Sunday, 25 April 2010

Book Review: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (2004)

Narrated by fifteen year-old New Yorker Daisy, How I Live Now takes place in Occupied Britain during a never-named-but-implied World War III.

Daisy's father and stepmother, expecting a new baby, send Daisy to England to live with cousins she has never met. Just as she is settling into her new home, Britain is infiltrated by an anonymous enemy that take advantage of Britain's absent military forces busy fighting in other parts of the world. While the country is in chaos, Daisy falls in love with her cousin Edmond, whom she seems to have an almost telepathic relationship with.

Daisy and her cousins are evacuated, leaving Daisy and her youngest cousin Piper - seperated from her brothers - desperate to get back to their comfortable farmhouse, where the war once seemed far, far away.

The novel's present-day war is evocative and thought-provoking. Daisy is a strong protagonist who quickly adapts to her new surroundings - surroundings that the novel's typical readership would likely be unfamiliar with. Similarily, a romance between cousins is an unusual storyline for a coming-of-age novel. These differences make How I Live Now stand out amongst young adult romance novels and stories that end happily ever after.

How I Live Now is convincingly youthful in its language, description and dialogue. However, the frequent use of run-on sentences quickly exhaust the reader. Daisy does not seem to verbally mature throughout the novel and though we are led to believe that her story is a memoir, Rosoff's writing style is inconsistant with a character that has struggled, physically and mentally, through her teenage years. Daisy sounds much younger than expected and though her actions suggest she matures quickly, her narration does not. The long-winded paragraphs make the reader feel like they are always moving at too quick a pace. This is true even in quiet moments when Daisy is relaxing by the river with her cousins prior to the evacuation. Though they occasionally enhance moments of tension, they ruin the peaceful tone of other scenes.

The concluding chapters felt rough, as if added at the last minute because there was nothing more to be gleaned from the story - but there was. I wanted to know more about what happened after the war, about how the country began to repair itself. Six years pass between part one and part two, and the events of these six years are crammed into less than four pages.

Overall, How I Live Now is an engaging read for a young adult looking to escape the world of the Jonas Brothers and discover something gritty, real, and mysterious. The exhaustive extended sentences and rushed conclusion are not distracting enough to take away from the vivid setting and honest merit of this novel.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Cross-Platform... What is it?

I've just completed a cross-platform unit for my degree and thought I might pass on some information to those of you who are unfamiliar with the term. Cross-platform covers four basic areas of media: online, text, audio and video. By combining these four things in any arrangement, you can make a series/project/game that spans multiple platforms and therefore inspires interactivity or action from the audience. For example, a TV show might have a series on television, a website with extra clips or webisodes, and maybe it also has some playing cards you can collect by buying a related magazine. By targeting your audience through a variety of mediums, you can keep their attention on your topic and provide them with ways to interact with the subject that would not have been possible even twenty years ago.

Cross-platform is quickly emerging as a media force to be reckoned with. TV shows are increasingly introducing related websites, children can play games with their favourite characters from the TV online, and audio, video and text are being used to make topics more user-friendly and widely available.

I worked with a great group of people: two producers, two directors, an editor, another screenwriter, and a radio producer all on Masters courses. We put our heads together and created an interactive website for children between the ages of 5-7. It incorporated those four things I listed above - audio, video, online and text. We did some market research and thought about merchandise and marketing, we built a mock-up of our website, and we presented to a panel of professors and a visiting media professional who has worked with BBC Raw and Cbeebies. The feedback we received was very positive and personally I had a lot of fun considering all the options available to us once we stepped out of the boundaries of single-platform media.

Cross-platform is not only about being different and thinking outside the media box, it's also about making your project accessible and helping your ideas adapt to a changing market and advancing technology. In fact, it's not just the technology that's advancing - it's your audience, too. These days, children begin surfing the internet (usually supervised) at about 5 years old! It's information like this that cross-platform media takes advantage of.

