Saturday, 30 June 2007

The Sympathetic Parent

You guys are my sanity.
What do you make of this? (I won't tell you how much research I went through for these paltry paragraphs!)
Penpa is in a melancholic mood. She's feeling claustrophobic; she wants out.
I'm looking at her responsibilities and routine and growing unrest from third person limited (Blinky) and then easing out with a third person omniscient (which bridges across to Penpa's third person limited in the passage that follows). In this way, I'm attempting to place the reader temporarily into a sympathetic parental role. Furthermore, I want to avoid any idea that Penpa is feeling sorry for herself (for the moment).
Does it work?

Blinky's nose twitched. Breakfast was ready.
He pawed away the last of his dream butterflies and yawned and stretched, and then dropped from the bed and scuttled around the pot-bellied stove and sprang onto his stool at Penpa's side. She had prepared two bowls of baby freshwater clams and boiled ptarmigan eggs; but she had not touched a morsel.
She had shouldered a yoke laden with pails of water from the stream down-mountain to the lighthouse; she had harvested the clams and removed their beards and steamed them; she had scouted the rocks for snow-white eggs, invisible upon the snow-white banks; she had gathered kindling and firewood into a sling and lit the stove with sparks from her tinderbox; and now she would not eat the fruit of her labours.
Naturally, Blinky had helped out, but still he eyed her ruefully as he gulped down the clams.
Penpa had barely eaten for a season since they had encountered the nomads. She gazed through the large, oval window. Watery sunlight spread her silhouette over the exquisitely carved beams and onto the domed ceiling of the bedchamber. A wistful intensity blazed in her narrow eyes, like that of a child endlessly fascinated and constantly surprised by the magic of the world.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Toward or Towards?

Q. Does he walk toward the girl or towards the girl?
A. Either.

If you want the nitty-gritty about prepositions and American English vs English English and subjectivity, these'll sort you out:

Q. Does he move forward or forwards?
A. As above.

All I'd add is that it's probably a sensible idea to remain consistent.
And that pic is a liquid argon calorimeter. It came up when I typed 'toward' into google. Nice slippers.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Character CPR

My king and queen were too flat.
Ironically, I do have a girl who is literally flat, but that's by-the-by.
Fortunately, it didn't take me too long to work out why, and also to apply a good deal of character CPR.

Just as we give our protag clear goals and desires, the same is true of our other characters.
My king and queen want to suck Penpa's soul.
But why? And, more importantly, how can I convey this without slowing the pace?

I began with the idea that souls are their sustenance: they feed on souls in order to live.
'Let us taste the sweetness of your soul,' says the king, licking his lips.
Well, that's okay I guess, but it's not special, and the lovely John Jarrold told me that only special writing gets picked up these days.
So I thought a little harder.
And I came up with the idea of sexual pleasure.
Instead of a necessity, my king and queen should be whimsical and selfish, taking lives for their own pleasure. Instantly, their characters begin to radiate fresh and vivid colours.
And the pace?
As Sunset Bickham suggests (and ricardo too in a recent post), dialogue serves as a rapid delivery system.
So dialogue alternates rapidly between king and queen, and the sexual undertones are obvious. (I wrote, as I always do, as many theme words as I could think of. I also hit the sensory stuff full-on and 'taste the sweetness' became 'savour the saltiness'.)
Quirks are good, and I had the king and queen locked in a sexual game of simile creation ('Let your soul slip from your bones like ...'). Hey, you're welcome to make suggestions if you want ...
The king's similes are unimaginative and raw, and the queen's are powerful and poetic. Show, show, show.
And their attire: sure, the king had a crown set with jacinth and the queen had a crown of leaves.
Dull, dull, dull. No character at all. (Don't hit me: it was only first pass material!)
Now the king wears a crown of knotted tongues and the queen a diadem of pulsating arteries.
Oh yeah, baby: saved by the theme!
And the queen has a staff topped by a glowing gem.
Nope. The queen has a staff mounted by a glowing gem, and she pulls it between her thighs.
And the tongues wag into life, and the keywords intensify, and the king and queen lose themselves to their game as the camera switches from one to the other at speed and pulls right in to the scene and Penpa will surely die to sate their wicked carnal desires ..!

I remember years ago having a mock driving test with my instructor. I stalled at a junction and asked her if the examiner would fail me for such an infraction.
She replied that I'd be fine so long as I kept cool and remembered my training.

With all these techniques at my disposal, I do feel a certain calm: a belief that, when these problems occur (and they will always occur), I'll be able to identify them and find the root cause and then make amends for my stupidity. And I fully intend to continue learning!

