Thursday, 24 June 2010

What I Was (into)

I'm fascinated by the way that a book can provide a snapshot of our interests and preoccupations at the time we wrote it. Without Herman Melville's unhealthy obsession with the whaling industry, Moby Dick wouldn't exist. Similarly, Lolita wouldn't have been written without Vladimir Nabokov's unhealthy obsession with ... French literature (why, what did you think I was going to say?) When we're interested in extra-curricular stuff, it seems to worm its way onto the page - and not always for reasons that serve the story.

Six years ago, when I was writing my first (forever to be unpublished) novel, I was working in London and getting a lot of "culture". I'd recently discovered Tate Modern and somehow conceptual art worked its way into the plot. The wheeze was that an artist undertook something called "The Disappearing Act" and vanished completely for a year, reappearing just in time for a retrospective of their work. The tangible (and saleable) result of this art was a sealed account of how such a disappearance could be achieved in our surveillance culture. Another character then stole the details of this for their own disappearance.

I think all of this served the plot ok, but there was almost certainly a less complex way of achieving the same result. Having said that, it's an idea that's been mined by art and TV since (most recently by a man who hired detectives to find him for a documentary) so maybe I wasn't too far off-beam.

Similarly, the first draft of Back from the Dead had a lot of video games in it. I was playing some serious Resident Evil at the time and with the book being about zombies - as well as a teenage boy's reaction to them - the video game stuff seemed an ideal fit. If you've got a copy of Undiscovered Voices 2010 lying around, you can even see that the name of the zombie cure (Remedion 6) comes from a gag about it being one better than Resident Evil 5!

It was great fun to put Griff (my main character) in the house-that-technology-forgot and see how desperate he became for digital sustenance. This technology drought was also an effective way to prevent Griff from getting on the internet - which would have answered all of his expositional questions rather too quickly for my liking.

My favourite joke about all this (because it works on completely different levels for children and adults) was when Griff finally finds a computer in the house:
I realise that I haven’t played a video game in over ten months. Ten months! That’s practically child abuse.

In draft 2, however, this excerpt and almost all of the other technology stuff went. This may have partly been because I was now spending all of my time writing rather than with a gamepad in my hand. But on a narrative level, the technology references were either slowing the story down or were irrelevant. Sitting in a room playing video games - even if other characters are present - is not exactly dynamic for the reader. I needed Griff to be running away from real zombies, not virtual ones. But still, I mourn the passing of these things, because it felt like I'd lost a key way to connect with my male readership. And there was something else - knowing about video games made me look cool.

I don't get anywhere near enough opportunities to look cool.


Friday, 18 June 2010

And Then She Said to Me...

I seemed to spend a lot of the last post talking about dialogue, so I thought it was worth covering specifically. If you hadn't already guessed, I love dialogue. In fact, it's only recently I've really started to consider myself a children's author rather than just another frustrated screenwriter. Not being blessed with a particularly visual imagination, I find that it's the dialogue that gets written first, not the description. Even for my new book - which is at the intensive planning stage - I keep breaking off from my synopsis to scribble choice bits of pithy speech.

I've previously poked fun at writers who don't have control of their own plot but I'm probably just as guilty with dialogue. I love the way that you can start a character off saying something and then the other characters will run with it, often to surprising ends.

When I pick up a book in a shop or critique another writer's manuscript, I'm always magnetically attracted to the dialogue. For me, it breaks down into three (totally arbitrary) categories:

  • Awkward Dialogue
    Welcome to a whole world of wincing. This kind of dialogue doesn't crop up much in published books (though there's a perverse pleasure when it does) but we've all seen it and probably written it at some point.
    • How to spot it
      People don't speak like anyone you've ever met or would like to meet. Sometimes they don't actually speak like humans, and you wonder if the manuscript fell out of a multi-dimensional rucksack owned by some day-tripper from Alpha Centauri. If two or more "humans" are involved in the conversation, they will either talk as if they are completely ignoring the other person, or dive headlong into the minutiae of everything they have both done since breakfast.
    • Suitability for purpose
      Maybe if you have to write a script for Keanu Reeves, otherwise avoid.

