Category Archives: Writing

Storytelling versus spectacle


Watching the trailer for I, Frankenstein I yet again feel sad that no one has so far filmed a faithful version of one of my favourite books.

While it’s poor form to slate a film you haven’t yet seen (and, in this case have very little enthusiasm to watch) the trailer does set out the stall of the movie: action, explosions and don’t-know-when-to-stop spectacle.

(As an aside, the film isn’t exactly winning the hearts of critics. Mark Kermode gives it one star – I suspect because zero stars isn’t an option – his review is nothing short of damning.)

I, Frankenstein is yet another in a long line of spectacular yet dull movies churned out by Hollywood – a neat enough idea perhaps, but with all the money going to big stars and big CGI rather than investment in the script.

It seems to me that, when it comes to storytelling, television increasingly has the edge over cinema. Television doesn’t have the same budgets as cinema (though it’s inching closer) so there’s much more of a focus on storytelling. Plus, the medium itself inherently has something that Hollywood doesn’t – oodles of time.

Take Breaking Bad, one of the best character-driven dramas ever. Walter White’s slow decline from Mr Chips to Scarface takes place over six seasons. That’s 62 episodes with a usual runtime of 60 minutes. As a film, that would be just over two-and-a-half days. Quite a commitment but one that’s manageable on television. The format allows characters to be explored, subplots to thrive, red herrings to be teased continually. How would you shoehorn that into a couple of hours?

Breaking Bad isn’t alone. Game of Thrones, The Wire, The Sopranos, Rome, 24 – the list goes on. At the heart of all of these is great storytelling (though, to be fair, Game of Thrones has its share of decent – if not exaggerated – special effects). And decent television dramas don’t have to be bottom-numbing epics, either. Broadchurch spanned just 8 episodes of 45 minutes each. At roughly 360 minutes, that’s still comfortably longer than an epic film such as Lawrence of Arabia (222 minutes in the original release; 228 minutes in the restored version).

True enough, the three Lord of the Rings films made for 558 minutes in the theatre and 726 minutes on Blu-ray; there are always exceptions – Lord of the Rings combines spectacle with storytelling brilliantly.

It seems to me that because television’s found strong storytelling feet in the long-form drama, Hollywood is hitting back in the only way it can: mostly with explosions and CGI. While there’s some long-form cinema (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings are just a few) there’s the inescapable fact: they have to be good stories to survive that kind of runtime. They are exceptions because they are good, character-driven stories.

Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers and Marvel’s other superhero films don’t really count. They’re not one long story, they’re really standalones with some connectivity bolted in; they’re also pretty hit-and-miss – typically further examples of thin plot and thick spectacle, smartly linked to create a pleasing universe in which to wallow.

By and large, enough people must be watching these vacant blockbusters to make them worthwhile – and keep the studio suits convinced that bigger, louder explosions equals audience satisfaction. Thank goodness that’s not the extent of cinema and that some good stories do make it on the big screen.

Sure, television’s not flawless. For every Breaking Bad there are dozens of tired, clichéd serials. And don’t get me started on cooking shows, makeover shows, celebrity challenges or whatever. But at least long-form television drama proves that massive audiences want great stories too.

Both Hollywood and television compete for our money, so they’ll make what mostly succeeds commercially. Yet I can’t help thinking that as a general trend, the Hollywood suits are backing spectacle over storytelling – perhaps in the hope that we won’t spot the threadbare plot in the middle of so many awesome explosions.


An English graveyard tells a tale


For an atheist, I have a paradoxical fascination with churches and graveyards – especially  ancient ones. It’s not so much that I get involved in avid research about them more that I find them pleasing places to visit, pass the time and take pictures.

There’s a calm atmosphere around a churchyard which is unique. I don’t especially think this is a spiritual thing. I just think that it’s rare in these modern times that any kind of space is set aside for one purpose – especially one of reflection and quiet – so they’re increasingly the most protected oasis in our fast-moving world.

Minster Churchyard, near Boscastle, Cornwall

Minster Churchyard, near Boscastle, Cornwall

Those of a religious bent may well tell me that this is because they are ‘God’s acre’. Those with older spiritual leanings may well point out that many English churches were built on pagan sites (often wells; perhaps on a ley line too) as Christianity subsumed those ancient beliefs which came before.

