Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Longlist

OK, here’s ten reasons I like lists. Not really – I’m joking; feebly. But I had some news this week (I’ve been tedious on Twitter about it and here I am again, this time using a medium which allows for greater prolixity,) so I thought I’d blog a little about lists: the making of them and using of them.
As a younger writer I was amazed at books like The Polysyllabic Spree or 31 Songs which as well as taking the idea of a list as a structural device, to a certain extent celebrate the act of list-making itself. There are other great examples if you want a taster; Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing or John Carey’s collection of essays Pure Pleasure for starters. Anyway, never one to see someone else’s good ideas without claiming them as my own, I began work making lists, searching for the one that might be the elusive book.
Needless to say, it never really happened. I kept a list of cheque-book stubs for a long time, figuring that the scribbled notes I kept on them might help structure a rags-to-riches-to-rags narrative about a compulsive gambler. Then I read Twelve Grand and had to shelve the whole thing. The closest I came was the year-long list I made in 2004, detailing month-by-month every CD I bought. It turned out to be an interesting year to do it – unlike the settled years before or after it, 2004 began in a house I part-owned with a long-term partner, and ended in a bedsit in Chorlton. Much of the year’s CD purchases were buying replacement copies of favourites I was parted from during the split. I forgot what I’d got and what I’d lost, and on a number of occasions returned to my flat with a bag of CDs only to find I already had two or three of them. I bought Poses by Rufus Wainwright twice in the same month.
The lesson I learnt was a simple one. Beginning with a structural device is no way to write a book. It doesn’t matter how good your list is – you’ve got to have something urgent to say.
But here I am, plugging away seven years later, and finally there’s a list I can feel rightfully proud of. Good luck to everyone on it.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Fictionary

I was reading an old short story of mine – a warm, family tale in which a man watches horror-struck from a hospital window as a patient is eaten by foxes in the car park. You know how it is. There was lots wrong with it, but what struck me most was my choice of ‘my breath caught in my throat’ at one point. The cliche police will be making an easy arrest after that one – I may as well hand myself in. But what if we could build a manual to help writers evade capture – to stay away from the long, long arm of the cliché law?
Let’s imagine for a moment, a reference manual that listed words and phrases like this one – the type used solely in genre fiction. I use the word ‘solely’ not in its journalistic sense, but in the strictest sense of ‘never elsewhere’. In a wittily composed introduction, the lexicographer would outline the breadth and importance of their task – to collect and categorise all those tics that specifically characterise commercial narratives; turns of phrase which thrive in the pages of airport novels but are long-since extinct in the mouths of ordinary humans. Commercial fiction needs momentum, energy, suspense and tension before anything else, the intro would argue, so this language of repeated, familiar cliché is of critical importance.
Maybe there’d be categories other than the letters of the alphabet, such as, say ‘dressing’:
Don (verb) to put on, usually a hat or scarf. If a hat, must be over a ‘shock’ of hair, often ‘fair’.
Slip (verb) to put on, usually by a female character, with reference to either a swimsuit or underwear. Characters who ‘slip’ into clothing must then be described in terms of their ‘shapely’ appearance.
Or ‘sitting down in a pub’:
Commandeer (verb) to select a table in a bar, usually for a tense meeting that will include some amazing revelation. Mysteriously, only male characters of a certain class or background may ‘commandeer’ tables.
Ensconced (adjective) to be sitting snugly at a table in a bar, usually in preparation for a tense meeting that will include an amazing revelation. Can only be used if the character in question has been first to arrive. They may or may not have ‘commandeered’ the table in question. Characters ‘ensconced’ at tables must have chosen a table near the fire. The fire must ‘blaze’.
‘Epiphany’ would be a section, I think:
Click (verb) to ‘suddenly’ realise ‘something’ in one’s ‘brain’. Any combination of these words will work, commonly ‘something suddenly clicked in my brain’. The epiphany must follow a period in which the character ‘thought hard.’
Certainly there’d be a long section on action/dialogue:
Grin broadened (verb phrase) to smile during the delivery of a veiled threat, usually during the conclusion of a tense meeting – commonly in a bar – that has included an amazing revelation. Must come between repeated dialogue phrases, as in “We wouldn’t want that, Mr Gosport” said Argyle. His grin broadened. “We wouldn’t want that at all. Would we?” Best reserved for closing a chapter or scene. Utterly ruined by the addition of “No, we wouldn’t!” laughed Mr Gosport in cheerful agreement, or “OK. Bye!” said Mr Gosport with a carefree wave.
As and while (adverbial conjunctions) connectives used to attach dialogue to a usually meaningless action, often for no reason other than to break the monotony of he-said-she-said exchanges. Thus “I can’t stand this” said Steve becomes, “I can’t stand this” said Steve, as he ran his fingers through his shock of fair hair. (nb. any character called Steve must be described as ‘ruggedly handsome’.)
And of course, there’d be: breath caught in throat (verb phrase) to express fearful revulsion whilst witnessing a fox attack in a hospital car-park.
So there's a start. What's stopping us? Lexicographers of the world unite!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Five-Idea Fire Sale

