Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Dialogue Tags

Pop here to see vintage witch tags, and to learn about Seed Crystals left behind by the ancient race of Lemurians.

And off we go again.

I thought it was time to draw a deep breath and read through my last ms again. Settled dust and all that.
Speaking of which, I've just finished reading Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Second best book I've ever read. Not least because one of the principal characters has a copy of my first favourite book, A Farewell to Arms, in his bookcase.
I was very disappointed by Iris Murdoch's Under the Net (an antiplot! And none of the beautifully expressive language I was expecting. And, if you swing from reader mode into writer mode, you suddenly spot bucket-loads of uninspired similes and wasted adverbs), and I couldn't get into Ulysses (although will give it another shot after Christmas). But in Waugh's writing, I recognised so much of what I've been attempting to concoct - like a warmer Hemingway. And Waugh is the first author I think I have ever encountered who shares my dismissal of dialogue tags.

Gosh, the argument still rages across the interweb! Said is/is not dead; said apparently being the wisened author's preferred choice of tag.
But what happens when we drop the tag? After all, the idea of a tag seems somewhat inappropriate anyhoo: when somebody tags along, or when something is tagged on, the word inherently suggests an afterthought - an unnecessariness.
Sure, the tag supplies clarity of subject. However, with careful structuring, we can create clarity without tags, not least by suggesting the subject immediately beforehand:

Peter tugged at his collar.
John narrowed his eyes.
'You're not thinking of asking her out on a date are you?'

To me, there's little doubt that John is talking here. (The NVC also helps to avoid any confusion.)
So no need to tag on said John, or even hissed John with obvious disgust. Could even be forgiven for plonking a colon in there too.

Occasionally the dialogue might rattle along between two characters for any number of pages, our brains switching from John to Peter to John to Peter as we pootle along. An occasional reminder - a cue - comes in handy, just to assuage any doubt in the reader's mind that John has just spoken:

'Enough of your nonsense Pete!'


And we have verbal mannerisms to employ too: everything from stutters to tautologies to any number of characteristics expressed through verbal foibles:

'Now that's not, I say not, on!'
'Good Heavens my deluded and softly-spoken comrade: grow a spine!'

So Waugh made me feel good about writing. His prose is incomparable. I could extract any number of lines from each page to warm your literary cockles.
From chapter five: here's how to imbue exposition with sensory stimulae and N400s!:

Tony had spent very little of his life abroad. At the age of eighteen, before going to the University, he had been boarded for the summer with an elderly gentleman near Tours, with the intention that he should learn the language (... a grey stone house surrounded by vines. There was a stuffed spaniel in the bathroom. The old man had called it 'Stop' because it was chic at that time to give dogs an English name. Tony had bicycled along straight, white roads to visit the chateaux; he carried rolls of bread and cold veal tied to the back of the machine, and the soft dust seeped into them through the paper and gritted against his teeth. There were two other English boys there, so he had learned little French. One of them fell in love and the other got drunk for the first time on sparkling Vouvray at a fair that had been held in the town. That evening Tony won a live pigeon at a tombola; he set it free and later saw it being recaptured by the proprietor of the stall with a butterfly net ...)


Back to dialogue tags and, as ever, I like a little balance.
I had to read the opening to chapter five twice because Waugh threw in a new character and gave me few clues with which I might make sense of this character. Also, there's little by way of reorientation at first - only the word 'deck' hints that Tony is onboard a seafaring vessel:

'Any ideas how many times round the deck make a mile?'
'None, I'm afraid,' said Tony. 'But I should think you must have walked a great distance.'

The dialogue continues in this way, without another tag, for half a page until this deck-walking character is given flesh:

The genial passenger was surprised and then laughed.

And at the bottom of the page, further yawning maws are stuffed:

Regularly every three minutes for the last hour or so, this man had come by ...

But for my double take, I'd say that Waugh accomplishes an awful lot of reorientation in this opening page, and perhaps for that reason he chose to keep the deck-walker under a shroud, and then only for one page. Furthermore, given that this man is a new acquaintance, I can understand why Waugh bonds us to Tony as he embarks on a new life, with a switch into third limited (most of the novel is in third omniscient).

So, having apparently broken my local library's record for 'most pages printed off in one session' (and golly, half a manuscript is quite a meaty thing to behold!), I have an exciting few days ahead of me. Sink or swim? Deal or no deal? Golden balls? We'll see. I must say, though, that I know exactly how to begin The Carnival-Panelled Piano now. Settled dust and all.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


Quick silence-bursting update before I embark on the school run.

* * *

Message begins.

New improved TL going well. Stop.

Act I plotted. Stop.

Three act major reversals erected. Stop.

Big act II hole needs caulking. Stop.

Putting an hour in each evening. Stop.

Here's a page from my notebook: Familiarising myself with Vierry the moustachioed robot (moustache was my son's idea) and with the 'angels of death'. Sketches and unresolved notions and similes. Stop.

Hoping this message finds you in good health. Stop.

Message ends.

* * *

Tuesday, 8 September 2009


Like a lot (a lot a lot a lot!) of people, I'm quivering with anticipation!
Tomorrow - 09/09/09 - Derren will be predicting the lottery numbers live!
Rather, he will be performing a feat of misdirection!
Apparently, Derren has been banned from purchasing a lottery ticket.
And William Hill have stated that they will not be taking bets on Derren correctly predicting the numbers.

So, given that Derren does not have the power of foresight (you really wouldn't expect to need to point this out right?), here's my prediction:
We're actually all taking part in an experiment*. (And a jolly exciting one too!)

Take a look at what's happening! The rumor mill has never milled so hard: the internet is positively smouldering with speculation.
If you fancy getting stuck in, check out the comments over on Derren's blog: All Your Minds Are Belong To Us.
He's also blogged recently about rumours and gullibility.
Derren's second special is titled How to Control the Nation, in which he will be investigating the world of subliminals and inviting us all to take part in an experiment*.
And sticking us to our sofas.

Zero Wing.

Google came forward to explain their ufo doodle. They claim to be paying homage to the 20th anniversary of the infamous Japanese game Zero Wing. The translations from Japanese to English were wonderfully mismanaged, and the world was gifted with the legendary t-shirt slogan: All Your Base Are Belong To Us!

Hey, if I wanted to control a nation, I'd certainly want Google on my side!

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Hoax Funeral

Today I met a lovely lady named Anjy Hall.
She sings and strums with a band called Hoax Funeral. They remind me a little of Husky Rescue (one of my fave bands!) and also Hope Sandoval. I think you might enjoy her music. It's there on Spotify, and also on their myspace page.

Anjy also writes a bit and, if you have five minutes to spare, you could have a read over her stuff. She has a wonderful tone which is evident in both her writing and her music. Check out the unexpected sensory stimulae, and all those adjectives - textural and vivid! I feel a kinda desperate optimism in there, not dissimilar to Holden Caulfield's worldview. It's a curious duality - the kind I attempt with word palettes - where the verdant surface meaning belies something barren.

Anyhoo, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center was awful. I'm gonna go to bed and listen to Beethoven's Piano Concerto number 5. Sleep well world.

P.S. I'll leave you with some of the genuine comments posted about today's mysterious google ufo ...

