Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

Watched Stranger Than Fiction last night for the first time - strangely intelligent, satisfying and funny and sad all at the same time. What struck me (besides Dustin Hoffman's appearance - he does seem to edge towards existential films) was the use of the narrator. Normally I hate these as they give away too much. The medium of film is about the imagery not the dialogue or some narrator giving away all the meaning (a la one version of Blade Runner, or that film with Kate Winslet - Little Children).

Stranger Than Fiction needs to use it, and does so just as you'd expect, however, I liked it - I liked its use of imagery, the personification of the watch, the quirky nature it brought to Crick and on the narrator herself.

And I especially liked this bit:

I'm being followed by a woman's voice.

They just stare at each other for a momment.

Okay. What is she saying?

She's... she's narrating.

Harold. You're standing at the water
cooler. What is she narrating?

I... I... I had to stop filing.
Watch. Listen. Listen.

Harold continues to organize papers into files.

The sound the paper made against the
folder had the same tone as a wave
scraping against sand. And when
Harold thought about it, he listened
to enough waves every day to
constitute what he imagined to be a
deep and endless ocean...

Harold stops organizing the papers. He turns to Dave.

Did you hear that?

You mean, you filing?

No. The... the... The voice.


[Oh God]... Dave it's, it's, it's...
The frightening part is that sometimes
do imagine a deep and endless ocean.

Aside from how brilliant I think this extract is (and the to-and-fro of the script between narrator and Harold) the narrator's dialogue acts as a brilliant narrative show-don't-tell. This alludes to how very unhappy Harold is in his life, how his job goes forever on - which leads very nicely to the conclusion.

It is that kind of immediate narrative description that I'm beginning to pick out of Murakami's writing: pick up the theme, deliver it succinctly with a nice ole simile or metaphor, relate it to the character and move on.

Note: Script extract from available script at SimplyScripts.com

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sputnik Sweetheart

I finished Murakami's Sputnik Sweetheart yesterday - another brilliant narrative... though I'm worried that I don't quite get his crazy moments. Just as in After Dark, Sputnik falls upon an undefinable element that could be supernatural or simply illusory elements of mental processes... I'm not sure and I'm not sure I like it.

Sure, I understand its purpose in the narrative - Sputnik certainly feels like a lonely piece; three characters in an incomplete love triangle, sharing the title in the way they attempt to connect but fail to do so because their love is unrequited.

All very interesting, but to what purpose. Maybe MG can help me out to that end? :)

Anyhoo, two particular elements caught my eye:

1. Murakami's choice of character reactions - they're just so perfect, to the point, and well defined. Take this example (Page 51) of Miu's reaction to Sumire:

"You know I've never thought I wanted to be somebody else," Sumire blurted out once, perhaps urged on by the more-than-usual amount of wine she'd drunk. "But sometimes I think how nice it would be to be like you."

Miu held her breath for a moment. Then she picked up her wineglass and took a sip. For a second, the light dyed her eyes the crimson of the wine. Her face was drained of its usual expression.

"I'm sure you don't know this," she said calmly, returning her glass to the table...

2. An absolute brilliant use of Simile to show meaning that is also linked in with the preceding dialogue:

"Hey, if you can't give your opinion about other people, the world would turn into a pretty scary place, wouldn't it? If you don't think so, just look up what Joseph Stalin did."

On the other end of the line Sumire was silent for a long time. A heavy silence like dead souls on the Eastern Front.

"Hello?" I asked.

Friday, July 27, 2007


There is something reassuring about the return of Indy Jones, not least in the decision for Karen Allen to reprise her role as Marian Ravenwood - who we all fell in love with as little boys.

Far less whiney than Kate Capshaw's Willie Scott, and far more human than Alison Doody's Dr. Schneider, Marian was sufficiently head-strong enough to give Indy a run for his money whilst easily falling upon her feminine charm and the occasional ditzy "Help Indy, get me out of this burning building... basket... snake pit... plane."

With John Hurt on to play her father and Indy's mentor: Abner; Shia LaBeouf as Marian's son Mutt (hmm, Dog names again), Ray Winstone as Indy's assitant and Cate Blanchett as the villain, this film is set to be expensive if not entertaining - and we'll have to wait and see on that front.

At least I have all faith in Koepp... fingers crossed

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Warning - disturbing visceral imagery

So, I was called to the lending floor yesterday by the supervisor and found her stood at the printer collecting some sheets of paper. And right by where she was stood, a dirty looking man (dirty in the social-outcast kind of sense) was watching videos on Youtube of men in domestic settings being manhandled by scantily-clad muscled women.

That's nice! Well, er... he seemed to think so.... because his hand disappeared beneath the computer desk and I could clearly see him beating a rhythm - and he didn't appear to be listening to pop music. I guess you could call it funky!

To call me shocked is an understatement. I really can't think of a polite metaphor to use here so I'm going to avoid it. There we were, two members of staff on one side, another member of the public on the other. A third member of staff came over, and still he beat that rhythm.

Eventually - I say eventually because we were all taken aback enough to have to draw straws before someone would confront him, hoping not to get one in the eye - someone did go and ask him to stop.

We should have kicked him out then and there, certainly further thought helped us realise that rather than just being against the Library bylaws, it was against the law.

He's going to get a visit in the coming days by the Police, as are we! Yay, you know, I've spoken to the Police more times in the past few years than any normal citizen should have to - they are often so joyless.

Maybe if they spent some time with Mr Beater, they might learn to share that grin on his face.

Oh God, please tell me that's salad cream in my sandwich. Hurgh!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Murakami on Dialogue

Haruki Murakami has an interesting take on the use of dialogue. His books seem to be more about characterisation than plot and so there feels as if a lot goes into the construction of his dialogue. And in that I have three observations:

Sumire frowned and sighed. "If they invent a car that runs on stupid jokes, you could go far."

"Put it down to an impoverished intellect," I said humbly.

