Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Resonance


Had a quick shimmy through various dictionary definitions.
Resonance is about echoes and endurance and evocation.

So, it transpires that Sylar is Nathan and Peter's brother eh? (Heroes.)
And Darth Vader is Luke and Leia's dad.
So what's the big deal? Why are so many plots peppered with familial revelations?
And just what does a reader want from an author anyway?

I'm guessing that the reader responds to things he recognises.
Or, to put it another way, that he'll not be bothered about your hero's quest if he finds nothing recognisable within it.

I asked a friend what he thought about the Heroes reveal. He wasn't bothered. I asked him what he was bothered about. He gave examples of movies that culminated in achievement and accolades - those movies in which the protag ultimately achieves his goal, typically an academic one, and receives the recognition that he has been fighting for (from his peers). My friend is an academic, about to head off to Maria country (Oxford) to create virtual bones. His family, I understand, were very hard on him as he grew up. He was designed for academia. His father has achieved great things. Hence, his views on family are tainted with none of the excitement and desire which he assigns to individual achievement.
So, it's not simply enough to provide recognisable situations; these situations need to be tailored to an intended audience.
However, family, despite being fallible as a resonant device, is usually a safe bet because it has a huge catchment area.

I was lured to a free coffee stall in the market square a few weeks ago by a girl who explained 'The boss has a new woman'. Apparently, that was the explanation for the coffee giveaway.
As a salesman, I discovered that people need an explanation. Why is this restaurant inviting me down for free grub? Why does this golf course need my custom? Why are your computers so cheap? So we would always give them a reason. It's their third birthday, or they've just redecorated, or whatever. It doesn't matter. Just a reason. People need resonance; we need to find a personal relevance, otherwise we are suspicious or indifferent. Surely, more people would be willing to empathise with the boss who has found the love of his life than would empathise with the boss who wants to entice you away from your favourite coffee shop?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Wait for me



Having brazenly concluded that the reader should be primed immediately before a major reveal, I must now justify my claim.
Here's what I reckon.

It's likely that any fresh revelation is gonna require of the reader a bit of thought: suddenly, the reader must apply this new knowledge to all that has gone before.
Ah, so Vader is Luke's dad! Let me think about how that works ...
In this example, Luke and Vader bash out this revelation together. Once the loose ends are tied up, Luke makes his decision and falls to almost certain doom.
The movie waits for the viewer to catch up.
However, a more mature audience probably won't want, or need, an explanation of the effects of a revelation.

The reveal is a critical moment. You get one stab at it. If the reader is primed and the reveal is freshly set-up in his head, then it will instantly hit home. Emotional response. Yay.

For an example of what not to do, let's take a look at Saw IV.
What an awful ending. Hit with one reveal, my mind started dealing with the implications, but was given no time to do so before it had to deal with a load more nonsensical and supposedly climactic moments (I knew they were supposed to be big deals because that music was kicking off). The film gave my brain too much to process at once and I found myself several steps behind the revelations.
You get one stab at them. So be quite sure that the reader is precisely where you want him, and then allow him time to adjust.
By the time the Saw IV credits began to roll, I had no idea what had just happened and, with no more movie to watch, cast the thoughts from my head and got on with something else.

All of these thoughts are leading to my big question:
How should I conclude my first act?

I figure that, with a hypothetical down-time between acts I and II, I am entitled (and perhaps even expected) to present the reader with some sort of revelation that will require some thought. There aren't many places where I can easily do this in a novel. For one, a major revelation would then require the pace to slow (so that the reader can catch up). For two, a major revelation would be hard to eclipse later on. Little reveals, for sure, but stuff that creates so much change, be it a major reveal or a reversal or whatever, needs some consideration from the reader.

I'm cool with this theory, but ...
I'm giving serious thought to shifting the negative opening to act II - also an event which requires of the reader a reasonable amount of contemplation - to the end of act I, such that it follows the positive ending I have already.
In principle, this would give me a lovely, rapid-fire positive to negative switch, and two key moments back-to-back. And, I've figured out how to use an incongruity between these two events to create a humorous and ironic conclusion. Importantly, the reader is invited to reconsider the course of the hero's journey and to reasses how it might continue. And anticipation is always the key (anticipation = page turning).
Provided that the first trigger doesn't require too much immediate contemplation, my plan might just work.

In considering how best to conclude an act, I guess it's worth considering the nature of this virtual void, this limbo, which reaches from the end of one act to the beginning of the next. In this limbo, we can dare to gift the reader with things that we wouldn't dare elsewhere.

I have thoughts to come on degrees of space (limbos). In his essay on the elements of style, Robert Louis Stevenson refers to a web of phrases bound by rhythm and meaning. Consider the breathing spaces that reside within commas, semi-colons, full-stops, line breaks, and all the way through to the inexorable void that sits at the novel's end ...

Lest We Forget



If you think about all the stuff that goes on around us, it's little wonder that our brain only registers a small percentage of it all. And then it's pretty darned selective when it comes to slotting this decanted stuff into our memory. I have thoughts on resonance and space to come shortly.

In the meantime, I've been wondering about this for ages:
"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."
Yes, you'll recognise it for sure: it's Chekhov's gun.
First of all, it's a rather one-sided argument. We're familiar with the importance of the MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is a gun that isn't fired. Agent Cox showed me the benefits of the MacGuffin (Torak's fever for example!). Murakami is the MacGuffin king. He lays down plot device after plot device and seldom takes them to any sort of resolution. And yet, on mentioning this to Murakami fans, they're always surprised. They never notice.
Because it's startling how quickly we forget stuff. That woman who phones the protag in chapter one of Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is quickly forgotten, and then pops back once or twice more in the novel to no further avail. She is eaten up by whatever thread immediately takes her place. Our focus is diverted. But, when she was there, she certainly had me turning the page.
A lecturer once explained to us art students that most people will take in the first few minutes of a lecture and then start to flag. It's ironic that I can't remember how many minutes. I think it was about seven.
The part of Chekhov's Gun that has been baffling me is this bit:
...in the following one...
Really? If I introduce a gun in one act, I should have it fired in the next act (MacGuffins aside)?
Why the next act? Why not the next chapter or the last chapter?
My problem has been compounded by the variations of the quote across the internet. You can find quotes without any regard for the timing aspect, and quotes that refer to 'earlier' and 'later', or the 'first act' and 'the third act'. Indeed, we all see the world very differently. So I'll have to defer to wikipedia. :-)
So can we really be anything like specific?
Speaking of focus, have you noticed how you'll happen upon a certain word - one that you perhaps haven't heard for a good long while - and then it'll keep popping up throughout the week?
All that stuff happening about us and we're conditioned to notice only a fraction of it.
Which ties in with my recent thoughts on first-person narrator dictating style. Here's an example:
This is the view from my bus-stop. I see this scene every week day morning.

What do you see?

My brain likes words. Here's what it sees. Within the word assuRANCE (on the Pearl Assurance House) are the letters that make the word NACRE which is another word for mother-of-pearl. Coincidence eh! But look over there at that cANCER Research shop. The word NACRE is in there too! Oh, and just to the right of the Cancer Research Shop is a dry ClEANeRS. NACRE again.

Would my protag see this?

Doubtful. His mother died of cancer. It's constantly on his mind. He'd see the Cancer Research shop. And he has a thing for umbrellas, so he'd see that woman with the umbrella.

So perhaps it's not so curious that, whilst watching Seven this evening, I noticed that Detective David Mills spoke very briefly of his wife twice before setting off on that final fateful journey. Because the viewer's brain needed to be set up for the next scene. (And note how her mention is dubiously crowbarred in!)