I think is time for the world to wake up.. we are approching a major date in 2012,, we are awakening.. and google people know the truth of ufos, they have google earth and they have seen them. I think we all need to stop joking about the subject, and think that maybe just maybe the government is working with google to little by little give FULL DISCLOSURE

Greetings, this doodle on google is very interesting. A alein spaceship huvering over the 'O' in google. It is also levitating it. Im sure many is curiouse about this spaceship. Dont worry, Im sure there will be no aleins to come and destroy our planet. But I have one observation, why dose everyone asume aleins will attack us? They might not. They might just be curiose as we are of them. And everyone thinks that aleins are high teck. As in, they are smarter then humans and have spaceships that can levitate. What if on theyre planet all they have is old crapy, vokeswagons and tvs have intenas? mabey google can just stop creeping us out with the alein doodle. Like i can ownestly say, Im a little creeped out in case today it was very windy and the power almost went out.

this is kinda weird last night had a dream about aliens coming to earth then then i get up get on google to check my facebook and i see the UFO i click on the image and it leads me to the search of unexplained phenomenon i only remember hearing one thing in the dream it was " No its the ugly one" so im wondering if they have relation or not ive been looking at vids all day about this stuff. and this is the first time i have ever dreamed about aliens. im not liying i would not have written this if i was. if you have any thoughts email me


Stress granule art.

I got to thinking about methods of impregnating the reader.
With information, I mean.
Data sperm if you will.
My question, I think, is this: Does the reader retain information better when under duress or when relaxed?
But I suspect that it's not simply a case of retention, as we might discover anon ...

I've been practising my 'mind reading' skills on everyone. (For 'mind reading' read 'subliminal impressioning'.)
I suppose the results were probably as expected: the technique works well on some people - those who I would deem to be receptive - and not on others - the unreceptive folks.
Still, it's quite a pleasure to plant images into someone's head and then amaze them with your prediction.

Now much of the technique involves focusing the subject's attention somewhere, and doing stuff with your hands and also with hidden meanings and repetition in the words. As such, it won't work especially well here, but try it out anyhoo ...

I'd like you first to imagine a blank canvas and fix it in your mind. When you're ready, I'd like you to imagine two simple shapes - like a square, but think of your own two. Now, place one of those shapes inside the other. Fix the image in your mind. Now give each of the shapes a colour. Again, fix the image and make the image bright and bold in your mind ...
And, with luck, you will have thought of a circle and a triangle, and the colours red and green.

What I've discovered is that this needs to be delivered at a precise pace, which is perhaps difficult to achieve with the written word. Too slowly and the subject might take the opportunity to move from the desired first impression to something more inventive, which is bad. Conversely, too quickly and the subject hasn't the opportunity to retrieve the first impression. Often, I have the subject imagining the triangle and the circle, but don't give them time enough to conjure the colours. Also, unless the subject is focused on me and what I am saying and doing with my little Dennis Hopper-esque handies, they will invent something far too imaginative and cling to it with all their might.
N.B. And if you love to take a beating, free your mind and picture that blank canvas again. Focus on it. Allow a playing card to appear. Bring the colours to clarity, bright and bold. See it there! Imagine the dots down the middle. Fix it upon the canvas as vividly as you can.
Watching Hancock the other week, I was aware of the stressful nature of the scene in which Hancock throws a boy into the sky. For as long as that boy is airborne, the scene is positively charged with tension. Only when Hancock safely caught the boy was I able to breathe again. However, during that time, I was utterly unable to process any other information: I was simply concerned about this boy's welfare. Three of hearts?
Then I got to thinking of other stressful scenes/instances. I can think of several 'up in the air/gravity' scenes. Then there's the smoke alarm going off in Rain Man. How uncomfortable is that scene? Only when Raymond's brother comes in to silence the alarm can we relax again. Telephones ringing! Gosh, whenever the banker phones and Noel is chatting away with the contestant, I'm telepathically willing him to answer the phone. I guess babies bawling on the bus have the same effect. People knocking on a door too. And neglected baths/sinks filling with water.
When our attention is captured within a stressful moment, I don't think we can consciously deal with other stuff. So when I was jesting about the Raiders inciting incident being delivered during the boulder chase, I guess I was making this very observation.

So then these stressfully charged moments become bad places to impart important information?

Well I wonder. Perhaps they are, in fact, brilliant places to access the subconscious, rather than the conscious, mind? After all, when I endeavour to plant an image into a subject's subconscious mind, I must first occupy their conscious mind. Tie one up, and the other is receptive, it would seem; befuddle the conscious, open the subconscious.

Why would we want to do that then?

My son and I have been playing quite a bit of Big Brain Academy together lately. It's startling how agile the mind can become when put under the pressure of a human opponent. In a flash, we are both utterly immersed in the game - in the contest. Note that this 'stress' is created in single play by the timer. The countdown. Yikes!

We also made this collage from old tv guides.

A better example might be sudoku. I don't find the opportunity to engage in sudoku much these days, but during my sudoku-playing days I would set myself a strict four minute time limit. Without the time limit - without the stress factor - I might idle and pontificate. But when that timer is ticking, you're suddenly on a kind of autopilot, charging through the columns and rows at breakneck speed.
Let's not forget, too, that if we really want to connect with the reader's emotional core, we need to go in deep! (Beneath the seven veils!)

I'm resisting the urge to mention the Incredible Hulk. Darn. Yep, the pilot episode, if memory serves, showed Dr Banner, pre-transformation, studying the extra reserves of human capacities when under duress. I think there was a woman whose child was trapped under a burning car or something, and yet she found the strength to physically lift the car and save the child. Come to think of it, I've always assumed that was based on actual events. Hmm. Regardless, we can easily see the extra something that we are capable of under duress.

I suppose we're looking at two distinct types of information then, and their different modes of delivery. I'd say that stressful scenes are bad places to deliver need-to-know/need-to-process information. However, once the tension has been released, the conscious mind is receptive to that information.
Conversely, if we want to secrete clandestine things into the unconscious mind - perhaps little clues or foreshadowing devices that make a reveal intensely satisfying - then throw something into the air or set off an alarm and whack it in there! Or, at least, engage the conscious mind somehow!

And to answer my question: Does the reader retain information better when under duress or when relaxed?
I think the reader retains the information in different ways/places.

I'll return to this probably.

P.S. Rest in peace Smudge. We'll miss you. x

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Dual Reality

Magritte's Empire of Light.

Bob McKee proposes three possible ways to connect the audience to the story using Curiosity and Concern:
1) Mystery: In Mystery the audience knows less than the characters.
2) Suspense: In Suspense the audience and characters know the same information.
3) Dramatic Irony: In Dramatic Irony the audience knows more than the characters.
Three super tools in the writers' tool box, and particularly suited to the variations of third person. Oh yes, it's a return to third person plotting and all its possibilities for rationing and controlling information!

After, ahem, a good few hours spent watching Derren Brown on 4oD, and more hours typing in permutations of 'Derren Brown how does he do it?' into my Google search bar (with and without expletives), I finally unearthed a good deal of his secrets! After the initial euphoria, I found myself saddened to have destroyed the mystery, and discovered the terrible truth that, in fact, the techniques are very simple but require years of careful practise and study, and lashings of innate talent and charisma. Better stick with writing then eh? (Insert your choice of smiley here.)

So, back to thinking up reversals, because the reader likes them a lot (oh, such a very lot!), and because I want more and more! Given that I'm unabashedly employing as many favourite elements of the page-turner as I can divine, I got to thinking about the old memory loss jewel and wondering how it might work under the supervision of Mystery, of Suspense, and of Dramatic Irony.

