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.
So we could stop to explain that Roland likes to tease zebras OR we could show Roland teasing zebras.
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


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 ..?


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.


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!
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.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

My Family

I can't confess to being a fan of this show, but season eight (season eight!) started last night so I felt obliged to watch.
The previous season had its critics. James Donaghy, writing for the Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog, suggested:
... Yet still too many episodes fell flat and the gags written to pump up ailing scenes felt forced in with little concern for situation or character. They replicated the technical aspects of the American shows without capturing their spirit. They could not escape the fundamental play-it-safe conservatism of the plotting nor avoid plumping for the fail-safe comedy archetypes of useless husband and nagging wife.

My Family always reminds me of the time I met my first steady girlfriend's father (this is me now, not James). He took me to one side and we talked about motorways and then he admitted to fancying Zoe Wanamaker, describing her as 'elfin'.
Anyhoo, last night's episode demonstrated the perfect example of 'topping the gag'.
Here's the set up:

Susan is mother to the teenage Michael. Michael's new girlfriend, Nikki, has been kicked out of her parents' house and Susan has agreed to allow her to stay under her roof for a time.

Susan: Nikki, I'll show you up to Michael's room.
Nikki: Oh, that's okay ...
(a beat: audience is given just enough time to predict the punchline)
... I know where it is.

Then Michael tops the gag:
Michael: Oh, actually that was my parents' room; mine's down the hall.

One more noteworthy point from the episode:
Sunset Bickham discusses the importance of exaggerating character. Time and again, he suggests that the audience needs a constant stream of clear and (almost patronizingly) obvious clues in order to quickly understand character and motivation and the like. He laments his students' stubborn attachment to subtlety. It's a common and fundamental mistake made by us rookies: we assume too much; we fear being obvious. We fear being obvious.

So consider Nikki's father, Mister Baker. We are instantly and repeatedly encouraged to see him in a certain light:
He enters the house carrying a bible and, on several occasions, he taps the bible whilst quoting from it.
Furthermore, when Ben exclaims 'Oh God yes', Mister Baker responds with 'There's no need for blasphemy thank you.'

As I watched, I did wonder if this characterisation was laboured; I wondered how many Christians wander around with bibles in their hand, tapping it each time they chastise the non-believers with a quote from Psalms or Matthew. I wondered if this was jumping stoutly on the toes of cliché and stereotype. Or, as James Donaghy proposes, the archetype.
But the point was made (and this point was important as it set-up the episode's major twist). Or, put another way, if this point was not made, the contrast that the major twist relied on would not have been created, and the twist would have lost its potency.
Better safe than sorry eh?

The episode is on iPlayer for six more days ...