Writing

Why Conan Doyle’s Southsea Life Should Inspire Writers

Writers looking for reasons to keep going when times are tough, should look no further than Arthur Conan Doyle’s early life in Southsea. His story of struggle, finding his way and eventual success is one for every writer to learn from.

In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Doyle talks about those early years after his arrival in Southsea.

I made £154 the first year, and £250 the second, rising slowly to £800, which in eight years I never passed, so far as the medical practice went. In the first year the Income Tax paper arrived and I filled it up to show that I was not liable. They returned the paper with “Most unsatisfactory” scrawled across it. I wrote “I entirely agree” under the words, and returned it once more. For this little bit of cheek I was had up before the assessors, and duly appeared with my ledger under my arm. They could make nothing, however, out of me or my ledger, and we parted with mutual laughter and compliments.”

So, what changed? Doyle confesses that he never imagined he’d be able to make a living from writing. In the early days, he was so poor he had no staff at his surgery on Elm Grove and cooked bacon over the gas lamp in the back room. But, he adds:

In many ways my marriage marked a turning-point in my life. A bachelor, especially one who had been a wanderer like myself, drifts easily into Bohemian habits, and I was no exception… with the more regular life and the greater sense of responsibility, coupled with the natural development of brain-power, the literary side of me began slowly to spread until it was destined to push the other entirely aside.

Though Doyle did write before he married, he was paid an average of £4 per story and made around £10 or £15 a year from his work, which works out at between £1000 to £1500 a year.

A great insight into his creative life follows:

But though I was not putting out I was taking in. I still have notebooks full of all sorts of knowledge which I acquired during that time. It is a great mistake to start putting out cargo when you have hardly stowed any on board. My own slow methods and natural limitations made me escape this danger.

A Study In Scarlet in the famously rare 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, of which only 11 complete copies are known to exist.

After he married, he wrote most of the stories that appeared in his book, The Captain of the Polestar. He progressed steadily, until he appeared in the prestigious Cornhill magazine, with his short story Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.

Doyle had to deal with hostile reviews and keep on, even then. One reviewer stated: “Cornhill opens its new number with a story which would have made Thackeray turn in his grave.”

Doyle was also willing to take on any writing job that came his way:

I was still in the days of very small things—so small that when a paper sent me a woodcut and offered me four guineas if I would write a story to correspond I was not too proud to accept. It was a very bad woodcut and I think that the story corresponded all right. I remember writing a New Zealand story, though why I should have written about a place of which I knew nothing I cannot imagine. Some New Zealand critic pointed out that I had given the exact bearings of the farm mentioned as 90 miles to the east or west of the town of Nelson, and that in that case it was situated 20 miles out on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. These little things will happen. There are times when accuracy is necessary and others where the idea is everything and the place quite immaterial.

Doyle’s next realisation about his writing is a useful one for any writer.

It was about a year after my marriage that I realized that I could go on doing short stories for ever and never make headway. What is necessary is that your name should be on the back of a volume. Only so do you assert your individuality, and get the full credit or discredit of your achievement.

His first venture was The Firm of Girdlestone, which he acknowledges as a “worthless book”. He adds:

When I sent it to publishers and they scorned it I quite acquiesced in their decision and finally let it settle, after its periodical flights to town, a dishevelled mass of manuscript at the back of a drawer.

Then came his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes:

Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes. But could I bring an addition of my own? I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. I would try if I could get this effect. It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction?

Doyle adds: “It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it—such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards…” Next came the choice of the name. something not too obvious for a clever man, such as Mr Sharps or Mr Ferrets, but something else.

First it was Sherringford Holmes; then it was Sherlock Holmes. He could not tell his own exploits, so he must have a commonplace comrade as a foil—an educated man of action who could both join in the exploits and narrate them. A drab, quiet name for this unostentatious man. Watson would do. And so I had my puppets and wrote my “Study in Scarlet.”

In fact, Doyle wrote the book over a period of 3 weeks in 1886. It was a novella rather than a novel – but he was rightly proud of his achievement.

For the writer, the question then, is how to deal with publishers who just don’t “get” your work? To push on and hope, appears to be the answer. And a matter of luck is always part of the equation, it seems:

I knew that the book was as good as I could make it, and I had high hopes. When “Girdlestone” used to come circling back with the precision of a homing pigeon, I was grieved but not surprised, for I acquiesced in the decision. But when my little Holmes book began also to do the circular tour I was hurt, for I knew that it deserved a better fate. James Payn applauded but found it both too short and too long, which was true enough. Arrowsmith received it in May, 1886, and returned it unread in July. Two or three others sniffed and turned away. Finally, as Ward, Lock & Co. made a speciality of cheap and often sensational literature, I sent it to them.