"Okay, all joking aside, I want you to give it some serious thought. What do you think she showed me there? If you get it right, I'll pay the bill."

I cleared my throat. "She showed you the gorgeous clothes you have on. And told you to wear them to work."

"You win," she said. "She has this rich friend with clothes to spare who's just about the same size as me. Isn't life strange? There are people who have so many leftover clothes they can't stuff them all in their wardrobe. And then there are people like me, whose socks never match. Anyway, I don't mind. She went over to her friend's house and came back with an armful of these leftovers. They're just a bit out of fashion if you look carefully, but most people wouldn't notice."

I wouldn't know no matter how closely I looked, I told her.

Sumire smiled contentedly. "The clothes fit me like a glove. The dresses, blouses, skirts - everything. I'll have to take in the waist a bit, but put a belt on and you'd never know the difference. My shoe size, fortunately, is almost the same as Miu's, so she let me have some pairs she doesn't need. High heels, low heels, summer sandals. All with Italian names on them. Handbags, too. And a little make-up."

"A regular Jane Eyre," I said.


The dialogue is written in two different styles. Firstly, with the usual quotations: "A regular Jane Eyre", but also as a direct tell to the reader: I wouldn't know no matter how closely I looked, I told her.

Murakami uses this to break up conversations, much in the same way as changing sentence length changes the pace of the narrative. In his latest book: After Dark he resorted to colons: Kaori: "Well, I never". It's an interesting choice and it works, but I'm not yet sure why.


In eight lines of dialogue there are two adverbs. Their use: I said humbly and Sumire smiled contentedly, keep the pace of the dialogue going. The reader isn't side-tracked with a list of what each character is doing at this time, or with an elongated discussion on relating just how contented Sumire looks.

We're all told we should avoid adverbs and adjectives however Murakami shows their perfect use. He is taking the dialogue and modifying slightly to enhance their manner. And sprinkled disparatley they have greater power. If, "put it down to an impoverished intellect" hadn't included the defining I said humbly the reader could easily, and wrongly, imagine that the character, K, giving a wink or a self-important smile of his own - which would be out of character certainly.

And with Sumire, we get a spiel that pours out of her about clothes, serving, from her contented smile to consolidate her infatuation not so much with the clothes but with her love interest Miu.

These short adverb breaks help the dialogue inform the reader on these characters. Sumire has until now dressed like the Beatnik Jack Kerouac, is turning by proxy into a woman as her infatuation with Miu grows.

K's character comes across in his wit, his references and his self deprecation.


We can use the sparse descriptions of movement or manner to inform the reader on the beats of the scene. During conversation Murakami only relates a change in expression or a movement when a character reacts to something - ahh, the art of brevity:

1. Sumire frowned and sighed.
- she is upset by K's joke.

2. I said humbly.
- K tries to ingratiate himself by making a self deprecating statement. He didn't mean to offend.

3. I cleared my throat.
- K is preparing to say something important (and of course, we have the distinct impression, or at least I do, that he fancies Sumire. He's not averse to giving her a compliment).
- She doesn't pick up on it. There is no reaction, because...

4. Sumire smiled contentedly.
- ... whether or not she picks up on his compliments she seems more enamoured with all thought of Miu than K.

Gift from the Gods

In Ancient times, back when I was a lad, we used to be polytheistic. Back in those halcyon days when you were encouraged to slaughter your goat in front of your kids for the sake of some good fortune, there was always a likely chance for the gods to smile on you.

Not these days.

The muse is a fickle creature, and personally, I believe that since she is a figment of antiquity she fears God might smite her for being a part of that whole polytheism movement - you know, worshipping multiple gods! How pagan is that?

Anyhoo, she comes and she goes, and I'm getting rather fed up with it all. T'other week I was being commended for my screenplay pitch and the opening to my new novel, and today I'm battling with the first couple of hundred words of my YA/Children's novel - which I keep returning to with renewed (and failing vigour)... and it's killing me.

It's not like I've met the main narrative yet. I'm still playing around with the tone, a swift one/two page opening to set the scene of what is going on behind the scenes - though I don't want it to be long, because I have to leap into the narrative proper.

So, here I am, going round in circles, wondering to myself what's important in this description? The reader has to understand: there is a book in a room with no doors. The book is made from stone. The pages turn on their own and something unnatural and unseen is scoring words into the book. That the room is cylindrical, that books line the walls, stacked upwards, and there is no ceiling. Just a light that glares down from infinity far, far above. Sounds easy doesn't it?

I've spent 8 hours on this, and here's where I stand, 238 words of exhaustion:
… and the page shivers.

A sliver of polished stone, the width and breadth of a man’s chest, floats up from the book and curls over. Paper-thin, as if paper is all it is. In the half light the movement is barely visible. And no sooner has the page smoothed itself in place than the scoring starts anew, the screech of a dagger dragging through stone.

Nothing appears to move.

The book, fashioned from basalt like an ornament upon a tomb, lies open at its middle. It is clasped in obsidian claws that protrude on an arm of volcanic rock from the cobbled floor. Reptilian talons of black ice. Surrounding both book and pedestal is a single, unbroken wall of book-shaped bricks, a tower that stretches up to a circle of moonlight high above. An oubliette without entry or exit.

There is no one here to turn the page; no one to scratch the noise into the chill air. Yet, it sounds as if someone is doing just that. Something unseen is chiselling at the book. And, inscribed into those stone pages the words flow ceaselessly…

… stands the witch, Penthera Discordia. She pulls the iridescent, feather-bound book from beneath her robes and bears it before her. Her lips move and the incense thickens as a spell forms in her throat. And then she tears open the book as she might her own ribcage to free her heart…

Monday, July 23, 2007

The 6th Kids book - Wolf Brother

In addition to my previous 5 childrens/YA novel analysis I've got a copy of Wolf Brother to have a look at - I've loved these, and am awaiting the fourth in the series as we speak (now that Potter is out the way).

Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother has received tremendous praise for its ability to draw the reader into an ancient world that, unlike Potter, is far less familiar - admittedly Witches and Wizards isn't that familiar to any of us over the age of 11, but I'm making a point about the world as a whole here, cut me some slack. Not only does Paver master a cracking pace that is vivid, colourful and evocative of its particular time and place (in a way that Rowling has never been able to master) which is similarly evoked by Pullman in His Dark Materials, an abstinence from weak adverbage, but she also takes it further into the alternating pov of Torak (boy) and Wolf (wolf), suitably simplifying her language to fit the pov character.

Let's have a look at some of the elements:
Torak woke with a jolt from a sleep he'd never meant to have.
First off she starts the book after the event. The inciting incident has already occurred - Torak and his father have already been attacked by the demon-possessed bear - and we are thrust into the night-time forest of Torak's world along with him, a terrified boy whose father now lies dying.

It's an interesting way to start - avoiding a fight - but we, the reader, has to realise this significance. What do we learn from the actual attack itself? Very little. Also, by holding off the bear attack, and having to deal immediately with why and how it disappears for a time the reader begins without seeing this terrible creature, and is in perpetual suspense, along with Torak, as to what it really is and when it will come back.

So we are allowed to empathise with Torak immediately, not confused or thrown about in the melee, but give the opportunity to connect with a frightened boy.

And the way she does that is to set the scene and how he feels:
The fire had burned low. He crouched in the fragile shell of light and peered into the looming blackness of the Forest. He couldn't see anything. Couldn't hear anything. Had it come back? Was it out there now, watching him with its hot, murderous eyes?

He felt hollow and cold. He knew that he badly needed food, and that his arm hurt, and his eyes were scratchy with tiredness, but he couldn't really feel it. All night he'd guarded the wreck of the spruce bough shelter, and watched his father bleed. How could this be happening?
She moves her description back in time, slips in the reference to all night, before we reach the next paragraph in which she draws us back in time further to the day before when they'd pitched their tent. But she doesn't linger on describing how that happened. It is enough that we are told, and then it is straight into her telling us that the forest exploded. Ravens screamed. Pines cracked. Two short paragraphs to describe the mayhem of the attack and then back to present.

And these two paragraphs highlight the confusion that new writers have over differentiating between show and tell. This is in essence a flashback, even though the tense remains in the past tense throughout, and Paver doesn't fall upon he had or he had done etc. And it is the fact that we've moved back in time that lends readers' minds to think she is simply telling us what happened.

Take those short lines again: Then the forest exploded. Ravens screamed. Pines cracked. Paver is choosing her words carefully, as well as setting up a rhythm with her writing she is choosing punchy, evocative descriptions that take away the need to expressly say action for action what the characters involved did or thought. Swift pace is maintained with these punchy sentences and the rhythmical repetition.

To bring us back to the present, Paver links in the end of the attack: Then it was gone, melting into the Forest as silently as mist. with Torak's present concern: But what kind of bear stalks men...

She doesn't waste time telling us Torak is thinking that. Every line so far, though 3rd person pov, has been from Torak's pov.

Next we move into the relationship between Torak and his father, and how Torak feels about tending to his father's wounds, worrying over his father's life. We learn of the nature of these people by the manner in which they relate and how Torak: tried to be practical: to be a man instead of a boy. And throughout, Paver is evoking feeling through action: ... fumbling for his medicine pouch with his freehand... he dug his thumbnail into the flesh. It hurt. He forced himself to concentrate on that. Every moment something is said by his father, Paver brings it back to how that makes Torak feel.

The discussion between father and son is swift, but then we reach a moment of tension that Paver relates to the reader effectively through broken paragraphs rather than merely short sentences. This gives the reader the sense of anticipation, and helps to break up Torak's actions, as if a new paragraph is started every time Torak looks in a new direction or realises something new with his senses:
'Fa, please. Don't-'

In the Forest, a twig snapped.

Torak spun round.

The darkness was absolute. Everywhere he looked the shadows were bear-shaped.

No wind.

No birdsong.

Just the crackle of the fire and the thud of his heart. The Forest itself was holding its breath.
By doing this the reader feels as if they are taking many breaths, and it helps to move them quickly through the narrative.

Pace is kept up by shortened sentences, and when she dallies it is only to narrate Torak's thoughts and feelings - rarely description of actions and even rarer on locations.

Now then, amidst all this we get the back story of this dangerous beast - the antagonist - Paver has chosen to give Torak's father certain abilities (inherent and taught but not yet active in Torak himself) and knowledge so that we, along with Torak, may learn part of this knowledge. This avoids on-the-nose dialogue whereby the narrator attempts to impart knowledge to the reader as if the character is musing it all to themselves, or, as I found in The Trolltooth Wars (Steve Jackson), simply telling the reader the history of the thing, and pulling us out of the forward movement of the narrative (trust me - don't read The Trolltooth Wars... I don't recommend it to anyone over the age of 9)

As Paver gives us explanation of Torak's situation through the dialogue she sets up the plot's quest - the get the mountain or die trying. The timelock situation is setup, for Torak must reach the mountain before the red eye is highest in the night sky. He has one moon in which to achieve his goal.

Explanation of the strange/unknown

The Death Journey is introduced on page 3, but without explanation. We can guess by its name and Torak's reaction that his father is preparing to die, and we can guess that there is a ritual involved with it, but we are given no more details until later, when Paver will show us. For the moment it is merely acting to flesh out the world. It isn't until page 7 when we are shown Torak carrying out the ritual that we are drawn into its meaning and use.

Again, page 5, there is mention of the Mountain of the World Spirit, another thing that we can only assume is a spiritual mcguffin. But we aren't given any further explanation. Paver gives the essential information the reader needs to know at later points through dialogue or well chosen reflection by Torak at a time when the pace has slowed, but never amidst the clenching pace of action or tension, as with the opening of the story.

