Monday, 31 December 2007

Character and Conflict

Woohoo. Another year limps across the line, wheezing and broken. What have you done with me? Why are you leaving me? Don't leave me. We were friends.
Time to plan for the next. Hmmm ...
Hokay, I've been having a nose around the BBC and Channel4 submissions pages. Would very much like to share these top tips from Kay Mellor. In particular, I like her thoughts on conflict, and her references to the social worker.

*Make sure you know the world you are writing for. When I was first approached to write for Brookside I said no for five months until I was sure I could hear the Liverpudlian voices in my ears. If you are struggling to hear it, you are not ready to write it.

*Being a writer is the best job in the world but it is not easy. You must always be prepared to work hard and change things. I don’t find writing easy, I just work incredibly hard.

*Remember, the writer is God - it can be a complete power trip, but you must be proud to see your name in the credits and you need to work to earn this. Write who you want, where you want them and when – your job is to play with the characters and make them do and say what you want.

*You need to show that you are immersed in the world of the drama, in the characters. You must show a good sense of drama. You are either a dramatist or a social worker. If you are trying to fix tricky situations or solve confrontations then you are a social worker; a good dramatist will put things together to cause maximum drama, conflict and humour.

*I write down first of all what the central story is and then go back to add the detail around this. Working quickly can help make you concentrate on exactly what is the energy driving your story forward – the main drama. Always start with the building blocks before beginning to write the script. Follow the 3 act structure. Act 1 – establish what you’re going to do. Act 2 – how you are going to complicate this. Act 3 – the end, resolving it. This is the basic map of your drama. Also, you should always ask before you begin – what is my opening and what is my cliff-hanger? The opening has to be so dramatic that you keep your audience wanting to watch. This method can stop you meandering when you write and prevent big cuts at the end. It helps to have a map of where you are going - you choose the route - but you will need a map.

*The Greeks had it right in their storytelling: sunrise to sunset. The shorter the better. I like to compress time as much as possible and am always looking to do this – to tell a story over a day or a day and a night, rather than drag it out. The longer the time, the more problematic it can be.

*Make sure you know what your characters want from a scene - if they want the same thing then you don’t have a scene.

*Don’t be afraid to re-write, right up to the margin things can change if this makes the script better. You as writer are ultimately responsible for what goes on the screen, remember it is your name on the programme so if it can be better – change it.

*If you are writing for an established series, you need to be bold - to have a sense of ownership and authorship of the episode, to show your voice as a writer. Show originality and imagination in your episode - but don’t take it somewhere that makes it difficult for the next episode to be picked up.

*Never forget how smart your audience is – don’t underestimate their intelligence.

*As a writer and viewer I am greedy. I want to laugh, be moved and filled with a sense of anticipation. When I write, I write what I want to see.

*It’s very important for drama to be truthful and real.

*Use your acting skills, have empathy with your characters. Always put yourselves in the character’s position – don’t be the social worker.

*Comedy – don’t write gags. The comedy has to come from the characters.

*Make sure your script sparkles – remember you are working in a competitive market.

Other tips from the BBC's Writers' Room include some thoughts on characters:

*Involvement in a story depends on the characters through whom it is told. Whether the characters are heightened a lot or a little, they need to be recognisably human, behave in ways that people behave in life rather than in an artificial sitcom world, have personalities which will generate comic conflict and disagreement, and have tones of voice which are immediately and obviously theirs.

*When planning a new idea, the characters should come first and if they are the right characters they will arrive with their world attached. Don’t say: "Estate agents (or libraries, or dating agencies or undertakers) are funny, so I’ll set a comedy in that world and then people it."

*Think about the people first, give them histories, test them out in different situations where they are under pressure and see how they react, think about what makes them happy or scared or angry, write monologues for each character in that character's tone of voice, find ways of exploring them fully. Make the people authentic, put them in an authentic world and then find their comic tone.

*Your characters need to be strong, vivid and compelling. We need to want to spend time with them on their journey through your story. We need to care about them, engage with them and connect with them - particularly on an emotional level. We don't have to like them. But we do need to want to see what happens to them. So give them a journey. Give them a goal. Put obstacles in their way. Give them dilemmas to face and decisions to make. Make them an individual. Tell the story from their point of view. Make them drive the story forward from the very beginning rather than simply react to events around them.

Happy New Year to all the wonderful Maggot Farmers! Hope the new year brings you ever closer to success and fulfilment! And happiness.

More on characters and conflict:
And an interesting bit of musing from Maggie:

Saturday, 1 December 2007


I'm definitely a kinaesthetic writer. That's to say that, as another long and arduous editing session comes to an end, I find that I have a prediliction for descriptions of how my pov characters are feeling. They are cold or warm, or their nerves tingle, or their foot aches, or their eyes smart, etc.
So I've spent a little time googling for smells.

Here's a list of favourite smells. I've chosen this above many others because it contains all of the most popular smells that arose during my research. (I've italicised the most commonly cited faves.)

baking bread
blackberries cooking
blokes after they've been pumping iron
bonfire of leaves
clean laundry fresh from the washing line
cut grass
damask rose
earth after spring rain
fried onions
gorse on a hot Spring day
men's armpits (in China)
moss roses
new cars interior (leather upholstery)
newly hewn wood
newly mown hay
pineapple weed
rain on dust
spruce needles at Christmas
tarmac freshly laid
wax candles

Here's an exciting experiment:
Take any one scene that you have written, and insert one of the above smells.
Read it back and notice how the mood is affected.
Then repeat, inserting a different smell and observe the change.

Other popular smells include:

roasted/barbecued meat (and charcoal)
strong cheese
vinegar (red, cider, and white)

According to Eric Scheid:
'... Smells cause a greater visceral reaction, reaching deeper into the greymatter than sight or sound. Both sight and sound are so overloaded that we have evolved the ability to tune out a lot of noise and clutter. Its easier to provoke a response with a smell, assuming the scent is communicated.'

Here are some more cool lists:
World smells
Celestial Scentsations

Anyone have any favourite smells?
How about a list of unpleasant smells?

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Those Tiny Blue Veins You Get

Yes, to quote myself from a comment I posted on my son's self-portrait:

'Those little zigzaggy lines above his eyes are those tiny blue veins you get. A curious choice for inclusion, and a lovely detail. I've read many novels, and I can't think of a single character whose little blue veins were given mention.'

And here's a snippet from Anne Enright's Booker Prize-winning The Gathering:

He is not good-looking. His mouth is too squished and full; he is too soft and unformed. But there is nothing wrong with him. I look at his hands and they do not disgust me, and his eyelids, when he closes them, flickering, in order to make a point about buffed steel as opposed to chrome, have a faint pattern on them of medieval veins.

I would tell my son that he inspired a Man Booker winner, but it might make him vain.

Saturday, 17 November 2007


I guess I must have blogged on this topic a number of times before.
It's something on my mind at the moment.
As I continue with my life change, I look at the choices I face.
A stomach takes life upon me and I look at it and think 'No fair! Where did you come from?'
Fight or flight.
So I choose to fight and I have started swimming and doing a few stretches in the morning (and it's bloody cold!).
But I think this will not be enough and I may have to make another choice soon.
Everything comes at the expense of something else.
Every word we choose comes at the expense of some other word; every tangent we take comes at the expense of all other tangents. Writing is all about choices we make.
So unfortunately my blogging has suffered (my apologies to you all). But I am trying to balance everything, and it will all settle soon, I'm sure.
And, of course, lovely Mr Esy coaxed me into online dating, and more time is pooled from my life into avoiding 'bubbly' women, women who can't tell the difference between your and you're, and occasionally chatting with the more amicable types.

