Monday, 30 April 2007

Polar Expedition

I think the one thing above all that struck me the first time I read McKee's Story was his concept of switching between polar values. The idea solidified a slew of thoughts that had been burrowing somewhere in the grey matter.
McKee delineates a novel that, at pretty much any level (act, chapter, paragraph), swings remorselessly from a positive charge to a negative charge. (Naturally, he expands this idea, but I'd like to hold it here for now.)
In this way, the narrative becomes dynamic - never static.
It's a simple concept, and one that I've yet to read elsewhere, at least, not defined so fundamentally.
In running a second pass over my new opening to Tethered Light, I found myself contemplating where these charges begin and end.
Consider these two approaches:
A) Protag is thrown into a breathless sequence of perils.
B) Protag is thrown into a sequence of perils, each punctuated with hope.
In approach A, the charge intensifies rather than switches, and the narrative is still, as such, dynamic.
In approach B, the emotional topography is more varied, but the pace appears to be marginally diluted.
I've taken a step back to consider these two approaches.
Currently, my protag is escaping the nomads, riding on Blinky's back (hope [here, we're in approach B with the charge switching rapidly between hope and hopelessness]), only to find the way back obstructed by two nomads (hopelessness). She shouts to Blinky to change direction and head to the ridge (hope), but the ground gives way and they plummet into a chasm (hopelessness).
Here, I've been wrestling with her feelings as she falls, and I've been debating how long I should hold the moment.
Given that the charge is currently negative, I find myself deliberating over the next cookie.
If she is immediately plucked from the air by a winged beast, the charge becomes confused and I should try to split it temporally: the charge is positive because she has been rescued, but she quickly realizes (it's my job as author to show and control this) that she is being carried to more danger, and the charge switches to negative.
Two switches within a single action.
However, if she considers a sort of peace as she falls - a silent free-fall in which she is liberated from responsibilities (foreshadowing a later plummet), does the charge become positive? If so, does this negate any positive value that might be found in the act of being rescued by the beasts? Does the reader recognize a pattern of swapping values and stumble if this pattern appears to be disturbed, or encourage a swing that might otherwise be borderline?
Is pace pupeteered by the dynamic swapping of value charges?
I'll have to experiment with some extremes and observe the effects.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Trouble in the New World

When I began writing Tethered Light, I was pretty clear in my head that I wanted to create a new Alice.
As I return to my ms, I am a little concerned that this might be working against me.
Why? All the transitional stuff and expanse of locations.
So I'll sift through my fluttering thoughts and see what dribbles out the other end.

I have created a world. Penpa travels across this world, essentially beginning each new chapter in transition before arriving upon the stage where the next leg of the adventure will be performed.
It's worth observing how JKR has dealt with this stuff, either deliberately or accidentally.
First, she reuses locations. Want to put Harry in peril? Send him (back) into the forbidden forest.
Second, her uninspired imagination continually works in her favour (Don't hit me! It's true. I'm not anti JKR: I'm just as open to investigating her strengths as I am her weaknesses, which is no more or less than I would any author). Give the reader a forbidden forest, and there is little work to do in describing the scene.
Forbidden forest: Easy to picture!
The See Mounds: Well, now you're lost. I have to thread in reality anchors - descriptions that draw upon real-world environments and mould them into my unique vision.
(If you're interested, here is the Hogwart's layout.)

The principle here is simple: The shorter the leash, the more ready the acceptance.
In developing imaginative locations - long leashes (many steps away from a first-consciousness, expected idea) - I have given myself more work to do to immerse my readers.
It's not difficult to see how a wildly imaginative work would require much skill from the author in order to make it appear cohesive, believable, and acceptable.

In creating Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry was all too aware of the effects of transitions upon pace. So he created the transporters. Pull a lever and you're there. Genius!