Think about a project you're currently working on. Could it be expanded to include another kind of media? While I don't believe cross-platform media will take over single platform media anytime soon, keeping up with the advancements in entertainment and technology is never a bad thing!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

221b (Baker Street)

I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and have been since I was very young, probably under the age of ten years old. I remember taking out DVDs of films like The Hound of the Baskervilles and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror from the local library long before I ever picked up any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books. To me, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson will always be Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as this was my first encounter with the characters. It often interests me how people perceive adaptations of literature - whether they see the film/TV version before reading the source text or the other way around and how that affects their opinion on the adaptation. Basil Rathbone's perfectly clipped and abrupt form of speaking when in character accompanies every line in Conan Doyle's work when I read them now. I don't believe this will ever change.

I have done a lot of research into the various adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories and watched many of them over the years. Though Jeremy Brett is often considered England's favourite Holmes and the most accurate representation of the character on screen, I have to disagree. Is it because Basil Rathbone is a better actor? Not necessarily. Is it because Rathbone's character is less flawed? Not at all.

It's because, for me at least, Rathbone was first. Not the first Sherlock Holmes by any means, but he was the first one I saw and I will always be partial to the pairing of him and Nigel Bruce.

The real point of this post was to include a poem by Vincent Starrett that I have recently rediscovered. Starrett wrote The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and was a big fan of detective novels and crime fiction, writing plenty of it himself. He was one of the most promiment - and really one of the first - "Sherlockians".

221b (1942)

Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die.
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry.
But still the game's afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo
England is England yet, for all our fears
Only those things the heart believes are true

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane
As night descends upon this fabled street.
A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,
The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Songs That Tell a Story

I've always loved songs that have a plot or a storyline. Instead of swooning over someone the singer can't have or reminiscing about a lost love, songs that tell a story are lyrical narratives. They're pleasant to listen to and the constantly changing lyrics are much more distinctive and creative than the Top 40 songs that repeat themselves over and over. The lyrics move the story forward and most of these songs have a beginning, middle, and end, just like something written in prose form would (or should, or might). They introduce the characters and the problem and come to some sort of satisfying conclusion within a very short time frame.

Two of my favourite examples of lyrical narratives are Whiskey Lullaby, this version by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss... Yes, it's country, and yes that seems to be a foul word here in the UK, but it's a lovely - if sad - song.

...And The Gambler by Kenny Rogers. I chose this particular clip because it involves the Muppets and who doesn't love those guys? Secondly, I was happy to discover that it involves multiple characters "acting" out the song.

Please ignore the advertising that appears on the above video. I am borrowing it in order to illustrate my point and unfortunately cannot get rid of it.

There's a bit of an overload of country on this post but artists in that genre seem to enjoy telling tales in their music.

Of course, there are plenty of other examples of songs that tell stories and exhibit some form of narrative structure. Bob Dylan's done a few, for instance, and even Avril Lavigne's Sk8er Boi (it pains me to even type it that way) has a story in it. There are a ton of examples out there if you listen for them!

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Art of Showing

In writing my first ten-minute screenplay (based at the location mentioned below), I have learned a lot. Feature films have more time to develop things and to let the tension build gradually before reaching a satisfying resolution. However, if your script is only 9-10 pages long, you have to focus on the little details in order to get the job done effectively in a short amount of time.

By far the most important thing a young (or new) screenwriter should know is that one must show, not tell wherever possible. Sometimes this seems difficult, but it can be as easy as having a character always choosing spaghetti when they go out to eat and heartily enjoying it instead of proclaiming "I love spaghetti!" at some point in your script.

This rule is especially true for a short screenplay. It might seem easier to have your characters save time by describing something that has happened but this can quickly make your story dull and your audience uninterested. Take us to the scene of the crime. Have your characters show their traits instead of talking about them. Use flashbacks to tell about a hard time in your character's life instead of letting them emote to someone else over a cup of coffee.

Here is an example of what I mean from the BBC show Coupling. Not only does it use flashbacks instead of letting the characters discuss the party, this clip also shows two different perspectives. These perspectives effectively give away information about both characters too.