  • Functional Dialogue
    This encompasses a good 60 - 70 percent of the dialogue you find in books, films and TV. It does the job, moves the plot along and makes you imagine that the characters are having an actual conversation. It's never exactly exciting, but also doesn't spoil the party for anyone.
    • How to spot it
      People talk like actual people, except there are less pauses, repetition and banality. Try to imagine being able to rewind your life and edit out the really dull conversation you had with that guy who works across the corridor.
    • Suitability for purpose
      Eminently suitable, especially for a book that is primarily voice and description driven, where more baroque dialogue might prove distracting.

  • Musical Dialogue
    I suppose this category might also be called "stylised." Musical dialogue moves beyond what people really sound like and into how they should sound. It's showy, ornate and attracts attention to itself like Lady Gaga at a PVC industry conference. Needless to say, I rather like musical dialogue.
    • How to spot it
      People talk like their whole lives are one glorious verbal tennis rally, batting sentences back and forth in dizzying, occasionally breathless fashion. They will always have a perfect comeback and it will always be delivered with spot-on timing.
    • Suitability for purpose
      Treat with care. Sometimes, one verbal musician is quite enough (this is your Sue Sylvester character, right here). However, two or more sharp talkers in one scene can be rather glorious. Like any orchestra, you need to differentiate accents and speech patterns to deliver a lush melody and not a honking mess.

So, those are some categories that I thought up on the way home - rule breaking is always encouraged. I'm a big, big fan of Victoria Wood - her musical dialogue is often constructed so that the characters are effectively monologuing, but their lines of speech overlap to incongruous and humorous effect, building to a crescendo of comedy. It seems chaotic, but is actually very tightly written - see Dinnerladies for glorious proof of this technique.

I will also admit to being influenced by the snappy, witty ensemble dialogue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Frasier. Ditto The West Wing, which is dense in dialogue, political complexity and downright smartarsery.

Hell, let's all embrace smart, eloquent characters - especially if we can put them in a scene with a complete dumbass and watch them become increasingly exasperated!


Friday, 11 June 2010

Cross-Format Thievery

A novel is not a movie. And definitely not a video game. But that doesn't mean that children's writers can't learn a few tricks from other disciplines. After all, they've been stealing techniques from us for ages.


Sorry, but I watch too many films and don't read enough books. I'm trying to redress the balance, but it takes me 2 hours to watch a movie and the best part of a week to read a book. I'll leave you with the maths...

What to steal:
  • The Three Act Structure - But it's ok, because Hollywood stole this off some ancient Greek dudes in the first place.

  • Dialogue - I wouldn't recommend the works of Roland Emmerich here, but seriously, watch a Billy Wilder film and take lots of notes.

  • Action Scenes - Novel writers can learn an enormous amount from the way movie action scenes are constructed, especially in terms of dynamics, pace, cross-cutting and coherence. The French Connection is always cited as a seminal work, but also consider modern films like Heat, The Bourne Ultimatum and the animated film 9. It's interesting to look at how Paul Greengrass manages to keep the action coherent in the Bourne films even with very short shot lengths, simply by selecting very carefully what he shows. Compare that with Quantum of Solace where the action scenes are so choppy that they make almost no sense at all.

What not to steal:
  • The Modern Trend for Omitting Opening Credits - Good luck having a book with no cover or title page.

  • Clichés - Movies are crammed full of clichés and lazy thinking. Movie-goers love to make lists of these - both in books and on the web, and we writers can read these and know what to avoid.

  • Script Meddling - Publishers might get upset by the weirdest things, but it's nothing compared to the insane amount of interference that screenwriters face on a daily basis. William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade is both a great book about writing and a real eye-opener on the egotistical demands of stars and studios. And if you refuse to make their changes to the script? Well, they'll find someone else who will.

