Difficult Progression

So, I got up to Chapter 4 of my novel. Impressions of writing this sort of long-form fiction after such a long time? It seems a lot harder than writing plays. And obviously it’s slower. You need to get character A from a ventilation shaft to the other side of a cargo bay in a sneaky way…well, that sort of thing is taking me a couple of thousand words at times, depending upon the complexity of the action (ie; the number of gun-toting guards!) A couple of thousand words in a play could be several scenes in which many dramatic twists and turns take place. Not that what I’m writing isn’t dramatic – it’s just a different kind of dramatic. And I don’t think you can rush it. When I read it back I can tell if I’m bored, or cutting corners with the prose. I seem to be able to avoid the thing which ruined my early attempts at novel-length fiction – a tendency to try to impress and be cunning with language. I think (I hope) my current style serves the story and keeps things pacey whilst not being too by-the-numbers.

By-the-numbers. There’s a phrase we all use all the time and that’s another thing I’m finding I want to challenge myself on. Finding alternatives to weary old phrases that are so familiar they’re next to meaningless in terms of evoking mood or emotion – is definitely a challenge. I’m a big fan of William Gibson but I find I don’t want to go quite that far – I want to tread a fine line (another cliche!) between finding new or alternative phraseology whilst remaining very accessible for any kind of reader. I love the density of the language in Neuromancer but I can see that it would be off-putting to some and I must admit it sometimes seems contrived.

Then I decided I’d take a break and play some games. I settled on XCOM: Enemy Within after watching a few episodes of Zemalf’s excellent series and picking up some tips. I didn’t quite feel ready to go for Impossible Ironman mode (highest difficulty, no save’s) so went for Classic Ironman instead. And I’m so glad I gave this game another go! After beating the original game on normal mode about a year ago (with saves) I gave up on any of the higher difficulty levels after getting my butt kicked every time. And I still feel that response was justified. There are faults with the game: the strategic, base building level is far too prescriptive in terms of what you need to do to get anywhere and there are serious flaws in the tactical, turn based combat (the way the game calculates line of sight is way off at times and flanking shots don’t register when everything on screen suggests they should). All this can be overcome by reading guides and watching other players but still – you shouldn’t have to do that.

Having said all that I am now loving this game. I think it might be my favourite turn based combat game – scratch that, my favourite game – of the past decade. It’s so tense in Ironman mode and on a difficulty level where the enemy AI is cleverer enough to punish every wrong move. This is something missing in so many games these days. I remember a time when games where a challenge and you had to think. XCOM is definitely that and much more. The presentation – cutscenes, music, general ambience of what’s going on – pumps you up for an epic fight against the unrelenting alien horde and when you lose – and your soldiers die – it is genuinely heartbreaking. To see these guys that you’ve pumped hours into levelling up and customizing – picking nicknames, gear and deco – to then watch them die to a fluke shot from a sectoid…it’s a strange thing. Failure is difficult to stomach but the chance of failure it’s what makes victory so thrilling.

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A specific change added with Enemy Within (among many others – mecs, gene-mods, new enemies) is an alien assault on XCOM HQ late in the game. To put this into context – it can take several days, sometimes a week, depending upon the time you have to play, to get to this stage of the game. You will generally have started to hone your strategy and have some powerful soldiers who work well as a squad. Then suddenly, you’re caught with your pants down. There is no squad select screen for this mission and your men can get thrust into combat in their basic gear if you haven’t prepeared (and beyond reading a guide there is no way to prepare for this mission). They also don’t all arrive in a unit – instead arriving as reinforcements – one or two at a time.

Playing this mission was amazing. I deliberately avoided guides so I didn’t know when it was coming or what would happen. All I knew was that the base would be attacked at some point. Once the mission began it soon became apparent I was in deep shit – with aliens pouring through breaches in the goddamn walls. I though “Surely the game won’t make you fight a mission where the odds are too much in the aliens’ favour this late in the game – with no time to prepare…” How wrong I was.

With my best mec reduced to a burning wreck and my fully skilled up, squad sighted sniper dead at the feet of a mind-controlled comrade I thought “that’s it, a week’s worth of progression wiped out in a single mission.” My only remaining team-members – a close combat assault guy and my medic – were unfortunately still mind-controlled. Then I remembered vaguely that mind-control had a turn limit. Three turns. They would return to my control and the only way to win once they did was to charge across the map and take out the two sectoid commanders with the psionic abilities that had wiped out my party. The only thing that made this possible was the fact that the medic was wearing ghost armour with one charge left and the assault guy had a single ghost grenade.

