Saturday, 17 May 2014

Drowning in detail

So I’m off to do an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa in September.  This means that novel number three has gone on hold, as the general consensus seems to be that it’s not a good idea to start the course with a full draft, due to the steep learning curve tending to lead to people entirely dismantling the manuscript and starting again.

This means that I’m currently focusing on short stories, and the re-write of novel number one.

It is getting a little out of control.  Until last week, it was precisely double its original size at any given point in the story.  This week, it’s managed to put another 10,000 words into the original manuscript.  If this was a race, version two would just have lapped version one.  

Possibly for the second time.

The main problem I’m having with the re-write is that the story is, itself, about stories, and myths and the things we remember.  This means that there is a huge amount of backstory and an awful lot of layers.  The plot is relatively straightforward, in a lot of ways.  It’s managing the great, amorphous mass of other stuff that’s giving me a headache.

So, the main character needs to get from point A to point B.  When leaving point A, he needs to not know everything there is to know about his world.  This has involved the removal of an info-dump to which I was rather attached (not least because an editor described that scene as a “show-stopper” and things like that give me a happy, warm glow) but that’s probably a whole other blog post. 

Anyway.  Main character.  Point A – doesn’t know everything he needs to know.  Point B – needs to know a bit more than when leaving point A, in order to avoid another epic info-dump upon arrival at aforementioned point B.  I should probably admit that there was originally an epic-info dump at point B, but nobody liked that one.  No happy, warm feeling for me.

So the main character mooches around a bit, and meets some more people who give him some hints about why going to point B might be a good idea.  The problem is that there needs to be some sort of explanation as to why these characters are:

a     a)  there
       b)  willing to help
       c) in possession of the required knowledge

Now, I know the answer to all three of those questions.  But, if I stick it all in, the original manuscript is going to be lapped so many times that it’s probably going to give up, stagger out of the stadium and take up something nice and quiet, like knitting, instead.

So, I’ve been trying to work out how much of that vast body of backstory can simply be hinted at, or even left unexplained, to give a sense of stories untold, and narrative strands unfollowed.  Can you leave the reader wondering what that was all about?  Or does there always have to be some sort of resolution, or at least a suggestion of a resolution?

There is, of course, one famous example of a novel which deliberately leaves unresolved sub-plots, scattered in the wake of the main character.  The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende concludes many (possibly all – I haven’t read it for a while) of its chapters with ‘but that is another story and shall be told another time.’

In The Neverending Story, that was a deliberate plot device.  But it was hugely effective, and it makes me wonder if readers want a glimpse of something beyond the story upon which the writer is having them focus.  Something beyond it, or before it, or below it, or somewhere off to the side, only just glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.

I had a bit of a ‘moment’ with the re-write, the other day.  All of that backstory, all of those layers of information about characters, and a fairly narrow plot into which to squeeze it.  It was starting to feel a bit like trying to wrestle a king-size duvet into a single duvet cover.  So I was quite glad to have something that wasn’t writing-related to look forward to.

I went to see The Drowned Man last night.  For those who haven’t heard of it, The Drowned Man is a National Theatre production, set in an abandoned warehouse right beside Paddington station.  Now I’m not a massive theatre fan.  I tend to get fidgety towards the end of the first act, and I’m quite capable of falling asleep in the middle of the second.  But The Drowned Man isn’t a standard theatre production.  The actors go through their individual story arcs in a vast set, arranged across four floors, with multiple strands of the story going on at once, in different parts of the building.  While this is happening, the audience wander around, choosing which actors to follow, or simply exploring the set.

I should probably put a spoiler warning, for anyone who is considering going to see the show, although I’m not sure my interpretation of what was going on, bears any actual resemblance to the story.  But, just in case…

----------------------------------------SPOILER WARNING-------------------------------------

So, I arrived in Paddington stupidly early, due to a combination of buses, trains and inability to work out how long the queue was likely to be.  This meant that, in order to avoid being the over-enthusiastic person at the front of the queue, I had to keep wandering, with probably unconvincing nonchalance, up and down the road, trying to work out which of the many sets of bright red garage doors was the actual entrance.

