Archives for May 2013

The Great Gatsby

I confess that I approached Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby with a feeling of dread. It has taken a terrible panning at the hands of many critics. The most common critique I have read is that somehow Luhrmann’s crass, lurid tale has not done justice to the delicacy of Fitzgerald’s masterwork. Even the most casual familiarity with the book will show that this is simply not quite true.

Don’t misunderstand me — the movie version of Gatsby is crass and lurid, but then so, taken at face value, is the narrative of the book. Luhrmann’s version is pretty much true to the book’s plot, and I think the actor’s all make a very decent stab at the parts they play. Joel Edgerton, who plays Tom Buchanan in particular is excellent, and Di Caprio is probably the modern movie star best suited in terms of looks, charisma and charm to play the title role.

I don’t object to Jay Z’s score either. It is an honest attempt to convey a truth. The Jazz Age may look to us like the set for Hercule Poirot but when Fitzgerald was writing the book, he was writing about the contemporary pop culture of his day. Jazz was the edgy music of the time. Bootlegging was the gangsta culture of its day. The film avoids being the nostalgia fest that I recall the 70’s Redford movie being even though it was much closer in time to the books release than we are.

The critics I read were uneasy about something. Clearly many of them felt that something had been missed, and, of course, they are correct. What is missing is the beauty, poetry and charm of Fitzgerald’s writing. The whole book is seen through the lens of Nick Carraway’s unreliable narration, and Nick himself is manifested in Fitzgerald’s lovely prose. I don’t see any way the movie could have overcome this. Lines which are powerful and evocative on the page become clunky when spoken as dialogue. To tell the truth, I was surprised by how well some of them survived the transition. But in general what is a strength of the book becomes a weakness on screen.

The difference between the movie and the book is a powerful example of the technical differences between the two mediums. A book is a collaborative fantasy shared between author and reader. It requires work on the part of both. It can be picked up and put down. You can pause to think about what you have just read. A movie hammers its way into our consciousness through our eyes and ears and it unfolds in real time. We all may take a different length of time to read The Great Gatsby. It’s going to take us all one hour and fourty six minutes (or whatever) to sit through the movie if we do.

In the novel, it is easy for Fitzgerald to elide time. He can casually allude to the rumours swirling around Gatsby by weaving them into the ongoing narrative. In the movie, we have to be shown them. They have to be spoken in real time, by actual characters in the actual setting and that sometimes comes across as clunky.

Imagery is handled differently. The movie can show us the titanic excess of Gatsby’s parties. It can seduce us with enormous sets but it misses the subtleties like Fitzgerald’s use of light, particularly moonlight, in the text. By its very nature, the use of imagery in the film becomes a bit ham-handed. We see the eyes of Dr T J Eckleburg because we are meant to. The camera homes in on them. The valley of ashes looks like the road to Mordor. Luhrmann does not want us to miss the point. This is where the subtlety is lost.

All of this aside, I confess I enjoyed The Great Gatsby. It was far more true to Fitzgerald’s vision than I expected it to be, and the watching of it was, for me, a pleasure.

Kindle Worlds: A Very Clever Idea

Amazon seems to be on the verge of doing something really clever with its new Kindle Worlds program. It looks as if it has found a genuinely new way of developing, creating and marketing tie-in fiction, and also a method of making fan fiction profitable, not only for Amazon, but for the fans and the creators of the worlds those fans write in.

It’s early days yet, of course, and we have not really seen any of the final product but what it appears to be is a system similar to Kindle Direct Publishing which will allow fans to upload their stories and create ebooks set in the worlds of those creators who have agreed to participate in the program. (At the moment there are Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and the Vampire Diaries. Apparently there will be more.) The writers will be able to give their work covers using a library of relevant stock art and then have them distributed through Amazon’s Kindle publishing system.

I’ve been involved in the tie-in industry for almost 25 years and I confess I thought this is genius when I read this. It’s so simple and so obvious once you think of it, and yet no one has previously tried to do it. For good reason too, for once you start to wander into the realms of intellectual property development you enter a legal minefield.

The benefits to Amazon are self-evident. It gets a mass of new products with an enthusiastic fanbase that are exclusive to Amazon’s distribution system. It is breaking into an entirely new market. In truth, it is boldly going where no one has gone before and in a way creating that entirely new market.

The benefits to the creators are equally obvious. They get to share in the revenues of the fan-created works. They get a whole new revenue stream from the crowd-sourced creations. They get the benefit of a massive community with a financial interest in promoting their franchise.

The writers get a very decent royalty– 35% — for work they were previously doing for free. Any copyrightable elements of their stories that are not already part of the franchise become their’s although they do grant the licensor the right to use them as part of the franchise. I am not a lawyer but this seems to me in some ways to resemble the Open Gaming License that Wizards of the Coasts used when it revived D&D. It should avoid any in-fighting over who can use what although I imagine there is still some possibility of nasty squabbles arising.

