking women and insisting they will like him, because the way Sebastians live in this world is to say things are so until they are. He has precisely zero redeeming features, but Gosling is a brilliant actor of such difficult stuff, and therefore he is, somehow, still watchable.

Neither Sebastian nor Mia are intentionally, significantly awful to each other. Sebastian is self-centred and doesn’t pay attention to dates. He walks into her and doesn’t go to her play, but in his head, there are reasons for both that add up well enough. She is past caring about anything much, and doesn’t pay attention to dates, and she doesn’t like it when Sebastian seems like he might drop the one thing that kept him interesting – which is not, incidentally, his unsuccessfulness, but is instead his resolute intent to experience life at its most miserable. It is not that he makes her feel better about being unsuccessful, it is that he makes striving for the dream look a little more like the dream than it has done in a while.

It’s not particularly romantic. It’s not a great love story. It is a wonderful piece of story-telling about paths crossing at a crucial time in life, about how even the worst people can, whilst being awful, sometimes give you just what you need, and about how sometimes, you give them that too. And that, really, is fine.

Honestly. It’s fine. He doesn’t save her. She doesn’t save him. They kick each other, metaphorically, up the artistic arse, at their last chance to have done so.

That end bit, that rehashing of what it would have been like if they really had been a romantic couple, how it could have been…I look at the way they come out of that and see two characters who are not sorry that it did not pan out that way. It would not have been roses. It would not have been better. Seb wouldn’t have had his club, and would never have been a successful hanger-on; Mia wouldn’t have been able to give herself to her craft, nor to find herself again, her old self, who, I like to presume, was happy with the relationship she wound up with, even if, for a moment in time, it was not what she thought she had wanted.

That, then, is my lengthy how-I-read-this, and it may be that I have spent a lot of my life trying, on and off, to variously achieve dreams, serve coffee, and be interesting that it resonated so much for me, but I think this is a lot more snide and pushy and sarcastic a film than all the glowing reviews I see.

I’m here for dislikeable characters and difficult conversations and I don’t need to root for anyone to enjoy a film. I didn’t feel that was a musical; I felt like jazz thrived despite Sebastian, rather than because of him, and I would totally go and see The Messengers because the keyboards were pretty cool and I liked that song more than most of the rest of them. And there we have it.

2. Assassin’s Creed. And so to a film made, as they say, specifically to delight me. I mean, really. What a joy, what an absolute joy and delight. I would have thought this anyway, but there were two things that consolidated this. a) The fact that Michael Fassbender spends a good chunk of the tail end of the film shirtless FOR NO REASON and b) the fact that they spoke Spanish in Spain and that all the past was subtitled. Note, I say these consolidated my conviction it was made for me – I probably would’ve enjoyed it anyway.

The thing with Assassin’s Creed was that it understood the source material to the extent that you both are and are not the central character. You look good as Michael Fassbender, or it’s good to look at Michael Fassbender. You don’t know who you trust, until the story decides otherwise. You’re learning as you go along.

I thought the balance between past and present was perfect for upping the genre to something slightly more sci-fi, slightly less appropriated history. I thought it danced fairly neatly past all the usual issues with large blockbuster films – not least because, and once I started looking for it, I looked for it a lot and always found it, wherever there were men in positions of power or authority, there were also women, and the gender balance was spot on. I am less of the person to make this comment, but in some senses, it was also a far more racially diverse film than I am used to seeing from the big-budget, game-adapted genre.

Marion Cotillard was as good as I’ve ever had the opportunity to see her, but never better than during the sequence where, having consistently worn only flat shoes, her character suddenly dons a pair of wedges for the denouement. Cotillard is a grade A red carpet-walker and I’ve seen her master many heels flawlessly, but she acted “oh crikey these shoes are annoying” in the most subtle of ways that likely escaped anyone who’s never experienced it, but brought a real touch of insight and authenticity to her character.

The female roles were never ~female, and the father-daughter relationship was pleasingly written – never exactly subversive, but with an edge of interest that is often missing, for there was content aplenty, here. Indeed, the characters from major to minor all had their own characters and motivations, their own stories and lives – a conversation between two characters was two lives intersecting, and that meant there was far more weight to just about everything.

Indeed, I think that’s what I loved about the film. In many ways, the content was nonsense, and the plot was tenuous. It barely held together, but I was enjoying it so much for depth and range of character, and for sheer pacey spectacle, that I went with it. I had a small epiphany on leaving, which was that, in blockbusters which feature Megan Fox eschewing outerwear, most internet critics are happy to go along with things and will leave feeling relatively entertained. Now, I don’t know whether or not I would have been quite as delighted as I was if Fassbender had remained fully suited throughout, but I like to think that there was still enough substance. What didn’t happen, though, was any female character less than fully and appropriately clothed, so perhaps a certain demographic drifted off, and perhaps the plot wasn’t tight enough for the serious story enthusiast. But. But.