Typically, memory loss is rooted in Suspense: a character attempts to recall a piece of information which, when retrieved, will supply a brilliant reversal for both character and reader alike.
I'm into double-whammies at the moment: that is, I'm experimenting with quick-fire double reversals. I got to wondering what would happen if memory loss were presented as Dramatic Irony ...
In this way, a reversal is presented to characters and reader in the form of shared information - a momentous reversal which changes everything and creates incredible Suspense! - and then the characters forget this information and are separated from it, leaving the reader in Dramatic Irony! Then the reader can only observe helplessly as the characters forge blindly into destruction.

Anyhoo, more on reversals soon. For now, let's return to Derren Brown.

If you're unfamiliar with the psychokinetic touch, which is credited to Steve Banachek, you might enjoy this clip of Derren Brown touching Spearmint Rhino girls.
This pk touch trick, from Derren Brown: Mind Control 3, begins at 3 mins 48 seconds.
I'll also stick a variation on the trick up there in the YouTube section.

Escher's Puddle.

So here's how it's done:
(Really - you might want to watch the clips first!)


This trick relies on a concept called dual reality.

One girl has her eyes closed. Her 'reality' is now devoid of sight. But she still retains her kinaesthetic faculties right?
The other two girls share a different 'reality': they can see, but they can't experience the subject's sense of touch.
We share the visual 'reality' of the two girls because we watch through the camera lens. We don't share the kinaesthetic 'reality' of the subject.

In an instant, Derren turns to the two girls, distracts their attention, and taps the subject on the hand. The two girls don't notice this, and we don't see this either because the cameraman doesn't let us. Furthermore, our attention is diverted to the pretend taps several inches over the girl's hand. Whilst the technique sounds simple, the speed and precision with which Derren taps the subject's hand is astounding.

In the YouTube clip, the mentalist cannot rely on the cameraman for assistance, and so he sweeps his hands around the bride's arm, momentarily obscuring our view and tapping the girl's hand (with, I understand, the fourth finger). He then turns immediately to misdirection and taps the groom's hand, and that is where our attention is diverted (rather than Derren's pretend taps). Yes, we all clearly see him tapping the groom's hand, and do not consider the fact that he also tapped the bride's hand.

N.B. Naturally, this is a diluted account and makes no mention of the mentalist's ability to create rapport and trust, and to induce the subject into a compliant state. Note how the first Spearmint Rhino girl's blind reality is augmented with the words 'From now on ...' and how both girls are commanded to count in their minds and not out loud; in both cases, their realities are further distanced and held apart from the viewers'.

If you fancy hanging out with magical and mental folks to discuss dual reality performances, head off to the Magic Cafe!


In considering Bob McKee's proposed elements of Curiosity and Concern, we are simply toying with different realities. Our characters each have their own set of perception tools, as does our reader. When they are in tune, we work with Suspense. When the characters are aware of more than the reader, we are in Mystery. When the reader is aware of more than the characters, we are in Dramatic Irony.
It's worth considering not just the reversal, but who to throw it at!

Saturday, 8 August 2009


Well, let me begin by thanking all the lovely maggoteers who emailed me with dreams yesterday! Very much appreciated, and I'll have some conclusions shortly. Last night I dreamt that Gordon Ramsay was showing me how to remove the flesh from lobster claws.

Now, I encountered a commenter somewhere the other day. She complained of having a saggy middle. Of course, I was tempted to advise her to cut back on the chips, but thought better of it. I got to wondering what she meant; I've heard of saggy middles, but have yet to experience them for myself - although there was this time a couple of years back where I got the take-away meals:exercise ratio a little wrong. (Nope: that's not sufficiently developed from the chips remark and so is unsuccessful and would normally be revised or edited; but it's worth keeping in for this post!)

I spent yesterday evening working up ideas for my new project. I've taken the high concept and some of the better reversals and high stake decisions from my Tethered Light trilogy, but nothing else: new characters, new plot, etc. And I got stuck in, plotting my opening.
You know, I got to thinking: If the reader really and truly wants suspense and twists and immersion from the off, let's see how much they can take! Ha!
It struck me how easy it was. I could do this until the reader lies on the floor gasping for air.
By the end of chapter one, I had two reversals, a chase, a countdown, a major hook, a minor hook, and a major set-up (invisible hook which allows for creation of enormous reversal at end of book two). I had the protag's character flaw in place, establishment and immersion through shows and through minimal dialogue, forward momentum, soupcon of top end N400, and a super cliffhanger.
Can you guess what occurred to me next?

Ah, yes, um, chapter two next. Ho hum. Chapter two. Twooo. Second chapter. Definitely need a second chapter. Number two.

The moment I read of the commenter's problematic saggy middle, I felt pleased with myself for never having encountered it. And the instant I felt pleased with myself, the don't-go-kidding-yourself-you-dolt bells rang and I realised that I probably had encountered it and simply had not realised. Or I had been very lucky.
I don't know which is true. However, I know I avoided it in my previous project because I set it up in acts. Which is to say that I was regularly working towards an imminent major reversal. Which is to say that Bob McKee spared me the pain of sagginess.

In plotting my opening chapter, I got to thinking: How long shall I keep this up? Another reversal? Another hook? How many? I can go on and on!
So I thought about the opening to Raiders and imagined Mr. Spielberg thinking: How many traps should I place into this temple? How many reversals? How many hooks?
Let's not forget that this opening scene has nothing to do with the story at all. Nothing at all. The story begins when the two government officials pay Indy a visit, bringing their intercepted Nazi communication inciting incident. But what a tedious opening that would be right? What we want from that opening is immersion and introduction to Indy, wrapped in exciting suspense and reversals right? I'm right, right?

Did anyone catch Goldie's classical composition? Unable to read or write musical notatation, he elected to plot his composition with a linear sketch which essentially captured the dynamics of his piece: it would open with a bang and then to silence and fragmented sounds would grow to a climax of religious ecstasy and then a period of harmonic darkness, into the open-ended denouement.

In my post Ripples, I looked at the idea of development - of ripples spreading out from the protag's core if you will. Start small and grow. I subsequently began to wonder how an author might achieve this if they elect to open with something big! Where can they go from there? How big? If you start with the biggest thing imaginable, then the ending can only, at best, be of equal bigness. And that's not much of a recipe for dynamism.
Hmm ... Haven't we been looking at tension and release recently?
Or, to imagine the idea in another way, what if those government officials met up with Indy as the boulder was crushing everything at his heels? They'd all be running together, from this boulder, delivering the inciting incident. Jeez Indy ... huff puff ... we've just intercepted this message ... agh it's gaining ... faster ..! Have you heard of Tanis ..? Run!
How foolish. The viewer needed a break by then. Chill out in the library for a bit with silly Marcus.

That said, it occurs to me that the inciting incident scene, or any saggy scene, might easily be charged, and that's the beauty of the chase! As soon as Ahab set off for revenge, or as soon as that Terminator came back for Sarah, or that bloody bear tirelessly hunted Torak, everything is subsequently charged. Sure, the charge diminishes over time (rather rapidly I'd say), and soon enough our characters can sit about discussing stuff, drinking wine, falling in love, et al; but it only takes a snapping branch or rustling bush to kick start the suspense again! And as long as the stakes are rising with each revitalisation of the chase, things are building to a head!
But I do like Indy's quiet down time. Because when you reset to nothing, then you have everywhere to go! It's a matter of dynamic intensity.

