Saturday, 29 September 2007

Word Palettes

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Food for Thought

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

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

Friday, 14 September 2007

Ha Ha

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Oelze and Roy

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

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

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

Monday, 10 September 2007

The Golden Eyes Have it

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

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

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

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

Apparently, the human face is based entirely on phi.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Alien Topography and Prophetic Misdirection

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

All images copyrighted.
Alien script here.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Giant Clank

Peer Gynt

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

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

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

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

- - -

Dear Mr. Grieg,

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