Thursday, August 30, 2007

When a book grabs you...

... you've just got to pick it up and read it!

Boring myself with PC reinstalls at one of the branch libraries t'other day, I stumbled upon Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder. The blurb on the back looked intriguing:
The Interpretation of Murder is an intricately plotted literary thriller based on true events - the story of Sigmund Freud's 1909 visit to New York. Around this kernel of fact, Jed Rubenfeld has spun a spectacularly entertaining fiction centred upon murder: a wealthy young debutante is discovered bound, whipped and strangled in her penthouse apartment, high above Broadway. The following night Nora Acton, another society beauty, narrowly escapes the same fate and the mayor of New York calls upon Freud to use his revolutionary ideas to help Nora recover her memory and solve the crime. But nothing about the attacks - or indeed about Nora - is quite as it seems.

and, strangely the cover looked very intriguing - a period setting, that yellowing-sepia style and at its centre a mysterioso (a man in bowler hat walking away from us) - who is he?

I read to the first break, and immediately loved the tone and writing - it's going to be a book with brains that is an easy read and manages its reveals very well:

There is no mystery to happiness.

Unhappy men are all alike. Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn – or worse, indifference – cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterdays. The happy man does not look back. He doesn’t look ahead. He lives in the present.

But there’s the rub. The present can never deliver one thing: meaning. The ways of happiness and meaning are not the same. To find happiness, a man need only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment. But if he wants meaning – the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life – a man must reinhabit his past, however dark, and live for the future, however uncertain. Thus nature dangles happiness and meaning before us all, insisting only that we choose between them.

For myself, I have always chosen meaning. Which, I suppose, is how I came to be waiting in the swelter and mob of Hoboken harbor on Sunday eve­ning, August 29, 1909, for the arrival of the Norddeutsche Lloyd steamship George Washington, bound from Bremen, carry­ing to our shores the one man in the world I wanted most to meet.

At 7 p.m. there was still no sign of the ship. Abraham Brill, my friend and fellow physician, was waiting at the harbor for the same reason as I. He could hardly contain himself, fidgeting and smoking incessantly. The heat was murderous, the air thick with the reek of fish. An unnatural fog rose from the water, as if the sea ­were steaming. Horns sounded heavily out in the deeper water, their sources invisible. Even the keening gulls could be only heard, not seen. A ridiculous premonition came to me that the George Washington had run aground in the fog, her twenty­five hundred European passengers drowning at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Twilight came, but the temperature did not abate. We waited.

All at once, the vast white ship appeared not as a dot on the horizon, but mammoth, emerging from the mist full­blown before our eyes. The entire pier, with a collective gasp, drew back at the apparition. But the spell was broken by the outbreak of harbormen’s cries, the flinging and catching of rope, the bustle and jostle that followed. Within minutes, a hundred stevedores ­were unloading freight.

Brill, yelling at me to follow, shouldered through to the gangway. His entreaties to board were rebuffed; no one was being let on or off the ship. It was another hour before Brill yanked at my sleeve and pointed to three passengers descending the bridge. The first of the trio was a distinguished, immaculately groomed, gray­haired, and gray­bearded gentleman whom I knew at once to be the Viennese psychiatrist Dr Sigmund Freud.

Doesn't that just make you want to get on and read? Am I becoming geekier by the day?

Anyhoo, after the double paragraph introduction that will sum up the great quest at the centre of the novel, we meet our main character and his setting - so clearly and deliberately evoked by such a cunning style that I loathe the writer already (just check out the fourth paragraph that gives a feel for Brill (in his actions), the narrator (his worry for the ship and his chosen descriptions: unnatural, premonition; later: apparition) and the place.

And of course, Freud is revealed at the end of the passage. Short of reading the blurb, this is a case in point to Solvey's recent blog post regarding how to develop suspense in readers and how then to deliver on that. Here we know from the outset (okay, after the initial two paragraph intro) that our narrator is awaiting someone so very special to him. We are then left hanging - the hook having been cast... who is this man? And after the wait and a brief getting-to-know our narrator the reveal (and note how Freud is left to the very, very last word).

It's a shame I've got my set reading to do - five books to get through for uni before I can move onto this. Gaa!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Learning to live

When a friend asked me to go with her to a Spiritualist Church I’d no idea how eagerly I’d take up her request. But, like a fearless explorer in a new world, absorbing all that I could in my search to find greater meaning to my life, I had no idea where that path would lead.

“They believe in Jesus Christ, but they also believe that through spiritual healing and clairvoyance we can communicate with people in the spirit world,” Sandra told me.