So that saggy middle! Sounds to me as though the topography is wrong; sounds as though the three act major reversals technique is missing; sounds as though the charge has diluted.
Back to my plotting. Laters.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Harvesting Pianos

Atmospheric skull sodomizing a grand piano.

I had a rather exceptional dream last night which, I think, is worth documenting.
I found myself in what appeared to be an army barrack or billet, with people working at trestle tables. Everyone was ignoring me. Presumably, my brain was grappling with the wonderfully confidence-eroding phenomenon of receiving one response for every ten job applications I send out (and then typically only after I have sent out a follow-up email).
But here's the curious bit: I was sat with a laptop and noticed a lot of unread emails in my inbox. I didn't read them, and the dream continued with more people cold shouldering me, and every now and then I'd return to the laptop to discover more emails which I would not read.
Eventually, it transpired that these emails, which were being sent to and read by everyone in this workplace, contained libellous remarks about me.
So my dream had anticipated this reveal and provided a set-up: the emails.
Now I really can't recall ever having experienced a dream which worked towards a reveal and contained set-ups before! I have always assumed that dreams worked in a stream of consciousness manner. But this dream appears to question that theory! I'd love to hear from anyone who has experienced such a dream!

On the topic of dreams, somebody recently suggested that our dreams tend to incorporate people whom we have not seen for a while. (Not exclusively of course!) This would tally with the dustbin theory, whereby obsolete memories are dropped into the junk folder to be deleted.

Girl with broken piano.

I'm also considering my next project and am transcribing my son's ideas and dreams which are always so much better than mine! In particular, his dream in which he drove to a volcano to harvest pieces of broken pianos simply begs for a plot line.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Opening Thoughts #3

Still pondering my opening, acutely aware that if my opening isn't up to scratch, whatever a good scratch might be, then the successive eighty thousand words or so are moot. It's an unpleasant thought eh?
My ponderings are still orbiting a sun named What-does-a-good-opening-do?
And I've yet to abandon the hypnotic trance train of thought.

The idea first struck me when I was re-reading Ali Smith's The Accidental. I looked up after thirty or so pages and thought to myself: Crumbs! I've just read thirty or so pages without a thought for the outside world. It immediately occurred to me that she had mesmerised me - that she had presented nothing that would cause me to stumble, and nothing that required a hefty stretch of my imagination, and nothing that required mighty effort from the grey matter. No difficult words and no harsh words (remember the buba/takete experiment?) that might have encumbered or spiked the narrative.*
We've been dipping in and out of the idea of the pulse for years and I'd like to reconsider it.

It struck me, too, whilst ploughing through blog after blog of advice on opening a novel, and reading through scores of examples from the published and from the unpublished, both talented and not so, that the unpublished tend to rely on a formula, such that they look to capture the reader's interest from the off, typically with the bang, boom, yippee-ki-yay. I've tried this and I don't like it. Hard to say why I don't like it, although I suspect that it simply feels too contrived to me.
Then there are the clever plot devices used in the opening. I like these a little better. I like a clever reversal in the opening paragraph. It's quite a feat and instantly establishes the author's authority and I think that, alone, is enough to inspire me to continue reading.
I don't think anyone likes the ponderous and descriptive opening which fails to indicate any direction and, worse still, the backwards looking opening which points in the wrong direction - away from the end of the novel which is where the unspoken countdown reaches zero.

I don't think plot particularly interested me for quite some time. I feel that I'm now returning to that place, although with a long holiday at Plotston under my belt. I was always predominantly interested in the words and the meanings and the rhythms, and how they could capture the reader and play with her emotions. Plot, to me, was always about arranging these emotions; plot, to me, was a functional device which existed to serve the emotional topography.
I see it as something more now. I think plot can do the same thing as the words and meanings in that it can create, and not just assist in the creation and organisation of, emotional response. It's a tenuous thought, and one which I shall return to anon.

So, having absorbed all of those openings and deciding that I didn't much care for most of them, it made sense to return to the books I love - the books that have endured in my heart. And sure enough, there's not a yippee-ki-yay in sight. However, there is rhythm from the off - an unfettered and, dare I say, calming rhythm, constructed around a highly simplistic plot idea which invariably nudges the story towards a change. It's what I love. And, I suspect, when I began adapting my opening to adhere to more, for want of a better word, gratuitous plot dictates, I lost my truth. (Yes, the MacGuffin still troubles.)
For a long time, I hadn't spotted this need for change in the opening chapter, or at least it's imperative, and I'll always pay careful attention to advice and to other opinions and ways of tackling a problem. My feeling now is that either the market or the agents have become more impatient.

A brief look at what appears to be de rigeuer in an opening:

- Moving forwards means providing the reader with a steady stream of rewards and, more importantly, the expectation of rewards, from start to finish. Regardless of the plot's importance in creating these rewards, they should be shaped into emotional responses. I read, partly, because I like feeling happy or sad (etc.), but mainly because I like looking forwards to feeling happy or sad (etc.). Open to discussion.
- Quick immersion into the world! Interesting topic. To me, this suggests a feel for the author's style and tone, which governs everything, and the sensory stuff - the predicates, which makes the world more vivid, and a positive (as in the reader wants it) relationship with the protag, who is the host (receptacle) for our projected self, and the sense that something is about to occur, such that this universe held within narrative is dynamic - it moves and changes, creating a healthy environment for expectations.

And this seems to be the force which guides the openings to my favourite novels. They are vivid immersions bound by a powerful and authoratative voice. They flow and stimulate and provide no reasons to leave.
Is it more important to provide no reasons to leave than to provide reasons to stay?
Strikes me that those openings written by the unpublished which leave me unmoved are filled with formulaic attempts to keep me reading. Perhaps our attention should be focused** on the idea of creating an authoratative and flawless voice which remains humble and yet passionate and true?

Update: Just noticed that this topic is currently under discussion on Rachelle Gardner's blog.

The pattern interrupt is a technique which is designed to confuse the subject. It relies on a pattern or routine which either exists already (the handshake; tying one's shoe; etc.) or is created by the hypnotist. There's a comfort in routine, in patterns, and I've been attempting to exploit this in my writing for years, notably with the word palettes. To break these patterns is to leave the subject momentarily bewildered. In such a state, they become highly suggestible and compliant. To test this, I've been playing with pattern interrupts in my narrative. After all, if we agree that one of our aims, at least initially, is to create a vivid universe and to immerse the reader into this universe, then does in not make sense to utilise techniques which will create a compliance in the reader?
Note that the pattern interrupt is instantly followed by relaxation. If you dig out some Youtube clips, you'll even notice how the hypnotist's voice changes at the instant that the subject is confused: the hypnotist is suddenly much calmer and relaxed, inviting the subject to mirror this response.
Anyhoo, my tests appear to have failed. There could be many reasons why, and I have much to consider. The consistent response has been twofold: I find x confusing; I am expecting stuff to happen.
This seems to lend weight to my argument that the writer must not present a reason to leave in the opening, and confusion could very easily be regarded as a reason to leave. Although I am mindful of the rapid-fire object- and/or subject-switching technique which creates confusion and works very well in high octane chase scenes and fight scenes, and is used by many brilliant authors, it occurs to me that the opening might not be the best place for this. The opening to Quantum of Solace upset me terribly: the opening car chase is edited at such a frenzied pace that I was left dizzy, utterly unable to lose myself in this world. Moreover, this pace was maintained for a good long while and I became desperate for a moment of respite, a moment in which I could chill out and bond with the universe (pun intended. Forgive me.).
Conversely, before Indy goes off into that temple (Raiders), we hear those amazing bird songs and feel the oppressive heat and lushness of the jungle - we have time to settle and to learn a little about Indy and who he is and how others regard him and how his life might be.