My hope is that the target demographic has shifted somewhat, and that just maybe, I am it, and that there are more like me out there, who can greatly enjoy a decent bit of cinema that makes just enough effort to subvert expectations by firmly meeting my own.

And so it’s been a lovely week in the cinema, for me! I wonder what other film-based joys 2017 has in store? It’s about the only area of things I’m particularly looking forward to. Next on my list of things to be specifically excited by is Hidden Figures, which I feel I have had to wait forever for already…

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Getting Reviewed: Other People’s Feelings

The Pulse

Greetings from sunny, sunny Stockholm! Like a proper writer, I’m hiding from the great yellow beast in the kitchen, typing and drinking tea.

Well, I worked out how to get people to review my book. I went to a couple of GoodReads groups I’d been in and signed up for a couple of RaR programmes. I’ve sent out about fifteen copies, and had a good handful of reviews back so far.

This has been a solid learning experience. Here are some things I’ve learnt.

1. Somehow, despite the lack of anything that might be termed vague sci-fi for a good third of the book, and despite it being in the dystopian reading group, my novel is too sci-fi for many people. I can’t tell you how confused I am by those reviews, and however much I put them down to disinterest, disillusionment or other negative reaction to my book (all of which are fine and honest reactions to have, of course they are), I still want to go, BUT WHY SPECIFICALLY DID YOU SAY THAT. Which is stupid of me. But continuous. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have said anything at all if the RaR system didn’t force them into “reviewing” even if they don’t read a book, which would have been better, but it wasn’t something I’d imagined happening. Lesson: say your book is more genre than it is to warn off people who really want mainstream?

The remaining reviews I’m incredibly grateful for, and they’re wonderfully written and thought out, and nothing makes me happier than having written enough for people to express rounded thoughts about it. Whatever their thoughts. I’ve only had positive reactions from people I know who’ve read it, and one of the reasons I wanted to get people who don’t know me to write proper honest reviews for me is because I had no idea how my book would fly in an actual readership.

Not very high, turns out.

But the reasonings surprise me rather.

2. People like liking characters. I have never understood this. You see it in reviews of all kinds of books. “I just didn’t like the character. I couldn’t sympathise with the character. I thought the character was naive/stupid/annoying/wrong/etc.” Yes, yes, Aiden isn’t likeable in a generic sense. He’s not attractive in any conventional sense, nor is he heroic, nor does he follow a conventional path of transformation into Normal Human. That was kind of what I loved about him to write, and it’s what a lot of people I’ve talked to in person about my book claim to have loved about him. But…his unlikeability is apparently a significant flaw for all my unknown reviwers. So that’s either:

a) My fault – they’re open to unlikeable characters, but I didn’t write well enough/plot well enough to make Aiden worthwhile in their eyes. Things like the popularity of writers like Stephen King, the absolute master of whole, vast ensembles of horrific, brain-smushingly horrible characters flung into generally brilliant plots, might speak for this. Also, consider the sheer amount of hideous characters that populate virtually every TV show. Note to self: should’ve made Aiden more like Don Draper.*

b) No-one’s fault – a matter of taste and not the kind of thing the reader wanted to encounter at this time, if at all.

c) The fault of expectation – a YA book’s major protagonist should be someone likeable/with whom the reader can sympathise (I’d really like to argue that Aiden is a completely sympathetic character – given his circumstances and well-discussed lifestyle, what more could you ask for from him?!).

d) Coincidence, and the reviewers are a small, non-representative group. But I don’t think this, because I see these kind of comments all the time for books with more unusual characters – “I didn’t like/sympathise with x character so I didn’t like the book.” But it’s amazing how, once a book is popular, that kind of instinctive issue is sidelined – once people become aware that someone likes x character, they become instantly more interesting, regardless of how likeable they truly are. Sidenote: whilst I wouldn’t try and compare The Pulse with The Hunger Games, it’s one of the reasons I really, really don’t understand anyone who’s read the whole trilogy rooting for Gale AT ALL. And also, one of the reasons I like those books a lot is because both major male characters (who are always, let’s recall, presented through Katniss’ eyes) fall outside the YA norms.

So there’s that. Lesson: don’t be surprised if people don’t share your own tastes, not just in characters, but in the act of reading itself.

