Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Scholastic - Wow 366

Books are released in their thousands every week (ahem... probably) and a great many of them, having the backing of their publishers have launch parties - where the publishers and some/many of their staff schmooze with agents, authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, editors and the press... oh, and little ole me.

Okay, maybe I'm not so little. Here I am with the indomitable Peter Cox and the Salsa-holic MG Harris at the London Transport Museuem, last night, for the release of Scholastic's short story collection in association with the National Year of Reading 2008.

I certainly felt like a plum though, and exceedingly intimidated by the published and those in the business, doing their damndest to develop, to edit, to design, to promote, to schmooze.

I arrived on the dot, joined the queue and dumped my bag and brolly, making my way into the museum's "Bus depot" where people were already gathering in pockets of association. Of course, having arrived on my own, and with Peter and MG apparantly downing mojitos somewhere else, I was becomming increasingly concerned about how the devil I might interupt someone else in order to have a conversation with them - including the ubiquitous "So, what do you do then?"

Fortunately for me, Scholastic's designers (of book covers and websites) took pity on me and descended with great enthusiasm to find out who I was and what I did - I'm thankful to them for taking the time (though perhaps it was more because my name badge was just a name with no association - everyone else was marked either with their business or "author", while mine did not and during conversation many eyes would shift again to my name badge wondering why they'd already forgotten my company).

Richard, Emily, Zoe, thanks for making me feel less of a billy-no-mates.

What surprised me was the age of the staff. Yes they were assistants in the large, but to editors and copyeditors. All of them having to rent in London, all on low pay, but all gushing with praise for how much they do enjoy their jobs - and many had only been in post for the past 8 months - there I was wondering if it was a business that chewed people up and spat them out. Yes and no!

They were tight knit and positive about what they were doing - take a cross-section of most other businesses and many young workers would already be jaded by what they were doing. But, here at least they really believe in what they are doing.

Trying to explain who, how and why I was there was a little difficult - considering the very secret work I'm doing for Scholastic - more on that next year.

After the brief speeches the schmoozers got down to more schmoozing and Peter and MG were nice enough to lead me around to speak to particular people, but who do you choose when asked, "Editors, publishers, authors... you don't want to speak to agents... who shall we talk to?"

I talked with MG's editor about the work that she did, and was surprised about the nature: as much copy-editing as it is discussing the purpose of a character, a scene, the drive of the narrative. A lot of the work I assumed agents did, but Peter said that once the author is signed with a publisher he takes a step back so as not to impede on the relationship between author and editor.

When I asked the editor about generating the skills for her work - remember that I struggle over many of the skills, as I'm sure, we all do - she said that they just develop with the work. Certainly, she said, she needs to enjoy the writing. An editor must be, she was told when she was starting out, the author's biggest fan. She must like the book better than most.

And it was while then talking with the other authors, Sally Nicholls, Fiona Dunbar, and er... a few others (I don't know who these people are!) that I felt a great sense of underachievement. Here these authors were talking about getting their next contract for so-and-so books, and having written and now redrafting their third... and all these Scholastic folk doing their damndest to promote and push, and me... who can't even commit to a chapter.

It's a real eye-opener to experience, to see particularly that the publishers and their staff are the real heroes of the literary world. Particularly with regard to the National Year of Reading, here Scholastic are doing so much work to promote reading to children and at the other end of the spectrum (where I work in a library), there is so little being done. Libraries are thwarted by the red tape of local government, and so beleaguered by lack of funding that computers are the only real thing pushed.

Must... work... harder!

Anyway, it was on behalf of this book.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Oath Breaker - Wolf Brother 5

It's funny how the book world works. In movies, films are released on a Friday. Until recently, preview screenings were on a Thursday, but at least you knew where you stood. Films on DVD and Singles and Albums are always released on Mondays.

But books... it's as if the retailers don't care - so, I was able to buy Michelle Paver's Oath Breaker (book 5 in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series) on Tuesday instead of its official release date of Saturday 6th.


And, I've finished it. Another great stream of narrative, broken between the three leads, Torak, Renn and... no not Stimpy, but Wolf. There filters in another character's cracked up narrative for a brief moment to develop the plot and build tension but we stick rigidly to these three characters for everything.

And Paver makes sure to entwine us with the emotions of these characters, endearing them to us even when they're making the wrong choice, getting lost on the quest, or beating themselves up for their failings.

Sometimes there's no warning. Nothing at all.

Your skinboat is flying like a cormorant over the waves, your paddle sending silver capelin darting through the kelp, and everything's just right: the choppy Sea, the sun in your eyes, the cold wind at your back. Then a rock rears out of the water, bigger than a whale, and you're heading straight for it, you're going to smash...

Torak threw himself sideways and stabbed hard with his paddle. His skinboat lurched - nearly flipped over - and hissed past the rock with a finger to spare.

Streaming wet and coughing up seawater, he struggled to regain his balance.

'You all right?' shouted Bale, circling back.

'Didn't see the rock,' muttered Torak, feeling stupid.

Bale grinned. 'Couple of beginners in camp. You want to go and join them?'

So it begins, and while the last book started more thoughtfully, and this one with a spruce of action, we can already see that Paver is a master of maintaining her style and garnering reader interest.

And I've still learnt so little of these skills.


Anyhoo, Oath Breaker... out now. Read it. It's good stuff.

Monday, August 18, 2008


So, yes indeed, we had the best seats in the house for Hamlet and weren't we glad for that! We were aptly placed to observe Russell T. Davies down in the stalls and to avoid the carelessly thrown objects that flew from the stage into the audience. Such as Patrick Stewart's dart-like pen that shot out of his discarded jacket and thwacked against a wall. And, Mr Tennant's own fumbling with a footstool that slid into the face of a first row patron (lucky he caught it)

You can get a full idea of how the play played out at MG's site.

Let me just say that they made brilliant use of light and dark - a shiny black floor which the soldiers shone their Mulder-and-Scully torches on, which reflected back onto each other's faces. The rear wall mirrors that cracked to amazing effect. A brilliantly doddery Polonious, played by Star Wars favourite Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), a great to see Patrick Stewart (who almost laughed when, during the interrogation of Hamlet to ascertain the location of Polonious's body, Tennant opts to reply with the same deep, Stewartesque tones "He's in Heaven!").

Tennant is, as they say, a good Hamlet. Fully realised, brilliantly unhinged at times, funny and distraught - but, as the lady on the front counter said to us, it's not dark enough.

There was perhaps, too much humour. And while, as Laura pointed out, Shakespeare purposefully added comedy into his tragedy and tragedy into his comedy, Hamlet needs to be a far more brooding piece than it was.

Not that it ruined the enjoyment - certainly, Tennant's choices made for a more relatable Hamlet than, say, the knowing-Hamlet of Brannagh's (though we have just bought a copy of Brannagh's Hamlet because it's great).

Anhyoo, here's a piccy of David Tennant signing autographs - and yes, we were sad enough to join in, though we failed to get one.


So, MG isn't the only one lucky enough to see the new representation of Hamlet. I have too. After we sat down (front row of the circle, right in front of the stage) in the best seats in the house, a lady toddled over to us and quietly enquired about how long ago we'd purchased our tickets... well, last September actually.

Oh, she sighed... are you RSC members?

Damn right!

It was a crazy old weekend. That morning, on our way to visit Shakespeare's grave in ye olde church, we passed GMTV's Penny Smith in the graveyard. We all made eye contact, and while my wife gave a knowing nod I kind of gurned as I tried to work out where I'd seen the short blonde lady, sans-makeup who sounded like someone off tv


We're such geeks - we didn't accost her, though I did suggest to Laura that she should have papped her and we could have made some money from Heat magazine. But she wasn't having any of it - so we giggled our way into church (Bet you didn't even see the bloke's face, who she was with? Laura asked me... There was a bloke with her?) And Laura promptly put the money to see Shakespeare's grave into a giant old-wood chest upon which was sat a visitor's book.

