So… Inside Out

WARNING: probably spoilers ahead.

It was a cinema heavy weekend for me with Pixar’s newest entry Inside Out opening the weekend’s viewing. The film main character is Joy, the lead emotion for an eleven year old girl called Riley, whose life has been turned upside down when she and her family move to San Francisco, the stress of which has brought Sadness to the fore. When Joy and Sadness are accidentally swept into the outreaches of Riley’s mind, the only emotions remaining in Headquarters are Anger, Fear and Disgust.

Okay let us not beat around the bush, is it good? Yes. Is it very good? Yes. Is it great? Hmm… for my money, close but no cigar.

It’s likely been said before and undoubtedly will be said again a large part of Pixar’s success come from the fact that they don’t really make children’s films, they make films children can enjoy. I was at an early evening showing, with the about three quarters of the seats and children were pretty few and far between. At its heart Inside Out is a film about growing up and the search for emotional balance that come with it.

As the voice of Joy it falls to Amy Poehier to do the heavy lifting and she proves equal to the task. She manages to get across the endlessly upbeat attitude and the sometime difficult relationship with the other emotions, in particular with Sadness, where there is definitely more than a hint of suppressed urge to aim a kick. Joy means the best but suffers the flaw that she is bit of a control freak who really wants things to stay the way they are.

One thing that I thought was interesting and quite admirable was that Riley was a girl. With one or two small changes to the script the character could have just as easily been a boy. Her passion for ice hockey and the fact that she is good at it is a major part of her character and at no point is anything made of this. By that I mean nothing is said or implied that this is in anyway unusual. I think not that long ago a point would have been made that she was good at hockey despite being girl and I think that is a positive change.

During their journey through Riley’s mind Joy see parts of the child she was and adult she will become, which I think nicely shows how all of us are in state of transition from the person we were to the one we will be. I mentioned earlier the search for emotional balance is a central theme, the phrase that closes so many classic stories is: They Lived Happily Ever After; Inside Out shows how a person dominated by a ‘positive’ emotion like Joy, would be as much an emotional cripple as one controlled by say Anger because quiet simply, there will be times when negative emotions gets things done.

The visuals are up Pixar’s usual high standards, bright, clear but by how we’re come to expect this and indeed it would be shocking if the visuals weren’t effective. One visual idea which I liked was that the emotions control panel changes and is upgraded as Riley ages, the first one being a single button (cry or don’t cry) while at the close they have a new and extended panel (what’s this button marked puberty? I don’t know, I’m sure its not important). So why then do I not think this should go down as great?

Well I’m still pondering that one myself. I think because this is a film which I think an adult will get more from than a child. Perhaps I’m wrong, I don’t have a child to ask but just don’t think this is quite the stuff of classics.

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The end of the line… and pauses along the way

I don’t know what proportion of science fiction and fantasy novels are part of series as opposed to stand alone but it is fair to say that they are far from uncommon. Now it should be pointed out that there are different kinds of series. There those like say the Chronicles of Narnia which use the same setting and have some character overlap but are basically stand alone books that can be read in any order. Then there series like Lord of the Rings in which there is a single grand story arc across two or more books, all of which need to be read and read in one fixed order. It is the latter category I want to say a little about.

It isn’t hard to see from where the lure of the series comes; creatively it gives more room in which to develop and flesh out a story, this is specially important for science fiction and fantasy since we have to burn so much word count on world building. Since an individual novel is limited to between forty and a hundred and fifty thousand words(1), while even a short series can be multiples of that, the extra words allows the writer to avoid having to make compromises to keep the word and page count acceptable. From business standpoint it looks even better, sell one large book for twelve Euros (dollars, pounds, shillings, rubles, yen, goats, whatever) or two for nine, ninety-nine. If the reader wants to get the complete story, they have to fork over for each and every book. In fact on that later point occasionally publishers have split into two books that were intended as a single volume. But in doing so a new problem is introduced.