Friday, 22 June 2007

Fight Scene

I seem to have become embroiled in matters of pacing.
Having performed a hefty amount of begoogled research, I've come across some strange and spurious results. One pro writer even suggested that poor pacing is the number one reason why manuscripts get rejected. Furthermore, it's difficult to find useful, practical advice on pacing: many writers simply suggest that it's difficult to find useful, practical advice on pacing.
So we turn our attention to Mr. Pullman once again.
In this scene, Lyra and Will and Pantalaimon are confronted by Mrs. Coulter and her monkey daemon:

And the monkey leapt for her. The cat reared up, slashing with needle-paws left and right too quick to see, and then Lyra was beside Will, tumbling through the window with Pantalaimon beside her. And the cat screamed and the monkey screamed too as the cat's claws raked his face; and then the monkey turned and leapt into Mrs Coulter's arms, and the cat shot away into the bushes of her own world, and vanished.

Righty, here we see a superb technique for creating that frenzied type of pacing that thrusts the reader right up close. I discovered this technique whilst writing a dream sequence for An Angel's Canvas, in which I wanted to convey a type of panicky confusion that built to a blinding crescendo.
I start by imagining a camera in the scene. That camera focuses on one character and then switches to another. These switches pick up pace and gradually introduce more and more characters, or focal points (characters or objects that our attention is briefly drawn to), and the length of time spent on one focal point diminishes.
In this way, A did this, and B reacted; A did that, B did something else, C did this, A did that and C reacted and D entered with B doing this and A doing the other with C getting involved ...
You can see how disorientating this technique is. And if we are endeavouring to find the heart of a scene - its essence - we can see how this technique is superb for the fight scene which is, in many instances, fast-paced and disorientating. Remember, we're not simply telling a story: we're creating an experience - we're recreating the reader's experiences and splicing these together into a unique whole.

In Pullman's fight scene, see how quickly he switches between focal points, and how many focal points he uses:
Monkey > cat > needle-paws > Lyra > Will > window > Pantalaimon > cat > monkey > cat's claws > monkey's face > monkey > Mrs. Coulter's arms > cat > bushes.

As I suggested yesterday, short, stumpy sentences create a disjointed feeling. Check out how Pullman marries this with the long, flowing sentences. And check out the conjunctions! What he is doing here is forming repetitions that create a pattern in the reader's head such that she feels a pulse and skims the repetitions. In this way, the genius Pullman is able to use full-stops followed by conjunctions in order to augment the disjointed, uncomfortable nature of the action without harming the pace. Patterns are superb for generating a rhythmic pulse, bringing the reader into a trance-like state, propelling the narrative along, as a drum pattern might carry a melody.
Finally, Pullman uses a comma before the 'and vanished' as a kind of brake mechanism, slowing to allow the reader a breath at the end of this passage.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Chase Scene

Wanna look at a Pullman chase scene with me?
Sure you do :o)

Here's a tiny wee extract from The Subtle Knife. Lyra is running from a mysterious pale-haired man. With her is Pantalaimon (her soul represented in morphable animal form):

Across the road, ignoring the cars, the brakes, the squeal of tyres; into this gap between tall buildings, and then another road, with cars from both directions, but she was quick, dodging bicycles, always with the pale-haired man just behind her - oh, he was frightening!
Into a garden - over a fence - through some bushes - Pantalaimon skimming overhead, a swift, calling to her which way to go; crouching down behind a coal-bunker as the pale man's footsteps came racing past, and she couldn't hear him panting, he was so fast, and so fit; and Pantalaimon said, 'Back now - go back to the road -'

If we take a gander at Holly Lisle's four top tips for speeding up a scene, we can get an idea of how Pullman has constructed this passage:

1) Limit extraneous information: 'Concentrate on the main characters, their movements, their five senses, and their emotions.'
Sure enough, we don't know what make of cars these are, or what colour the bicycles are, or how many lumps of coal are in the coal-bunker, or what floral arrangements might adorn the garden, and we certainly don't have mention of a sunset. We hear the cars, the brakes and tyres, and the man's footsteps.
The pov is limited to Lyra (and don't forget that Pantalaimon's pov is an extension of Lyra's).
Her pov is narrow, focused on her escape and the immediate terrain that might conceal her. She has no thoughts for what she might eat for dinner, or of some embarrassing incident that occurred five years ago. Focused; tight and close ...

2) Pull your camera in close: 'Let us taste the blood at the corner of the lip, feel the pain of the broken bone, hear the whistling of the blade, smell sweat, see eyes wide with shock, the beads of sweat on upper lips. Sense details create a sense of immediacy and urgency, and make a scene feel faster.'
See how Pullman ties us to Lyra and shows only her immediate surroundings. The vehicles are conveyed fleetingly with limited description such that they become blurs. Similarly, she runs into a garden - over a fence - through some bushes: a giddying flight in which we can feel the leaves scratching her skin. And the man is so close that she can hear he isn't panting.