“Dear Sir,” they said,—”We have read your story and are pleased with it. We could not publish it this year as the market is flooded at present with cheap fiction, but if you do not object to its being held over till next year, we will give you £25 for the copyright.

“Yours faithfully,
“WARD, LOCK & Co.”
“Oct. 30, 1886.”

The story famously appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. Doyle never received another penny for it.

Doyle did not wait for publication the next year, but wrote a historical romance, Micah Clarke. For which pains, he was asked by publishers how he could waste his wits and time writing historical novels. Other comments from publishers were in a similar vein.

I was on the point of putting the worn manuscript into hospital with its mangled brother “Girdle-stone” when as a last resource I sent it to Longmans, whose reader, Andrew Lang, liked it and advised its acceptance. It was to “Andrew of the brindled hair,” as Stevenson called him, that I owe my first real opening, and I have never forgotten it. The book duly appeared in February, 1889, and though it was not a boom book it had extraordinarily good reviews, including one special one all to itself by Mr. Protheroe in the “Nineteenth Century,” and it has sold without intermission from that day to this. It was the first solid corner-stone laid for some sort of literary reputation.

As for Sherlock Holmes, British literature was fashionable in the United States at the time, and it was a Mr Stoddart, an American agent for Lippincott’s who asked to meet up with him in London in 1889. He thus had dinner with Stoddart and Oscar Wilde, the latter of whom had read Micah Clarke, and liked it very much.

The result of the evening was that both Wilde and I promised to write books for “Lippincott’s Magazine”—Wilde’s contribution was “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” a book which is surely upon a high moral plane, while I wrote “The Sign of Four,” in which Holmes made his second appearance.

Doyle now went on to write The White Company, feeling once again the urge to write historical romance. When he finished, he writes:

I felt a wave of exultation and with a cry of “That’s done it!” I hurled my inky pen across the room, where it left a black smudge upon the duck’s-egg wall-paper. I knew in my heart that the book would live and that it would illuminate our national traditions. Now that it has passed through fifty editions I suppose I may say with all modesty that my forecast has proved to be correct.

He goes on:

This was the last book which I wrote in my days of doctoring at Southsea, and marks an epoch in my life, so I can now hark back to some other phases of my last years at Bush Villa before I broke away into a new existence. I will only add that “The White Company” was accepted by “Cornhill,” in spite of James Payn’s opinion of historical novels, and that I fulfilled another ambition by having a serial in that famous magazine.

These remembrances should act as inspirations for writers in Portsmouth, and indeed, everywhere. It’s one reason I decided to celebrate him and his greatest creation Sherlock Holmes by bringing out a facsimile reprint of the first appearance of A Study In Scarlet through my publishing company, Life Is Amazing. The truth is, the most famous writers come from somewhere. One of those places could be where you are right now. In fact, one of those writers could be you.

[NB: This article was updated on 12th February 2019]

Writers, Are There Royalties Waiting For You To Claim Them?

I woke up this morning and checked my bank account to see that I’d just received a couple of hundred quid come in from the ALCS, or Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, and thought I’d write about it, in case fellow writers haven’t yet heard of it.

I first encountered the ALCS in the 1990s when I was working for the tv show The Bill. I got a letter through the post telling me that my work might be seen in other countries, and there were all sorts of rights that as an author I might be eligible for. This was in the earlier days of sorting out copyright arrangements across countries in the EU. There was, I remember, some talk about libraries and universities across Europe, and other institutions who relied on work that had in some way been written. To be honest, I didn’t think my work qualified, since my stuff was on telly, but I joined up and thought well, let’s see what happens.

I think I got a few cheques come through – you know – enough to buy the odd pint. It wasn’t to be sniffed at, though, and I was doing “nothing” for it (except of course from producing works of genius for tv! [I jest]).

Then, one day I got a larger cheque – not huge – but you know, around £100. The accompanying letter told me that the ALCS had finalised payments for photocopying rights from academic libraries across the EU, and I was being sent my cut. This surprised me. I couldn’t imagine that anyone had photocopied my scripts for The Bill – but basically, the money had to be divvied up somehow, and I was eligible! Great. It’s then I realised they really are on our side and are looking to protect our interests.

