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Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Stomaching the Overhaul

It's sickening, isn't it?

You've got a draft that once upon a time you were very happy with. Now after a fair bit of scrutinisation you've realised that not only are things going to have to change - fundamental things are going to have to change.

I've got two stories on the go, one in the third draft stage (which is coming along nicely) and another first draft waiting for demolition. I realised today that it needs it.

No writer worth their salt imagines they'll write a bestseller in one sitting. We're a real self-loathing bunch to put ourselves through this on a regular basis. But just for the fun I thought I'd list everything that's wrong with my first draft.

1. My characterisation sucks - not enough time spent on it.
2. My plot has some holes bigger than the one in Wayne Rooney's head.
3. My scenes have no oomph. I do like my summaries.
4. I like my love story too much - I don't want to follow the plot and split them up, even when it's the logical thing to do.
5. My pacing is a tad... unpaced.

It can help to write down why something isn't working. In this case it just made me feel worse but at least I've pinpointed the problems!

Monday, 21 June 2010

Fancy Seeing You Here...

Now here’s a tricky one to get right – the coincidence of chance encounters.

A few weeks ago I blogged about the kindness of strangers and how implausible that can appear in novels, short stories, screenplays or whatever. Over the last week I managed to bump into one individual and one small group of people who reminded me that chance encounters are another one of those sticky fiction problems. Too contrived and your audience will immediately lose faith in your story, but it’s also true they can be interesting plot thrusters.

I’ve heard of people going on holiday to Spain and bumping into the neighbour who lives down the road back In Huddersfield. It does happen in real life but if that scenario was to occur in fiction wouldn’t you get a few raised eyebrows? My two chance encounters this week at least had a fair amount of logic to them.

The first one was a friend from school. We both live in the same town we grew up in but we actually met in the canteen at my new temporary job that I started a month ago. Out of all the places we could’ve ended up working we’re both in the same prefab box just off the M1 motorway? That’s a pretty big coincidence, particularly because neither of us had any plans to work in the sector we’re in. But it has some logic to it: we’re both still living near the prefab box, administration is a fairly common field and our employer is one of the biggest in the area. What actually surprises me about this situation is that I’d been working here a month before I bumped into her.

As for the three distant relatives… well, this one feels a little more dubious as far as believability goes because it necessitates a change in habits for both parties.

I went into town on a Sunday morning, for starters. Sunday morning as a concept is alien to me – my aim in life is to be semi-alert in time for Elaine Paige at 1pm – so for me to be up and around required somebody else asking me to meet them. Already a stretch. Then there was the fact that my relatives were in Costa Coffee, a little different from the places they used to frequent, though it’s a regular haunt of mine. At this point, I’m ashamed to say, I pretended I hadn’t seen them. In my defence, they did the same! However, as I was walking through the nearby shopping centre half an hour later I met them coming out of New Look and couldn’t exactly carry on walking. Now, I don’t know what they were doing in the shop but as they informed me that another distant relative of mine had just died I think it’s a logical presumption to suggest it had something to do with the funeral.

So… I was out at a time I shouldn’t have been, they were in an unexpected place, and their visit possibly revolved around the death of a family member. That has to be the kind of coincidence a reader would scoff at, surely? Personally, I’d find it a bit contrived.

What we have to bear in mind is that any ‘chance’ encounters must have some basis in truth. For example, if your characters bump into each other in a specific shop in Dubai there had better be a very good reason for it. Coincidence can often be used as a tool to impart some information that needs to be learned for the plot to progress. Don’t succumb to it. Rather than lose your reader find another way to inform the reader. If the information is as vital to the plot as you think it is there must be a way for it to fit in elsewhere.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Let's Begin

Beginnings matter.

We’ve been told this so often as writers that it’s ingrained in our minds. Some of us probably mutter it in our sleep. We all know that a beginning has to hook, to intrigue without confusing, and to introduce character whilst hinting at theme, premise and plot. It’s a mammoth task.