The ending of any story is the pay off, regardless of genre or style, a bad ending can completely undo any good work that has been done up to that point. The ending needs to resolve the major plot threads and if the reader is left unsatisfied or feeling cheated, well then that’s a reader who won’t be looking that writer up again. But for a single arc series it can’t tie everything off, it needs to provide a satisfactory close and at the same time provide a launchpad for the next book of the series. What is needed is a sub-ending.  The writer Shantnu Tiwari makes an impassioned case that the very worst sub-endings are cliffhangers. While I can’t get quite as worked up, thinking back across my own reading history I can think of a few cliff hanger ending I’ve read and while they didn’t make me throw the book across the room, they didn’t make me rush out and buy the next book either because there was that lack of pay off. The other problem with the cliffhanger is that there is likely a gap between the publication of individual books, of between months to years (20+ and counting in the case of one series I know of). Will the reader still have excitement to pick it back up, will they still remember what was going on? The best sub-endings I seen are the ones that felt like they could have been the end of the series, for my money Juliet E McKenna‘s first series nailed this perfectly.

So, if you are sitting out there somewhere idly considering writing your own series what am I saying? I’m saying you need to plan ahead (2). You absolutely must know where each book is going to end. Even if the big finish at the end of the series is absolutely amazing, it’s going to count for nothing if most readers abandoned ship at the end of the first book.

While we’re on subject of endings, lets move onto big ones, not just the end of a series but the end of a setting. It’s a personal belief of mine that all setting have their limits. Regardless to genre or even medium, each setting has its limits. Now quiet where those limits are depends on the nature of the setting. It is hangs off a single character then the limit will be reached fairly quickly (3) while one based on a large world or universe in which individuals can come and go will have more legs (4) but even there are limits. I suspect it’s one of the reason I never got into comic books, by now Batman should have either cleaned up Gotham City or be dead, either way as a story without a final end holds no attraction to me. Obviously there is a damn good reason why the likes of Batman, Star Trek or any other property keeps soldiering on:

Here's Johny!

Here’s Johny!

Be you an individual author or a good old fashioned soulless corporation walking away from an cash stream is going to be difficult to do at best and often impossible. Search the internet on any particular established series or franchise and it won’t be hard to find someone somewhere who feels its gone off the boil, the glory days are gone, it’s now just ploughing the same furrow. The solution to this if a solution is needed is in the hands of the consumer. We need to be ready to pursue to new and original. While we can continue to enjoy the glory days of our old favorites we should be ready to abandon them if they don’t come to an actual end.

FINAL THOUGHT: I say all that as someone who is very much a hobby writer. I don’t rely on my writing to pay the bills, just pay for the luxuries. I’ve certainly not had anything like a huge hit which I’ve continued to milk. Obviously if I do I may well turn into a huge hypocrite but at least if that happens, I’ve given everyone some good material to work with.

 

 

 

 

 

(1) Ref SFWA Award FAQ and Writer’s workshop.

(2) Yes I do know what I said in a previous blog entry about my tendency to do more winging it than planning. I did know where the Nameless War and Last Charge were going to end when I started them, the Landfall Campaign it was figured out while WIP, which is a writing technique I call ‘making life difficult for yourself’ [patient pending].

(3) Say a few books, two or three of films or a television series

(4) Example Star Wars or Star Trek

 

I can now be found on Twitter.

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Ships of the Fleet – Aellr destroyer.

An Aellr design that pre-dates contact between the Confederacy and humanity, the Psirtas class (named after towns on the colony worlds of the Confederacy) was one of the workhorses of the Defence Fleet. The first human sighting of this design came in the calamitous days running up to the First Battle of Earth. The smallest of four ships that approached the planet, with its prominent missile launcher mounted to one side of the jump drive, Psirtas class was immediately categorised by the human defenders as a destroyer. Unfortunately this misinterpretation was one of a pattern mistakes made by both sides that would see the Confederacy and Earth blunder into the profoundly avoidable Contact War.

 

NOTE Given the ongoing political tensions between the Confederacy and Earth background have come from secondary sources and may not be entirely accurate.