Active/Colourful descriptions

Paver employs persistent, active descriptions so that whatever Torak or Wolf see or interact with, the descriptions are serving the narrative, not slowing it down:
…a brilliant green… It smelt of pine-smoke and fresh blood... Torak saw four big reindeer-hide shelters... A bewildering amount of people... thick with willows… as it thundered over a sheer wall of rock, it was appalling in its fury... it turned from blue to dark green to black... Cold flowed from it: an acrid uprush of air like the breath of some ancient creature that has never seen the sun... It felt slimy, like dead flesh Nothing but glimpses of glistening red stone... All around, he heard weird creaks and echoing groans... knife-sharp crags and gaping gullies…
This is a perfect example of showing (not telling) with the location and character interactions with the world's canvas.

Point of View

Wolf Brother opens in Torak's pov. We are stuck in his head and see the world and feel his emotions:
He heard the stealthy rustle as the creature moved towards the shelter: towards his father. He waited in rigid silence as it passed. Coward! he shouted inside his head. You let it go without even trying to save Fa!

But what could you do? said the small part of his mind that could still think straight. Fa knew this would happen. That's why he sent you for water. He knew it was coming for him.
It isn't until the third chapter, when we step into Wolf's pov that we realise the power with which Paver wields her words:
Since long before the Light he'd been nosing them and biting their tails - but they still didn't move. They didn't make a sound, and they smelt strange: like prey. Not the prey that runs away, but the Not-Breath kind: the kind that gets eaten.
Paver acknowledges the need to simplify her language that bit more with Wolf - a primitive creature compared to the humans - her language becomes more playful and nouns take on a capital letter when Wolf considers something to be living - be it Light, Fast-Wet, Den, Great White Cold, or Tall Tailless... as if Wolf anthropomorphises everything.

Longman has a great analysis resource for secondary schools that some writers might find useful for helping them think about word use and Paver's skill - Wolf Brother.pdf

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Okay, first off - no spoilers. Next, I've done it. We woke up at 23:00 hours and joined the Waterstones queue at 23:15 - there were already 60 people in front of us. A mostly quiet time - still knackered from sleep - that trundled by. We grabbed our books and were home by 12:45. We immediately set about preparing snacks and drinks to keep us awake over the remaining hours before dawn.

So there we sat with the Deathly Hallows in our laps - all 600+ pages of it - and read, and read, and read. Laura got 20 pages ahead by 4am and fell asleep allowing me to breeze an extra 40 before I acknowledged my eyes were shut. Just as dawn was breaking we went up for a break, waking at 8, and continuing our mammoth task at 8:20.

And there we stayed until 10. And it's all down now. What a book! Overly long, epic, emotional, drawn out, so fast-paced as to fly, and brilliant.

And there we go. Harry Potter is at an end. Crazy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

5* Young Adult Openings

Still in the holding pattern before the final Potter I thought I'd sit down and investigate the openings of 5 YA books - in the hope that before I return to writing my YA book on a Library I might work out what I need to focus on:
  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (JK Rowling)
  2. Lirael (Garth Nix)
  3. The Dark Portal (Robin Jarvis)
  4. Northern Lights (Philip Pullman)
  5. The Trolltooth Wars (Steve Jackson)
First and foremost one clear theme seems to reach across all of them: death. In all 5 novels the author has made clear the threat of violence, either to kill or murder. Interesting considering that these books are aimed at the young! But, there must be a reason. That threat immediately sets up a level of suspense - there is real danger here. Young people are less inclined to sit through long passages with no threat, because they want to feel in danger- as Ken Follet said some weeks back that thrillers and suspense novels do so well because readers want to be put into situations of danger and experience things they otherwise would not.
  1. The Philosopher's Stone

    Rowling opens her book with the Dursleys - Harry's Aunt and Uncle. This sets up the ordinary world into which Harry will be thrust, and meanders along with not a lot going on - you can understand why Chris Little passed on it first time - the writing is no worse than the other four books I've looked at, and it's a good character study on exactly who the Dursleys are.

    Why do this? Why risk boring the reader with something so unconnected with the rest of the book? Although we are in the ordinary world, Rowling uses the opportunity to develop Harry's story from the start - that witches and wizards are out in the open celebrating. This helps to show how much of a "prune" Vernon Dursley is, and how hateful he will be towards Harry. Remember that in this one we spend four chapters with the Dursleys, up until the end of Act 1 (Philosopher's Stone is about 200 pages, so this is roughly right) when Harry moves from the ordinary world into the wizarding world. So, the Dursleys play an important role in fashioning who Harry is by their manner and the way in which they treat him - setting them up as Harry's first antagonists of whom he must overcome.

    However, we don't end the first chapter with just the Dursleys. Rowling relates strange occurrences - shooting stars instead of rain, wizard and witching folk dressed up, a cat reading a map, as most importantly whilst we are introduced to Dumbledore and McGonagall, and through their discussion setting them both up as caring and trustworthy characters, we are given the backdrop to the tale which does several things in itself - through the mannerisms and dialogue of the two professors we are given the badguy (Voldemort) and his evil deeds, the death of Harry's parents and that for some reason Harry is the boy who survived, that he is in some way special. There are question marks over whether Voldemort really is dead and there is enough tension presented by Hagrid's arrival with baby Harry (that these three are trying to protect him from danger) to sustain further interest.

  2. Lirael

    Unlike Potter, Lirael opens with setting rather than character. While Rowling introduced us to the normality and hatefulness of the Durselys, Nix gives us focus in a mound - a place of darkness that (I guess - I haven't read this one) will bring much pain and suffering. From this mound Nix reveals a character shrouded in mystery. We know from the first book by his clothing that he is a Necromancer but Nix doesn't assume anything and shows him to us. Similarly to Potter we get hints of magical power, subtle uses, but we soon realise that in this case we are being introduced to the main antagonist, or if not him, at least one of the main badguys (Hedge) who will unleash the antagonist (Kerrigor). There is a momentary recap to bring us up to speed (just as in Potter), carried out through dialogue and plucked moments of narrative that feed off the dialogue for pointers, so that the reader feels shown rather than told, and we are presented with direct threat to the point of view character - Hedge - the threat of death.