HWSNBN and a friend of ours eventually joined me, and we settled for a respectable queue position in the low twenties.  But, as it turned out, most people in front of us needed to pick up tickets, so we actually finished up in the first handful of people to go in.  I had read a few reviews, so I knew broadly how we would get to the set.  I wasn’t expecting the pitch black passageway on the way in, however, so I did engage in a bit of staggering about and treading on the heels of the unfortunate theatre-goer in front of me.  But I knew about the white masks, and the request for silence, and I knew that we’d be dropped off by lift, on one of the four floors.

I also knew, or thought I knew, whereabouts on the set a couple of the story arcs began so, as soon as we disembarked from the lift, I found a flight of stairs and took myself to the top floor. 

That’s pretty much where my smugness about my research evaporated.

I spent the next fifteen minutes wandering around in the semi-darkness in an entirely deserted desert, complete with sand-dunes, peering into dark corners and wondering if I’d found a part of the set where absolutely nothing happens.  I poked around in a little chapel, peered into a tent, visited a funeral where all the mourners were scarecrows, and then decided that I was definitely in the wrong place.

Just as I was about to give up and go back downstairs, two actors finally appeared, followed by a handful of other audience members.  The two men wrestled, danced, and fought over a woman, who swore at them and disappeared, pursued by some of the audience.  I started ambling after one of the male characters, but I had entirely failed to appreciate the speed with which the cast move between floors, and it took me about 5 seconds to lose him.  He crossed my path a few more times over the course of the evening – line-dancing, having a *cough* encounter with a woman outside a saloon, and completely naked in a bath.  That one was slightly disconcerting.

It took me about half an hour to realise that there was absolutely no prospect of me managing to follow the plot, so I gave up, and wandered around, opening doors and generally poking about.  The level of detail in the set is unbelievable – books, ledgers, diaries, marked bibles, letters, half-finished sewing projects, scripts – and, from the few things I actually looked at closely, they are all relevant to the story.  There are love-letters to characters, messages arranging meetings, the exercise books of what was clearly the lost child of one of the characters.  What wasn’t clear to me, was whether all of the rooms were relevant, or whether some of them were simply intended to add to the very strange, Twin Peaks-like, atmosphere.  The basement level was particularly incomprehensible.  I did not see any acting there, but I found a sort of prop shrine, a completely dark room, illuminated only by a pair of glowing eyes from a backlit picture of a woman, and a rather sinister prosthetics studio.

Eventually, I found the bar, which is the only part of the set where you can take your mask off, and talk.  Coincidentally, HWSNBN and our friend had also found themselves there at the same time, so we had a drink and tried to piece the plot together.  This was the point at which it became clear that my interpretation of what was going on bore absolutely resemblance to what was actually going on.  As far as I was concerned, there was a man who fancied a woman who liked someone else.  He was jealous, and demonstrated this with a bit of vigorous line-dancing, which so inflamed the passions of another woman, that they had to have sex on a window-sill.  She regretted this, possibly during a religious revelation.  Meanwhile, the man was having a naked moment with a witch who then witnessed a murder.  Meanwhile, in the town, there was a psychotic seamstress, and a shopkeeper with a thing about tinned peas.  A sleazy casting director was having an affair with an actress.  Possibly two actresses.  He was also slightly psychotic, with an obsession with baseball bats.

There were apparently two murders, but I swear I saw three.  There were at least two characters that I managed to merge into one.  There was a strange ritual, and some rather odd little shrines scattered about the place.  There was a secret passage behind the door in a phone-booth.  That bit was particularly fun.  There’s something quite satisfying about climbing into a booth, and closing the door behind you, watched by several confused audience members who will no doubt soon start wondering whether you’re planning on staying there all night, while you’re actually crawling through a hidden entrance to a labyrinth of coats.  I apparently missed an orgy - HWSNBN didn't.  Our friend was kissed by a drag-queen - I missed that too.