Crikey, I'm going to break off there for now. Wonder if I have enough to rework my opening yet? Hmm ... perhaps not.

*N.B. Ali Smith's use of the word 'numinousness' on page one is food for thought. It snags wouldn't you agree? Did you not make several attempts to hear it in your head? Why is it there? Is it a pattern interrupt? Would the narrative work better without it - with a more mellifluous synonym? Is it designed to create a moment of discomfort which, in turn, makes the reader more receptive to the successive onslaught of majestic simplicity?

**Focused or focussed?
(Short answer: Either.)

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Opening Thoughts #2

Ever wondered what it would be like to walk through a cow? You haven't? Really?

Toasting marshmallows in the flames of toil! Oh, I like that Maria! Grab your toasting forks everyone!
Well, I think I burned my marshmallows last week, absorbing everything I could about openings - literary openings and the induction, which is like the opening to a trance-like state. Figured I'd discover more interesting parallels! I found a few. Here are my bestest observations:

I've been reading through lists of favourite openings and also lists of things not to do in the opening. Good to tackle a topic from different perspectives! Turns out that agents receive an awful lot of manuscripts that open with the protag on a journey, often a plane.

I can see the logic in this. It's rather like the classic bridge scene in a movie - the symbol of moving from one state to another, from an old way of life to a new way of life. (Forward momentum!) For examples of the bridge scene, check out Mona Lisa, Shrek, Rain Man, and also Jagged Edge (in which the Golden Gate bridge is both symbolic and establishing).

I was inspired by ricardo to read Iris Murdoch's debut novel Under the Net (good call ricardo!). She opens with the protag post transitional journey. He has just stepped off the train, having returned home to England, '...the smell of France still fresh in my nostrils.'
I've never found cause to dispute the old 'go in late' chestnut. When you consider how late to go in, the advice muddies a little, but there's nothing wrong with opening at the first point of change, occasionally referred to as the inciting incident, although, like Satan and George Eliot, it has many names, which is why I like to break things into consistent, neat, easy-to-digest chunklets and call them change. My smazy brain likes easy things.
The bridge scene is, I feel, a visual cue and not best suited to written narrative. When Bob Hoskins crosses the bridge with bag in hand, the bridge visually symbolises his transition from his years in prison to his new life (Mona Lisa [from memory]).
In a novel, the author might elect to go in later, at the point where Bob Hoskins has crossed the bridge and begins to interact with the components of his new life - on the precipice of change.

I wonder how Iris Murdoch chooses to open her debut novel ...

When I saw Finn waiting for me at the corner of the street I knew at once that something had gone wrong.

Other commonly submitted openings begin with protag looking in mirror, protag eating breakfast, and descriptions of sunrises.

If Jack Bickham were dead, his ghost would be sat beside me right now, his little eyebrows wiggling. Hope he's not dead. I have no idea. He's ace!*
Yes, Jack refers to this as warming up the engines. He says not to do that. I must point out here that agents appear to be cool with all these hackneyed openings, so don't fret if your protag is eating breakfast on a plane whilst looking at himself in a mirror with one eye and watching the sun rise with his other eye. Whilst I imagine the alarm bells will be hopping excitedly in the agent's mind, nodding their heads as if to say 'Now? Can we ring now?', agents understand that pieces of dead cow can make millions in the hands of Damien Hirst.

Prologues don't seem to be very popular. Rather, they are somewhat derided. One commenter suggested that prologues are the artifice of the writer who is unable to write a captivating opening chapter. I think this observation is misleading, because it's largely semantic: if you replaced the title 'Prologue' with the title 'Chapter One', the argument is somewhat moot.
However, I think the idea stems from the concept of the backwards-looking opening - the big info dump - the introductory back-story.

Jack opens his book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes with a Forward (sic) which begins:

The preliminary section of a book is often labeled a 'Foreword.' But in a book involving fiction technique, the word ought to be 'Forward.'
Why? ... To emphasize two vital points: All good fiction moves forward; all good fiction writers look ahead.

Chuck Wadey.

Several things struck me as I scoured webpage after webpage, youtube clip after youtube clip, scrutinizing the art of the hypnotic induction. Primarily:
The induction works best on groups of blonde girls.
I know - sounds spurious. But the reality is that not all subjects are good subjects. A good subject is suggestible, which is to say that she is willing - she wants to be induced. The two waitresses from the Hooters bar are pretty safe bets when it comes to seeking subjects who want to make a spectacle of themselves, right? The hypnotist does not force a person into a trance. The hypnotist finds a subject who wants to believe.

Why groups (say, more than one person)? Because of the human need to conform (pressure to conform), and because of the human desire to avoid embarrassment. Once the first few girls have had their index fingers 'magnetised' and are completely unable to keep them apart, the others follow. (No, I'm not going to use the word sheep.) Or, when that girl is up on the stage in front of an audience of friends and baying men, she would feel foolish if she 'failed'. Or, when some guy comes up to you in the street and asks if he can hypnotise you and you agree and he stares you in the eyes and pushes your head into his hands, how foolish are you going to look if, having already agreed to participate, you lift your head and say 'Wtf!'?

Another thing that truly struck me about professional inductions was the speed with which the subject can be placed 'into a trance'. We're talking instantaneous! Notably, there is a handshake induction which never fails to amaze me! (This uses the technique of pattern interrupts which I'll look at another time.)

The reader wants to believe. Gosh, even the agent wants to believe! And they really don't need any prevarication, noodling, back-story, descriptive prose or motivation at the outset. That stuff can wait, at least a little while, really it can. They need a reason - a reason to care!

Here are some things that Rachelle Gardner has found to care about:

Today I looked at some of my favorite first lines from novels, and asked myself why I liked them. I found each one appealed to me for a different reason. It might have:

-been clever
-been thought-provoking
-brought an immediate smile (or stab) of recognition
-struck me as poignant
-painted a really cool word picture
-set up an intriguing mystery
-introduced a character I want to know better
-made me laugh
-drawn me into an unfamiliar world
-used words in a beautiful way

The one thing they all have in common is they make me want to read more. They immediately draw me into the universe of the novel by the unique voice that first line begins to establish.

More soon.
(Note to self: Patterns, pattern interrupts, confusion and N4oo as they relate to the creation of a suggestible state; benefits of suggestible state; more on caring.)

* Turns out that Jack died after battling lymphoma. He died two years ago on this very day! One of those strange coincidences, like posting a picture of the 2001 star baby and thinking 'I haven't seen 2001: A Space Odyssey for years!' and then discovering that it's on tv at the weekend. RIP Jack and thanks for your guidance. X

Friday, 17 July 2009

Opening Thoughts #1

I'm afraid I only have a few minutes, but I want to quickly jot down some thoughts. Rest assured that I will return to these thoughts very soon.
I'm close to a breakthrough, thanks in no small part to my beautiful and tear-jerkingly kind readers (thank you so much!). I think, perhaps, that breakthroughs occur when a connection is made between two apparently unconnected things. It just so happens that I'm currently studying hypnotherapy and the art of opening a novel ...