Working on the opening of a novel for my MA last year I sat down with my tutor to discuss it. She’d drummed into us that we should start in the middle of the action, let the reader play catch-up. I’d done exactly that: my opening scene portrayed two brothers, Joe and Dougie, breaking into a flat without any real explanation. We learn that it’s not a burglary and that Joe is looking for something unspecific there, but we also learn Dougie is a police officer and therefore should know better than to break and enter. In this opening scene I tried to hint at character and the brotherly relationship whilst interesting the reader in why the men are breaking in, and also describe a location that plays a pivotal role later in the novel.

My tutor was very appreciative of it. But her one cautionary question was, ‘how confused do you want the reader to be?’. There’s a fine line between hooking your reader and just baffling them so much they give up on the entire novel.

I rewrote accordingly. Instead of the scene starting as Joe and Dougie broke into the flat I joined them onto the approach to the tower block. This gave the reader a few seconds to adjust to the scenario and to get a little of the characters fixed in their heads before they break into the flat. I needed to show that Joe and Dougie were essentially good men and this alteration gave me the chance to hint at that whilst also rooting the reader in the story a little more.

That novel is on the backburner for a while. I’m currently working on the 3rd draft of another novel, the first one I actually managed to complete a draft of (two drafts actually!). This one begins with a lull in proceedings: my protagonist, Lily, is painting in her office at a self-storage facility. The first paragraphs are slow; allowing the reader to feel their way in gently before a man arrives wanting to deposit some goods at the facility.

At the moment, I’m torn. I feel it starts too slowly, that my reader will have closed the book long before I reach the ‘interesting’ part, the inciting incident of the man arriving which shapes the entire novel. On the other hand, I feel like Lily needs to be explained prior to the man’s arrival. But I still haven’t decided whether I’m pandering to what I want or what’s best for the reader.

As writers we have a duty to entertain. Yes, we can include entertainment for ourselves in that category, but no scene/paragraph/sentence should value our desires above the story’s needs. I’ve no doubt my beginning will be tweaked many times before I consider this novel ‘good enough’.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Classic Openings: To Kill A Mockingbird

This is one of the novels of the 20th Century, for both Americans and readers elsewhere. To Kill A Mockingbird celebrates fifty years of being in print this year and the Pulitzer Prize Winner remains Harper Lee's only novel. It's a legendary piece of fiction and the magic starts right from the off.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood walked, the back of his hand was at right-angles to this body, this thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading up to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

The beginning of a fantastic story! But what makes these first paragraphs so good?

1. The best authors set the scene without seeming to do so. Lee feeds the reader information about what's to come but not patronisingly. We discover that the as-yet unnamed narrator has a brother named Jem and that he's mad about football. Other names are thrown in - the Ewells, Dill, Boo Radley - created a lush universe full of characters right from the off.

2. The narrator settles quickly. What I mean by that is there's no need for either the author or the reader to pause to get a feel for the voice. It's a simple voice that is easy to slip into. It's not unnecessarily flamboyant and it doesn't jar. A narration that flows well is gift to a reader.

3. It prophesies. Almost everything in this short extract points to the future. Intrigue is immediately garnered by the mentions of Boo Radley and Jem's arm. The reader may not care about the characters yet but there is at least a glimmer of intrigue to keep them reading.

4. It utilises description without overdoing it. Lee is a skilled writer and she uses that in the opening section to great effect in describing Jem's arm injury. It's enough to make the reader shudder at the thought of the injury then smile at Jem's reaction to it. It builds character, as I said before, and that has to be a primary goal of any opening. If you don't build up character swiftly the reader will want to know why they should care about whatever's happening to your characters.

To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960. It is available to buy here.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Enduring Comedy

I adore gentle, old-time comedies.

While looking for something to watch last night I stumbled across Victoria at the Albert, a repeat of Victoria Wood’s sell-out performance at the Royal Albert Hall back in 2002. Instead of trying to do anything productive like work on my thoughts for the upcoming 3rd draft of one of my novels I gladly sat down and laughed my proverbial off for two hours. But the thing is, I’ve more than just seen this before – I used to own it on audio cassette, I’ve listened to it thirty times at least. And yet it felt as fresh to me as ever, even though I knew precisely what was coming.