I devised a theory quite some time back. I am convinced that we are far more likely to move away from something bad than we are to move towards something good.
When my bosses chose to revoke the bonus scheme (for reasons that I'm sure were necessary for them), I found my bank account spluttering in a puddle of blood and bile.
Fight or flight. I fought, asked for a payrise, and was refused. So I fought again, and I hope to have found a new job elsewhere.

These are some of the choices I have made.
Robert McKee reckons that character is revealed by choices made under pressure.
Furthermore, if you look round some of the 'beginner's mistakes' webpages, you'll notice that one of the biggest newbie errors is the formation of protagonists who make no choices; rather, they are cast unwittingly from one event to the next - mere pawns in God's grand plan.

If I look through my ms, I see that I am guilty of this too.
Take the inciting incident: When the lighthouse breaks, what choice does Penpa have?
I've made her afraid of the outside world (and juxtaposed this against her loneliness).
She can stay where she is, and hope that the lighthouse fixes itself, or she can leave her comfort zone and try to save the world.
I'm not convinced it's much of a choice. However, by opening with a scene in which her fascination with the outside world changes from naive wonder to skeptical fear, I have at least made the choice more difficult.

But the crunch comes much later on.
She discovers that her world has been sacrificed for the greater good.
And she fights.
Hang on, I came up with a good line of dialogue for this moment ... let me dig it out ...
Oh yes: the antagonist says to her 'Does your conscience extend only as far as your eye?'
And this is the critical moment for her. She has thought no further than saving her own planet. Now she has to consider that there are countless other planets and lives, and that everything comes at the expense of something else.
Sure, this is my social commentary :o)
Anyhoo, having recognized this choice, I am now eager to compound it - to intensify it.
She sees death all around her, and I should take the mantle of responsibility away from the antagonist and throw it at her.
Currently, she argues with the antagonist until she gets her way. It's not that much of a deal though, for the antagonist had already sorted everything out, and was about to restore her life-giving energy anyway.
So I will string this out. He will need longer, and life will drain all about her, and she will need to make this terrible decision - she will condemn her friends to death, or she will allow entire galaxies to die. What a choice!
It's akin to: Your child dies, or a faceless city of people you've never met and never will meet dies, but on a much grander scale.

(NB In book two, she must choose between her own life and the lives of others.)

Finally, whilst we're on this topic, it's worth noting that the most common question that I ask myself as I edit my ms is this:
Does any given passage move the story along?
Using this question, I have been able to remove paragraphs that have only a tiny importance, emphasize scenes that have a vital importance, and ensure that the reader is thrust breathlessly and effortlessly from scene to scene.

And now I face another choice:
Do I crack on with the edit, or do I tidy the house?

Would you eat this? How hard is the choice? What do you win, and what do you lose?

I'm a Celebrity ...

Monday, 12 November 2007

The Show Must Go On

It has been one of the great unexplained mysteries of writing to me.
Show, don't tell, they say, but they never say why.
Nobody ever says why. Like adverbs and clichés. They're just bad and that's all there is to it (even if loads of great and/or popular authors persist in using them).
So it's with some reluctance and a murmuring heart that I tread on the great unwashed toes of this holiest of writers' maxims. I will retain an open-mind and a willingness to come down on either side of the fence.
(NB I've been working on this draft for two months!)

The first, and most obvious, problem with the 'tell' is that it leaves (or, at least, creates the impression of leaving) a non-omniscient pov.
She stood before the wooden bridge. It was rickety.
How does she know the bridge is rickety?
What does she see or hear or feel that allows her to reach this conclusion?
So a 'tell' is more likely to work in an omniscient pov; a 'tell' is a rough and ready shortcut. (Or, in ricardo's words, the 'tell' is vanilla.)

Now let's think back to the poppet.
We have demonstrated on many occasions and with much ease that the reader searches for a best-match response - a personal response to the words we write and the concepts they create.

We can never know how a reader might react to our words.

If I write 'she smelled of summer', the reader concocts his very own, personal, unique interpretation of that smell.
(See preconceptions.)
Every reader interprets our writing in a different way.
Every reader's experience is different.

So this idea of shepherding a reader along an emotional topography must be flawed then Solvey?
Not a bit of it!
If we work with the human condition, we can be sure to create a shared response - a response that is as close to universal as possible.
If we mention love or hate or anger or despair or ecstasy, we're sure to elicit some form of general response.
(NB I recently read an article on Hitchcock. Apparently, he was quick to point out that he was not a director of movies - he was a director of audiences.)

This is where I got a bit stuck until I found an article on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP):
- - -
All of our thoughts, emotions, memories and imaginings are made from pictures, sounds and sensations. The differences between our common experiences come from the myriad sequences and placings we can make with sounds and pictures and sensations and in the choice of subject matter that attracts our attention.
- - -

We use the word resonance rather a lot.
When I read of a tragic love affair, I want it to create within in me the emotional journey of that tragic love affair. The author should allow me to find these emotions within myself. This is my journey - me, me, me - I, I, I - I have been in love and I have known tragedy; the author should allow me to find my own resonance.

Here, we can see how a 'show' taps into our emotions at a deeper level.
Whereas the 'tell' goes for the end product, the 'show' constructs responses from carefully selected and arranged sensory inputs. (In her book The Emotional Hostage, Leslie Cameron-Bandler details her model of the structure of emotions, listing seven changeable parts to any emotion [more on this once I've read the book].)
In this way, not only are an impressive and vast array of subtle emotional variations and hybrids available to us, we are also working deep inside the reader, which is where we are going to move them.

Now this is interesting:
In this extract from an article on Language and Emotion, we can imagine the origins of our interpretations:
- - -
Language, Emotion and Memory. Both in the psychoanalytic literature (writings of Freud and his followers) and in sociolinguistics there is mention of the necessity or efficacity of reaching the language of earliest memory (for the Freudians) or the `basilect' (the individual's basic, unvarnished, unmonitored language/dialect). For the psychoanalysts, the point is to uncover the traumatic memory, which may be associated with (`coded' in) the patient's first language, in cases where a language other than the one currently dominant was used in childhood.
For the Labovians, asking a subject to recount a moment when they thought they were close to death tends to evoke the emotions associated with that memory, which shuts down the monitoring of their own speech so that the basic, unalloyed, unmonitored (casual, colloquial etc.) version of their idiolect emerges for observation.
[Source here.]
- - -

I have many more thoughts on this topic.
Moreover, by revisiting the idea of 'showing', I will be able to distil this rather unsteady post into an essence.
For now, my interim conclusion is that the 'show' remains in pov, allows for the invocation of specific and subtle responses, and flowers deep inside the reader; the 'tell' is emotionally less engaging, but gets to the point quickly.

Any thoughts or observations are welcome!

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Which Hunt

I'm never sure whether to use which or that.
It's almost Halloween, so d'you fancy coming on a which hunt with me?

It's actually rather complicated (to my inferior mind), and I'll try to simplify as much as is humanly possible.
So here's the deal:

The problem I have with which and that comes from my use of relative pronouns.
Relative pronouns refer back to people or things previously mentioned:

People who wee should use the toilet.

Okay, fine so far. If we're discussing people in this manner, we use who.
Who is the relative pronoun: it refers back to people.

But what about non-people things?

We use THAT to introduce an ESSENTIAL clause.
We use WHICH to introduce a NON-ESSENTIAL clause.