More curious is the fact that, on finishing Seven, I switched over to ITV to see a reconstruction of some murder in which a woman's head was discovered in a box.

All I'll dare to conclude for now is that, very soon before you present that reveal, you'll need to prepare the reader for it, at least on a subconscious level (or prime them if you prefer). You can separate the introduction to that gun from the firing of that gun by as many words as you so please, provided that the reader is primed and expectant just before it goes off. And often this requires an amount of repetition.

Writing is a temporal art: like music, it moves through time. But what is in the reader's head at any given moment? How the blazes should I lead him from one thread to the next, and/or how long can/should I hold out on him?

There will be more thoughts soon, when I'm not so tired. I'm going to bed. G'night.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A Checklist

Here's an interesting guide compiled by Jessica Faust and designed to give her interns something tangible with which to assess the merits of a submission.

  • What was the book about?
  • Did the overall idea seem different and unique?
  • Was it a common theme, but executed in a unique way?
  • What did you think of the author’s voice?
  • Did the characters seem real and likable?
  • Was the plot seamless and did it make sense or were there a lot of holes?
  • Did the multiple plotlines blend together to create a whole book or did they seem choppy and disconnected?
  • Did the dialogue seem real and believable or did it feel forced?
  • Were you able to easily figure out what happened or did the author keep you guessing?
  • Is this a book that would seem to have viability in the market?
  • Are there other popular books you could relate this to?
  • Are there too many similar books to make this stand out?
  • What is the author’s platform? If nonfiction, is this an author with a great deal of visibility in the market (TV, radio, speaking engagements, etc.)?
  • Has the author been previously published? With whom?
  • How was the writing? Did the writing feel professional, like you were reading a published book, or amateurish?

Monday, 27 October 2008

Breaking Rapport

Note to self: Delete temporary internet files.

It was lovely breast-stroking into an old neighbour at the pool yesterday. I caught up with the educational and recreational exploits of his kids (I babysat for them and now they're teenagers; there's nothing more effective for making one feel one's age) and he gave the lowdown on life in the Promenade. He finished his lengths and left the pool, and I planned to stay in a bit longer. However, the pool attendant called me over and explained that the pool was double-booked: I could stay in the deep end whilst a baptism took place in the shallow end. I would've stayed, but there's something odd about swimming in front of fifty or so churchgoers. So I got out too.
And there we were, my old neighbour and I, towelling ourselves opposite one-another. The conversation began again, but this time rapport was well and truly shattered. He looked at the wall behind me as he spoke, and I looked somewhere near his hair. Off came his trunks. I found myself speaking over him and the conversation staggered and stuttered. Off came my trunks. Then a silence, followed by a bit of whistling and then a brief and courteous farewell.

'You're only supposed to shave the bloody sides off.'

Conversely, this is beard week, in which several work chummies and myself will be pruning our beards each day, depilating our way from today's full beard through to Friday's pencil moustache. Tomorrow is The Man Who Would be King day. Why? Not sure, but you can bet there'll be rapport oozing from such mimicry.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Ripples



This year's Man Booker award goes to Aravind Adiga.
Chair of the judges, Michael Portillo, said of Adiga's The White Tiger:

'In the end, The White Tiger prevailed because the judges felt that it shocked and entertained in equal manner.'

There's something to consider.
He continued:

'The novel [deals] with pressing social issues and significant global developments with astonishing humour.'

Okay, loads more to consider.

The global developments bit interests me.
No idea where I read it, but I was fascinated by the idea of events growing from a personal to a global significance.
Our protag's quest would open with a small/personal significance, and this would gradually grow throughout the novel, the ramifications spreading their tentacles outwards, affecting other people, perhaps ultimately affecting the whole world/universe/of existence, etc.

Take James Bond.
We find him chasing Mr Little who is attempting to steal a little book. On thwarting him, James discovers that Mr Little is working for Dr Big, and Dr Big needs the little book to gain access to a big facility. James catches up with Dr Big, only to discover that he is working for Hugo Huge, and Hugo needs to access the big facility to take control of a huge satellite. But it is Boris Gargantuan who needs the big satellite to wreak gargantuan havoc ...

Mr Little never works for his friend, Mr Equally-Little, nor does he work for Professor Miniscule.

Bigger and bigger.

'But what about The Incredible Shrinking Man?' I hear you declare (or, at least, you might do when I attach a picture of The Incredible Shrinking Man to this post).

Well, an ordinary man is engulfed in a mysterious mist and shortly after finds that his clothes don't fit him anymore (for which he has my sympathies). The problem affects him alone. He visits his doctor and the problem is now shared with the doctor. Then he confides in his partner and she too is embroiled. Then her brother, and then several more doctors. Soon, the world's press is camped out on his doorstep (and he even shares his problem with a midget woman who is passing by with the circus).

He might be shrinking, but his predicament balloons: at first it is his, and ultimately the entire world is in on it. (Unfortunately, he falls into the basement and everyone forgets about him.)

Yep, it's that forward momentum again: things growing and taking on ever-increasing significance (at a controlled pace).

This is where things get scary!
I'm finding something of a hesitation within me as my protag's deeds begin to move beyond the confines of his immediate existence. I can visualise a radius around him; he becomes the epicentre of an earthquake.
He is reasonably easy to control, but now that this radius expands to absorb others, I'm having to make lots of important choices about what to mention and what to ignore ... and how I might retain full control of this explosion!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Guppy Poem

Fish are playing a rather large part in my life at the moment.
So I've written a fishy poem.
(There's a little bit of rude wordiness in it.)


-Guppy Poem-

I went into the pet shop
And I bought myself a guppy
And I put it in a bowl and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning
All excited at my purchase
I was horrified to find my guppy dead.

It was floating on the water
With a terrible expression
And a twisted mouth that made me feel quite sick.

So I showed it to the shop man
And he said 'It's little wonder:
'That's a puppy, not a guppy, stupid dick.'


guppy


fangtooth

Thursday, 2 October 2008

A Greater POV



So we're in first-person and we're limited to what this character knows and to how this character experiences the world about him right ..?

Hokay, take a look at this simile used by my first-person narrator/protagonist to describe the sound of the rain on his umbrella:

... like a bonfire of tuneless glockenpiels.

Given that his quest is a musical one, I chose for him an auditory PRS. Note that this is a Primary RS and not an exclusive one. (By choosing a Primary RS, I am siding with the likes of Hemingway. The argument here might go something like: Because we each have a PRS, by giving one to our characters, they become more like real people, and we can use their PRS to characterise. However, by choosing to prioritise one RS over the others, we jeapordise our chances of forming any rapport with those readers whose PRSs are different to any given character's.)
So my protag hears the world about him - his map of the world is defined primarily through an absorption of sounds.
The associated word palette would reveal itself like this:
I hear you; that rings a bell; sounds like a good idea, etc.
His love of music - his PRS - would influence every observation.

In NLP, Representational Systems are referred to as modalities. Modalities are our means of experiencing the world.
The building blocks of such senses are called submodalities. Here are some examples:

Visual: colour (or b&w), brightness, contrast, movement, speed, size.

Auditory: words/sounds, volume, tone, timbre, duration, speed.

Kinesthetic: intensity, pressure, texture, weight, temperature, duration, shape.