The way it works is this. The ALCS actively identifies books, scripts and articles – both fiction and non-fiction – that may be eligible for one of the many copyright payments that are agreed nationally and internationally between countries. They compile a database, take payment, and then actively seek to find the authors who haven’t already joined. That’s how come I got my letter from them.

Of course, there are times when they can’t locate an author. So it’s quite possible that an article, book or script you have written has already amassed payment, and you need to let them know where you are. There is even a search option on the website to check out whether you’ve got money waiting for you.

As for fees, they are a not-for-profit organisation and they charge a small commission to keep the office running. Back in the early days they had two schedules: the first meant you weren’t a full member of the ALCS and paid a slightly higher percentage of the money they sent you. The second schedule meant you paid a membership fee (really low – something like £7 per annum) and you then received a lower commission fee. Either way, you are receiving money you otherwise would never get, so the fees are really not an issue.

These days, there’s a one-off fee of £36, which gets you signed up for life. The money comes out of your first royalties. The commission rate is 9.5%.

It’s all very straightforward. And who knows? You may be sitting on some cash already.

So, have a look – and spread the love! Share this with as many writers as you can. After all, we all need a helping hand from time to time, right?

Stream of life – a piece of spontaneous writing

Stream of life:

This is the great stream of life, we are in. Wait. Stop. Listen. Notice the movement on your skin, the slightest of shifts as the sensory cells activate and fire off, reporting all that is going on in your life. It washes over you, washes through and drags you along in its current. There is nothing you can do but submit to it. It loves you, it is you, it is the whole universe, and it knows everything and nothing about you and your thoughts and your hopes and your fears. The stream of life is intimately you, and abstractly both uninterested and disinterested in your life, you future, your past, your pains, your joys, your woes, your smiles and your tears. It is greater than you and you are so much greater than the you that you think you are. The stream washes on. Wait! Stop! Do you hear that sound? It is the laughter of the water, washing all around you.

Review: Black Earth, A Field Guide To The Slavic Otherworld

Andrew L Paciorek’s Black Earth, A Field Guide To The Slavic Otherworld is two wonderful things at once.

Firstly, it is an entry point into a mythology largely unknown in Western Europe. Secondly, it is beautiful.

On the first point, Paciorek’s one-page descriptions of specific gods, spirits and folk horror entities found in the Slavic pantheon are concise, intriguing and well researched.

Perun, the king of the gods, is a thunder deity we are told, who can transform into an eagle and hurl exploding apples. Veles, the serpentine god of the underworld is a deity of sickness and also, interestingly, of cattle. These two gods, Perun and Veles are in eternal warfare – thus symbolising the seasonal cycle…

The mythological stories are laid out without labouring the point, but with enough to reveal the logic behind the myths. In this way we begin our journey into the mysterious Slavic otherworld.

But wait a minute. What constitutes the Slavic world? Paciorek culturally and geographically orients us in the introduction, pointing to Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and those living in former Yugoslvia, among others. This means Paciorek’s Black Earth draws on the rich and strange folk world that produced, on the one hand, Baba Yaga with her house on chicken legs, and Stravinsky’s Firebird on the other.

Along the way we meet spirits of water, forest, mountain and field, sorcerers, witches and hags, shape-shifters and demons, and entirely new classes of vampire, of which there are surprisingly many. Through Dhampirs, Lampirs, Upior, Nelapsi, Nachzeherer and Eretiks (the last being undead heretics) one enters into a whole other world full of possibilities and potentials.

As a writer, these creatures and entities are invaluable. I am sure some of them will surface in my storytelling at some point in the future. For providing a valuable entry point into an alien mythology, Paciorek should be commended.

There is also another aspect to this book that gives real delight. The artwork in these pages is just wonderful. The line art style, bold and exquisitely executed, gives an earthy life to the text. They powerfully boost the overall effect. Pictures of gods grappling with dragons, and three-headed, five-headed and six-headed forest gods, spirits and superhumans fill the book with a sense of otherworldliness that fires the imagination.

In all, this book is a recommend for anyone interested in the strange and the beautiful, in mythology and in folk horror. Great stuff!

Black Earth is available from: http://www.blurb.com/user/andypaciorek, £10 for paperback, £20 for hardback with either printed cover or dustjacket.