Minster Churchyard, near Boscastle, Cornwall

Minster Churchyard, near Boscastle, Cornwall

Perhaps it’s all of these things or none, but there’s a wonderfully calm half-hour or hour to be had passing time in a churchyard.

The gravestones themselves hand a story down from the past to the future. The gravestone is almost the purest form of storytelling: just a name, a couple of dates and perhaps a line or two to summarise an entire life.

Wandering through Manchester’s Southern Cemetery, it was pleasing to bump into Tony Wilson’s grave – just as in the past, I’d bumped into Tony himself. I didn’t know him, but I think we met three or four times. The most notorious of those meetings was at a concert of Factory Records bands, held at the Derby Hall in Bury. Notorious, because singer Ian Curtis was unable to perform more than a few songs and – for one reason or another – a pretty solid fight broke out in which both band and audience participated. I’ve read several accounts of this – and seen it twice documented on film (in 24-Hour Party People and Control). None of the accounts seem wholly accurate, but then mine is probably tainted by both memory and proximity to the event.

I wasn’t in the audience – I was one of the people responsible for organising and running the event. I took money on the door, helped move the PA, operated the lights. (Such as they were; Joy Division liked the lighting cold and minimal, I just set up a few blue gels and left things alone.) When the fight kicked up, I turned on the house lights and hid under the lighting table to avoid flying beer glasses.

Tony Wilson said to me after, in the office, that this was “just kids having fun”. At the time, I thought this was a pretty stupid attitude and said so. Although I didn’t use the word “pretty”. In retrospect, I can see that we just had different experiences running a venue – mine was an arts centre; his was closer to the epicentre of youth, sometimes notorious for drugs and minor violence.

Also at the time, I didn’t appreciate Joy Division for the band they were – original, raw, incredible. Joy Division was but one band touched by the hand of Tony Wilson and his headstone, wonderfully designed by Peter Saville (responsible for Factory’s posters and record sleeves), is one of the most original you’ll ever see. It’s almost like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey – a deep black that’s almost unnaturally reflective. It carries the words: Anthony H Wilson; Broadcaster; Cultural Catalyst (my punctuation).

Tony Wilson's grave

Tony Wilson’s grave

How incredible to so accurately sum up a life in three words. It also carries a quote from G Linnaeus Banks’ 1876 novel The Manchester Man: “Mutability is the epitaph of worlds / Change alone is changeless / People drop out of the history of a life as of a land though their work or their influence remains.”

At the other end of the scale (and almost at the other end of the country) I stumbled across the grave of a white witch, just outside the churchyard of Minster Church, near Boscastle. I say just outside and I mean it – she’s buried in woodland, just inches from the churchyard boundary. This may be because she’s excluded – but I think it’s more a matter of choice. It’s not the church mocking her, it’s those who buried her mocking the church.

Joan died in 1813, aged just 38 (probably a decent innings back then), while in Bodmin Jail. She wasn’t incarcerated for witchcraft, but for brawling; she’d suffered terribly from a tooth abscess which made her a bit more than bad-tempered. She got involved in fights and shouted insults at people. When she fought, she was unnaturally strong and was sometimes called the Fighting Fairy Woman.

She had been a seer and healer. One of the things she did was to tie clooties (strips of cloth) to trees or holy wells – as the cloth rots, so the person’s disease dissipates. It was somewhat moving to see that someone else had tied a strip of cloth to a tree, just above her grave.

A clootie, hanging over the grave of Joan Wytte

A clootie, hanging over the grave of Joan Wytte

Her headstone reads: “Joan Wytte. Born 1775. Died 1813 in Bodmin Jail. Buried 1998. No longer abused.”

The grave of Joan Wytte

The grave of Joan Wytte

She had been abused in death, her bones disinterred and used in séances. Later, they were on display at the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle and were finally given a proper burial after, it is said, just a few too many poltergeists were disruptive at the museum.

It’s both sad and touching that our lives can – and will – be reduced to just a few lines of text. But those few words count. They can inspire you to find out more about the person, or appreciate the feelings of those they touched.


Remembering Gerry Anderson


Over the Christmas break, one of the true heroes of my life sadly passed away: the great Gerry Anderson.