In expressing our thoughts, each of us works up from a Deep Structure - the abstract stuff prancing about in our minds. As this stuff makes its way out, it is pruned and jumbled (generalised), and the resulting expression is revealed.
For a simple example, imagine a forest and then describe it. Note the things that you choose to mention and those things that you choose to omit. Note too how accurately (or not) your description reflects what is in your head. And, if you can't imagine how different your description of a forest would be to everyone else's, get some pals to join in. We can see how varied multiple interpretations are of the same word: forest.

We do just this with our chosen style: we mention some stuff and not other stuff.
But a first-person narrator dictates the style.
In order to control the style, we would need to understand this narrator - his RSs and his psychology - the way he maps the world and the influences born from his experiences.

This works to our advantage in plotting.
At any one moment in our plot, we mention some stuff and we suggest some stuff and save some other stuff for later.

So let's imagine that my protag is already making some destructive plans in his head. It's just this kind of internal conflict that seeks to reveal itself, through words and body language and so forth. Rather like those police training videos in which the audience is invited to spot the tell-tale signs of guilt. (I remember the drug search in which the villain simultaneously professed his innocence whilst backing towards a cabinet. Can you guess where he kept his stash? :-)

Our first-person narrator isn't necessarily going to confess his guilty thoughts (or any other of his private and clandestine thoughts). Indeed, they may not be fully formed in his head. But, they are likely to edge out of his consciousness.
This could be regarded as a first-person form of Chekhov's gun - a subtle bit of foreshadowing.

The point of a palette is that an entire scene or, more probably, chapter is painted with it.
Therefore, the theme would be repeated. In this way, Chekhov's gun is dismantled into many parts and spread across the prose such that the foreshadowing is ingested subconsciously.

In these ways, we can link the reader not just to the first-person narrator's conscious musings, but to something much deeper within him: just as we impart knowledge at strategic moments in order to give a plot momentum and changes in direction, we can connect the reader to the narrator in the past, the present, or the future - we can allow the reader to consciously understand things beyond the narrator's understanding, just as we can allow the narrator to withhold information from the reader.
There are things even within a first-person narrator that he himself is unaware of.

So we're in first-person and we're limited to what this character knows and to how this character experiences the world about him right ..?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Note to Self

Things to remember to blog about soon when I have time:

* First person narrator dictating style through psychological word palettes;
* From Deep Structure through omission to resulting words - importance of omission stage and its effects on style (and its importance in defining first person narrator) - choosing what to observe and what to omit.
* Descriptions: How word palettes can imbue a potentially static (momentum-less) passage with anticipation (again!) - word palettes as concealed foreshadowing devices.
* Plot vs emotional topography - prioritising and observing interactions.
* How all the above points work together!
TBC ...

Friday, 5 September 2008

Swelling the River


I'm sure you'll agree, there are plenty of these milestone moments for the writer: moments of clarity when yet more puzzle pieces fit together (and there is a veritable armada of pieces!). I call them blue banana moments.
I wrote of blue bananas some eighteen months back, of a desire to investigate, to poke at povs and pacing, to prod at characterisation and nvc, and so forth. Let's never forget, though, (and I suspect that I did) that these are simply tools.
Tools to what end?
The last 10,000 words have gone without a hitch, and have been extremely enjoyable to write.
What has inspired this transformation?
Clear scene structure derived from motivation: connecting every paragraph to either goal, obstacle or means; fixing the protag's motivation steadfastly at the centre of the novel.

Sure, each paragraph is chiselled with the tools, using each tool to bond and emotively engage the reader. But when the functionality of each scene is clear in the writer's head, everything else becomes a technique that may be chosen to extract the most from the scene's purpose.
It's a bigger picture.

Practically, what this meant to me was that every thread flowing parallel to the protag's motivation thread has now fed into that thread. The motivation thread takes precedence over everything, and everything feeds into it, like tributaries feeding into a river. And, as each tributary feeds into the river, the river grows and becomes more powerful. Some threads would not tally with the motivation thread, and so they have been cut. (Q. Why would a writer want to include a thread that makes no/very little impact on the protag's journey, especially when that thread could be replaced with one that does?)
Each confluence becomes a magical event. That thread which seemed so disparate - a capricious aside - suddenly transforms the protag's journey in some way at the moment it connects, perhaps as a reversal or a reveal. And the remainder of the journey will bear this thread, will be coloured by this silty union.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Requiem


If you missed Howard Goodall on Classic fm Monday night talking about and playing extracts from his Requiem, you still have time ...

It is incredible!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Anchors


I finally found time to put a powerful NLP technique into practise recently.

We've discussed triggers at length (although I would like to study them a little deeper shortly). I've set up a number of them already in The Commuters.
Here's how they work: I might have one character perform some terribly violent act upon another character whilst eating a ham salad sandwich. (I'm currently eating a ham salad sandwich. Yum. Er, but no violent act. Unless you're empathising with the ham salad sandwich.)
Thereafter, I can use the merest mention of a ham salad sandwich to trigger the memory of this act, and the associated emotional response. This gives the author instant access to any prepared emotional state; this gives the author the ability to change the emotional topography without breaking a sweat.
When the shooting stars begin, eight-year-old Ellie calls to her father to join her at the telescope (Contact [1997]). She hears a clatter, hurries downstairs, and finds him dying. Years later, standing on a faraway shore, she speaks with an alien who has taken her father's form. The shooting stars kick in and we are instantly reminded of her heartbreak when her father died. Our associated emotion is thrown into the mix and the scene is transformed.
(I wanted to find an example of a shooting star as anchor so that I could apologize for writing 'Pleiades' in my previous post when I meant 'Perseids'. Forgive me.)

A stimulus which is linked to and triggers a physiological state is called an anchor in NLP.
[Source: Introducing NLP, Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour.]

Given that there are always warnings surrounding the following technique, please do not attempt to use it until you have read up on it; what follows is an abbreviated version.

I rather fancied developing an anchor that would grant me instant access to a specific resource - confidence!
I began by specifying the anchor. This anchor is built from three elements: a kinaesthetic trigger, an aural trigger and a visual trigger. I picked the standard default kinaesthetic trigger - tapping my forefinger with my thumb. For my aural trigger, which is related to the resource, I chose Brian Blessed booming out the word 'Confidence!'; and for my visual trigger, I chose a glass of champagne (which has relevance to the resource in my world model!).

With my anchor prepared, I searched through my memories looking for a time when I felt supremely confident. It took a little time to find something appropriate - something almost iconic, which I could recreate vividly. I spent a good thirty minutes replaying this scene in my mind, building that sense of confidence, burning the scene into clarity, reliving the moment and the emotions of the resource.

The next step is to connect the anchor to the resource. This must occur as the resource peaks.
I replayed the scene once again, now fresh in my mind, building that sense of confidence, and then I instigated my anchor (tap thumb, 'Confidence!', champagne).
Having done this several times, assigning the anchor to the resource, I was ready to test my new technique. Would it really work? Could I really imbue myself with confidence so readily? Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could ... if I could change my state at will ..?

Sure it worked. I walked into the fish and chip shop and found myself in Brian Blessed mode. I joked and laughed with the girl serving me, and we found out more about each other in those fifteen minutes than we have done in years. (NB I'm more of an occasional than a regular.)
Could it be so easy?
Well, that was a week ago.
I tried triggering the state again at the weekend and it wasn't so forthcoming: I hadn't spent thirty minutes recreating that specific time when I felt supremely confident.
All a state of mind?
Well yes! That's precisely what many of these techniques are. Hypnosis comes from suggestion and from the subject willingly entering a different state. Much of Derren Brown's 'magic' comes from within his subjects themselves ... he simply invites these people to enter a certain state.