The soundtrack to Wonder Woman – how less can be more.

Yesterday I watched Wonder Woman with specific attention to the soundtrack. It is extremely interesting how much this aspect, largely ignored, adds the power to the scenes.

Throughout the movie there is a sense of brooding growth and suppressed emotion. It mirrors the story of Diana, who as a stripling does not know the strength of her powers and is seeking to find them. There is a leitmotif for the warrior Diana in full battle mode, but also for other aspects of her personality throughout.

The interaction of the soundtrack and image in this movie is surprising. For example, the famous No Man’s Land scene, which could be played with loud orchestral flourishes and strident orchestral stabs is instead accompanied by a kind of steady solidity, a growing sense of certainty as the untried warrior first steps into battle.

The fact that it is set in one of the “holy of holies” of warfare – the awful horror of the trenches – makes the scene all the more powerful. Few writers / directors of mainstream film have had the temerity to use this setting, and to do so with a superhero movie could have been a disaster. Instead, the imagery is powerful. A lone woman striding across the fields of death and destruction of the Great War.

When she reaches the other side, she fights with as much emphasis on breaking the guns than killing the enemy, as if she will do what she must, but acknowledging that the enemy is war itself – which is one message of the movie as a whole.

Later, the soundtrack does break out into full action sequence with the Wonder Woman battle leitmotif in full cry. But this sequence works for its auditory restraint. This is an old lesson for writers and works across media: less is more.

Introduction to 50 sonnets for liberals in troubled times

2016 was a shocker. Watching the vile rabble-rousing debates about Brexit was repugnant, the morning of the loss, grief-inducing. At that moment I, like many other optimistically outward-looking friends who understand how co-operation in Europe has given us peace and prosperity for 70 years went into black, horrified grief and shock. Was the country really so stupid as this? So intolerant and unkind? The fire-bombings of immigrant shops and racist attacks on the streets that ensued seemed to answer that question.

And then there was the rise of Donald Trump. After his win we got to hear Nigel Farage crowing, the pair of them getting it on like the far right Anglosphere’s own psychotic Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dummer. At the same time, the rise of other far right extremists across Europe was depressing. Their presence was one of my main reasons for wanting to stay in the EU – because to leave was to launch the whole continent in the direction of the same far right savagery that had torn the continent to pieces only 70 years before.

What surprised me about the rise of the right this time was how little people seemed to have learned from the 1930s – not such distant history. It’s almost an algorithm. You get the very rich making everyone else poorer through malpractice and deception, and the poor will listen to anyone who can name a semi-plausible scapegoat, because they don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that those rich industrialists and venture capitalists whose success they admire are making their lives worse. When an abuse is so extreme even the right wing Press object to it, such as Phillip Green’s disdainful mistreatment of workers at BHS, or Sports Direct putting people to work in Victorian condition, then this is seen as exceptional, not an indicator of the attitude to the poor of many in business. No. That would smack of socialism. And that’s evil.

So, who to blame? Last time round it was Jews. This time round, it was the EU. As I trawled the deeper recesses of the internet, it also became clear “the EU” was code used by many far right fascists to mean “Jews” once again. Some videos I watched argued the whole EU project had been designed as part of a Jewish conspiracy to eradicate the “white race” – whatever those two words are supposed to point to.

For most people besieged by the lies of the Brexit campaign, their conscious thoughts were a long way from fascism. In the last eight years, they’d become generally poorer, felt they weren’t getting on, were unable to buy a house and had to rent, their wages had stagnated, and the waiting lists at hospitals had lengthened Pinocchio-like as Osborne and Cameron lied that “we’re all in this together”.

The British experience of poverty in the 21st Century is for many a pale shadow of the poverty we had in the 1930s. Not for everyone, though. There are people going to food banks to stop themselves starving, living in slum homes without central heating, the plaster coming off the walls. But most people complaining about the EU weren’t suffering that sort of hardship. Instead, they were aware that they weren’t getting on how they thought they would. There are more billionaires in Britain than ever, but the majority struggled on under the yolk of austerity that Cameron and Osborne cooked up as a pretext to run down the Welfare State and sell it to their friends in private business. If ever you want a demonstration of how poverty is relative, then look at Britain’s squeezed middle. If ever there were an argument for redistribution of wealth from rich to poor to keep social stability (not poor to rich as is happening in the US and UK at the moment), Brexit is it.