The £3 landed with a dull thud - not a chink of coin on coin to be heard.

What are you doing? I asked.

She explained about paying the money, but, as I pointed out, the Church coffers were requesting money halfway down the church, and payment for Shakespeare's grave was at the far end. She'd literally dropped gold into an empty box that probably wouldn't be opened for another 100 years.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Watchmen Trailer

I know, I know! I haven't been round much - certainly failed on the 30 posts in a month front. Well aside from all the uni work I've been doing, I actually have work work to do - and that's a bad thing, because it prevents me from writing. Sigh! In the meantime...

We may all be waiting on Dark Knight's release (got my tickets. Got yours?), but here's one I'm desperate to see:

Finally it's online - to see a perfect quality version of the March 2009 Comicbook movie trailer, go to Empireonline. (Hope you love it, MG)

Also, a storyboard matchup between comic and movie also on Empireonline.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


More often than not we deal with sight over the other senses, generating monosensual texts that, while functional, remain flat to the reader.

Anyone remember what great sensual references Dan Brown made in The Da Vinci Code? Me neither. Anyhoo, listing them out like this is a great to see where I'm reliant upon certain sense, failing to use others, or not entirely developing reader sense through power words or onomatopoeia.


This is an abstract reference of loss rather than an actual bite or sting felt by the character, but, it's a start:
Even an insect bite or sting might have seemed natural, but they too were not to be found in Rome's parched carcass.
Another reference to loss:
He wished they were within reach, so that he might feel their texture.
Then I start relating more concretely (and this is a crossover to taste):
The air was heavy and dry in a way that no air conditioning or water could satisfy.
I begin to relate more specifically. Here are temperature references:
Lying in the pooling heat on her bedroom floor he'd plead with her to talk cool words and chilling breaths.
In the wintertime the frost settled upon the bedsheets and he'd huddle up to Mama.
When soil was soil:
... when her hands weren't thick and dripping with soil.
Rugs and grass:
... softer and more comforting than any rug.
... as she kicked off her shoes to feel the cool of the unsunned flagstones.
Mama's soles were burnt and stinging as she fled home.
Dying flora:
She presented her parents with the crinkled leaves she'd saved as they fell.
Foodstuffs (I didn't bother to consider flavours here - silly me, missed a trick) These are insinuated rather than stated by my word choice. Imagine these textures in your mouth (hardly crunchy):
... fed her from the synthetic mush of proteins... chase withered vegetables...
We all know how heat and cold can give us headaches:
...fusion of chill-filtered air and muggy heat gave the workers migraines.
Alfredo rubs his eyes and digs his fingernails into his palms.
Antiseptic wind(!):
... pushed down by the cool wind and the numbing taste of antiseptic. As he stroked their leaves and felt the sturdiness of their trunks his eyes began to stream.
Cool and wet:
... and wipes her eyes with a cool flannel...
He feels the relaxing string of her muscles...

A simple reference to silence:
He'd wander the city's hushed streets that once had been laden with tourists.
A tell:
... weaned on the scents and textures of geoponics.
Insects and church bells:
The buzz of insects would wake her before the morning haze lifted... or the first bells of morning rang out from the seven hills.
... and the dogs would never stop panting...
... and the swallows were already at play, chirruping over breakfast on the wing.
No amount of wailing could reverse the change.
More bells (this is Rome, I'm trying to evoke):
The church bells continued to ring morning...
Inside the glass-snakes (giant, hermetically sealed greenhouses):
The venting systems always thrummed...
Crying is sight (really), but I believe that if used properly the reader can imagine the sound:
... stood outside her room and listened to her gentle tears.
And breath is always a good one:
Her breathing has become a drawn out rasp...
Not a greenhouse, but a private floral collection this time (a crossover into touch also):
... beneath a gently humming ventilator that expelled great breaths of midwinter chill.
More breath:
She gasps, a long inward breath...

And the first reference to smell is abstracted:
If only their distance was no further than the intake of one breath.
The next is more concrete:
He only ever smelt dirt and dust, the stench of foodstuffs rankled by the Sun.
Come day or night, what wind there was carried only a stench of rot.
Finally, I give the reader some smells to work with (though these are restrictive to those who know the scents). So, they're a little leading:
Rome's breath would scent her room with sweet matthiola and the fragrance of freesias.
More lacking smells, I first relate camphor laurel to the reader, and then (this does require the reader to know what the smell is in the first place for this kind of scent reference to work:
She didn't detect the muted note in its scent.
This is a story about the lack of scent, so it is only in the denouement that I finally relent:
... giddy from his task and the heady excitement of so many fragrances... in great breaths those sweet and spicy smells...

My word! There's no taste! That's a shame... I think I need to focus a little better.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Maximising Impact

The rule of three hadn't occurred to me when writing this piece. Certainly not until I was sitting here typing this analysis of what I'd done with a particular object / symbol.

Mama's hosta is a symbol of life and loss, but in my original writing of the scene with its loss I hadn't developed an introduction for it - that's what initial drafts are for though. We get it down on the page so that we can make the connections and work out a taxonomy of importance. The hosta, I realised, as I had it dying and its leaves falling about the girl, was a key emotional link to how life had been and how it has gone. And I'd wasted it.

In the next draft I split it up so that the introduction of the hosta and Mama's attachment to it was well established and interlaced with some characterisation (page 6):

She took cuttings of the more flourishing plants and potted them for her window box. There also she planted a plaintain lily: a hosta she’d rescued from the unkempt and overgrown grounds at school. She devoted herself to its resurrection and fell in love with the lilac flowers it produced in August. Against the azure heavens their tubular heads reminded her of organ pipes.

When we come back to the hosta, the decay of the flora is already in full swing. I have chosen to build up the tension for Mama as she discovers more and more failing plant life, and tries (and fails) to save them, ending with:

That’s where her parents found her, trembling in the corner. She was stood beneath the overhang of her own window box with the variegated leaves of her favoured hosta tangled in her hair and collected in clumps about her feet.

Finally, I rely on the re-introduction of a hosta at the end of the story. Though I'm not copying that extract here.

Its purpose brings us full circle, and then some. A live hosta for a dying mum, but then it becomes synchronous of her death.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Dialogue Modes

Along with the modes of drama - dramatic mode, scenes, half-scenes - there are three types of dialogue and thought (as detailed by Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction, a guide to narrative craft). It works, really in the same was as the drama modes, in that we have:
  • Direct
  • Indirect
  • Summary
I employed each of these in my Bridport entry, and for once, centred upon indirect and summary over direct - using direct in one place only, for one character. I touched upon this in my reading of Murakami. But let's look at each in respect to my work, and how I employed them from my learning:

With his chores complete Alfredo would sit down with Mama before preparing their evening meal and describe the shapes and colours he’d seen through the gated entrances and barred corridors.
Here we have the summary of dialogue. We don't hear the exact ins and outs or a specific dialogue session between Alfredo and his mother. It's largely irrelevant to the narrative, and the fact that we get the overarching pointers of their discussions (and the feel that they repeat this) is what's important. We don't need to know much more.

Never did a day pass, she‘d told Alfredo with a wan smile, when her hands weren’t thick and dripping with soil.
Much of my dialogue-related prose in this short story is made up of indirect speech. the parts that tell us what is being discussed, in a more specific way than in summary, but without, again, having to go into the machinations of the scene itself. We can flutter over it, picking up the necessary exposition, getting a feel for some characterisation but not an awful lot - we're maintaining pace, and moving swiftly on.