    Onto Chapter 1, and we meet our hero Lirael, through whose anxieties about having no parents and being physically and spiritually different from her fellow orphans we learn of her history and her place. But there is no menace against Lirael, no threat to her person. This is a small matter since the seeds have been sown in the prologue. With Lirael we are invested into her worries over not yet having her awakening (a spiritual thing), and though it's her birthday (14) another child has (being only 11) had her awakening - and as such stolen the day from Lirael. So, although no physical stress, their is mental anguish. And we still have the dramatic irony of the prologue which means that we, the reader, are expecting whatever it is Hedge is doing to come by Lirael sometime soon.

  3. The Dark Portal

    Jarvis's book again is different. After a very brief prologue that sets the scene immediately for the world in which we will invest our time - Mice communities, fearing monstrous rats and worshipping in some fashion the Green Mouse and then the danger of the Grill which leads to the sewers and danger. Straight away we are pulled into the world of Albert (a minor character, since by the end of the chapter he will be sacrificed by Jarvis to show the danger that the mice are in - more dramatic irony). Through Albert we have someone to invest our emotions in - he's lost in the sewers - and Jarvis has chosen to give us the extra anxiety that poor Albert being lost will mean he won't be there for his children's Mousebrasses presentation (don't ask, it's not as spiritual as Lirael's awakening - from memory I think it's adulthood). Before we have time to become bored by his moping and lostlessness, we bump into Piccadilly, another lost mouse, and through their dialogue exchanges we learn more about the world and the dangers - references to the rats, chief-rat Morgan and the sinister monster Jupiter. Threats of death soon turn into real death when the two stumble upon Jupiter's alter, we see first hand the exchange between Jupiter and Morgan (learn of his diabolicalness) and hear of plans (just as we do in Lirael) of things to come. Albert of course is eaten and Piccadilly flees.

    Out of the three books so far, this one is the only one with a thrilleresque cliff hanger.

  4. Northern Lights

    An astonishing piece of writing (that slightly goes askew in book three, but nevertheless is a riveting read) that draws us immediately into this strange world and straight to our protagonist. None of the other four books do this, all opting to set the scene. Here we meet Lyra in the first word, her daemon, admittedly, not until the last third of the page, but nevertheless, Pullman draws us right behind Lyra as the reader goes with her, knowing instinctively that whatever it is she's doing... she shouldn't be.

    The hall is dark. She takes care to keep out of sight - she shouldn't be here. She flicks a glass and is told off by Pantalaimon. She disregards him - we understand their relationship (he's Jiminy Cricket and she's headstrong and possibly troublesome). She stops the ringing glass - she's not stupid and does listen to Pantalaimon, as if he indeed acts as her conscience. Pantalaimon wants them to be quick but she refuses every time she gets further - Pan is also the fearful part of her conscious. This is almost like a buddy-buddy situation. These two will play off each other throughout the story, which is compelling in itself. We can tell Lyra will get herself into trouble at future turns because of her behaviour here.

    When Asriel arrives Lyra isn't so afraid to stay hidden and saves her Uncle from being murdered. Her will to do what's right, despite getting into trouble for being there, draws the reader to her - she is somehow special, and not just because of her daemon (they all have them), but because we know that she is tricksy but also trust worthy. We know her nature is good and she will persist, despite the threats Asriel makes against her of breaking her arm.

  5. The Trolltooth Wars
    The first of the five to open on a battle, with minor characters. Not much can be said for this opening beyond how well Steve Jackson always managed his battles - whereas I previously mentioned Rowling's wizard fight at the end of the Order of the Phoenix, here Steve Jackson manages his way through the battle so that it's not just a list of who is fighting who, is standing where, is dying how - admittedly this is made easier by the fact we don't know anyone and only have 3 characters names to learn - Donnag Kannu, Foulblade and Orcleaver.

    Jackson moves from one immediate piece of action/fighting, draws it back to give a brief paragraph on how this came to be and then darts back to where Foulblade has usurped a Strongarm's mount. We move swiftly to a new point of view, and follow a charge away from the battle, a chase and escape - all in 4 and a half (small) pages. We also have a Mcguffin - that we don't yet know the contents of - kind of like Marcelle Wallace's briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

    It won't be until chapter 4 where we meet our hero, however in the second chapter we go with bit part player Donnag Kannu to his master to relate what has occurred (giving no description of this master beyond the beady red of his eyes), and then once the game is set, Donnag is taken away for execution. Then, it's back to the Goblin camp, and a dark encounter with something we assume is from Zharradan Marr (great name), before they head off for the Black Tower.

    This moves along faster than the Da Vinci Code (SIC) on steroids, and feels better written too. We realise that none of these characters are good, but it doesn't matter - little boys are in for the ride of death and battling. The scene is set by the end of chapter two and we know from the title - The Trolltooth Wars - that this encounter between the two dark forces is going to have sparked the war. Can it be stopped? What's the Mcguffin? We've met Zharradan Marr, but what of the man in the Black Tower (Balthas Dire) - who is he?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Exorcist

I've spent the day building up my reading muscles - by completing William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist in one day (no easy feat when the reader is me! This included an hour nap after this morning's swim too, I'll have you know) - in order to race through the final Harry Potter at the end of the week. Laura and I have our weekend planned: home from work, sleep, up before midnight to get our copies, home to read them, all night, then a four hour sleep midday Saturday, read some more, out to a wedding in the evening, and then mop up whatever remains on Sunday.

Anyhoo, The Exorcist... I first bought the book back in 1999 - when I was traveling the country assisting some crazed sex-fiend who misguided me into thinking he was running an actor's agency - don't ask. I never got round to reading it. Like the film the opening is slow and dusty, and I just didn't get the feel I was expecting.