3) Keep sentences short and clean: 'There are times and places for the hundred word sentence, but the fast-paced action scene is not one of them.'
Clean, yes. But short?
My dear Holly, here I beg to differ, as does Mr. Pullman.
When I read a full-stop, I take a pause - sure, it is a minute pause, but it is enough to interrupt the flow.
I read commas and semi-colons as lesser pauses.
To mimick the pace, the pulse if you prefer, Pullman deprives us of breaths.
There is no sign of a full-stop in this line. Try reading it out loud:
Across the road, ignoring the cars, the brakes, the squeal of tyres; into this gap between tall buildings, and then another road, with cars from both directions, but she was quick, dodging bicycles, always with the pale-haired man just behind her - oh, he was frightening!
Note too how Pullman eases in the conjunctions (and and since and but, etc.), limiting the word count, maintaining a swift pace by thrusting the barest bones of information at us in the shortest time.
Short and stubby sentences punctuated with full-stops have their place. I use them to create a disjointed feel; in my new opening, I use them to convey Penpa's confusion as she sits up having been hurled on the wave of an explosion, something like:
Her right boot was missing. Her stockings were torn at the knees. She looked for her boot.
I really can't see this approach working to generate speed at all.

4) Be short, sharp, hard-edged: 'Use fragments (sparingly). Kill adjectives and adverbs -- be ruthless. You don't need many, and may not need any. Find good verbs and nouns, and let the scene run with them.'
Sure enough, I can't find an adverb in there, and there are scant few adjectives; the adjectives Pullman uses are relevant to Lyra's escape and to the threat and her desire to conceal herself in this unfamiliar environment (the buildings are 'tall').
Check out the power words; see how they mirror the action and the pace - Lyra's nerves and her pulse:
Squeal, quick, dodging, frightening, skimming, swift (Pullman pulled a stroke of genius when he invented the animal daemons: his choice of animal enhances each mood), racing, fast.

If I get the opportunity, I'd like to examine how Pullman handles a fight scene. You may be surprised at the differences between his chase scenes and his fight scenes.

The image above is of Franz von Stuck's Wild Chase.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Limited Knowledge

In the words of the delicious Helen Merrill, 'Hush now, don't explain.'
My son goes to sleep to Helen Merrill.

Well, I've certainly encountered my fair share of problems in revisiting the first ms I wrote. Heavens, I was such a dillbrain back then (and yes, I'm sure I'll say the same thing about the now-me in another couple of years - well, tomorrow probably).

What I did have back then was enthusiasm and that carefree sense of fun that comes with being naive, er, jejune.
I still have that enthusiasm, for sure, in buckets, but I now write under the wry and watchful eyes of hundreds of techniques, all sitting on my shoulder like tiny professors, tutting and shaking their heads from time to time, or drawing a noisy breath of disapproval. B*stards.
I don't know if you're artistic: when I am, say, charcoaling a life model, there is this overpowering feeling that the image is defying me from the outset, willing me to fail. It's a full on battle, sometimes of profound proportions. Hmmm ... I'm close to a tangent here.

Anyhoo, I can feel things coming full-circle again. It's very strange.
I was right worried that I wouldn't be able to make my new style and old style meet, and for a while they were like chalk and ear wax, but after a lot of honing and a lot of immersion and a fresh understanding of Penpa and her world, I'm starting to hear wedding bells. (Erm, a marriage between old and new.)

One problem that I never resolved, moreover I side-stepped it, was this:
Penpa lives with Blinky at the top of the world and she knows nothing of the world outside other than what she reads in these mysterious journals that she found.

I initially wrote the majority of the ms in third-person omniscient. In that way, I could comfortably refer to things beyond Penpa's extremely limited knowledge. But, as I'm sure you've guessed, this did nothing to forge the reader-protag bond.
So my new opening is primarily written in third-person limited. Which means that Penpa's knowledge is my knowledge: a 'cannon' becomes a fire-belching beast, and a 'cannonball' becomes a star blazing through the sky, whistling without tune, etc. And imagine the problems with measurements (I use spans which I imagine as being some Penpa-made unit, probably the length of her forearm or somesuch) and time (I use sunrise, sunfall, moonrise, moonfall, and seasons, although the idea of discerning seasons from the top of the world still troubles me).
Then, in my old opening, I felt obliged to kill the pace and explain to the reader how Penpa found these journals in the first place, and her thoughts about how she came into the world and the like. Opening pace = zero.
Now, with Penpa watching the nomads from afar, I'm happy to limit this information to the absolute minimum: All that Penpa knows about the outside world has been gleaned from journals that she discovered => the journals explain that, if one were to gaze into the eyes of a nomad, one's soul would be sucked out.
Stick to the crucial point: set-up the anticipation. The rest can wait, and the reader is happy to wait (indeed, the reader is expectant) provided that something else is going on.

I'm about happy with my new opening, and am almost ready to go into chapter two (the original chapter one). I have already identified the point where I can allow the pace to slow; at this point, I shall answer a few more questions such as where and how Penpa came upon these journals.
We've been discussing pace a lot of late. I'm learning to recognize those moments where pace can drop, and those moments where it absolutely must not drop. I'm learning to drip-feed information as and when it is necessary. And I'm learning to stagger this drip-feeding such that there are always questions in the reader's head.
I remember an interview with Jo Rowling in which she confessed that her first editor told her to keep some stuff back (hence the seven novels I guess).

