The journal of a military squib

Some of you have probably noticed the often lengthy comments on here from a guy called Seb Nemeth. Well, he’s finally set up a space to comment as much as he likes without taking up other people’s bandwidth! Seb has a blog now called The Four Corners. On it he’ll be talking a lot about a pretty big journey that he’s about to embark on. He starts military training in July with a view to becoming an officer and a helicopter pilot (as he would never qualify as an officer and a gentleman.) Seb is also a bit of a writer and has plans for a novel, so keep an eye out for that.

So his blog should make some interesting reading. If you’re interested, check him out and leave long rambling comments on his page. Tell him Alan sent you.

Mutant storylines

I had a client cancel on me at the last minute yesterday, so I decided to treat myself to some downtime. I went to see the new X-Men movie, The Last Stand. I’ve always been a big fan of comic books and superhero stories, so I usually try to catch the new superhero movies when they come out. They’re often quite terrible, more often than not taking unnecessary liberties with stories that have been fan favourites for decades; killing the Joker in the first Batman movie, for example. Idiots.

Anyway, this is not a review of the movie or anything like that. You can decide for yourselves what you thought of it. But it got me thinking about the nature of some stories. X-Men is a story premise that really should not be. The basic explanation is that evolution is usually a slow process, but occasionally there are sudden, enormous leaps in evolutionary development. In this case, a random X gene crops up which gives some people remarkable powers while others are born quite normal. Relatively speaking.

So, from the outset we have a situation which requires an incredible suspension of disbelief. This is the case with any number of superheroes, obviously. SpiderMan, Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider that transfers its abilities to the hapless photographer. Interestingly, however, his web doesn’t come from his arse, which has always confused me. Of course, he wouldn’t look nearly so cool swinging through the streets of New York arse up. Superman, blasted from the doomed planet of Krypton at the last minute to end up on Earth where our “yellow sun” provides him with incredible powers including the ability to fly, stare lasers at things and be virtually indestructible. How our sun suddenly gave his eyes the ability to shoot fire is never really explained, but we suspend disbelief because we all like a good superhero.

There are numerous examples, but the X-Men has to be one of the most out there stories in existence. This mutant gene manifests in any number of completely random ways. Some are fairly straightforward such as telekinesis, pyrokinesis and so on. Others include the ability to control storms, a body that can transform into metal at a moments notice, a body that can pass through solid objects, a person that becomes unstoppable when he builds up too much momentum and many more. It seems that this mutant gene is basically carte blanche to think of the most random, bizarre and, most importantly, cool powers. How can the same mutant gene give one dude giant wings on his back and another dude laser vision? How can one dude control ice and another produce spikes of bone from his wrists to throw at people? It makes no sense at all, even in the realms of superhero action. But we lap it up as a good story if it’s well written. The escapism of fantasy is irresistible to so many of us, after all.

In the latest X-Men instalment they deal with the problem of the government creating a “cure” for the mutant gene. In other words, they develop the ability to take away the mutants’ cool powers. This brings up the most interesting aspect to me. In the movie there are a few scenes showing queues of mutants lining up for the cure. These must be the people that have mutations that aren’t so cool. The only X-Men member that seems to have a curse rather than a superpower is Rogue, whose touch sucks the life out of anybody. She considers the cure a good thing, understandably, even though she’d be an outstanding assassin if she chose to be.

Now I want to see some of the people in those queues, desperately lining up for a chance to get rid of their mutant superpower. You’d be really pissed off, after all, if you turned out to be born a mutant, only to have your power really suck. Imagine the chagrin when one guy gets born with the ability to control fire and your mutant superpower is that everything you touch turns to milk. Imagine seeing Storm call down lightning from a clear sky while your power enables you to metamorphose into a turd at will. How about watching a mutant with some strange lizard mutation climb walls with ease while your own mutation was some version of sea slug causing you to be hugely fat and slime your way slowly around with little purpose in life?

The premise of the X-Men is indeed ridiculous by anybody’s standards and I would love to see the Anti-X-Men movie, where Milk Wrangler and Slugger take on the world’s supervillains with a cunning trap involving slime and cow juice. Still, I know there’s not a nerd out there (and let’s face it, we’re all nerds to some degree) that hasn’t had the conversation, “If you were an X-Man, what would your power be?” Like being a X-Man means choosing your power. If only. If we try to attach any level of reality to the premise, there would be a lot more Milk Wranglers than Wolverines out there. Still, it just goes to show that the most ridiculous story can become a success with the right amount of passion behind it. People can be prepared to suspend their disbelief quite extensively.

That still doesn’t explain the success of Titanic though.

Broken records and unqualified success

Talking of bestsellers (see previous blog entry) another guaranteed superbook is on the horizon. Apparently, Oprah Winfrey has just landed US$12 million advance from publishers Simon & Schuster to write a book about keeping weight under control. She’ll be writing the book in conjunction with her Personal Trainer, Bob Greene. This is a record breaking advance for a non-fiction book, taking out Bill Clinton who held the record for a book deal until now with his 2004 autobiography.

But to me, that is far from the most incredible aspect of the deal. Paying Oprah twelve million US dollars for a book on weight control is like paying Osama Bin Laden a similar sum for a book on peaceful negotiations and religious harmony. Oprah Winfrey is the poster-girl for yo-yo dieting. Her weight goes up and down more than a busy girl’s pants when the navy is in town. She has never successfully kept her weight under control and there’s no evidence that she will this time. In fact, I’d be happy to bet on the contrary.

