Sunday, 30 January 2011

Last Night I Dreamt...

In my twenties I learnt very quickly that there’s nothing more tedious than someone else’s drug stories. And this from someone for whom narrative of any kind is a consuming passion. Gurus of creative writing might exhort us to believe that there’s potential material everywhere – but lank-haired Physics undergrads sharing bad-trip tales? Spare me, please.
Recently two tales – different writers, different genres – I’ve polished off suffered from a linked malaise I reckon; that of the ‘extended dream sequence’.
Both novels had lengthy sections in which characters hallucinated or dreamt, and their writers choose to lead us step-by-step through these warped and magical experiences. The prison guards seemed to mutate into a wobbling amoeba. The walls closed in and became flesh. I seemed to float outside of myself. Toy soldiers marched across my field of vision chanting mechanically. Suddenly I was soaring across the mountains with wings at my heels... you get the picture.
Now, last night I dreamt I was stealing Haribo gummy bears from an indoor market. Why? Because my subconscious is cluttered with a mighty array of tawdry tat. You’re not interested in this dream. Hell, I’m not even interested in this dream and it was mine. So what’s going to make me want to experience the dreams of a fictional character?
Two things, I think. Firstly, if the dream foreshadows something. This is fiction. Let’s make dreams a little less mundane than they are in real life. If the hallucinatory sequence with the prison guards above had suggested to me something that might later occur; implied something that might be used to then ratchet up tension – I could accept that, even enjoy it. But it didn’t – it was there to show us the hallucinogenic properties of a particular fictional drug. Which I already knew about.
Secondly – if the dream indirectly reveals something profound about the character, theme, direction or mood of the tale. That’s why 'Rebecca' works so effectively: “Last night I dreamt I went to to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me…” is all about social status and exclusion, and establishes the narrator as an outsider. The following description of the overgrown garden and creeping ivy is an early indication that nature – the clipped and controlled garden versus the wild sea – is going to be important. So in this case, it’s a necessary and engaging device.
On the other hand: “Last night I dreamt I stole gummy bears from an indoor market...” well, I’m sure you’ll agree it suffers when compared to the heavyweights; the big hitters – Du Maurier’s lines, or perhaps Shelagh Delaney’s in 'A Taste of Honey' “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice”.
‘But the gummy bears thing,’ you might argue, ‘that’s how dreams are!’
Sure. But real dreams, like drug stories, are dull.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

This Is Not The Cinema

I was reading Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark’s great book 'How Not To Write A Novel' . And how I laughed at the foolish, rejected authors whose work was so cruelly parodied by Newman and Mittlemark – themselves editors. One in particular struck a chord. You can’t, they say, have slapstick comedy in a novel. It’s for visual media only. The proof is in this excerpt:
“”Hey, Mimi, can I see the boss?” Jimmy asked. But before the receptionist could answer, he’d stepped on the end of his untied shoelace and tripped with a wild flailing of his arms. First he kicked over an umbrella stand, causing the umbrella to fly out. A few opened in mid air. Batting the umbrellas away from his face, he fell on his butt...”
They’re right, right? A good point, very well made. This week, editing the WIP, I made a similar discovery – a disheartening one. The same rule applies to action sequences as applies to slapstick comedy.
I’d begun to suspect this, truth be told, some weeks ago having read Kenneth Oppel’s excellent YA adventure 'Skybreaker' . I’ll show you what I mean. It’s chapter 3, and the protagonist is being chased across the roofs of Parisian apartments by a bunch of bad guys in an airship – a prospect which would have Speilberg licking his lips.
But Oppel deals with it very quickly and economically in a series of clipped, precise sentences. Like this:
“Cloaked in shadow, we ran across the long stretch of rooftops, leaping alleys when needed. The airship hounded us, its spotlight fixing us time and time again.”
And this:
“Before us, the roof angled down sharply, a slate toboggan ride, ridged with garret windows... Down I went, surfing on slate, and hoping I would not overshoot the weather vane. I clutched at it and felt it bend far out, nearly spilling me off the roof altogether.”
In a few hundred words, the chase is over, the protagonist having swung through a window into a stranger’s boudoir and down on to the street.
If there was a movie version of the book, this action-sequence would no doubt take centre stage, a series of choppy, dramatic shots extending it across four or five minutes. Slo-mo, music, the stretching of time – all would have worked to lengthen the scene.
So when I looked at a chase sequence early in ‘Sleepwell and Fly’, I wondered dolefully how I’d managed to spend nearly 1500 words on it. What chance has pace got if your chase goes on for two thirds of a chapter? Particularly if there’s a seemingly endless sprint through a huge labyrinthine mansion:

He shouldered his way through another door, sprinted through a library, small and deserted, and into another corridor. Clattering footfalls followed. Shouts multiplied. He kept running, babbling fearfully under his breath, terror consuming him. Through another door and into a large, open hall with a marble floor. From his left, a heavy door burst open and a second group of men ran towards him, a broad black figure in silhouette leading them, a wing of dark riding cape rolling around his shoulders....”