My new idea for a book is edging towards a subplot of possession, so having completed whatever it was I was reading before... ah yes, Harry Potter again... I thought I'd get the lowdown on what possession is really like (right!).

Blatty's book is quite the read actually, and goes along with everything I've read recently on the current (past 40 years) trends of readers - geared towards psychology. We share our time with a third-person narrator who mostly enters the minds of two characters: the mother, Chris MacNeil, and Father Damien Karras. There are times when we move to other minor characters to help push the plot or move us between the main characters, but for the most part with are with Chris or Damien... and the reason?

Simply put, the reader needs to find empathy with the leads - in the mother we have worry over what is happening to her daughter and guilt over what influence she has had; in the priest exists massive guilt about how he's left his mother, and his lack of faith. No other characters are more perfect in providing much needed emotional conflict. This became most noticeable towards the end, when Father Merrin arrives. Merrin, though disturbed as much as the others, suffering from coronary problems and being very old, wouldn't make for a good character in whom to inhabit - instead we stick with Father Karras, through whose eyes we witness Merrin's presence.

We should ask ourselves how much of an impact it would have made for Blatty to move us into Merrin's thoughts. Potentially disastrous: 1) We'd need lots more backstory since Merrin and Pazuzu have faced off before, and 2) His emotions stay largely in check, he has no apparent conflicts of faith. He is in essence Karras's impact character, who leads Karras to change. This means that Merrin lacks conflict and we'd have little emotional linkage with him, and 3) Though Merrin appeared at the beginning, we have had nothing from him for over 250 pages. To enter his mind at the late stages of the book is akin to breaking the contract between narrator and reader. This is Karras's story, not Merrin's.

In a similar vein, we do not enter into Pazuzu's thoughts. We are kept at arms length - just far enough aware to get spat on - so that we cannot identify with the beast, so that don't come to understand it. Much of The Exorcist's tension comes from this alien entity. We have no understanding of its limits. And to have known it by any fashion would limit our suspense and the interactions between it and the family and priests.

Through this Blatty expertly crafts a subplot detective story that is wrapped up moments before the final conflict (subplots should usually be wrapped up first so as to bring gravitas to the big climax) and there is suitable menace in his chosen vocab and syntax, always matching words to the mood.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Potter and the Phoenix

Laura and I went to the earliest screening we could possibly get on Thursday, and aside from the fact that fewer and fewer people seem to keep their traps shut in the cinema (the woman sat next to us was narrating for her dad until Laura *politely* asked her to shut her gob) we both loved it.

Rowling and Potter get a lot of bad press from literary snobs (both those who really are, and those who wish they are), and re-reading the Order of the Phoenix t'other day I can see why many balk at the thought of having to read her prose. Case in point:

The man was pressing so tightly on Harry's windpipe that he could not breathe. Through watering eyes he saw Sirius duelling with a Death Eater some ten feet away; Kingsley was fighting two at once; Tonks, still halfway up the tiered seats, was firing spells down at Bellatrix - nobody seemed to realise that Harry was dying. He turned his wand backwards towards the man's side, but had no breath to utter an incantation, and the man's free hand was groping towards the hand in which Harry was grasping the prophecy - 'Aaargh!'
- no that wasn't me going Aaargh... I'd describe it as Richard screamed his indignation at the writing, at the way it had become a list of actions. But then, that's the point of Rowling's work. It's aimed at children, at teenagers, not adults. It's not trying to be something it isn't and it's not trying to win a beautiful prose award.

In my view Rowling has developed a story with a wondrous plot, brilliant characters and a knack for drawing light relief from moments of darkness - the film version of the Order of the Phoenix really took my by surprise in exactly how dark it was compared to the previous 4 (Laura had to remind me that the book was similarly dark - as is book 6 - The Half-Blood Prince, but I just hadn't expected what we got... more on this in a bit).

Rowling is in desperate need of an editor - I hope to God her next one doesn't come in much over 500 pages - the last chapter between Dumbledore and Harry, in which Dumbledore recaps Harry's 4 previous adventures in a drawn out scene almost as boring (on second reading) as Tolkein's Elrond's Council, is, at best, unnecessary. The film boils it down to Harry's angst and heartache instead, which is lost by Rowling in her attempt to over egg that very feeling. She lays guilt upon anguish upon blame upon hatred upon anxiety upon regret upon... The cleverness of the script writers for the movie in what they've chosen to take from the text is really eye-opening, and something all writers should pay attention to.

Yes, they've had to cut back a tremendous amount from the original text, yes all these wonderful characters are reduced to bit parts - I'd personally have loved to have seen more of Tonks, Moody and Lupin. Sirius's want to fulfill a role is dulled also - but you still get a flavour of who they are, what they can do and what they wish for.

Ginny Weasley - schwing - is held back in many respects as a character in the film (so that others may carry out the greater story arcs) but we, the audience, still see her brief glances at Harry, the way she looks back as Harry goes to comfort Cho. Why is this important? Because Ginny has fancied Harry throughout the previous stories and will eventually be his girlfriend. The script writers (working with Rowling) have laid the foundations of this relationship with subtle hints, rather than Rowling's original info-dump... but that highlights the difference between the formats. In a novel, with over 100,000 words thrown at the reader, themes, points and subtleties need better expression. In moving pictures, one glance is all we need, and then we move on.

And it is because of Rowling's immense text that we can get so much out of watching the films. There is so much there to draw on and make reference to. Rowling's internalised research pays dividends. Though, I'm still certain that she could restrain herself a bit more and give our eyes a rest.

Anyhoo, what was I saying? Ah yes, the film is great. If you love Potter you'll love the film. If you don't you probably won't... but who cares about you! <- rhetoric, don't answer that one. But it really does put to shame the style that Rowling employs. Her text cannot live up to the imagery we are showered with from the screen, but then, it's the story we're after isn't it. Despite whatever shortcomings I believe she may possess she is a seamstress of story. We, the readers, care deeply about the characters she has created, and regardless of how she might fall short (a la the passage above - which draws the narrative back to a list of character locations and actions instead of real prose) she has still manipulated the minds of millions of readers into caring, into illiciting emotion.