I only saw fragments of the story.  There’s no way I could explain the plot (beyond the obvious A killed B, and C killed D) but, oddly, I don’t think it matters.  The level of detail, and the suggestion of layers upon layers of motivation and back-story, were enormously compelling.  I came away with a sense that the show’s creators knew much, much more than they would ever be able to impart to the audience.  There were diaries I didn’t have time to read, and clues I couldn’t quite interpret.  The overwhelming feel of the show is of something vast and sinister, only glimpsed below the surface, and only manifesting in the sometimes inexplicable actions of the characters.

The show seems to have a huge fan-base, with people returning again and again, to try to figure out things they don’t understand, or to follow characters they’ve missed on previous visits.  The popularity of the show makes me wonder if readers are likely to be more accepting of the unexplained, or the half-glimpsed, than I’ve previously believed.

Can the plot ‘float’ on a great bulk of sub-plot and back-story?  Are people willing to accept that there are things that they can’t quite pin down, or which doesn’t quite tie into the final resolution of the main strands of the story?

I’m inclined to think that the answer is yes.  And it might well be that this is a fairly modern phenomenon.  As modern readers, we have a huge amount of information at our fingertips.  We can pick up a passing reference, and have its meaning available at the touch of a button.  We can easily learn more about an author, or about a particular topic.  We don’t have to have it all laid out for us.

Maybe that’s why The Drowned Man has had such a successful run.  It lets its audience immerse themselves, and explore, and choose their own experience.  And, if so, perhaps there’s a lesson for writers there.  Give the reader a glimpse of other stories, other character arcs, and let them explore their own idea of what lies beneath the main character’s journey.

I hope so.  Because, otherwise, my main character’s going to have an awful lot of explaining to do, when the character in the street market starts asking questions about the mysterious figure in the courtyard garden.

A few final points.  If you're planning on seeing The Drowned Man before it closes in July, I can save you a fair bit of research time by answering some of your likely FAQs:

Q  What time should I start queueing?
A  Exactly 48 minutes before kick-off.  This is a precise answer, based on the fact that there was no queue when I went to find HWSNBN at 4pm, and a queue when we came back at 4.24pm. Somewhere between those two times, the queue happened.

Q  Where should I start?
A  In the phone-booth.  For no other reason than the fact that you can probably throughly flummox some poor first-time audience member who is wandering around trying to work out what's supposed to be going on, only to be faced with the mysterious disappearance of a fellow audience member.

Q  What should I take with me?
A  As little as possible.  Cash for the bar and some method of telling the time.  And a tissue.  The masks give you a sweaty nose.

Q  Should I have a drink at any point?
A  Under no circumstances.  One glass of cava will probably be enough to turn an already surreal situation into something you'd expect to experience after a sortie into the world of hard drugs.

Q  So what is the plot?
A  No idea.  You choose.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

E=MC2 for writers

I have now supervised the linguistic endeavours of two small children, and I’ve reached some important conclusions.

Firstly, and most importantly, that I have no idea what goes on in their heads and how that connects to what comes out of their mouths.

Actually, that’s pretty much it.  For ‘some important conclusions’, read ‘one fairly useless conclusion.’

Despite two linguistic degrees and personal study of a whole lot of pre-school wittering, I have absolutely no insight into the process of language acquisition in small children.

Thomas barely said a word until he was nearly two.  There was a lot of ‘bu’ and ‘ca’ and ‘do-y’ but very little actual communication until the day he announced, from the back seat of the car, that ‘that man not indicate, mummy.’  Which made me look slightly daft when the health visitor rang me to follow up my concern about his lack of speech.

Ben, on the other hand, has followed the ‘repeat everything indiscriminately until something sticks’ model.

Leading to useful utterances such as “Wassa story Balamooooory’ and ‘Bob Builder canny fissit.  ES!  E CAAAAN!” and  ‘Isa any ‘ticular reason oo doin’ dat?’ 

