Friday, 27 September 2013

The Stranger in the Room

...a post that intially appeared on the magical Author Allsorts website, and reproduced here for your reading pleasure.

I once dedicated a lot of time – more than was sensible or healthy for a grown man – building an imaginary city called Highlions. I visited it almost every night for years, walking up and down its streets, constructing it as I went; dropping a great island into the middle of a river here, putting up a theatre there, adding a district up by the church, clearing sections, repopulating them, adding wells and squares, stitching in lawns and gardens and a street of fountains. In the end, I knew it really well. I could tell which neighbourhood I was in by the sound of the river or the quality of the street slang.

Then I learnt something. It’s one thing building the world – it’s quite another introducing it to a reader. With this big sandbox of tricks at the ready, the temptation is to throw your traveller right into the middle of it; start with a riot of sights, sounds, smells; open chapter one on the busiest street during a coronation, for example -  parades, crowds, sweat and bustle – a firework display of bold and brilliant world building.

Here’s the thing. I couldn’t get it to work. It was too much crazy in far too big a helping; overwhelming for anyone who read it. They’d say, “What’s this?” or “Why’s this happening? What does this word mean? Who’s this guy?”

So I started scaling back. Maybe not the parade, I thought. Let’s start with market day. It still sucked. Oooh Kay. Maybe a quiet street…

Eventually I ended up with a room. And then it suddenly started making sense. One boy wakes in a room with no recollection of how he got there. Now I could build slowly. Corridor, balcony, roof, cellar, each contributing to our growing sense of the world in which the action operates. In the finished version of the book, the first hustle-and-bustle street scene takes place in Chapter Six. The scene I once tried opening with is now Chapter Thirty One.

It was long after I’d gone through this torturous process that I saw others had tried and failed where I had. Chris Wooding, discussing the troubles he endured whilst writing his novel The Fade, comments; I only cracked it when I rewrote it so Orna starts the book in prison. That way, I got to show the reader a tiny space in the world, and gradually expand it through flashback.” As soon as I saw Wooding – a damn fine writer – confess to having to start small, I was suddenly struck by what I’ve called here the ‘stranger in the room’ device. I swear I’d never noticed it before, rookie idiot that I am.

And as is often the way with these things, once you see it once, it’s suddenly everywhere: if you’re a gamer, the room in question is often a prison cell – three epic fantasy games from The Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, all open with imprisoned characters before gradually introducing a new and unfamiliar world. So does Dishonored. Emma Pass does it beautifully in her wonderful dystopian debut Acid, and James Dashner, not to be outdone in the claustrophobia stakes, opens The Maze Runner in a lift. Atwood does it in The Handmaid’s Tale; Treasure Island does it; The Hobbit does it; The Count of Monte Cristo does it twice.

Makes me wonder how I never noticed, really.

So let’s imagine you’re a writer wanting to set a novel in a thrilling and original fantasy world. Not one that reshuffles a pack a familiar tropes; one that astonishes and delights with its freshness. One that lives and breathes and when struck with a tuning fork rings clear and true.

Go for it, brave writer. But start off with a stranger in a room, OK?

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Deep Sea Diving

Writing intensively for an hour or two is, on the surface of it, a little bit like suspending life. Your body temperature drops; your pulse slows. Peripheral concerns and worries rise up and away as you drop deeper. You don’t eat or drink. Communication with the outside world shuts down. Breathing changes. And writing with headphones on, as I do, is like a kind of additional sensory deprivation; you can’t hear the TV, the movement of people in the house, the kids in the street, the distant ice-cream van.

Coming back out of that intensive period of concentration is like surfacing again and dragging in a great ragged breath of air. It’s weirdly disorientating to realise that life has moved on; things have happened. I remember once as a kid, waking up and coming down the stairs at nine or ten at night and being shocked to see my parents still up, talking and watching TV. What – life goes on while I sleep? Incredible! All these years later, I still feel something close to that as I swim up to the land of the living after a couple of hours in the writing deeps.

Then there’s the challenge of shaking off one world and re-entering another. Rise too fast between them and you get the bends – you’re blood’s full of bubbles and you find you’ve brought up a whole host of stuff with you to the surface – it’s clinging to your wetsuit and struggling to breathe and the change in pressure makes it apt to explode. It can take an hour or more for the brain to realign and everything to seem normal again. Even then, you might still find a wriggling bit of fantasy lurking at the bottom of a drawer or in the pocket of your jacket.

Hilary Mantel confesses to worrying over this. “Is writing a way of living,” she asks, “or not living?” Is hour after hour of deep-sea diving a way of embracing life, or ultimately just a retreat from it?

I don’t know. But rather than fret about the state, let’s look at the process: wherever we go when we write, we spend our time there trying to bring other things to life.
Swapping a bit of ours for theirs, maybe.