I'm reading the second of Pullman's His Dark Materials novels at the moment (The Subtle Knife). The pacing, the drip-feeding of information, is exemplary. There are always unanswered questions and there are lulls when Lyra and Will discuss things, and then triggers that launch the narrative into a heady pace. Such pacings are not necessarily action-packed: often they are dialogue-delivered packets of information, well-timed reveals or reversals that fuel the momentum.
Remember my little ramble about anticipation - that sword-swallower who, in spite of his dullness, kept me hanging on? If we're clever like Mr. Pullman, we can ensure that even those requisite lulls are framed with suspense.

Monday, 18 June 2007

The Power of Words

I just lifted up my weighty New English Dictionary and discovered a flat spider.
Poor thing.I had a few hours in the old dictionary at the weekend. This is something I do quite often. My experience is that I can easily find myself relying upon a favoured palette of words. An occasional refresher does the power of good.
So I flicked open at a random page and jotted down useful words as I read - words that I felt might come in handy in the chapter I'm currently working on, or words that have filtered through to the back of my head and gathered dust and needed a short jolt back into place. I think this happens to us all. I also jot down any cool words that I've never heard before; I'll probably never be able to use them because of their obscurity (and they would buffet the reader out of their 'trance'), but hey, I love words! And you never know when the appropriate context might present itself.

Here's my weekend harvest:

isinglass (a kind of gelatine obtained from some freshwater fish)
jejune (simple, naive; meagre)
jonquil ([n] fragrant yellow or white narcissus; [adj] pale yellow)
lapis lazuli

I guess it's a part of my style, my voice, but I have a fondness for old-fashioned words. For example, rather than use the word 'date' I'd prefer 'court'. With so many words to choose from, I do feel that, from time to time, it's worthwhile taking a step back and looking at the ones we have chosen. I find it beneficial picking through, say, an Aldous Huxley novel and adding to my style library. From the opening chapter to Antic Hay:

orris root

One of the advantages to this is that my child protags can use profanities such as 'harridan' or 'sook'.

I also have readily-accessible lists of useful synonyms, mainly colours and textures, that I have built over the years from every source I can find.

So, if ever you feel that your voice needs an injection of adrenaline, reach for the writer's friend (even if Hemingway was disparaging about writers who use dictionaries).

Delivery Systems

We've probed into some of the techniques that made Utopia into a winner.
It's worth taking a look at the downers: the turgid setting up.
Jack M Bickham (whose name will forever fill my mind with sunsets) discussed the idea of delivery systems. These are the ways in which we can impart information to our lovely readers, and they have characteristic speeds assigned to them (the delivery systems, not the readers).
So, from memory, here they are:

The slowest of all delivery systems is the exposition. Exposition is like an obese and hairy info dump. During exposition, all forward momentum ceases.

Next up, we have the description. Descriptions, like expositions, kill the pace. However, they tend to be more contained - more focused.

The narrative provides a blow-by-blow account of our characters and their actions. The narrative provides a continuous movement.

Dialogue can be a very speedy means of relating information. It can be edited to achieve a breathtaking pace.

Dramatic summary is the fastest of the delivery systems, says Jack. Dramatic summary is dramatic and event-driven, and it is cut to achieve maximum pace. A car chase scene summarized to a single paragraph is the example Jack uses.

Holly Lisle has some terrific tips for controlling pace. Her ideas aren't that far removed from Jack's, and she takes a more pragmatic approach; practical methods of pacing one's story. Note her thoughts on near and far!

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Utopian Dominoes

Well, what to make of last night's Doctor Who episode, Utopia?
Thirty odd minutes of listlessness followed by fifteen minutes of genius perhaps?
Thirty odd minutes of set-up (including tedious techno-babble about footprints and the like that left my son fidgety) followed by a string of rising aha! moments that had us glued to the tv?

So, how were those magic fifteen minutes set-up?

[Here there be spoilers! Actually, that pic is probably a spoiler too so don't look at it. You already have? Darn, I should've set the spoiler up.]

It's hard to tell because the set-ups are designed to be invisible: for this reason, the aha! moments become surprises. However, the set-ups do need to be registered by the audience for the ahas! to work their magic. Moreover, we need to be able to look with hindsight and see how inevitable the ahas! were (and not 'out of the blue' coincidences - we need to feel that the surprises are logical).

It struck me as very odd that the vid-monitors displayed the callers' names, not least the weird retro typefaces and, if I'm not wrong, a close up of the names(?).
I'd have to watch it again; however, this fact certainly impressed itself upon me, and that is the key. I gave it little thought thereafter.
Add to this the repeated mention of Professor Yana's name, including the Doctor asking 'What was your name again?', and the Professor's little monologue about his title meaning nothing and universities not being around for however many years (I seem to remember it was 1000 years which struck me as odd again, for it's not a very significant number given that he's hanging out at the end of time), and the big revelation is almost ready to rumble.