If you are at all interested in writing fan-fiction set in the universes that Amazon has licensed, what is not to love about finding a global audience for your work at a 35% royalty. I can envision people using this as a springboard to other things.

Downsides?

I can’t really find any for Amazon. It has already created the distribution and payment systems needed to make this work. Presumably its lawyers have been hard at work on the legal framework.

For the creators? There is the very strong possibility of brand dilution if too much sub-standard work is produced. There is also the possibility of some legal squabbling if a smart lawyer finds some way to exploit the setup. Also I can’t imagine any companies who want to have total control over their IP would sign up for this program. For one thing, you have the problem of what is canonical and what is not arising very swiftly as people add new stuff to the background and other people build on it. This system of crowdsourcing seems much better suited to some types of IP than others.

For the writers? Well, you are giving Amazon exclusive distribution rights for the duration of copyright. That is pretty restrictive but it’s certainly no worse than if you were signing a work for hire contract. The royalty rate appears to be based on net rather than gross which may not be very generous if Amazon decides to define net the way some film companies do.

For the community in general? One springs to mind. By allowing the monetisation of something that was previously free, Amazon is giving the copyright holders an incentive to come down on the people who still produce things for free. Whether the right’s holders would actually do this and face the inevitable backlash from the community remains to be seen.

Right now none of the IPs in the program really interest me but there are some I would very seriously consider writing for if they became available.

Anyway, these are just my initial thoughts based on a very cursory reading of the press release and the front page Amazon has put up. I would write more but I am having real trouble accessing Amazon from my office today. I can’t even get through to copy the links to the Kindle Worlds page. Doubtless I will have more to say in the future.

What are your thoughts on this matter? Are there any franchises you are just champing at the bit to write in?

Addendum: Matt Forbeck addresses a lot more points in far more detail here. What Matt has to say is very much worth your time if you have any interest in this subject.

Back in the Saddle

Once again weeks have passed without a blog post. I can only blame a particularly nasty flu, compounded by travelling while sick. It put me flat on my back for a couple of weeks and I only really started feeling vaguely normal again this week. But enough snivelling, it’s time to thank Father Nurgle for his gifts and move on.

I recently started carrying my Windows laptop into work. There were a number of reasons for this. The trackpad on my MacBook Air has gone on the blink. (I have the ungodly power to ruin trackpads on Apple machines after a year or two. Maybe it’s a mutant ability to sense their weakness and destroy them or perhaps the Machine God picks on me when Nurgle does not—that would make an unpleasant tag team.)

I needed to use Microsoft Word for Windows because, after many happy years of using Word for OSX, I have finally discovered why people hate it—the truth is that it is terrible at handling long, complexly formatted documents. All I get is the spinning beach-ball of doom. I never used to understand why people whined so much about Word on the Mac. I get it now. It’s always done really well for me when writing and editing manuscripts. On the power user stuff, it’s not so good.

Why do I need to format complex documents in Word, I hear you ask? I am laying out the print versions of the Kormak books in it, a process that has proved to be surprisingly easy and which I will post more about at a future date.

In any case, I needed to bring in my Windows machine, an Asus Republic of Gamers behemoth that weighs roughly ten pounds with its power brick. The strangest thing is that in my mind I had convinced myself that carrying this thing to my co-working space would be the equivalent of humping a sack of potatoes along for the twenty minute walk. Ten pounds plus the carrying bag, I thought gloomily, contemplating the enormous difference between that and skipping along toting my svelte MacBook Air.

The truth is that I did not even notice any difference. It may be that carrying the baby  on long walks has built up my muscular strength. It seems more likely that a measly six pounds or so weight difference between the two computers makes absolutely no difference to a man of my enormous bulk. I am starting to suspect there is a triumph of marketing over common sense in there somewhere.

So what have I been working on? I have been bouncing the outline for the third Macharius book backwards and forwards with my esteemed editor Nick Kyme. I have been polishing the final draft of the fourth Kormak book City of Strife and I have been amusing myself with aforementioned laying out of print books.

And how have I found working in Windows? Well, Scrivener is neither as pretty nor as powerful as it is on a Mac but it seems to have roughly 99% of the functionality that I use. Office 2010 is a lot better than the Mac equivalent. Windows Live Writer, on which I am writing this blog post, is actually a bit better than Marsedit on the Mac. Everything else I use, such as Firefox, is much the same just not as pretty. What can I say? I happen to really like the OSX interface.

Anyway, I have a lot to catch up on with the blog—some reviews, a guest post or two which has languished while I did and some articles I’ve been meaning to put up for a while. Hopefully it won’t be another few weeks before I make a start.