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!