Regardless then of what I say of her writing, or what the literary snobs of the world say, Rowling is a winner. As Agent Cox repeatedly iterates: "If you can illicit emotion from your reader; if your writing can draw upon emotion at every step, then you can't fail." And that is what Rowling does best.

And I can't wait to conclude the series next weekend.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Litopia Podcast 6

The 6th Podcast is up, and the first in my series of 10 minute sessions on Writers Tips. This first one: Describing Characters.

You can listen to it on iTunes, or subscribe to it from here

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Chicken and Egg

Everything is building again - only three weeks off from completing my screenplay module and I find myself deep in the midst of writing for different projects again - this is a GOOD thing, for what is a writer with nothing to write? A hack probably.

I've been developing an idea I started before the screenplay module finished, and it's been going nice and slowly (a good way to really develop ideas whilst playing around with pov, tense, strategy, etc), but having written one chapter, focusing immediately upon the protag, I needed something else to frame it. I still wasn't happy about the structure of the chapter and what I'd chosen to expose the reader to - too much info probably, stuff that could be revealed later and provide an "ahhh, I get it" moment.

So, I turned my attention to another chapter, one to slot before the protag visitation - and one on which I could hang some extra tension. The problem with the protag chapter is that he doesn't know what is going on in the wider world (having been in prison will do that), and in order, I believe, for the reader to really pick up on the suspense of what is coming (dramatic irony) I required another opening (just as I had done when I was working on my contemporary fiction novel - Spoiling Virtue - adding a chapter before the opening, then a chapter before that, until I found myself miles away from what the story was really about).

Spoiling Virtue I dropped because Salley Vickers had advised me to avoid child abuse stories for at least 10 years - interesting.

Anyhoo, in starting to develop a new chapter I got to thinking about chickens and eggs (and not just because my stomach was growling). Writing the opening to a novel and/or screenplay is very much a chicken and egg situation. You've got to start somewhere and yet your original opening might not necessarily be the right place to start. And just as the evolution of the clucking family meant they actually circumnavigated the question entirely, so too does the writer, for your original opening might end up being the midpoint, the ending, an incidental scene, or cut from the work entirely - as long as one isn't too precious about one's work - the process should be free flowing and ready for evolution.

I'd written quite a great piece - my best yet - and my wife liked it. Yay! Only, I got back to it the next day to find that it wasn't what I'd thought it was. I was shocked, dismayed. I was still writing awful prose...

They ran the next red, slid across the sweaty tarmac and tore away into the night. With the road to themselves and the town’s breath heavy on their necks they didn’t look back. In their wake they left a labyrinth of roundabouts and diversion signs surrounding the central precinct. Within that perimeter the town’s hub lay open like a ruptured wound; picked clean of community and hospitality.

His foot was to the floor as they fled the overhang of long-empty office-blocks and neglected tenements, stripping away the humidity as they accelerated. She gripped the fabric of his jeans in a hand whose nails had been bitten to the quick, finding her seatbelt little comfort, while the tangle of her hair whipped and flailed about her face. They fled together as if fearful the decay that had taken root in the land might poison them with the corruption of its concrete heart.

Stonework and steel gave way to the stillness of open meadow and rolling hills. Yet their speed didn’t relent. And out to the west beyond the thirsty hedgerows and oases of trees, beyond the wilted fields of oilseed rape and a glimpse of a night-owl or prowling fox, a steady stream of lights hastened up and down the motorway in whites and reds.

I mean, okay, it's... fine, but it's not brilliant, and I want to be brilliant. What to do? I stared at it in disbelief - the boost I'd received from the FeverPitch competition's positive feedback hadn't lasted long. I was stumped - immediate Writer's Block. No amount of knowing my characters was going to save me this time!

But then, I picked up one of the books on "how to write" that I'd got from the library in order to do my pedagogic review (part of my NAW professional development module) - yes, I know, how awful that a writer needs to use a how to book to break him out of a tough spot (let's hope none of you point out that I refer to Dramatica too).

Anyhoo, the first few pages, strangely, and wonderfully enough, cover writing things in different pov's. It suggested that I try rewriting something that I'd written in one pov, in another. The above extract is 3rd person, so, I tried 1st. And... the difference a change of head makes! I think what really opened it up for me was that by changing everything to 1st person I allowed my mind to let go its usual restraints and to free itself of my usual uniformity. Suddenly I let in some feeling... some emotion. SHOCK HORROR. See how this new extract has much more punch to it, and how it draws you in in a way the original version doesn't:

We ran the next red, slid across the sweaty tarmac and tore away into the night. The road was ours and though the town’s breath was heavy on our necks we didn’t look back. Behind us the central precinct sprawled like a ruptured wound; picked clean of community and hospitality. And at its concrete heart where the darkness swelled and a poison had taken root, the land had begun to die.

His foot was to the floor as he ratcheted up through the screaming gears, stripping the humidity from our faces. Before I could blink he had freed us from the overhang of long-empty office-blocks and neglected tenements. It was as if we could breathe again. Though I couldn’t calm the jangle of my nerves. My seatbelt was no comfort against our speed and I found myself clutching at the leg of his jeans, only able to hold my grip because I’d developed the unpleasant habit of biting my nails to the quick. With my other hand I battled against the tangle of my hair as it whipped and flailed about my face. Time was I’d have forced him to pull over until I’d preened it tightly beneath a headscarf and secured the bow beneath my chin. Time was he’d have let me.