Nevertheless, many people sought somebody to blame for their hardship (perceived or real) and that somebody was “Europeans”.

Blame was piled on foreigners by papers like the Daily Mail (are there any papers like it? It’s in a class of misery-making all its own), that putrid organ of vile hatred and lies deemed so unreliable not even Wikipedia will cite its “news”. Aiding and abetting were The Sun and The Times. No surprise these great factories of hatred wanted out. Murdoch’s influence has never been great in Europe. Best to divide the UK from the mainland to bolster his private fiefdom.

In the meantime, the amnesiac people of Britain forgot what a united Europe had achieved post-war. Apart from the peace, it had continuously improved lives, cleaned the environment and heightened people’s chances in general. It had developed problems – largely resulting from the neo-liberalism (that economic tool misused by right-wingers) foisted on Europe by Thatcher and Major in the ’90s. But this was not stated in the Press, only stories of straight bananas, of which there was never one in sight, because that was another tabloid lie.

The British had chosen to forget that European co-operation had brought us peace, and that’s because as a country we’ve never got beyond fetishising the bloody and savage total warfare of World War II. Despite the fact that back then Britain had an Empire of subjects to draw on for our part in the war, while Russia and America also did much of the heavy lifting, still many yearned for Britain’s mythical “finest hour”. That was great Battle of Britain rhetoric, but those words having become an emblem for the whole war, by the 21st Century they were well past their “use by” date.

No matter, the British continued to pour it on their fish and chips, poisoning themselves in the process. Thus, the British continue to live with archetypes of Germans as enemies, despite our supreme monarch (God bless ‘er) being one of those untrustworthy foreign immigrants.

At the same time, there are new threats to Europe. Putin is one, alongside his poodle, Trump. That Putin has ordered 1500 T14 tanks – a weapon that outguns, outmanoeuvres and outclasses anything we have in the West, is telling. If you regard the Crimea as his Sudetenland, then expect to see agitation in the Baltic states and Poland, soon…

The woes go on. Such unhappy thoughts troubled me for months. My outrage at the stupidity of two formerly savvy nations, Britain and the US, in falling for nationalist lies meant I was (and, actually, still am) unable to hold a rational discussion with a Brexiter or a Trump supporter. I’ve said about six words to my neighbours since the disaster of Brexit.

This rage had to go somewhere. Two months ago I started obsessively putting down thoughts in sonnet form. The sonnet is great. With the Shakespearean variant, you’ve got 14 lines to play with, comprising three quatrains (four lines of alternating rhymes) plus a rhyming couplet at the end – and that’s it.

An outlet at last. The unending cycle of rage I felt could be contained. Thinking about the subjects of the sonnets helped me to begin exploring why some people had voted for Trump or Brexit, and get a sense of how it happened.

But let’s be honest, that’s not the reason I wrote these poems. It’s not all nicey, nicey liberal “let’s understand the fascist people that are ruining the world and give them a big forgiving huggy wuggy” stuff. No, these sonnets are a means to channel my anger so it stops devouring me.

I wrote 50 sonnets in about two months. Some days they poured out of me. I’ll be honest, there are some good ones, some excellent, some a bit clunky. Are they “great” literature? Nah. But they have helped me get this horror into some perspective and reaffirmed my core beliefs. Right wingers will hate them, of course. But then, who cares? This is for people who hope for a better world through co-operation, not through owning guns and believing that all our woes are manufactured in China or Syria, or thinking that Christ would have wanted the Samaritan to walk by on the other side.

It’s cleared my head a bit. I hope it does the same for you.

Matt Wingett 31st March, 2017.

Wonder Woman – three themes that made me cry

SPOILER ALERT: This blog discusses plot points and scenes within the movie Wonder Woman.

Okay, so it’s pretty slushy to admit to crying at watching a superhero movie. They never normally get me like that… but Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman did, and I’ve been trying to work out why.

There’s a complex mixture here, but much of it is not to do with the story but the themes it explores.

Theme 1: The awakening to new consciousness of the idealistic individual.

One of the main recurring themes in the movie is what happens when ideals meet reality.

A set piece early in the movie explains the mythical origins of the Amazons to the young Princess Diana of Themyscira. In the myth, mankind is created both good and noble by a benign creator, Zeus – but is corrupted by Ares, the evil god of war.

It is a mythical representation of the human condition echoed by several myth cycles – though not the Greek myths, which have an ambivalent view of the gods and their attitudes toward humanity.

