The Good Critic

It’s awards season, and this Sunday sees the culmination of a seemingly endless number of awards ceremonies: The Screen Actors’ Guild, The Screen Writers’ Guild, The Golden Globes, The BAFTAs, The Emmys and I’m sure in amongst it all there have smaller, more low-key, but far more fabulous ceremonies for the Screen Hairdressers’ Guild and the Screen Animal Wranglers’ Guild too.

But yes, Sunday is the Oscar ceremony and the build-up has included the perennial favourite article in every publication going about speech length. If there is one thing people seem to agree needs to be shorter, smaller and faster, it’s acceptance speeches and every year the organisers tell us about their new, hard, fast rules to ensure the show runs to time. This year, acceptance speeches must be 45 seconds or less. That’s when the band will kick in and, for those who dare challenge it, no doubt the fat lady will start to sing too. The difference this time round is that the organisers want interesting speeches too. There is to be an off-stage ‘Thanks-cam’ where winners can thank all the family, friends, pets and agents that made things possible. On-stage they should make with off-hand Clooney-like charm, or there will be repercussions – like being made to star alongside J-Lo or some such.

So, I hear you ask, how are you going to segue this into something relating to the title that’s sitting in big bold letters at the top of this post? Well, quite possibly with a hackneyed “So how am I going to…” type sentence. Actually, the point is really that for authors, every book has the equivalent of the ‘Thanks-cam’ where they get to congratulate all those who contributed to their success. You know it, it’s that page you and everyone else out there skips unless there’s a slight chance of getting a mention: the acknowledgements page.

To the diminishing numbers of people out there actually reading books, the person responsible for the text is the author. In most people’s eyes, writing a book is one of very few things that is truly a solitary pursuit, but this ignores the impact other people can have on the finished text. Of course there will be people you will bounce ideas off, but the crucial input is made after the text is completed, only then do you get to find out if your work has achieved the desired effect, and it is vital that you find the best possible people to give you best possible feedback and advice. I cannot hasten enough to point out that by ‘best possible feedback’, I do not mean gushing praise, but feedback that will improve all that has gone before.

For professional authors, this position should, at least partially, be filled by the editor, but having people you trust around you to offer this feedback is invaluable regardless of your success. But what should you be looking for in a good critic? And, if you have been asked to give feedback to a writer-friend, what should you be aspiring to achieve with the information you give back? I come to this subject because I recently gave my nigh on complete book to a friend and received priceless feedback from him. I have, of course, given my book out to many people to read at various stages of development and I have received all kinds of feedback on it, but, partially because of the stage I am at and partially just because of the sheer quality of the information given me, this was a cut above. So let me provide some kind of cut-out-and-keep guide to what a good critic will offer.

