Sunday, 19 December 2010

Stormy Weather

Outside it’s minus seven and the pipes are frozen. Inside, I’m editing Sleepwell and Fly, and wondering how many other ways there are that I can get this novel wrong. Today it occurred to me: there’s almost no mention of the weather in it anywhere, and in a week where the country’s been brought to a dramatic standstill on its account, this looks – to say the least – odd.
So what function does the weather serve, exactly, in a fictional world? Writers rarely deal in realism when it comes to this matter, for sure. If it’s lashing it down in a Bronte novel, your plot antennae are up. Likewise, we’re wincing when the newlywed says to his blushing bride, “Happiness is surely ours!” as a distant storm breaks over the mountains. What we get when we read fiction is an agreed hyperbole. We leave behind the changeable, meaning-free weather events of the real world, and enter a parallel universe where every breath of wind brings with it a bunch of pre-programmed meaning that readers are highly attuned to.
That’s where it becomes difficult for a writer. What if you go for:
“Dan Sugarbaker watched the late August sun descend over the forest from his hotel balcony. Distant birds trilled and warbled. The early evening air was clean and clear. He gave a satisfied sigh and sipped again from his glass of champagne. In the gardens below, a gentle breeze spun a single leaf in lazy eddies...”
Whether you like it or not, your readers picked up this:
“late August” = dog days of summer. Dying of the light, onset of Autumn, drawing down of blinds – loss. Possible death. Bad stuff coming, and Dan doesn’t know it.  
“sun descend” = inevitability of the passing of all things. Lack of control, incessance of cycle of seasons. Darkness, coldness. Forests at night. Blair Witch. Dan’s going to get eaten alive by a monster in the woods, his shattered champagne flute the only reminder of his empty hopes for a better life.
“early evening” = see above.
“distant birds” = elusive freedom Dan can never achieve? Trilling and warbling of youth? Idle babble of carefree university days, now lost in the “forest” of time?
“a single leaf” = DEATH!
 I remember my English Lit teacher pointing out, very gently and patiently when we reached Chapter Nine of Wuthering Heights that the brutal lightning of the thunderstorm splitting a tree in two might just be a metaphor. Talk about a lightbulb moment. The weather’s never been the same since.
Perhaps that’s why there isn’t any in my story – I’m hyper-sensitive to it. It can’t rain because there’s a band of low pressure pushing over my imaginary city - it’s got to rain because our hopes and dreams are ultimately futile.
It's a tough one. Maybe my characters should spend the duration of the novel indoors, in a magnolia-coloured room...

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Lost Property

I’m at the very early stages of planning a book. Some people seem to be able to do this in a blink, their planning walls teeming with post-its after a morning’s work - their arc developing, characters coming to life, set-pieces emerging effortlessly. But I’m finding it really hard. Here’s a case in point, for which you’ll need just a little context. It’s a period piece – late 1700s, the age of duelling pistol and the Cornish smuggler.
OK. So it’s midnight, and there’s a man, caught up in a street skirmish in a distant war-torn town.  It’s a brutal battle, and it’s all he can do to shelter in stunned fear for his life, as pistols crack, horses clatter, etc etc. Two opposing families are fighting for control of the streets in this particular place, and our man is a member of neither; a blundering innocent – the classic wrong-place-wrong-time protagonist of many a persecution thriller. The conflict draws closer. He plays dead, splayed face down amongst the victims of the fighting.
The night is freezing; his fingers are numbed stiff by the time he dares look up. The streets are a sea of dead and injured. The roar of battle has thinned to the cries and moans of the dying. And here’s the thing:  a small band of armed men in the royal blue of the victorious house carry lamps above their heads, and are shooting each of the prone bodies dressed in the scarlet livery of the opposing family. They make steady, brutal progress, reloading, picking their way through the heaps of bodies. Our man’s clothes will immediately identify him as an outsider. He will surely be shot if he stays where he is. But he is too close to get up and run. He needs a royal blue jacket. Still prone, he hauls one off the shoulders of the dead man next to him. The murderers approach. In time, he drags the jacket on and lies immobile, heart hammering, as the men pass by, their pistol shots echoing. He escapes.
Right, so there we are; traumatised bloke in stolen jacket fleeing civil war. The thing is – he’s stolen the jacket of someone important, someone senior. You guessed it, folks; in the pocket of the jacket is something vital to the enemy. Something they will do anything to get back.
And here’s where it gets difficult. What is this lost property, exactly? I’ve been turning this one over for days and days. The problem here is the sheer weight of previous narratives that deal with important objects or artefacts. In desperation, I spent a sleepless night writing everything down. I did it in circles; an inner circle for the first ideas that occurred, a larger one enclosing it for the next, another larger circle for the next, and so on. It makes interesting reading and surfaces a very obvious conclusion. Your first ideas are never your best.
To illustrate – in circle one, I have ‘ring’(*facepalm*), ‘bangle’, ‘choker’, (I must have just been writing down circular things of growing size and proportion. I’m surprised I didn’t add ‘belt’, ‘tyre’, ‘garden hose’) ‘clock’, ‘compass’, ‘precious stone’, ‘diary’, ‘ledger’, ‘pipe’. There were more, but so far, so uninspiring.
In circle two – ‘paperweight’, ‘snuffbox’, ‘candle-holder’ (?!), ‘lamp’, ‘glass-eye’, ‘eye-patch’, ‘watch and chain’, ‘walking stick’, ‘scarab’, ‘playing cards’, ‘knife’. And others. Better, but not setting me on fire.
In circle three – ‘triptych’ (whaat?!), ‘mirror’, ‘pocketbottle’ (I was tired. I’d lost the word ‘hipflask’), ‘locket’, ‘pistol’, ‘telescope’, ‘coins’, ‘reading lens’, ‘microscope’, ‘letter’, ‘birth certificate’, ‘key’. Strange it took me so long to arrive at key, but there you go.
Conclusion: circle three might be better than circle one. Am I any closer to taking this forward? Not yet. But if anyone’s got any comments, suggestions about 'property'... I’d be happy to steal ‘em from you. You’ll never notice they’re gone, I swear.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Holmes Alone