Particularly in this story however, I am using indirect speech to continue the sub-story flashbacks, the expository moments that relate the scientific backdrop to the narrative and to push along the drama. As such the indirect speech is infused with the flashback elements - the telling of a story by a character.


‘Maybe as little as a week.’ The doctor packs his medical bag with a meticulous calmness but refuses to return Alfredo’s eye contact. ‘I’m afraid there’s nothing more I can do. The morphine will keep her comfortable and if you stick to the routine I told you, she won’t suffer.’

Alfredo rubs his eyes and digs his fingernails into his palms. Before the end came there had been hospitals and affordable medicines, people to care for the sick and means of making them well again. Now there is morphine and Alfredo.

‘You must call at the mortuary before the body starts to rot,’ says the doctor and he is gone.

Here we have the specific, direct dialogue between two characters. It should be used to show dramatic action, change in a character, conflict, discoveries and decisions. And until now I know that because of my over-reliance on scenic modes I have had an over-reliance on direct dialogue when it's not necessary (no wonder my scenes have seemed overly stretched with not a lot going on).

In this short I save my sole direct dialogue for the doctor who visits Alfredo and his sick mother. I think it strengthens the doctor's words that he is the only one with direct speech. The indifference and his inability to talk about her as a person, just as a body. How many dead and dying does the doctor have to deal with on a daily basis?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Combatting the Dramatic Mode

As mentioned previously, the flying output for my short story became, in the majority, a piece in the dramatic mode.

My initial draft was built up of connected scenes, utilising flashback from the midpoint onwards and wasting a vast amount of time on the relationship between the cop and the young protagonist. There was conflict and a lot of showing in these characters' actions and treatment of each other, but, it didn't shine a light on the story or theme, and, in fact, the story I was supposed to be telling was a little bit lost.

11 pages in, my main (false) narrative came to a stop, not because I was done with it, but because for all of its drama and development - flashback to show why the protagonist had come to make the decision that brought him into conflict with the cop - it didn't explain anything and I needed to ground the work in at least some exposition. At the time I thought after that section would be perfect.

The end didn’t arrive as they had depicted in any one of the Hollywood movies. It didn’t go with a bang and it wasn’t centred solely in America. In fact, by the time Alfredo Giancarlo was born, the end was unalterably established and advancing without much fanfare. It appeared, to those watching from – as yet – unaffected regions, that the billions it had afflicted and displaced and whose deaths it had contributed to were just more of the same: plague, pestilence, famine and the seemingly ubiquitous refugees.

Hollywood was safe long after the Mediterranean had suffered.

It's a contrivance, but it's a better starting block that relates to the story I should have been telling. This, of course, is the dramatic mode. We're not inside a scene, observing the characters' actions. We're outside, building up a picture.

I realised the technique I was using after a couple of pages (fancy that! Me, using a literary technique), and the story began to take a different shape - the necessary one. And here's the key, particularly in respect to the short story form: the tale I was telling was, though grounded in a mother/son relationship, one of sci-fi origins. It has a lengthy backstory that would otherwise have needed to be fleshed out in whole dramatic scenes - but again would have been a different story (imagine The Day After Tomorrow, but without so many weather patterns and a bit more potting).

Again, the backstory is pivotal, but only a partial of the story I wanted to tell. As such, writing in the dramatic mode allowed me to convey feeling and dip in and out of certain moments in these characters' histories, getting right to the punch and the crux of the subject and emotional journey.

Gone was the entire story setup that, I felt, was needed to spur the protagonist into action. Gone was the cop, the bullying, Alfredo's brother. As such I had to show certain things a different way: The characters' poverty and the mother's sickness in particular. What we must observe when writing in the dramatic mode is that showing and telling is still an important concept (inference adds weight to explanation):

It didn’t cost Alfredo a cent to stare.

... I'll be discussing word choice later.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

National Academy of Writing's First Anthology

Available through Amazon, this is the taste of things to come.

A few weeks ago we had an evening of presentations and readings given by a number of NAW students, including myself (unsurprisingly giving a talk on Online Writing Communities and the Litopian Model), which received much acclaim from a number of publishing folk from:

Bloomsbury Director Richard Charkin, author David Lodge, Times Newspaper and Murdoch's News Corporation, and then some.

As part of our yearly roundup of developments some of our luckier members had their work included in our first anthology (lucky for some - sadly I didn't make the grade this year, due to a lack of appropriate offerings). It's pretty chocker anyway, totally rammed with the latest talent about to hit the shelves (once we all get our modules out the way).

So, head on over to Amazon and get yourself a copy of the Anthology.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Getting it Down

So, sat in the moderate coolness of our hotel room - Laura sleeping to the thrum of the air-con - I hunched over my pad of paper and started fashioning the story:
As soon as the door opened, Alfredo came hurtling through it, propelled, with his arms swinging to maintain balance like a cartwheeling clown, by the policeman now following curtly behind. Skidding to a halt against Mama's sideboard so that he had to hug the plant pot - an ancient ceramic urn painted in the Greek style of orange and black as if it were from real antiquity - and stop it from teetering over the edge. Mama would be more than displeased, even more so to see the trouble Alfredo had brought with him. Alfredo glared back at his escort and captor and hoped the young man registered his indignance. It's not like he was the thief.
Worry not, this isn't anywhere near the story narrative that went to Bridport. It does give an idea of my direction.

Anyhoo, I rely solely, in my planning and in my writing, on the scenic narrative. Now, I've mentioned this previously in this post on the dramatic modes. I quoted James N. Frey in the discussion. He discusses the writing of Flaubert's Madam Bovary as an example of dramatic narrative. I have come across this, I realise, with other works, for example Pride and Prejudice (I didn't get on with it one bit).

The dramatic mode, I thought, at the time when I was really settling into my learning of writing, was just a cheap and easy way to do a lot of telling and get away with it (oh, how naive I was, and really rather awful in my own writing).

So it was, that I set to work on my new short story by planning and delving straight into the scenes that show the dramatic purpose and direction and conflict of the story. I can't comprehend how to do it in the dramatic, and as such I can only consider in those muse-fueled early drafts the scenes and how they should work.

- As an aside, anyone want to open up a discussion on how to plan your work from the dramatic mode angle rather than beating out the scenes, let me know.

What I had, therefore, was a lot of gesturing and poncing around by the characters - Alfredo and the cop - as I tried to keep the story interesting, injected bits of exposition that didn't slow the narrative too much, and raised questions. I had:
  • The cop has brought Alfredo home, having caught him up to a nefarious deed
  • The cop wants Alfredo to get his mum, but Alfredo refuses because his mum is sick
  • The cop doesn't believe Alfredo because Alfredo has already lied to him
  • The cop calls to the mum (really, desperately sick) up stairs, and beats Alfredo when he complains
  • Alfredo's brother comes home and wants to know what's happening
  • Flashback: Alfredo watching the Spring bird exodus (there aren't any plants left, thus no bugs). Alfredo and his friend get beaten up by older kids
  • Flashback: Later Alfredo and his friend retaliate, having spied one of the other kids stealing from tourists
  • Flashback: Alfredo gets caught by the cop
None of it related to the story I wanted to tell - it was all set up, or the fleshing out of a far larger narrative, perhaps the film of the short story - and I barely touched on the theme or the direction of the piece.

Theme, at this point: If we take what we covet and what is kept from us, we destroy the thing's beauty and the thing itself.

It was a riff on the the fact that the flora had died off and now only private collectors can afford to keep their own collections alive - but at what price to the poor? But then, if the poor had access the collections would become infected, etc, etc.

In the piece I wrote by hand I managed to fit in two pages of explanation on the situation and how it arose... Two out of eight, and when I came to do the typing, by the third draft, a form of those two pages were all that would be left of the original plan and write-up

Thursday, July 03, 2008


In line with many of the writers' theories I have read, I now get into a state of planning. Gone are the days when I was able to write from the off, and just take my work anywhere, with only a brief guesstimate of where it'll all end.