Like most people of my age, my first exposure to Gerry’s work was as a child. The opening bars of each of his shows called us to gather eagerly around the television, captivated in turn by Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90.

Famously, Gerry was frustrated by being known as ‘the puppet guy’ – he wanted to make serious films with live actors. (Of course, that day came with UFO and Space: 1999 – both blockbuster hits.) Yet I doubt that if he’d gone straight into live action that his legacy would be anywhere near as rich.

Out of financial necessity, Gerry created children’s television shows, using increasingly sophisticated puppets. Though sponsored and trusted by the great Lew Grade, he was squeezed tightly on budget – Grade knew that Anderson could deliver the goods, but he needed to turn a decent profit too.

And, where other filmmakers might be enjoying the luxury of large sound-stages and studio facilities, Anderson had to make do with a cramped unit on a Slough trading estate.

All of these restrictions were fuel to a unique creative fire. Tight budgets meant solving problems in an inventive way. Working for children meant that imaginations could run wild. A small set meant that people worked together closely; new techniques were needed to film what were ostensibly large set pieces.

A lesser person may well have produced what was ‘good enough’. Not Gerry. Gerry absolutely did not accept that any of these restrictions meant his output should be in any way apologetic. Yes, he was out to prove himself and desperately wanted to attract a different kind of commission – but he was also passionate about his product.

As a creator of children’s tales for a more modern age, Gerry was without equal. I say that in the knowledge that other filmmakers – most notably Disney – were around at the same time. But where Disney plundered folk tales for his stories, Anderson’s catalogue was set mostly in the future – original creations.

There is a magic and charm about Gerry’s work that is not only unique but has enabled it to stand the test of time. His shows are full of cheeky humour – but sentimentality is rare. Gerry’s audience were children – but he never, ever patronised them. He created television shows that were shot like blockbuster movies – large-scale action, tightly plotted stories and (despite their puppet-nature) entertaining and likeable characters.

Pushing back the boundaries at a technical level paid off – sure, we can see the strings, but the sheer quality of the model work and special effects still looks great today. It’s said that few filming techniques used by Hollywood in disaster blockbusters weren’t created by Gerry, from his little trading estate in Slough.

In filmmaking, genius isn’t all about self. It’s teamwork. And Gerry was oh so good at selecting, working with and trusting some truly great people. The model designs of Reg Hill and Mike Trim. The special effects of Derek Meddings. The fashion designs of Sylvia Anderson. And of course the unforgettable music of Barry Gray – each theme tune a heraldic introduction that set pulses racing and grabbed you firmly, pushing you down in front of the television. All of these elements – and more – came together under Anderson’s tireless coordination to create 30 to 60 minutes of television magic, week in, week out.

Gerry wasn’t always (indeed, often) the writer, but it’s as a storyteller rather than a filmmaker for which I remember him. His ideas positively sparkled and absolutely connected with his audience – which child wouldn’t want to be a secret agent with adult mind implants, or save people’s lives with the amazing equipment of a secret rescue organisation?

He only gave up work towards the end of his life. It’s true, his career took a dip – but he regained his creative mojo in 2005 with the CGI version of Captain Scarlet (sadly hidden in the schedules and not destined to be a commercial success). He didn’t own the rights to much of his work and would have loved to have remade Thunderbirds in CGI – and was scathing, rightly so, of the embarrassing misstep that was Jonathan Frakes’s Thunderbirds movie.

I doubt that any other person has had as big an influence on my childhood. Gerry Anderson created the things which inspired me to play as a child. Even today, my office contains models of Supercar, Fireball XL5, Eagle transporters, Skydiver and Interceptors. Each is beautiful in its own right; each is a reminder of a time when stories were told with both innocence and gusto; each shows me that – even with a tight budget and limited facilities – true greatness can be created.

Gerry, I can’t thank you enough.


Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover


I love my iPad. It’s probably the single most useful device I’ve ever owned. But it’s useless for one thing: typing any serious amount of text.

The on-screen keyboard just doesn’t cut it. It’s good enough for editing, responding to e-mails and so on – but trying to write anything of any length is nothing short of torture.

(I’ll deviate a little here. I think this is my generation’s hang-up – and that future novelists will have no problem with an on-screen interface, or dictating via Siri – or even ‘thinking’ a novel direct from their minds. After all, standing behind us are writers who used pictograms, longhand, typewriters and word processors – each probably swearing by their method.)