Then dear Martha reminds us of the Face of Boe's dying words: 'You are not alone.'

Then the pocketwatch comes out (in a terribly crap link: you can just imagine the script guys thinking 'How can we get the Professor to pull out a pocketwatch in a really natural way?' If memory serves, Martha happened to make casual mention of the time).

This is where the episode begins to kick ass. All the dominoes have been lined up (and let's not forget that the first few dominoes were erected a good while back with the Mr.Saxon headline in the Abzorbaloff's newspaper and the Face of Boe's proclamation in the hospital, and probably then some) and the first one topples - a chain reaction.

Subliminal impressioning.
We need to feel that something is significant.
We knew the Face of Boe's proclamation was significant, because a big deal was made of it.
We knew that the title and name of the Professor were significant because of repetition.
There are tricks that are peculiar to visual media: the close-ups, the prolonged shot (when the camera lingers on a doorknob, we expect it to turn), the unnatural link, etc. We writers have our own approximated set of tricks.

Sometimes, something stands out and we don't know why and we put it out of our conscious mind but it lingers in the unconscious mind.
Why was a big deal made out of Jack's invulnerability? Well, there is he is prancing about in an irradiated room, saving lives.
Why was a big fuss made over Jack's time travel device ('boys with toys')? Well, I'm guessing, but the TARDIS has vamoosed and the Doctor and his chummies are stuck in the future.
The chameleon pocketwatch was made significant in the previous two-parter: a prolonged show - we see what it can do. But we are not aware that it will play a major part in the season's climax.
Given that the climax is of utmost importance, we could even imagine that the previous two-parter was entertaining misdirection: a set-up for the big finale.
And there, staring you in the subconscious face, are assorted wordplays: Mister Saxon is an anagram of Master no. six, and YANA is an acronym for You Are Not Alone.

What other dominoes have been set-up?
There was repeated mention of the conglomerations: will they have significance?
This Utopia place - is it significant?
Captain Jack's invulnerability: He's pushed in a few radiation rods, but is that the end of it?
The Doctor instigated Harriet Jones' downfall. Is this set to become a big deal?
What else lurks in the audience's subconscious, waiting for the trigger that will unleash the aha! - a cunningly positioned domino loaded with goosebumps?
We place those dominoes in the reader's subconscious; we make significant in invisible ways such as repetition, unusual context and misdirection. And we look down on our domino landscape and burst with excitement and trepidation as we push the first one over ...

Thursday, 14 June 2007

A Rose

Just having a bit of fun there popping in and out of the comments pages and picking out the more interesting of the verification code thingies.

Am embroiled in the very serious matter of naming my king.
Here are just a few of the character names I have thus far:
Penpa, Blinky, Fenestra, Incus, Malleus, Stapes, Doris, Hexabod Grubfinger, Tomas, On-On-peg, Bed, Sera (pronounced 'Sarah'), Pelycurnips, Father Dactyloop, Meniscus Flerens, Florigen, Baste, Marla and Gane.
I wonder: If I were to describe these characters, would you be able to match the description to the name?
One of these characters is a polite young ghost boy; one is a grumpy wooden horse; one is a spirit-zoo keeper with an Oedipus complex; one is a sky ferryman/hitman.
What I wonder more than that, however, is if it matters in the slightest.

I use a wide range of techniques for deciding on names. Some relate to chapter themes, some are onomatopoetic, some are anagrams, some are hybrids, some are lifted from my science dictionary, some are adaptations of my son's ideas, others probably tap into something in my darkest subconscious.
However, as discussed in a previous post (The Pool, the Leash, and the Aesthetic Overseer), what matters most of all is that the name sounds right.

Where's my buba, takete pic ..?
Aha!This is a famous experiment (and not the highlight of my art portfolio).
Subjects are asked to determine which of these two shapes is called buba, and which is called takete.

Responses are pretty darned conclusive, with the overwhelming majority selecting the rounded shape as the buba and the pointy shape as the takete. (N.B. I don't know who has been tested, and would be interested to know how many cultures this experiment works for.)

As a part of my aesthetic check, I guage my reaction to the feel of the character name. (N.B. And it's not just character names I apply this to: every word in the narrative needs to feel right to me; in practically every case, any given word can be substituted for another.)
Sure, we make all manner of connections. If I name my character Hitler, the typical reader will automagically think 'bad guy'. Or, if I name my character Mavis, the reader will think 'female', and possibly even 'female pensioner'. There's no getting away from this.
But look beneath the surface. What is your mouth doing when you enunciate the word? Does the word feel soft, like buba, or sharp, like takete?
Going back to those verification codes, do they suggest characters to you? Do they give you a feeling?