So it was in Rome, while my wife badgered me to get on and write something. She was so enthused with having completed her finals back in May and actually getting out to Rome to see and touch the things she'd been studying - real history, mind you. These things are at least 2000 years old. Can any of us comprehend that?

So, she gets into this sharing mode, wanting to make sure that I'm not only included but that my inspiration is sparked by what we're seeing - it's nice to have a partner who wants you to succeed in your dreams - but then, of course, she's always saying: "Are you inspired yet?" as if we're on a drive to some destination and I need to be ready by the time we get there!

But, I did get my game on. And here is the spark of my idea that I then toyed with for a day (yes, just a day, the Bridport closed in a week and in our downtime in the hotel I had only pen and paper for extra-curricular activities) before having a play:

What really stood out for me as we traced a path from monument to tourist attraction through the tiny piazzas and the winding streets that stretched high above, were the vast number of open corridors (albeit gated) that led in under these villas and apartments and housed many numbers of statues, busts, faux (probably) antiquities and greenery - perhaps a private founatin in a courtyard.

As we trudged in the heat, always ensuring that we didn't go for too long without a 2 litre bottle of chilled water for fear of fainting or heat exhaustion, I got to thinking about the green places - especially Rome. I'd seen some photos of Rome before, and couldn't remember seeing any of the green gardens and tree'd parks we were now wandering past, with their broad-umbrella branched stone pines and a number of indigenous plant life. I had thought Rome might be devoid of flora altogether (okay, at least a lot), but here we were with bits of verdancy all around and these separate, imprisoned collections that were barred off from the public.

What, I thought, would happen if the world's flora upped and died? As if nature had given up, climate change was too much (a true problem that is currently killing of the equatorial species). I imagined a boy who was poor and who, after this event of dying flora, still lived on the streets of Rome and only saw green life through the barred gateways. Would he appreciate them? Would he want to touch them, to share space with them? Or would he simply get on with his life and have them on the periphery, a nag in his mind but one he can't do anything about?

What then, would happen if his mother lay dying and she'd been there at the time when the end of flora had first come? Her 20 year old memories trouble her, the life she had once led, the loss, and the desolation of living without - it would be unbearable for her. But then, her son might go out of his way to surround her in flora, at whatever cost, to steal it and bring it to her - regardless of whether the stolen plants would die when out of their protective habitats (a sciency set of explanations would be required for much of the plot's construction - such as the distinction between standard flora and crop-flora, where food comes from, how there can be private collections (and why, of course)).

But this was the concept, and the first draft, which I never completed, but ran for over 5,000 words (the Bridport restricts writers to 5,000 words - I've been writing 1,500 for Litopia's competitions for so long, I was worried about having to go the distance) by the time I got it to a place in my own head to be able to start typing it up and considering my stand point (more on this in a later post).

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

One Month of Learning

Linking in my outstanding coursework with the recent Bridport Prize entry I submitted just 2 and a bit hours before the deadline, I hope to detail all my learning and how I've come to my present state. What follows is my agenda:
  • To bring the blog back up to speed
  • To meet the requirements of my diary coursework
  • To help in my pedagogic review (again, more coursework)
  • To avoid actually displaying too much of the story I will use in my examples, for fear of it being expunged from the Bridport for "having been already published"
Bring it on!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Done Roming

I have been to dark places and met with the muse of enlightenment in the unlikeliest of places!

The past month, as all months seem to be these days, has been difficult for me - creatively speaking - not least with troubles-at-mill, a weekend in Rome, deadlines and work problems. But, I've got my responsibilities to be getting on with...

As such it was fortunate of my wife to advise that I take some inspiration from our surroundings while in the 33 degree heat of Rome (no breeze, sparse shade and a boiled head). The Bridport Prize ends... er... last night - midnight. Wouldn't it be great if, beside my other two pieces entered, I was able to shake my muse into dropping some tidbits to get on with.

Funny that there's so much religiosity in the City of Rome - the most unspiritual city I've come across (but then, that must come with so many tourists and no one knowing, or caring, what language another person speaks) with no apologies, people reversing, turning, stopping, shooting out of nowhere across your path, without a hint that they might do it. And then there are those wonderful Euro-queue-jumpers. Us Brits just don't cope too well in the mix do we?

At least we felt safe.

Anyhoo, so it was that we were mixing it up a little, with a lot of walking (a lot of walking) and just as much historical consumption as possible. When we got back the number of people asked if we'd been to this church, or that church and then stood a little surprised by our "no" was quite surprising.

We went for history, not religion! St. Peter's was a phenomenal sight that brought Laura to the brink of tears, and after that, why'd you need to go see another church? There's so little reason. Nothing will meet the basilica's splendour (where'd all this money come from? Hmm). No, we didn't even do the Sistine or the Vatican museums. We were there for antiquity - the Colosseum, Pantheon, the Ara Pacis, Palatine Hill, and the Forum.

So, got to get back into that saddle.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Dramatic Modes - The Dramatic Narrative

How ever did I miss this?

It's one of those very important writing tools that I've been ever so desperate to emulate, and failed to grasp.

The question is why? The answer is that I had not correctly analysed the elements and therefore hadn't named them.

As we all know from Ursula le Guin's Earthsea: To name something is to have power over it.

Back in January (my, that's a long time ago), I evolved my concept of Narrative Focus, and listed 9 elements:
  1. Reflection - narrator / character reflects on the past / present / future
  2. Action - physical movement, physiological movement / reaction, interaction with others / object
  3. Intention - decision / impetus / drive to perform an act
  4. Observation - senses, dialogue delivery
  5. Perception - like observation but subjective
  6. Wish / Need - future reflection
  7. Feeling - how the character feels generally or their observation towards a situation / object / person (with feeling)
  8. Relating - reflection vs feeling / observation towards a situation / object / person
  9. Resolving - intention vs feeling / observation towards a situation / object / person
But what I couldn't grasp was the flow from scene to scene. That effortless movement that, in some fashion, propels us not simply from location to location, as if we were watching ye olde films with their static cameras, but through the world and the narrative - exactly as if we're on steadicam, at one pursuing the characters, then into montage, and back again.

A friend bought me James N. Frey's How To Write a Damn Good Novel. But, aside from dipping in and out (I have such difficulty maintaining interest in how to books, where it's all this is how it's done, now go and do it yourself - I know, that's how they all are), I never got further than halfway.

However, towards the back of the book is where the nuggets are, and where, in this particular case, Frey explains the concept of Dramatic Modes.

There are, points out Frey, three distinct ways of splicing the narrative, or three different modes, if you will.
  1. Dramatic Narrative
  2. Scenes
  3. Half-scenes
Let me cover, point 2 first: we all know what scenes are. They're the definable units of action, where we see our characters interact with one another, develop, and conflict. When I am writing, these are the formal elements of my prose - the bits I am conscious of setting up and writing about.

Why did I cover scenes, first? Because they're exactly what they say they are - and even the worst of writers can write a scene (rightly or wrongly).

Thirdly, half-scenes are a meshing of scenes and dramatic narrative, so we don't need to cover them.

So, to the crux of the post... what is dramatic narrative?
In dramatic narrative, the narrator relates actions, shows character growth, and exploits inner conflict, but does so in a summary fashion.
- James N. Frey (How To Write a Damn Good Novel)

I touched upon this while talking about Earthsea, some months back - or at least I was thinking about it.