So, while my iPad might go with me almost everywhere, it seldom gets used for any substantial typing. Until now.

That’s because I’ve just got myself the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. Which isn’t just a keyboard cover: it’s a keyboard, too.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

I’ve had a couple of iPad keyboards in the past but not really got on with them. Apple’s own solution was a Frankenstein-like combination of dock and the company’s normal Bluetooth keyboard. It worked (and, since the keyboard is a joy to use, is productive) but it’s hardly portable. Wandering around with an iPad, keyboard and dock is just stupid. And the whole combination wobbles like crazy if you attempt to do anything as audacious as work on a train. The final blow is that you look like an utter berk when you’re using it.

Likewise, other keyboards have been too cumbersome or didn’t integrate that well with the iPad.

Not so, the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover.

It’s exactly the same size as the iPad for a reason – when not in use, it becomes a screen cover. It attaches using the iPad’s internal magnets – the ones used for the official Apple iPad Smart Cover. This makes it easy to attach, detach and carry around. It adds a little bulk to the iPad, but not too much. A neat trick here is that the iPad ‘knows’ when it’s been attached or detached and turns itself on or off accordingly. It works so well that it feels as though it might be a piece of Apple kit.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

The back of the cover is aluminium, so it’s also a perfect visual match for the iPad. It’s not that scratch-resistant, but that is the nature of the material.

You charge the keyboard via your Mac or PC’s USB port – and a charge (apparently) lasts for months.

To use it as a keyboard, you simply remove it from the iPad and slot the iPad into the groove above the keys – which gives you a decent viewing angle, albeit one which can’t be adjusted. It connects via Bluetooth – and, once slotted in, you’re up and running.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

The keyboard itself is a touch cramped, being about 10% narrower than a real keyboard. It’s nothing you can’t get used to, though touch-typists will find themselves stumbling at first, especially with the outer keys. Once you get used to it, you can get up a fair lick of speed. The keyboard’s action is nice – not as good as Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard, but positive enough. The keys – like the inside of the cover – are plastic – but they don’t feel cheap.

There are also some iPad-dedicated function keys, so it’s easy to call up spotlight, switch applications, copy, paste, set the volume level or even lock the iPad. The level of integration is lovely.

There’s no software to install – you just pair it as a Bluetooth device and that’s it.

In terms of compatibility, it works with the iPad 2 and the third generation iPad. My guess is that it would function with the original iPad, but the iPad itself would slip out of the groove that’s engineered so well to hold the later iPads in place.

Downsides? It’s not quite the build quality of iPad, but it’s pretty good. It’s expensive – around £70 currently. I’m no expert on what it costs for these things to be made, but I’d say the price point really needs to be below £50 for a peripheral like this.

Overall, I’m sold on it and really liking it. There are going to be plenty of instances where I’d previously have taken my MacBook Pro where I’ll now be more than happy with the combination of iPad and Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover.

The bottom line: I’ve not seen or used a better iPad keyboard.

This review was written using an iPad and the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover.


Writing with Evernote


I’ve written before about being a big fan of Scrivener. As writing software goes, especially for long projects such as novels, it takes some beating.

Currently, for me, there’s one fly in the Scrivener ointment – the lack of an iPad version. Although I don’t want to write entire projects on my iPad, when I’m out and about without my laptop I do want to write, make notes, add to my research, edit and review. (In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be just on my iPad either – sometimes I only have my iPhone with me.)

This got me thinking about what I really need from writing software – and setting aside the fact that I’ll later need to have the manuscript reviewed, edited and proofed by someone else. If it needs to be exported into Word at some point, so be it. (I’m not allergic to Word; I use it daily for copywriting. This makes sense since it’s what my clients and my proofreader use. But I find that it’s next to hopeless for long documents. Why? It forces you to work and think in a linear way. It has no mechanism to easily reshuffle chapters and scenes. And, the bigger your document, the slower it gets. I could go on…)

I decided that, when it boils down to it, a writer needs surprisingly little of the word processing power. Here’s my personal bottom line:

  • Non-linear document structure – a way to break the project down into manageable chunks which can be easily reorganised.
  • Word count.
  • Basic formatting (bold, italic).
  • Easy and robust synchronisation with other devices – computers, tablets and phones.
  • The ability to incorporate research, including images, video and audio – plus links to Web pages.

