Own goal

So anyway, I was just after saying last week that there is never a time when sex in films or TV works. I mean, when it keeps you in the story, when it is the story, and there’s not even a pixel in your head noticing that the woman has been lit softly and that camera angles on the man make him look taller.

Hayley McKenzie of Script Angel raised a hand. While I think it’s fair to say she agreed with me about when sex scenes are poor, she had a perfect counter argument. As eloquent as she always is, it all boiled down to the word ‘Outlander’. It’s the title of a series dramatised by Ronald D Moore, based on Diana Gabaldon’s novels, and documented in delicious detail by blogger Maureen Younger.

Up to that point I’d been thinking that, well, we just have different opinions and then here was that word. And now it’s nope, she’s right and I’m wrong.

I’ve only seen one episode of that show but it was exquisite and there was sex that, just as Hayley says, was very much everything I insisted it never is. Half a dozen things were going on with characters beyond what was happening with their skin and whatever the opposite of gratuitous is, that’s what it was.

I have no idea either why I forgot that or why I haven’t yet seen a second episode.

Anyway, I love having my mind changed, it is exhilarating to be persuaded of an alternative point of view – and especially these days when we all seem locked into our perspectives on the world.

I’m obviously thinking of politics but this week I was also talking with someone and she made me realise that we’re riddled with perspectives and biases about everything. And that if they’re how we navigate the world, you know that oftentimes they are limiting us.

We just can’t always see how. And this one time, I think I can.

What this friend said was that I’d reminded her that she owns her writing. What I’d actually said was that writing is not a democratic process and that whoever told her she had to leave a particular line in a piece was talking bollocks.

It’s the norm or at least the fashion in writing that you show your work to people you respect and take their criticism. But around seven hundred years ago, I had someone tell me that one of my pieces should be redone as magical realism because she likes magical realism. “I like chocolate,” I replied.

Then I got locked into an exchange once with someone who berated me, destroyed my work and went into gigantic detail about how precisely I should fix it if it were to have any chance of not shaming myself and the entire literary world.

I’ve had harsh criticism before but this one was eye-opening. I didn’t do a single thing she told me but I studied the advice – no, that’s not strong enough a word. Instructions? Demands? I really thought about them and realised that she was telling me to write the story the way she would have done.

That fascinates me. It’s one thing to not like how I do something, but to have total certainty that her way was the only way is arresting. And perhaps as is always the case with someone who is totally certain about anything, she was wrong. I am totally certain about that. For I told you it was an exchange: she’d sent me her first chapters of a novel. She’d had deserved success with a very good non-fiction book but now she was writing fiction.

She visibly did not want any criticism, she clearly wouldn’t take any from a lesser being, but I had no problem with that because her fiction was unreadable.

I’ve just remembered this moment that we fell out really badly and it wasn’t to do with writing. It’ll come to me in a minute what it was about, but what leaps back at me instantly is the utter relief: I remember thinking thank Christ, I don’t have to find something nice to say about her writing any more.

I can think of a hundred times that my writing has been improved and actually improved beyond measure by criticism. So it’s not as if I’m against the principle, I think you just have to be damn careful who you work with – an ultimately you have to know that it’s your writing, not theirs.

The goal is to own your writing, not to write like each one of your critics.

We must’ve seen a different film

This speaks to the heart of all criticism, all reviews, all opinions, but I’m really only saying it because I was narked. Angela and I saw Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation last weekend and on our drive home, a review of it happened to be on the radio. We listened for a moment and Angela concluded: “We must’ve seen a different film”.

I like the Mission: Impossible movies – with the contractual, mandatory, must-tell-you proviso that the first one is the best, the second is the worst, the third is okay and these last two are pretty good – but I wouldn’t have claimed they were superb pieces of cinema. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to consider thinking of maybe claiming or not claiming that: I really enjoyed Rogue Nation and that’s a great thing.

Except for this reviewer. I won’t name her partly because we came in late and I’ve no idea what her name is. But she said at one point she’d been begging Tom Cruise to not do a particular thing in the story, the implication being that it was a preposterous take-you-out-of-the-story moment. (Have you seen the movie? She’s talking about the flute.) What she didn’t want to happen and was so adamant should not have happened, that it shouldn’t have been in the film, that was a ridiculous moment, is a moment that was coming for a good six minutes. We knew this, we watched it happen, it was going to happen, so the fact that it did happen didn’t feel all that preposterous a moment.

Plus, I’ll tell you this: I love thrillers (and romances but that’s another story) and there are sometimes moments in them I wish I’d written. What happens next with that flute is one of them. Your lead character is faced with a supremely clear and obvious dilemma to which there is no right answer, no good way to choose between two urgent options. So he finds a third way. A third way that leaves you blinking yet is then instantly supremely clearly the right and sole solution. It’s a tiny moment and I’ve already over-egged it too much. But where this reviewer was taken out of the movie for what she thought were silly reasons, I was taken out of it a heartbeat later for the writer in me applauding.

Only.

This is a bit rubbish of me, picking on a reviewer I don’t name and you can’t listen to unless I do. I’m going to live with that because her second criticism led me to realise there is something genuinely very praiseworthy about this latest Mission: Impossible. There’s a new character Ilsa, played by Rebecca Ferguson. My unnamed reviewer dismissed her, saying her character wafts in and out of the movie occasionally.

Bollocks.