There comes a time, my friends, when we have to acknowledge that some hopes and dreams will never be fulfilled. But that doesn’t mean they are forever idle or wasted. In this ecologically aware age, unfulfilled dreams needn’t clutter our desks or fill our bins. Let’s recycle.
By choosing to adopt one of these ideas, you’ll not only be saving the heat, light and fuel needed to generate them for yourself, but you’ll also feel that warm glow of satisfaction, knowing you’ve given a home to a project which is currently feeling lonely, useless and abandoned.
Needless to say, me being me, there are some crackers here. At the end of the post, feel free to attach, via the comments box, any other ideas you’d like to get rid of. Given that the market for creative property has increased rapidly over the last decade or so, think of this page as a kind of nascent e-bay for ideas. Where everything’s free.
Without further ado; the first five items are as follows:
1.  The Million-Pound Kit Kat’ and ‘Second Cheapest on the Menu’.
Two vibrant, tongue-in-cheek additions to the food writing genre, these little beauties come as a pair. Both have but one previous owner. Both are a little scuffed around the edges through over-use. Plenty of life left in them, though. This is how they work. In ‘The Million-Pound Kit Kat’, the writer must undertake a social experiment with commercially produced fast food, and spend a million quid in the process. The protagonist – it could be you! – must buy a Kit Kat from any shop. They must then smuggle the same Kit Kat into a second shop, pretend it was the stock of the shop, and pay for it again. Repeat the process until the Kit Kat has cost a million quid. Write witty, insightful stories about shopping and chocolate whilst describing the process. Then eat the Kit Kat, and reflect on its qualities. Personally, I’ve always imagined the close of the book – the eating of the million quid Kit Kat – to be akin to Molly Bloom’s speech in Ulysses; a rhythmic, sensual stream of consciousness. (‘Hmmm yes.’) In ‘Second Cheapest on the Menu’, the writer must describe a year of eating out during which they are only allowed to order the second cheapest thing on the menu, regardless of what it is. There was a compelling reason for this rationale, but I’ve forgotten it.

2.  The Danny Loss Payday Party Manifesto’, akaSecret Six’.
Sold as seen, a pair of gaming-related blokey twenty-something narratives looking for a good home. In ‘Secret Six’, our protagonist is visited, in a comical vision, by a god of gambling. Think Aladdin’s genie. He gives our hero six numbers and wishes him well. Secret Six throws a Saturday night party in expectation of lottery success. Makes a big speech in the moments leading up to the draw. Burns some bridges, quits his job. The numbers don’t come up. Secret Six spends the rest of the novel trying to work out what the numbers mean. He knows he has the right numbers, but he doesn’t know what game they relate to. Cue comic visits to greyhound races, casinos, etc. A rom-com about faith, love and mindless consumerism. Charming. ‘The Danny Loss Payday Party Manifesto’ is essentially the same, except as a partially completed screenplay. Rather than a visit by a god, the numbers are communicated by a series of strange lights flashing nocturnally in the windows of an abandoned mill. A code-breaking rom-com. There’s a whole genre in that; I’ll throw it in for free.

3.  ‘Delusions of Goodyear’
You wouldn’t believe me if I said I dreamt this story in its entirety but I did, I swear – even the title, which appeared just before I woke up. ‘Delusions of Goodyear’ is a psychological thriller which bravely probes ideas of perception, reality, morality, duality and many other ‘alities’ besides. Sold as a complete and finished idea, with some sketches of how the cover should be and a specially recorded soundtrack composed by a pal who, for the purposes of this post, we shall call Argyle. For full details of the plot – which follows the unlucky experiences of a pair of drug-crazed brothers on a seaside holiday – DM me.

4.  ‘Perry Wacker’s Lost Property’
In 2001, Dutch lorry-driver Perry Wacker was convicted of smuggling immigrants into the UK. This gritty, magic-realist gangster thriller (a whole new genre! I’ll throw it in for free...) re-imagines the grisly events of that year as an alternate history. In ‘Perry Wacker’s Lost Property’, the antagonist’s lorry becomes a magical portal to another world. Bear with me – I need to work on my elevator pitch for this one. So: the special truck folds the fabric of space and time, and inside it, magically, is every piece of lost property in the world. From the sock that falls unnoticed from the toddler’s foot, through a sea of tapes and CDs, to the memory sticks left on park benches by careless civil servants. Perry Wacker must decide what to do. Will he use these items for personal gain – or is this a chance to redeem himself? Edgy, controversial, and pretty crap, this idea is easily the worst of the four. Special discounted price.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Three Bad Habits

Stephen King, eh? Sometimes he’s dispensing words so heavy with wisdom and insight that he has you reappraising everything you’ve written – and other times he’s as useful as that bloke down the pub with his theory of everything.
Case in point:
Kingy tells me to put my draft in a draw and leave it for sixth months. Time, he says, gives perspective and clarity. Six months, I think. Jeez. That’s like – virtually a year, right? But dammit, he was bang on the money. I unwrap the draft. I crank up the laptop. I read. Perspective! Clarity!
Then I start my re-draft. Kingy’s steer on this is clear. “Second draft” he says – I’m paraphrasing, you understand; On Writing’s upstairs and I’m down here on the sofa with a premier cru cider – “equals first draft minus 10%.” Minus 10%, I think. So I’m aiming to lose 7k. I’m just chopping out words. Adverbs, mostly. So off I go, and what do I find?
The man’s advice is bobbins, people. Bobbins.
Re-drafting for King might be like pruning an already handsome-looking shrub, but for me it’s like arriving in the garden with a pair of secateurs, only to find you need a chainsaw, safety goggles and an extensive pergola just to keep the damn bush upright. My book looks like the bongleweed.
But I confess I’ve had a jolly time poking fun at my six-month-younger-self. Boy, there were some clangers in there. Here’s my top three bad writing habits. I’m hoping against hope here that a few of you guys might provide me with some comfort by confessing to similar failings.
1.  Doubling-up verbs
It seems when I can’t choose between two verbs – to hell with it, I pick them both. This is particularly the case when they’re onomatopoeiac - so horses pulling carts “clatter and rattle” down the cobbled streets – but is also a fave of mine when someone’s in the grip of some strong emotion. Hearts “swell and bob” in anticipation. Stomachs “flip and shudder”. Deary, deary me.
2.  The eyes have it
When I need a character to materialise quickly in the mind of the reader, I have an irritating tendency to fiddle with their eyes. Forget voices, quirks, personalities – just give ‘em some crowsfeet and be done, that’s me. The fortune teller? “her creased eyes painted...” The masseur at the steamhalls? “wide wet eyes” (wet?!) Fat Oscar? “eyes glassy like marbles” and “there’s something in his eyes as they flicker upwards”. Boredom at being so tediously described, I should imagine.
3.  Me and my two adjectives
Madness when your two adjectives are zingy, vibrant and interesting words. Total bloody lunacy when the two in question are “thin” and “tight”. Every street, passageway, alley, corridor, walkway and tunnel are one or both of these things at some point. Such is my desperation to create a sense of claustrophobia, I’m slapping the reader in the face with it every other sentence.
And I’ve deliberately not mentioned the horrific continuity errors – there’s a whole post’s worth of fun in those. As for the kissing scene – Lord above, I write like I’m seventeen.
Faced with these problems, I reckon even Kingy would agree to adjust his simple re-drafting equation. “Second draft”, he’d be forced to concede, “equals first draft minus plot holes, purple prose, personality quirks, bad habits – and 10%”  