There are benefits however.
I have given over the transitory parts to Penpa - to her thoughts, feelings, character insights, etc.
As she wanders through a labyrinth of tunnels, she begins to long for the sanctuary of her lighthouse (the very sanctuary that she had come to resent!). As she descends with Sera into the bowels of the See Mounds, the girls are silent and Penpa contemplates all of the lives she has touched and is responsible for.
In this way, it is absolutely not dead time.

With each new location comes the necessity of a paragraph describing the scene. There are a number of such descriptions that I will need to tidy up - maximum effect from minimum wordage. I guess this is worrying me a little. But I can also see how I have designed each location to serve as a mood compass - to match the mood to the plot.
(Observe the mood created in Yves Tanguy's Fear [above]. I've loved his work since being introduced to him in my early uni days. He hits subliminally with his soft, organic pebble shapes juxtaposed with sharp, angular shapes that might be blades or shards of bone. Fear is a remarkable example of Tanguy's compositional skills.)
What I do not have a true grasp of yet, and what seems to be a requisite for the fantasy, is the mechanics of the society. I have given it some thought, but I would feel happier if I knew this more intimately.
Penpa grows her own fruit and veg. Does she eat meat? Does she hunt? What does she drink?
How many items of clothing does she have? Where did she get these from? How does she wash them?
Furthermore, having created disparate characters, families and groups across the world, these questions apply beyond Penpa.
More often than not, it might be prudent to simply ignore these questions: that is, they do not need to enter the narrative (and my feeling is that the current swift pace of the novel is one of its strengths). But I do feel that I should explore these questions: often, the addition of a short sentence can make a big difference. Indeed, as I read through this ms again for the first time in ages, there are lots of questions jittering in my head. I don't expect answers to them all, but I would like to know a little more ...
Whilst the mind does fill in all the holes, perhaps the trick is not to give it reason to doubt; perhaps it is better to omit than to fill in with something that might, itself, raise more questions or draw attention to itself. Perhaps the reader is far more likely to notice something that jars than something that has been skimmed over. Perhaps the adventure and the pace that describes it are more valuable than any extended background.

Thoughts are ongoing.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Blog of the Week

Hey there fellow maggot farmers.
Such a big world. So many amazing people - people just like you!
In the spirit of this blog, I hereby launch the Blog of the Week.

Here's how it works.
I pick a word at random from my dictionary.
I type the word into google.
I search until I find an inspirational blog.

This week's random word is mechanism.
And the blog I have selected is Louise Ma's. She is 21 and, since leaving the south bay area of California, she has longed for a Vietnamese sandwich. Boy, does that sandwich look tasty.
Louise is studying Design at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York.
Good luck with the course Louise.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Elements of the Page-Turner

Here's where I am with my new opening chapter to Tethered Light.
In breaking the scene down, I hope to clarify my thoughts and share my connection-making process.

Penpa and Blinky away from lighthouse. Penpa watching nomads (forged from thick, black worms) through spyglass. She has read about nomads in journals (found in lighthouse): Should one gaze into their eyes, one's soul will be sucked out. She can't make their eyes out.
Here, I'm introducing the world, the style and mood, the genre and the conventions it will adhere to (reader's expectations) and my two main characters. Penpa's primary motivation is introduced - to explore beyond the lighthouse; to be freed from the lighthouse's leash and her responsibilities to a faceless planet. Her character is revealed: she is naive, flaunting the warning about gazing into the nomads' eyes. This naivety will be reversed by the ending, and Penpa will have learned to control her curiosity and to accept her responsibilities (which will have magnified immeasurably by the conclusion). We begin with characters in peril (McKee suggests that character is revealed through meaningful choices made under pressure). Also, we have questions: Who wrote the journals? What will happen if Penpa gazes into the nomads' eyes? What is the significance of this lighthouse? What is Penpa's role?

Blinky nudges Penpa. Penpa is irritated: she knows she must get back to turn the beacon on before twilight settles, yet still she wants to see the nomads' eyes.
Blinky is given the parental role. Penpa is shown as immature, neglecting her responsibilities. Like a stroppy teenager, she wants things her way and is fed up of years of imposition and expectations of her.
Now we enter a string of perilous situations. In and out of frying pans and fires. These perils occur within a countdown: Penpa must return to the lighthouse to light the beacon. Whilst it would be a pace-drainer to explain the lighthouse's importance here, the reader will already understand the general importance of a lighthouse's beacon. I can also play with Blinky's agitation to reinforce this idea.