Dramatic narrative separates true writers from the amateur, relating to the reader this elements I laid out (above) with regard to narrative focus - the narrative topics and direction that take us slightly out of the scene and evolve the story beyond what is happening within a said scene.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Book Quiz

Which book are you? I was merrily traipsing back through my blog, looking for elements to use in teaching people how to write creatively, when I uncovered a couple of external people having linked to certain of my blog posts (which is very nice of them - I am now quoted elsewhere on the web, as if an officiando of sorts)

Anyhoo, one had the book quiz on her site... so I thought I'd have a look and give it a go... perhaps I shouldn't:

You're Lolita!
by Vladimir Nabokov

Considered by most to be depraved and immoral, you are obsessed with sex. What really tantalizes you is that which deviates from societal standards in every way, though you admit that this probably isn't the best and you're not sure what causes this desire. Nonetheless, you've done some pretty nefarious things in your life, and probably gotten caught for them. The names have been changed, but the problems are real.

Please stay away from children.

Take the Book Quiz at the Blue Pyramid.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Book Thief - Reviewing Elements

Those of you not part of the Litopia phenomenon, one of our latest brainwaves is to host a book group, so as to discuss varying elements, issues, styles and likes/dislikes). We've been reading Markus Zusak's The Book Thief this month, and having a little discussion on it. I include my thoughts here also (not least to fulfill the criteria of my NAW course - I have been doing stuff really, teacher):

The Book Thief - Opening

I started the Book Thief long before the book club, and got to 100 pages before setting it down and having then to pass it onto another reader (damn library books and patron requests). Of course the reason I set it down were due to the book's lolloping narrative, something that I did not feel had become a problem until about page 50.

The opening in particular, I found very interesting and we immediately get a sense of Death, of our narrator, and the style in which we are going to be presented the narrative throughout the story - there will be no surprises later on with the introduction of bullet points, narrator asides, or the pre-chapter summing up. They're all present right there at the beginning.

It's like Zuzak has gathered his tool box together and set out what he wants to use on the first pages as a reminder to the style he will stick to, throughout.

However, what does change is the narrative style - later chapters flow with large swathes of description, whole paragraphs filled with what's happening. The opening chapters are very bitty.

It has to be difficult to set up Death as a narrator and present us with his foibles and indiosyncracies:

First up is something white. Of the blinding kind.

Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a colour and all of that tired sort of nonsense. Well I'm here to tell you that it is. White is without question a colour, and personally, I don't think you want to argue.
It raises the question: "What is Zuzak doing here?" since the story is supposed to be leading us toward a meeting with Liesel, but instead we're discussing the finer definitions of the colour white. It's unnecessary, and I wonder if Zuzak started off writing in the voice of Death to get a feel for his narration, and then chose to put all the woolly wanderings into the book simply because he'd done all the leg work of writing them!

By 50 pages in we've forgotten the discourse on colours, so why bother us? What purpose does it have?


The style is an interesting one, as I mentioned in the previous thread:

The opening in particular, I found very interesting and we immediately get a sense of Death, of our narrator, and the style in which we are going to be presented the narrative throughout the story - there will be no surprises later on with the introduction of bullet points, narrator asides, or the pre-chapter summing up. They're all present right there at the beginning.
Each part begins with a breakdown of the following chapters (like Pratchett's Going Postal) except that these aren't entirely the chapter headings. They're more thematic than that:

Mein Kampf (P.133): the way home - a broken woman - a struggler - a juggler - the attributes of summer - an aryan shopkeeper - a snorer - two tricksters - and revenge in the shape of mixed lollies

Some of these are chapter headings, others regard content. But the effect is to give us a sense of rhythm, a brief overview (of what to look forward to - if any of you really relished moving on - wow! a snorer! That'll be interesting!) and potentially, for Zuzak, a way for him to keep track of what happens when and where.

But what purpose do they really serve? Are they just a device for maintaining the style, or something more?

Do we remember them by the end of the chapter, or part? I'd say a definite no. Perhaps, even by page two of a chapter, I'd forgotten what the chapter was called.

Do we pay enough attention to warrant them? Are they cookies meant to keep us reading (in a similar way to Zuzak repeatedly foretelling someone's imminent, or not so, death) - would we not bother continuing without them?

I mean, it's a good -enough- story, but it seemed to lag - like a biography. We know it has to reach the otherside of the war (wouldn't we all be very angry if the book ended halfway through and we closed the last page thinking that for the characters who remained, the war was yet to end), and so, aside from the so-and-so is soon to die (so it goes), The Book Thief doesn't have a particular narrative drive - we just dip in and out!

The Word Shaker was about standing up against the Fascism - in a way it's like standing up the lies and bigotry and the loud-shoutiness of all man-made cults, dogmas and doctrines. Here are two characters prepared to stand against the stupidity of the sheep, because their truth is far stronger than even the loudest of Hitler's screaming rhetoric... but, but...

I understand the story's meaning, just not why the tree died at the end of it, and what that was supposed to mean


Hitchcock's bomb (not his box, which is, obviously a discussion on McGuffins)...

Take page 505, finally we reach Zucker's death - and this has been foretold many-many pages before it occurs. This gives us a distinct lack of surprise when it does happen - we don't have any invested interest in this particular character, so is Zuzak turning a wasted opportunity on its head and giving us something to expect, to wait for (he does indeed do this a lot).

Hitchcock (as I believe Robert McKee states in his book Story) that if you had two people discussing a situation at a table, perhaps they're dining there, and after a time the table explodes, and they both die, then, short of the shock factor - oh my - and the confusion... what do we go away with?

Not a lot.

Now, what if we have two people at a table, let's say they're dining again, and chatting away, and Hitchcock lets us see that there is a bomb sitting under the table, right where the couple can't see it. And we can see that there is a countdown, and we, the audience, know that the couple don't know about the bomb, and don't know about the countdown, and we do the little maths and realise that they won't escape in time, and that no one is coming to pull them away, then we have a form of dramatic irony.

We are in a greater position of knowledge than the characters - which creates a sense of tension, and spurs us to remain glued to our seat, our fingers on the book, our eyes to the page.

The pay off is that we've seen it coming and long hoped for a reprise, for saviour or deus ex machina - and it hasn't come. In Rudy's case we have come to like Rudy, and join in his adventures (adventures that are in no way diminished by constant reminder of his foreboding death).

The fact is, if I'm cynical, Zuzak would have had no real means to keep his readers reading without this kind of cookie to entice the reader on. The narrative plods, is more biographical of accounts that action/adventure/thriller, and the problem a lot of us have had in sticking through with it is largely, I believe, down to a distinct lack of anything big or attention grabbing.

That's why foretelling Rudy's death and continually reminding us is a bit of a cheat.

Also, it could seem that Zuzak is arguing in some fashion against Shoah (there's no business like Shoah-business) getting all the limelight - "My German ancestors had it bad too, you know!" he seems to say. "We were stuck here, bound by the fervour of our zealots, without a word or opportunity of rising up against it all."

And that is probably the biggest factor in people not feeling fulfilled by the piece at all - it's like setting the original Star Wars trilogy entirely from Lando Calrissian's pov (oh, I've lost the Falcon, oh the Empire are being mean to my friend, and now proposing to leave an Imperial garrison! And now I've got to lose Bespin and go fight too... Sigh)

A far better book that touches upon this level of bigotry, but doubles-back to trully show and deal with the effects is Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. The protagonist has it largely easy, even when the Taliban get going - and then he flees Afghanistan altogether.

The key being that he still has a link to that place, has unbridled guilt, and must return to right a wrong, an in so doing endanger his life.

General Thoughts

A couple of thoughts on the Book Thief

# P.148 (A tell as a marker that leads us into a show):

Soon, her sedated condition transformed to harassment, and self-loathing. She began to rebuke herself.

'You said nothing.' Her head shook vigorously, amongst the hurried footsteps. 'Not a goodbye. Not a thank you. Not a that's the most beautiful sight I've ever seen. Nothing!' Certainly, she was a book thief, but that didn't mean she should have no manners at all. It didn't mean she couldn't be polite.