So how does comedy have that effect?

Drama, for me, is rooted in suspenseful writing. I remember sitting down to watch the opening episode of series three of Bad Girls and being absolutely hooked because I had no idea what was going to happen next. Those were the days before intense online speculation and spoilers so the events were a huge surprise to me. But on repeated viewings I know Jim doesn’t die and that Shell is in a lot of trouble and that Helen tries to break up with Nikki. It’s still good to watch but the tension has all disappeared. By my reckoning, comedy should be a similar toy. After all, if you know what joke’s coming then you know everything, don’t you?

Yes but no. The shows I grew up loving – and still love – all have a few things in common. Apart from anything related to Victoria Wood I adore The Golden Girls, Keeping Up Appearances, Open All Hours, Porridge, Goodnight Sweetheart and Only Fools and Horses amongst others. They’re all quite old, most of them are British but their most striking similarity is the wealth of talent in them. Comic geniuses such as Ronnie Barker, David Jason, Patricia Routledge, Bea Arthur and Nicholas Lyndhurst just have a way of delivering comedy without it ever seeming stale. I can watch a simple scene in a kitchen in Miami with four women sat around a table eating cheesecake and the lines just crack me up every time. I’m smiling while I sit here thinking about Rose Nylund’s herring tale about a herring being shot out of a cannon… ‘after that no herring would do it’. Hilarious stories told by amazing people.

So it is just the delivery that makes them great?

No, I think it’s the anticipation I get from waiting for the laughter to start. There are a couple of special moments in every episode – like the herring conversation – that I can’t wait to laugh at. In Porridge one would be the moment where Fletch is forced to get into the boxing ring to prove a point. Or the moment in Keeping Up Appearances where everybody hides under the stage to escape Hyacinth. It’s the little things in life.

This morning I woke up humming one of Victoria Wood’s songs from last night. I’ve been struggling to keep it under wraps because I don’t think the people at work would appreciate the rude words. Comedy is enduring. If I had to pick a series to watch on repeat on a desert island for the rest of my life it’d be a tough choice but my current favourite is The Golden Girls, inspired by the sad loss of Rue McClanahan.

And I don’t think I’d get bored.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The New Condition of England Novel?

We Brits are in an odd situation at the moment.

We’re sick of hearing about the national debt rising far beyond sustainable levels, but wanting the problem to go away doesn’t necessarily mean it will. George Osborne, the new Chancellor, will soon spell out measures that will likely alter life for most people in this country and I wondered what effects this might have on fiction production. Are we heading into a new ‘Condition of England’ novel era?

Arguably, novels have been about social issues since Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson began writing in the 18th Century. You can’t get through a book without there being some commentary on the condition of contemporary life, even if that book is set in the past like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. For want of a better term, contemporary life sinks in to a piece of work whether the author likes it or not. I haven’t been a big reader of modern fiction lately (having had my head buried into Victorian Sensation Fiction) but I would imagine a lot of the issues that gnaw at society at the moment – the recession, immigration, child abuse – have been present in modern novels in one form or another.

So in that case, has the ‘Condition of England’ novel ever really receded into the background? If what occupies authors, consciously or otherwise, is the state of their own world then surely the ‘Condition of England’ has been around since the year dot?

The answer, for me, lies in the original coining of the term.

The Victorian period was actually an era of great upheaval for the country. The transition from being a rural nation to urban Industrialisation is something that modern readers may underestimate because we’re so used to living in towns and cities ourselves. Equally, the Reform Act 1832 altered the political system in an unprecedented way. It’s perhaps no surprise that new Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is describing his hopes for Proportional Representation in Government as the biggest change to the voting system since 1832.

Aside from this, morality was usually a large factor in the writing of a ‘Condition of England’ novel. Authors used their platform to push for social change in a way that would benefit the working classes. I’d argue that whatever your political affiliations it’s easy to see the parallels with the contemporary situation: the adage ‘the rich get rich and the poor get poorer’ seems painfully apt in the run up to our Emergency Budget.