Nomads turn and point at Penpa. Their breasts unravel, twisting into two winged beasts.
The beasts fly towards Penpa and Blinky who turn to run.
The trees appear to be walking, but actually the snow is giving way, falling into a deep crevasse.
Penpa and Blinky fall. Aggggh.
They are snatched from the air by the beasts and carried into the sky.
Incensed by the impertinence of these beasts (yet still terrified), Penpa lashes out at her beast and is dropped. She falls again. Aggggh.
Penpa is separated from aid (Blinky). Her character is reinforced: stubborn, blind to danger, naive, no thought beyond present. She calls after Blinky: even though she might find him a bore sometimes, she loves him unconditionally.
Penpa lands in the deep snow, unharmed. She sits up, brushing herself down. She is surrounded by nomads.
Penpa is isolated (cut off from aid) and trapped.
A nomad approaches her, bending to put its eyes level with Penpa's.
Its eyes slide open revealing a tiny king and a tiny queen.
(N400. N.B. The reader will quickly come to learn that a pattern of unexpected twists weaves through the narrative. To this end, whilst a dangerous persistence of N400s are revealed, the reader should not be shaken by them once the pattern is recognized. Furthermore, the genre conventions should indicate that a high density of N400s are not out of place. When I pitched this proposal three years or so back, I failed to immerse the reader in my world. I am now much more confident with my understanding of expectations, preconceptions and reality anchors.)
The king beckons Penpa to stare at the glowing gem in his staff.
The queen stops him. 'Do you not know who this is?'
The king is aghast and both he and the queen apologize.
What's this? Why do a king and a queen revere Penpa?
Penpa is puzzled, yet commands the king and queen to return Blinky.
Blinky is returned. Night has settled and they are late turning on the beacon.
Penpa rides on Blinky's back. The darker the sky becomes, the weaker and sicker she turns.
The effects of light withdrawal are shown, and warn of things to come (through a show - a demonstration akin to the Star Trek redshirt. I double up on this in the next chapter by showing, through Penpa's dream/prophesy, how the world would shrivel and die without the light from the lighthouse).

So my new opening is punchy, driven by action and mysteries. It introduces my main characters and their relationship and desires, and the portions of their characters that will change.
There are enough urgent questions unanswered that will encourage the reader to go into chapter two (where I have to do all this again :o)

Afterthought: This has proved to be a very useful exercise; I'd recommend trying to deconstruct any given chapter in this way. I am now inspired to find even more perils to throw into the mix as I prepare for the second pass.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

The Pool, the Leash, and the Aesthetic Overseer

Milkyloop is a bad frog. He wears black glasses and a tie. He fires a gun at himself; he has a shield around him and the bullets shoot off in different directions.

I'm always fascinated by my son's ideas, and am especially interested in where they originate. Original combination of non-original elements. But what is controlling the combining? What forces are choosing A over B?

We created a monster generator a while back: nothing grander than a simple set of rules, influenced by dice rolls, indexed to lists of keywords. One list contained bodily appendages such as tentacles, single eye, brain on outside, horns, wings, tail and fangs; another list contained textural adjectives such as fiery, leathery, fragile, slimy, liquid, transparent and iron. Even with these two small lists, we could apply a 1:2 rule and come out with a monster that has fragile iron tentacles.

What this generator has in common with a child's mind is its disregard for logic. And logic often forms a barrier within adults that prevents them from entering the depth of their imagination.

(You can read about Jean Piaget's four development stages here. Note that, according to Piaget, the child enters logical thought between the ages of seven and eleven.)

In the example I open with, an adult would typically (or, more accurately, unconsciously) begin with the frog guy and his characteristics, tap into the lists of keywords in their head, and hop uncertainly around these ideas, as though tethered to them with a short leash. Hmmm ... Malfrog ... Gunhopper ... Croakkiller ...