We shared an interest in spiritualism and the paranormal and whilst Sandra was a lapsed Christian and I an agnostic, unable to align myself with the regiment of religion, we were both eager to find out more. I knew that orthodox Christianity believed spiritualism was just another aspect of occultism, but I’d paid to see a psychic medium in the past (who told me I’d have twin boys in five years time – that was almost ten years ago, and I’m still waiting – and that I was allergic to cola – a revelation that has changed my previously phlegmy life) and I liked to think I was fairly open minded. It helped that my parents let me come to my own conclusions about religion.

There would be a service of hymns and prayer and then the guest medium would work for an hour with the congregation. It sounded like a great opportunity to get a free reading, and I relished the thought of returning to my parents afterwards to deliver a message from my grandfather – he’d died the year before and spiritualists believe it takes roughly a year for the deceased to try to make contact – some woolly notion that the spirit needs time to recuperate. Fingers crossed!

It was mid-October, a Thursday evening, and the weather was typically autumnal; leaves the colour of ochre glued to everything, the north wind rattling bones and window panes alike. Sandra drove, allowing me time to worry. I’ve always hated the unsteady process of finding my feet with strangers and that was amplified by my concern about what this evening would involve. Will they indoctrinate me into a secret society? Will I be torn away from friends and family because they don’t share my new beliefs? Will it turn out to be nothing more than tea with a bunch of old folk discussing auras (like a group of sober hippies) or clichés about meeting tall dark strangers?

Of the two of us, I was the more sceptical. I’d never trusted the ritualistic nature, self-love and blinkered world view my Christian-practicing cousins exhibited, and of all the times I’d tried praying as a child I simply couldn’t make myself believe that there existed a great entity called God whose ego was so small he needed me to worship him. The flipside however, was that I’d always had an innate fear of death. During primary school, after Mum and Dad had put me to bed, black thoughts would cloud over me in the darkness and if I wasn’t worrying about death I was struggling with the concepts of what existed before the Big Bang, and what would exist when everything ended. My parents spent many a night attempting to consol me, though nothing can wrestle the weight of the universe from a child’s shoulders. How do you pacify a child that has realised he doesn’t want to die, and yet can understand that living for eternity isn’t much better? More often than not only my crying would exhaust me into sleep.

So there we were, sat amongst believers; a different kind to my cousins, but believers all the same. Both looking for deeper meaning and answers to life’s bigger questions. The hall was plain looking and it had an antiquated seventies feel that I found stale and stifling; as if somehow its furnishings being of a certain time period meant the mindsets of its inhabitants were stuck there also – I’ve felt this of most contemporary churches I’ve visited. It could have been a community hall were it not for the copious bouquets of flowers and the wood dais upon which the church leaders sat.

After the service the guest medium took to the stand. Millions of people watch the likes of Colin Fry on television or pay to attend “evenings with a psychic” in the hope of receiving a message from the other side, or hearing from deceased relatives. The guest medium at the church was no different. I couldn’t help but be in awe at the work he did, the messages he gave. It is a unique experience to watch comprehension float to the surface of someone’s face because they can accept the medium’s description of someone or something close to them, or see their tears as a long lost memory is recounted before the keen listeners. I thought it was wonderful.

I didn’t receive a message myself that night – I had secretly hoped – but when Sandra drove me home I was filled with a sense of well-being, as if I had a place in the universe after all.

We attended the church every Thursday thereafter, staying after the service to join a psychic circle held upstairs. A creepy room lined with dusky wallpaper. It housed nearly twenty old-wood chairs and an empty wardrobe – allegedly used for transmogrification and the suchlike. Six months in and during a conversation with one of the church leaders I was advised I would become a trance medium. I was elated that one day I would be able to wield such a skill and have concrete proof of the continuation of the human soul. Except that I don’t believe it to be true.

Sandra and I joined another psychic circle where we developed skills of psychometry, tarot reading, meditation and mediumship, and for a good year I found harmony with the fear of death that had plagued me so. I described people I didn’t know and had never seen, detailed imagery and gave messages to people that made them truly stop and listen to what I had to say, before thanking me with shocked faces and shining eyes.