This is yet another technique we can use in order to hit the reader subliminally - to raise emotions in the reader without her having the faintest notion of why these emotions are surfacing.

My favourite king name so far - the one that best defines his personality - is:
Still not quite right though ...

Monday, 11 June 2007

A Spider Theory 2 (Out of Control)

There's this vibrant fellow named David Bridger and he would like to know what scares you.
I read somewhere that we are born with two fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Indeed, fear is an emotion and is classified as an innate defense mechanism.

As stalwart maggot farmers will know, I'm more interested in anticipation/suspense which I believe lies at the heart of fear: it's what we believe will happen, either rationally or irrationally, that frightens us. In this way, fear affords us the preemptive strike and it is such an expectancy that propels narrative.
Jiddu Krishnamurti went a little further and suggested that thinking is the root of all fear: We fear the repetition of something unpleasant, and we fear the removal of something pleasant (or, at least, we fear that something good we have experienced will never be recaptured).
In the 1830s, John Jefferson preached: 'Health cannot be calculated upon for a moment; friends may be suddenly snatched from our embrace; riches "make themselves wings and fly away"; the deepest reverses, and the greatest elevations, are occurring in the daily history of men; and "in the midst of life, we are in death".'

It has been interesting reading some of the responses to David's question. Many confess to a fear of spiders (and one woman goes so far as to put this down to the spider's movements). Many confess to a fear of losing loved ones, or of death itself. There are fears, too, of not achieving or fulfilling one's goals.
So let's take a look at the idea of control, and of losing it.

In Stephen King's Misery, we find the protagonist at the mercy of the natural environment (Paul Sheldon is snowbound) and of the man-made environment (Paul is locked in a room) and of the frailties of the body (Paul is wheelchair-bound) and of the human antagonist (Paul poops his pants each time Annie Wilkes enters). And when the Sheriff comes to the rescue, he is promptly despatched (removal of aid = removal of that which will restore control).
Further to this, Paul has been stripped of his clothes and dressed by Annie. Vulnerability often appears in dreams as nakedness. I like to strip down my characters to emphasize their vulnerability: not necessarily down to their birthday suit, but perhaps losing a jacket or a pair of sandals. You only need to consider Hitchcock's shower scene in Psycho to see this vulnerability in action. When detecting lies, Paul McKenna looks, in part, for those miniscule facial expressions that form involuntarily as a response to guilt. Every culture has its form of conditioning - an overpowering sense of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, indoctrinated at an early age. For many cultures, nudity falls under this category.

This lack of control can be manifested in many forms.
One poster confessed to having a fear of not being able to accomplish everything that she wanted to. The inability to control people - to make them accept or love oneself - is very likely a common fear.
Similarly, several respondents to David's question confessed their fear of dying, or of losing a loved one. Here we see multiple factors: change (the unknown/losing control of one's environment and one's preparedness, even temporarily), strong emotional responses (loneliness, sadness, anger, etc which can be considered as losing control of one's emotional state and maybe even leading to losing control of one's mind), and a strong reminder of our mortality (having no control over Death's impending icy touch).

When creating relationships between characters, I am always conscious of who is in control (and who is not). As Margie will tell you, it is easy to forge these dynamic relationships through dialogue, through body language, and through a myriad of invisible, subliminal signifiers.
Who is steering the conversation? Who is moving closer and who is moving away? Who is speaking slowly and deliberately, and who is struggling to string a sentence together? Who is unhurried and who is flustered? Who is standing and who is sitting?

Who is tied to the chair and who is cutting off the ear?

Control and its removal are powerful emotive tools. And given that we deal in conflicts, our ability to control control is of earnest importance.

Friday, 8 June 2007


Okay my lovely, maggoty companions, enough talk.
I would like to invite you all to critique my new opening paragraph.
By the end of this paragraph, a professional reader will have already formed a strong impression of my proposal; she will have an understanding of my style and tone, of my ability to immerse and hold a reader, and of my competence as a writer.
I have attempted to:
Set the scene;
Bond reader to Penpa;
Create first-stage 'big cat' image of Blinky;
Define the part of Penpa's character that will undergo the greater change;
Introduce tone by communicating my chapter keywords (excitement, danger, thrill, wonder, curiosity, naivety);
Introduce and allude to backstory;
Introduce relationship (dominant and passive switches) between Penpa and Blinky;
Introduce style;
Create anticipation.

Furthermore, I am endeavouring to conclude each paragraph with a mini cliffhanger.
Hope this works for you :o)
If it does not work for you, I will be indebted to you for the opportunity to make amends.


