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Monday, 26 May 2014

Tips for Managing Creativity

Like most aspiring writers with a full-time job, I often struggle to find time to dedicate to my writing. In the past I've managed to finish projects through my sheer passion for the idea, but sometimes passion, or inspiration, isn't enough. Sometimes I need to write even when I don't feel like it. This year I started a writing routine based on my background as a CG artist and production manager that has worked well for me and I wanted to share my routine, in case you find it useful too.

I started my career in film and TV as a CG artist and found the biggest learning curve of working in the "real world" was how to manage my creativity. I was accustomed to working on my own projects in my own time – whenever I felt like it, but working as a professional artist meant I had to meet deadlines but not sacrifice quality. My work was determined by the brief and the production schedule.

I later moved into production roles where I coordinated creative teams. I could relate to the artistic process and the reality that creativity comes in waves. Yet, there still had to be structure and routine for our department to achieve our goals and deadlines. It was also important to encourage the artists and their endeavours.

In the past, I wrote only when inspiration struck, but with my new manuscript, I found myself needing more structure. I decided to become my own production manager: setting daily writing tasks and deadlines. One task is to dedicate time to brainstorm one scene at lunchtime, before sitting down to write 1000 words immediately after work. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes, sometimes a full hour, but I’m not to leave the computer until 1000 words are written. My production manager won’t allow it! ;)

As a production manager of my own time, it can be tempting to cave in at 600 words or less, but it’s important I stick to this writing routine. And I've found the more I practice the routine, the easier it is to write in the time allocated; I'll automatically start daydreaming at lunchtime about my WIP and my fingers start itching to hit the keyboard as soon as I finish work. This routine fuels my creativity, as opposed to repressing it. 

Whilst my 1000 words will vary in quality day-to-day, the important thing is to keep at my routine. After all, a first draft is just about filling the blank pages. My favourite part of the writing process is revising and redrafting – this is where I can really hone my writing and the story – and I can’t redraft a blank page!

Whilst I’m not a published author yet, I consider writing to be my second job. After all, I’m hoping to have a writing career, so it’s important I treat it with the same commitment as I do for my day job.


I've found being my own production manager a really useful tool to manage and maximise creativity. What about you? Do you have any tips to share? Please let me know in the comments.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Fault in Our Stars movie review

*Please note: there are spoilers in this review. For those who have not read TFiOS, you have been warned.


Review:

The Fault in Our Stars should not have been my kind of movie. I like blockbusters, sweeping fantasies and dark and gritty dystopias. The Fault in Our Stars is a small, intimate love story about two teenagers with “a touch of cancer”. Yet The Fault in Our Stars is exactly my kind of movie. Let me explain…

Audiences go to the movies for escapism – for a glimpse into someone else’s life or to be transported into another world. We want to forget there’s a screen separating us from the world depicted onscreen and that we are watching real people with real stories – regardless of the genre. Many films fail at this believability, yet The Fault in Our Stars—or TFiOS as it’s commonly known—succeeds on all levels.

TFiOS is based on the novel of the same name, written by young adult author, John Green. The book has had incredible success since its 2012 debut for both teenage and adult readers alike. TFiOS’s narrator is Hazel Grace Lancaster, who at 16 has surpassed her life expectancy by a few years, thanks to a cancer shrinking miracle drug. But her parents think she’s depressed, which Hazel admits is “a side-effect of dying”, and she’s forced to attend a cancer support group to make friends. Here she meets 17-year-old Augustus Waters, who lost his leg to cancer but is now in remission. The two bond immediately, not over their cancer stories but their unique and quirky view on life.

The cast of TFiOS are perfect. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort are not merely acting as Hazel and Augustus, but become Hazel and Augustus. It’s rare for that line between actor and character to be completely blurred, but both young actors do an outstanding job of bringing these characters to life.

After seeing Divergent, where Woodley was the main star with varying degrees of believability, I was a little concerned as to how she would tackle the serious subject matter of this film. I shouldn’t have worried. Woodley’s acting is simple yet heartbreaking. As Hazel, she’s young, raw and brave. And Elgort portrays Augustus with equal parts of likable boyish charm and tangible fragility. The two are beautiful together.

Whilst I enjoyed the novel, the snappy dialogue and jovial attitude (especially in the beginning) feels a little unrealistic for teenagers dealing with cancer and death. The film, however, is more successful in balancing the bitter and sweet tone. My other issue with the novel is that the characters all have the same sense of humour – with the author’s voice shining through. And whilst the film lifts dialogue directly from the novel, the actors are able to make it their own, bringing warmth to the characters and their witty repartee. It is a rare book-to-film adaptation that improves on the source material.