I daresay, with practise, I could strengthen the bond between my anchor and my resource. But will it ever be enough to bring me out of a negative, self-abasing state?
Either way, I have no doubt of the power of such techniques, and of their rightful places in our writing.

As an aside, and on my current theme of dialogue, check out this portion of conversation I had with the fish and chip girl:

GIRL: So what do you do then?
ME: I make computer games.

In my experience, the conversation here tends to move in one of three ways:
1) Oh, computer games are really bad.
2) Really, that's cool (feigning interest).
3) Really, that's cool (a bit interested).

However ...

GIRL: I guess you have a security guard don't you?

Can you work out where she was leading the conversation ..?

ME: Yes. We have lots of expensive equipment on site!
GIRL: My friend's looking for security guard work. Could you find out if there are any jobs going?

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Being Other People



Still observing communications.

I don't see the woman next door much, but when we do bump into each other we always have a mighty fine chinwag.
This evening, she was telling me how she feeds the fox.
We actually have several foxes; they pop by every evening, indulging in noisy saturnalias (ooh, a tautological homage to Zadie Smith. Btw, get yourselves out of the light pollution and onto a nice hill for we're in the heart of Pleiades season!).

Yes, several foxes, but I saw no point in correcting my neighbour and we chatted some more and then I mentioned the fox. At that point, she saw fit to correct me: 'There are more than one you know!'
So what had I done? I had adapted - I had matched her words to create, what NLPers refer to as, a rapport. We know how essential body language is in creating a rapport, and, again, that mirroring creates a bond of trust. The same is true of the things we say.

Ooh, at this point I'd like to quote from O'Connor and Seymour's Introducing NLP:

Great literature always has a rich and varied mix of predicates, using all the representational systems equally, hence its universal appeal.

It's an interesting and valuable notion, although I'd wonder at the definition of 'great literature' in terms of 'universal appeal'. Certainly, Hemingway was somewhat biased in his choice of predicate, as are/were many other super authors, many of whom you'll find scattered upon this blog (probably under some PRS-esque heading).
Btw, predicates are sensory-based words.

One more thought before I go to bed, not that I sleep too well these days anyhoo ...

My son and I were killing some time on a train journey with the latest Doctor Who Top Trumps. However, rather than pitting our cards against each other, we played 'guess the character': one person looks at his top card and has to do an impersonation of that character and the other person has to guess correctly. Just for fun, you understand.
What occurred to me was that the dull characters were very hard to impersonate, and the cool characters were much easier to impersonate.
I'll leave that with you. Nite. x

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Word Palettes in Dialogue



Ooh look! Just been mooching around my favourites, catching up on submission guidelines, and the lovely Broo Doherty (of Wade and Doherty Literary Agency) has posted some top advice on writing your first novel!
Do go and have a read! You won't regret it! (Ricardo - what do you make of number 6?)


Several of her comments caught my eye. In particular, however, her thoughts on dialogue touch on something that's been gambolling upon the fallow fields of my brain.

5. Dialogue.

Do not shy away from allowing your characters to talk. But it is worth remembering that typically people are not allowed to talk for longer than two sentences before someone interrupts them. The other thing that may be useful if you are trying to characterise someone through their speech is to give them a catch phrase or a word that is unique to them. This gives them an individuality which is important.

Since reading Introducing NLP (by Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour), or maybe that had nothing to do with it, I've been picking up on themes in people's speech.

NLP suggests that everyone has a Primary Representational System for receiving information, and a second PRS for processing that information. So, I might typically draw the sounds from around me and display these in my head as images. What is important to remember is that everyone has their own unique model of the world. And everything we say, the words we use and the subjects we choose, our leads and our responses in dialogue, will patch into this model. Yep, Joseph and John are quick to point out that words form only about 7% of communication, with voice tonality coming in at around 38%, and body language hogging 55%. But, given that we have an awful lot of dialogue in our work, I'd agree with Broo that we would do well to consider how these words reflect their speaker's model - how they reveal the speaker's experience and background, education and beliefs and hopes and attitudes ...

The simplest demonstration might be the half glass. Your character remarks on the contents of her glass. Will she explain that it is half full, or half empty? Either way, you're saying something about her.

Maybe she thanks the Lord for the drink, or worries about drinking it too fast because it's expensive, or comments on the beautiful shape of the glass, or pays no heed and guzzles the contents, or shares it with someone else, or drinks even though she's not thirsty, or needs a straw, or needs three blue straws, or sticks out her little finger as she drinks ... all of these attitudes tell the reader something about her character - about her make-up.

Then consider that a theme is established. She will thank the Lord for a sunny day too; she will wish that she had the money to spend on an ice-cream on that sunny day; she will be amazed by the blueness of the sky on that sunny day; she will not even notice that it is a sunny day; etc.

Word palettes are more subtle and can be employed in every and any circumstance. Our protag may make the following remarks:

'That salmon is drowning in sauce.'

'That battery is dead.'

'It's so hot, I can barely breathe!'

Or pump up the superlatives:

'What an amazing meal!'

Or push into exaggeration mode:

'That's gotta be the best meal anyone has ever eaten!'

(This is a staple of my son's dialogue: in his world, things take forever or they are impossible or they are the best thing ever or there are infinity of them!)

In my life, I can think of people who always have something positive to say, people who will find the negatives and who expect the worst, people who will listen attentively and people who would rather talk about themselves, people who talk obssessively of their hobby, people who would rather not talk to anyone, people who ramble tangentially from one topic to the next, people who live in the past, people who speak apologetically, people who speak with authority ...

But, beneath the surface, I am fascinated by the word palettes - the themes - by the repetition of groups of words - by the nuances in dialogue which, when considered as part of a set, offer interesting insights into that person's model of the world. Go and have a chat with someone and look for their palette!

Friday, 8 August 2008

Guilt

Don't laugh at me!

It's a curious emotion. Do we want to make our readers feel guilty?
Kung-Fu Panda ticked all the boxes. It employed a very unexpected emotional topography.

[No spoilers ahead!]

I noticed several occasions where the audience were laughing, usually at the foolish exploits of Panda, but were immediately plunged into sighs of 'Aw!' as Panda made a hurt expression. Sometimes, the topography was so abrupt as to have the audience laughing and aw-ing simultaneously.
It's an uncomfortable feeling. Look at Panda making a fool of himself ... ha ha ha ... oh, actually he's really upset ... oops. Sorry Panda.

[No spoilers end here ... or rather, there are still no spoilers, so I guess they continue here.]

Yet the audience goes with it ... the reader goes with it.

Recently, I had a little feedback from one of my readers on my opening chapter. She loved how I made her laugh, and then instantly shifted the tone to make her feel sad for Corus.
I often find myself comparing the emotion that I am about to offer the reader with my idea of what the reader would like to experience. I'm very careful not to prolong negative feelings, and to rapidly move from the negative emotions into a more positive emotion. I've discovered that, by standing my protag perpetually on the edge of a precipice, I can easily move between positive and negative states at the drop of a trigger. I'm also mindful of the feedback I received on my first draft (ooh, ages ago now): there was a strong sense that the novel was heading into very dark territories, and many of my readers did not want to go to such places.

There is a specific thrill in watching a horror movie. There is an expectation which exists even before the viewer sits down to watch, and this expectation is tempered by the opening few minutes, and is slowly shaped and tweaked throughout the movie. But, as Hitchcock observed, 'Laughter is the safety valve'. Implicit in this remark is the notion that very few individuals would enjoy sustained negativity. Certainly, my favourite horror movies are those with a sense of humour, or a sense of wonder, or a sense of something exciting and life-affirming pervading the topography.