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Dancer and the Dance

Wandering the City Art Gallery last week, I was struck by this thought. Just imagine the ghosts of all the artists were stationed next to their work in an educational capacity, ready to eagerly explain to each visitor the themes, ideas and implied meanings of their work. You’d be approaching the Pre-Raphelite room, and Rossetti himself would catch your eye. He’d wait politely while you scanned his picture before asking, maybe a little nervously; “Do you like it? Oh thanks. That’s nice. It took me ages. How kind of you to comment. See the apple she’s holding? Yes, that one. It’s a metaphor. Any guesses what it stands for? No? Well, I’ll tell you...” The visitor, stifled by the proximity of the painter, over-awed even; intimidated, would soon retreat. On reflection I concluded, I’ll have my art without the presence of the artist thanks very much.
There’s that famous Yeats poem about schoolchildren which he finishes “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Dance, some types of theatre, performance art – these are media in which the artist is the art. Painting thankfully doesn’t belong in that category. And neither does writing.
Recently I’ve finished reading an impressive, ambitious, epically-plotted and at times expertly-written novel. But one chapter ended with these lines: “I had been right: freedom smelled like ozone and thunderstorms and gunpowder all at once, like snow and bonfires and cut grass, it tasted like seawater and oranges.” The presence of the writer was so profound here, they may as well have been standing at my shoulder. (“Do you like it? Yes? Oh good! It took me ages. It’s a metaphor, you see...”) I suppose there’s an argument that says as soon as we move from the literal to the artfully figurative, we reveal ourselves. “Here I am,” we say. “Look at my syndetic list of juxtaposed nouns. Cool, huh?” And – I have to ask it, even if I risk exposing my ignorance – what does ozone smell like, exactly? Or,for that matter, gunpowder? Thunderstorms I can do. I can see why seawater might taste a bit like freedom, I suppose. But bonfires? Oranges? It’s risky is all I’m saying. I remember having a short story handed back by my tutor some years ago with the cringe-inducing adolescent simile “like a mermaid trapped in a bell-jar” underlined. Twice. I bridled at the time, but we all know what that tutor meant; no further comment was necessary.
Here’s another thing. Scatter your prose with elevated metaphor, and you run the risk of it bleeding into your dialogue. Later on the same novel, one character, describing another, says “...she was like an ice-skater balanced effortlessly on the edge of her own speed, throwing in joyous, elaborate twirls and leaps just for the hell of it.” What - someone really said that? They didn’t. The author wrote it – and they’re there at my shoulder again, running a finger underneath it as I read.
In his short story Cat in the Rain, Ernest Hemingway describes the sea on a rainy day with these lines: “The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain.”
Sometimes you can’t see the art for the artist. But in these lines? Well – you can’t see the artist for the art.
Mermaid in a bell-jar indeed.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Repeat Readings Part Two

I had a friend once who told this story about her Dad. Every Winter, she’d tell us, he read War and Peace. Year in, year out. They were a family without a telly so this was his quiet, studious evening pursuit when the nights drew in. He had an ancient hardback copy from one of those book clubs, and there’d been an error in the binding and printing which meant that the central 100 pages or so were upside down. So my friend – let’s call her Argyle for the purposes of this post – knew when the halfway point was reached because her Dad would calmly and without complaint spin the book around and continue reading. Argyle used to say that this rotating of War and Peace invariably meant Christmas was near.
Argyle could tell a good tale, so I one day expect to find that the War and Peace story was borrowed from elsewhere. But I like the idea of a reader for whom a single text can continue to satisfy again and again. No offence to Tolstoy intended, but I suspect Argyle’s dad had long since stopped reading for the novel’s ability to yield new and interesting meanings. No, I reckon this was about comfort. The chill of winter outside; the warmth of the fireside; the holidays a-comin’; War and Peace.
I mention all of this ‘cause I too have a book I keep comfort-reading. A few, actually – Gatsby, Remains of the Day – but with this particular one I’m on my fifth or sixth iteration; way ahead of the others. And, weirdly, I’m not sure I know why I keep doing it.
Nothing as lofty as a Russian or American heavyweight to brag about here, folks: it’s The Ghost by Robert Harris. That’s right. The political thriller that he briefly halted his Roman trilogy to dash off. The frothy, inconsequential bestseller you see in service stations and airports; the one that Polanski recently filmed. That one. What the hell am I playing at? There are new tales waiting to be told out there; time’s a-wastin’ – and here I am starting the same book again for the fifth time.
And yet. It’s so sparsely written; that artless narrator thing works so well. There’s only a handful of adjectives to clutter the prose in the opening chapters, for example. There’s only one location, one claustrophobic, wind-blown location for the majority of the narrative. There’s a genuinely colourless protagonist; a ghost, almost – the reader substitutes themselves for him. The pace is nigh-on perfect. The political insight is impressive.
I know it’s no War and Peace, but it continues to fascinate me. There’s something in its clarity, coherence, simplicity, that's compelling. Perhaps we’ve all got our comfort reads.
Comfort me by admitting yours!  