I’ve been reading some late Sherlock Holmes stories. The Lion’s Mane, I started with – published 1926, set in Holmes’ retirement. He lives in a sleepy Sussex village on the South Downs and walking on the beach one day, encounters a dying man. Cue mystery. It’s narrated by Holmes himself – one of only two stories in which this happens. Watson doesn’t feature, just Sherlock. He cuts a depressing figure in my opinion; lonely and fretting.
The strangest thing about it for me, is seeing how Holmes operates outside his usual surroundings. Away from the cut and thrust of London – its crowded streets, clattering cabs, gangs of Baker Street Irregulars – Holmes seems sapped of energy; a man out of place and time. Sherlock Holmes is a city-hero. Imagine Spiderman fighting crime in Lincolnshire. Where’s to swing from? Without skyscrapers, he’s just a man with pointlessly gluey rope in his gloves. And yet it’s interesting to consider how many other writers do this; how, when handling the same characters across an extended series of stories, the creative process seems to result in a desire to shift them entirely, I s’pose to renew and refresh a familiar set of circumstances.
It doesn’t work for me in The Lion’s Mane. Sending Poirot abroad is OK, as long as there are a restricted palette of domestic, enclosed settings that could be anywhere. It’s not a great success when Wodehouse drops Wooster in New York. Some might argue the jury’s out on Deathly Hallows. And – here’s a random but effective illustration – Sex and the City 2 was a critical and commercial disaster because someone thought it might be a good idea to shift the action to the United Arab Emirates. Sex and the City in Abu Dhabi? I’m no connoisseur of the franchise, but even I can see that’s not going to work.
Maybe it’s as simple as this, location is character. Stick Batman in the Mojave desert, and he’s just some big sweaty guy in an imitation leather mankini.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Willows, The River, the Woods.

Across the road from my house, there’s a tongue of wooded greenbelt – Chorlton Ees, Ivygreen, Hardy Farm, heading up the river into Didsbury then Northenden. In the summer, I run in the woods. Yesterday, I was pounding along my route as the sun dropped.
 I won’t be running out there again until the spring.
Ever since I read Algernon Blackwood’s ace supernatural tale The Willows, I’ve been spooked by woodland. In The Willows, a pair of intrepid canoeists are trapped by the whirling eddies of the Danube and forced to drag their boat ashore in a wild marshland of shifting islands which change size and shape in the flood. As dusk approaches, they see something unnameable pass them in the roaring water – an otter, they think, but effortlessly swimming against the tide. They set up camp for the night, surrounded by stunted willows all clattering in the wind. Strange things start happening. They spend a tortuous night on the island. In the morning, their boat has been punctured; a perfectly symmetrical hole, as if drilled, plum in its base. They spend a day repairing it, and a second night on the shifting island of willows. I won’t even revisit what happens that second night. Like Blair Witch – like any countless number of nightmare forests in fairytales and folktales – these woods become a dark, uncertain state of half shadow and psychological horror.
It’s partly about being lost, I think, and partly about that Freudian thing where the landscape becomes representative of the Id or something. Whatever you see in the woods you fear is really part of yourself. It’s something else too – the urbanite’s fear of the wild, the lunatic deregulation out there in the blackness where there aren’t any shops or streetlights. When a creative writing tutor asked us to write a horror story, I came up with ‘The River, the Woods’, in which an army of foxes emerge from the wilderness surrounding a hospital, and eat a guy in the car-park. I’ve just re-read it now. Christ, it’s a stinker! But I stand by its representation of nocturnal woodland.
This Saturday in The Times Sean Locke, the comedian, was asked about ‘the secret of comedy’, and he admitted that he often dreams of finding a suitcase full of brilliant jokes abandoned in the woods. And he tells these jokes, and wins scores of comedy awards for his fabulous new material. But he feels hollow and is forced to eventually admit the source of his success. So even when you find something good out there in the woods, it turns out bad. (Ever seen ‘A Simple Plan’, the Sam Raimi thriller? Same thing.)
In conclusion then – I’ll be jogging under streetlight for the winter. I may not find the next great 21st century novel in a suitcase, but at least I won’t be eaten alive by rabid foxes...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The 'Ruby in the Smoke' Paradox