As well as restricting the duration of negative states, I've also discovered quite how the tone of the writing influences how the state is received and processed. It's possible to describe something terrible with a wry tone, or to have my protag consider something awful by singing of it! Suddenly, all the darkness in my writing has been imbued with something more light-hearted, whilst retaining its integrity.

I do find it curious that anyone would desire to endure something awful. Certainly, I lost interest in Anne Enright's Man-Booker winner The Gathering at the instant the child abuse kicked in. To me, it felt hackneyed, and I had been enjoying the novel until that moment. And yet, I'm a big fat obsidian pot insulting a kettle.

Tension and release I guess. We must employ an amount of negativity in order to facilitate the formation of a greater positivity.
What is good without bad?

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Short Changed


Still here ... and still writing ... and still contemplating the world. I'm fond of the idea of folded proteins at the moment. I wonder if they could fold into little yachts or even umbrella shapes - a thought I hope to develop into a song for my literal (literary musical). Every Protein Folds.

A few movies have disappointed of late, despite solid, reasonably intelligent plots and controlled emotional topography.
As I left the cinema, I wondered why I wasn't buzzing about the latest Indy film. A few minutes of thought later I had the answer. Easy to demonstrate:

[Little baby spoilers start here ...]

In Indy 1, a jeep-load of Nazis plummets over a cliff; in Indy 2, a cart-full of Thuggies cartwheels into a flaming abyss; in Indy 3, a tank rolls into a ravine plunging a horrified bad guy to his death ...
In Indy 4, a vehicle laden with Russkies nearly goes over ...

In Indy 1, the bad-guys' faces melt; in Indy 2, chief baddy falls into a ravine and his shattered body is dismembered by crocs; in Indy 3, chief baddy ages a hundred years in a matter of seconds ...
In Indy 4, chief baddy sort of just vanishes.

Sure, Indy 4 has its candy store moments (the bomb blast and the ants come to mind), but too many set-ups fall short of expectations.
Similarly, in Hannibal Rising, some guys are killed in reasonably tame ways, and often the viewer isn't even invited to witness their demise. Certainly the ending limps apologetically into the credits with none of the visceral pay-offs we so fondly remember from Silence of the Lambs or Hannibal.

[Little baby spoilers end here, folding into little baby protein cranes.]

Sequels are inherently imbued with mass expectations and preconceptions formed by their predecessors. Our latest game, Haze, suffered in part as a result of expectations that were not fulfilled.
However, we have no excuses for failing to hit the highs and lows, the tapestry of moods, the gasps and the tears that the reader so rightly deserves. And, as McKee observes, once we create a high, we are obliged to subsequently raise the bar: the reader should feel as though his journey is intensifying rather than waning (or, at least, that it is altering direction), for it is such expectation which entices him to turn the next page.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Mercy Wake

I knew your beauty, shared your smile,
And sunlight buoyed me place to place.
I stole your mercy all the while;
Slept to your voice; woke to your grace.
Now, 'tis Hope who sleeps;
The lands that pale; the skies that weep.

How swift the silent ghosts invade,
Their burdens dripping gallow's light,
The dull cortege, the dead parade -
Dilutes my senses; mocks my plight.
'Tis ardent Fate beseeching me
With nought but bones in her embrace:
She stains your words;
She masks your face.

Yet, tho' you may be lost to sight
And I may never turn to see,
I feel your breath upon my neck.
It warms me for eternity.


For J.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Friday, 20 June 2008

Making Sense?



My son made me watch EastEnders with him on Wednesday.
This woman and her baby and a man are locked in a bedroom, and there's a mad doctor attempting to break through the door.
I tried so hard to contain myself ... but eventually I had to vent:

'It doesn't make any sense! Why don't they open the window and cry for help? Why are they just cowering in the corner? It doesn't make any sense!'

To which my son replied:

'Some things don't make sense to make it more exciting.'

That told me!

'Crikey! These new glasses make everything look really shiny!'

Saturday, 14 June 2008

The Trouble with Orgasms


Forgive me my maggoty companions for I have forsaken you! But I rejoin you all now with a hundred observations to share!

I've been in the zone of late and the words have been pouring from my sweet, sweat-stoked brain. I've been working on a short, I've returned to The Commuters, and a chance meeting with a professional erotic fiction author has diverted further attentions ...
We'll come to that in a moment.

As I worked on a new novel idea, plotting and planning, I was filled with a strong sense that this was trying to be The Commuters. I found myself introducing the same themes and combinations and angling for a similar resolution. The story that I so desperately needed to tell already existed ... So I set about reading through my notebooks and documents, each swollen with ideas for my lit-fic opus. What I discovered was that the structure was sound. (It made me laugh and it made me very sad, and it did what I asked of it.)
When I attempted to rewrite Tethered Light, I found that my progress was invariably hampered by poor structure. After all, I had just plunged into it and written from front to back, with no more than the scantiest notion of where I was heading or what I would do when I arrived at my destination.
Structure! If the structure is sound, you can rewrite and edit to your heart's content.
The problems I encountered with The Commuters became embarrassingly obvious once a little time had passed and a few more lessons had been learned and I had detached myself from it. And now I write with supreme confidence, knowing that if I fail, it will be problem with the train and not the rails.

Okay - the trouble with orgasms! Those of a non-fruity disposition may want to leave the room.
(Ha! You're humans! Give you a new world and you marinate it with groinal attachments and penis-shaped cars!)
I've had several extremely insightful conversations with Mademoiselle X. She will, at her request, remain anonymous; however you can read her work in most top-shelf magazines. (If you'd rather not approach your friendly newsagent with a copy of 'Top Tottie', ask Es to lend you a copy ;-)
Let me tell you, you'll make more money from writing about a man painting his lady-friend with magic stardust than you'll ever make writing articles on literary techniques!

I was compelled to try my hand at erotic fiction and here's what I discovered.

1) Know your audience! Erotic fiction is probably the purest and most raw genre, and is a super medium for measuring the effectiveness of your story-telling abilities. It has a single goal: to give him or her one or more orgasms. Provided that you have feedback, there can be no doubt whether you succeeded or failed with your story. Naturally, there will be degrees of success (and failure, but there's little point in gauging the degree of that), but I can think of no other genre in which success or failure is so visible.

2) On a similar note, erotic fiction will give absolutely no quarter when it comes to pov. You are writing for him or you are writing for her. I can't think that you are ever writing for him and her simultaneously ... although now I think about it ...
Anyhoo, knowledge and sensory stimulae must be tight and focused and unequivocal.

3) Exposition? Ha! I think I wrote three lines of exposition: the first two set the scene and the third accomplished a transition (which I employed only as an anticipatory pause: tension and release my friends!).

Here's the opening:

He poured out the last of the wine and they drank together. As the evening breeze stirred the treetops, the last of the customers returned inside the pub, and then they were alone, bound together by the fading summer sunlight.

Astute maggot farmers will spot my instantaneous hit on NVC and my introduction to a simple word palette. (Curiously, Mademoiselle X found it surprising that not everybody uses word palettes - but they are superficially easy and obvious in erotic fiction; it's only when you're soaring through a wealth of emotional responses that word palettes really require a lot of thought.)
Furthermore, by introducing a palette of dominance ('bound' is rapidly augmented by other 'in control' words), I'm chaining the palette to the NVC.
NB. I should point out here that the story weighed in at a little over one thousand words, and was written over two hours with NO editing and NO preparation other than a cursory 'I'll do this then this then that and end with this.'
Which is to say that my conscious mind no longer sees a need to supervise the subconscious mind as it plays with NVC and word palettes.
I also made many more trips to the front door for a ciggie than I would normally!