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Young and Youthful Readers

I suppose this post will be my (humble-ish) contribution to the thousands upon thousands of words written attempting to define the ‘Young Adult’ genre. To spare you the trawl: some definitions hang upon character – the protagonists must be young adults; some define according to issue; the story must deal with the challenges of growing up; for some, theme is important – identity, for example; for others, it’s all about style, register, lexical choice and so on.
None of these work, though. Here’s why. And don’t worry, folks: I’ll be quick.
I was listening to a podcast – at times pretty engaging, at others pretty damn short-sighted – discussing writing for children. In it, a YA author is asked the age-old question and, after some preliminary thoughts, suggests that Great Expectations is effectively YA writing. And according to much of the above, it is. You can do the box-ticking yourself.
Except of course, Great Expectations isn’t a YA novel. For a start, sociologically speaking there weren’t any YA to write for in 1860. But in the main, because it is a bildungsroman novel. (An ‘education’ novel, an ‘apprenticeship’ novel, a ‘coming-of-age’ story; call it what you will.) These, by definition, need a young protagonist at the start, and follow his or her growth. Great Expectations, then, is no more YA than Jane Eyre is.
The poet Simon Armitage was once asked to define poetry. ‘If you scribble a few words down and arrange them, is that a poem?’ was the gist of the question. Armitage understandably struggled for a moment or two with this. Then he concluded: “In the end, if I say it’s a poem – it’s a poem.”
So here’s my definition of YA – stuff written for young adults, by writers writing for young adults. I s'pose that's just glib rather than the weighty beginnings of an academic thesis, though. (And what about The Book Thief? You might ask. Nope, says me. That’s been marketed as YA by a creative publisher with an eye for a profit.)
Why not turn this whole thing on its head. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s author introduction to his first novel, The Prince of Mist is an interesting place to go, I reckon. “I simply decided to write the kind of novel” he states, “that I would have wanted to read at 13 or 14; but also one that would continue to interest me at the age of 23, or 40.” (i.e. YA R.I.P.) And his final sentence is a lovely one; pertinent too, I think – “To both young and youthful readers, it only remains for me to thank you, and to wish you happy reading.”
A novel written for ‘young and youthful’ readers. Now there’s a definition I could happily live with. Long may we all continue to be youthful readers, whatever that may be.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Two Books About Ideas

Or: “I’ve got a great idea for a novel. No, wait. Seriously, I have.”

There’s a nice story about a fanboy who approaches a games designer at a conference. “I’ve got a great idea for a game!” he enthuses, hoping to make his fortune. The games designer looks at him soberly. “And I’ve got a great idea for a painting” he replies.

I like this tale, whether true or apocryphal, because it gets to the heart of an interesting issue about creativity. As a society, we love the idea of the Eureka moment; the displacement of water in a bath, a falling apple – the ‘suddenly-it-came-to-me-in-a-blinding-flash-of-realisation’ story that we tell and re-tell; the kind of story that paints creativity as an elusive product of genius, accessed only by a chosen few. The fanboy at the conference thinks he’s had one of these rare epiphanies. The games designer, however, knows better. We can all have ideas, says his sarcastic answer, particularly outside our field of expertise. It’s what we do with them that counts – so get to the back of the queue.

Scott Belsky’s organisation 'The 99percent' (you can follow them on Twitter here) focuses its interest and energy not on the ‘1% inspiration’ element of the famous equation, but on the ‘99% perspiration’ bit. The idea is easy; it’s the commitment to completion that matters. “That’s why,” Belsky says in a presentation to an eager crowd of creative types, “there are more unfinished novels in the world than there are novels.” In his book 'Making Ideas Happen', Belsky argues that the feelings of possibility we experience at the point of creation are such powerful and magnetic ones that we yearn to return to them. We would rather, he says, begin creating anew than push our previous idea through to completion. The ‘project plateau’ he says, is littered with the half complete skeletons of millions of unrealised ideas.

Stephen Johnson’s contribution to this field is 'Where Good Ideas Come From'. You can watch an animated lecture summarising his ideas here. His approach is environmental; spaces and interactions are at the root of all good ideas. They can’t develop in isolation, argues Johnson. He is particularly persuasive in his argument that good ideas need a period of incubation – they often take years to develop – and the point of birth tends to be a ‘collision’ with another idea, usually someone else’s.

I was once chairing a session with an Irish poet and some students. He was reading and discussing his stuff; they were keen writers asking for advice. I remember him talking towards the end of the session about an idea he was working on. “I’m going to use this line somewhere” he told us all, flicking through his notebook. “It’s ‘the lie of the land’.” He said it again a few times and we all listened in as he talked about how he felt that phrase had great possibilities. But it wasn’t ready to be used yet. I thought about him again as I read Johnson’s book; he was waiting for it to collide with another line, I suppose.

So – I’ve got this great idea for a novel.

And a film. And the soundtrack to the film. And a line of really cool merchandise. And an acceptance speech at the Booker.

Yeah, right. Get to the back of the queue, Fletcher. The work’s only just beginning.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Facing a Brave New World in your Underwear