He also appears to have no preference for any particular tense or viewpoint.  So ‘My no like dat’ is interchangeable with ‘Nonono mummy. Ben do it.’ or ‘I want it. I WANT IT!’

I have some sympathy for this confusion.  Tense and viewpoint  - particularly viewpoint - are probably the most fundamental choices that a writer has to make when beginning a new project.  And that choice can create a whole lot of angst.  Particularly when you get 30,000 words in and then develop a sneaking suspicion that your first person viewpoint should actually have been third person, and then start trying to work out whether you need to entirely re-write, or whether you can get away with a ‘search and replace’ exercise on ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘mine’, ‘I’d’, ‘I’ve’ and every other possible permutation thereof.

Or when you’re particularly pleased with your innovative use of the third person omniscient narrator, and then your entire writing group perform a co-ordinated nose-wrinkle, before chorusing ‘Really?  Are you sure?’ and extoling the virtues of first person.

There’s been reams of advice and theory written about viewpoint.  I’ve read a fair bit of it, and I still struggle with it.  I don’t find that it’s a choice that I ever actively make.  Each idea and project seems to come with its viewpoint packaged up with it, as part and parcel of the whole, and I don’t tend to question it, unless something is fundamentally not working and I need something to blame.  Then I start pointing the finger at viewpoint, and trying to remember how to do a ‘search and replace’ in the mac version of Scrivener.

In that respect, I can empathise with Ben, and his desire to be left in peace with whichever point of view fits his mood at the time.

Inhabiting his emotions.  Using the unequivocal, self-exposing first person in order to communicate the true extent of his fury at having his socks put on by an intrusive third party parental figure.

Ben no like dat.
Distancing himself slightly from his likes and dislikes in order to provide a wider context, and a better overview of his complex relationship with in-car music.

My not eat it.
Employing disorganised grammar to convey the chaos of his conflicting thoughts about baked beans, and the way they interact with the toast.

Or something like that.


Anyway, I empathise.  I don’t like viewpoint rules.  Mainly because they never seem to quite fit with what’s actually going on in any project.

First person, for example, is supposed to be the most immediate viewpoint, with unfettered, direct access to a character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.  It’s supposed to dump us right in the middle of that character’s emotions, so that we experience what they’re experiencing, in as close to real time as you ever get in fiction.

I’m not entirely convinced.

I like first person.  It’s probably the viewpoint I use the most.  Well, I know it’s the viewpoint I use the most.  Both novels are in first person, which means that there are at least 280,000 first person words kicking around in my computer.  Even if everything else I’ve ever written was in third person, the I’s very much still have it.

But I’m becoming less and less convinced that it’s automatically the most immediate point of view.  I think that there’s a certain distance in some first-person writing that you don’t get in the equivalent third-person approach.  Because you’re never going to be able to experience someone’s thoughts and feelings as that person experiences them.  The act of writing about them means that they have to be vocalised and verbalised and honed into some sort of coherent structure.  This creates an automatic editing of sorts.  A first-person narrator who communicated every fleeting, irrelevant thought, would be spectacularly difficult to follow – and I suspect you’d probably not bother.

It would be like a conversation with Ben, with every little fleeting impulse broadcasted in incoherent technicolor.

So with first person, what you often get is a nicely edited, carefully trimmed version of what the viewpoint character sees as the truth, or wants to be seen as the truth.  People don’t generally have absolute insight into ever nuance of every thought that crosses their mind, and fictional characters with that kind of piercing self-awareness would be fairly unconvincing, and probably more than a little bit dull.  For this reason, I think that most first person narrators are unreliable, to some extent, whether it’s because they don’t understand something, or because they don’t want to acknowledge something, or because they are deliberately trying to fool themselves, or someone else.

You’re kept at something of a distance, because the character is, on the face of it, in control of what the reader learns about them.