Sorry? What is a clause?
Well, a clause is a group of words containing a subject and a verb.

And essential and non-essential clauses?
There are several ways of identifying such clauses:

The simplest test is this:
Remember how we can partition off non-essential stuff with commas?

The bathroom, which had blue tiles, was down the hall.

Yes, it's that simple! By placing a chunk of your sentence between commas, that chunk is non-essential: you could take it out and the sentence would still work fine. Take a look:

The bathroom was down the hall.

See, it still holds water (pun intended)!
In that example, 'which had blue tiles' is called an adjective clause. Like many adjectives, we can lose them without harming the reader's understanding. Non-essential, see!

* So, if we place a clause between commas, it is NON-ESSENTIAL and we use WHICH.

Now, what if there were loads of bathrooms in the house?

Imagine that:
the bathroom with blue tiles is down the hall;
the bathroom with red tiles is upstairs;
the bathroom with yellow tiles is in the cellar.
Sure is a queer house!

Ah, well now the adjectives are important aren't they!
The adjectives are now essential because they alter the reader's understanding: I could send the reader down the hall to the bathroom with blue tiles, or maybe upstairs to the bathroom with red tiles.
What do we do with essential clauses? We forgo the commas and we use THAT:

The bathroom that had blue tiles was down the hall.
The bathroom that had red tiles was upstairs.

* If we alter the meaning with a clause, the clause is ESSENTIAL and we use THAT.

And finally:
If we use this, that, these, or those to introduce an essential clause, we always introduce the next clause with which.
So, if we open with THAT, we move on to WHICH.

That is a problem which has now been resolved!

Same goes for THIS, THESE and THOSE.

Here's a basic summary:

*People use WHO.
*Essential things (stuff that is required for the sentence to make accurate sense) use THAT.
*Non-essential things (stuff that could be removed, or sits between commas) use WHICH.
*When introducing with THIS, THAT, THESE or THOSE, we move on to WHICH.

Now take this test.
Forget what you thought you knew, stick with what I've just explained, and you'll score full marks.

Feeling brave?
Then take this grammar test.
I scored 40 out of 50, WHICH means THAT I will continue to learn and to blog!

Here's why I have devoted my Saturday morning to this research:

As it [the tunnel] twisted off into the musty distance, stone pillars tapered into towering arches high above which contorted into wide and improbable vaulted ceilings.

The relative pronoun refers back to the towering arches. It leads to information that is non-essential: the vaulted ceilings apply to all of the towering arches and could easily be removed without harming the reader's understanding, just like the bathroom which had blue tiles. Phew.

There are detailed rules here:
Get it Write
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Friday, 19 October 2007


There seems to be a lot of confusion about the ordering of time within a narrative.
What is the purpose of a flashback?
Why might I open in 1964 and then move to 1946, or why might I do the reverse?
Ricardo's fascinating examination Of Sarah Waters' The Night Watch is well worth a read.

Let's evaluate this dilemma using the following criteria:

What does the reader know?
What do the characters know?
What should the reader feel (position on emotional topography)?

And here's a really simple example:

John and Jane are getting it on.
John says he loves Jane.
Jane says she loves John.
The reader is invited to share their intimacy and feel good about life.
Afterwards, John leaves and chuckles to himself: he has some horrendous STD.

Now let's reorder this information and see its effect:

John has a horrendous STD.
He and Jane are getting it on.
The reader is invited to feel horrified! John is a bad man! Poor Jane.
John says he loves Jane. (See how this action is utterly transformed.)
Jane says she loves John.

The permutations are endless.
What would happen if John didn't say he loved Jane?
What if the reader knows that Jane too has a STD first? Or last? Or what if Jane knows that John has a STD?
And so on.

Quentin Tarantino, as far as I can tell, orders knowledge and arranges the emotional topography to achieve a very specific response from the audience.
Take the introduction to Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield:

1) They are driving in a '74 Chevy.
2) They are dressed in cheap black suits.
3) They discuss hash bars in Amsterdam.
4) They discuss the 'little differences' between Europe and America (the famous Royale with cheese!).
5) They stop, open the trunk, and take out two .45 automatics.

The audience is invited to join in with this familiarity: a world of beer and burgers and little differences and cheap suits. The audience feels comfortable with these two men.

The audience is jolted from their familiarity and led into anticipation with the introduction of the weapons, and the men's familiarity, indeed nonchalence, around them.
How would the audience have felt had the guns been introduced first?

Well, we have actually seen these two men in the diner in the opening (and preceding) scene.
But Quentin doesn't want to introduce us to them there: they are dressed in horrible shirts and have guns and a briefcase containing some valuable cargo.
Quentin wants us to empathize with these men first.
And then he wants us to be terrified of them - of what they can and might do.

It's not such a conundrum: knowledge and emotional response dictate the ordering of scenes.
If the desired response requires a little time-bending, then the reader will be cool with that convention.

Pulp Fiction script here.

Clinical Relief with Poles

Could it be that this is the final push?
I'm hitting Tethered Light again, and hitting it hard. These short breaks are truly beneficial: reading through my opening chapters yesterday, they felt new and alive, as though they had been written by someone else.
So, what did I discover?
Technically, they are as tight as the skin on a snare drum.
(You're gonna love this link!)
I was listening to the latest Rush album the other day. Neil Peart is surely one of the most technically accomplished drummers of all time.
He opens one track solo, buzzing one-handed on the snare (and it's not a regular buzz either - think of a military snare pattern), whilst dancing around the toms with his other hand. Bloody hell! To a drummer, there is a magic in those opening few seconds.
But to listen to it beyond that perception, it is little more than a barren introduction to a piece of music. In short, it's not very exciting and is rather exclusive.

I found that I could quickly identify those moments in my opening where I have been a little too clinical: I recognized them because they felt the wrong side of sterile.
I fixed them by hitting the reader's senses. My opening gambit was devoid of sounds, and the introduction of a single line refreshed the magic:

Silence fell from the heavens, dusting the crests and the valley - a silence tempered now and then only by the shrill and distant chatter of emerald-crowned hummingbirds.

Of course, once I had identified the missing element, I still had to define it.
The words distant and only reinforces Penpa's alienation; emerald-crowned adds to that rich and majestic theme of royalty; dusting mimicks the cold snow. I chose hummingbirds because they are the smallest birds, and because they have an exotic quality. I made them plural because they are not alone - they have the family that Penpa so craves (aw, poor Blinky doesn't quite cut it for her, not least because, while the hummingbirds chatter, any conversation between P&B will be one-sided).
Emerald-crowned hummingbirds do not exist in our world. Ten minutes research led me to the ruby-throated hummingbird, and everything clicked.
And, of course, I am quick to remind the reader that everything is important to and loved by God: He watches and presides from the heavens.

So there we see the trouble that sometimes accompanies clinical writing, and we can compare this to the multiple troubles that always accompany inconsidered or poorly understood writing.

Jackson Pollock remedied the ailment of clinical precision by magnifying the element of chance. This seems a terrific solution: as you can see, even when I recognize a sterility, I am still prone to analyzing its solution.

Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles Number 11

I've been looking for a new technique to experiment with for a while now. The word palettes idea does conjur some words within a theme that one might not have ordinarily considered, and goes some way to adding that random factor (still controlled of course: certainly Pollock chose to splatter paint on canvas).

I shall consider new techniques and would welcome any suggestions:

How might we take ourselves away from all that we have learned and retrieve that naivety that might warm a mood and make it more friendly and less oppressive?
(Indeed, might a randomness or a naivety do this? Am I pointing at recreational drugs here? Crikey, that's an interesting parallel [and one that I will not be exploring]).