Aellr destroyer 1

BACKGROUND

 

The Psirtas class originate approximately fifty years before first contact; as with most Aéllr designs the class was intended to provide the Defence Fleet with a multi-role platform capable of performing search and rescue, personnel transport and internal security. As with all Aellr ‘warships’ of this period, any military role was of very much tertiary importance and little more than a fading relic of the Aéllr Reunification War of more than a century earlier. Intended to compliment the much larger Hinhle (Province) class cruisers, the Psirtas placed emphasis on acceleration over range.

 

DESIGN

 

The design can be divided into three main segment. The forward-most section, mounted the jump drive, main bridge and the two hard points for mission specific equipment. When serving in the military or internal security role, these would mount a turret, each one carrying a single plasma cannon. Alternatives to these fittings were shuttle hangars, high definition sensor arrays or docking arm. The point defence guns – primarily intended for anti micrometeorite duties – and the probe/missile launcher were permanent fixtures.

 

Mid ships was the centrifuge with two large pods. It is believed a small secondary bridge is housed within one pod but for the most part this space is given over to crew facilities. Several members of the class, usually when de-militarized have been observed with six secondary pods fitted to a large circular ring that connects the two primary pods. It is believed that like the forward hard points this a mission specific fitted when more living space is required.

 

Astern is the engineering section, protruding from the ventral and dorsal surfaces of which are the engine nacelles. The length of these is to allow the engine plume to clear the centrifuge during breaking manoeuvres. The decision to extend the engine pod in the vertical axis appears to be to facilitate the class’s search and rescue role, allowing the ship to come closer along side another vessel while maintaining the same deck orientation. A side effect of this choice of orientation is that the ship’s profile in the broadside arc was considerably larger than would have been the case if the nacelles had been side mounted. This provides another clear indication how low a priority the class’s military role was. The ship’s radiator panels are housed in the broadside circular assembly which when deployed resembled paddlewheels, leading to the class’s human nickname ‘pedalo’. Physical protection was limited to anti-radiation shielding while sensors systems took the form of small clusters scattered across the main hull.

 Aellr destroyer 2

Overall the Psirtas class with its emphasis on adaptability was very much a conservative design, following with standard practice of the time. The only significant break from previous practice was the absence of a raised bridge, a feature of Aéllr government ships since the Reunification War.

 

SERVICE

 

By the time of first contact between Humanity and the Aéllr, the Psirtas class were in their middle years, with the expectation of at least another three decades of service. While an exact number constructed is not known, it is believed to be in excess of thirty, although by first contact the earliest members of the class had been withdrawn from service. When the Aéllr taskforce was dispatched to earth a single member of the class was included to act as a scout ship. The decision to include this vessel with the ships that directly approached Earth, seems to have been born of a genuine belief that the force would face no opposition. In fact the Psirtas was to prove very much a weak link. An early direct hit to the ventral nacelle rendered the ship virtually uncontrollable while the two point defence guns left a large blind spot astern. The taskforce’s attempts to support the ship meant that it neither closed on Earth nor retreated out of range between waves of human fighters.

 Aellr destroyer 3

In the aftermath of Earth the casualty averse Defence Fleet appears to have come to the conclusion that the class was too fragile for front line operations. For most of the rest of the war the class remain within the Confederacy’s borders, covering for the Hinhle class ships that were being used to prosecute the war against Earth. The Psirtas would see direct combat when the cruiser Onslaught entered Confederacy space in the last year of the war, the Battle of the Three Systems being the most notable event of this campaign.

 

Post war it would appear that the remaining members of the class were returned to their civil role. It is believed that at least a dozen remain in service with the Defence Fleet with perhaps half as many again now owned either privately or by individual colony worlds. However sources indicate that the Defence Fleet no longer rates the class as part of it’s fighting strength.

 

 

Author’s Notes: As the first alien race humanity  encountered, with the war between them being the background event that did the most to shape the Battle Fleet Universe, the Aéllr are a very large part of the setting which I’ve wanted to explore for a while – especially since describing in Volume Two of Ships of the Fleet the human Contact War cruisers. Most of my ship designs are fairly brick like, in part because it is how I imagine then and in part because with the software I have access to, they’re a damn-sight easier to make. But I wanted to explore the possibilities of a design using much of the same basic technology but with a very different set of priorities at least as far as the limits of my talents and my computer processors capabilities.