Try pausing to take in a sunset. Your reader will hunt you down like the expositionary cur you are.

4) Pacing! Gosh, this isn't toooo difficult until you have more than one thing happening simultaneously. Is she still enjoying that nipple-play or is she more concerned with what his other hand is doing? I guess that erotic fiction is generally very linear, and it's possible that I marginally over-complicated my story. But the remainder of the pacing is reasonably obvious. (That said, I did wonder if there were pacing guidelines anywhere: First contact in the third line; final orgasm begins 90% of the way in ... that kinda stuff.)

5) There aren't enough synonyms for 'push'.
But then again, Hemingway showed us that repetition is fine. And do you really think that a reader with his/her hand in his/her pants is going to be concerned with your fourth re-use of the word 'pressed'? Wry smile? Well ask yourself the same question about any other genre, or about your current project. Is your concern over that word/sentence/paragraph/chapter/act there really any match for the reader's needs? Return to 'Know Your Audience.' :-)

6) You will not succeed at erotic fiction unless you are fearless. If he's still winking at her by the second page, you've lost. I found myself considering that erotic fiction might be the greatest advocate of Neuro-Linguistic Programming in the literary world! Everything is bright and big and bold and vivid! There is no room for innuendo or subtlety (don't mistake subtlety for control).
I did find the experience much easier than I thought I might. Other than a hint of trepidation as I began, there were no thoughts of embarrassment or disgrace. It occurred to me that such feelings are the death of the author. I really do mean that. I've concluded that erotic fiction should be the first port of call for every aspiring author. Until you can deal with the most basic of human desires/needs, what hope do you have in tackling anything more esoteric? (Now there's an issue that we could debate!)

7) Clichés. When you think about it, what remains undiscovered in the world of erotic fiction?
Same old story. So where's the fun for the author? Perhaps the quest for such story-telling prowess that the intensity of the orgasms you deliver are unrivalled?
Mademoiselle X finds her inspiration in 'what if?' situations. Can you imagine harnessing the enthusiasm to regularly enter such a world of unambiguity, necessity and formula?

Such is the trouble with orgasms.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

I Live Here


I've returned to my lit-fic masterpiece (at least it is in my fantasy-fuelled head) and I've been fiddling with exposition. Here are my observations:

v1) No exposition: When I removed all detail from the scene and concentrated only on action and reaction, the scene became very disjointed and difficult to follow.

v2) Expected, bare-bones exposition: So I hurriedly rewrote the scene adding first-level consciousness details (that's to say, I wrote without any great consideration, allowing the descriptions to flow effortlessly and cliché-ily from my head). It made sense and flowed nicely and moved at a decent pace.

v3) Unexpected, bare-bones exposition: This is where I am now. With all the actions and reactions in place and the structure suspended at the desired pace, I was able to reconsider all the non-essential stuff (the details and descriptions) and fiddle with them. It was reasonably simple (and highly enjoyable) sifting through the layers of consciousness into those dark waters below and retrieve curious and unexpected and specific observations which give a scene a unique mood and create an acute sense of character.

But the most important observation I have made can be summed up by Sunset Bickham's remark:
'Write in the present for that is where the reader is.'
Sounds peculiar?
If we flow through real-time, we are naturally invited to have our protag open a door and step through the doorway into the hallway and close the door and turn and walk along the hallway ...
It can be a lot of description!
However, the very omission of such transitional material imbued my v1 scene with that zoetropic, strobing effect (the very technique I use when writing those adrenalin-drenched fight or flight scenes).
Bit of a dilemma then?
Robert Rodriguez did something very odd with his movie Planet Terror. With characters spread all over, each under threat, he stopped the movie and flashed up the words 'Missing reel', and then skipped straight to a scene in which all the characters had congregated together in a burning building.
This kept the pace roaring along, but it also upset me and it was some time before I was able to reimmerse myself into the movie, and even then my displeasure gnawed away in silent distaste.

The chapter I am writing replaces three transitory chapters in which I was originally concerned with exposition (probing into my protag's psyche, cross-referencing this with his past, and foreshadowing several dramatic events). Furthermore, this new chapter tackles two exciting events which I had initially planned to save for later (which was a foolish decision as it suggests that I couldn't think of enough exciting events to fill a novel). It is also a reasonably short chapter (a little under 2000 words).
One thing I have learned is that we do not need to stop the action in order to deliver information. If we are cunning, we can characterise and foreshadow - we can do all that expositional stuff - all without pausing for breath; we can weave any piece of information into any momentum-fired nugget of narrative. (Yes, with practise my confidence in this extremist belief is growing.)

But now I am faced with the potentially immersion-damaging effects of providing too little information. Bonding the reader to the protagonist in real-time is an extremely powerful tool for creating and sustaining immersion (suspension of disbelief).

Many more thoughts to come.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Limited Assumptions


I've had the privilege of reading through ricardo's latest chapter and, once again, the boy has succeeded in raising interesting literary predicaments and enigmas.
Here's a pov issue that has caused me to launch a full-scale investigation (I looked on wikipedia and had a little think on the bus):
Without breaching copyright or jeapordizing ricardo's trust, I can demonstrate the issue with a single line:

There was no way out.

In a chapter written in third-person limited, my reaction to this line (and a couple of successive lines) was to leave pov (entering an omniscient third-person).
Why?
Well it's a question of knowledge.
Mister Omniscient knows all! But Mister Limited's greatest asset is his ability to bond the reader to any given character, sharing that character's emotions and perspective.
As such, some bit of my brain presumably went 'Hold up: How can this character be sure that there is no way out?'
Ricardo and I discussed this a little and I can see his thinking:
The pov remains limited to the protagonist because it adheres to his personal perspective - his assumptions. Protag assumes that there is no way out. Protag knows that he assumes there is no way out.
I'd be interested in any examples of pros using this limited assumption technique. On many occasions I have read something along the lines of 'He could see no way out.'

Regardless, ricardo and I concurred that this sentence was a 'tell' and the information could have been imparted in a better manner. The one blot on a flawless piece of work, and a fascinating discussion point.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Rickety Bridge



One example I often use when discussing shows and tells is that of the rickety bridge.
'She stepped onto the rickety bridge' is a tell. Soulless.
How does she know that the bridge is rickety?
Well, see for yourself what constitutes a rickety bridge; see how much material is available for the shows.
And don't look down!

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Do What Thou Wilt


On the bus this morning, I overheard my colleagues discussing their evening. One of them went bowling, bought a hot-dog, and hung out at his alcoholic cousin's flat.
The other did the same, although he didn't buy a hot-dog.
At work, E was talking about the hand-job he got from a prostitute last night, and K stole a convertible in order to escape Jamaican gangsters.
Yep, GTA4 is here.
Hopefully these people will buy a copy to keep them off the streets!

Recently, I was discussing Second Life with a friend. Second Life is just that: it's a virtual world filled with avatars. Sounds great! You can live out your wildest dreams and fantasies in the relative safety of a virtual environment.
So what was the first thing my friend did when he was born into this new world?
He followed his mates into the sewer.
When I became too weak to laugh any more, he continued.
Down the sewer, he encountered a band of 'residents' who had made themselves artistic groinal attachments, and who drove customised, phallus-shaped cars.