It just goes to show that the big publishers, like the big movie houses, play the marketing game regardless of a person’s qualifications. Oprah is big business and big money, especially in the US, where the slightest comment from her can make an audience whoop and whistle like imbeciles. Those same people would rush out to buy anything she wrote, just because it’s her, and that is the holy grail of marketing. It’s a licence to print money, which is why US$12 million is a sound investment on the part of Simon & Schuster.

Next, I want to see the release of a book by George Bush and John Howard called Doing What’s Right By The People That Elected Us. They’re as qualified to write about that as Oprah is to write about weight control.

Bestsellers and insecurity

I saw a great comedian on television the other day. He said he was working on a new book that was sure to hit the top of the bestseller lists. It was going to be called “Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Sudoku”. A guaranteed winner there, but for plagiarism. I’m surprised Kaavya Viswanathan didn’t think of that novel first.

But the comedian makes a good point. There are some things that become a self-marketing phenomenon. Every writer dreams of that huge bestseller, suddenly exploding out of nowhere. Remember the Celestine Prophecy? Well, sure it’s long forgotten now, but that author is still living large on the proceeds. And that was an atrocious book. It was very badly written, the ideas were half-baked and the story didn’t really lead anywhere interesting. But it struck a chord at the right time and became massive. There were sequel books, little self-help pocketbooks, other authors jumped on the bandwagon and wrote similar books or wrote books about the Celestine Prophecy, for or against it. Talk shows, radio, tv specials, it got the whole treatment.

The same thing is happening now with The Da Vinci Code. It’s not quite the surprise phenomenon that the Celestine Prophecy was, however. The Celestine Prophecy was originally a self-published book. No wonder, being as bad as it was, that the publishing houses turned it down. But it just goes to show what perseverance and the will of the people can do. The Da Vinci Code had a pretty huge marketing campaign in the US when it was released to jump start the “remarkable word of mouth success” of the novel. However, aside from that, the book is now the buzz of the moment.

There’s also been the kind of publicity you just can’t buy. Twice. Firstly, there was the court case with two of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, accusing Dan Brown of plagiarising their work. Interestingly enough, they ended up suing their own publisher in that case, as the same company represented both books. (Also worth noting, talking of publicity, Holy Blood, Holy Grail is currently in the top 20 bestsellers at – who says they lost that court case?)

The second great advertising boost for The Da Vinci Code was the reaction of churches around the world. You really can’t buy publicity like a church trying to ban your work. (You know, RealmShift has some pretty controversial ideas when it comes to religion. Why can’t the church boycott my book? Maybe I should send a review copy to Dr George Pell.)

I do find very amusing, however, the degree of panic that seems to be spreading through the organised Christian religions of the world on the back of the release of The Da Vinci Code movie. There was no comparable reaction to the book. When it gets made into a movie the churches start having paroxysms of outrage. I was walking past the cinemas in the city of Sydney on the weekend and there were about half a dozen people standing outside handing out brochures. They had pieces of paper pinned onto their backs (no, seriously, they did) which said “Companion Guides to The Da Vinci Code”. The brochures they were handing out were twenty page glossy magazines trying to point out all the errors and supposed fictionalisations in Dan Brown’s story. They take great joy in quoting inside the brochure how even Dan Brown refers to his book as a work of fiction. Well, blow me down! Fiction? Really?

The cinema complex at The Entrance on the NSW south coast stands to lose around $10,000 in revenue as they are refusing to show the film. Other church bodies are doing all they can to discredit the film, crying out for boycotts and producing brochures, like the one I was handed on the weekend, at great expense to themselves. Why wasn’t there anything like this much controversy when it was just a book? It seems the church puts more stock in the conversion power of a film than a novel. Interesting not least because the whole Christian faith is based on the contents of a book that has no more evidence for the truth of its contents than Dan Brown’s novel.

It all smacks of insecurity and paranoia to my ears. With apologies to the Bard, methinks they doth protest too much.

Excuses and romance writers

My apologies for the lack of activity on this blog lately. I’ve been quite busy. One of the things taking up a lot of my time is the sequel to RealmShift. I’ve been working on it a lot lately and I’m very happy with how it’s progressing. I’m not sure I’ll make the release date I was hoping for, which was supposed to be the end of this year, but I won’t miss that deadline by too much with any luck.

Ha! Luck. As if luck has anything to do with making a deadline. It’s important to make writing a priority. While it would be wonderful to have enough sales of books that I could write full-time, that’s a fantasy right now. One day it will happen (oh yes, one day it will) but, for now, I have to make a living other ways while I write. The large majority of writers have a seperate source of income, with most of them working a full time job while writing novels. We all dream of that bestseller that will catapult us to literary stardom, paying all the bills we could imagine, leaving us with nothing else to do but write more bestsellers. However, in the meantime, life continues to bugger up our plans.

Anyway, enough of my excuses. I could be putting this time into the next novel. So, for those fans of RealmShift, rest assured that the sequel is well under way and I’ll get it out to you all as soon as I think it’s ready.

In the meantime, if any local NSW writers that read this blog are interested in Romance as a genre, there’s a Romance Writers festival on at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre this Saturday. The NSW Writers’ Centre is a great thing to be a part of. If you’re a NSW writer, join up and take advantage of all the great stuff they have to offer. You can learn more about them at