  1. Gushing – As mentioned above, some friends will think you’ve done really well. The idea of writing 200+ pages boggles their mind so whatever story you have told, they are amazed. Either that or they are afraid to tell you they didn’t enjoy it. These people are no help at all. First things first, they must view your book as though they have plucked it off the shelf and have no emotional connection to the person who wrote it. If they can’t distance themselves they can’t be constructive because their thoughts will always be tainted by your friendship.
  2. Inconsistencies – A good critic should pick out any time your book is running into inconsistencies. And I don’t just mean “His eyes were blue in Chapter 1 and Green in chapter 20”, I mean inconsistencies in character, location, action, rules (important in sci-fi where your universe may display a set of physical rules different from ours) and so on. If you are reading a book and you find any of these inconsistencies you are brought out of the experience, you start thinking about why it doesn’t make sense and you forget about the story.
  3. Tone & Voice – This should probably be 1(a) really. Books assume a certain tone and voice. You can have several if you use several narrators. A good critic will let you know if you slip out of the appropriate tone or voice, even if just for a sentence.
    These three are just the basics, however. The kinds of things most people might spot because, as I mentioned above, they bring you out of the story when you come across them. The real work is done on the more subtle aspects of the book.
  4. Choices – Writing is all about choices. When to start the story, when to end it, who the characters are, what they do, how they interact. Most people, when they read a book, will accept the choices an author has made. The author is the authority. If people are unsatisfied with a book or a film they will say they didn’t like it, they won’t tell you why. They won’t necessarily be capable.
  5. Justification – In your criticism you should be forcing the author to answer questions. If I can’t tell you what role Max actually plays, aside from making a smart-alek quip or two and getting stuck up a tree, it may well be that Max doesn’t need to be in the story.
    And at this juncture there is an important point for authors – listen to feedback you get and act on it. If someone asks you a question and you can’t give a proper answer, that means something – don’t just decide to overlook it.
  6. Prompt – This goes hand-in-hand with Justification and Choices – If you ask your questions in the right way you will get the author thinking and imagining and things could go off an a whole other tangent. It is entirely possible that the right question asked in the right way could change the whole course of not just a book, but a career.
    Rather than justifying the choice made, I am suggesting you prompt a choice not made – “What if he didn’t eat the cheese/roll the 4 and the 2/jump the shark/fancy Roberta/ride a motorcycle?”. This is about spotting where a character makes a (wholly appropriate) choice but could just as easily make another. If the critic can spot the point where the story starts to go off he rails and can ask the right question, the author starts imagining and creates a whole new story.
  7. Avoid direct suggestions where possible – “What if he didn’t eat the cheese, but instead, ate the sausage that’s just gone off, and then he throws up and… and… and…”.
    We authors are a delicate bunch. We are the creative ones and we won’t be told how to create (this may just be me). If you ask the right question, we’ll know that he eats the sausage, but if you tell us that’s what he does, you can be damn sure in the next draft he’s a vegetarian.

In summary, don’t tell us we’re bad, don’t tell us we’re good, highlight the things that don’t work by asking the right questions, prompt further creation, and for God’s sake don’t tell us how to fix them

To be honest, I’m not sure how insightful all of that was. Perhaps someone could write me a quick critique, and I’ll whip it into shape*.

As a PS – writing about editors reminded me of this story I read a while back about Raymond Carver and the impact his editor had on his writing:

And I also have an update to the previous ‘links’ post. The Guardian recently picked up on the Elmore Leonard 10 rules of writing piece that I linked to and asked plenty-much authors to write their own 10 rules, and that can be found here:

*I won’t.

Journeys Into The Third Dimension

When I was 10, one of the biggest playground status symbols it was possible to have was a watch. The fancier the watch, the better. But fancy when you’re 10 means something different to when you’re in your 30s. Where now it’s design that matters, at 10 it was all about the functions. The most impressive watch to show off to other 10-year olds was the calculator watch.

I have no idea if the calculator watch would still be the draw that it was 20+ years ago, but I can imagine that if a kid did show up with one it cause a certain amount of wonder for a short while, at least. There were, of course, draw backs. The buttons were tiny and nigh-on impossible to accurately press and the moment you fell over – which 10-year olds do with alarming frequency – the buttons were scuffed and scraped and left flush with the surface of the watch. So basically, they were rendered useless after around half an hour in the playground.

There is, of course, a reason that these watches only sell to children (unless anyone knows of an adult who still has a calculator watch on his wrist, I will maintain that these are essentially toys), and that is that children haven’t yet built up the critical faculties to work out that having a calculator strapped to your wrist for those all important and all-too-regular mathematical emergencies is a waste of time because all important and all-too-regular mathematical emergencies don’t exist. Of course, as an adult, if a mathematical emergency – important and frequent or not – did arrive, my phone will leap to the rescue.

But the point of all this is that despite my peers wide-eyed wonder at the Casio strapped to my wrist all those years ago, not all innovation equals progress and that just because you can add something to something else, doesn’t mean you necessarily should or that it should be regarded as anything more than a novelty. All of which is a roundabout way of saying I saw Avatar in 3D earlier in the week and, having discussed with numerous people, it is now time to have my say in some kind of official forum. And until I get my own TV show, that official forum is here, where it is, undeniably, all about the Benjamin.

Now, the more astute among you may have worked out my opinion from that intro, but to say I am not a fan of 3D wouldn’t quite be bang on the banana. First off, let me say that I have seen three 3D films, Coraline, Up and Avatar, and for each of those films, I have not seen the 2D version to compare*. As such, I am aware of the possibility of not being able to draw a 100% fair conclusion. That’s not going to stop me, however.