# P.157 (phraseology to match mood and subject):

'Johann Hermann,' she said. 'Who is that?'

The woman looked beside her, somewhere next to the girl's knees.

Liesel apologised. 'I'm sorry. I shouldn't be asking such things...' She let the sentence die its own death.'

The woman's face did not alter, yet somehow she managed to speak. 'He is nothing now in this world,' she explained. 'He was my...'

# P.175 (as above):

The road was icy as it was, but Rudy put on the extra coat, barely able to contain a grin. It ran across his face like a skid.

# P.329 (Death's Diary - here we're sidelined in the story to join Death):

What's the point of this sojourn? To tell us more stuff that Liesel or anyone in Molching would otherwise know. Death allows Zuzak to frame the narrative in the wider story of Nazi Germany and all the evil that happened. It's a bit of a cheat, and like his little asides (the tells), it's a bit distracting, but it does have purpose.

Also, it's interesting how he leads back into the story (P.332), linking us in with the wider picture:

Unknowingly, she awaits a great many things that I alluded to just a minute ago, but she also waits for you.

She's carrying some snow down to a basement, of all places.

Handfuls of frosty water can make almost anyone smile, but it cannot make them forget.

Here she comes.

# P.333 - Backtracking / flashback:

We start in the present (of the story) developing Liesel's present situation and physicality, and then scoot backwards:

Opinions varied, but Rosa Hubermann claimed that the seeds were sown at Christmas the previous year. The twenty-fourth of December had been hungry and cold...

# P.437 - Juicy descriptions:

A wooden hand swiped at the splinters of his fringe, and he made several attempts to speak.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Whimsy of Bracknell

So it was that I, and a colleague, were wandering back from lunch (a new Chinese restaurant in town - all you can eat buffet for £5.99 [I am there]), and we decided to take a convoluted route back past a set of marquees and film crews set up outside the Police station - so desperate to find out what ruffian was being released today...

Only, it was a real film crew. And, who came racing past on their ways to their chauffeurs, one after the other (I guess in time for their lunch since filming looked as if it was wrapping up)?

Well, none other than Marc Warren and Alexander Armstrong (strange but true).

They're filming a new BBC production called "Mutual Friends".

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bridport Prize 2008

Fancy your chances much?

The Bridport Prize has been running now for 30+ years, with many thousands of entrants and two competitions open every year - the poetry and the short story prizes.

Obviously, I'm not one for the poetry. I'd be worse than old McGonagall. So, this year, for the first time in my amateur writing career (career? Ha!) I've entered two short stories - both of which I had critiqued and used on my NAW writing course last year.

In both cases my choices had confused the readers (when hasn't that happened?) and the pieces of work were a chronological nightmare - In the development of the first piece (the largest of the two - 5,000 words - and my entry for the Fiction module) had already undergone a vast change to its theme and subject matter. No longer the opening to a novel it had to change direction, background, and I performed a massive feat of shifting the time in which it takes place, back 55 years (yep, a major shift).

For the Bridport entry I had another mammoth task to carry out. Namely the resetting of the flashbacks. I had relied heavily on these and the story was still somewhat confusing since I had two moments in cars - which was happening when? It didn't matter that the tenses were different. So, I reset the order and had everything run smoothly from beginning to end, changing tense only for the last section. This meant, of course, revising certain elements of narrative development, but that is expected.

The second piece required far less work. Having already worked on it with Jim Crace during the Prose Stripping session at NAW, the biggest heft of the work was, again, the redesign of the narrative and the resetting of the time shifts - I'd confused the readers with my flashbacks (all of which were set within a boat) and which I washed back to time and again as my mind felt compelled.

There were minor necessary changes - namely my over use of sea and fishing terminology (still all largely present but altered for appropriateness and pov) - but nothing on the par with the first. It is a much smaller, easier read. Very light weight in fact (for me) at 1,600 words.

Here's hoping I at least place somewhere - though I find that doubtful. Yes, we can all hope. But I won't hold my breath. Lots more things to be getting on with.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Understanding Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - No Spoilers

There are certain types of film - I believe - that can only be properly reviewed by the people who have previously enjoyed them. A successful franchise can only be appreciated by those that have championed their greatness.

Imagine listening to Christopher Tookey (from the Daily Mail) as your be-all and end-all critique on the latest Indy flick knowing that he's rated the original three poorly (on the grounds of childish excess and fast-paced but limited story). It's just not a fair review. The bases are already loaded... so don't do it.

You want to listen to me instead... though, I rated the Phantom Menace 5 stars (just like Empire Magazine did) when it first came out. I'm sorry people, please forgive me. I won't make the same mistake twice!

That is exactly why I'm having so much trouble reconciling myself with the latest Indy movie: I saw Temple of Doom first, aged 7 or 8. Mum and Dad had rented it in 84/85 and I chose to watch it on a Sunday morning instead of Gummi Bears. Raiders I watched first at my grandparents, and then Grail I saw with my Mum in the cinema, aged 10, back in 1989.

All three are adult-orientated action adventures, but rated PG to allow kids to enjoy them too, and of course that's where the magic is. Kids buy into a lot of stuff that adults find jarring or difficult to accept. But, the Indy series has prided itself on being action first and foremost, mcguffin to keep the ball rolling and ensuring that the fantastical doesn't arrive until the last reel:

In Raiders we have no manifestations of the Ark's true power until it's on the boat, searing the Nazi symbol from the crate and making the rat go crazy - by the time we reach the opening of the Ark, we expect something horrendous and ghostly to manifest.

In Temple of Doom, voodoo, possession and ripping of hearts before sacrifice come midway, but these are examples of earthly-based "magic" that has never been proven or disproved (heart rending aside, Derren Brown could prove voodoo magic through the power of suggestion, I bet). Besides, you never seen anything physically manifest. No devils or demons arrive on behalf of Kali or Shiva to wreak their vengeance. And though the Sankara stones glow and are too hot at the end for Mola Ram to hold, the suspended-disbelief has been earned.

Let's not go into the dining scene with the eyeball soup and monkey brains - Lucas and Spielberg were trying to play up the comedic assumptions of the west against the east. Knowing that it's tongue in cheek and watching just a few weeks ago (I'm purportedly an adult now) just shows it up to be seriously misjudged, and wryly amusing.

So, Grail, in which the quest remains legitimate until the final reel again - the Grail Knight is a grey surprise in an earth-toned film. For me he never did work properly (I mean, what would he really have done in there for 700 years?) Anyhoo, it's even more jarring by the fact that the three trials Indy faces to get to the Knight are physically realised traps and puzzles rather than ghostly effects. The Grail itself is a great idea

Lucas and Spielberg go to great lengths to bind these movies in realism, and then tweak the mythologies to provide a little freakishness, something different, and for the public to bite into, and to maintain their "high-concept idea"

For Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the goodwill of the audience is stretched right from the start - and I don't mean in the age of Indy, (it is jarring and we feel sorry for him being that old) we very quickly forget he's 60 and the adventure rolls on. You can't help but get caught up in it all, to laugh, to tense and to be moved by John Williams's score - it's all expertly constructed to maintain audience enjoyment and with Lucas and Spielberg the two people we should feel most comfortable with.

However, the "mumbo-jumbo", if you will, is there from the beginning, and though the story follows the template of the previous three with maintaining ground-based, earth-realm concerns, chases and peril, the film-makers sprinkle the "other-world" bits a lot-lot more. At least it feels that way. But, when the mcguffin is on screen almost as long as Indy, that's going to happen. And it's all there as a means of getting you used to the final reel in which, I'm sorry, you're going to be tested in your support of story, film-makers, and, as I said, goodwill.

However, I think I love this film!

I love Indiana Jones, what can I say?

