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.