In the Greek myths, the gods are spiteful, jealous, capricious, devious and vengeful.

In fact, the Greek gods are all the things people are because they are the personifications of the different drives of humanity. They are thus archetypes. So, evil doesn’t really fit easily into their pantheon in the way it does in the myth cycle in the movie.

The myth that most closely correlates to the myth told by Hipolyta – the story of a benign creator god whose creations are corrupted by a malevolent lesser god – is something far closer to home: it’s the Judaeo-Christian conception of humanity. Rather than echoing the realities of human psychology, Judaeo-Christianity presents an idealised humanity that adherents are invited to aspire to.

Hence the Amazonian myth depicting man’s fall into crime and war is a version of Adam’s Fall. So far, so exotic and so familiar. But the Amazonian story differs because Zeus is a limited God, and creates the Amazons to bring love to the world, intending through love to tame the evil of corrupted men. (This is a big departure from Christianity, which sees physical love as an evil and Eve not as a saviour, but a transgressor.) That Zeus’s attempt to bring an end to strife through love should fail and that men become the oppressors of the Amazons, who in turn rise up against them, is a novel mythical element, and radical.

The war that ensues among the Gods leaves Zeus, the creator god in mortal peril, threatened by his son, Ares. In his dying act, he grants to Queen Hippolyta her wish for a child – and animates the clay model she has made, thus creating Diana – and grants to the Amazons Themyscira. The Paradise Island is a place where Diana can grow up in safety, away from the malevolent influence of the injured and weakened god Ares, whom unbeknownst to Diana, she has been created to slay.

But what is interesting about this set piece early in the movie is that this story is told in a story-book way, with story-book images. It is not convincing on the screen, because it is a caricature of whatever “really” happened in the Amazonian past. That ambiguity – the story of a child’s myth and the truth behind it – is central to the film.

One of the strands that runs through the story is Diana’s crucial realisation that her world view which is founded on this simplistic conception of the nobility of man and the valour of war is wrong. She realises her moral view which is that all of what she calls evil flows from a single source – Ares – is simplistic, and misunderstands humanity. Like the Christian who grows up to realise that a Devil is not necessary to make men do bad things, she realises mankind is driven by internal desires for power and domination, and also by love and noble acts. Philosophically speaking, it makes the drives called “good” and “evil” immanent within each human being, and does not make humans the toys of supernatural elements.

Though not in the film, once this question is asked, it leads to further questions. Is there evil? Or is there simply the behaviour of individuals seeking to control resources and have dominion one over the other? Does the whole concept of evil itself collapse? It is that equivocal nature of morality as no longer a simple question of good versus evil that Diana struggles with toward the end of the movie. And it really got to me. I admit it!

There is also a beautiful integrity to the story in this regard. Remembering that the Amazons were created to bring enlightenment to man through Love, it is therefore apt that her love of Steve Trevor in the end means that she forms a bridge of understanding of mankind. In the end, she recognises the folly in man, but also sees his nobility.

Her internal story of development, the central part of her Bildungsroman, is her movement from a place of naive belief in a myth to a deeper personal understanding of humanity through her own experiences. Because of that experience, she judges that mankind is worth protecting, even though he is flawed.

This awakening to adult consciousness and the redemptive power of love after grappling with simplistic notions of good and evil are central to the story. It is a pretty universal theme, and a mature one.

Theme 2: A fascinating clash of world views.

Another of the main themes of the story is the clash of world views. Diana comes from an ancient warrior culture, full of myth and low in technology. In it, women are the soul arbiters of their own fate and are used to attaining high office and demonstrating physical prowess. It has magic in it, and Diana herself is a goddess.

The world she enters is the world of men, with all its mundane harshness and cruelty, grime and disdain for women. Several scenes jump out to show the jarring interface between the two worlds, perhaps well symbolised by the arrival of Steve Trevor’s aircraft as it crashes through the surrounding mists and magic of Themiscyra. Suddenly, 20th Century culture and technology arrive in 2nd millennium BC Greek culture.

There are numerous examples of the mismatch between the two, which leads to some glorious comedic moments. Congratulating an ice-cream salesman on the product he sells is a beautiful moment of naivety in Diana. The whole set piece of getting Diana clothes suitable for a 20th Century woman is hilarious. The discussion of whether she and Steve Trevor can “sleep together” on the boat away from Themiscyra is beautifully handled in its understatement and as an elucidation of his warm, morally solid character.

