East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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The burgers always taste the same

I was talking with my friend Lucy, a few moments ago. We were discussing the first pages of a book we’ve both picked up and, alas, dropped real fast. The first pages are critical, and here, in two pages, we got such a distillation of elements done to death in the last thirty years, that we were both unable to go on. And we talked about this, comparing our reactions.

Now, I am not a big fan of gore-drenched slasher-fests, and so my distaste for the self-congratulatory tone with which the violence was portrayed in the text was somewhat natural. Lucy is more into this sort of books, and what she objected to was the cliché feel of the whole thing.

“We’ve seen it done better, a thousand times, since the ’90s”

she said.
And she is perfectly right.
And yet the book is selling like hotcakes, and it’s got a brace of rave reviews.
What the hell happened?

My take on the thing is, the book caters for the lowest common denominator, and that’s what the majority of the target audience is expecting. What they actually demand.

So a good strategy is to feed the audience a checklist of expected cliches, in the expected order, and with a language as commonplace and plain as possible.
Anything new, different and original might scare the target audience away.

And this, really, is the only thing that might convince me to go on reading this book – to see if the author is smart enough to hook his target audience in the first stilted throwaway pages, and then, once the readers have been hooked, reel them in and hit them with a few original twists.
It would be great.
But I doubt this is how it goes.

Talking with Lucy, we remembered the song Styx used to sing…

I like fast food
The burgers always
taste the same

Entertainment should be entertaining and, in this instance at least, it is not entertaining to me, or to Lucy.
We have been there already, now we want something more, something better.
I’d go as far as to say we’d be happy with a less-than-perfect story, as long as it goes someplace we’ve never been before, or throws a different light on ideas we are familiar with.
But we have to accept that to the majority of the readers, the lowest common denominator, the burger-like story that always tastes the same, is perfectly fine.

It’s a very unpleasant situation – both from a writer’s and a reader’s point of view.


Three novellas and the need for an artist

Because trilogies, right?
I have just delivered a chunk of work, finished an article and cleaned up the first edit of a 10.000 words horror story. I have still a ton of stuff to do, but I’ve hit on a nice concept, that I’d like to develop in the next few months, possibly as a self-publishing adventure.

I won’t discuss the details at this point, but I have two characters, one of which has a name, and the other is still looking for their handle, look and identity, and I am seeing a world emerge.
And I have a few notes. A beginning, and a nice beginning, if I say so myself.

And I have a cartload of other projects in various stages of development, but you know how it is, right?
You are busy trying to finish something, and there comes this big, shiny, fun idea to distract you.

But as I am piecing the first story together – the idea is to write three 15.000+ words novellas – I have started looking for a cover artist.
Or, better, I have started looking for places where I can look for a cover artist.
My budget is small, but I am willing to make a sacrifice, and send my brother to bed without dinner for a few weeks in order to get a cover for my book. Having a cover would certainly act as a great push forward – and would probably help me sell my book.

So, where to look?
The aforementioned brother suggested Fiverr, which probably explains why he’s going to skip a few dinners.
And I follow a lot of great artists on Twitter, but they all seem to be way out of my league.
So I am asking you – any suggestions?
Use the comments and help me.
Thank you!


Lunch break with the ninja

Back in the early ’90s, I was part of a growing number of fans of Japanese animation in my country. In Italy we had been hit by a wave of anime since the second half of the ’70s, and then a decade later the floodgates opened with OAVs and movies. fanzines were printed, clubs were formed.
I said “in the early ’90s”, but it was actually in 1993 that I dropped out of that community, as I was starting to see things I did not like. What had been a passion, born of an interest for wild and wonderful stories and great art, was turning into a playing field for little Hitlers, people that wanted to dictate what people should or should not see – “why are you reading Marvel comics? You are supposed to be an Otaku!” – and a few individuals were starting to make an awful lot of money fleecing the fans.

I know I turned and walked away in 1993, because that was the year Ninja Scroll hit the screens.
And today at lunch break I watched it again for the first time in 28 years.

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Post-colonial fantasy

I am quite enjoying C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken, a fantasy novel with an interesting colonial setting, somewhat reminiscent of North Africa under French rule. I was at first very intrigued by the cover, that you see below, and so I took advantage of the preorder Amazon service, and basically I forgot about the book until it popped up in my reader.
Nice and smooth.

I am pleased to report that the book, a tale of rediscovery of one’s roots and of revolution, is as good as the cover, and as it is the first in a series, I will for once contradict my previous posts, and go on with a trilogy.
Mind you, I still love novellas and stand-alones, but there are exceptions, and The Unbroken is certainly one of those.

It is always a pleasure to have my conviction confirmed, that we are living in a time of high-quality publishing when it comes to imaginative fiction.
To lower the bar somehow, I will have to write more stories…

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The hard part

Last night I spent (or wasted) a few hours trying to explain to a contact of mine why writing is hard.
Because this guy was like, “hey, I’ve got this great idea, the story will practically write itself!” and from there it was all downhill to the classic “you just got to sit down and write it, right?”

So I asked him to give me the short summary for “Casablanca”, the 1942 movie. Because it’s a movie everybody knows, and because it illustrates perfectly my point.
The short summary my friend gave me goes more or less like this…

During WW2, in Casablanca, Rick Blaine is the owner of a night club. When his former lover appears, together with her French Resistance husband, Rick needs to straighten his relationship with her, while staying one step ahead of the Nazis.

Which is a viable capsule plot for Casablanca, and it has all the “great ideas” – star-crossed lovers, war, political intrigue, exotic locale, Nazis.
Nice and smooth.
Now write it.

“What do you mean, write it?”

And I explained that a great idea is indeed a good starting point, but then you need to develop it.
You’ve got to find a way to present Sam, and the Peter Lorre Character, and the Sidney Greenstreet character… you’ve got to figure out the scenes, what happens when, what to show and what to imply. Write the dialogue. Create a sense of continuity.

“Let’s say I give you two hours. Can you write me two pages of Casablanca, your own version, in two hours?
I’ll be back later.”

And I went and watched the movie we’ll discuss tonight on our podcast.
When I got back, my contact told me it doesn’t work the way I said. Writers don’t do it like that.
One does not write like this, one has to wait for inspiration.
At this point I reminded him of the time when he asked me for a story, 6000 words in ten days – “all you have to do is write 600 words per day. Easy.”
What about my inspiration, then? What if I had to wait for the Muse to appear for one week?
“You’re the writer, that’s your business.”

A business a lot of people think they know better than we that do it.


Kingdom of Heaven, the director’s cut (2005)

There’s been a lot of talk about a director’s cut of a superhero film, recently. Everybody’s going on about it. The problem is, I am rarely interested in superhero movies – let’s say I still love the old Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder Superman movies (well, the first two, at least) and after that … yeah, OK, Michael Keaton as Batman, maybe a few others. But I am not a big superhero fan to start with, and so I am not at all invested in this latest release.
But there are other movies that have come out in a Director’s Cut, and that I would be interested in catching.
So, why not today?

And when one talks about director’s cuts, Ridley Scott must be the world championship holder in the category. How many times did he recut Blade Runner?
And in 2005, his Crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven was distributed with 45 minutes cut after some test audiences groaned, and later re-released as a Director’s Cut.
I saw the theatrical release, and found it boring and unsatisfactory. But up until today, I had missed the Director’s Cut.
So today I watched it.

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