As soon as the mind-control broke they stealthed and charged – managing to gun down the commanders and playing cat and mouse with a sectopod on one health until they could take a decent shot.

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This was literally the most fun I’ve had in a game in years and it was all due to the fact that the chance of defeat was very real. Of course, I’ve since learned that there are several easy strategies to beat this mission but man am I glad I didn’t use them!

If you’ve given up on XCOM because of the insane difficulty on higher levels I’d urge you to give it another shot. Watch some guides. There are ways to win that aren’t immediately obvious but once you’ve got your head around them the game really starts to shine. And Ironman is a must!

2014. Begin.

Well, only twelve months since my last blog post. At this rate if I live till I’m 80 I’ll only have another 44 blog posts to go before I’m dead. Better make this one count then…

Not that I was idle in 2013, honest. The year started with notification that I’d got a play on as part of 24:7. This is Manchester’s premier festival for new writing and something I’ve been trying to pull off for years. Having been selected at least once though I can at least draw some conclusions: a) it’s just fluke whether you get selected since the play they picked I’d sent them before and b) throwing shit at walls sometimes pays off since I sent them 3 plays instead of 1. It’s the same thing with the BBC. They say don’t send us the same thing twice but really you just need to wait a couple of years until people have forgotten. Or there’s a different bunch of staff in place!

Does that sound cynical? Maybe on the surface but here’s the thing – a piece of work doesn’t stop being good just because nobody notices it the first time. If cynicism is the only way to counter short-sighted policies like “don’t send us the same piece twice” then so be it. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of putting the play on (you can click on the Temper page above if you’re interested) except to say that afterwards I felt like I really shouldn’t have been obsessing about getting something accepted for so many years. It was all a bit of an anticlimax and I really didn’t enjoy the “festival” part of the festival. I don’t write in order to go to parties.

After that I really just felt like doing something completely different so I filmed myself playing Minecraft. It’s a good way to switch off from the arty stuff for a while but it does tend to turn playing games into work. It was the same thing when I was doing the Aartan Away podcast. It just became a chore. So, I’m conflicted about the relative merits of doing Let’s Plays on YouTube.  I do tend to be watching a lot of them though – and other stuff – like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9HS48vx1NQ Just a bunch of people playing D&D over Skype but I find myself listening to hours and hours of it. I think it’s because they’re real people doing what they enjoy. The average Joe or Jill on the street never used to have the kind of platform that’s available through sites like YouTube and I’m constantly surprised by what people come up with. I like the fact it’s someone’s raw, unfiltered opinion, or a piece of entertainment they’ve produced (even if the production values are laughably low sometimes – like mine!)  “Terrestrial” channels seem so predictable by comparison. I’d rather watch Sips from the Yogscast in a race for the wool than David Jason in a new episode of Open All Hours. I’m sure someone somewhere is wondering how they might reboot Morecambe and Wise as we speak.

If I learnt anything last year it’s that I’d lost sight of something very important. I’d started doing things that I thought other people expected, or doing things for cynical reasons (write this thing because it has a better chance of going somewhere than this other thing). It sneaked up on me. But now I’ve recognised it I’ve got a chance to remedy it. To get back to why I started writing in the first place – that is – to write things I want to read. I don’t care any more if any of it gets produced. All that matters is whether it engages me as a reader.

So, what’s happening right now? Well, I’ve written a radio script that I’ve shipped off to The BBC and I’ve started on a novel. It’s a return to an idea I had a long time ago but I’ve updated it. If I get to the end it will be the first time I’ve done that since university.

As always, I’m going to try and use this blog more. We’ll see how that goes! Here’s a title I did for the novel many moons ago – why the hell I copyrighted it do not know. Photoshop ftw x

Test

2013. Begin.

Well, the new year has started, contrary to the Mayan Long Count calendar, so I’m forced to continue…

Christmas and New Year was a bit stressful for me in that I’m still awaiting news of the day-job – so the festive period consisted of obsessing over an ever dwindling bank balance. Hopefully things will get sorted this month.