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The Passive Volcano

Here's a snippet from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano:

'Joffrey' became 'The Old Bean'. Laruelle mere, to whom, however, he was 'that beautiful English young poet', liked him too. Taskerson mere had taken a fancy to the French boy: the upshot was Jacques was asked to spend September in England with the Taskersons, where Geoffrey would be staying till the commencement of his school term. Jacque's father, who planned sending him to an English school till he was eighteen, consented. Particularly he admired the erect manly carriage of the Taskersons... And that was how M. Laruelle came to Leasowe.

Michael Schmidt's introduction to the book begins thus:

'The novel gets off to a slow start,' Malcolm Lowry concedes. Is this indeed 'inevitable' and 'necessary'? Many readers find it hard to break into Under the Volcano ...
... After three false starts I first read the book when I was twenty-two ...

It really is an impossible book to read. Indeed, one gets the impression that the proof-readers felt that way too as there are spelling mistakes on every third or fourth page.
It's not too difficult to demonstrate why the book is such a slog: Lowry shuns the basic building blocks of good writing.

We've looked at a cool technique for creating confusion in the reader: by rapidly switching subject and object within a long and breathless sentence, we create an effect rather like a spinning pov. This is brilliant for developing that sense of giddyness that we might require in a fight scene or a chase scene.
But Lowry scarcely lets up. I've found myself reading the same passage several times, each time wondering who this 'he' is or that 'we'.

Right-branching sentences form an active voice and that is how we logically think. First to last.
Who are we looking at?
What are they doing?
Who or what are they doing it to (if applicable)?

Alan shot the deer.
(Btw, a verb that does something to something else, like shoot, is called a transitive verb, which is indicated in a dictionary by v.t.)

Reversing this order forms a passive voice which requires the reader to think backwards:

The deer was shot by Alan.

You don't need to stretch your imagination to see how this might damage one's immersion in the narrative.

In a similar way, we can consider Sunset Bickham's advice on moving the story forwards.
Point the reader in the right direction from the off, he says.
So, elegant prose leads the reader by the hand; it does not stumble or falter or require of the reader an athletic brain that might deal with all manner of direction changes or focus changes. It has a clear heading and imperceptible transitions.

There's a lot of good, sound, building block advice here.

Monday, 8 October 2007


Came upon this interesting phenomenon:

fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can. i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

It strikes me that much of this is not about reading words but about anticipating the next word, or even the conclusion of a sentence. The unscrambling process would likely be far more difficult if words were removed from context.

(Btw, note that not all the words above retain their first and last letters in position. Btwbtw, Gegs is a classic cryptic crossword clue.)

Monday, 1 October 2007

The Poppet

Apparently, that's what those voodoo dolls are called: poppets.
Y'see, nobody cares about those poppets when the pins go in: instead, we focus on the 'real-life' person whom the poppet represents:
When that child Maharaja impales the Indiana Jones-shaped poppet, we worry about Indy and not the poppet.
Or do we?

Does the reader truly care about our protagonist, or does he care for himself - how he felt when he was scared, not how the protag feels when she is scared?
If I do terrible things to my protag, what have I really done? Have I not simply used the protag as a vessel to translate that emotion across to the reader? Have I not simply used the protag as a vehicle for triggering a particular memory or expectation based on experience within the reader?

How am I supposed to feel about this line from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God?:
'Dat school teacher had done hid her in de woods all night long, and he had done raped mah baby and run off just before day.'

Who do I empathize with, and how? Who should I extend my sympathies to?:
The poor mother of the rape victim?
The daughter (some minor character about whom I know next to nothing)?
The narrator who is recalling this conversation?
And then, how could I know what it would be like to be the mother, or even parent, of a rape victim? Or how could I know what that victim must feel like, or how the narrator might feel in relating these memories?

Then, my powers of empathy are everything?
The author imparts information and I apply that information to something I know from my own experience. I would imagine something horrible happening to someone I love - someone to whom I have a duty of care - and conjur that emotion and translate it across to the poppet - the receptacle of my emotions.
I imagine a response based on my own experiences of the world and of my perception of the responses of others, and I find the closest emotional match within myself.

So the author has invited me to experience a best-fit emotion. And when I can find close matches within myself, I feel a resonance. Indeed, Zadie Smith says of Their Eyes Were Watching God: 'There is no novel I love more.'
How does the author ensure that I experience this emotion deeply?
Or, what might prevent me from experiencing this emotion deeply (or at all)?
I would hardly empathize with a poppet: I would no more empathize with a poppet than I would with a sheet of paper.
But I would empathize with another person.
In the cocoon of a novel, I might allow myself to believe that the poppet is/was real (it's suspension of disbelief y'know) - provided that the author encourages this belief and/or does nothing to damage it.
Perhaps it is true to say that the more 'real' the character seems, the more likely I am to seek that resonance - that match. And the more I resonate with this character, the greater my emotional response.
Therein we might see the true power of familiarity: we cry not for the protagonist but for ourselves.

Thoughts ongoing.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Word Palettes

Hokey Dokey. Here's the article as I sent it to Zette.
It will be interesting to see if it undergoes any form of editing between now and publication.


He cut sharply across the path and trampled on the blades of grass.

Coming to literature from an artistic background, I discovered all manner of wonderful and practical parallels, the most powerful of which is the word palette, or theme set. An artist defines a palette of colours designed to create a particular mood; to elicit and enhance an emotional state. She might consider warm and cool colours, earth colours, colour harmony, colour context, or even colour symbolism.
For the author, this is one of the greatest of skills: to shepherd the reader across a carefully controlled, undulating emotional topography; to guide the reader from one emotional state to the next.

On our shared blog, my young son explained how he created one of his drawings:
'About the coulers I tri to youes evry colur ones.' (About the colours, I try to use every colour once.)
What we find with experience, however, is, as T.S. Eliot contended:
'When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost - and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.'

We can use words as the artist uses colours, or as the composer uses keys and ideé fixes. If, for example, our protagonist is walking into peril, we can mix threat upon our palette. Tower blocks might skewer the sky, and cyclists carve through the traffic.
In each word, we find an opportunity to heighten the reader's emotional state.
Similes and metaphors provide ideal opportunities for tapping into those private domains of the reader's mind. Maybe the rain fell like an angel's love; maybe it fell like poison-tipped daggers. And, should we forsake descriptions in order to, say, raise the pace, we can focus our attention on our verbs and nouns (and even assign a fresh and valuable intent to adverbs), and our protagonist CUT SHARPLY across the path and trampled on the BLADES of grass.

Brains like patterns and repetition. They pick them out and endeavour to make sense of them, even if they do not tell us that they are doing so.
Hemingway (influenced by Stein) was most fond of repeating key words, raising motifs to the fore, ensuring that what was important would be inescapable, guiding the reader with a parental hand.
In using word palettes, not only can we heighten and crystallize an emotional state through this form of subliminal impressioning, we can create anticipation too: we can encourage the reader to understand something without realizing how he has attained this understanding (not unlike a phantom pov in which an eerie and mysterious knowledge is imparted). Indeed, most authors (if not all) already consciously use non-verbal communication as a means of forging an understanding (through a 'show'): Adam smiled; Brenda dressed like Cassandra; Dennis took a step back; Ellie clapped her hands together; Flora stood close to Graham.
(I'll bet your brain deciphered my cunning alphabetical code there!)