Penpa climbed from Blinky's back and bounded to the edge of the precipice, where the snow and the eidelweiss plummeted away into rock. She stood, concealed in the dark perfumed huddle of the needle trees and watched with them, surveying an ice-smoked valley.
'Keep still!' hushed Penpa.
Blinky stopped pawing at the dewy frost that always formed on his whiskers when they ventured beneath the clouds. Below, the valley glistened like a sea of orange fire. In the near distance, a crown of mountain peaks doused the valley with indigo shadows. Penpa had never before witnessed such a glorious sight; she had never been so far from home so close to sunfall. It was a terrible risk, but her curiosity was more persuasive than her responsibilities. Then she saw them: A caravan of obsidian shapes emerged from the shade and snaked about the rocks and snowbanks below. Penpa's cotton breaths panted into the cold as she raised the spyglass to her eye.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Non-Verbal Communication

How is it that I can write a passage one day and it provokes an emotional reaction in me, and then I can write a passage another day and it feels flat and emotionless?
Take my opening to Tethered Light: I was sat with it last night, reading through, feeling not very much for it. I began working on it, line by line, digging for something deep within. I can't quite say how, but by working so microscopically, I began to change my reaction to the words. Note that the story has not changed: it's just the words and descriptions I'm using, and he choices I'm making to tell my story.
I drew my opening scene, which just so happens to unfold over a sunset (Down Jack, down! The sunset is an important plot device!). I find that drawing my settings and characters helps me; I can remove some of the blurred edges that inhabit my mind's eye. And then I began searching for the perfect words for each job, trying to lose myself to this world and its characters, trying to feel and subsequently convey Penpa's wonder at this dazzling scene, trying to wring emotions from my prose. The change in my response was dramatic: I began to feel something magical, something tinged with a profound loneliness.
But what was happening? Where was this emotion coming from? Was it the change in balance that occurred as I added lines here and deleted them there, focusing for longer on this and playing down that? Or maybe the words and combinations of words were fusing together, fermenting to forge these stronger emotions?
One thing's for sure: I'm not sending my manuscript out until it has me weeping and laughing and clenching my fists in anger.

I've come across Margie Lawson, who seems something of an expert in emotions in writing. I like Margie. She claims that a good writer is like a hypnotist, suspending the reader's disbelief and holding him a trance-like state.
From what I can tell, Margie suggests that the key to eliciting emotional response is to write subliminally. She tells of kinesics, haptics, proxemics, facial expressions, and of paralanguage; she discusses ideomotoric shifts and proprioceptive stimuli.
All very scary words!
But they all refer to non-verbal communication - to writing between the lines and to subliminal impressioning.
Ready to dive in ..? I think it'll be worth our while.

Ray Birdwhistell suggests that 'No more than 30 to 35 percent of the social meaning of a conversation or an interaction is carried by the words.' Ray was the first person to use the word kinesics.
Kinesics is the interpretation of body language.

Haptics is the study of touching behaviour.
We've looked at the power of kinaesthesia in terms of Primary Representational Systems.
Touch is a very intimate thing. I do remember watching The Life Aquatic and feeling very little for the movie until, by way of consolation, all of Steve Zissou's friends placed their hands on his shoulders. It was a very powerful moment; I can't see how the same effect could have been achieved with words.

Proxemics is the study of personal space.
I'm sure you've met people who stand too close to you when they speak. It's a most uncomfortable feeling. And there you have two very easy-to-implement opportunities to create a lingering emotional response in your reader: your character stands very close to somebody; your character is approached by somebody who stands very close to him. You can use proxemics from both perspectives.

'Paralanguage refers to the non-verbal elements of communication used to modify meaning and convey emotion. Paralanguage may be expressed consciously or unconsciously, and it includes the pitch, volume, and, in some cases, intonation of speech. Sometimes the definition is restricted to vocally-produced sounds. The study of paralanguage is known as paralinguistics.'
[N.B. I've just copy-and-pasted from wikipedia.]

'The ideomotor effect is a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously (i.e, without conscious awareness).'
[N.B. Also copy-and-pasted from wikipedia. I'm certainly not claiming to know about these things!]

Proprioception is an interoceptive sense, rather like an internal version of the exteroceptive senses, such as taste and smell, etc. Julius Caeser Scaliger described it as a 'sense of locomotion.'
In proprioception, bits of your body know where other bits are and what they're up to.

I daresay that non-verbal communication is not the last word in emotional stimulae, but I can see its significance.

Monday, 4 June 2007


Had a blinder of a writing session on Friday: Six intensive hours of writing and 2,000 not-crap words.
After a month or two of pretty unfulfilling sessions, I decided to think back to how I began, and how I managed to write 2,000 words every day.
In those days, I would sit on the sofa and write by hand on paper. No thoughts of a computer.
I found that I could more easily lose myself to the story and to my characters and their world. Furthermore, in typing up my writing, I would perform a second pass, tightening up the sentences and paragraphs, amending the odd word or description here and there.
My return to this, apart from being a great success, was something of an indication of what I've been neglecting recently.