Then this clash of cultures shifts into drama. Diana’s lambasting of generals for hiding in an office rather than fighting alongside their men, her shock at the treatment of soldiers and her realisation that war leaves indelible marks on people’s bodies and minds form part of her development. Next comes the dramatic shift, when she arrives on the battlefield and faces No Man’s Land. “It’s called No Man’s Land because no man can cross it,” Steve Trevor tells her. The understatement here is perfect. And so the moment we’ve been waiting for – of the woman hero in battle begins. That scene is just extraordinary. The figure of a woman on the battlefield is so full of conflicting emotions for me that I tear up thinking about it now. It is perhaps one of the greatest emblems of the mismatch of our culture and hers that it so draws the eye – a woman fighter on the battlefield would have been impossible at the time and we know it, and yet we are beguiled by the thought of it and by the heroism of this wonderful and naive hero.

Theme 3: A woman who enters the world of men for the first time.

One of the things that makes Diana such an appealing character is her fearless curiosity and her mental poise. When she sees Trevor’s airplane crash land in the sea, her instinct is to swim toward it. When she sees a man naked for the first time as Steve Trevor gets out of the pool he is bathing in, she assesses his physiology with unabashed curiosity, never having seen a man before. Then she asks him about his watch, and what it does. The scripting is brilliant: “You let such a little thing control your life?” she asks.  And yes, we all know that clock and cock are being spoken of in the same breath.

Her curiosity about the world of men leads her to experience its indignities with good humour. She tries on the clothing of the 20th Century woman, bringing her own cultural traits to bear. Looking at a silk bodice she says: “This is what passes for armour in your culture?” The way she is assumed to be an intruder in counsels of war because of her sex is handled without preaching, but simply by showing her confusion at why one should be excluded for being female. She does not rant, she does not rail. She simply rises above the question and stays true to her goal, to get to the war.

Later, the incredibly tasteful way that she takes Steve Trevor as her lover, revealing a kind of vulnerability, is also done with exactly the right tasteful approach. And this is no unnecessary romance bolted on to the storyline. The relationship between Trevor and her, their love, is central to her commitment to the world of men and to her defeat of Ares.

These are just a few examples of the themes in this movie. It repays rewatching with treasure after treasure.

There’s no doubt about it, I too have fallen in love with Wonder Woman.

7 Random Reasons Why Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 Rocks

So, as a childhood Marvel and DC comics fan, over the last decade or so I’ve taken great delight in the fact that CGI in movies has progressed so far that you don’t actually have to suspend disbelief. I remember seeing the back projection outline when people were thrown off buildings, or the strings when The Invisible Man lifted things up. No wonder they didn’t make that many superhero movies back then. At least not convincing ones.

That it’s all possible to do seamlessly is old news, and the only thing that now holds writers and filmmakers back is their imagination and budget.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 has both in full measure. Here are 7 things picked at random as to why it rocks:

1) Little Groot. Okay, so it’s a merchandiser’s dream, but supercute Groot is joyous to behold, with his big eyes, his innocence and joyful naivety, there is so much potential for the bundle of laughs here. He’s the wide-eyed fool, and he’s hilarious.

2) That opening sequence that subverts the heroic form sets the tone. The show starts with the Guardians protecting some super-duper batteries for a race of gold skinned Sovereign aliens from an interdimensional monster made entirely of teeth, blubber and super-thick skin. But instead of doing the usual thing and focusing on the fight, it focuses on Little Groot’s dance routine. The juxtaposition is hilarious.

3) Drax’s one-liners. Boy oh boy, the writing team have really gone out of their ways to work up the characters for best comic effect. Drax, the alien who doesn’t understand metaphor goes through the show offending, irritating and genuinely making comedy gold. The deadpan delivery adds to the effect. I haven’t been in a cinema for a long time in which the audience is howling with laughter. Drax does it.