Which brings me to:

3. No-one likes present narrator.

I exaggerate. In fact, my favourite part of any review received so far was in the one where the reviewer sort of came to like the present narrator aspect of my book. And my favourite moment possibly of the whole thing was when an old school friend I haven’t spoken to in a decade sent me a message telling me how much he’d enjoyed that.

But still. I’ve had a few responses around and about where people seemed to think that present narrator was a mistake, something I’d not meant to do, or that suggest that the reader hasn’t previously encountered present narrator in anything at all and is completely and utterly thrown by it. Or, they just hate it.

This is one thing I’d sort of expected. When I was looking around agents, and even when I was writing the book I saw over and over in ‘how to novel’ sort of things block capital advice against using present narrator, or flat out hatred for the device. I just don’t understand it, and, because much of my process in self-publishing this novel at all has been “My book: my way”, I ignored it.

I LOVE well-used present narrator. Again, I’m not ruling out the idea that I didn’t use it well, or didn’t make the most of the device. It’s perfectly possible. I’m glad I’ve had enough feedback about it that’s positive enough that I’m not retreating into the background and pretending this all never happened, but I’m not obstinately proclaiming my own authorly brilliance to the exclusion of all criticism.

But again, I really do love it. And I find it all the time. I think that’s something I find particularly surprising – a lot of people just haven’t come across it. One review mentions how it’s done much better in Narnia, and that’s true, but it’s a different kind of present narrator, a lighter, less interfering one, for sure, with no intent to foreshadow or prescribe, more to handhold and keep pace. I love being hauled through a story by a strong authorial voice, and since I’ve written, I’ve enjoyed trying to use that – even my earliest stories have it knocking about. For goodness’ sake, even my fanfiction has it (I don’t remember anyone complaining about it there, actually).

I wonder if it’s more to do with one’s own reading experience – it probably is, because, obviously, every book you read is, I think, shaped by the ones that come before and after it, not to mention your day, your mood, your life and your self – but growing up amidst a library rammed with wordy, interfering Victorian and pre-1950s British authors, there was definitely a lot of present narrator about in virtually everything I read. I’m not sure if that’s the case in prevalent Stateside literature so much. It’s a thought, anyway.

And again – because I’d had this idea that it wasn’t a popular device when I was writing it – it was another thing I was glad to uncover more thoughts on in reviews by people I didn’t know. Lesson: if people tell you something isn’t welcome in literature, they’re probably right. Caveat: That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

The best lesson of all, though, thus far, is this:

5. I can take it. Yes, I have strong feelings about other people’s feelings. Yes, I want to respond to everyone and have some epic dialogue about WHY WHY WHY WHAT and occasionally WTF, but I really do, it turns out, have a fervent enough belief in everyone’s right to think whatever they like about whatever it is that they read and just to be thrilled that people are actually reading (recall, I grew up in a time pre-Harry Potter, where reading seemed to be a very peculiar thing to do indeed, and everyone was terrified that no-one would bother with it In The Future), that I don’t burst into tears if someone doesn’t like my novel, and I am overjoyed if, even if they didn’t specifically like it, or think that it was any good, they gave those thoughts care and time.

I wasn’t sure about that. I’ve been terrified of a bad review. I’ve had a few now. And yes, obviously I’m sad that I’ve only had one or two people I don’t know feel overwhelmingly positive about the book, or that I’ve not had more enthusiastic reviews, or indeed any yet from the free day (that’s another blog…) but there it is, and also, I must remind myself on a continual basis that it is a sodding sizeable book, which people can’t just get through in an afternoon unless they have considerable interest, space in their life, and dedication to doing so.

But it’s okay. I genuinely, truly want to know what people think about The Pulse. What they like, what they don’t. How they found the experience of reading it.

If you’d like to let me know your thoughts on The Pulse, you’re always welcome to email as per the acknowledgements page in the back of the book, or, obviously to review on Amazon or . I’d love it if you would. Unless you stopped after two pages because you hated it. Whilst, once more, I utterly defend your right to post such a review, I’d be lying if I said it made me happy XD

And, if you’ve not bought The Pulse and somehow, despite the not-exactly-selling-it nature of this blog would like to, then it’s HERE on Amazon UK and HERE on Amazon US (and on all the regional Amazons, too, including the new Amazon India, yay! Search “the Pulse Shaw” and it’ll appear pronto).

Anyone else have review experiences/blogs they’d like to share on this? It’s definitely the kind of process that’s both precisely as I’d imagined, and quite a surprise!

*On reflection, I think Aiden might have rather more in common with Don Draper than I’d imagined. Iiiiiinteresting.