That we're moved ahead 20 years, and it's the 50s with all that that encompasses: Elvis, Greasers, Reds, Atom bombs, nods to what's happened in between for "Colonel Jones" - sorry couldn't resist that (it's a wonderful little moment when we learn he's done a lot of work for the war effort), and also that in his job he's taken on the name "Henry Jones" as a nod to his deceased father.

The movie's opening salvo stutters through the first 5/10 minutes as we try to get up to speed with Indy's situation, push ourselves to accept he looks as old as my dad (and I don't want my dad to be in that kind of danger), and force ourselves to accept we start at Area 51 in the Nevada desert (yes, we are at the Ark's final resting place - ooh) and everything that that encompasses.

But it hits its stride almost immediately afterwards. And what a ride. You cannot be disappointed. Because the film ticks all the right boxes, makes all the right nods to the films past and is Indiana Jones (for crying out loud). You can't despite it's momentary failings (a horrible-horrible-horrible Tarzan swing through the trees for Mutt), the ants take it a bit far and the Vulcan mind-meld is... sorry, wrong film (!)

But, I think the film really speaks well for the time in which it's placed. It's not better than the others, but it "mostly" fits well in the Indy cannon. I can't say anymore than that because you need to form your own decisions about which way you swing when you realise the real intent of the film (I personally feel the film-makers have been a bit over self-indulgent, yet, I think I love the film). I'll have to see it again.


Okay, I have to get one proper spoiler in - though it happens within the first 15 minutes -

Be careful now, you'll have to highlight the text to read it:

When Indy escapes from the Russians he finds himself in the perfect world of the Atomic bomb testing site in Nevada valley. It is the most surreal, awkward and upsetting scenario, not-least for the fact that it's another jarring point against what Indy Jones films have been about (deserts, jungles and earth tones). Here we are in the staid and pressed formica world of mid-class America, except its a setup to see the results of the 200 kiloton bomb hanging over the city... and Indy's only got 1 minute to escape!

Now, that was nail-biting stuff - real horror (and I'm 29). They can make you squirm with delight even though you might be an adult.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Emotional Resonance

Further to my previous post (check down)... protagonist goals is something we discussed last night - MG and I - about giving the protagonist ample emotional resonance and necessity to follow their quest. An editor had wondered about her choice of ladening on some emotional weight to her protagonist in order for him to "want" to pursue his goal. Was it necessary? We agreed that a writer should, in finding an identifiable protagonist, always give them a quest that is of the upmost importance to them or the world or to avoid jeopardy.

We talked about Endymion Spring:
Endymion Spring has a double storyline. The first story follows two children in current day Oxford, Blake and Duck Winters. Blake is twelve years old and his sister is a few years younger. The two happen to come across a strange book in a library in Oxford, which is entitled Endymion Spring. After finding out that it leads to a book of all the knowledge in the world, all the knowledge Adam and Eve tried to obtain from eating of that forbidden tree of knowledge but lost, they then embark on a quest to find it. However, when they do, the story then becomes a battle against the Person in Shadow, a person whose heart has turned black with evil and desire for the knowledge and power of the book. The second story line follows the journey of a young printer’s devil who works in Gutenberg’s workshop named Endymion Spring from his hometown in Mainz, Germany to Oxford, which was then a settlement of monks. The two story lines are about 600 years apart, with Spring's story taking place at the epoch of the printing press in 1453, and Blake's taking place in the late 20th or early 21st century.

MG, and more importantly her agent, are very hot on emotional resonance between protagonist and reader. The reader needs to buy into the goal and the quest. In the latest Indiana Jones film, Indy has to get the crystal skull and stop the Ruskies from using it for their... well, what ever evil deed they wish to do - fact is, at the height of the "Red Scare" the Russians pose a serious threat to America during the cold war. That's reason enough for Indy to want to save the world, and obviously, he being an archaeologist is enough for his interest in the skull.

With that in mind, could someone explain to me why the Book of Knowledge be of any importance to two kids? I'm certain there must be some big badguy to act as foil, but that doesn't come across at all in that synopsis.

Pah! I say. Pah!

Identifiable Goals

Writers should fear treading unwarily in the creation of their epic. I've recently slogged my way through the smallest of King's Dark Tower installments - The first, the Gunslinger - and I feel absolutely bereft of care for either the Gunslinger or his world.

Where did it all go wrong? King's series has a stalwart following of millions and it's written well - I've seen some choice skill uses that have helped to inform my writing - but its sprawl has a single purpose - to find the Dark Tower... oooh!

It's not clear why, and though the Gunslinger's world has turned to pap and there seems nothing else for him to go back to, I am left wondering what the point is (and let's face it, there's 7 titles in the novel series, and I started out by reading the interesting Gunslinger Born graphic novel - so, I cheated and Wiki'd the whole thing to find out how it turns out - shudder).

It's clear to me that while King has his reasons for putting the Gunslinger on his quest, it doesn't come across to the reader with any emotional weight - "I've just got to go there". It's all kind of Neo from the Matrix going to the Architect's room and realising the loop of things. Sigh! Do readers want that kind of ending? To go back to the beginning?

Oh, sorry, didn't I say Spoiler alert?

Anyhoo, there it is. A wasted journey - I'm sure it has its themes and messages, but where's the resolution, and apart from a very personal mission for the Gunslinger, where is the feeling of world-in-jeopardy, or other people at least (I'm talking again about the first book here). The third main character of the book is off'd without ceremony and plenty of foresight and no one cares - least of all the reader.

That King rewrote portions of the version I'm holding to make it work within his finished series proves the point: he was writing blind.

Needless to say, I didn't hang around to read the first chapter of the next book.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Vote for the Podcast

If you enjoy the podcast, please vote for us every month at Podcast Alley, the site that produces the "top ten" podcast charts every month.

Just click on this link:


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Charts are prepared monthly, so please vote regularly!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mortal Engines

I have traveled vast distances in my search for the holes in my own writing logic, particularly YA novels such as Reeve's Mortal Engines which is a cracking bit of fiction - a high-concept idea welded onto a story of self-discovery:

In this post-apocalyptic world, after the Sixty Minute War destroyed North America, population centres have re-built themselves as traction cities and towns. They travel around the globe, the stronger destroying the weaker. The story is based on London’s attempt at global domination by destroying Shan Guo, the last remaining free state of the world. Valentine, a top archaeologist, is responsible for locating MEDUSA, a weapon so powerful that it can destroy whole cities. However, Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice historian; Katherine, Valentine’s own daughter; Bevis Pod, an apprentice engineer and Hester Shaw, a young disfigured girl, all strive to prevent London using MEDUSA.
- Heinemann Resources Sheet

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

In happier times, London would never have bothered with such feeble prey. The great Traction City had once spent its days hunting far bigger towns than this, ranging north as far as the edge of the Ice Wastes and south to the shores of the Mediterranean. But lately prey of any kind had started to grow scarce, and some of the larger cities had begun to look hungrily at London. For ten years now it had been hiding from them, skulking in a damp, mountainous western district that the Guild of Historians said had once been the island of Britain. For ten years it had eaten nothing but tiny farming towns and static settlements in those wet hills. Now, at last, the Lord Mayor had decided that the time was right to take his city back over the land bridge into the Great Hunting Ground.

It was barely halfway across when the lookouts on the high watchtowers spied the mining town, gnawing at the salt flats twenty miles ahead. To the people of London it seemed like a sign from the gods, and even the Lord Mayor (who didn't believe in gods or signs) thought it was a good beginning to the journey east, and issued the order to give chase.