Here, the amount of available resources (the lists of keywords) and the logical connections are combining to pull out a name. The final decision is made when the resulting name satisfies some aesthetic criteria, and here is where the author defines himself through style, wit and imagination.

So our pool of keywords is filled through our life - through experiences and, where we require more than experience, through research. My knowledge of frogs is slim, so I'm gonna surf for a few seconds to expand my pool. Already, though, I'm making connections: Frog - bad - poison darts - arrowhead frog - croak (pun ... yuk ... does not satisfy my aesthetic check, but certainly would satisfy many others').

Okay. As I surf, I make decisions. I am applying some sort of logic - a logic that looks for connections and especially one that looks for aesthetic value. In this way, I have my unique set of rules for satisfying my search.

First port of call:

Frogs are poikilothermic animals. This means that they are cold-blooded.

Now we can see how this leash begins to stretch. I'm dancing around a word that inspires me aesthetically, but has only a tenuous link with frogs. This is a part of my style; I am comfortable stretching this leash.

But I haven't enough material yet ...

'The study of reptiles and amphibians is called Herpetology. Herp comes from the Greek word herpeton, which basically means "creepy crawly things that move about on their bellies".'

My brain is thinking of herpes and of harpies. Diseases and mythological creatures.

I'm also drawn to the 'kilo' part of poikilothermic, but this my unconscious trying to pull the leash in. Begone!

'They are one of three types of Amphibians. Anura, also called Salientia, (frogs and toads), caudate (salamanders and newts) and caecilians (worm-like amphibians).'
The word Anura appeals on many levels! But it's not fitting the image: it seems (to me) too feminine for this smartly-dressed, cold-blooded killer.

Hey! Look at this!
'Oriental fire-bellied toads have heart-shaped pupils.'
How cool!

Anyhoo, here we stop the fun (because I have writing to do!).

I would usually tend to devote hours to a name, looking for the perfect fit. The point, I hope, is made.

*We draw from a pool.

*We make connections that help us to choose. The more logical the connection, the tighter the leash. The freer the logic, the greater the range.

*We judge with an aesthetic value. This aesthetic value plays an enormous role in defining and describing our style. (Just as an opinion, I tend to find that alliterate names and first-level puns in names are indicative of a weak aesthetic.)
In our monster generator, the pool was the lists of keywords, the leash was the set of rules, and the aesthetics were created with the randomizer - the dice rolls (N.B. Of course, the entire generator was moulded under the government of a similar set of rules!).
The only other observation that I'll make for now is that we must take care when stretching the leash. The N400 shows us how the reader is liable to feel disconnected from our story should we continually distend logical connections. Would this apply to a name? Well, given that the N400 deals with expectations, either preconceptual or artificially induced, what might be the effects, both short term and long term, of introducing a character called Love Peacekind who ultimately engages in extreme acts of cruelty? Or of introducing a character called Adolf who takes a job as a janitor in a primary school?
The reader comes to recognize patterns in a writer's style, and these patterns help to create expectations that might nullify otherwise negative effects of the N400. Whilst my son might create an apparently illogical, disparate name for a killer frog, it's worth noting that he also creates characters whose names are derived very much from the first-level consciousness. In this way, there is no tangible pattern that would give the reader that secure feeling of being controlled - of being guided masterfully through a tale.

Here's a picture of Dalek Sec from the cover of this week's Radio Times. Personally, I would've raised the tentacles on one side to break the symmetry, thereby deepening unsettlement. I think a heart-shaped pupil would jazz him up too :o)

Wednesday, 18 April 2007


The idea of conventions, once separated out from preconceptions, is beginning to make sense to me. Whilst conventions and preconceptions spend much time in bed with one another, both are worth studying independently; they exist in reader-land as expectations - as goalposts - and only a foolish writer would renounce their existence.