In the meantime I continued to write and have reached a certain milestone in that I’ve completed a draft of a full length play. This was written between Christmas and the New Year and is the piece I workshopped with Davinia and In The Red. I’ve written pieces that run to over an hour and a half before but they have never been good enough for me to feel comfortable calling them plays. If I’m honest – they were practice. Some of them I really think are only worthwhile as an exercise in hitting a certain number of pages. But this latest piece has merit. I think…

The shift in 2012 I put down mainly to the university course – and working with Julie Wilkinson. Also meeting people like David Eldridge. Although I didn’t talk to David one to one – I read all his plays, listened to his seminar, and finally assimilated the idea that this is a famous playwright, creating contemporary work of great quality, but he’s just a bloke. The later is the most important point. You can read all the literary theory in the world and wrestle with the intricacies of it all – but if it seems abstract, academic, or just beyond your sphere of experience, I believe you’ll never get a handle on who you are and what you want to write. Meeting real people who have had some success with writing just makes it seem possible. And gives you a place to settle. “This is where I am, that is where I want to be.”

On the topic of the university course the grades came in from MMU and I did well. I don’t want to say what the mark was coz it pisses me off when other people bang on about that sort of thing – but the fact I did well at a level beyond which I’ve worked before (my previous experience was degree level, this was MA) gives me confidence. Not necessarily that the work is good, since you’ve got to believe that or you’d just pack it in, but confidence that if I write well people will get it. Julie and NWP really seemed to understand my approach. Not that I’m writing anything particularly avant garde – but having received so many script reports from readers who simply didn’t have the experience, nor the intelligence, to understand what they were reading – you really need people who are good at what they do to counteract that.

On the final note of script reading and feedback – I have to admit to finding things a little difficult right now. I’m writing more than I ever have, to a higher standard than before, and therefore sending more stuff out into the world. Which is good. The down side to this is that volume and quality does not necessarily translate to success. Success is mainly to do with chance – all you are doing by producing more work is increasing the chances that someone, somewhere, will like something – but the random factor still applies. With more work comes more rejection – since there is simply more out there for people to reject.

Isn’t that depressing?

New Year’s resolution: continue to throw shit at walls.

Gutted

So, that was all a bit pointless. The play for Ignition has been pulled due to actor illness. Nothing much to be said, really. Except, I’m reminded of a time many moons ago when I spoke to an experienced writer about the joys of working with actors on a piece of work. He looked at me with a wry smile and said, “yeah, they can be brilliant or they can bring a piece to its knees.”

I didn’t understand what he meant at the time. Nowadays I do. Illness can’t be helped so it’s just bad luck. But for whatever reason a play you’ve written has been pulled and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can rationalize – but it’s frustrating and a bitter pill to swallow. Since you’ve done everything you needed to do, on schedule and to a high quality – and re-written once due to a previous actor-driven crisis – so the news that it was all for naught just makes you want to punch a wall. Or more specifically in my case – play computer games. I just want to forget about it and play Final Fantasy Tactics.

I’m also gutted for Carly – since she’s put a ton of hard work in and this would’ve been her debut directing gig.

Swings and roundabouts though. The day before this news I had the workshop with In The Red and this was fantastic. The actors threw themselves into the development of what will be my first full length play in a way that was inspiring and made me think – “I’ve got to do their hard work justice.” It was also a great opportunity to see The Houldsworth – a new venue in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. And I was delighted to see Sally Lawton there who is an inspiration. She’s so hard working and dedicated!

Onwards and upwards…and stop talking in cliches Rik.

New Play Workshop

Well, the workshop with In The Red is tomorrow. Davinia has done a really bang up job with the cast and also secured Anna Marsland (@anna_marsland) to run it. Anna has worked at the Royal Exchange as assistant director and now works at the New Vic Theatre. I’m looking forward to working with Anna and of course Davinia, whom I’ve known for years now. We first met at the Oldham Coliseum when I was assisting with the new writing course. We’ve since worked on audio pieces together and I’ve watched her set up her own theatre company (the aforementioned In The Red).

Once upon a time I knew no-one in theatre. Now I find I’ve known people for about six years (2006 is when I first got involved at The Coliseum) and in that time I’ve watched friends and colleagues change, grow and try different things in order to achieve their ambitions. Nothing in theatre is static. From the staff in theatre departments who change every few years, to the actors or producers who move on and shift their focus, change is going on all the time. This makes it difficult to align yourself with a specific place – it’s rather the people you make friends with that provide consistency. So, Davinia, whom I met as a new writer, ends up arranging a workshop for one of my plays through her theatre company six years later.

