The hidden side to character: relationships (aka a blatant excuse to talk about Star Wars)

As with so many things, this might seem a little obvious, but before you snort and think ‘she’s at it again’ sometimes it’s worth taking a second look at the obvious. Sometimes things are so obvious they get overlooked and then, when the misinterpretations and abuses crop up, we don’t recognise them for what they are.

Character too often comes at us like a laundry list of traits, a static and unengaging wishlist; relationships are the sharp, working end, where what you want can be brought to life and cliché and stereotype shaken off. Or at least they offer that opportunity, if we pay attention to them.

The hidden part isn’t so much what they can do to reveal character, it’s that a good writer knows that character often exists in service to relationships. Because relationships aren’t merely the who, but the what, serving to not only further the plot but very often they can and do become subplots of their own. Many times they are the reason your reader is still with you, the true driving force of your story.

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Take one of the most despised films of recent times; take a trilogy of them: The Star Wars prequels. People – not just sci-fi freaks like me – loved the original trilogy. When the prequels were finally announced as going ahead they’d been nineteen years in the making and anticipation was high. But even so there were already stirrings, how could they live up to the originals?

But what was it precisely that made the originals so good, so good that our love has only grown not faded?

Not the special effects. We’ve kinda beat those. Advancements in technology were always cited as the principle reason Lucas started half way through his story with episode 4, fearing he couldn’t bring his vision of the first three to life until the special effects caught up with his imagination.

Not the acting

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Despite the late great Alec Guinness’ best efforts.

The recent episode, The Force Awakens, clearly believes it was all about the world, as it offers us substandard acting and mediocre special effects all bundled up in a story free nostalgia fest of OT memorabilia: canteenas, the Millenium Falcon and sand. A lot of sand.

I’m standing with Lucas on this one. I think the world building was one of the few things that he got right, along with far superior battles, for the most part. Where he got it wrong was his relationships.

I don’t merely mean the romance, although obviously the time put in to try and erase the image of a grown up Natalie Portman tucking wee Anakin in just served to bog the pace, leaving a bad soap-y taste in the mouth and damaging the entire trilogy timeline.

I mean the relationship at the heart of our intrigue: Obi-wan and Darth Vader, master and pupil, battling to the death. The most iconic and intriguing scene from the OT.

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Lucas did show at least an inkling of an awareness of this by the last film, Return of the Sith, which is centred around the showdown of Obi-wan and Anakin, completing his transformation to Darth Vadar. The anticipation for this battle, I think, is why so many want to count it as the best of the three, as it finally gave them what they had been waiting for.

However, the ground work had never been laid. Our investment in their relationship was still best encapsulated by that original scene. In the first film not only are we stuck with cute kiddie Anakin, trash talking insect racers and eyeing up Padme – ewww – but the relationship being built is between him and Qui-gon-jinn. Obi-wan is stuck in the ship and doesn’t even meet him until a good way through the film, where their sole interactions consist of talking about each other to others. It is Qui-gon who risks everything for the boy, Qui-gon who has Obi-wan’s devotion. The boy is an obligation and not even one that risks anything. As relationship set ups go that’s about as interesting… as.. well… any other risk free obligation. A teenage/young adult Anakin stealing his master’s admiration and trust, an almost equal, always threatening to usurp, yet still needing him, bound together in their admiration of the lost Qui-gon, now that might have held our interest.

And the fact that yet again in the second and third films they spend most of the time apart, wouldn’t have mattered.

All those vital elements that we aspiring storytellers are beaten over the head with, tension, conflict, agency, rise and fall, all of these exist organically within relationship. It is by definition what happens between two or more characters, it cannot be told, it must be realised by what unfolds, what is said and done. It is where story and character meet.

What is character but determination of incident? And what is incident but the illustration of character? – Henry James

Romance is predictably where most minds will go whenever you mention relationship, but as with Anakin and Obi-wan, they are often not the one we invest in. An interesting side-note on this can be found in fan fiction, a place rather interestingly were relationship has become a verb. The sheer volume of shipping that goes on between characters whose base relationship is antagonistic, troubled, platonic or any thing other than what the writer intended, shows that we invest in far more than what we are told to. I’m not sure that is always a credit to the writer. Relationships exist like an undercurrent, opposing riptides pushing and pulling at our emotions. However often I feel that the gap between what the writer seems to presume we want to read and what the reader actually plucks from the pages, is indicative of a rather rote and formulaic approach to relationships which relies, as does character, far too heavily on tell.