History would suggest we’re about to get an influx of problem novels bemoaning the state of the country and pushing for change. However, there is also another school of thought. Comedy thrives during times of hardship. In the Victoria era the working classes flocked to music halls to enjoy themselves and forget their woes for a few hours. The modern equivalent of this – the West End theatre – is doing remarkably well at the moment, despite the ticket prices. People seem to love the escapism of seeing Wicked or Sister Act! on stage, and amateur productions seem to be thriving also.

If the masses are being distracted so thoroughly do we need a new ‘Condition of England’ novel? Or have we got the stage where we don’t believe we can solve our social problems anymore and just want to accept our lot while praying it doesn’t get any worse around here?

Monday, 7 June 2010

Let Cumbria Grieve

Picking over the bones of catastrophes is commonplace.

Ever since the Victorian age when information became readily and quickly available the public have had a fascination with disasters, both societal and domestic. Every case that stood before the Divorce Court fed the inquisitive nature of the masses, giving rise to illustrated editions of papers with full explanations of proceedings. These papers were the heat and OK! of their day; thriving on gossip, misfortune and sheer stupidity.

Human beings are nosy, there’s no doubt about it. We like to know what other people have done wrong because it makes us feel better about ourselves. I'd say we writers are the nosiest of the bunch. But we do go a little too far at times.

Take the recent Cumbria shootings, for instance. Events like this are rarer here than in America so it’s natural the case has garnered a fair bit of interest. More than that, the circumstances around it being unexplained to date heightens the mystery. But as a country we need to learn a lesson – leave them alone. Last year when Cumbria was rocked by severe flooding our journalists did the same thing: camped there for days on end, reporting the disaster but not really helping. No one’s denying the right of the British public to know what’s going on in the country but must it be so flamboyantly cruel?

As in the Victorian era people are hunting for salacious details; reasons and excuses. It isn’t just a case of getting to the truth either: people want to examine the victims, know their families, to get inside a tight-knit community which is struggling both with their losses and the unwanted limelight.

Of course I watched the events unfolding on television and I’m definitely interested in the case. But the film crews camping at the sites of such tragedies needs to stop. If news must be reported from the site and absolutely requires a prolonged stay in the location why not advocate a greater sharing policy between news crews so that only one major operator needs to be there? I know that won’t happen – I know Rupert Murdoch is too money-hungry and self-aware to let the BBC steal his thunder in any such situations.

But it shouldn’t be about money and it shouldn’t be about nosiness. If we could let the police investigation proceed and the community heal then we might get the answers we’re looking for in the long run. But maybe that attitude has little place in a ‘now, now, now’ society… I don’t know.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Legendary Performances

Two days ago I heard the sad news that one of the two surviving Golden Girls, Rue McClanahan, had died aged 76. The sadness of this announcement was inevitably intertwined with smiles for many people for whom Rue was inexorably linked with the self-absorbed, man-hungry Southern Belle that was Blanche Devereaux in the hit sitcom. All four primary characters in the Golden Girls have had a longevity that feels unending. As I writer I would love to create characters with such personality but good writing skills must be combined with the skill of some exceptional actors.

In honour of Rue – and Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty (not to mention Betty White who we should cling onto like crazy) – I thought I’d count down my favourite characters, sadly missed, who have had the impact on me that our Golden Girls had.

5. Dorothy Shaw (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)
I have a thing for dry-witted women! Jane Russell’s portrayal as Marilyn Monroe’s best friend and chaperone in this musical is hilarious, though underrated by viewers who primarily gazed at Marilyn. Jane easily had some of the best lines of the film, my favourite being, ‘Now lets get this straight, Gus. The chaperone's job is to see that nobody else has any fun. Nobody chaperone's the chaperone. That's why I'm so right for this job.’ While trying to seduce an entire Olympic squad she falls for the private detective trying to frame her friend. And the rest – after a particularly sexy courtroom number – is history.

4. Julie LaVerne (Showboat)
Ava Gardner doesn’t get enough acting credit for my liking. Her role as Julie in Showboat, demonstrating the decline of a singer, stood out as one of the performances of the decade. Though she didn’t sing for herself in the film I still have to give her credit for the delivery of an epic character who never fails to enthral me.