After a year however, while Sandra’s abilities seemed to grow exponentially, I found that mine floundered. All the imagery I had seen in my head I’d plucked out of nothing, like the proverbial rabbit pulled from the empty magician’s hat. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d made it all up – if that’s all we were doing. In Victorian times many magicians started their careers giving séances and cold reading an audience. They used the Barnum effect to elicit emotional reactions that spoke more about the audience’s willingness for communion with spirits to be true than the reality. My psychic group reminded me that that’s what clairvoyance is – seeing – just as clairaudience is hearing spirits and clairsentience is sensing. It was suggested I’d merely hit a plateau in my learning. I wasn’t sure. I began to feel like a fake. When the group meditated I fell into a sleep, rousing only when the others came out of their reflections. One by one we’d tell the others what we’d seen, heard, felt; only I couldn’t. I had nothing to tell.

Eventually I left the group and the church. My search for meaningful meditation was over.

It dawned on me as I worried over my failing belief that I had spent too much time trying to communicate with the dead. I realised that in focusing so much on what comes after, I was giving no time to the here and now. To this day I believe that whilst there are charlatans, there are many more doing good work, who give others hope in the afterlife. But, I came to understand that whether or not any of it is true, whether or not I really communicated with the dead, is irrelevant. I believe that I have only one life to live and I believe that I owe it to myself to live my life rather than seek out a cheat or shortcut. Who wants to know what’s in store? Or that they’ll never win the lottery? I’d rather live in hope.

To my adult mind the notion of death and endings is still frightening, and there are still some nights when I wake suddenly with those dark clouds collecting above me. My heart thuds with a surge of adrenaline, my unconscious mind imposing my fear of the end of all things upon me. I get up and go to the loo, or I have a drink, but the storm refuses to shift. My pulse races and time seems to be streaming by, everything in flux, yet my body and mind move so very slow.

But I don’t turn my thoughts to spiritualism or the theory that spirits watch over us. I don’t concern myself with the belief shared by millions across the globe that death is just a curtain behind which the secrets of the universe shall be revealed. Because, still, at some point there will come an ending, and no amount of self delusion or faith is going to prevent that.

Now though, when I feel the depression take hold, I turn over in bed and watch my wife sleeping beside me. Now, when I think of the end of all things, I listen to her soft breaths; watch the flutter of her eyelids as she dreams. I kiss her forehead in the darkness and I consol myself that whatever or wherever that end is, we will all go to it, together.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Prayer For Owen Meany

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - note because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ - and certainly not for Christ, which I've heard some zealots claim. I'm not very sophisticated in my knowledge of the Old Testament, and I've not read the New Testament since Sunday school days, except for those passages that I hear read aloud to me when I go to church. I'm somewhat more familiar with the passages from the Bible that appear in the Book of Common Prayer; I read my prayer book often, and my Bible only on holy days - the prayer book is so much more orderly.

And so begins A Prayer for Owen Meany - a story of two friends growing up in the 50s and 60s, one of whom, the narrator, shares his childhood with an extraordinary boy called Owen who, as stated, kills the narrator's mother, but who then proves the existence of God to the narrator through his actions and the eventual coming true of his long foreseen destiny.

In Owen Meany John Irving has created an amazing narrative structure that slips effortlessly between three separate time periods, makes repeated references to previous descriptions to keep them alive in the reader's mind (lending itself well to one continual read or to a disjointed read over several weeks - which is often the case with me). Symbolism is rife and the outcome of the denouement proves just how strong Irving is in honing a broad story filled not only with a plethora of engaging characters, but also a long and deep history for each - Irving isn't one to go jumping into writing a story until after many months of thought and preparation.

In a way, much of this book has the same feel as To Kill A Mockingbird. Admittedly it's not about race, and it does tend towards the slightly miraculous, but that shouldn't discourage anyone - which, I suppose, is why it made the Top 100 in the BBC's Big Read (It reached 28).

The narrative is weighted so that while the beginning opens with the clear message that Owen is going to kill (albeit accidentally) the narrator, Johnny's, mother (the reader's needed suspense to sustain the then following passages which draw us back through religious viewpoint and the setting of Johnny's family), all the important reasonings, the great reveal, and the epiphanies only come in the last 100 pages. You get a clear sense that Irving has started at the end and worked his way back to the beginning, lacing everything with meaning (though I'm guessing that since the work is semi-autobiographical it may have been slightly easier to write than starting from scratch).

Anyhoo, since my latest work raised some questions about the nature of dramatic suspense, I've found that Owen Meany's first chapter has added weight to the argument. I've been worried about the amount of knowledge I should pass to the reader. My first chapter ends in a car crash that both characters in the car know is going to happen - they will it to happen. I wanted to keep this secret from the reader until the final moment, so that, like a car crash in motion, the reader is stuck in this situation baring witness to it in complete surprise.