I've been having discussions with my old buddy ricardo about clutter, which I would define as unnecessary wordage. It's all well and good writing a lot of great stuff, but that stuff suffocates and loses its lustre when buried in beautiful descriptions and events that add nothing.
In this way, we're not simply looking to keep the reader enthralled, we're looking to avoid everything that does not keep the reader enthralled. It's not what we do well that will sell our writing, it's what we don't do well that will harm our credibility.

Don't describe sunsets, advises Jack Bickham.
His point is that such descriptions destroy the pace. To take his warning literally is, I believe, a big mistake. We can and should describe things. But we must always be conscious of the peaks and the valleys in our writing, and we should remember that, if the reader is going to jump ship, he is going to do this in a valley.

I didn't have enough valleys in my new opening to Tethered Light. My world didn't quite seem to gel to me, and my characters didn't quite come alive.
I have controlled the peaks and valleys, forming a breathless ride through successive perils. I have controlled the emotional topography. But I felt fear inside when constructing my carefully positioned valleys: I was frightened of holding and squeezing the juice from them.
Having broken free from her flying beast, Penpa plummets. A line break indicates a change in time and place. I had Penpa wake in the snow, and I was eager to throw her into peril again. But this is an intimate moment for Penpa and the reader: it is a moment of bonding; a moment where I need to pull out the emotions; an opportunity to consider Penpa's loneliness and isolation, and her love for Blinky.
Sod Bickham, I thought (in a respectful way of course). I kept Penpa there, hugged by the snow. She opens her eyes and the moon regards her tenderly (oh yes, I'm not frightened of adverbs any more!). Her life would be empty without Blinky: her only companions would be the faraway sun and the different moons that pass by and the stars that look on. Dig, solvey; dig for that emptiness and that loss; explore the aching heart. Make this character real and emotional.
This valley is tagged: 'Breather for reader. Reader gets to know Penpa; reader gets to lie in the snow with her and look up at the moon with her. Reader must share her sadness. Reader must want to hug Penpa and care for her.'

I watched Sylvia at the weekend. It's the life of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, retold from Sylvia's perspective. By all accounts, it was a pretty unhappy relationship which culminated in Sylvia's suicide.
You know what was wrong with this movie? After the joyous opening fifteen minutes, there were no more happy moments. The emotional topography never peaked again and I was all but willing Sylvia to take her own life by the end.

You know something my friends? Our highs and our lows are measured by their context - by their place between and amongst other highs and lows. A high that follows a high has nowhere near the emotional effect of a high that follows a low.
We build up and we destroy.
We destroy and we build up.
What is a peak without a valley, or a valley without a peak? A plateau; a flat and uninspiring topography.
What is a world without sunsets? A place that knows no contrast.
What is the measure of happiness if there is no sadness, or the measure of a storm without a calm?

Friday, 1 June 2007


I accidentally caught a bit of some gameshow yesterday. I might've interpreted it incorrectly, but here's what I made of it:

Members of the public get up on the stage and do whatever they can by way of entertainment. The studio audience have a button each. When they are bored of the act, they press their button. When fifty percent of the audience have pressed their button, the performer/s is/are cast from the stage.
The object is for the performer/s to survive for as long as possible: at regular milestones, cash is added to their money pool.
There might even be another objective which is to survive longer than the other performers. Don't know.

Anyhoo, what interested me was the performance indicator: the meter at the bottom of the screen that measured the percentage of audience members who had pressed their buttons.
In this way, there is a clear visual representation of when people are getting bored with an act.
Wouldn't it be great to have something similar for your writing!

This one guy was introduced as some kind of extreme juggler. Here's the key bit: he had, I think, three feats to perform, culminating in some brilliantly dangerous climax.

At that point, I wondered to myself how many people would hold out for this climax; how would this performer string out this anticipation?; how long could he sustain interest in any one feat before moving to the next?
Again, you can see how relevant this is to writing!
This also ties in with my friend's experiments in repetition in music and anticipation in pauses.

As you'd expect, he went for a few seconds juggling daggers before anyone registered boredom. He really eked the daggers out. He almost hit the first milestone on the daggers alone! I was bored of the daggers, but would I have pressed my button? No. Next to him were swords! I wanted to see him do stuff with swords. And I wanted to see this brilliantly dangerous climax that I should not try at home. The daggers twirled through the air - yeah, yeah, seen that now - and they twirled some more - c'mon mate, show us what you do with swords. The guy was onto a winner!

I was watching not because I was interested in what was happening, but because I wanted to see what was going to happen!

Anyhoo, he eventually got onto the swords and stuck one down his throat and everyone pressed their button. Well, I think they did: I certainly pressed mine because sword swallowing is dull and, if he were to spend as long on the swords as he did on the daggers (and I don't know if this was the case, but he had created that expectation in me), I wasn't going to give this guy any more of my time.
So I did something else instead.

This demonstrates the remarkable power of anticipation. Do not underestimate its power.
It also demonstrates the need for a good pay-off.

There were also two girls in gold hotpants doing pole dancing.