3. Carol ‘Toddy’ Todd (Victor/Victoria)
Have I raved enough about this film lately?! I honestly can’t help it: the partnership between Robert Preston and Julie Andrews blows me away every time. This is easily Preston’s best role, blending comedic talent with a great delivery and a genuine rapport with Julie Andrews’ Victoria (but I’ve mentioned that recently!). The final number where Toddy saves Victoria’s relationship by doing a very bad impersonation of a woman is hilarious, touching and pure genius. I can’t watch it enough.

2. Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz)
Predictable for me but what do I care? From the moment she fell into the pigsty I was entranced by Judy Garland’s Dorothy. The story is a fairy-tale, a fantasy, but usually the best stories are. What can’t be denied is the long-lasting effect Garland’s performance has had on popular culture. Clicking your heels three times, accepting you’re not in Kansas anymore; these have become recognisable staples of conversation.

1. Elsie Tanner (Coronation Street)
Perhaps an odd choice for the top of my list but Pat Phoenix was really the first actress who made me go… ‘wow’. I used to watch classic episodes of Corrie on what was then Granada Plus. Compared to contemporary Corrie in the nineties it was positively fantastic. Such legends as Hilda Odgen, Annie Walker and Ena Sharples were amazing to watch but Pat Phoenix shone above the rest. She gave Elsie, the tart with a heart, the biggest personality and the most shattering vulnerabilities I can ever remember seeing on the small screen. Her comic timing was impeccable, her tears real and her exit low-key but memorable. When asked if she’s going for a long trip Elsie replies, ‘Ah, now there’s a question’, before walking away from the street forever.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

So Much For My Unhappy Ending

Way back when I formulated the idea for my current WIP I decided it wouldn’t be pretty. This, I told myself, would show the cruelties of life and demonstrate how people walk out on you when they really shouldn’t. It would show human weakness and be honest. So much for my big ideas.

35,000 words in and my intended ending is gnawing at me. I like my protagonist. I’ve spent a lot of time in her company now and the thought of leaving her shattered and alone doesn’t fill me with the same cruel glee it did a few weeks ago. I’ve even formulated an alternate ending, where Danni gets some hope in the final chapter. But, unfortunately, I’m still not sure if it’s the right course to take.

The movie Sweet Charity starring Shirley MacLaine is a good example of alternate endings in practice. The DVD contains one and it has been known for television broadcasters to show it in place of the dismal note the movie actually ends on. In the unhappy ending taxi-dancer Charity is deserted by her fiancĂ© and can’t bring herself to return to her friends who think she’s now off living some wonderful life. She walks back into New York, alone and about to start a new life with all her dreams left in tatters.

No, it’s not the most optimistic finale on the planet but it is a tearjerker and, more than that, it’s true to the character. Charity Hope Valentine is a perennial loser. A film that started with her being robbed of her savings and tossed into a river by her boyfriend couldn’t possibly end with her settling down with a good quiet man like Oscar. Real life just isn’t like that. In reality, Charity is tainted by a past she can do nothing about and that’s ultimately what drives Oscar to flee from her. It’s heartbreaking, it’s painful… but it’s true.

The alternate ending is all too sugary. After abandoning her, Oscar abruptly has a change of heart and decides that he can marry her after all. Even just written down that feels wrong! It defiles character development; it abolishes the grasp on reality the film has striven to proffer. After watching it only once I decided I wouldn’t watch it again: Charity’s story ends with her walking back into the city and endeavouring to start again. However much that ending disappointed me the first time I saw it I can’t stomach the alternative.

So where does that leave Danni?

Does my hopeful ending demean her journey? Does it make the challenges she’s had to face any less important because she ends up with a chance of happiness? I don’t know yet. I do know that my first draft will probably have the sweet scene that’s been plaguing me with Danni getting a surprise visitor as she hides away from the world. It needs to be written, if only to get the whispering voice out of my head.

After that, who knows? Pain and devastation all the way perhaps.