‘Sleepwell and Fly’ opens with a young boy waking, disorientated, from a poison-induced fit. When I showed Chapter One to one colleague of mine he read silently for a few seconds then said, “Ah! That old chestnut!” I wasn’t offended. And if you’ve got a few minutes, I’d ask you to consider a further trio of tales, separately and at once. I ask for no other reason than this group of narratives has been occupying my mind for a few weeks, and that they raise an interesting question.
Here we go: John Wyndam’s 1951 novel 'The Day of the Triffids', Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel 'The Walking Dead', and Danny Boyle’s 2002 film '28 Days Later'. Right; hold that thought.
The link? This is about the classic, apocalyptic last-man-on-earth opening to a story. Wyndam’s novel, interestingly, begins elsewhere but the BBC adaptation went for Bill Masen waking alone in an empty hospital following an accident. The Walking Dead opens with Rick Grimes waking alone in an empty hospital following an accident. 28 Days Later plays with the formula a little – backstory first - but lavishes attention on the scene in which Cillian Murphy’s character Jim wakes from a coma alone in an empty hospital.
There are variations on this in other narratives; the ‘amnesiac struggles to seek identity’ is an obvious one – and by extension, the stranger lost in a strange land’ too. We can add to that of course the old chestnut; ‘young boy waking from a poison-induced fit.’
Why are we fascinated by this device in all its forms? My guess is that this preoccupation is twofold; first something to do with defamiliarisation, second to do with character.
Defamiliarisation first. These story structures allow us to present a familiar world in a new way. Readers see the deserted streets of London or Atlanta with fresh eyes. An abandoned bicycle becomes a sinister symbol of something; a creaking sign reading ‘No Gas’ becomes a powerful and disturbing comment; a torn and flapping bill poster, a dropped child’s toy, a family photograph framed behind broken glass – all of these pedestrian objects become fired with a new resonance. We like these openings because in a sense they comment on the power of narrative to make the world seem different, even if it isn’t. These stories inevitably move on to defamiliarise social structures. New societies; new political systems, the corrupting influence of power; freedom, control, etc. (They are the ultimate celebration of the writer as Bad God. “I can kill everyone in the world except this remarkably blue-eyed cycle courier called Jim! Mwa-ha-ha-ha!!)
Character second. A few months back, I wrote a post called The Hepless Witness Part One in which I wittered aimlessly (what’s new?) about the importance of a vulnerable protagonist – the aim being to make a reader feel a helpless witness to events, never sure of how, or indeed whether, things will resolve themselves in favour of the main character. And here again, these story structures press the right buttons. Our protag is invariably alone, frightened, ill, and in the case of Rick Grimes, wearing nothing but boxer shorts. Let’s imagine that for a moment. You wake to find your wife and family missing, your friends gone, the world completely changed – and you have to cope with these new circumstances wearing nothing but the grids you’ve been sweating into for the last three weeks. How can the reader not sympathise here? Hell, we’ve all dreamt of the time we rocked up at school in our birthday suits with our teeth falling out. Rick - we know how it feels.
So I made no apologies for the start of Sleepwell and Fly, even when taunted, and no offence was taken. The poison-induced fit? It’s an oldie, yes. But it’s a goodie.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Versatile Blogger Awards

I’ve been lucky enough to have received a generous recommendation for a ‘versatile blogger award’ from the wonderful Anne Stormont. The rules – in case, like me, you didn’t know – are that I have to reveal seven things about myself, and recommend a number of blogs for your consideration. The second bit, at least, is easy.
  1. Once at a creative writing class, I was challenged to write a six-word story in less than a minute. I wrote ‘I should have done things differently.’ I surprised myself, since I’m not one for regrets. But I had in mind a particular incident involving a trampoline.
  2. One Christmas, I stumbled across a Hayao Myazaki movie called 'Laputa, Castle in the Sky' being screened at some late hour. It was astonishing. He’s been my favourite director since.
  3. During my time as Beers Wines and Spirits manager at a scumbag supermarket chain, I memorised all the wine-making regions of France and could draw you a pretty good map from memory. I hated that job, but I’m earnest and I take things too seriously even when I shouldn’t. That map is a case in point.
  4. 'Oblivion' swallowed hours of my life and I loved it. The future of interactive narrative entertainment like that is bright.
  5. It’s taken me a long time to learn not be distracted from my genre. I wrote angsty wideboy fiction before I learnt I wasn’t wide enough for it, being the sort of person who memorises wine-making regions. I wrote bad beat poetry before I realised I couldn’t drop out ‘cos I needed the money. I wrote a terrible detective story. Tried my hand at food writing. I’ve still got the notes for a screenplay called ‘The Danny Loss Payday Party Manifesto’ somewhere. Nowadays, at least I know my area and do one thing at a time.
  6. Inside me is a fat man fighting to get out. He’s always hungry.
  7. I love making lists. I’m not in the same league as a pal of mine – let’s call him Argyle for the purposes of this post, though his real name is, disappointingly, Dave. He’s got a book of lists way longer than mine. Once, leafing through, I happened across a page titled ‘Top 5 Dry Sherries’. Hell, that’s one obscure list. My lists tend be of books, films, CDs and so on. Once I made a list of every CD I bought for a whole year, thinking I might write a Hornbyesque account of the year in music. There’s that distraction thing again.
My nominations for the versatile blogger awards are:

Mr London Street

Matt Hill

Anne Stormont

Joanna Cannon

My pal Laura, who's in Singapore...

...and just some guy called Philip Reeve.

Sunday, 19 June 2011


Here, you’ll find a smashing little creative writing course at Warwick University. The podcasts, delivered by David Morley, focus on various aspects and elements of the writing process. One in particular has caught my attention. Entitled ‘A Mental Switch’, it begins with Morley stating very simply that, “...there is writing – and there is not writing. And ‘writing’ is a zone.”
I’ve been stuck far too regularly of late in ‘not writing.’ I’ve been thinking about writing; I’ve been sketching out plots and assembling post-it festooned wall charts; I’ve been tinkering with character traits and even – preposterously perhaps – drawing maps of imaginary prisons. But writing? Not much.
Morley’s use of the term ‘zone’ to describe the writing process is an interesting one. A place; an area. It brought to mind the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (more about him here). I know a fair bit about this guy but rarely mention him in public on account of not having the slightest clue how to pronounce his name. I once mis-pronounced ‘Goethe’ at university and got laughed out of a seminar; I make it a rule nowadays to avoid being laughed out of any enclosed space-of-learning. Thankfully I have found support in the confessions of a friend – for the purposes of this post we’ll call him Argyle – who thought ‘misled’ was pronounced ‘myzled’, and for many years pronounced ‘pseudo’ to rhyme with ‘play doh’.
Anyway, Mr Csíkszentmihályi is a psychologist, just in case you care, who developed flow theory after studying extensively the process of intense immersion achieved by sportsmen and women during competition. His studies took root, appropriately, when he witnessed artists capable of getting ‘lost’ in their work for hours at a time. He began by observing that athletes and artists, when interviewed, often compared these elevated states of concentration to being carried along by water – thus the ‘flow’ metaphor.
But there’s a temptation inherent in this turn of phrase; that creativity is somehow passive. That we’re ‘carried’ along, unable to create these states of concentration and restricted to simply waiting for them to happen.
That’s where the flow grid comes in. And it’s a cracker:
This is more like it, right? The implication here being that we can ‘measure’ our current state of mind, and adjust the challenge or skill required to push ourselves towards the top-right of the grid rather than waiting to be carried along.
And I suppose the lesson for me at the moment is simple – if you want any river to sweep you up, you’ve first got to get into it.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