I do a lot of reading aloud. Not on my own, you understand. To actual people. It's great when it’s going well – when it’s bowling along, when it’s got that captive-audience-jumping-up-and-down-whathappensnext?-buzz. But a bit flat when it isn’t. This week was the turn of The Ruby in the Smoke, and it highlighted, I think, and interesting paradox.
So – observations from the reading lab. Chapter one of Pullman’s book’s got style, there’s no doubt about that. The opening turns the ‘going to kill a man’ trick well. (“By the end of the day, she was going to have caused the death of...” or “Before the week was out, he would be a murderer...”.) Stephen King likes to play an admittedly milder version this card - usually in short italicised sentences along the lines of: “Or so he thought.” It’s foreshadowing with bells on. Nothing wrong with that, of course – and it worked a treat. Sally Lockhart returns to her father’s shipping company having received an anonymous note, and seeks out someone who might be able to help decipher it. Sally reads a section aloud; the response of one of the partners is to have a heart attack and crash to the floor, ‘dead as mutton.’ This went down very well indeed. Conclusion: fat and sweaty cigar-smoking shipping magnates toppling over – a winner. Mysterious notes with the power to kill grown men – a winner. And smashing metaphor about ‘the corner of a web had been shaken, and the spider in its centre was waking’ – a winner. Duly noted, aspiring YA author.
Chapter two is a different matter – and this is the interesting bit. Pullman introduces four characters at once, using that cinematic Dickensian thing where the reader seeming glides above the city, zooming in to witness key moments all happening concurrently. There’s Mrs Holland, the foul old lady who washes her false teeth in the teapot, and Adelaide her maid. There’s Major Marchbanks, reading a newspaper report covering the death in chapter one. And there’s the opium addict coming ashore in London, carrying with him a secret he can’t reveal. This didn’t go so well. It felt gluey. People started looking out of the window. Chins resting on hands started to sag downwards. We made it through alright, but the momentum had been lost a little. It was back again by chapter three, and we trundled along merrily again, but the four-characters-at-once thing really didn’t do it for them, splendidly written though it was.
It’s The Ruby in the Smoke paradox, I reckon; you need a cast of lively and engaging characters, you need a connection which draws them all together – each on their own strand of the web – and you need to pull them gradually into conflict as your narrative develops. But when the web’s a big one, and Pullman’s is, you face the inevitable dip that comes with readers processing lots of new information at once. And here’s the key question: if there’s going to be a dip, where’s it best placed? Chapter two, it seems to me, is a little early, a little risky, even when it follows the going to kill a man trick, which can often sustain a reader for ages.
It puts me in mind of the old argument record execs use to have when an artist had delivered a ten track album that included one stinker; the ‘nine killer, one filler’ problem. There were two ways of solving it, apparently. You put your weakest track either ninth, or second. Duly noted.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

My boys Sleepwell and Fly

Like Dempsey and Makepeace, Mulder and Scully and (ahem...) Freebie and the Bean, Sleepwell and Fly are that ubiquitous and rather uninspiring thing - a pair of swashbuckling protagonists ready to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting ficitonal world. So, music needs facing here, and the tune in question goes - this has all been done before, right? There've been a few developments over the years, but who are we kidding here, it's an oldie. Early sidekicks worked as a substitute for the reader, as Watson did for example, awed by the mighty powers of the detective genius Holmes. He was an unremarkable everyman who couldn't see how the great brain did it - and so were we. Then there was the whole 'sidekick as liability' movement that sprang up in the superhero genre; every Batman needed his hopeless Robin. The grumpy/cheerful dynamic's been fully exploited too; the Morse-Lewis continuum.

I have, therefore, anticipated the problems that might arise from the staleness associated with this - some might say - hackneyed approach to storytelling by attaching for the reader a series of bells and whistles that will delight and inspire! Witness, amazed as you discover that:

Sleepwell and Fly are not secretly in love with each other but tediously denying it until the season climax! There's not a clever one and a thick one! It's not straight-man/funny-man or girl-magnet/minger! One of them is not a comedy dog!

Instead, theirs is a partnership of equals. I hope. And this is what's proving troublesome; the more equal they get, the more indistinguishable they are. A lot of the re-writes I'm doing at the moment are all about discovering what makes them different from each other. I've begun to think that maybe the off-the-peg cliches of crime-fighting partnerships like the ones above serve a purpose; bold, primary-colour distinctions between characters.

Damn. Perhaps I need something a little more significant to seperate them. Something physical, immediate, recognisable. I could, for example make one of them a comedy dog. Genius.