In the novel, the scenes that never failed to make me cry involved Hazel’s parents and the injustice of knowing their terminally ill daughter is likely to pass before them. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell are fabulous as the Lancasters, although their screentime is rather short. Their blend of love, tears and humour are incredibly believable. Dern, in particular, did a fantastic job, she was the first to bring tears to my eyes.

Whilst the story is incredibly sad, it’s not depressing. TFiOS doesn’t want us to pity the characters but rather shows us the raw realities of cancer and how it affects those around them. Most important of all, it portrays on Hazel and Augustus as real people – cancer is not their defining characteristic.

Often there is criticism of YA novels where romance is at the heart of the story, as if teenage relationships are not as important, simply due to their age. Yet, Hazel and Augustus’s love story burns brighter due to their shortened lives. Their love is meaningful and valid and is not belittled or diminished because of their age. I believe it is this respect given to the lives and loves of Hazel and Augustus that appeals to younger readers and is key to successful YA - whether it be contemporary romance, dystopian or paranormal.

TFiOS is one of the strongest book-to-film adaptations I’ve seen in some time. Everything added, or subtracted such as the superfluous subplot of Augustus’s last girlfriend, works for the adaptation. I also really enjoyed the nods to the book’s fans, like the use of the novel’s typography and the neat way emails and text messages are displayed onscreen. The fantastic soundtrack is an added bonus.

Whilst Hazel and Augustus’s circumstances are tragic, The Fault in Our Stars is not a tragedy. Many tears were shed whilst watching the film, but somehow I left the cinema feeling that I had witnessed something important and special. The tale of Hazel and Augustus will follow you home and linger for days, but this is exactly the feeling you should have after watching a great film, or reading a great book. Important and meaningful entertainment is not fleeting.

The Fault in Our Stars is heartbreaking but lovely. Go see it, love it, weep, and then see it again. I give The Fault in Our Stars movie 5 out of 5 stars.

*Many thanks to Penguin Teen Australia for the invitation to the advanced screening. The Fault in Our Stars is released on the 5th of June in Australia and the 6th of June in the United States.





Monday, 12 May 2014

Book versus film trailers

I consider myself a bit of a trailer expert. Or perhaps, trailer addict is a more accurate description. I’ve been known to declare that trailers are the best part of going to the movies. They're this perfect morsel of a story that has the right blend of intrigue, suspense, drama, romance and action (depending on the genre, of course). The trailer’s job is to entice the audience, pulling them into the film's world and demanding that they see it upon its release.

Trailers have a short timeframe to sell the movie, forcing filmmakers to cut out all the superfluous content and focus on the main characters, concept and plot. Yes, they can be a little cliché but good trailers also manage to create an atmosphere, developing a feeling of the story world in which you will inhabit upon seeing the film. It also sets audience expectations.

A good trailer can generate a buzz—you feel it in the audience, lingering long after the trailer leaves the screen. Often you wish you were about to watch that film instead. There are less elements to mess up in a trailer in a feature-length film. But do trailers also work for marketing books?

Penguin Teen Australia (PTA) host a bi-weekly Twitter chat on Wednesdays and last week's topic was book trailers—a relatively new phenomenon that I'm still formulating my opinion on. I understand that readers today are more tech savvy; they obtain book recommendations from social media as much as they do from their friends and bookshops—if not more. It makes sense to bring book marketing to the digital world.

Book trailers (should) allow potential readers to see what sort of story they’re signing up for. It takes them beyond the blurb and cover and into the themes and mood—in visual form. And this is where I think there's a disconnect. Film and novels are two different mediums, what works in a book will not necessary crossover successfully into a visual medium. We've all seen film adaptations of our favourite books and we know this to be true. The feeling of reading a book and immersing yourself within the writer's words is a very different experience than watching a punchy visual trailer. It's a more intimate experience.

Film trailers are an expensive marketing tool. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in the VFX and animation industry and often studios have spent months crafting the shots in a trailer, some of which don’t make it into the film itself. Trailer shots are designed specifically to promote the film’s genre and story in the most impactful way. They’re then paired with the perfect piece of music to evoke the right mood and attract the right audience. I’ve worked on trailers where hundreds of individuals have been involved in its making. This is very difficult to replicate with a smaller budget and team.

Certainly, book trailers can be made on a lower budget but their creators need to keep in mind that viewers are trained to watch trailers in a certain way. Audiences are accustomed to film trailer tropes and any trailers that are of a lesser quality can turn readers off. For me, the most important element in a successful trailer is the music. If you can nail the music, and therefore the mood, then audiences will be more forgiving of the quality of video content.

If this week’s PTA chat is anything to go by, both publishers and readers are still working out how best to use book trailers. Due to small production budgets, I believe the key is to acquire the right music and keep the narrative short and to the point—similar to a blurb where the focus is often on the main character and inciting incident. Also, book trailer creators can't forget that trailers are a visual medium, so there should be limitations on how much they rely on text displayed onscreen. In trailers, images and music need to tell the story, not words.

