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.