Stonework and steel gave way to the stillness of open meadow and rolling hills, yet our speed wouldn’t relent. The broiled scent of tarmac was on the air, the kind of smell you only get before a storm, though the sky was free of clouds. Beneath the diamond glitter of stars this drought refused to yield. Out to the west, beyond the thirsty hedgerows and oases of trees, beyond the wilted fields of oilseed rape and the miracle glimpse of a night-owl or prowling fox – it could have been either – I could see the two lanes of lights that hastened up and down the motorway in whites and reds, like a procession of paired children with lanterns

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

RIP - Douglas Hill

I'm always in awe of the nature of coincidence. Strange serendipity brought me to Douglas Hill's obituary today. I'd returned to Waterstones to de-bear from my blue costume (I was sweating like a... big blue bear in summer) and was cooling down with a copy of Waterstones's The Bookseller when I came across it.

Douglas Hill is best known for his Last Legionary quartet, which I'm sure many of us read in school. Anyhoo, why has this affected me so?

Back in 2004 I'd just joined Litopia and had simultaneously started writing a new piece of fiction - Mephisto - I'd sent it off to Real-Writers and paid the handsome sum of £50 for a professional critique. It was the first one I'd ever gone for beside attempting to bug Terry Pratchett once in 1998 via e-mail for him to read my fantasy novel and tell me how to make it better (he wasn't best pleased).

Douglas Hill was the poor pro who had to wade through my turgid prose - The Douglas Hill (come on, work with me here people). He was blunt, to the point, and absolutely brilliant. Along with the support at Litopia and Douglas's deft chop at the crap I was secreting I don't think I'd be anywhere near to the writer I am at the moment (hopefully still moving up). Reading back through it, it's fairly amusing. Here's the covering letter that came with it:

The appraisal of your novel extract is enclosed.

It isn't very promising, I'm afraid. Douglas Hill felt you have a lot to learn if you are going to pull off a novel like this. It's clear you have great enthusiasm and a vivid imagination, but writing fiction is hard work, and successful novelists have taken the time to learn the skills before embarking on anything too ambitious.

You may find Douglas's criticism harsh, but at Real Writers we see little point in telling anything less than the truth as we see it. Douglas has many years of experience in publishing; he is a fantasy writer of some renown, and has also worked both in-house and freelance as an editor. So he knows what works, and what publishers look for; his opinion is worth having, even when he doesn't say what you want to hear.

God Rest in Peace, Douglas. Thanks for your help.

Deconstructing the Illusionist - Spoiler Warning

I've been waiting for Edward Norton's The Illusionist to come into the library for nabbing for some time - I missed at the cinema and thanks to The Prestige I had a real hunger for Victorian magicians... a dark world with an is it/isn't it real stance.

So woe betide me for nabbing it last night. Laura hadn't wanted to watch it. The Prestige so well sold by its trailer and when we watched it we absolutely loved it. It helps that has briskly walked up behind M. Night Shyamalan and stolen his crown (leaving poor Night drowning in that Water). What The Prestige had up its sleeves were a protagonist and antagonist who a) were burning with emotion and desires, b) swapped roles faster than their sleight of hand, and c) metered their magic in explainable reality.

In fact that The Prestige was able to explain away every trick so simply and yet still prove the need for art helped seal its brilliance.

The Illusionist by contrast seals itself behind a wall of disbelief. At the beginning when Inspector Ull is giving the Crown Prince the emotionless background the audience needs to be told in order to try and get us to care (yawn) I thought we were going to venture into Big Fish territory. Thankfully not.

The few tricks played out were interesting, but for the most part, served little purpose. The Prestige again was based on results: disappear a bird in a cage, free the girl from the water cabinet, catch the shot from the gun, teleport from side of the stage to another. The Illusionist's tricks had little or no purpose beyond the Orange Tree... and where'd those stupid Butterflies come from: getting Sophie onto the stage with the mirror trick... so that he can release the soul from the reflection... why? Certainly, Eisenheim picks up on the Victorian's want for messages from the other side of death in his clairvoyance sessions (which interestingly were in the novel version of The Prestige, but dropped for the film), but they're just a showcase so that he can build to the finale rather than a development.

Which leads me to the characters - they're all repressed, non-approachable stiffs. There is nothing here to hold onto. Eisenheim is too distant a character, so much so that when he comes across his childhood sweetheart again we almost don't believe that she could get into bed with him. His nemesis, the Crown Prince, should arrest him solely for his suspect Vienna voice rather than waste time working out his tricks.

There is no one to root for, and we all can guess at what point the main illusion (the film one, not the stage ones) begin, despite them showing us Eisenheim seemingly in mourning - *SOB*. Which leads us inexplicably to the end reveal, which is more like flashback realisation - and poorly done at that. Inspector Ull does his best Columbo as he suddenly pieces together how the two lovers have carried out their deception. Again in a tell way that gives all the answers to those of the audience who were napping throughout. The Prestige however handles its reveals with a deft hand, showing us moments that are as emotive as anything we've seen previously. We don't just get the snapshots that build up the evidence, but we get to see characters, still in anguish, working through what becomes our evidence.

So, whilst I have given you the answers to The Illusionist, consider this: I've saved you wasting your time with a charlatan. I've kept the secrets of The Prestige, and you should thank me - for once I've given away the prestige, you'll no longer crowd around with questions. ;)

Monday, July 02, 2007


I'm happily going about my daily routine on a saturday - sat at work reading a book - and I'm acosted by the Bookstart Librarian who pleads with me to help her on Tuesday by wearing the Bookstart Bear costume in the Town Centre between 9:30am and 1pm.

Naturally I said yes, I'd help her out - beats doing IT... at least that's what I thought until I woke last night in a cold sweat: I'm going to wear a huge bear costume out in public!

What the hell was I thinking?

So, this morning the costume was waiting to be tried on. At much to the amusement of my coworkers I did my dress rehearsal. Here's me at one of my more sober moment:

I've managed to tap dance, play happy and sad, walk jovially as well as the bear-zombie walk, I even re-enacted Darth Vader's role, but no one would let me do Riverdance.