It might seem simple enough, but exposition scenes (one character talking to another about something that has happened, how they're feeling, an issue in their life, etc) can creep in without the writer realizing. They should be avoided at all costs! If you must use one, spice it up by adding props or extend it over several different locations, like your characters' commute to work, to keep the audience's attention.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Impressionistic Writing

Pronunciation: im-'pre-sh&-"ni-z&m
Function: noun
1. often capitalized: a theory or practice in painting especially among French painters of about 1870 of depicting the natural appearances of objects by means of dabs or strokes of primary unmixed colors in order to simulate actual reflected light
2. a: the depiction (as in literature) of scene, emotion, or character by details intended to achieve a vividness or effectiveness more by evoking subjective and sensory impressions than by recreating an objective reality
b: a style of musical composition designed to create subtle moods and impressions

Merriam-Webster Online

I have a deadline coming up that is for an impressionistic resume based on a location of our choosing. The word 'resume' initially confused me because, to me, a resume is what the English would refer to as a CV. However, it is not a list of my multiple part-time jobs and my educational experience - it is an atypical essay that isn't really an essay at all.

Impressionistic writing is not something I have regularly encountered - and certainly not attempted to write myself - but many may be familiar with it as it is a format used by Jack Kerouac. I have found it difficult but enjoyable for a number of reasons.

Difficult, firstly, because impressionistic writing is not as concerned with structure and format as typical essay writing or literary work. Having come straight from an undergraduate degree throughout which I wrote about thirty essays of various lengths and a dissertation, it has been a very hard habit to break.

This exercise was also unexpectedly rewarding. Words have more emphasis placed on them when describing things impressionistically. My writing was forced to become a bit more poetic and I was conscious of how carefully I was picking my words. I am a very technical writer and I have found that this somewhat fragmented form has temporarily released me from that.

Impressionistic writing flows like the writer's consciousness, meaning that things do not necessarily have a given order. When I think of stream-of-consciousness writing, I immediately recall reading Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse for a unit on Classical English Literature that I did in my first year of university. She is an author many people consider to write this way and I agree. Impressionistic writing is about describing something with all your senses and your feelings towards the place. You can inspire certain moods with it as often the descriptions are very vivid and make it easy to imagine that you are standing in the writer's shoes. The writer is not concerned with presenting something as accurately as possible because it is personal - it is their impression of a person, place, or thing. Sentences are not perfect and many are short, perhaps even consisting of a single word. The beginning, middle, and end are not always clear and may not follow each other in a typical narrative style.

What helps, of course, is having a very beautiful and unique location to write about. Here is a photograph of the place that I chose for this assignment.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Happy Halloween!

Chris carved a pumpkin in my kitchen for Halloween. Before he cut the face into it he scooped out as much of the pumpkin flesh (not the stringy bits!) as possible so that we could make homemade pumpkin soup for dinner. It was delicious and I now have a carved pumpkin on the window sill. I roasted the seeds as well - when you're a student you're always up for getting a lot of bang for your buck!

Here's the recipe for the soup with our changes/substitutions. The original is from BBC Good Food.

Pumpkin Soup
1 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
1kg pumpkin, chopped into chunks
700ml chicken stock
salt and pepper
1/2 tbsp curry powder
142ml creme fraiche
handful roasted pumpkin seeds

1. Heat the oil in a large pan. Add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes, until soft.
2. Add the pumpkin and cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will be soft and turn slightly more golden.
3. Add the stock and season with salt and pepper, then add the curry powder. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 10 minutes until the pumpkin is very soft.
4. Add the creme fraiche and bring back to the boil. Blend with a hand blender.
5. Serve hot and scattered with roasted pumpkin seeds.

According to the website, it can also be frozen for up to 2 months. This made enough for both of us to have for dinner last night (a good hearty serving!) and again for lunch today as well as a single portion which is sitting in my freezer for another cold day.