However, as Owen Meany, and Solvey, have demonstrated, dramatic suspense is a far stronger tool than surprise - this harks back to Hitchcock's theory of the two men talking whilst a bomb ticks underneath their table - neither of them know, but the audience does, giving expectation and suspense - we were not to know, we wouldn't be hooked.

I was watching Child of our Time on the Beeb a few weeks back and one of the children was perpetually distressed that her dad was going into hospital and might die (he was going to give a kidney to his brother). The parents had decided (in their infinite wisdom) that it would be best to prepare their daughter for the worst. This ties into the theory that dramatic suspense is by far the most gripping tool any storymaker can use. The poor girl is now stuck in the constant anticipation/aprehension that her father is going to die in surgery - unfortunately for her, dramatic suspense feeds off our anxieties a time-lock or option-lock situation is slowly ticking by, the outcome getting closer, out of our hands. (IMHO they should only have told her he was going into hospital and would be a bit tired and ill from it... not dead)!

Take horror films for example, more often than not only a handful of times does the killer come from nowhere and kill - surprise doesn't last long, and only serves to change the direction of a story or scene. Horror and thrillers use dramatic suspense far more than simple surprise - we know the killer is around here, stalking our hapless hero/heroine, and we're waiting for the crunch. We are held in a continual loop of suspense until it all unravels with the attack, and though we can't be held like that forever without a break, it can be sustained for quite some time.

In Owen Meany, we learn that Owen will kill Johnny's mum in the first paragraph. It doesn't happen for another 40+ pages. So, we left hanging, waiting to see exactly how she will be killed, trying to ascertain motivation, second-guessing the development of relationships, waiting, waiting, waiting for it to come.

In the Bourne Ultimatum, the chase half-way through the film involves a failed attempt by Bourne to save a contact. He is on the back foot when he realises that he is now the target, and by implication, Nicki (who is now working with him). The chase ensues not with the simple lets-all-chase-Bourne, but with the badguy heading back along the streets to seek Nicki and execute her, and Bourne desperately trying to beat him there. He's late and Nicki has to call on her own initiative to evade the badguy. This extends the suspense as we're certain that whilst Nicki has her own skills she will be no match for the badguy.

With this in mind I need to alter my opening to cover the knowledge of the impending crash... simple really, just lots more work. Sigh!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

My Assessment Piece from the Screenplay Module

I now have my pre-liminary result (before external verification) and I must admit... I'm not that pleased.

Of course I'm happy with the outcome, but I'm just not pleased with my current ability. Ultimately it's swings and roundabouts - having read the feedback, I should be able to rectify the faults (but not for the screenplay module itself - SIGH). I guess I want to be better than I currently am, and am reminded of A-Level results day. One of the girls didn't just decry her results (I can't remember for which course) but she complained and tried to get them changed.

Yes, she was a very good student, and yes, she was one of those that worked hard... but, her complaints weren't just about what she thought she'd earned. She was upset that other "lesser" students had got better marks... something had to have been awry.

I'm interested in what the other students have got, but only to work out where I place. Sure I'd be upset if others got better results, but I'd be missing the point - I'm not that good and I need to open my eyes and review where I stand.

Of course, it would have been nice to get a better result... seeing as this will all end up in my portfolio at the end of the course, for review by publishers (SIGH). Anyhoo:

Pre-liminary Grade: 65%
(Middle ground between 2:1 and 1st boundaries. A slow push skyward, I was just hoping that this would have been an easy module to ace).

Production of a marketable working script
Dark Machine is an interesting TV pilot with a lot of potential. Richard took on board many comments by myself in response to various drafts as well as from the class as a whole when presenting this story on our Writer’s Room Day. He has a strong concept and premise and some good characters.

The problem is in meeting the demands of the TV format, which eats up plot at an alarming rate. His opening Teaser is excellent, he totally had me at the top of page 2, but then wandered aimlessly for ten pages only to present me with the same plot point again.

It wasn’t until page 31 that I felt things really started to happen with the revelation of Petersen’s secret weapon. This should have been the end of Act 1.

The main problem throughout the script is dialogue as exposition. Characters spend way too much time filling in backstory for the benefit of the audience. And when they’re not telling each other about backstory, he’s giving it to us in flashback. He’s much more effective when he delivers visually (the reveals of Claire’s OCD, for instance).

Instead of splitting the story over two episodes, he needs to radically cut this script down and tell the complete story.

This script tries to set up way too many characters and situations. Those backstories can be explored in other episodes.