So what about third person viewpoint?  This is traditionally considered to be the slightly more detached point of view.  But I’m not sure I agree.  With a third person viewpoint, you are watching the character, and analysing what they do, and you can be as detached, or as involved, as the author allows you to be.

I had a blinding lightbulb moment at a workshop with Emma Darwin, at the York Festival ofWriting.  She was talking about ‘psychic distance’, a term coined by the author, John Gardner, in his posthumously published The Art of Fiction.  Emma used the following example from Gardner:

1.It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.

2.Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.

3.Henry hated snowstorms.

4.God how he hated these damn snowstorms.

5.Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

The examples show how the reader can be kept at a distance from the main character, or granted direct access to his thoughts and feelings.  The fifth example, while in third person, is every bit as immediate as a first person account, arguably more so, because the third person narrator is like a ghost, barely there and with no agenda or filters of their own.

There’s a lot of discussion about ‘voice’ in writing workshops and books, and people often talk about the importance of ‘finding your voice’ as a writer.  I think that the trick is actually finding your voice as a narrator, in any given piece of writing.  And I think that, to some extent, finding that voice is about balancing viewpoint and psychic distance.

If I was trying to write a best-selling ‘How to build a best-selling novel’ type book, I would probably announce at this point that I’d discovered the secret formula at the heart of all fiction writing.  I’d assign characters and symbols to it and put it in big block letters.



It would be like one of the courses on my postgraduate linguistics degree course, where we’d all sit in silence while the tutor would work his way round the room, covering every whiteboard with complex equations, the point of which appeared to be to assert that a statement is true if, and only if, that statement is true.  At which point we’d all look at one another out of the corners of our eyes, before deciding that we weren’t going to be the one who stuck their hand up and said ‘Er, so the point of all that algebra was….?’  If someone else had done it, we’d probably have been willing to nod supportively, right up to the point when the speaker was made to look spectacularly stupid, at which point we’d adopt disapproving expressions and edge away, as though the thought had never crossed our minds.

I’ve never been good with equations.  I never understood quadratic equations, much to the perpetual and incoherent rage of my GCSE maths teacher, who did not feel that ‘well I’ll just miss them out ’ was a valid approach to a whole branch of mathematics.

It clearly was.  An A in GCSE mathematics attests to the complete irrelevance of quadratic equations.

Unreliable?  Me?
So probably best to avoid the novel-writing equations.  Maybe someone could come up with a writing program which calculates how close you are to a character’s thoughts, and then shades that section of writing in different appropriate colours, allowing you to then print it all out and analyse it.   Maybe there could be a little unreliable narrator alarm.  I could customize mine with a recording of Thomas, saying ‘Ben did it’ or ‘Wasn’t me.’

Of course, all that would probably involve equations again, but as long as I don’t have to do them myself, I can live with that.  I’m sure the clever people at Apple can come up with something.  I’ve recently switched to an Apple and it seems to do pretty much everything else.

Unfortunately, I suspect it’s not actually as straightforward as an equation.  I suspect it’s probably more like tuning one of those CB radio thingies, where you twiddle knobs... – not like that.  If you’ve come here on a ‘knob-twiddling book’ google search, 50 Shades of Grey is that way...

...until it stops making a horrible noise and you start hearing voices.

Or voice, perhaps.

I think I’m starting to get my head around the whole viewpoint thing.  I don’t think it’s something you can really figure out in isolation.  It doesn’t seem to me that you can consider an idea and simply think “Right. Third person.  Off we go.”  You need to work out what kind of person your main character is, and what relationship they are going to have with the reader, and with the fictional world around them.  Maybe that equation should be something like:


Or maybe I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.  Maybe I’m an unreliable narrator.  Maybe it is as simple as “Right.  Viewpoint selected.  Off we/you/I/he/she/it goes.”

In which case, I might adopt a multiple second-person unreliable narrator for my next project.

You are sitting on the radiator, posting dominos through the slats.  When I shout and wave my arms, you look at each other and something passes between you.  Then one of you looks me in the eye and tells me “Ben did it.”