'The Domino Machine', or 'Fletcher's Law'

There was this time I was half-running a creative writing group; that’s to say, we’d all turn up but the teacher wouldn’t. So we’d make things up together and hope he showed the next week. There were ten or so of us. A right old mixed bag it was – young guys with big, earnest fringes; ex-plumbers with the grime of the day job still under their nails, super-chirpy extroverts with glitter pens and brand new jotters, and me.
We invented the Domino Machine one night in Wigan of all places, in a badly insulated temporary classroom held together by chewing gum and graffiti.
It started when a bright young kid in a Verve t-shirt scribbled this on the top of his pad: God picks up the phone. It’s the devil making a prank call. We had a laugh at this, and he playfully suggested how difficult it would be to get that sentence into a story.
We made up some more silly sentences – goofing around, wasting time, thinking about maybe going to the pub. Then this idea emerged – I recall it being mine, but then I can’t be trusted, having one of those memories that’s convinced it’s the source of a constant stream of criminally overlooked successes.
“We generate a whole bunch of these lines” I said, my audience awed by my brilliance the way I remember it, “and we each choose three. One represents the problem; one the conflict; one the resolution. We stitch them together into a whole anthology of mad stories.”
I thought I was a real big shot, though I later learnt this is a pretty standard activity – the stuff of creative writing groups up and down the country; so often the way with my ideas. We generated 33 lines on the first go. Someone suggested we call it the Domino Machine, though I can’t remember why.
What I do recall, though, is unravelling those screwed up strips of paper to see what I’d got. Flattening them out against my notebook. The room was full of laughter. People grinned or groaned or spontaneously shrieked at the stupidity of it all. There was a real joy and pleasure to be had in the collisions that happened when your lines revealed themselves. There was a lot of jovial “Who the hell wrote this one?” and “What does this say?” or “What’s this word mean?” and so on.
I remember well some of the lines people had to work with that night; ‘There’s a bear in your garage’, ‘At the bottom of a well, an object glinting in the dark’; one woman in particular puzzled by ‘A fit lad gives you a wedgie’ (“commonly featured in popular works as a form of low comedy” says Wikipedia.) And I recall too that my story had to open with a preposterous scene in which ‘A block of frozen urine falls from the sky.’ The writer had helpfully added in brackets, ‘It’s from a passing airplane.’
That story wasn’t one of my better efforts. But I remember the Domino Machine with some fondness nevertheless. Media types often refer to Chandler’s Law, coined from Raymond Chandler’s oft-repeated advice; "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand" – an idea very much in the spirit of the Domino Machine.
And for the record - I’d like us all to think of the frozen urine thing as Fletcher’s Law.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

'Elber Get The Terrors'

When J and me were conducting our long-distance relationship, we used to read to each other over the phone. That summer, everyone was reading 'The Da Vinci Code' so I bought it and over a period of three or four nights we slogged through the opening 100 pages or so – those endless descriptions of the Louvre’s parquet flooring and such.
We never got beyond that point; reading a badly-written book aloud can be a pretty punishing experience. But I still remember the exact point at which we stopped – and why.
A character called Sauniere, dying in great pain, writes a message on the floor in his own blood. It’s this. 13-3-3-21-1-1-8-5
O, Draconian Devil! Oh, Lame Saint!”
Now; there’s a long and rich tradition of the cryptic message in literature – from Jane Eyre hearing Rochester’s spirit-voice onwards. We could generate a pretty good list together here now; let me pitch in with Conan Doyle’s 'The Sign of Four' in which a woman receives a mysterious package containing a large and lustrous pearl on the same day every year, or Robert Goddard’s 'Closed Circle', in which a character is terrorised by a drawing of two concentric circles that arrives in the post. Stevenson’s ‘black spot' in 'Treasure Island' is worth a mention – as is Pullman’s 'The Ruby in the Smoke', in which a character has a heart attack at the opaque mention of something called the ‘seven blessings’.
These cryptic messages are often closely followed by the death or disappearance of the messenger, so as to leave the protagonist unable to enquire any further. Colin Bateman’s thriller 'Divorcing Jack' springs to mind here, since the title of the novel is a reference to the misheard whisper of a dying character; “Divorce Jack” is in fact an attempt to speak the name of a Czech composer.
But there’s a problem with the use of cryptic messages that as writers we need to pay heed to; a balance that needs to be struck between the need we have as writers to introduce a plot device via a message, and the manner in which the characters are made to do it.
And that’s why I put down 'The Da Vinci Code' at that point, never to pick it up again. Dan Brown’s need for a cryptic message to drive his plot forward grossly outweighs his character’s motivations and actions. Let’s face it - no dying man would spend any amount of time carefully constructing a cryptic message of such obscure length and enigmatic detail particularly when writing in their own blood. The author’s guiding hand is so obvious here that any tenuous suspension of disbelief is shattered.
And so I find myself in a difficult position, having just written a cryptic threat into the opening chapter of my WIP which reads “Elber get the terrors.” It makes little sense to the protagonist – or for that matter, to the reader at that point. My job, I reckon, is to make sure it makes perfect and simple sense from the sender’s point of view.
Otherwise, my inexpert guiding hand will be as visible as Dan Brown’s when he reveals, as his chapter-end cliffhanger, that Sauniere’s message is in fact even longer, and concludes with the hitherto concealed words “p.s. Find Robert Langdon.”
No kidding.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Repeat Readings