I have no point to make other than the obvious: People are f*ckin' weird and pay good money to feed their fantasies.

Righty, I'm off to buy Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley from Amazon. Apparently, he was 'an occult leader, heroin addict, sexual adventurer, misogynist, and visionary.' All in the name of research. Me, not him.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

How Many Monkeys ..?


Do I want to write literary fiction or commercial fiction?
It's a question that many authors ask themselves.

It's something I've been mulling over since a friend of mine suggested that I should start writing simple stuff that people will get.
This thinking itself is terminally flawed, and is shared by most newbies: All you have to do is write a story that people like! You don't need to waste time on all that pretentious stuff like character arcs and acts and reveals!
Yes, do allow yourself a wry smile. It's our job to make writing look easy when actually it's incredibly difficult. But that's our little secret.

So, what is the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction?

Better start with a trawl through wikipedia.
It appears that there was no term 'literary fiction' until 1970, and that the term has since come to serve the marketing bods who embrace the notion of compartmentalising books; as such, literary fiction has become a genre.

Chatting with a colleague on the bus the other morning, we were considering the differences between lit fic and commercial fiction, attempting to discern a definition.
His first thoughts contained the idea of intent, but we quickly skipped this idea: surely an author can write something that will be considered lit fic without having ever intended to fit into that branding?
The idea of intent is an important consideration when contemplating the infinite monkey theorum (as we did), but more on that later.
My thinking was that an author who creates lit fic has applied an original, considered, perhaps experimental, application of his tools (taking originality as the original combination of non-original ideas). So he will arm himself with a vast array of tools (those techniques and mantras that we gather over the years), and then apply a personal and deliberate aesthetic to his employment of those tools.
Not too dissimilar to wikipedia's description (although wikipedia always describes stuff in a far more accessible way than me):

In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the 'pageturner') focuses more on narrative and plot.

The crucial word there is 'focuses'. The employment of certain tools over others determines whether we create something that can be described as literary fiction or commercial fiction.

Worth bearing in mind this distinction as we discuss description and detail, poeticisms and flowery prose.

By the way, here's the age-old disclaimer as presented to you by wikipedia:
What distinguishes literary fiction from other genres is subjective ...

Visible Exposition


There are times when we can't easily hide the exposition; indeed, there are times when we deliberately want to make it visible.

Here's how Torey describes the interview room at the police station:

It was a small room, not even as large as the cloakroom at school. The walls were lined with corkboard to ensure privacy. There was a switch by the door to turn on a red light outside so others in the hall would know when they should not interrupt. The room had no windows and was furnished with only a metal-legged table, three plastic chairs, and a file cabinet.

She describes only what is needed to shape the picture in the reader's head - to orientate the reader.
One form of exposition is mood setting. Not only does Torey provide the details necessary to give the reader bearings, and those little details which make a story real (metal-legged table), but she also chooses to create a sense of claustrophobia: 'It was a small room... the room had no windows.' She chooses to convey the feeling of confinement and security blended with the barren and perfunctory, functional nature of this room.
But notice how few adjectives she uses, and how important those few adjectives are - how they build to create the mood; notice how short and unfussy her description is. The description is tight and focused. She makes her point, sets the mood, and scurries back to the story.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Invisible Exposition


What, why and how?

Like all the greatest gigolos, I shall begin in the middle.

We need to make the reader aware of stuff; we need to give him details and info so that he can understand and make sense of his new environment - so that we can immerse him and suspend his disbelief - so that we can set-up the stuff that's gonna blow his lumpy mind.

So we can just whack all that exposition down then?
Afraid not. Because we don't want to keep stopping *(caveat alert! See below). Because the reader wants to be propelled through the novel. Because the reader is restless and we have to earn his trust, and if we don't give him that momentum, he'll go elsewhere. Because if we let go of his hand, he'll plummet to his doom.

So what can we do?
Well, we can hold out for that valley - *that moment when the reader needs a little breather - and dump some stuff on him there, OR we can impart info without stopping.

We can? Cool.
Yep.
So we could stop to explain that Roland likes to tease zebras OR we could show Roland teasing zebras.
Yep.
So now we've gotta go to all that trouble of getting Roland to the zoo just so's he can tease a zebra! Sheesh! That can't be right!
It's not!
We're not gonna do that! What we ARE gonna do is integrate this into the plot.
So I look at my outline and see that Roland is going on a blind date. Lucky Roland. And I was gonna send him and Yolande to the discotheque ... but now I think I'll send 'em to the zoo!

Momentum retains its virginity!

The problem we have now is synchronising the two: we might require the reader to understand that Roland teases zebras by the end of the second chapter, but he might not be going on a date until the fifth chapter.
And now we can see how important that outline is; only now am I beginning to understand how I can make my life soooooo much easier by spending time plotting and preparing.
Yep, I'm a fool, but I ain't done yet!

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Zero


The excitement's building: my outline's coming together and I'm approaching that moment when I sit with a blank piece of paper and write the words Chapter One. Although I might not call them chapters - I haven't yet decided. Maybe Ghoul One. We'll see. Or maybe I could replace chapter headings with internal organs. I digress.

Having recently reminded myself that the most page-turnery book I have ever read was Torey Hayden's Ghost Girl, I figured I could do worse than re-read the book and examine its behaviour.
Again, I was captivated.

A few chapters (or spleens) in, several things occurred to me:

1) Her tone is very affable. That's to say that she writes with a barely concealed humility and optimism. That's to say that you just can't help liking Torey and trusting her. And wondering if she's single. Hmmm.

2) Her language is very simple. On several occasions, I found myself a little annoyed that she would use three words when she could have used one; I felt her vocabulary might be slightly not-quite-as-good-as-it-could-have-been. Deficient. Inadequate. However, this is a part of the book's charm - that she writes almost conversationally, enhancing the one-to-one, real, normal, typical person effect. (I would say that this is preferable to the author who attempts to impress through language, but we might be entering a literary fiction vs commercial fiction debate. It just so happens that I have one of those forthcoming!)

c) The pace is quick, steady and unremitting. It's not frantic, but it seldom gives the reader an opportunity to make a cup of tea. Maybe 'steady' is the novel's mantra.

kidney) Punctuation, like the language, is perfunctory. I counted only a handful of semi-colons, and she likes using them just before the word 'however'. That's nice.

But the secret to this book's success ..?

Mystery.

The book begins with Torey on her way to a new school.
What will it be like? What will her special needs kids be like?
It's a long drive, but she's there at her new school, meeting her four kids, by the end of the first chapter. No messing about. The first few questions are answered.

Very quickly, we're presented with the big mystery - the one which keeps us turning pages:
What is wrong with Jadie?

Torey gets a handle on the other kids immediately. They function primarily as foils.
Jadie is an elective mute (she chooses not to speak at school) and she hobbles around, hunched - almost doubled up - clutching her belly.
Why is she like this? What's up with Jadie?

By the end of the second chapter, Torey, having had experience with elective mutes, has succeeded in getting Jadie to speak. But the hunching remains a mystery.
Jadie speaks of a girl named Tashee whom she plays with.

Chapter three: Torey speaks with the regional psychologist and they discuss Jadie.
The chapter ends with Jadie revealing the cause of her hobbling: if she doesn't clutch her stomach, her insides will fall out.

It's the same question: What's wrong with Jadie? But we feel as though this mystery is slowly being unravelled. We are moving forwards.