One of the most beneficial side-effects of this technique is that it encourages us to, as Eliot attests, create more inventive prose, exploring unusual avenues and seeing our scene from a different angle. A chapter that, for some unfathomable reason, fails to hit the mark can be transformed:
* Choose the palette (describe the limitations, typically based on the desired location on the emotional topography).
* Create a themed list of related words.
* Swap in those words where the narrative is receptive.
The surface meaning remains unchanged and is suffused with an invisible duality. Double the power.
When the narrative begins to flow on two levels, it is not uncommon to hear the reader exclaim:
'It made me feel [insert emotion here], and I don't know why!' Indeed, it is not the reader's job to know why. It is ours.

He cut sharply across the path and tiptoed about the blades of grass.

I suspect that there is much room for experimentation with word palettes. I have noticed that Zadie Smith uses tiny, contained pockets of such theme sets; Vladimir Nabokov was rather more liberal with his. Smith’s are playful; Nabokov’s are disturbing.
What would happen if, for example, we painted a scene of hatred with a palette of love? Or if we infused a barren, nihilistic scene, superficially devoid of meaning, with many meaningful theme sets?
The thought of such permutations and opportunities for juxtaposition and concealed markers and cross-pollination are very exciting! To what extent might we translate colour theory to literature?

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Food for Thought

Faced with a total rewrite of the third and fourth chapters of Tethered Light, I've taken some time out to write articles and short-stories (and remind myself how much fun this writing malarky can be!).
I think you might agree that one of the most deadly of viruses that a writer can contract is lack of confidence (lack of self-belief).
So it was a fine boost when I checked my emails yesterday and discovered that my article on word palettes is to be published in the Nov/Dec edition of Zette's Vision.
What's doubly exciting is that I will be paid for the article!
Hey, it'll just about be enough for a mixed kebab, but boy will that kebab taste good. To think that I strung a few words together and now they have turned into dosh - well, it's a wonderful motivation.

I've discovered a whole world of e-zines that pay for flash fiction, short-stories and poetry. Each one offers enough of a brief to help focus one's attention, and enough clout to warrant inclusion in one's cv. But most importantly, those emails that begin with the words 'I liked your ...' are worth 1000 kebabs.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Ha Ha

The chap behind me on the bus this morning retold a joke that he had heard on tv last night. Now, I heard the joke last night and laughed. Somehow, when this fellow told it to his partner, he managed to suck every ounce of life from it. Perhaps it was his ploddy, precise paraphrasing and emotionless delivery that killed it. Anyway, she didn't laugh and it transpired that this guy was a lecturer.

A couple of our regular maggoty chums are not in the best of health at the moment.
So here's the world's funniest joke for you guys, the winner of Richard Wiseman's experiment.
The joke is credited to Spike Milligan.

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now what?

Immanuel Kant suggested that 'Laughter is an effect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing.'
Which is why we laugh when that old woman falls into the river and, rather than drowning, bobs to the surface with a horrified look on her face.
And which is why we might find this amusing.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Oelze and Roy

A chance purchase from The Works has returned to me two paintings that have haunted my derelict head for years.
My son was looking for puzzle books, and I wandered across to the art section and found a book on Surrealism.
Anyhoo, this first image is called Expectation. I tried googling for it a while back, but could never remember the artist's name. Richard Oelze! (A German artist, his wikipedia page is in German. Anybody fancy translating it ..?)
Expectation was painted in 1936 and reflected the collective concerns about the impending horror of Nazi oppression.
Oelze worked with the themes of dreams and premonitions.

This second piece, Electrification of the Country, was painted by Pierre Roy.
Roy liked to place recognizable items within unfamiliar spaces. In this painting, Roy alludes to a childhood fascination for 'found' materials. Poor Pierre doesn't have a wikipedia page.
I wonder how many teenage boys have ever photocopied Pierre Roy's Electrification of the Country from a library book and then stuck the photocopy on their bedroom door.

Btw, good luck to my son who attends his first chess club meeting this afternoon! He's very excited.

Monday, 10 September 2007

The Golden Eyes Have it

A couple of observations have made me curious about our perception of other people.
During a typical commute, people retreat to the safe bubble. They might read a book or listen to their personal music device, or hide themselves behind the person on the other end of their mobile -
An anti-community of individual spaces.
It's rare that eye contact is made between these strangers.
(This morning I watched as a young man approached a middle-aged woman and asked her for a light. They made no eye contact and made no attempt to smile. It was a perfunctory and soulless encounter.)
So when I smiled and asked the person beside me to excuse me as I stood to alight, her eye contact with me kinda made me think.
In that moment, I saw only her eyes and whatever I discerned from them (windows to the soul eh? Hard to find the origin of that phrase - seems to be a mid c16th proverb). I was aware of her mouth too, but the eyes caught me and in that moment I felt something personal.
The next day, perusing my digital music catalogue, I became aware of the sheer numbers of songs about eyes.
There's two on the Boards of Canada album Campfire Headphase: Oscar See Through Red Eye, and Tears From the Compound Eye.
I won't list them all; suffice to say that you can test this yourselves.
Think back through all the character descriptions you've ever read. I'll bet that eyes figure as the most popular, most oft mentioned feature.
It's kinda weird to think that who we are is peeking through holes in a skull, transported around on this tangle of legs and arms and bits and bobs of flesh and bone and slushy organs.

'... peering into someone else's eyes is not unlike seeing into the brain itself.'
[Source: here.]

I'd guess that part of the attraction of eyes is proximity: in their way, eyes are symbolic of closeness and connection, and even intimacy. I can see you in there. Hello.
(N.B. You ever checked out the eye theme in Bladerunner?)
We see somebody from afar and we take in their movement - the way they carry themself.
That's the first impression and we subconsciously read so much into it.
But we miss out on this perception when a person is close to us.
So, whilst we might find a power in introducing a person through their movement, there is a second, more intimate power in focusing on their eyes. The movement offers a unique fingerprint of that person's inner self. The eyes, likely generic affairs, provide a universal bond - a personal empathy.

André Breton, father of the Surrealist movement, said 'the eye exists in its savage state.'
His movement exposed the subconscious - the imagination - and presented the emotional and psychological truth behind the perceived.

Apparently, the human face is based entirely on phi.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Alien Topography and Prophetic Misdirection

It's one of the all-time classics. I even scrutinized it in film studies (primarily focusing on the subliminal content).
Fancy taking a look at the chest-bursting scene with me? We'll have a look at how the scene is edited to achieve maximum emotional impact. And I've taken screen grabs to provide you with a visual representation of the emotional topography. (Just compare image one to image three and you'll understand what I mean :o)


KANE: First thing I'm going to do when we get back is eat some decent food.

Here, the emotional topography registers: HAPPY.
The crew are laughing and joking.

The horror genre knows well the art of misdirection.
The viewer is invited to believe that recent grim events are in the past, and the future looks rosy. Kane's expectation for a good meal on his return to Earth is a form of prophetic misdirection. We've looked at this quite a bit. The technique is used an awful lot in movies and literature. This technique was key to my two short stories, and I use it liberally in my novels.
At this point, the scene is building a sense of security, piling on the familiar, surrounding us with friends, titillating our tastebuds, inviting us to feel good about life and about the future.
Because the higher you climb, the further you fall.
And this is contrast.
Compare the effects of holding a dark grey sheet of card up against a black sheet with the effects of holding a white sheet of card up against a black sheet.
Sure, there are times when we want a subtle topography. But I daresay that the audience will remember us more for our ability to create maximum emotional impact through maximum contrast.
Build up; destroy.
So, ready to be destroyed ..?