Just as Obi-wan tells us – you were like a brother to me!  – while we’re left to presume the bickering, rivalry, one-up-man-ship, and intimacy of a true sibling relationship, too many authors just tell us what our characters feel for one another. We’re told of their great passion – actually we’re told ad nauseum. Emphasis on the nauseum. It’s become de rigueur to build entire scenes around two characters telling us of their passion/love/devotion, and then through these endlessly repetitive scenes build entire relationships, build entire stories.

I can just about forgive this in romance. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t read the genre. I couldn’t stomach talking about my own relationships to that degree let alone reading about someone elses. However if it is something readers of the genre do enjoy, who am I to suggest another approach. In other genres, as the shipping fan fiction shows, many, many readers are far from satisfied with what is presented. Insta-love has become like Mary Sue, a put down of a very particular type of story, usually young adult and usually with paranormal elements, wherein story and plot and character are all side-lined in favour of what is called relationship but isn’t. Rather than show an interesting dynamic playing out between two interesting characters, we’re told about how interesting, nay amazing, these characters are and that alone apparently suffices.

Plot is a vital side to relationships. What happens shapes, guides, reflects back on who they are, who they might be, connecting and binding them. Too often these things seem to be kept distinct, or reduced to points of such base simplicity that story can only be the victim. Love is proven in acts of self sacrifice, but it’s never developed through acts of self. To return to Star Wars (cause why not) the love story that worked was Han and Leia. It draws on an abundance of well established tropes, which you are quite within your rights to call clichés, love/hate, opposites attract, even that initial latent hint of a love triangle (perhaps I saw them when I was too young, that never seemed too convincing to me) but interestingly, the one who rushes to her rescue is never Han. Luke is forever coming to save her, throwing off his training, abandoning his family, facing Darth unprepared, all recklessly for her (and later Han too). It becomes part of his personality, a hint at the recklessness we know undid his father. While Han is forever reluctant – a volunteer for Luke’s respect in the first film; a helpless patsy in the second; and the rescued in the last, by Leia herself, who like Luke has already shown her willingness to take risks and suffer for her beliefs. Perhaps that has categorised her life, all of it that we have known. Her actions don’t prove her love, they’re a natural part of story and character as we’ve already seen, it’s their cute bickering that we invest in, their innate differences, his arrogant ‘I know’, the way she echoes it back to him, the dynamic that’s peculiarly theirs, however stereotypical.

But romance is such a limited perspective. It doesn’t even have to involve two characters. Sometimes the most important relationship is between a character and society in general. The strict code and layers of bureaucracy that surround and bind the Jedi’s, create an interesting dynamic when juxtaposed with a boy raised in slavery, both shackles that deny him, both threaten to take what he loves. A dynamic yet again that the prequels squandered. In part because Anakin spends more time as Jedi than slave, and as a young boy he is presented as angelic and hopeful. Plus, ya know, he pod races in his spare time, instead of doing his homework which makes it difficult to sympathise.

Sometimes it is with different conflicting forces within themselves; light and dark, past and present. Beyond even Obi-wan, perhaps the most anticipated aspect of the prequels was the relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, beautifully illustrated by this image.

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Yet you cannot help but feel that image became part of the issue. The contrast between innocence and evil would not have been nearly as stark if we’d replaced the young slave boy with a sneering (although quite sexy) Hayden Christiansen. What works in one medium doesn’t always translate. Even here that decision to cast the younger Anakin throws its shadow over everything that follows, as if the extreme actions of the last film, the slaughter of the young padawans, were yet again driven by the desire to wipe our memories of his saccharine sweetness. The beginning and the end weren’t ever in doubt, it was Lucas’ job to show us the journey, the decisions that led him to the dark side, and convince us. Because the most important relationship of all is that between writer and reader.