The mining town saw the danger and turned tail, but already the huge caterpillar tracks under London were starting to roll faster and faster. Soon the city was lumbering in hot pursuit, a moving mountain of metal that rose in seven tiers like the layers of a wedding cake, the lower levels wreathed in engine smoke, the villas of the rich gleaming white on the higher decks, and above it all the cross on top of St. Paul's Cathedral glinting gold, two thousand feet above the ruined earth.
Here we have an unforgettable opening, but Mortal Engines doesn't stop there. The reader is propelled immediately into the world of Tom Natsworthy, and before we know where we are, his world is thrust out of London and onto the packed-earth of out-country. Aside from its originality it doesn't once stop for a breather or a description of the wider world without relating it to the characters, where they are, how they're interacting. And it does it without an ounce of pretension - it's all in the style.

In the quoted passage above we have the description and then we're related what London has been up to recently and in that recap (a backstep rather than a flashback) we get more description of places. And then we're onto the feeling of the people of London, their interpretations of the situation and their hopes.

I must learn to condense more, move on from a single emotion and develop my story like Reeve. Reeve doesn't wallow in one emotion, he deals with it and moves on, always pushing the plot.


Doc! I've got a serious problem. It's with my writing see... I... well... there's several things really.

In order to overcome our weaknesses, our shortsighted endeavours and our verbosity, we need to face them and learn to overcome them. It's a shame I have so much trouble in that regard.

So, let me stand up and say, for the record and the group, I am an alcoholic... er- anti-brevite. I can't help myself. I seem to write only for me, and I get lost in the scene. Maybe I should break it down so that we can all see just how superficial my writing is:
  1. Pretty plates

    Here's a term pointed to by Solvejg regarding Exposition. In my case I laden my magnificent castle of a plate, with all its shimmering shell-like adornments, raised parapets, and hanging balustrades, the glazed windows overlooking the table edge and the conical towers that point skyward like spears, with a bean. One, single, bean. And that's my plot. A bean.

    Personally... I blame Solvey ;) No, it's half-an-half. I needed to learn to write beautiful descriptions. It's just that I now need to let it go and use it sparingly. I suppose I'm always too busy writing for myself - I fail to see that I will be returning to these particular locations again, and because of the way I've filled out the first scene, there will be nothing left to describe. Of course, there's also the problem of no interaction between the character and location - this surely has to be my biggest sin.

    This eeks across to the literary quality of the piece (which prolongs reader pain, elicits confusion and closes the book). I have to, have to, have to throw away my pretensions of writing literary YA. There's a time and a place. It isn't now.

  2. Lack of character interaction

    I never give my characters enough to say. They pretty much serve the basic need of the scene and little more. We don't get a sense of character, we don't learn anything about the wider world/scenario, just what is going on at that particular moment - and this in spite of some character template generation.

  3. Stuck in the scene

    And yet, despite the above, I hang the entire scene on masses of pretentious description (it's not pretension when it leaves my brain, I assure you) because, specifically, there's not enough to fill the scene and last a good number of pages.
At the moment, my previous chapter looks like a fluke. I must concentrate to avoid my consternate.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Character/Narrator POV and Interlaced Descriptions

Coming out of another dark spot of self doubt I've been reading much and wide - recently finished Scar Night by Alan Campbell (who worked on Grand Theft Auto). Brilliant book, had me gripped all the way.

After my last slap down I got angry with myself, my inability to write something pacy, coherent and interesting - then I reworked my opening chapter... again. But I'm still not happy, despite Solvejg giving his thumbs up (with caveats). I was worried that there was still no pace to it (though, I'm probably too close to it at the mo' to realise - a kind of word blindness). I felt that the reader just floated along with the description. And it just has no place right up there at the front. So... I needed a breather. I'm kind of wrong, despite needing to do some more work (always more work), but what could help?...

What's great about Scar Night is that it's begun to yield some secrets about the construct of chapters - and, at times, I've begun to make use of them in my writing (mostly subconsciously). Let's look at the opening:

Chains snarled the courtyard behind the derelict cannon foundry in Applecross: spears of chain radiating at every angle, secured into walls with rusted hooks and pins, and knitted together like a madwoman's puzzle. In the centre, Barraby's watchtower stood ensnared. Smoke unfurled from its ruined summit and blew west across the city under a million winter stars.

Huffing and gasping, Presbyter Scrimlock climbed through the chains. His lantern swung, knocked against links and welds and God knows what, threw shadows like lattices of cracks across the gleaming cobbles. When he looked up, he saw squares and triangles full of stars. His sandals slipped as though on melted glass. The chains, where he touched them, were wet. And when he finally reached the Spine Adept waiting by the watchtower door he saw why.

'Blood,' the Presbyter whispered, horrified. He rubbed feverishly at his cassock, but the gore would not shift.

The Spine Adept, skin stretched so tight over his muscles he seemed cadaverous, turned lifeless eyes on the priest. 'From the dead,' he explained. 'She ejects them from the tower. Will not suffer them there inside with her.' He tilted his head to one side.

Below the chains numerous Spine bodies lay in a shapeless mound, their leather armour glistening like venom.

'Ulcis have mercy,' Scrmlock said. 'How many has she killed?'


Scrimlock drew a breath. The night tasted dank and rusty, like the air in a dungeon. 'You're making it worse,' he complained. 'Can't you see that? You're feeding her fury.'

'We have injured her,' the Adept said. His expression remained unreadable, but he pressed a pale hand against the watchtower door brace, as if to reinforce it.

'What?' The Presbyter's heart leapt. 'You've injured her? That's... How could you possibly...'

'She heals quickly.' The Adept looked up. 'Now we must hurry.'

Scrimlock followed the man's gaze, and for a moment wondered what he was looking at. Then he spotted them: silhouettes against the glittering night, lean figures scaling the chains, moving quickly and silently to the watchtower's single window. More Spine than Scrimlock had ever seen together. There had to be fifty, sixty. How was it possible he'd failed to notice them before?
So begins the Deepgate Codex. A brilliant entry point into a series that is well founded on equal part description and action, with a pace that never lets up. It's not often that I finish a 500+ page book in a week, and when I (a slow-slow reader) do, the book must be good - Shirley?

Here we have the prologue entry, a 7 page section that precedes the main events by 2000 years (hmm... let's not get into a discussion on the finer points of prologues and whether they should be used or not - here it's employed specifically to introduce 2 main characters: the Angel Carnival, and the city of Deepgate. Being 2000 years before the main narrative, it sits better as a prologue).

Anyhoo, let's look at what we get...

  • Paragraph 1 - The character of the city of chains is evoked in one punchy paragraph. Description to set the scene and locale.
  • Paragraph 2 - A "real" character walks onto the scene and as they arrive, we have them interacting with the scenery, showing clothing but always making it act or react to the location. It never tells us what he's wearing. Instead we know he had a lantern because the lantern's swing knocks against the chains and throws light about, illuminating the scenery. He wears sandals, we learn, because the floor is slippery. And finally we arrive at a specific place (The watchtower door) and another character.
  • Paragraph 3 - Brief dialogue and character reaction to... blood! We learn he's wearing a cassock because he rubs the blood onto it. Emotionally, we get "horrified" and the "gore would not shift"
  • Para 4 - We meet the 2nd character, and have a quick bit description with dialogue - and here came a big epiphany...
The narrator, in Scar Night, is third person limited, but... the narrator, having chosen the first character to align with (Scrimlock), describes things from the chosen character's pov. So, when the narrator writes: "The Spine Adept, skin stretched so tight over his muscles he seemed cadaverous, turned lifeless eyes on the priest", it's not so much the narrator's observation but Scrimlock's.

And this is what I've not noticed prior to this book. That 3rd person pov is not an excuse to separate ourselves from what is going on; the emotion, the feeling of being there. Why didn't I see this before?

This explains why later in the book we get recaps of certain things we have already covered - because we've entered a new character and now they're observing it.

Scar Night - Official Website
Chapter 1 Extract - Pan Macmillan