Chapter four: Torey sets up a videocam to record her interaction with the kids. When she plays back the tape after school, she is surprised to see a bit extra at the end. Jadie swoops like a ghost and speaks to the camera: Help me.

Chapter five follows the same formula. Torey mulls over Jadie's problems, and a new piece of information is revealed in the last line: we learn that Tashee died over a year ago. Jadie plays with a ghost.

Chapter six - the same routine. Jadie draws queer symbols. Torey puzzles. The chapter ends with Jadie explaining 'X marks the spot.'

And so on. We move through the possibilities of hallucinations, then onto sexual abuse, and then to witchcraft. The pattern is established. We have a question; we are offered a nugget of information which moves us closer to the answer. Dynamic development. Always changing, always moving towards the end ...

Next week's Doctor Who contains yet another countdown. The countdown has always been an important sausage in the Doctor Who diet. I do feel that Russell has gone a bit countdown crazy (and maybe he just misses Richard Whitely), but I shouldn't complain.

So what's cool about the countdown?
It inherently poses the question: What happens at zero?
We'll typically be presented with the projected outcome and this might or might not come to fruition (prophetic direction or misdirection).
Imagine how unlikely it is that someone would tear themselves away from a book or tv show in the middle of a countdown!

And that's the secret of Ghost Girl (and The DaVinci Code). It's a drawn out mystery. With each new nugget of information - with each new reveal - another number falls away as we plough inexorably towards zero. Everything else exists either to fuel this countdown or to keep the reader inside the novel (here I'm referring to sensory stimulae and character bonding and the like).

How does this help me as I prepare my outline?

It reminds me that I must always have an unanswered question, and that I must always move towards the answer. I can have lots of questions if I like, but I must always be developing the plot - tugging the reader towards zero.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 ...

I don't think the question needs to be explicit. Sunset Bickham illustrates the concept of the scene question with a ship hunting for a U-Boat. The implied question is 'Will the ship discover the U-Boat?' Furthermore, he suggests that resolution should always lead into a new question. Similarly, we don't need to have it explained to us that the countdown ends at zero. We already understand and accept this.

And if I don't do this?
Imagine the countup as opposed to the countdown.
There's no sign of a resolution - no visible sign of something to look forwards to. We're always moving, but it's an aimless, unfocused wander.
... 306, 307, 308, 309, 310, 311 ...

Or imagine if the countdown reaches zero and continues: -1, -2, -3 ...

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Pointless Poetry

Pointless Poetry from the Bus Seat #4

My neighbour's in a horrid way:
His suit and hair and skin are grey;
He rubs his eyes and kneads his head;
His ears and nose and eyes are red.
I'd like to help him - see him through;
We'd walk to where the sky is blue.
He stands to leave; I stand and smile.
I hope that keeps him safe awhile.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Missing Lette


I've offered a wealth of insightful tips and techniques over the last year or so (stop that laughing!!!).
But (and I'll think you'll agree), here is the most useful tip ever to festoon this blog:

Don't make a last second change to your script or covering letter prior to sending out.

Because, if you cast a three-hundreth eye over that covering letter and decide that 'unleashing' sounds better than 'releasing', and you send it off and then notice that you actually typed 'unleasing' and that Word has underlined it with a red zigzaggy line ...
... Well, four months of hard work and study will probably come to nothing as you have instantly relegated yourself to the ninety-nine percent who are never taken seriously.

The real world is very different, of course. Authors, scriptwriters ... they all live on the edge, making alterations through to the last moment. And, if you have a read of some of those pro scripts on the BBC Writers' Room website, you'll find speling mistokes on every other page (the Ashes to Ashes script is the worst). It doesn't matter when you're a pro. The end justifies the means. But we amateurs will be judged by the word. It's harsh, but I guess it's necessary too.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Why do I Have to Listen to Your Inane Gibbering?

A pointless, pointless one and a sad, pointless one.


Pointless Poetry from the Bus Seat #2

'Train to be a manager -
'You'll be on loads more money;
'Then you can buy that dress you want
'And wear it when it's sunny.'


Pointless Poetry from the Bus Seat #3

A careworn mum sits stern, sits still,
Her kids run wild, destroy her will.
Her teenage son, an angry lad,
Tells Junior 'F*ck off like your dad.'

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Why do I Have to Listen to Your Inane Gibbering?

Why do I Have to Listen to Your Inane Gibbering?
(Pointless Poetry from the Bus Seat #1)

There's a chap who sits beside me chatting with his friend called Sara
And she's off to Boots in Sherwood to purchase some new mascara
Then I think it's rather fortunate her parents named her Sara
'Cos I cannot find another word that rhymes well with mascara.

Sara's off soon to South Africa to see her friend Janine
Where she lives with wealthy parents and is treated like a queen
I imagine such a life of money, polo, sun and chicks
Then I realise that Boots is closed 'cos now it's half past six.

Promises

Ricardo's dilemma set me thinking (as his dilemmas invariably do):
What constitutes a good opening?
I could look at his six suggested openings and determine instantly which did and didn't work ... but what is the decision-making process used by my head? Tell me head.
Last night, Professor Tudor Parfitt gave me a clue as Channel 4 broadcast a ninety minute documentary charting the Prof's search for the Lost Ark of the Covenant.
Tudor opened by explaining that twenty years ago he began his search for the Ark, and now he believes he has found it. Many will be surprised by his discovery and some will be offended, he suggests!
Cool!
And so we sit back and watch as his journey unfolds and he heads off to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem - the last known resting place of the Ark.

Then I fell asleep.
Then I woke up five minutes from the end with Tudor showing off a CG representation of some mangy wooden drum. The Ark. A wooden drum.

I've considered on many occasions the importance of anticipation. Here, the anticipation is framed in stark contrast with my slumber.
In those opening minutes, Tudor made promises to me. He promised me an exciting adventure drawn out over twenty years of his life, and a surprising conclusion. I was so annoyed that I had fallen asleep, because I wanted to be a part of this adventure. Tudor had offered me something that I wanted - he had secured anticipation in my heart - and I let us both down.

This simple concept tallies neatly with Sunset Bickham's advice on openings:

Begin with forward movement.

It also tallies with my thoughts on prophesies (and prophetic misdirection) in which the audience is invited to anticipate something that may or may not attain fruition. Perhaps Michael Palin is boarding a ship that will take him across the Yellow Sea and, as he walks up the gangplank, he observes that this ship has been attacked by pirates twelve times in the last month alone!
Or, if we consider the most unputdownable book I have read - Ghost Girl (for shame!) - we witness a teacher on her way to a new life in a new town and a new school with new children.
Or, we can consider Rose Tyler's brief appearance in episode one of the new season of Doctor Who.

A good opening makes promises. It prepares the reader for a particular genre, style and tone, and looks to the future.

What is also apparent reading through ricardo's opening variations is that we need to share this promised journey with someone, be it Professor Tudor Parfitt or Indiana Jones. Without that bond - that poppet - all the emotions in the world have nowhere to lay their weary heads. This is a part of the reader's orientation: who, where, when ..? Until the orientation is complete, the reader remains restless.

Not the Ark of the Covenant

Here's a poem for Prof Parfitt. It's a bit of fun and I have tremendous respect for the chap.

*Ode to Professor Tudor Parfitt*
Professor Tudor Parfitt said he'd found the holy Ark
So I watched with baited breath to see him raise it from the dark;
Then I fell asleep and when I woke he'd found a drum of bark:
Just a shabby, crabby tympanum not worthy of remark.