I've long contented that the author is a shepherd - that he simply guides the reader. It is within the reader, after all, that the magic occurs; it is the reader who processes our words and the stuff inbetween and makes sense of these things using his own experiences and expectations and so forth. Yes, we are guides. Or, to quote Derren Brown:

'... You can start to realize that in fact you are only guiding your subjects down an easy path to what you want them to experience. You are not making them do anything. Think of it like seduction.'
(Derren Brown: Tricks of the Mind.)

Ooh, I like that. I think I'd rather be a seducer than a shepherd.

What's the purpose of your opening chapter? Why? What are you doing? Why?
If you don't know, then how can you hope to achieve or measure or effectively and irreproachably reproduce any kind of success?

Now, damned if I can find it again, but I will ...
But Nathan Bransford suggests that we don't need to start with a bang - rather, we need to immerse the reader so that she cares about the protag before going off elsewhere - and he points to a comment in one of his posts which details the elements of a good opening.
One of these crucial elements is the immersion through sensory stimulae - you know the score: those sights and sounds et al.
Why why why why why?
Here's Derren again, on inducing the 'trance':

'Appeal to all the senses of your subject by referring to things you'd like them to see, hear, feel, smell or even taste in their hypnotic 'state'. If you have your subject imagine a garden, have him see it vividly, but also refer to the feel of the grass under his feet; the sound of the birds in the trees; even the smell of the flowers. Only when these things are multi-sensory will they seem potent and real. Be sure to allow the subject to fill in the gaps as he wishes, but be careful not to contradict something about a picture you might have suggested. His image of the garden might be quite different from yours. You might refer to a brook which you imagine to be in the garden, but he might have decided to lose himself in a real garden from his childhood which contains no such brook.'

Yep, we've covered the perils, and benefits, of preconceptions and assumptions to death.

N400. On my mind. Too much stimulae = stress. Too little stimulae = boredom.
I can see a paradox.
What happened to those mythical seven (or however many) seconds that you have to grab interest? Why, after all, do so many novels begin with a murder or a confession or peril?
Yes, I can see a paradox.
One of the techniques used in creating a 'trance-like' state, especially popular in group sessions, is to ask the subjects to tense their muscles, and then to release, leading with the resulting sensations which you know they must be feeling.
To create relaxation? Or to create tension?
And we know that one of the guiding lights we can use when constructing emotional topography is to alternate between the two. Vincent Price said that laughter is the safety valve. It releases the pressure. Laughter, itself, can be the physiological response to stress. An old woman falls into a lake. Hysterical! Because she climbs out and we're relieved that she's not hurt. We're relieved. And tears contain some chemically thing which contains (and removes) stress. Tears are stress relief.

Repetitions and patterns, strobing - especially in tone - can also supplement that immersion into a 'trance-like' state. Derren:
'Find phrases that trip mellifluously off the tongue, such as 'enhance the trance' ...'
And Robert Louis Stevenson often referred to the web of words, likening a full-length novel to a long poem. It's all poetry. Then, designed to enhance a receptive state of mind?
Harsh words and tones can break the 'trance'. Why would we ever use them then? Do we want the reader in a perpetual 'trance-like' state? Is that what page-turning is all about? Is that how we can connect deeply to their emotional core - when they are pliant and receptive?

Lots and lots and lots more stuff to come. In the meantime, have a super weekend my maggoty companions, and consider the paradoxes, and the symbiotic nature, of relaxion and stress, and consider what that opening should and should not do.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Bottomless Well

I never did get round to concluding my post on memory vs invention.
Primarily because, as I thought more about the topic, I came to realise that I'm not adequately equipped to deal with the distinction.
But here's how far I got:

I was considering Gertrude Stein's notion that imagination is superior to memories.

The reason her letter to Hem lodged in my conscious mind was because I had been reaching a similar conclusion myself. When I am as deeply immersed in a scene as is possible, I can amble around and study the blades of grass and the downy hair on a character's cheek. Invariably, I can find the one description (we're briefly outside the realms of plot here) that sums up any given scene; just as Hem always contended. This detail, however, whilst retrieved from my memory cache, must then fit the needs of the plot. Therefore it is adapted. In this way, we'd make a judgement call (What is the most important thing to deliver here?), and then rummage for the essence of that thing (Hem's white thigh bone through dirty underwear), and then go one step further, as Stein suggests, and use our imagination to alchemise the essence into the key feature that best fits the requirement/s of the narrative.

Increasingly, I'm discovering that one perfect observation can become the heart of a scene; it can transform a functional scene into something ... haunting ... hypnotic ... as lived.
(N.B. This observation fits neatly into ricardo's current line of questioning.)

I love peeking into my son's beautiful little mind.
This morning, for reasons known only to him, we were attempting to remember the teachers from his previous school. Here are a few examples of his results:

There was Mrs. Richards who had an orange face, white hair, and red lips.
There was a dinner lady - can't remember her name - who had curly hair and glasses.
(ME: I don't remember her.)
She had a white face.
There was Mrs. Smith who was like Miss Lee but taller and with a bigger head.

I've been faithful not just to the details themselves, which I have transcribed verbatim, but also to the order in which he recalled the details.

So these are pure responses to a memory search, and I love them for that purity!
But they are delivered outside the requirements of a plot, or any given scene. As such, they have not been adapted to fit into any design. So now I'm wondering if Hem placed purity before design - if the truth meant more to him than the plot (which does seem very feasible to me) - if purity itself became a constant theme.

Other observations from my son (post sex education - you didn't want to be a passenger on our bus yesterday!):
Can babies go to Hell?
What happens if a woman dies and is buried and she has a baby inside her?
Does it hurt when the umbilical cord is cut?
Does grandma have a womb?

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Truth from NVC

The Poet Takes a Walk: Valerie Armstrong.

On the topics of truth, body language (Non-Verbal Communication), representational systems, and Norwich, I've been meaning to present a marvellous piece of narrative, again from Ali Smith's The Accidental.
It struck me because, of the many rhythms I engaged with when writing my final act, one of the most notable was my attitude towards character responses, employing 'shows' of body language. You might have noticed the body language link which I added recently.
Check out the apportioning of dominant and submissive behaviour, both in summarised dialogue and through a mix of body language cues, delivered as shows and tells. And see if you can guess which side of the 'Said is dead!' debate Smith champions.

Amber smiled at the man.
I'm afraid, I imagine, you'll need to get written permission from the proprietors of each station for something like that, the man said to Amber, ignoring Astrid.
You're afraid or you imagine? Amber said.
What? the man said.
He looked bewildered.
Afraid or imagine? Amber said.
The man glanced again at the camera and wiped the back of his neck with his hand.
And are you congenitally unable to talk to her, so you have to refer everything to me, like I'm your secretary or a special sign-language interpreter for her, like she's deaf or dumb? Amber said. She can speak. She can hear.
Eh? the man said. Look, he said.
We are looking, Amber said.
Listen, the man said.
Make up your mind, Amber said.
You can't film here, the man said. That's final.
He folded his arms at Amber and kept them folded. Amber looked right back at the man. She took a step forward. The man took two steps back. Amber started to laugh.
Then she linked her arm into Astrid's arm and they went out of the entrance hall into the town bit of Norwich.