4) Rocket, the trickster. Rocket the Raccoon (“I’m not a Raccoon!”) is as super-sneaky, clever and selfish as ever, but now you start to see his “human” side. For a writer, this archetype is a gift. He’s straight out of Carl Jung, and he adds an element of chaos to the whole show. The script, indeed, the whole story arc, starts with one transgression from him – but he’s not all selfishness, as later events show. He intrigues and delights and builds wonderful empathy.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2..Nebula (Karen Gillan)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2017

5) Nebula. Ok, I’m going to make an admission. I got through the entire first Guardians without clocking that the blue-faced semi-robot alien with a psychotic streak was none other than Dr Who’s Amy Pond, aka Karen Gillan. It was only when the name jumped out at me on the credits that I clicked – and even then, I thought “Ah, maybe there’s a different actor with the same name, in the US”. Her American accent is pitch perfect, but more impressively, her angry, downtrodden, rage-filled character has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with Amy Pond. I genuinely wouldn’t have picked these two characters out as the same person. That is a tribute not only to the make-up team, but to Gillan’s skill in acting.

6) The visuals are sumptuous (as the picture above attests). There are so many visual delights in this show, it’s difficult to know where to start. Apart from the extraordinarily lifelike cgi, which means you genuinely think you’re watching interactions with real talking trees and real talking raccoons, the part where the designers let themselves go is fabulous. That is on the planet Ego, in which we are treated to a massive vista of impossible things that are beautiful and straight out of dreams. From wonderful colour-popping bubbles that greet them as they leave the spaceship, through the incredible animated fountain to the sumptuously designed interiors of the palace, everything is designed to a “T”. This show should win awards simply for visualisation.

7) The plot is both taut and hilarious. It’s a fine balancing act to get a genuine sense of comedy in a script balanced against a driving plot. If you watch many tv comedy shows, you’ll see that the plot is paper thin, while the comedy simply comes from the characters rubbing together. This has both. Add in the asides with Stan Lee (which are outside the plot for sure) and the extra elements that feed in to future episodes, and it is a work of brilliance.

So, there it is. Needless to say, I’m going back to watch it again with a friend of mine who writes comic books. Discussions after that should be joyous!

The Snow Witch – Designing the Cover

Following on from my previous blog about using old pictures to illustrate your book, I finally came to designing the cover.

I’ve had various ideas for the cover for a while. A friend of mine is a model and I at first considered adapting a photograph of her, as follows:

Esme Shard, photograph (c) 2014 Steve Chatterton, SJC Photogpraphy www.chattertonphotography.co.uk

I finally came up with this.

However, I wasn’t convinced by this, and felt the image was in some way cluttered. What’s more, with the illustrations inside the book now decided upon, I wanted some drawn artwork.

I went back to the Bible I had been using earlier, but the Witch of Endor was portrayed as an old hag, not the young woman in my story.

So, back to the book collection, which includes a thick, heavy volume from 1894 called “PEN DRAWING AND PEN DRAUGHTSMEN: THEIR WORK AND THEIR METHODS A STUDY OF THE ART TO-DAY WITH TECHNICAL SUGGESTIONS”.

Leafing through the images, I found this:

The figure of the woman, drawn by A Montalti, was perfect, though there was a lot of image around her to lose.

Eventually, I got to this.

Still stark, I thought.

After some experiments with colour, I came to this:

This is the one. Subtle, mysterious and eyecatching. I now have my cover!

The Snow Witch – finding those illustrations

Some of you may know that a little while ago I completed writing a novel called “The Snow Witch”. I’m currently in the throes of laying it out, and have been hoping to get some illustrations to head up each part of the book.

I was at something of a loss. The story is allegorical, quite beautiful (I think, anyway!) and tells the story of a young woman who comes from a mystery tradition separate from Judaeo-Christianity, and yet connected to it.

One of my other jobs is dealing in rare books. About 15 years ago I bought a pair of stunning, extremely heavy 18th Century volumes filled with luscious copperplate engravings. Last night, I decided to dig those books out from my collection. And, well, I think I have what I want.

Here are the images I’ve chosen.

This is for Part 1 – this section includes reminiscences of the central character’s childhood, in which she was trained in in herblore by her mother.

Part 2 includes a section in which a wild wolf runs loose. This image seemed appropriate:

Part 3 comes to the crux of the story, and includes a narrative about the ancient archetype Lilith, who in Jewish mythology was Adam’s first wife before the unfortunate Eve. This seemed perfect:

Finally, we have an Epilogue. The image of the Phoenix from the bible seemed appropriate enough!

Scanning the 250 year 0ld images has been quite an education. Only once you start to manipulate the image and blow it up, do you see the extraordinary detail of the original craftsman, who scratched the image in reverse on to a copper plate with a steel stylus. The physical strength, endurance and patience it took is humbling for a 21st Century man who often ends up cursing Adobe Photoshop.

We sit on the shoulders of giants.