That’s about all I need. Sure, there are lots of things I’d really like – but I’m trying to identify my most needed word processing elements.

This led me to an interesting conclusion. Most writing software just doesn’t suit my needs or workflow. Google Docs, Word and Pages may be the most-used writing software, but they’re the first to be struck off my list – since they’re linear and can’t readily incorporate research into the same document.

Good old Scrivener does everything I need (and more) but document replication between different devices relies (currently) on clunky workarounds using Dropbox to transfer files and then using an entirely different editing application on the iPad. It works, but it isn’t pretty.

There is one contender, though. It’s a surprising one: Evernote.

I’ve been using Evernote for ages – for its intended purpose, to take notes. It’s very useful – there are versions for PC, OS X and iOS, Windows Phone 7, Android, BlackBerry and even WebOS. Not enough? Well – perhaps you work on Linux occasionally. In that case, there’s a Web interface to fall back on. Everything you type gets replicated automatically to the cloud and is quickly available on any other device. It’s built for a multi-device world – and one where your data can live anywhere.

This is powerful stuff. You can work on your laptop – and then go review on your iPad. Got ten minutes to kill? Review your manuscript on your phone. Stuck somewhere where there’s no Mac? Fire up a Windows or Linux PC and just login to your Evernote account. You can work online or offline – and replicate when you can connect to the Internet.

Editing the same document on different platforms, with Evernote

Evernote for OS X, Windows, iPad and iPhone – all in sync

So, that’s replication taken care of very neatly. What about non-linear document structure?

Evernote can handle this, but it’s not quite a hit clear out of the ballpark. Evernote breaks things down into shorter documents, true, but it doesn’t give a lot of control over how these are organised. Within Evernote, you create ‘notebooks’ – which then contain individual ‘notes’. So, these could either be the projects and chapters, or chapters and scenes, depending on how you work. It’s adequate – although nowhere near as functional as either Scrivener or Storyist (with their visual corkboards) but way better than Word.

Currently, there isn’t a live word count in all versions of Evernote, but they’re working on it. There isn’t any word count in the iOS version, although there is in the Windows and OS X apps. This isn’t ideal, but it’s workable.

Basic formatting is present and correct – there’s not much, but there’s everything you need: bold, italic, underline, paragraph indents, strikethrough and bullets.

Incorporating research and notes is part of what Evernote ‘just does’. Evernote documents can incorporate video, images and audio. You just fire up the camera or microphone on your iPad or Mac and that’s it – take photos or make audio notes right from within Evernote. You can also drag and drop images or add website URLs.

Again, Scrivener’s ability to incorporate research wins because of its organisational finesse – but there’s more than enough here to get by. And anything you add on one device automatically appears on your others. Evernote even has a widget for your browser – to make it easy to clip Web pages straight into your notebooks without even launching Evernote itself.

Adding rich media does become an issue – once you’re incorporating lots of images, audio and video into your notebooks, you’ll quickly move beyond the space that’s offered by a free Evernote account. But you can upgrade to a premium account for £4 a month, so you’re hardly being stiffed.

There are lots of compromises. Word and Pages run rings around Evernote in terms of layout ability. Scrivener and Storyist are built with the writer in mind and have lots of features to help manage large projects. Evernote is more workmanlike than slick – and at some point you will have to get your creative gem out of Evernote and into a file format your editor or proofreader uses. I’ve found that you do need to check over exported text for formatting errors or special characters that aren’t properly converted.

But it’s the workflow and replication where Evernote shines. It just works. You edit on one device, pick up another and carry on where you left off. It’s liberating. It makes switching between Mac and iPad (or PC and Android tablet) as simple as it gets.

There’s another advantage. Right now, I’m an Apple user – but that might not last forever. So knowing that I can move to another platform – or even just use a different one temporarily – is a bonus.

For novel-writing, I’m pretty tied to Scrivener for a multitude of reasons – and the team behind Scrivener is thankfully working on an iPad version, though that’s some way off. Scrivener for Mac and iPad, with easy file synchronisation – perhaps via iCloud – would be ideal. But for other projects, I’m very tempted by Evernote’s workflow.