Now the emotional topography registers: SHOCK.
We get shock from black on white. (Consider, too, the idea of a reveal defined by knowledge and ignorance.)
If Kane had been complaining of chest pains from the moment he awoke, the shock would have been diluted, even nullified.
Instead, the chest pains are introduced only once he is very happy and imagining a future with good food, and only as a very brief precursor to the alien's entrance.

We've also discussed at some length the concept of rapidly switching focus as a means of instilling discomfort and confusion; of removing those crutches that provide the audience with stability, and leaving them to flounder and totter on quivering legs.
This frame is the visual epitome of this concept. What a brilliant moment!
Here, the emotional topography registers: CONFUSION (or What the f***?).
It is the crew's reaction to the event. Chaos, panic, all crutches and focus are removed. Check out the removal of bonding as the crew members have gone from sharing a meal and a laugh to looking in different directions, moving in different ways. Fantastic.

There's an interesting paragraph on editing techniques on wikipedia.

All images copyrighted.
Alien script here.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Giant Clank

Peer Gynt

One hundred years ago yesterday, Edvard Grieg died.
He's probably best known for his Piano Concerto in A minor, and for his musical score for Ibsen's Peer Gynt. And, as many of you folks know, I have a special fondess for that wonderful creation that arose from the combined genius of Ibsen (words), Grieg (music) and Munch (yes, he of The Scream, who designed the posters!). Can you imagine the thrill of such a potent force!

I saw Simon Callow as the eponymous anti-hero in a production of Peer Gynt about nine years back. It was tremendous, and was the inspiration for my pen-name (the variably spelt Solvejg/Solveig [in the guide, the spelling was with the 'j']).

By all accounts, neither Ibsen nor Grieg were happy with the results of their collaboration.
In a letter to his friend Frants Beyer, Grieg wrote:
And then I have produced something for the "Hall of the mountain king", which I literally cannot stand to listen to, it rings so of cow dung, of Norwegian-Norwegian-ness, and to thyself be enough-ness! [Source here.]
Ibsen himself had much to say about Grieg's interpretation of Morning Mood. Indeed, for many, the piece has come to evoke images of rolling, green hills and corpulent trees, whereas it was intended to evoke the atmosphere of a palm grove on the coast of Morocco.

I'd like to share this transcript of the letter that started it all: it is the letter that Ibsen wrote to Grieg, inviting him to collaborate on Peer Gynt. You can read more on It gives me goosebumps each time I read it.

- - -

Dear Mr. Grieg,

My object in writing to you is to ask if you would care to co-operate with me in a certain undertaking.
I am thinking of adapting Peer Gynt - of which the third printing is soon to appear - for the stage. Will you compose the music that will be required? Let me indicate briefly how I think of arranging the play.
The first act is to be retained in full, with only a few cuts in the dialogue. Peer Gynt´s monologue [scene 2] I wish to have treated either as melodrama or in part as recitative. The wedding scene [scene 3] must be built up by means of a ballet into something more than is in the book. For this a special dance melody will have to be composed, which would be continued softly to the end of the act.
In the second act, the musical treatment of the scene with the three cowherd girls [scene 3] must be left to the discretion of the composer - but there must be lots of deviltry in it! The monologue [in scene 4] should, I think, be accompanied by chords, in melodramatic style, as also the scene between Peer and the Woman in Green [scene 5]. There must also be some kind of musical accompaniment to the scene in the Hall of the Mountain King; here, however, the speeches are to be considerably shortened. The scene with the Boyg, which is to be given in full, must also be accompanied by music. The Bird Cries are to be sung; the bell ringing and the psalm singing should be heard in the distance.
In the third act I need chords, but not many, for the scene between Peer, the Woman, and the Ugly Brat [scene 3], and I imagine that a soft accompaniment would be appropriate [for Aase´s death].
Almost the whole of the fourth act will be omitted in performance. In place of it I think there should be a large-scale musical tone picture, suggesting Peer Gynt´s wandering all over the world. American, English, and French airs might be used as alternating themes, swelling and fading. The chorus of Anitra and the Girls [scene 6] should be heard behind the curtain, jointly with the orchestra. During this music, the curtain will be raised, and the audience will see, like a distant dream picture, Solveig, now a middle-aged woman, sitting in the sunshine singing outside her house [scene 10]. After her song, the curtain will be slowly lowered again while the music continues, but changing into a suggestion of the storm at sea with which the fifth act opens.
The fifth act, which in performance will be called the fourth act or the epilogue, must be considerably shortened. A musical accompaniment is needed [for the scene with the Stranger]. The scenes on the capsized boat and in the churchyard will be omitted. [At the end of scene 5] Solveig will sing, with the music continuing afterward to accompany Peer Gynt´s speeches and changing into that required for the choruses [in scene 6]. The scenes with the Button-molder and the Old Man of the Dovre will be shortened. [At the end of scene 10] the people on their way to church will sing on the path through the forest. Then bell ringing and distant psalm singing should be suggested by the music that follows and continues until Solveig´s song ends the play. And while the curtain is falling, the psalm singing will be heard again, nearer and louder.
That is approximately the way I have imagined it. Will you let me know if you are willing to undertake the job? If I receive a favorable answer from you, I shall at once write to the management of the Christiania Theater, sending along the revised and abridged text, and making certain, before we go any further, that the play will be performed. I intend to ask 400 specie-dollars for it, to be divided equally between us. I am certain that we may also count upon the play being produced in Copenhagen and Stockholm. But I shall be obliged if you will keep the matter a secret for the present. May I please hear from you as soon as possible.

Friday, 31 August 2007

Queue 2

Okay, hands up, it's a fair cop guv'nor: I watched EastEnders this evening.
Been thinking long and pericardially about the previous post. Have some tenuous conclusions which need refining, but for now here's an absolutely superb scene from EastEnders. Crumbs, that just sounds so wrong. I might get some character names muddled, and I might just invent some if I get stuck. If you're waiting for Sunday's Omnibus extravaganza, I offer you a spoiler alert, and my sympathy.

Phil Daniels has gotten hold of a stolen security videotape. It's wound to the end. Kind of like a cross between Memento and Quadrophenia. He's astonished to discover that the videotape has captured Patrick's attack - there is poor Patrick lying in his brains and blood. Well, not brains. So Phil Daniels starts to rewind the tape. Events unfold in reverse as we move back in time towards the attack and, presumably, a clear picture of the attacker. Ooh, now that's good suspense.
Meanwhile, Lucy sneaks out the house to go meet her boyfriend. I don't know if we were told that she was off to meet her boyfriend or if I just guessed that. See I was only half-watching and perked up when I saw this scene developing.
Phil Daniels rewinds a little further and Lucy arrives at her rendezvous.
Then we see the attacker. Then we see that Lucy has met with her boyfriend - the attacker!

So we can see that the reveal is left right until the end. Which is a parallel to option TWO in the previous post.
We also have the suspense in the shape of the rewinding of the tape. Rather like option ONE where the reader is darned sure that the couple are heading into trouble.

So, to get the most out of the car crash/you're having an affair scene, we would keep the reveal to the end, AND ensure that the speeding is given lethal intent from the start. Therefore, it should open with a line that clearly attaches suspense to the speeding without giving away the driver's knowledge of the affair. The new opening might read thus:

Bill ran the red light, tyres screeching as he attacked the bend. It was time to end it all.

The anticipation strand is obvious in both the car crash scene and in the EastEnders scene.
What is perhaps less obvious is the effect of holding the reveal 'til the last possible moment.
You can ponder upon that and I'll return very soon.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007


Ricardo's recent dilemma set the ol' grey cells a-curdling.
Imagine a bastardized take on the car crash scene.
In this scene, we reveal that the male driver knows that his wife - the female passenger - has been having an affair. He drives full pelt into an oncoming truck.

We can order and impart this information in several ways. See which you prefer:

The thought of his wife in another man's bed skewered his heart. Who was this lothario who had destroyed his life? When had they met? How many times had they laughed at him behind his back? It mattered not now.
Bill ran the red light, tyres screeching as he attacked the bend.
'Take it steady honey: we don't need to be there 'til six!'
Quickly into fourth, the engine roaring, and then fifth, the landscape rising and blurring; horns sounding in rebuke, perhaps with foresight, soon far behind.
She grasped Bill's sleeve as the bend opened. The truck driver had time enough only to hit the brakes with deathly optimism.

Bill ran the red light, tyres screeching as he attacked the bend.
'Take it steady honey: we don't need to be there 'til six!'
Quickly into fourth, the engine roaring, and then fifth, the landscape rising and blurring; horns sounding in rebuke, perhaps with foresight, soon far behind. The thought of his wife in another man's bed skewered his heart. Who was this lothario who had destroyed his life? When had they met? How many times had they laughed at him behind his back? It mattered not now.
She grasped Bill's sleeve as the bend opened. The truck driver had time enough only to hit the brakes with deathly optimism.

Bill ran the red light, tyres screeching as he attacked the bend.
'Take it steady honey: we don't need to be there 'til six!'
Quickly into fourth, the engine roaring, and then fifth, the landscape rising and blurring; horns sounding in rebuke, perhaps with foresight, soon far behind.
She grasped Bill's sleeve as the bend opened. The truck driver had time enough only to hit the brakes with deathly optimism.
The thought of his wife in another man's bed skewered his heart. Who was this lothario who had destroyed his life? When had they met? How many times had they laughed at him behind his back? It mattered not now.

I'm for TWO. I like the build up - the danger of the careening vehicle. Something is about to happen. Then the reveal qualifies this build up. And, nestling up against the denouement, a wonderful contrast of emotions is created.

I would suggest that both ONE and THREE fail to make the most of the reveal: ONE places it before the anticipation, thereby nullifying the potential effects of the anticipation (because the mystery is killed - knowledge is already imparted); THREE leaves the reveal too late, thereby dampening the climax.

N.B. Please note that I've condensed this queueing into a very short passage. It's worth imagining how this might play out over a more suitable (and considered) word count.

(Btw, regular maggot farmers will spot my employment of the quick-swapping focus technique which works well when building pace.)

Saturday, 25 August 2007


Often, the way we look at something plays a tremendous role in the way we understand it.
(Oh I do love those dualities [that themselves play a tremendous role in fattening the novel].)
So imagine that a simile is a comparison that uses the word like or as.
And imagine that a metaphor is the same thing, just with the omission of the word like or as.
Nice and simple. Not without caveats, perhaps, but certainly a useful perception.

So why use a metaphor?
Well, I have a fondness for anything that assists me in uncovering fresh and delicious language. Beyond that, however, we can see that the metaphor is a fine purveyor of tone, and has a definite place in my idea of the theme-set.

The difference between these two sentences is obvious, and yet the meaning is the same (the sun lights the way through the valley):
'The sun was a demonic eye in the sky that lit the way through the valley.'
'The sun was a shepherd of love that lit the way through the valley.'
Word of warning though: Metaphors are tools and, like all tools, they have a time and a place. Okay, that warning was aimed at my dear friend ricardo.

I'm hitting a handful of niggles that have pervaded chapters two, three and four for too long.
Midway through chapter two, a scene change (indicated by an asterisk sandwiched between line breaks) has caused universal confusion. I doubt it would make any difference if I added one hundred asterisks.
No longer in the lighthouse, P&B are ballooning across the sky.
I chose to introduce the word 'balloons' six sentences in. I guess I thought that the reader would be cool with the close-up dialogue and interaction between P&B before I pulled the camera back.
Seems I was mistaken. (Still not entirely convinced though.)
Anyhoo, I'm not going to argue with consistent feedback so it was time to address the niggle.

I needed to bridge the gap. Mention lighthouse (which is where the reader's head still is despite the asterisks), push it far away, and then mention balloons. A smooth transition from there to here; from then to now.
And how to liven up such a dull but necessary info dump, whilst immediately setting the tone for the scene?
You guessed it! Monsieur Metaphor.

I began with the clouds - with the rain storm. I saw the lighthouse vanishing behind the clouds through omniscient third-person eyes.
My thoughts tumbled over the ideas of seedy neon lights, and of drowning, both first-level consciousness ideas and not to be used! In moments such as these, I tend to ramble through the thesaurus, veering off in exciting new directions.

It was the combination of the words nettled (which means angry) and choked that nudged my thoughts to stormclouds as feral garden. (In particular, I was keen to use nettled as it works on loads of levels: it refers to the anger of the storm; it encourages one to imagine stinging nettles and the probable corresponding unpleasant experiences; it phonetically mimics the word netted, used shortly after to describe the canvas of the balloons; it dynamically shifts from the dark comfort of Penpa's manicured indoor gardens to the wild and scary outside world. The tone is safely established and momentum is maintained).
Note that I have still opted to save the details for later. The mere mention of the word ballooning (without any assignation) is enough to inform the reader that P&B are ballooning. Furthermore, by swapping the noun balloon for the verb ballooning, I found that the flow still works if ballooning precedes lighthouse.

The wind was favourable for ballooning and the lighthouse had far-since been tangled in nettled thickets of cloud as Penpa navigated across the sky ...

I daresay that I'm still not completely happy with this solution, but I'm hoping it'll caulk the hole for now. Hmmm ... how about substituting tangled with strangled? The tone would darken further. Hmmm ...

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The Fat Novel

Marcel Duchamp's Portrait of Chess Players.

Had a great day off with my son yesterday.
I showed him how to play chess and how to create music by layering preset riffs and drum patterns in a simple piece of sequencing software.

See if you can guess which chess piece gave him the most headaches ...

... It was the pawns. They can move one space forwards, except on their opening move when they can move two spaces forwards, and they take diagonally. (I'm saving en passant for later.)
I think he found the distinction between moving and taking difficult to grasp; after all, you need to move the piece to take another. Probably I'm just a lousy teacher.
After an introductory game, I decided to take things back a step.
I gave him various pieces, say a queen and two rooks, and gave myself just a king. I figured he'd get to grips with the movements and the concept of diminishing board space, and maybe thinking one or two moves ahead.
I discovered that he would not put my king in check: rather, he would creep closer to my king with one piece, ignoring his other pieces, and then scuttle away again the moment I threatened his piece with my lonesome king.
Anyhoo, he found the game 'too hard' which is his way of saying 'Hey dad, I'm not getting any instant and continuous gratification from this.'
So we turned to the music software and I showed him how to play through the presets and then how to select them and layer them up. I had him pick a drum pattern and then a bass pattern, and then some keyboard riffs, and we created 30 seconds of rather funky, if not eclectic, music.
Then I let him loose by himself.
He selected every sample that amused him (notably the 'I'm hot and sweaty' vocal sample played a pivotal role in his creation). And, rather than layering the tracks, he worked linearly so that the first track ended and the second began, and so forth, and soon he had four minutes of rather barren and rhythmless sounds.

All of this put me in mind of one of the most common of publisher/agent comments. I understand that many pubs and agents select novels that survive more than a single read. Every successive read reveals more hidden treats.
If my son's chess game or musical noodlings were novels, they would be single read material because they are linear. I kind of see them as long and thin.
Whereas one of my aims has always to be to create a novel that is fat (the length is pretty much moot: I read all the time that debut novelists should endeavour to come in at between 70 and 100 thousand words - these figures tend to vary marginally depending on where you look. It's a printing costs thing. Either way, I'm not really bothered because all of my energy is devoted to writing well and writing captivatingly).
A fat novel. A wide novel. Rather like the novel equivalent of Nacho Libre: You won't really get it the first time around - you'll just get a weird glow - but you'll want to watch it again and again, and with each successive viewing, the response changes and you think 'Cool! I get something different every time. I might just go watch it again.'
Okay, not a great example.
I'll have to give the concept of the fat novel some proper, considered thought.
My first thought, however, is that the reader gains knowledge over the course of the novel. If he were to re-read the novel, he would have a different knowledge. Furthermore, the author can secrete information that requires that the reader not only have a basic grasp of this knowledge, but has understood its deeper meaning or ramifications.
More thoughts will doubtlessly plop forth anon.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Open Mouthed

Jack was relieved that nobody noticed his inner dove leaving through his ear.


Am finding time to write again. Hurrah! (Really, I do mean that Hurrah!)
I think I'm forming a theory.
If I write stuff that I'm happy with, I get a buzz. That buzz tends to last for a few hours.
If I work really hard, I get a different buzz, and that buzz seems to last longer.
Yesterday, for example, I addressed lots of imperfections across the first four chapters. I seem to be in a poetic mood at the moment, not least having recently emerged from Nabokov. My favourite addition is where Penpa has woken from a fall, and it is night, and her first thoughts are of Blinky who has been snatched by a winged beast.
It's a valley moment - a breather. The action is pushed aside, along with momentum. Here, I can 'safely' dwell on thoughts and/or descriptions. However, they need to be highly emotive (captivating, entrancing, mesmerising) to warrant the lull. I have developed a fear of valleys, which surely is unfounded. I find myself aware of their necessity, but eager to press on nonetheless. If a reader is going to jump ship, they will jump in a valley. (Presumably a watery valley, much like a loch.)
So the emotion needs to be high and perfectly crafted - succinct and powerful and honest.
Over time, it becomes easier to rely on crutches. When one has described sorrow or loss or fear so many times, it becomes ever more important to push deeper and find a new and fresh truth, or essence.
I continue to refine the essence of a child. Penpa's core traits include brash and naive certainty, fearlessness, tautologies (needless repetition or redundant words: In 'really massive' the 'really' is redundant), and fluid, exaggerated movements.
Here's my extension to the valley:

She thought of Blinky and her heart ached so much that it hurt to breathe. She knew he was strong. He would certainly return to her. How could he not? He would definitely return to her because they should never be parted and because they loved each other; and because Blinky was smarter and stronger than every living thing. A shooting star blazed overhead, stitching the heavens with emerald thread, and Penpa knew it to be a message from Blinky: I am safe. I am coming.

That last line is a poetic show, and I found myself adding a number of them yesterday. They feel good. Check out the stresses in 'STITching the HEAvens with EMerald THREAD.' That part is even and symmetrical and fluid, and it skips neatly and precisely. The meter complements the surface meaning - a double hit - rounding the passage with a kind of peace and security where, previously, there was none.

Anyhoo, I worked for four hours yesterday, tidying and snipping, and the buzz didn't last that long. It hadn't felt like intensive labour (which, indeed, writing does very often feel like). And I ended up with insomnia, which maybe is tied to guilt. Must work harder.

Another highlight was converting my font to 12pt. For some inexplicable reason, I began writing in 11pt Times, and was never unfaithful to this seductive lady of the night. No idea what I mean by that.
I discovered that I, in fact, have the fifty pages needed for a profession crit (yes, I'm gonna go through a professional consultancy and get myself a real crit from a real editor. I guess I thrive on pain). I haven't resized the entire ms yet, but I'm guessing the page count is gonna balloon to way over 200 pages. Eek.

I read through these first fifty pages. (Btw, I read that, when incorporating numbers, numbers from zero to one hundred are written as words, and numbers over one hundred are written as numbers, if that makes sense [one hundred, 101, etc.].) It's fascinating to observe the emotional responses I get from the emotional topography. It's even more fascinating to determine where these responses are coming from.
Dialogue and character interaction, I will suggest, are primary components of emotive control.

Chapter one leaves me feeling sad and empty. There is minimal dialogue. The dialogue between Penpa and Blinky is predominantly non-verbal; I use touch and body language, so that Blinky coils his tail around Penpa's thigh when he is protecting her, for example. The dialogue between the king and the queen is odd and suffused with sexual inferences (all very well hidden now). It is superficially humourous, but very dark beneath the surface. The dialogue between the monarchs and Penpa is, again, one-way.
I used this effect in The Commuters. My emotional response was very clearly altered when Corus eventually engaged in conversation. The opening is filled with loneliness and solitude, almost irrespective of his perceived mood. A vast unwritten chasm alienated Corus from the rest of humanity.

In chapter two, Penpa reads through the last entry in the journal. This feels like a halfway house: it feels as though the ghost of her predecessor is communicating with her. Again, the mood is sombre and packed full of N400s, but there still seems to be an invisible bond between two characters.

The latter half of chapter two contains full on, two-way dialogue. This raises the comfort zone somehow, seemingly irrespective of what the dialogue contains or refers to; seemingly irrespective of the primary tone.

Chapter three, I confess, made me laugh out loud. It could almost have been written for the stage. The interaction between Penpa and Baste works very well. He is such a peculiar character with all manner of issues, and he serves to transform, by association, Penpa into a motherly character.

Which I fling on its head in the next chapter, when Penpa meets a mother and longs to be somebody's little girl. In the heart of a large family, dialogue bounces around like laser beams in a hall of mirrors. Fragments of personalities bombard Penpa, and I take a warm and cozy feeling from this chapter, even though it contains the most horrific and violent scene thus far into the ms.

Perhaps there is something in the nature of dialogue that lifts the mood in any situation. Perhaps there is some inate fulfillment or comfort in the interpretation of spoken word. It's impossible to walk five minutes without encountering somebody on a mobile phone. Certainly, internal monologues and musings infuse the narrative with a kind of isolated quietude (guage this for yourself in the passage I have posted above).
Perhaps it would be simpler to consider the notion of familiarity: can we imagine the distinction between having no friends and having lots of mute friends? Indeed, I think we would all prefer the latter. I understand that women get some chemical release as the result of talking - a chemical that makes them feel good. I understand, too, that this is not so for men. But I would suggest that it is not such the act of talking that warms the tone, but the idea that somebody would talk to you - the protagonist.

Thursday, 9 August 2007


I ordered the funeral tribute flowers online - seems that I have to do most of my shopping online these days as I can only visit the real world at such unsociable times.
So there was a strict brief: Message must be no longer than 100 characters.
What to say and how to say it in under 101 characters?
I figured that my ex's mum would appreciate a personalised poem of sorts, and I thought about her family and how I might offer some comfort. I thought about how memories fade - how it becomes harder and harder to remember how a person looked; and I imagined that the memory fades on purpose, falling away so that only the essence of the person remains - so that only the truth of the person lingers.
Here's my solution:

Dismiss this guise whence mem'ries fall;
Unbind the heart that tempers all.

I hope she likes it (or would have liked it, depending on your faith), and I hope it doesn't offend her family.