A Holistic Milestone

Nathan Bransford has posted a brief novel-writing masterclass which is well worth a read.
I've been contemplating something similar, from a more holistic pov, just as a reminder, a milestone, a snapshot, so's I'll have something to chuckle over and comment on in a year or two. (Hello future solv! Hope you've finally got somewhere with the writing you lovely jejeune fool!)
So I shall take a brief sabbatical from the rewrites and spend some quality time with my maggoty companions.

1) Emotional topography:
The interwebnet-a-tron is burgeoning with top techniques for writers. But what purpose do these techniques serve? WHY should I control pace or know my characters inside out or plot or temper my exposition?
Primarily, everything unites to provide the reader with a set of emotional reactions. (Emotional response is more visceral than intellectual response.)
Make 'em laugh and make 'em cry, etc. Has there ever been a great novel which has failed to provoke emotional response?

2) Interest:
We haven't suckled on the teats of the N400 for a while eh?
There's a measurable and demonstrable response within human beings (also known as readers) which suggests that we grow bored if we're not presented with enough stimulae, and that we become stressed if we're presented with too much. It's why we have cookies/breadcrumbs/candy bars/gold coins. It's why we have reveals/reversals/twists/turns. It's probably why everything.
Bob McKee suggests that the full-length novel defaults to a minimum of three acts because three major reversals is the minimum required to sustain a reader's interest.

3) Change:
Lump your expositions and developments and reversals and denouements all under this leathery N400 umbrella! Change demonstrates that the narrative is heading somewhere. If the reader does not believe that the narrative is heading somewhere, she will go elsewhere. Change ensures that the protag's path is not straight, which is lovely because why read on when the end is predictable? Change creates dynamism and prevents stagnation. And, as the N400 indicates, the ramifications of meaningful change must be ramped up incrementally. (I mean to do another post on this because I wonder, under this provision, how it might be possible to open with a momentous change.)

After a super hen night, June wonders how she will make Norwich by noon.

4) Expectation:
Change creates expectation. My fave exponent is the countdown, a (tired) staple of the Russell (Tiberius) Davies plot which defies the viewer to leave her armchair because we all know that after ten and nine comes eight and somewhere at the end things will climax. You don't even need the numbers; there are more sophisticated forms of countdown. I remember seeing a rather disturbing cartoon in which a woman began to strip. The imagined climax is her naked right? But, when she was naked, she removed pieces of skin and bones and organs until she was just a hand with nothing more to pluck. I have also seen guys on their lunch breaks watching a cleverly looped striptease in which a woman sheds garments endlessly. It's amazing to observe just how long a person will watch this animation, long after they have sussed that it's looping. Another sophisticated form of countdown is the chase. In fact, you could probably take the title of every gameshow ever televised and label it 'expectation'. Well, maybe not Celebrity Squares.
Typically, the countdown will contain mini countdowns, or it will be replaced with a smaller countdown. Perhaps all expectation is a countdown?, in that space is charged because a resolution is expected.

5) Charged Space:
To that end, I'd suggest that all a writer needs to know about plot is that it should be a string of charged spaces created by hooks, organised for maximum effect. Yay for contentious statements!

6) Truth:
The honesty of an observation, a remark, a description; the most essential and evocative thing required to not simply elicit an emotional response, but to elicit the most accurate, precise, appropriate emotional response with sincerity and conviction. The ability to reveal the truth is what makes the difference between a good response and a great response. Holly Lisle reckons that writing should be painful; that an author cannot hope to move the reader if she cannot move herself. When the author discerns that insightful truth, she will feel it deeply. Research shows* that, in our day-to-day lives, words account for only 7% of human communication. So what is really happening? What is really going on beneath the surface? How are we actually making sense of our surroundings? What is the truth that we are discerning? Why does that person scare us? Why does that tree fill us with glee?

Anyone have any thoughts to share? I am going to eat fish.

*From Introducing NLP by Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour. Of human communication, 38% is afforded to voice tonality, and 55% to body language.

Saturday, 11 July 2009


Probably more than any other thing, Hemingway was always banging on about truth.
He distrusted similes and he distrusted adjectives. He demanded the mot juste.
But what did he mean?

With my ms typed up, I drew breath and plunged back into it, beginning at the beginning, performing major surgery, renovating crumbled chunks of plot, hammering and sweeping, and something occurred to me.
In those portions of chapters which remain from long ago, I discovered clumps of adjectives.
Curious, I thought. Looks like I'm hiding from something; looks like I've constructed these little bunkers of adjectives to protect something.
Beneath those clusters of adjectives, I had buried the truth; likely, I had been unable to find the truth and so chose to hide this fact from my reader so that he would not notice.
The truth, as Hem referred to it, is the cleanest, most functional and succinct essence of a thing; it is the perfect observation - the bare heart of the thing we are attempting to convey.

If we consider the truth in this way, we find answers to so many questions.
Remember the old 'What's wrong with adverbs?' discussions we used to have?
He walked slowly.
No he didn't.
He ambled.
Adjectives, like adverbs, can needlessly clutter and extend a sentence.
Needlessly is an adverb. However, without it, the meaning of that sentence isn't complete as I intend it. Ergo, it is right.
(N.B. Always looking to remove adverbs: ... can clutter and prolong a sentence? [Both inferred as needless?])
It's one of the simplest ways to spot the first-time author. Their opening paragraph contains six adverbs, and each adverb is unnecessary because, with a little more consideration, the author would have found the perfect verb - the mot juste.

Okay, that was Hem's truth. But Hem's writing isn't to everyone's taste. Although his principles all have merit, I personally would prefer to discover the occasional flight of fancy - the stream of consciousness - the sentence which is soused in the narrator's PRS, in the narrator's unbridled passion so that things are slate blue like the lips of a dead angel, round and soft and freckled with the claret blood of discarded life, etc.
Sure, each word still needs to be right; and sure, Hem's warnings about adjectives and similes are worth bearing in mind; but it's your choice, right? It's your style, not his.

I've also made a distinction between the stream of consciousness which I have always derided, and the stream of consciousness which I admire, and which accounts for the bulk of many lit-fic novels.
The first is an excuse for lack of control; it is the unfettered slurry of words spewn upon the page without consideration or understanding - the first thing to enter one's head.
The second is a controlled simulation of the first.
I love it, when the narrator remembers that he was supposed to collect his tie from the dry-cleaners. I love it even more when he remembers this thing just after arriving home to discover his wife swinging from a noose of electric cable. I don't love it when it appears without reason or when it harms the narrative or pace, or when it is there to hide a weakness or to stall.

So my little clusters of adjectives. Sometimes they are right because they come from the narrator's heart and are controlled and are right for the moment. But sometimes they are artificial.
If you fancy experimenting, have a go at describing the painting above using adjectives, and then without, and compare the results. Or, if you were permitted to use only two adjectives to describe the painting, what would they be?

To demonstrate all of this, here's an extract from Ali Smith's The Accidental:

Astrid dreams of a horse in a field. The field is full of dead grass, all yellowed, and ribs are showing on the horse. Behind the horse an oilwell or a heap of horses or cars is burning. The sky is full of black smoke. A bird which doesn't exist any more flies past her. She sees the shining black of its eye as it flashes past. It is one of the last sixty of its species in the world.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Invent or Remember?