It feels a little self-indulgent to ask for actors and a director after writing only one act of a play – but I’m trying to do what I’ve read about other theatre writers doing – particularly my favourite David Eldridge (@deldridgewriter) – who spoke at a recent course I attended. Theatre is so much about actors that to write in isolation seems almost absurd to me – but then, new writers don’t usually have the luxury of doing anything else, so I’m immensely grateful to have the opportunity. It’s something I hope to continue – but again, it’s all about money and resources. And the goodwill of friends.

But I woke up today wondering how I can be the age I am and not be doing what I want to do for a living yet? So I’ve got to shake that feeling before tomorrow! Here’s my attempt –  okay, the thing is – all you can do is write, and the rest of it is fate. Or luck. Or bribery. And the fact is – Yoda was wrong. It’s not “do or do not”. It’s “just keep trying”. Try try try.

As long as you tried you can rest easy. The horrible thing would be to look back and know you could’ve done more. So, in the end, it comes down to a cliche – if at first you don’t succeed:

Try.

Try.

And try again.

And again.

And again.
Etc

Rushing Around

Went to see a play starring Chris Bridgman and Martin Harris of Rocket Theatre fame last night. Got there five minutes late due to Google Maps sending us up over the moors. I’m obviously using it wrong and need to click some option or other to select only main roads. I can’t find it however…

Good show – a sort of amalgam of Oscar Wilde and PG Wodehouse – adapted for the stage. Plenty of audience interaction and some very clever magic tricks! With the butler, Middlewick, apparently reading the audiences’ minds at one point! It’s an example again for me that theatre needn’t always be so serious. It can be about entertainment – and I would call the show a crowd pleaser; easily staged and appropriate for a wide range of audiences, from theatres like the one in Darwen, to non-theatre venues, like a golf club for instance, where members are looking for an evening’s entertainment after dinner.

The drama of finding these little regional theatres though is getting increasingly stressful. With S having broken her arm I was driving last night and it was my first time on the motorway – in the pouring rain and at night. Not ideal. Talk about jumping in at the deep end. I think S was actually more nervous than I was, which is understandable.

Then received news that an actor had pulled out from the Ignition gig and so re-writes where on the table. This irked me somewhat since the whole point in my mind was to meet actors and write for them – so to have one pull out was doubly frustrating. However, we found an excellent replacement in the person of the fantastic Peter George. This did mean I had to re-write the character to be younger but it was relatively painless. I also had to constrain myself by the fact that we are 5 days from performance and two of the actors have already familiarized themselves with the script – so it’s too late to go for a sweeping re-write. I think the character still works however and Peter will be great.

Just posted a script off to the BBC and now I’m going to eat some dinner. Lamb chops!

Ignition Rehearsal

Went well. First and foremost. At a pub in Salford called the Black Lion which has several “pods” upstairs. Why people involved in theatre and the arts have to come up with these weird words to describe their facilities is beyond me. They’re not “pods” they’re “rooms”, darling. Anyway, at least they didn’t appear to despise us – which sometimes happens with pubs that hire their rooms out. They really don’t like you being there and the only reason they do it in the first place is because they hope you’ll buy drinks. Thankfully, the Black Lion isn’t like that – and it’s got a good reputation for supporting artists in Salford and Manchester.

This is Carly’s first time directing someone else’s writing and directing actors (other than herself for her own shows) – but she took it in her stride. She’s very into the true emotion of the piece and I think we both feel it would be nice to have longer. These quick shows are good in that they force you to work fast and get stuff done but I think talking to several people they are all itching to try something longer. I’m not, really, since most of my longer work is ongoing anyway and I can continue with that when I like – but it’s different for writing. Short, sharp and brutal is the exception – so I’m still getting a lot out of it.

The actors are a great trio so I’m going to link them all below. Links to Carly also.

I came away again feeling like “yep, I know where I fit.” I feel comfortable as the writer. It feels natural to me. I nearly had a coronary when one of the actors joked I might have to take over one night for him due to a scheduling conflict. I really can’t think of anything worse! And I actually get fatigued having to express my thoughts to people for any extended period of time – so I’d be no good as a director. Being the writer involves just the right amount of interaction for me!

Peter Quinn

Anthony Thomason

Andrew Grogan

Carly Tarett And some of her plays:

Sinful Review and talking about “Princess Dee” below: