Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Gold Coins and Fragments

Been a hectic fortnight.

Short story is finished (1,500 words precisely) and submitted.
It came out good, and I found I had little trouble editing it.
In my final pass, I tweaked the flow of the subliminal themes, replacing words here and there. In doing this, I'm not touching the structure; I'm simply strengthening the emotion sets.
I struggled a little finding the language, ensuring that everything fitted my protag (first-person, eleven-year-old girl, scientific experiment, violated and tortured, tutored under great and obsessive minds). Oh, and I found a horrendous hole in the plot, the result of a previous edit. Two cigarettes and a coffee showed me the resolution, and it was a simple amendment to a line of dialogue.
I'm a little unconvinced by the ending, and time will tell if this is a justified concern or if it is the writer's curse (detesting pretty much everything one writes).
But I delivered it with much less consternation than I think I expected. Curious.

Lots and lots of work on The Commuters.
Scrapped original opening and wrote a new version.
Rewrote second chapter.
Wrote a new chapter to bridge third and fourth chapters.

My original opening was too dull. What to do?
Well, first of all, I should give myself credit for realizing this; for listening and understanding and holding up my hand and shouting 'I am dull! I am a buffoon!': I've come to see that this is not a common skill.
I decided to try out Burroughs' fragmentary routines technique (I've been itching to try it out for a while now). I lifted all the best material from my unused chapters - a reservoir of gold coins that I keep to one side for later insertion into the narrative - and spliced them into an opening.
Some very unexpected things arose!
Because these gold coins were intended for use later in the novel, they reference people and themes that have yet to be introduced or developed. By compiling all of these things into the opening, all of these things became exposition in the form of a gold coin! How cool! I've been contemplating ways to make exposition (much more) interesting for ages, and this is a great technique!
Another unexpected result was that, when these things are introduced later on, at the point where they were originally to be introduced, the exposition seems very peculiar, as though the protag has completely forgotten that he has already introduced the reader to these things. This does very unusual and complex things to the reader's understanding of him and his nature. I feel that Corus has had memory lapses, and this adds weight to his illness.
Furthermore, the leaps between the fragments create a kind of zoetropic blacking out effect - a kind of distancing from reality.
What I have now is an interesting opening - a stream of gold coins - which is how I constructed my short story. It offers the reader no reason for leaving.

I've started addressing the rest of the ms as it currently exists. I have far too many dull, philosophical moments that nobody really cares to read. It's depressing to me - I feel as though I am cheapening my work; dumbing down - but I'm wise enough now, and confident enough, to listen to my beta readers with an open mind, and throw out swathes of hard-won narrative without shedding a tear.
I wonder just how many gold coins I can cram into my novel? This is my new goal.

Thursday, 15 February 2007


Apparently, there are many safety valves available to the writer, including tears, laughter and dreams.
There is another, and it is one that Jo Rowling knows well: Familiarity.
Familiarity = Comfort.
Provide the students of Hogwarts with sweets, feasts, sympathetic teachers, roaring log fires and four-poster beds in toasty dorms, picturesque surroundings and sturdy stone walls, and you have something to return them to once they have been cast into all manner of perilous situations. Familiarity increases the threshold for danger.

Familiarity also provides what I refer to as reality anchors.
Reality anchors are essential when writing fantasy or science fiction.
I learned this valuable lesson in my first ever rejection, in which the agent kindly explained that he had trouble immersing himself into my world. I had written unapologetically, even brazenly, overwhelming my reader in a relentless assault on his senses - on his imagination. I opened with sky kittens and star chimneys, moulding an unfamiliar world inside the reader's mind. And I gave no explanation for these things (at least, I did not explain the nature of these fantastical creations until the last act), and I did not see fit to assist the reader in visualizing these things.
I weighted the balance heavily towards the unfamiliar.
If I had created such an unyielding universe, it was not because I had wrung each drop of imagination from my head, it was because I had not grounded this with reality anchors - with the familiar.

Consider the opening to Peter Greenaway's disturbing The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (pic above). Curtains part and we are in a carpark. But there is little to reveal the whereabouts or timeabouts of this carpark: the vehicles are generic affairs, and the characters' costumes offer few clues. Once inside the restaurant, itself an eclectic amalgamation of styles and fashions, we are none the wiser. In contrast, we only need to watch the opening to Working Girl to understand immediately that we are in New York (hello Statue of Liberty) sometime in the eighties (soundtrack, hairstyles, fashion, etc.).

Routine and repetition go some way to offering familiarity by way of anticipation. The reader may feel secure: with the routine comes the expectation of a place that does not threaten or impose or, at least, something known (experienced before).
Similes, too, help the reader to alchemize something alien and intangible into something familiar and tangible. In this way, Marci's gamma-orb (what the ..?) is like a bronze egg (ah, I see!).

During my search for some manner of optimal ordering guide, I have learnt to respect the reader's heart-rate - to release the stress from time to time using a number of tools - and one of the best and most simple of tools is familiarity. And now I understand why JKR might devote a lengthy paragraph to gossiping schoolkids walking down a set of stone steps.

Monday, 12 February 2007


The second pass edit of my ss entry is complete. It rests at precisely 1,500 words. I need to find out whether a title will be included in the word count. Or, how about if I call it 'Untitled'? ;o)
I'm very happy with it, and with the lessons it has taught me. I'm finding it easier and easier to refine my sentences and to throw away sentences that I have laboured over.
I've succeeded in keeping the emotions in place, perhaps even sharpening them with concentrated wordages.
Most important of all, I enjoy reading it.
Can you imagine the thrill of that?
Furthermore, I recently read my previous ms through (my second novel, a fantasy, in its uncompleted state) and enjoyed that too!
All good stuff!
So here's the rub.
I dipped back into my current ms at the week end. I found myself skim-reading, even missing out whole paragraphs. What does that tell me?
It tells me that it is dull. It is boring.
And then my seven-year-old son has this random idea for a level on a computer game (that he hopes to make some day):

A race of invisible creatures live on this planet. These creatures love noise, and they've made a machine that creates tornados. The tornados, naturally, upset the other inhabitants of the planet. These inhabitants capture the machine and turn it upside-down and the tornados are sucked inside along with the invisible creatures.

Indeed, it was my son's idea of a man with a long beard that stretches round the world to kiss the man's wife that inspired my winning ss!

I've realized that I've lost something along the way.
But what?

I've been fighting against this idea of cheap suspense.
For example, I was recently discussing Michelle Paver's hugely successful Wolf Brother over on Litopia. Peter Cox (her agent) uses this book to demonstrate multiple crises in an opening chapter. But I always felt that these cheapened the work somehow - that Torak's fever which peaks at the end of chapter one but has vanished and is forgotten by the end of chapter two, is rather throwaway.
This morning, a friend was telling me how he has started watching Lost again. He has missed ten episodes, but he found ingress to the plot easy enough. But he no longer enjoys Lost. He gave the polar bear as an example for this loss of interest: A polar bear threatens the survivors, but then vanishes and is replaced with some new peril or another. A cheap trick?
I've also been considering Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Murakami opens suspense threads like a child might open Christmas presents. In the first page, a mystery caller phones the protag. She phones several times throughout the novel, but we never discover her identity. She just stops phoning. Indeed, Murakami opens suspense threads on a whim, but so many of them remain open - unresolved - by the novel's end.
I discussed this a good while back with a fellow lecturer - one of Murakami's army of ardent fans. The lecturer had not noticed all of these unresolved threads. They did not concern him.

Consider Torey Hayden's Ghost Girl [spoiler alert].
The mystery of Jade's abuse is never solved. Torey admits in a post-script that her publisher asked her to provide some sort of resolution for the reader. Torey rewrote this resolution some five or six times before her publisher was appeased. Ghost Girl is a true story. Torey could not/would not invent an ending simply to provide the reader with a resolution. Instead, she offers little closure by way of conjecture.
I was so unfulfilled on closing that book that I sought answers. I discovered that Torey has a discussion board and I looked for answers there. Moreover, many readers had felt this same desire for closure and had also found their way to Torey's forums.
Whilst I ripped through Ghost Girl perhaps faster than I have read any other book, I am unlikely to put myself through that again and have yet to pick up another of her novels.

I'm reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas at the moment. I gotta say, I'm struggling.
David provides the reader with a steady stream of, what are often referred to as cookies or gold coins or candy store/bar moments. There's a Doctor collecting the teeth that remain from Cannibals' feasts, and there's a public flogging.
But the language is too dense for me: I feel that David is afraid to use the same word more than once. Teeth, gnashers, dentures ...
Hemingway taught me that repetition is okay. The right word is the right word - the mot juste.
With each difficult word, the reader is tugged a little from their suspension of disbelief.
Considering the mountain lake in my ss, I felt the urge to replace the words 'mountain lake' with 'tarn'. A tarn is a mountain lake. But, the introduction of a difficult word (or, if you prefer, a less easy word) would do me no favours. Moreover, if I consider that the protag in my ss is a young girl, therefore I am forced to use simple words, and compare this with the erudite protag of my current ms, I can see a large contributing factor to my skim-reading. Part of my ss's appeal is that it offers nothing to cause the reader to leave, whilst drowning in a thick river of gold coins that invite the reader to stay.
NB. I counted five difficult words in Kate Grenville's superb The Secret River. She plays with language, but it is a familiar language.

For my ms to work, I am going to need to reinvent Corus. I am going to need to tone down the erudition. I am going to need to add more gold coins, and if they are unresolved, then so-be-it, although I will do all I can to make them natural.
In the meantime, however, I am thinking of returning to my second ms: it only needs a few weeks worth of work in order to get it up to send-outable standard (IMVHO).

My thoughts on resolutions are unresolved, but I am erring towards the power of gold coins over resolution.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

A Spider Theory

What is scary about a spider?
What is the first thing you notice about a person when they enter the room?

I was once asking my Metro vendor about his regulars.
He explained that he recognizes them by the way they walk.
(He also explained that he knows when somebody wants a paper because they raise their eyebrows. I might write a little on body language anon.)
A fellow lecturer and I were discussing something similar, and she suggested that the first thing she notices about a person is how they carry themself - how they enter the room.
I've heard many women say something similar - about, perhaps, meeting a man for the first time and forming an instant impression from his posture or movement - the way he carries himself. Does he slouch or walk tall? Does he move quickly or slowly? Does he swing his arms or have his hands in his pockets? Add to this subtle gestures and expressions, and you can (and will) create quite an impression of someone in the blink of an eye without knowing a thing about this person.
Consider the effects of these alternative intros:
He waltzed into the room;
He snuck into the room;
He shuffled into the room.

And spiders. One of the things they have in common with other scary beasties - snakes and, my own phobia, giant centipedes - is their apparently aggressive and unpredictable movement. Spiders have eight legs and scuttle. They are remorseless and quick too. They come at you. And you can never be sure which direction they are going to veer off in next.

Movement is a powerful tool for the writer.
The movie Silent Hill demonstrates this technique well. The demons might appear to have oddly-jointed legs, and stride or swagger in a most unnatural manner, or they might scurry across the flagstones on tiny, fat legs. Some move slowly and some move at speed, but they always move towards the protagonist and always appear unstoppable.
A thesaurus helps us to find the mot juste - the perfect word for the perfect movement.

Kate Grenville uses movement to convey the differences between the British settlers and the 'blacks' (and, indeed, isolates the settlers by distancing them from the movements of nature too, whilst bonding the 'blacks' to nature using foreign movements [along with a control over nature that the settlers lack]). Check out all the movements in this passage:

'She bent and picked up a lizard that struggled in her hand. With an unhurried movement she shook it and it hung limp. As she tucked it into the string around her hips, she called out high and shrill to Saucy Polly, and Thornhill could see Polly's white laughing mouth as she called back and flicked her hand toward the lizard. Even the way they gestured was different. Their hands were so fluid it seemed that they had extra joints in their fingers, and a wrist that was constructed in some other way altogether, along the lines of rope rather than bone and sinew.'

Friday, 2 February 2007

Sales Techniques

It might be worth discussing sales techniques.
As a sales exec, many moons back, I learnt dozens of techniques that allowed me to forge a bond with my customers. I couldn't say how relevant these techniques are to writing (although there is crossover here and there), other than one particular occasion when my antag was attempting to convince my protag of something. Please note that I only sold useful products, never used hard-selling tactics, always respected the customer, never spent time with someone who was clearly not interested or would not benefit from my product, and always used my discretion. Furthermore, you'll see these techniques used in every commercial.

The five basics are:

Fear of loss: This offer ends tomorrow!
Indifference: Hey, I'm not going to pressure you; it's entirely your decision.
Greed: You can have all of this for less than half-price!
Excitement: I mean, it's insane! How can we give you all this stuff? My heavens, it's such an amazing deal!
Sheep (or 'Jones'ing): All of your neighbours are doing it! We've sold millions worldwide!

Sales people like acronyms, but we never had one for these five key techniques. So I remember them as FIGES, which always reminds me of the feeding on green figs scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
If there was any possibility of a sale with a customer, you could always sway them with one of those five techniques; usually, it was a case of running through them all to find the one that resonated with the customer.

Another trick was to nod - to always agree with the customer (whilst smiling, naturally).
I remember one particular occasion where I had exhausted the five key techniques and, after the customer had half-heartedly reeled off a list of reasons why he wasn't interested in my offer (which was a common reaction born from dealings with hard-sellers who blighted the world of salespeople with unethical pressure tactics), I simply nodded and agreed with his reasons and said 'Which is why this is just what you need, yes? [nod]'
And I made the sale.
Touch works too! Have the customer hold the product in their hands. Let them experience the sensation of touching the product. Kinaesthetic bonding! It is already theirs!
Sizzle, don't simmer. This, too, is about creating an experience for the customer, introducing smells and sounds and generally generating a mood as applicable. It is also bound to excitement.
Relating to the customer was essential. I made the mistake once of calling a wealthy man 'mate', instantly losing the sale. We would search for clues - a kid's bike in the front garden or birthday cards or trophies in the window, or an amusing sticker on the bumper of their car. We could use these things to open dialogue and to forge a bond.

And, with the sale made, it is time to REHASH:
Remember Everyone Has Another Sale Hidden.
You know, you are such a discerning man; I'm certain your two sons would be very interested in this product too. I'll put you down for two more, yes? [nod]
I invented the absurd REHASH, which works with an assumptive close:
Would you like three thousand, or shall I just put you down for five?
Then, when the customer buys just one, they are comfortable, and you have made the sale that you sought. If you ever make the three thousand sale, then that's a bonus (and I came close once at a factory)!

Now, I use whatever techniques I can to influence the reader - to 'sell' my story to them - to give them as wonderful and memorable experience as I can.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Theme as Introduction

I've read much advice suggesting that the opening page of a novel should introduce the novel's key themes (and that each chapter's opening should do the same thing, but more specific to the chapter's themes).
Here's Kate Grenville's introduction to Sydney from her Man-Booker short-listed The Secret River, which I'm currently reading with enormous admiration:

'One hot afternoon in the January of 1788, with big white birds screeching from the trees by the shore, a captain of the Royal Navy had sailed into that body of water and chosen a cove with a stream of fresh water and fingernail of beach.'

Imagine all of the ways she could introduce this new land.
Why did she choose these descriptions?
I can only guess.
Hot afternoon? The British convicts will have to acclimatize to this new land. Thus far, we have had freezing London winters that claim many lives. Kate is opening with a kinaesthetic description.
The big white birds screeching? Now we have sounds too: Kate is giving us the essential experience of this discovery. We have an undiscovered place, ruled by nature; screeching is a harsh word and a harsh sound, conveying the might and, perhaps, hostility of nature. And big, rather than small or meek or welcoming.
Trees by the shore? Again, a new land in which the trees have yet to be chopped into building materials and firewood.
Stream of fresh water? Same reason (it is unpolluted by mankind), and we can see how this might be a suitable place to build a settlement.
In this opening, we have mention of a body and a fingernail, both of which augment the kinaesthetic nature of the prose. (Indeed, Kate makes much out of body parts, especially fingers and fingernails which she repeats throughout this chapter. She also mirrors these descriptions in nature, writing of paws and talons.)
So we find nature, undisturbed and powerful, and a man sailing into its midst, and the reader is invited to feel and hear and see this place.
Reading on, Kate continues to pit humans against nature: she composes page after page of descriptions of rocks and rapids and heat and poisonous spiders, and of settlers battling their environment, eating into the continent and planting crops and felling trees.
This, I would suggest, is what Kate wants us to know, and is how she chose to construct her introduction to this terra nova: the fluctuating balance between conflict and harmony in which humans and nature reverse roles as protagonist and antagonist from page to page.
Even the novel's very title alludes to this theme: A river; it is secret; it is discovered.
I won't know what it does next until I read on.