I made something of a momentous discovery yesterday.

I have been mulling over a letter that Gertrude Stein wrote to Hemingway. In the letter, she told Hem that she thought the things he invented were superior to the things he remembered.

Worth taking a moment to think about this.

I'm sure that, in part, my mood board was designed to put this idea to the test.
Anyhoo, the mood board was surprisingly unsuccessful.
Lying in bed last night, I was thinking of the descriptions I had made, of the things I had found in the images, and of the things I had remembered. After a little thought, I found the one description that transformed the scene, and it was something that did not exist in the mood board.
I had inadvertantly hit upon the very reason why my mood board was, largely, a failure, there in the post, an afterthought in brackets!

Under the regulations of the narrator's knowledge and make-up!

It's not enough to find those essential details. The essence of those details needs to be the essence that the narrator (in this case, the protag [first-person]) would find.

But that's not quite right either.

Allow me to refer you, gentle reader, to my previous thoughts on the benefits of a Primary Representational System:
In considering the cases for and against, I gave myself this argument:

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.

The argument is a bit messy, because I should have distinguished between narrator and character.
I still contend that characters are better defined through a PRIMARY RS.

However, the narrator is not simply a character. The narrator is the umbilical cord between fiction and the reader's reality. Or, less pragmatically, the narrator is part character and part reader.
As such, to imbue the narrator with a Primary RS is to cut away huge chunks of the reader.

Therefore, I now contend that the narrator should not absorb and regurgitate the world through the sieve of a PRIMARY RS. The narrator should, in reasonably equal measures, see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world. In this way, every permutation of reader RS's is satisfied.

Strange Japanese invention #2: Portable office tie.

So back to Gertude.

I think, what she was telling Hem, was that his employment of a PRIMARY RS (taste) went some way towards the criticisms that were often hurled at Hem: That his writing was sterile. (Not to be confused with clinical!)
This might be because:
When Hem remembered, he did so through the filter of his own Representational Systems.
When Hem invented, he did so with a thought for the reader (and, possibly subconsciously, broke from his filter).
Certainly, it's interesting to see how Hem's band of RS's widened as he matured.

N.B. Piaget once said that people learn most when they have to invent. Particularly interesting if you consider that the reader and narrator learn simultaneously.

Still some way to go with these thoughts. But for now, I have enough to understand why some of my descriptions work well, while others feel wrong. PRIMARY for characters, GENERAL for narrator.

Strange Japanese invention #3: Ten-in-one gardening tool.

Here's a thought to leave you with:
What would happen if you took two of your characters and made them into one?

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Mood Board: Coastal Sunrise

I've spent the morning collating all my plot points and notes for the final act and have organised them into chapters and have done lots of research and immersed myself in the textures of the opening chapter. Now I need to compile a mood board to find the essential mood of that chapter.
(I've also added a link to a wonderful colour-picking site - top right under Words > colours.)
So here's my mood board! See how many marvellous little details there are to be discovered, recreated and decanted, and woven together (under the regulations of the narrator's knowledge and make-up)! Ooh, I'm all excited!

For myself ... the problem was one of depiction and waking in the night I tried to remember what it was that seemed just out of my remembering and that was the thing that I had really seen and, finally, remembering all around it, I got it. When he [matador] stood up, his face white and dirty and the silk of his breeches opened from waist to knee, it was the dirtiness of the rented breeches, the dirtiness of his slit underwear and the clean, clean, unbearably clean whiteness of the thigh bone that I had seen, and it was that which was important.

Hemingway: Death in the Afternoon.

N.B. All images taken from public domain (Google images). No watermarks have been removed. No profit is being made from reproduction of images.
Some notes on copyright of public domain images here.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Time Flies, Dung Beetles

The new Volkswagon Beetle raised eyebrows.

I don't often think about time. All I understand about time is that there isn't enough of it and it's running out.

A couple of months ago, I was in one of my local shops and I was chatting with the woman behind the counter, as we often do, and then she noticed my son with me and her eyes lit up and she was all over him: Hasn't he grown et al. This happens a lot.
I momentarily imagined my son walking into his local shop at my age. I wondered if the light in the cashier's eyes would be gone. Does she like him because he's a child, or because of who he is? When he's grown up, it won't be his fault that he's no longer a child.
Anyhoo, I couldn't see the thought leading anywhere so I dumped it.

My son and I just spent the weekend with my mother. For whatever reason, she dug out some old letters that she has kept for almost forty years, and she invited me to read them. One was from her father. It was dated 1973 and was written shortly before he died from, I believe, a stroke. He wrote to express his adoration of his young grandson and explained how his young grandson made his day.
It was nice to know that I had made an old man's day, and had made him very happy in his last days. Although I can't really take any credit.
But I've been thinking that one of the best reasons to write is to make other people happy.

How a wasp might see my son holding a rubber chicken.

Act II is finished (bar all the revisions I need to make). I've just totted up my word total and I'm pretty much on track: together, the first two acts come in just shy of 70k.
I'm estimating that the final act - the shortest of the three - will come in at 20k, or a little less.
And that doesn't seem like a big number at all. And so, to everyone who stands at the doorway to a new ms, I hope you'll take heart: if you write a little bit here and there, whenever the time is available, then you'll soon discover that the job is almost done. Every few words helps to chip away at the total count. Keep plugging away and next thing you know you'll be at the editing stage!

Oh, the editing stage! Currently, there are approximately 7,620 things wrong with my ms. But if I've learned anything, it's that I can deal with every problem my ms throws up, and that it grows inexorably, becoming prettier and more shapely with every passing day. I've battled through a hideous weekend of writer's block, and I've found the heart of my novel, and I've figured out how to bring more conflict and a meatier reversal (charge swap) into my opening, and I've discovered which sub-plots actually add very little and can go, and which strands duplicate other strands and can also go, and how to regulate the reveals such that they build and how to recognise the difference between a standard reversal and a major, end-of-act, reversal ...
And I reckon that the best way to learn all of these things and much more is to throw oneself into the ms and just write.

One last thought, and I'd like to think there's empathy out there:
I seem perpetually torn. There are moments, sometimes days, when I am convinced that I am creating something worthwhile and, dare I say, marketable. (Okay, I admit it, sometimes I think I'm writing something that is quite good.)
And then there are moments and days when I feel that I am pushing this invisible dung ball around with me everywhere I go, and that when I write, I am slapping more invisible dung onto the ball and it is growing and one day somebody will look at it and it will cease to be invisible and they will give me a very peculiar look.
Reckon we need a pic of a dung ball.

I'll leave you with a poem composed by my son:

The Dragon Who Ate Our School
* * *
It all started this morning at eight,
whilst the dragon demolished the playground gate.
She poked the teacher while he was writing the date,
until she noticed a tasty roof slate.
Mr Jones knew his fate,
so he ran away before it was too late.
She's undeniably great,
she's absolutely cool,
the dragon who ate
the dragon who ate
the dragon who ate our school.
Suddenly the dragon started to chase Miss Lee
while the children were playing elevens and chanted out number three.
The dragon bumped into a massive tree,
and then we looked at it and out popped a bumble bee.
Finally as the teachers tried to run free,
all of the children were full of glee.
She's undeniably great,
she's absolutely cool,
the dragon who ate
the dragon who ate
the dragon who ate our school.