I’ve got a friend who knows pretty much all there is to know about cinema. For the purposes of this post, we’ll call him Argyle. He’s not the same Argyle that features in the post 'How to Spot a Really Bad Idea' though; he’s a different Argyle. (The two Argyles, by the way, have never met each other. Always keep your Argyles apart is my motto.)
This Argyle was telling me about the distribution deals struck between major studios and exhibitors when a movie is released.
Now; pay attention everybody. Typically, Argyle said, in the first week of release, the takings are split 90/10 in favour of the studios. The exhibitors get next to nothing, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why pick and mix sweets cost, ounce-for-ounce, about the same as gold bullion whenever you go to the flicks.
After the opening week, the proportions adjust speedily in favour of the exhibitors. So there are two opposing imperatives here. The exhibitors want movie-goers to be just too damn busy to catch a film in its opening few weeks, and instead see it three or four weeks into its run. Perhaps go back and watch it a second time. The studios on the other hand, want people to flock to the cinema in week one, never return, and then buy the DVD at some later date.
Thus, Argyle argued, the preponderance of vacuous and repetitive tat aimed at the teenage market. We’re on to 'Saw 6' or 7 or 8 or whatever the hell it is now, because those movies hit number one for one week, then drop like a stone. The last thing the studios want is a slow-burning word-of-mouth success that hits its peak five weeks through its run.
After Argyle had gone, leaving nothing but a faint scent of gardenia and regret in the air, I pondered his polemic.
And there’s an argument I think, that says the changing taste for certain narrative structures might be the direct result of distribution deals such as this one. That audiences are becoming attuned to explosive, vapid, action-driven narratives that satisfy only as long as they are being experienced. Narratives with a deliberate in-built obsolescence that positively discourage a second viewing.
No wonder, therefore, that some young readers find it tough to battle through a 60,000 word YA novel, or that many swap reading for more immediate and visual media when they get to high school.
Check out any writers’ guides – the kind of books I regularly read and refer to here; the ones that advise would-be novelists on how to get published – and you’ll see them preach the crucial importance of beginning your story in media res. As if, nowadays, there really is no other choice. And perhaps there isn’t. If there’s an i-pad, a TV and a Playstation in the same room as the book, then the book’s going to have to be bloody good from word one of line one of page one.
But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t satisfy on a much richer and deeper level than 'Saw 10'. YA writers will need to compete by offering something different rather than imitating the tired structures and cliches of cinema narrative – by crafting a tale which rewards repeat readings, rather than punishing them.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Missing Third Act

In Stephen King’s 'From a Buick 8' our narrator Sandy concludes a near 400-page narrative with the observation; “It’d never make a play, would it? There’s no third act.” I had cause to remember this line and dig out my copy of 'Buick 8' to check it this week.
Here’s why I did:

work very much in progress

On two pages of my scuffed and scruffy note-book there, I reckon I’ve got the bulk of the plot of my next project. But if you cast your eye over to the far right, and the rather ameteurish image allows you discern it, you’ll see the disappointingly empty column marked ‘Act 3’. I’ve helpfully scattered myself a few bullet points as you can see, but that’s it. As Sandy noted himself, there’s no third act.
So; what to do? I could sit patiently and let this finale sneak up on me over the next few days - hell, even weeks if it takes that long. Hang fire on the writing, keep editing the other WIP, keep chipping away at the to-be-read YA stockpile safe in the knowledge that sometime, somewhere in the stillness the third act will offer itself up.
Or I could start writing. Take the scenes however I want to take them; see what emerges as the whole thing unspools and hope that forward movement, momentum, energy carry me through. Let’s face it there’s a year’s worth of work on those two pages even as they stand. I can dream up an ending while I write, yes?
It’s the first time I’ve tried to plot this way. James Scott Bell’s much-referenced (at least amongst my Twitter gang) 'Plot and Structure' was the source of this method of planning. I’ve got acts, I've got scenes, I've got narrative strands running in parallel... We’re in prison for the first two acts – there’s Inkbarrow the spy, whose story I explored in that previous post, 'Lost Property', then there's Lacey Eppington, that old archetype the chimney-sweep-girl-dressed-as-boy-seeking-to-avenge-the-incarceration-of-her-father character. There’s a gang of prison hoodlums called the Jupiter Hand, a mysterious oriental benefactor, and Kiteman the religious zealot.
It all builds nicely to... an empty third column. Perhaps I should return to 'Buick 8' for inspiration. Sandy utters those memorable lines on page 397. The book ends just 70 pages later, King having provided the third act in some considerable style. Act three, 73 pages. Now that’s a finale.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

The Helpless Witness Part One

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Deathtrap Dungeon. Forest of Doom, City of Thieves – if any of these off-the-peg fantasy titles are ringing a bell it’s because you remember Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s ‘Fighting Fantasy’ series which ran from 1982 through 59 titles up until 1995. Each was, as the cover claimed; “a Fighting Fantasy gamebook in which YOU are the hero!” For those of you unaware of this phenomenon (get to the back of the class) – they were stories in which the reader made choices and determined the plot, along the lines of; “If you want to open the door, turn to page 250. If you want to run away, turn to page 135.” It was full interactivity in a book! A fully flexible and responsive narrative arc; the future of storytelling! I recall wondering as a witless 12 year old whether I’d ever go back to choiceless, linear narratives again.

Very soon however, I found I’d pretty much mined the seam. I began playing these games in a certain way as I’m sure did every other geeky child of the 70s and 80s did – no dice rolls to determine whether I survived a battle with a monster; always keep a surreptitious finger at your last page in case your choice was a bad one; and if you die, skip back to where your choices began to go wrong, and pick it up from there.

Interactivity, I quickly found, came with its own set of drawbacks.

And I was reminded of this discovery when recently reading an interview with Jason Vandenburghe, a games designer and programmer, in Edge magazine. It was a sobering discussion that has a lot to say about the nature of narrative, drama and character generally, I think.

Here’s the gist.

Vandenburghe was one of a team of programmers working on a game conversion of Chris Carter’s seminal TV show The X Files. The game clocked up a million in sales but was a flawed piece of work, and Vandenburghe’s assessment of its failings is interesting.