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Filling the gaps

I heard it said that there are basically three kinds of writers:

1) Those who plan everything to the Nth degree

2) Those who wing it

3) Those who fall somewhere between the two extremes

I’m a three leaning towards two, I did try writing out a plan for I think the Landfall Campaign but then once I started writing, never remembered to refer back to it. What I do have for each work is a set of mental notes in the form of key scenes. These might be battles or a brief conversation, either way they’re important points for the creation of the story. I like to think of it as an incomplete alphabet. When I know I have A, B and D, I know have to go through C to logically get from B to D. It helps break huge looming task that is book writing down into more manageable lumps while at the same time keeping at eye on the endgame*. There is no such thing as a one perfect method of writing that works for everyone – no matter what people who are usually trying to sell their ‘perfect’ method claim – what there are is a number of techniques and what you have to do is find the combination that works for you.

 

 

*Quite a few of the early Discworld books by the late Terry Pratchett were chapterless and I don’t know how he managed that.

 

I’ve now started twittering and can be found:

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Writing for a living

Over the weekend I attended a house warming barbeque and I got talking to cousin I haven’t spoken to in a while. They were telling me about an in-law who has recently moved back to Ireland and has yet to get a job and start supporting themselves. One of their alternatives to employment my cousin told me, was to instead write a book. I was not supportive. In fact I was even less supportive of the idea than my cousin is.

Hard information on how the average writer does in financial terms from their work is hard to come by. Based on the occasional article I’ve read and other anecdotal information, I believe this is where I fall on the old bell curve.

Bell curve

I published my first work in July of 2011 and since then I have sold a combined total of twenty seven and a half thousand copies. Of this twelve and a half thousand are the Nameless War, a little under eight thousand the Landfall Campaign, five and a half the Last Charge, with the balance covered by the Job Offer novella and the two tech manuals. What has this amount to financially? Well in three years after expenses and taxes I’ve made about the equivalent of one year of the take home pay from my day job. As a supplement, that’s really good. As an actual primary income, not so good.

In fact the situation is worse than that. The Last Charge was about my most efficient book; it took two years and about a thousand man hours to get it from the first word to the finished product. I have no idea how many man hours the Nameless War took but to say many, many thousands is probably no word of a lie. Of course all the expenses from living costs, editing, cover art, etc are all front loaded. You will have to pay these out months or years before you can hope to see a penny come back.

Okay but that’s self publishing, what about traditional publishing? I have never gone down the traditionally published road so what follows is deeply anecdotal.

Assuming you’re first time writer, based on what I’ve read, advances on a first book are likely at best single digit thousands, with little likelihood that there will be anything beyond that*. This is to be expected, there aren’t many lines of work out there where you immediately walk into the top job, you have to prove yourself and writing is no different. Also once again even with traditional publishing, that first book is going to have to be written before you approach a publisher, so you’re front loading the living costs while you write.

Does this mean I’m saying you shouldn’t even try? No, definitely not. What I am saying is that even you’re a really good writer with a compelling story to tell, writing is difficult way to earn money and if you get to the point where you earn minimum wage through writing, you are doing very well. Certainly for several years something else is going to have to meet the bills. It is worth remembering that even the boys and girls who’ve made it big in publishing were often several books in before they started to see major money.

So in conclusion writing as a means of earning a living. Possible? Yes. Easy? No. Fast? Definitely no.

 

 

* If any readers can offer better information I would certainly welcome hearing from you.

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It’s here!

So finally Ships of the Fleet Volume Two is about to hit the digital shelves. Those of you who have it on pre-order are but a few hours away from download. But that isn’t all.

Blog two covers 2

For anyone who hasn’t yet picked up Volume One, on the 1st July, for one day only it will be available for free. Not only that but books one and two of the Nameless War will be on special offer! Can you say fairer than that?