Video Games

While the standard of video games has steadily increased, the standard of writing in them has generally not. This doesn't make them any less fun to play (unless the cut scenes are super long), but it can be rather dispiriting. Of course there are exceptions, but video game producers are prone to overestimating the reaction speed of their audience while underestimating their intellect.

But (and this is a big but) most of our audience are playing video games, so we ignore them at our peril.

What to steal:
  • Immersion - Moment for moment, video games are one of the most immersive activities available. They make constant, primitive demands on your brain and cause your eyeballs to go all dry and scratchy. This doesn't mean we should stuff our books full of pointless action sequences, but it does mean we should consider how best to "cut to the chase" and keep our reader mentally and emotionally engaged.

  • Dialogue - Yeah, again. While the storyline of many video games veers between cliché and nonsense, there is some really sharp scriptwriting out there if you know where to look. Rockstar's games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption show a real focus on using witty dialogue to make the repetition of failed missions bearable. On the other hand, the Resident Evil series probably isn't your first stop here. The games themselves are great fun, but the dialogue and voice acting are cornier than being trapped in a maize maze full of zombies.

  • The Importance of Failure - No-one would want to play a video game that was so easy that you never failed or became frustrated. These seemingly negative emotions are a key reason why games are so addictive, because the player gets such a massive rush when they finally overcome a problem. The arc of a book protagonist is exactly the same - we need to make sure they are knocked back enough times that their triumph feels truly earned.
    On the flipside, there are many games - even really good ones - that are much too hard and cause gamepads to be thrown through expensive TV screens. In books, too, we must make sure that things are never so grim for our characters that no-one wants to read on.

What not to steal:
  • Expository Dialogue - Video game cut scenes are frequently stuffed to the gills with exposition. Booooooring!

  • Pointless Quests to Pad Out the Second Act - What, you mean I have to fight my way back through that whole section I've already explored just to retrieve the enchanted toilet brush of doom?

  • End of Level Bosses - Hmm, should my baddie mysteriously reappear on page 220 just in time to stop the hero and have a big fight?

So, these are a few things books can learn from movies and video games - what can they learn from books? Films and games are primarily experienced through our eyes and ears (and fingers in the case of games). Books are experienced in our minds. It's a rare film that makes us think and an even rarer video game. But books make us think by their very nature.

Ok, that's enough from me - if you can think of anything else we should/shouldn't steal, or maybe from other media (like comics), the floor is yours...


Friday, 4 June 2010

Write to the End

When we find a good book, we read to the finish and for the finish. I believe that when we write a good book, the same should apply. I've written one book completely out of order and another completely linearly - for me, the latter method won out.

I've seen advice for blocked writers that suggests you should write scenes as they come to you, that it's ok to write the ending first and gradually fill in back to the start. Maybe this works if you are the kind of person (like my mother-in-law) who reads the last page of a book before starting it. But if you love the tension and surprise of a good plot, you can use that to drive your own writing.

A couple of months ago, I came up with the concept for a key scene close to the end of Back from the Dead. A delicious scene that turned the tables on the reader and made them complicit in the narrative in a way that they hadn't been up until that point. Naturally, I wanted to write that scene there and then, but I had most of the third act to navigate before I got there.

I researched locations and planned character arcs. I kidnapped my characters and set them free and then put them into even worse danger.

And still I couldn't write the scene.

I opened up the scope of the book with a big action sequence. I wrestled with motion and velocity, tried to express complex, fast moving activities in simple, sensory ways.

And still I couldn't write the scene.

I followed my main character as he found his family and simultaneously lost all sense of himself.

When was I going to get to write the damn scene?

Then, suddenly, I was writing it. A mere 400 words, flowing like fresh blood from an arterial wound. All that pent-up tension had powered me through the previous month, but it also gave me time to add new themes and elements to the third act that raised the drama to an even higher level. Unquestionably, it's my favourite scene in the book - before and after writing it.

So, this is all in the "works for me" category, as ever. What works for you? And is there anyone else who reads the end of a book before the start? Answers below, if you please...