What do you think? Love book trailers, or hate them? What’s your favourite book or film trailer? I’m loving Disney’s Maleficent ‘Dream’ trailer:  That music = perfection!



Monday, 5 May 2014

Review: Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

Title: Razorhurst
Author: Justine Larbalestier
Pages: 384
Published: July 2014 by Allen & Unwin
Source: Publisher

Synopsis (from publisher):

The setting: 1932, Razorhurst. Two competing mob bosses - Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson - have reached a fragile peace.



Kelpie knows the dangers of the Sydney streets. Ghosts have kept her alive, steering her to food and safety, but they are also her torment.



Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson's 'best girl'. She knows the highs and lows of life, but she doesn't know what this day has in store for her.



When Dymphna meets Kelpie over the corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna's latest boyfriend, she pronounces herself Kelpie's new protector. But Dymphna's life is in danger too and she needs an ally. And while Jimmy's ghost wants to help, the dead cannot protect the living.



Gloriana Nelson's kingdom is crumbling and Mr Davidson is determined to have all of Razorhurst - including Dymphna. As loyalties shift and betrayal threatens at every turn, Dymphna and Kelpie are determined to survive what is becoming a day with a high body count.


Review:

Books are magical little things, aren’t they? They can transport you overseas, across galaxies, into fantasy worlds—and in Razorhurst’s case—back in time. Opening the cover of Razorhurst was like stepping into a time machine, travelling back to Sydney in 1932, where a bloody, ruthless mob war raged in Surry Hills.

In the beginning of Razorhurst, Gloriana ‘Glory’ Nelson (inspired by real life rulers of the time: Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh) and Mr Davidson are supposedly content with their corrupt slice of Razorhurst. But they appear to be the only ones… Poor street-raised Kelpie fends for herself, with only ghosts to keep her company. Then there’s young Dymphna Campbell, one of Glory’s girls—her 'best', in fact—who’s known as the Angel of Death, as all her boyfriends have the unfortunate habit of being murdered. Dymphna plans to change her and Kelpie’s fate, but the deadly streets and occupants of Razorhurst aren’t quite ready to let them go…

Razorhurst alternates between Kelpie’s and Dymphna’s point of view and whilst they come from different backgrounds, they are connected by their ability to see the dead. With the back alleys and narrow laneways of Razorhurst often running red, it’s a curse rather than a gift. The supernatural elements add a layer of dark mysticism to the novel; I especially enjoyed the description of the ghosts, both the talkers and the silent, and the scene at Central Station was especially chilling.

Whilst the setting and era of Razorhurst could be compared to the Australian TV Show, Underbelly: Razor, it is more a personal story of survival than a tale of mob bosses struggling for supremacy. Dymphna wants to change her future, setting her sights on being the next ruler of Razorhurst, and Kelpie wants to escape the constant grey noise of the dead. Through their forced meeting, over the corpse of Dymphna’s latest boyfriend, their future is rewritten—but not before a lot of blood is spilled.


Razorhurst, like a razor, is sharp and cutthroat—the result bloody and often painful. It’s a bold Young Adult novel that doesn’t shy away from the gruesome and dirty underbelly of the era and treats its young readers with intelligence and respect. Larbalestier does a stellar job of ensuring the book doesn’t stray too far into the macabre and shrouds Dymphna’s provocative profession in ambiguity, keeping the rating as PG as possible.

Reading Razorhurst is like watching 24, with the storyline transpiring over one day. This short timeframe sets the pace and tension as we follow Kelpie and Dymphna’s plight, in what feels like real time. The only relief from the mob bosses’ relentless pursuit of Dymphna and Kelpie is the additional backstories on the characters in every second chapter. This detail fleshes out the period and further submerges you into the dark and gritty world of Razorhurst. I’ve not read such a fully immersive story-world for some time.

One downside to having the novel only take place over one day is that the budding romance between writer Neal Darcy and Dymphna could have been further developed, but time constraints would have made these developments feel forced. It’s a shame—as I wanted to care more for Neal, like I did for Dymphna and the particularly empathetic and likeable Kelpie.

Having lived in Sydney for almost ten years, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Potts Point, Central Station and Kings Cross as they would have been back in the 30s. It’s clear that Larbalestier has meticulously researched the era: the characters, language, settings and culture are authentic and enthralling. And whilst I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, I enjoyed my nightly time-travel expeditions to the 1930s and would happily return for another outing to the corrupt underworld of Razorhurst.



I give Razorhurst 4.5 out of 5 stars.


* Many thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing the advanced reader copy.