Production of work that is laid out as appropriate to form and industry standards
It is well laid out and totally professional. There is a tendency to use too many parentheticals, though, which is a symptom of Richard’s desire to control every aspect of the script, including how each line is said.

Understanding of how work might be situated in relation to contemporary film-making or TV , and an awareness of how the work would need to be pitched for production
Richard knows instinctively the kind of show he is trying to create. The only thing that lets him down is sticking to scenes and characters that aren’t pulling their weight.

This could be improved if he sold more of the sizzle instead of the steak. Pitching is about conveying the emotion behind a story, not the logic.

Commentary shows an awareness of strengths and weaknesses of work, and its dramatic structure
The commentary reveals an heroic attempt to apply every one of the paradigms we went through in the class (and then some) to the script. This was way beyond the call of duty, but it’s interesting to see how the different ones have helped. I think overall it might have been a case of way too much left brain activity to the detriment of the story.

My response to the assessment
I hate that it's right! Erm, no... focus: This goes right back to my novel writing, in that I need to stop worrying about what I want the reader to know and give them story, story, story. I'm too busy getting stuck in back stories and not spending enough time in giving the characters things to deal with, problems to work at, situations to rail against.

Which means I'm primarily dealing with a problem of the narrative's structure. I need to focus my attention on fewer, more detailed, characters and develop less strands but through a greater pace.

... on the synopsis front... let's not go there for a bit.


Taking a sense of narration further, with the opening narrator of Second Fist I wanted a sense of dislocation between narrator and narrator's body... as if the body isn't the narrator's, or the narrator feels no emotional connection to the body.

The problem is that I'm now worried about how this reads. The reader might trip over the narrative now as they try to work out why the narrator is describing this relationship. Take this new addition to the chapter:

Fear stared back at me from the vanity mirror. The Oriental eyes of a stranger trapped behind her hair, imprisoned by circumstance. I could still feel her, inside, screaming for the return of the life that had been torn from her. She still clawed at the back of this throat, desperate to have the time back and do it all over. I swallowed her down.

It works, I'm certain, but for the she still clawed at the back of this throat. The this makes a strange ambiguity that is perhaps far too obvious.

I wanted to maintain this difference, since it lends a certain literary quality (yeah right - no I'm serious) to the manner in which Kitty (the narrator) speaks about her body:
Had I any feelings for the womb inside this body I might have felt my misery there also.

But, it dislocates not only the narrator. The reader's flow suffers. Is it too obvious?

Questions on the back a stamped, addressed envelope... or as a comment, thanks.


On the grounds that I still hamper my own ability through a reliance upon adjectives (and the occasional adverb), I'm revisiting that first chapter of Second Fist.

It's interesting to pull them all out and see the difference it makes to the flow of the writing:

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.

Okay, so there are four adjectives there, though admittedly the second is allowed since we'd otherwise not know what kind of precinct. So, what does it read like without the other three?

Sans Adjectives

We ran the next red, slid across the 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 wound; picked clean of community and hospitality. And at its heart where the darkness swelled and a poison had taken root, the land had begun to die.

I can then address further ideas with the new text, namely that third sentence, which now hangs limply at the middle, around the word wound:
Behind us the central precinct sprawled. A wound; picked clean of community and hospitality.

That serves to break up the structure a bit more, puts wound into the mouth of the narrator - more like a direct thought than just a description, and helps increase the pace.

It's a far shine from my original opening, which was desperately clunky:
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. We left behind the labyrinth of roundabouts and diversion signs that surrounded the central precinct and disorientated visitors, who more often than not found themselves lost or returning from where they’d come. Inside that perimeter the town’s hub 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.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

NAW Brochure

My first official spot of publication has arrived in the form of the NAW Brochure 2007/08:

For the full sized pages, look here, and here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Craziest News Story of the Week

Bobby Brown Believes He's Still a Target for Bin Laden
R&B star Bobby Brown is still convinced Osama Bin Laden wants him dead so he can marry Whitney Houston - 11 months after the singers officially separated. Brown's 14-year marriage to Houston came to an end when their divorce was finalised earlier this year, but the hitmaker remains adamant he is on the al Qaeda leader's hitlist. He even hired extra security to guard him on his recent tour of Australia. He tells the New York Daily News, "I figure if Bin Laden wants me, and everybody is looking for him, it probably won't happen. But if he wants to try and find me for something so stupid, he can do what he wants. I have to leave it in the hands of my higher power. Come on, if anybody (else was) threatened by Al Qaeda, they'd take it seriously."
- News