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...

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Mirror Trick

There’s an assumption, I think, that readers need to know what a character looks like in order to sympathise or connect with them.
They don’t.
We used to, back when we were kids. In fairy tales for example, where appearance was a marker for morality; we needed to know if the princess was a looker or the step-sister had a wart on her nose – after all, we were just little and it was our way of understanding who to root for and who to hate.
But now we’re grown ups, we recognise there isn’t a link. Beauty and the Beast taught us that. Who cares, we say, as long as they’re flawed and interesting.
Irritatingly though, plenty of writers still assume we’re desperate for an accurate picture. And this assumption leads to all manner of comic shenanigans as writers try and crowbar in descriptions of characters’ aspects, faces, clothes and demeanors where they just aren’t necessary.
Reflections of all types are usually the conveniently-engineered solution here. Shop windows work. Car windscreens. But there’s no need to push the creative boat out, people. Cut to the chase! The lousiest of all solutions is the character who simply looks in a mirror during an introspective moment and reports to us the reflection that they see, along the lines of “Amy studied herself in the mirror. A serious, heart-shaped visage met her gaze.”

It kills me. Why? Well, there’s two problems here. The first is that old show/tell chestnut. My first adjective above is qualitative, so I’m telling you what Amy is like rather than bothering showing you. And the mirror-trick description virtually always does this, whoever uses it.
Secondly, it’s worse when our seemingly impartial narrator clearly fancies the protagonist, or ascribes characteristics they think we will admire: “Amy studied herself in the mirror. Her dark eyes blazed, framed by a mane of wild red hair.” The problem with Amy’s blazing eyes – apart from my terrible writing – is that all I’ve done is given the impression of a shallow and self-centred catalogue model of a character whose eyes light up at the sight of... herself.  
Everyone in the world looks in a mirror self-consciously – but the mirror-trick doesn’t allow characters to do that. The result, for me, is to make each character who studies themselves in this way just that little less likeable. Stop staring at the damn mirror, I think, and do something.
There’s a number of guilty parties when it comes to the mirror-trick, but the winner has to be Dan Brown. In the opening chapters of The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon sits down in his hotel room and – you guessed it folks – studies himself in a mirror. The writer offers us this in his summary of the reflection. Langdon looks "like Harrison Ford in Harris tweed."
Brown must have been gutted when the director of the movie, clearly impressed by the quality of the characterisation in the novel, cast Tom Hanks in the lead role.