Friday, 31 August 2007

Queue 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 29 August 2007


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 25 August 2007


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The Fat Novel

Marcel Duchamp's Portrait of Chess Players.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Open Mouthed

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 9 August 2007


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

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

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

Friday, 3 August 2007

How Lolita Walks

As we're back onto movement again, here's Humbert Humbert lusting after Lolita:

Friday. Saw her going somewhere with a dark girl called Rose. Why does the way she walks - a child, mind you, a mere child! - excite me so abominably? Analyze it. A faint suggestion of turned in toes. A kind of wiggly looseness below the knee prolonged to the end of each footfall. The ghost of a drag. Very infantile, infinitely meretricious.

You'll find Nabokov's Lolita in every 'top 100 novels' list. It's a tremendous novel; the prose is highly poetic with high regard for devices of sound, although I did find myself overwhelmed by the adjectives.
'Nabokov was a synesthete and described aspects of synesthesia in several of his works. In his memoir Speak, Memory, he notes that his wife also exhibited synesthesia; like her husband, her mind's eye associated colors with particular letters.' [Source: wikipedia.]

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

How Nuns Walk

I was watching a pair of nuns walking the other day. (It was a slow day for spiders' webs.)
I watched them for ages and was struck by how out of step they were with each other: they never once fell into step, and their walking patterns showed complete and capricious disregard for each other.
This is curious, for most people when walking together fall into step. Often this pattern is mirrored across the walkers, but the patterns invariably reveal an awareness and bonding with each other. You might remember Mr. Keating making such a comment in Dead Poets Society.
I wonder if it's a holy thing; I wonder if their minds are so at peace and so independent and free of psychological shackles that their subconsciouses take no nourishment from such conformities.
This is of interest to me because I believe that characters are predominantly defined by their movement, by the way they carry themselves. Movement, if you will, is a crucial part of that all important essence. A little way behind the nuns, I noticed a thirty-something woman wearing a cardigan (on a hot day) and walking with her shoulders hunched and her eyes down. Dowdy and stiff and defensive were the words that immediately sprang to mind.
I wonder if attire and appearance typically tally with movement when forming an impression, or whether they might work against each other? I was certainly struck, too, by the grimy greyness of the nuns' clothing.
Anyhoo, more food for thought.

The mirrored step pattern demonstrates the connection between the walkers, with strides compensating to alleviate differences such as leg lengths.