So why am I not sold on 3D? Don’t get me wrong; the 3D visuals are very impressive and I have to admire the work that has gone into the production of these films and the visual effects that have resulted. However, I don’t think they have enhanced my cinematic experience in any way that is significantly different from the novelty effect, and in some respects I would say they have had a negative impact.

I suppose the first thing to establish is what I am looking for from a visit to the cinema, because that will go some way to defining the ways in which any new technique may affect my experience. First and foremost I will typically be looking for an engaging story featuring believable characters (within the context of the film). There are exceptions to this, a key one of which I will return to later, but ultimately, therefore, I go to the cinema to lose myself in a story.

So if cinema is about story, what can 3D offer to it, or at least, what has it managed to offer so far? On current evidence, very little. The thing that a number of 3D evangelists will do is compare the introduction of 3D to the previous introduction of colour way back when but that, I believe, is a false argument. Colour offers the director a new palette. It is something often (seemingly) ignored, but when you look at a film as striking as, say, Far From Heaven, the use of colour is used to emphasise emotion, to fill the audience with warmth and enables us to further empathise with Julianne Moore. Compare this to the stark, cold blues in Gattaca which give the whole film a cold, clinical, detached feel which serves to distance the viewer. 3D doesn’t – or hasn’t yet – been used in such a way to draw in or distance the audience. If someone works out a way to do this, that gives the film an additional emotional core not available in 2D, I will happily become a 3D convert.

There are two things that 3D is excellent at doing to get an emotional response from a viewer, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is essentially vertigo-inducing – making the back of the screen tumble away from the audience. Where Hitchcock altered the depth of field in Vertigo as James Stewart clung on to the edge of the building to give the impression of height, 3D can take it one step further. However, as we are sat in our seats and can feel gravity pulling us down into them, we still don’t feel as though we could be sucked into the screen. Would James Stewart’s situation feel any rawer in 3D? I personally doubt it. Hitchcock produced a masterful film that manages to convey Stewart’s mental weakness brilliantly, though I think Vertigo might be a good shout for a remake now the technology is apparently here to stay (not that I would endorse this).

The second thing that 3D does very well could be considered the opposite of the first – things flying out into the audiences face, be it a thrown knife, a fired bullet or someone pointing a finger. There is no doubt that this provokes an immediate and visceral response and, if done properly, will cause a good proportion of the audience to jump out of their seats. However, this is a momentary response and mere equivalent to a theme park ride**. No doubt it will work well in horror movies and the like, and I didn’t get to see the 3D instalment of the maligned but (for me) enjoyable Final Destination series which may have gone some way towards proving this.

The two examples I have given demonstrate a more visceral emotional response, and perhaps this is where we should spend our time looking for the value of 3D. Avatar, in particular, has ample opportunity to get stuck into various action sequences to show off what the process can give a scene, be it attacks in and racing through the jungle or mass battles on ground and in the air. These were all sequences that would look impressive in two dimensions anyway, so what did 3D add? Again, it was a remarkable spectacle, but I don’t think the tension or excitement of the situations was increased by the added depth. They also, occasionally, provoked additional issues. Action sequences in general demand quicker cutting and moving cameras, all of which adds to the urgency and tension, but when the screen has added depth it increases the workload on the eyes and there were times that I found I my eyes were straining. I was refocusing so frequently it hurt. While the issues this potentially presents might, finally, get Michael Bay to calm down his directing and editing style for the inevitable Transformers 3D, it is still far from perfect that ‘the saviour of cinema’ is potentially causing eye-strain.

Early reports about Avatar had also presented motion sickness as an issue for the audiences and it was certainly true that early on there was some handheld camerawork when Sully first arrived on Pandora that was jarring and queasy. I can only hope that the next Bourne film is in 2D only given the number of people who complained of feeling sick from watching the most recent two.