Ships of the fleet can be found:

Battleships – available on Amazon.com and Amazon.UK

Starcruisers – now available for pre-order on Amazon.com and Amazon.UK

 

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So… Tomorrowland

Bound by a shared destiny, a teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a former boy-genius inventor embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory.

SPOILERS NOT SO MUCH POSSIBLE AS PROBABLE

Tomorrowland, a film about… well actually a lot of things. To cut to the chase it’s an interesting film but in my opinion not an entirely successful one. The film opens at the 1964 World’s Fair with Frank Walker (Clooney) explaining how as a young boy and with the assistance of a girl called Athena he found his way into an amazingly futuristic city, existing outside of our world, called Tomorrowland. The city is the incarnation of every positive vision of the future, where all the imagined future technologies of the nineteen sixties  (rocket packs, robots etc) are a reality. The narrative then shifts to the present day and now the optimism of Tomorrowland is completely absent and we’re introduced to Casey Newton (Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer, who is actively attempting to sabotage to demolition of a rocket launch pad. After a brush with the law, Newton finds herself in possession a badge which grants visions of an amazing city; via a now grown up Walker and a still young Athena she attempts to find her way back.

Apparently Tomorrowland has done badly which is a pity but I can understand why. It is a film that no shortage of ideas, what it doesn’t seem to have is focus. Despite the title, only a modest portion of the film is actually spent in the city. The majority of the action takes place in our world, with the heroes chased by a robot execution squad determined to stop them. A long the way and in the most drawn out fashion possible we find out that the end of the world is nigh – for reasons that are never specified. Only by getting to Tomorrowland can this – somehow – be prevented.

During the course of chase we’re told repeatedly that Newton is Special, that she has a score on some kind of intelligence scale that is amazingly high. But in course of the story she doesn’t demonstrate this, she isn’t stupid by any means (although she seems to be slow on the uptake a few times) and it isn’t a failure of the actress. Her only consistently special trait is optimism which frankly seems thin. It’s only in the third act that she suddenly grasps that the time viewer by which the impending apocalypses was detected is causing a self fulfilling prophecy.  Since her credentials as a genius or saviour have not been established this feels incredibly pulled out of thin air.  Frankly she’s only just arrived in Tomorrowland, she should still be trying to figure out how the three seashells in the bathroom work.

When they do finally reach Tomorrowland, there’s no sense of wonder or even consistency. The robots in our world have summarily murdered anyone who might find out about Tomorrowland but when the heroes finally reach the city, the head of the city David Nix (Hugh Laurie) is actually quiet civil. It’s a jarring contrast without any apparent reason (seriously in the middle act one American town had half it police force wiped out). He attempts to persuade them tat the situation is futile before sending them back to live out their last few days. Tomorrowland itself is really an empty shell, we only see about three people, thus we get no sense that it is a living breathing community.

There no doubt that when the film finally gets to the city, things do get really preachy on Green topics which anyways seems to wind some people up. This is a line from Nix

 You’ve got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation, explain that one. Bees butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, the algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won’t take the hint! In every moment there’s a possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality.

I’m not sure whether this was intended but Nix represents actually one of the most interesting parts of the film in that he ends up representing both extremes of the environmental question. As you can see from the line above we have all the environmental buzz words. But what I find interesting is that also highlights the weakness in the green lobby. A rigidity of ideology that matches the politicians and industrialist Nix speaks scornfully of, it is his way or no way. The constant doom-mongering he offers results in people either switching off or viewing it as unavoidable. Also he isn’t prepared to countenance letting people into Tomorrowland, a very ‘I’m alright jack attitude’.

Lets finish with some positives though. Raffey Cassidy as Athena was really impressive. In many respects she was playing the Obi-Wan Kenobi type character, a role usually reserved for an old guy but proves equal to a role that was probably the most challenging in the film as she flicks between childish to adult very convincingly. The relationship between her character – a pre pubescent girl and Clooney’s character – a man looking at middle age in the rear view mirror – could have come across as incredibly creepy. This they manage to avoid this just about.

So the bottom line is that Tomorrowland is not a good film. There are some interesting ideas, some go performances but really, it’s hamstrung with a poor script.

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