It was composed, essentially, of a series of pre-shot film clips featuring David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and the rest of the cast: no expense spared. It worked like this; the player made choices and the game reassembled these filmed clips to tell the story. You essentially got to build your own episode of The X Files depending upon your responses to key events and your code-breaking and deductive skills.

Here’s the interesting thing.“Working on The X Files” says Vandenburghe, “proved to me that interactivity and drama directly oppose each other. That was a devastating realisation. Drama is all about being a helpless witness to events. The moment you give the viewer agency, the emotional spectrum shifts from tension to curiosity.”

And so it did with those Fighting Fantasy gamebooks all those years ago. Tension became curiosity. As a youngster, without really knowing why, I judged the experience to be ultimately lacking because I wasn’t a ‘helpless witness to events’. Perhaps then, the more helpless we make a reader feel, the more tension and drama we generate. I’ve a half-memory of Aristotle saying as much regarding Greek tragedy.

It’s not often a blog post starts with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and ends with Aristotle, my friends – and probably with good reason. 

Sunday, 3 April 2011

There Goes the Fear

Picture this: a bitter night in January, and outside the hospital, it’s lashing it down as usual. I was reading a ghost story. This particular tale was a novella written by an author who already had two weighty bestsellers to their name. It was one of those books whose design and layout felt good. I was spending a lot of time in waiting rooms, corridors, shabby canteens – so this volume was going to be my companion for a few days, and I was looking forward to it.
It was a first person narrative. I mention this because I often find myself pondering the extent to which a first person narrator should deliberately compromise the quality of the writing. I’ve argued before now, for example, that Robert Harris’ thriller The Ghost is deliberately sparse and workmanlike in its style precisely because the narrator is a ghost-writer. He’s no great novelist – even though Harris is. When he’s on form.
Anyway, the guy narrating this ghostly tale to me was no accomplished writer either, so that might go some way to explaining the prose on offer. But when he hears a ghostly voice call him through a snowstorm, he reports:
“My heart skipped a beat.”
One chapter later, his heart skips a beat again, when he assailed by more spooky events. The precise sentence is repeated. And in a chapter towards the end of the book –
“A shiver ran down my spine.”
I don’t consider myself to be pedantic or picky when it comes to matters of style. But surely resorting to cliché so speedily compromises the potential power of the tale.
Here’s a thought experiment we can try together. Visualise the last time you had that genuine lurch of terror you get when something threatens you. Imagine it. Now; where, biologically speaking, does fear breed? It’s not the spine, I can offer that much. Neither is it, in my experience, the back of the neck – and it won’t surprise you to learn that the hairs do indeed rise on the back of our narrator’s neck at one point.
The power of fear is that it’s something animalistic and instinctive inside us buried way down in the DNA; something tribal, pre-civilised, that fight/flight dynamic which has kept us alive. That’s what a ghost story needs to convey. By choosing cliché, we deny the real power of fear and we tame it; civilise it – wrap it in something comfortingly familiar.
So I missed out on my chilling winter’s ghost story this January – I picked a dud. Where to start in my search for a replacement? I want a writer who can really scare their protagonist – and in turn me, not someone for whom a shivery spine is a sufficient indicator of terror.
Suggestions gratefully recieved.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

How to Spot a Really Bad Idea

Ask yourself this – is it a writing project with a strict two week deadline that involves you and a mate trying to write a novel together whilst staying in a cavernous barn-conversion in the south of France with eight other friends and lake of rose wine? It is? Right – well it’s a really bad idea.
The pal in question – let’s call him ‘Argyle’ for the purposes of this post, though his real name was ‘Jim’ – drove the length of France with a typewriter and a harebrained scheme. When I rolled up a few days later, he pitched his plan to me. He had the opening paragraph of a cracking tale for teenagers, Argyle said, and he wanted to finish it as a team. It opened with a car chase to a crematorium. I liked it a lot.
I’d recently read an article about an emerging crime writer, Nicci French who was in fact a husband and wife team. (Go to their website today, and in a neat little video they offer this advice: “What we never ever do is sit together in the same room writing.” In my defence, the website didn’t exist back then.)
Argyle set the typewriter up under a tree. The day was clear and the sky was blue. The air was like a bright block of heat. The builders hadn’t finished the pool yet – there was a half-acre of churned earth with a concrete hole in it – and as compensation, the owners had refunded us a good deal of money. Argyle suggested it provide all the food and drink needed for the duration of our stay, and a team went out to buy provisions. They returned with crisps, wine and a football with Buzz Lightyear on it.
For the rest of the week, we wrote in the mornings before it got too hot. Argyle would type feverishly for half an hour, then read what he’d written aloud. We’d swap places and I’d do the same. We never thought to discuss plot or characterisation – we just went for it. We called the book ‘The Funeral Parlour’ because that’s where the opening scene was. After a couple of days, it became clear that our protagonist Sam Theaker was an old man who was, for some reason as yet unexplored, getting younger. I’d read my share of Scott Fitzgerald, but my awareness of his short stories didn’t extend to Benjamin Button and neither did Argyle’s, so as far as we were concerned we’d hit upon completely virgin territory.
In the afternoons, we played football and drank beer. By the last few days of the holiday, the pool was ready and we picked our way carefully across the rutted, baking soil in bare feet to the concrete edge, and jumped in. By the end of the afternoon there was so much mud in the pool it was like bathing in chocolate milk.
Two years later, we were still working on The Funeral Parlour. Argyle’d Skype me and we’d discuss where it was all going wrong. We’d taken a pair of characters off to Eastern Europe while another pair searched for them. That way we could each take a strand. We weren’t writing together anymore, we were working on our own thin little sub-stories, and I was pretty sure I’d drawn the short straw.
Argyle quit his job, bought a camper van and decided to drive round the world. He announced he and his partner would be having babies when they returned. On his epic journey, he said, he’d be devoting his time to travel writing.
Just so’s you know, he returned a year later with no travel writing, but did start a family. If I was forced to put my finger on where it all went wrong? Well, I'd have to blame the Buzz Lightyear football. Without that, we could have been something, etc etc.

Anyway - we made these mistakes so you don't have to...