But these weren’t my only concerns with the implementation of 3D, though this may be more of an issue with James Cameron’s direction than the effects themselves. In some sequences, practically everything was in focus at all depths allowing the eye to wander around the screen. In others, areas were left out of focus, leading the audience to look at only the levels that remained in focus. Of course, this is standard practice in traditional filmmaking, you draw the viewer’s eye to the area of the screen you want them to see. In 3D, however, this presents a problem. If the background is left out of focus to ensure the viewer watches what the director wants, what is the point of having things in 3D in the first place? If everything is in focus, enabling the viewer to pick and choose what element of the screen they wish to focus on, your audience risks missing things through being distracted. Given the weak story and script in Avatar, being distracted probably helps it seem that bit more fun than it has any right to be, but that’s by-the-by. The point is, it places a dilemma on the director, and it’s a dilemma I don’t know how you solve.

Also, the 3D is far from perfect. In many scenes it feels too much like diorama, i.e. a number of flat surfaces at different depths, rather than everything being truly contoured. By this I mean that a face at the front of the screen may be discernibly closer to you than the wall behind it, but the face itself looks flat. Ultimately, rather than looking 3D, it often merely looks like a number of 2D objects/films, working in parallax.

I would imagine that, as with any new technology, it will take time to understand it and implement it to its best – that is only natural – and it may well be that it takes a true artist to unleash 3D in a way which will truly exploit its potential. I mentioned earlier that there are exceptions to my rules on seeking out storytelling and I think a prime example of this would be the work of Terence Mallick, director of, Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World. Mallick has often been described as a visual poet and with good reason. It may take someone with his talent and vision to fully realise what 3D is capable of and define what the next generation of cinema is all about. But until that happens, I think that the groundswell of opinion supporting 3D as the future (in artistic terms rather than merely factual) is being taken in by the novelty factor. It is true that 3D is the future – more and more films will be produced in 3D as more and more cinemas are installing 3D projectors and more and more people go to see films in 3D. However, as far as I am concerned, as yet it offers nothing new; 3D films are no more immersive than their 2D counterparts. As I said, the test will be whether artists like Mallick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers start using the technology and what they do with it. These are men who know how to use visuals in genuinely creative ways and if they find a reason to add a new dimension, I will be first in line to see what they do.

One final word of warning. The industry may look on 3D as a way to combat piracy, the idea being that, as you can’t get the 3D experience at home, more people will head back to the cinema. Right now, I can see this being the case. Screenings for Avatar are selling incredibly well, but if every film over a summer were in 3D, people won’t pay to see all of them. As they do right now, they will pick the headliners, the one or two films they must see from the listings, and see those in the cinema while still downloading the rest. It is a fallacy that it will stop piracy in the same way as the idea that if we got rid of piracy, everything that currently gets pirated would get bought instead is a fallacy. That’s not how it works. If you really want to draw people back to the cinema, the equation is simple, make better films.

*The selection of films I have seen in 3D was made on the following basis. Coraline – I wanted to see a 3D film and this seemed like the best option of those out there at the time. Up & Avatar – if anyone could do something impressive and worthwhile with 3D I felt that Pixar and James Cameron would be those people.

**In fact, both examples are little more than a theme park ride and, it could be argued, started out as such. In the summer of 2001 I visited Paramount Canada’s Wonderland in Toronto with a good friend and they showed a Stan Lee created 15 minute film using this 3D technology. It was impressive for 15 minutes but had no story to it. It was all novelty. I am surprised, given that the technology was up and running back then, that it’s taken so long to go mainstream. Perhaps the costs of producing the films to show was too prohibitive back then.

Rearranging the Molecules on the Titanic

If you follow me on Twitter ( then you may have seen that I have already attempted to write this post twice and failed on both occasions, and that I also promised to explain myself when I finally did get it completed. Well, I have something that I want to talk about in this post, but each time I tried to write an introduction I would veer off on some tangent or other that would prove to be perfectly interesting but take me further and further away from what I wanted to talk about. I have saved both these attempted blog posts for future cannibalisation, but for now, let’s address the topic I really wanted to focus on: Editing.

There is a quote from Alfred Hitchcock, though as time passes I wonder where I got it from and if I am correctly attributing it, but hey, let’s roll with it. “The worst part of film making is making the film.” And if I haven’t incorrectly paraphrased him enough already, I’m going to make up a quote to clarify what he means by that: “I have already made the film in my mind by the time I get to the set, at which point I need to coerce the actors to give the performances I have seen in my head.”