What I would like to consider here is the idea of the genre convention:
'To anticipate the anticipations of the audience you must master your genre and its conventions.' [Source: Robert McKee's Story.]
'A convention is an understanding between writer and reader about certain details of the story.'
[Source: Crawford Kilian.]

As I begin work on novel #4, I am considering genres and what the reader expects from them. I can see that such expectation dissolves the value of many critiques/assessments: A devout reader of fantasy might take his expectations across to a thriller, therefore finding himself in confusion. This isn't progressing as I would expect!

An author who reads and subsequently writes in a narrow genre takes with him a subconscious understanding of the genre's conventions. We are familiar with the fledgling writer who flouts his studies and preparations, preferring to simply sit and write, creating a work that holds together because that author has subconsciously transferred his own expectations across to his writing.
Yes, it happens occasionally and we end up with the celebrated teenage author or the single mother who strikes gold with her first attempt.
Moreover, a per-genre convention guide is a pretty elusive beast. What are the expectations of any given genre?
We are encouraged to read everything and anything, and this is perhaps the best we can do: in this way we can gain valuable perspectives beyond those with which we may have become comfortable; we can compare and contrast conventions; we can identify key conventional motifs.
I remember my first few forays in lit fic. Certainly Hemingway and Ali Smith scared the wits from me. But I quickly acclimatized: I came to expect particular elements, although I would be hard-pressed to outline those elements from the top of my head.
Wikipedia has some ideas.
McKee looks at audience positioning, creative limitations, analyzes a few movies, and ends the chapter on endurance.
Crawford Kilian has a stab at outlining the conventions of the thriller.

With all of this food for thought, I can only conclude that the author must write in a genre with which he is familiar - in which the expectations have become second-nature.
The idea of trusting instinct always frightens me. This morning I was reading about one pro author's first encounter with distrust of instincts. Reworking a manuscript that had once gone through a nightmarish editorial process, the author is now filled with doubt.
I would like to believe that study and practice and a modicum of talent are enough to carry one through. But the deeper my journey takes me, the more I begin to doubt this ...

At the heart of this post is a fear: How can I understand my readers? What if I do not understand them? What if I am unable to connect with them?

Monday, 16 April 2007

The Second Phase

So I enter phase two of my writing non-career.
Many things have occurred recently that have conspired to incite this new leg of my journey.
In particular, I have have some agent feedback on The Commuters and this has provided me with that professional perspective that I've so long required. There is little to discern between the responses: the concensus is that my writing is powerful/very strong and my imagination is wonderful. But, these agents feel that they would have difficulty promoting some of the narrative themes that I have woven into the story.
In this way, phase one has ended: I am at last a competent writer with a sound grasp of the basic tools.
In phase two, I intend to bring these tools together into a page-turner.
(Often cited requirements for publication/representation are ability to write and commercial/marketable story.)
To this end, I have been re-re-re-reading Vogler and McKee and anything I can lay my hands on that might remind me of what a page-turner consists of. (In studying the novel structure, I have noticed, almost by way of post-mortem, that the first act of The Commuters is too long: McKee suggests that act one of a three act work should be approx. 25% of the work. My first act already weighs in at 30k and is barely half the way through. Given that I have outlined a 100-120k novel, I'm way over. This explains so much, and I can see how the story would excite more readers by culling huge portions of the first act. This reinforces my thoughts and demonstrates how all of my plot cookies have become swamped in non-cookie stuff.)
In this second phase, I will be travelling alone. It has been a tough decision to make, but I am certain it is the right one. Everything is down to me now and there is little that anyone can do to help me. (Although I am running a stream of ideas by work colleagues in order to guage public reaction and guide me to the heart of my new work. Crikey - the words 'new work' are terrifying. The blank page!)
Most importantly, I am thinking of my reader with each decision I make. This reader is different to the reader who might enjoy my lit fic. In order to get my head around this reader, I'm studying The DaVinci Code and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I am searching for points of commonality - for shared techniques and approaches. I have found many already, and I shall post my conclusions over the coming weeks.