This is a female guest lead character in an action series and she is superb. She’s not there to sleep with the hero. She’s not there just to be rescued by him. She is a storm. You want to trust her but you know, correctly, that you shouldn’t. She makes surprising choices that work completely in retrospect, she is a dangerous storm and is riveting.

My unnamed reviewer didn’t like the movie and I did. Ultimately any review comes down to that but I’m struck by how much I want to defend a film I had nothing to do with. I’m thinking this is cutting deep into what I feel about criticism, having been a film and TV reviewer, I’m thinking that a reviewer who isn’t paying attention might as well be watching a different film.

I’m also thinking that I might watch this again and that writer/director Christopher McQuarrie did a good job.

Just my opinion.

Why the Apple Watch means you should keep writing

wg_Apple Watch-og_apple_watch-580This is going to take a time to get to its point, sorry. But Apple released details of its new Watch this week and a certain segment of the world has fallen apart.

It’s a pretty small segment yet it’s a loud one. And it’s saying Apple is bad, very bad. The watch does this or it doesn’t do that, it costs this or it doesn’t cost that, every bit of it is being criticised in volume. Mind you, what it does is also being praised in volume.

I was just disappointed – not surprised, to be fair – but disappointed at some of the reactions. I’ve nothing to do with Apple, they didn’t ask my advice on anything, but still I was disappointed because in many ways and at many times I’ve been a professional reactor. I’ve been a critic, I am now again writing software reviews. So I can’t help looking at critics with one eye on what they’re doing and one eye on whether I’m doing it too.

Here’s a criticism of Apple: one version of the Apple Watch costs £8,000 ($10,000). To me that’s one fact with an implicit second one – that I will never be able to afford that version – and this is all. Nothing else. I can’t extrapolate from that anything but that it’s a lot of money that I neither can or want to spend on a watch.

But to some critics this is ostensibly the end of Apple’s ambition to be “for the rest of us”. That’s it, Apple is cashing in, Apple is just out to make money, it is the end of days.

There is that word ‘ostensibly”, though. It is a fact that articles slamming Apple get more readers than ones praising it. Most people wouldn’t bother reading either, but if you’re an Apple hater then you enjoy the criticism. If you’re an Apple fan, you rather enjoy riffing on how pathetic the criticism is.

So I look at these criticism and I can’t tell whether they are genuine or just after getting some more readers. If it’s the latter then what can you do, haters gotta type.

But that does niggle at me. Professionally, I’m twitching at the thought of writing something whose sole purpose and existence is to get people to read it. Personally, I’ve realised that these criticisms have an impact.

Follow. I was on the MacNN podcast this week when Malcolm Owen talked about various Android phones that have been announced. He was quite dismissive of them and I asked about one Android feature that I think sounds really good: the way that if you put your phone face down on a desk, it mutes. Goes into Airplane Mode. Whatever the Android term is for not interrupting you while you’re working. I like that and, okay, I accept that a feature touted as being on Android first usually means it’s on one Android phone somewhere in the world first.

It’s on Malcolm’s phone and he says nope, he only ever got it to work once.

The hype of an Android feature had convinced me this was useful and I unthinkingly, certainly naively, assumed that it worked. Silly me.

So doubtlessly there are people out in the world reading and hearing criticisms of the Apple Watch and consciously or unconsciously making a decision about it. If all you hear is that it costs £8,000, you’re not going to consider buying one even though the real price is £299. That’s 26 times lower, by the way.

Now, someone buying or not buying an Apple Watch isn’t significant. They might love it if only they’d bought it; they might buy it and hate it. It’s just that seeing everything through the lens of perhaps self-serving criticism and being quick to diss before hearing anything substantial is so familiar to a writer. We have to be hard as writers and we are, it’s just that the thickness of our skin only protects us, it does not protect the work.

A piece of mine got a lot of criticism last year, criticism that – hand on heart – was in part so asinine that I had to bury a laugh. (“It should be a supernatural novel, I like supernatural novels.”) I went in to that session ready for a promised skin-tearing time and didn’t get it. Yet I haven’t written one word more of that book since. The criticism didn’t affect me, the critics didn’t affect me, but something affected that novel.

Nobody is ever going to get more readers because they’re criticising me but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other issues at play. The need to be heard, an inability to not say anything because you’ve got nothing to say. The expression of your own issues instead of anything to do with the book, the presumptions that one’s own preoccupations are correct and vital and important.

In that group, there was someone who’s set a novel in some particular area of London I’d never heard of. We weren’t in London, I’m not from the city and it’s not like the area was Westminster. I got the most deeply pitying look for asking where it was. The look was: you should know this, you aren’t a real writer, are you?

I’m just minded of this by a Facebook status I read this week about the Apple Watch. This is someone on Facebook, there’s no issue of getting more readers or not. It’s their real opinion. And their opinion is that the Apple Watch is of no interest because it doesn’t have X or Y, I can’t remember what. It wasn’t that the Apple Watch was of no interest to that Facebook writer, that would’ve been fine and normal, it was a dismissing dissing of the watch.

Whatever it is in us that makes us judge things before we see them ourselves, whatever it is that makes us slot ideas into categories and then judge those categories, let’s give it a rest.

Apple will keep on making that Watch unless the real thing, the actual physical product in people’s hands, proves to be a failure. It won’t stop because someone thinks it should run UNIX or needs to be set in a particularly obscure part of London.

Whatever you’re writing, write the damn thing and bollocks to anyone else. Get it done.