Anyway, I feel pretty much the same way about writing; The worst part of writing is the writing. By the time I sit down to write I normally have the story plotted out, along with visualisations of all the key scenes. This means that the actual writing is a mechanical process of transferring that information from my brain to the page in a legible format. I do not like mechanical processes. Witness the fact that more than 10 minutes of any kind of data entry task will pretty much send me to sleep. And writing is only one step up from data entry at this stage.

I am, of course, exaggerating. There are plenty of aspects of writing a story I enjoy, especially coming up with small moments of characterisation that capture what a person is going through. This doesn’t stop much of it becoming a chore, only made bearable by the act of completion.

Except completion isn’t completion, is it? Oh no, then comes the editing. Some editing can be done as you go along. Indeed, this is the way I approach a lot of scriptwriting. But for prose it is considerably more intense and in-depth. Instead of having 60 pages of predominantly white paper, I have 259 pages completely covered in text to go through.

I was trying to think of a suitable simile for what I feel like I am going through right now. Similes aren’t really my thing, something which may well become evident momentarily. It’s like if you were a chef and your idea were the recipe and writing the book was cooking the meal, editing would be going through the meal on a molecule by molecule basis to ensure that the salt and pepper were perfectly evenly spaced and actually, it would be better if you took out the onion and replaced with a slightly different onion because the flavour of the first onion hadn’t quite bled out across the rest of the meal properly, etc and so on. Frankly, if that was what being a chef was, there would be no restaurants, only McDonald’s. And no, McDonald’s, no matter how much you protest, I will not accept your establishments being labelled restaurants any more than I will accept that having a large TV in my living room makes it a cinema.

So it’s quite a tedious process, that’s what I’m getting at, mildly preferable to having thousands of tiny needles inserted into your eyes. If it was only hundreds I’d probably go with the needles…

As I kind of intimated in the simile, there are two levels of editing I am doing. The first, working on the molecular level, is essentially proof-reading. Microsoft Word (other word processors are available) is predominantly a good piece of software, but until it learns when I mean to type ‘from’ and when I mean to type ‘form’, its spellcheck facility is going to be of little use. Particularly as I am using a number of made up words throughout the book. So I am going through with a fine-tooth comb  (though I’d love to use a fine tooth-comb) looking for all these little details that I have done wrong.

Allied to this is the task of checking the text actually scans. It is amazing what, when in the midst of a brain-splurge writing session, comes out and how difficult it can be to unravel the intended meaning behind the words. So I am reading the book aloud to myself to make sure all the text scans. Any sign of confusion and I try to reword the sentence. As a pedant, this is quite a big thing for me. As someone with a short attention span who has been working on this story for 3 or more years, this is incredibly frustrating.

Not, however, as frustrating as the second type of editing that’s going on. This is where, halfway through the book I realised that a character lacked definition. Instead of heading back to the beginning and rewriting the character’s scenes, I left it for the edit. So now I am having to rewrite scenes and sequences to ensure character consistency. In many ways, this is far more frustrating than the rest of it. At least the rest of the work I am doing is relatively black and white; rewriting a character is chaos theory in action. “Oh, but if I change that like that, than it changes this scene, which then impacts on the other scene…” and so it goes on. And before you know it, your comedy of manners has metamorphosed into Transformers 3: The Quest for WD40, all because, actually, it would be more interesting if Brian had taken a keener interest in photography in his youth to justify him taking that picture. It’s painful.

Fortunately, the changes I am having to make won’t affect things quite as much as I intimate above, but there is still a ripple that runs through the book and you have to re-read it again and again to make sure that it still all hangs together. I think the remarkable thing here is that it actually does still hang together. And that is why I keep going. If I found the story tedious, if I couldn’t revel in the excitement of the characters on the tenth time of reading I wouldn’t be able to finish it. But it also tells me that the story is fresh, which hopefully means that it will be enjoyed by children. Well, at the very least, it would be enjoyed by me when I was 9, which is my target audience. Hopefully my taste then is representative of kids today.