It’s binned now, following some pretty direct feedback. I showed it to a colleague of mine – acclaimed sci-fi novelist that he is – and he immediately told me it was way too long. His advice was interesting. “Action sequences” he said, acknowledging the irony of his words, “are actually quite boring to read. Get them over with – get back to talking as quickly as you can.”

It’s worth remembering, huh? We may be a culture immersed in the visual, but this.... well; this is not the cinema.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Light. Fantastic.

I was driving somewhere this week, listening to Radio 4 as it happens – having tired of obtuse CD compilations made late at night and under the influence – and Martin Jarvis was concluding a reading of an Agatha Christie mystery; one that lay mercifully outside the Poirot/Marple cannon, which I’ve done to death. As it were.
The closing line was arrestingly good. I won’t bastardise it here but it was a beautifully clipped and economical description of a stained glass window ‘investing (a character) in a cloak of coloured light’.
Working as I do on YA stuff set in period fantasy cities, I seem to find myself expending a huge number of keystrokes on the light cast by – take your pick; lanterns, candles, torches, gaslamps and all the other genre accoutrements of nocturnal derring-do. But I haven’t got near to Christie’s closing line and she’s a writer, it should be said, who churned ‘em out. It’s not like I’m vainly comparing myself to Keats, forcryin’outloud.
A cursory skim through my recent work reveals that my descriptions of light fall into two key semantic fields:
1.       Light as liquid.
2.       Light as dairy products.
 When I write, light makes ‘pools’. It ‘splashes’ on steps. It ‘floods’ a tight passageway. It ‘washes’ or ‘paints’.  Thicken the liquid and you have unctuous, oozing light. Gluey, blurred stuff. Candles  cast light that ‘wobbles’ or ‘rolls’. Then, for a change, I’ll play around with verbs and turn them into adjectives so that ‘pooled light’ illuminates a desk, for example.
Basically, I buy in an ‘instant description of light – just add water and stir!’.
But it’s not always that way. Oh no, if I’m not doing that I’m taking the road less travelled my friends; the ‘light-as-cheese’ road. This description is reserved for natural moonlight I’ve noticed. The moon’s light is ‘creamy’, ‘pale’, ‘wan’. Thrown through a curtain at night, it often forms a ‘creamy wedge’, a description longing for a cracker or oatcake. It’s ‘pale milk’ sometimes, or even ‘wensleydale’. OK, I made that last one up, but you get the picture.
There's a mould here, and it needs breaking.
So; conclusions: light = atmosphere, atmosphere = mood, mood = tension, and that’s without even touching on its metaphorical potential. I need to work my way out of this familiar, cosy rut, and challenge myself a little next time a character enters a candle-lit room.
It’s all in the verbs, I think.
‘Investing’ was Christie’s verb – essentially, she's thinking about ‘dressing’ something in light.
Certainly beats cheese.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Cold Open

When I learnt this phrase, I was immediately intrigued by it. The cold open is the jargon TV guys use to describe the immediate immersion of the viewer in a short sequence of film that occurs pre-credits. Here's an example of a good one:
A cracker, no? A fabulous piece of writing – and Soderbergh’s framing of the scene, with the disembodied voices of the parole board emerging from the audience, is splendid.
It got me thinking about the virtues of the cold open in film versus the prologue in writing.
I’ve given this some thought – post-Christmas malaise does this to a guy – and it strikes me that the two aren’t as immediately comparable as you might think. Beyond the obvious; that cold opens belong to film because the medium uses opening credits in a way written narrative doesn’t, there are, it seems to me, at least two other clear distinguishing features.
Could it be that most cold opens more commonly operate within a conventional chronological timeline, for example? The Ocean’s Eleven clip features Danny Ocean’s release from prison, an event that is necessary to begin the rest of the story. Prologues, by nature, don’t do this because if they did – duh – they’d just be chapter one. Instead, writers tend towards a prologue that has a more tangential relationship with the rest of the plot; an event preceding the main plot by a number of years, for example, an action sequence lifted from the middle of a plot which allows the writer to employ flashback, or commonly the end of the story attached to the start.
And this raises, I think, another interesting difference between the cold open and the prologue. The cold open, certainly in this case, is designed to ally the watcher with the protagonist – “I like this guy; I’m on his side for the story to come” – often by pitting them against exaggerated stereotypes; the faceless authority figures off-screen in this case ("She already left me once - I don't think she'd do it again just for kicks"). In a prologue, on the other hand, does a writer have more freedom to confuse and challenge? To use a range of entirely unfamiliar and unexplained characters, events and locations? 
Maybe. A surfeit of turkey sandwiches might have addled my brain, but as I look again at the first couple of thousand words of my WIP (see ‘Lost Property’, below), I still don’t know whether what I’ve got there is a prologue, a cold open, or just... Chapter One.
I’ll post it next time, perhaps, and someone might be kind enough to tell me.