The Never-ending Struggle for Balance: In Writing and in Life

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This is something I’ve been obsessed with for a long time, but I’ve struggled to even attempt to write it. It seems to encompass so much, so much that is difficult to verbalise that my thoughts are scattered and disjointed; but its now reached that point where I have to at least try, or it’ll drive me insane.

Balance seems to be something none of us get right. I remember studying Lenin and the lead up to the October Revolution at school and being quite fired up. Equality! Brotherhood! Fairness… after all why shouldn’t we strive to make life fair? Why simply settle back with a shrug and accept that it isn’t? I struggled through the actual Revolution, the slaughter of the Royal family, but by the time we reached the Red Terror, I was disillusioned and bewildered. How could such noble intent go so horribly, savagely wrong?

But it’s far from a rare example. In fact it seems in some degree or another, it’s kinda the norm. It’s surprising how some of the most terrible figures and times in history began with a few men walking the right path, or to put it another way, they didn’t all begin on a different path to you or I, nor in some ways, does it seem that they ever truly left it. We’re seeing exactly this play out on social media. I don’t want to get drawn into the political hotbed – I’m not armed enough for that 😀 – however it goes beyond what we’re saying, into considerations of how we’re choosing to express ourselves, in words, in degrees and in mediums. We’ve been presented by a useful tool, to connect, communicate and inform, yet we’re facing issues such as cyberbully driven suicide, hacking on a global scale, stalking, identity theft, internet addiction, the breakdown of the English language and as some would have it, the rise of the alternative truth. We’ve even seen the first death due to a certain online game. We might personally see these as isolated stories, to be found universally as examples of bad luck, bad judgement and bad people, yet how often have you gone out with friends only for them to spend the whole time checking their phone? How many do you know who’ve suddenly developed an obsessive interest in politics convinced they know the answer to all societies ills, despite previously asking who Margaret Thatcher is? It’s impossible to deny its presence, even if we’re still uncertain on its influence.

It might seem from the above that balance is simply another word for moderation or compromise, and as I move this into the writing sphere, this being a writing site, ya know, I want to make it clear that though it may result in such things, to view it as such is to mislead. In fact this might be the crux of the problem.

Balance mistaken for moderation or compromise has a PR issue. Passion doesn’t compromise, and again perhaps more than ever, passion is bringing it on the interwebs. Passion is exciting, full blooded, it takes courage and determination and it changes the world. Compromise is a grey suit and nine to five sentence, a dull middle road from cradle to grave. An obit that no one reads.

The fact that all that is bollocks is precisely what balance is all about, and why we really need to talk about it.

I’m far from the first to develop this obsession. Buddhism is often referred to as the Middle Way, described as

a path that transcends and reconciles the duality that characterises most thinking… the path between two extremes, close to Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” whereby “every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice. – Sokai Gakkai International

I like the choice of the word transcends as honestly I believe when it comes to true balance we must start to think beyond the notion of duality. Even those that acknowledge a spectrum or shades of grey are still looking along a line with two poles and in reality that’s like thinking there is a right side up in space. We might easily miss a vital component (Romulan) coming at us from a completely different direction.

Balance isn’t so much an an axis, as it is a fulcrum. Every moment, every person, every endeavour is subject to countless forces and we’ll probably never fully know all the forces in play at any given moment, even in hindsight. We’re just not that smart. I’m not. But the more we can fill in, the more we can understand where to put our lever in order to achieve our desired outcome. That’s balance. Don’t mistake it for the literal middle, I doubt we could measure that anyway. The very first force in play, that we must get our head around, is effect. The perfectly balanced see saw is different depending on your aim..

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This is my main issue with ‘the rules.’ Rules presume objective truths, a single desired outcome, and homogenise both vision and path. They ignore so many forces in play, they render themselves virtually useless. Taken in isolation, they can seem either idiotic or quite reasonable and yet put into play in the world of writing sites and they can shift radically from one to the other.

Lets look at adverbs. At first it might have seemed a little ridiculous.

The path to hell is paved with adverbs – Stephen King

To use an adverb in this way – any way – is a mortal sin  – Elmore Leonard

But it caught on and became a mantra. Then a backlash – a compromise. They mustn’t be avoided entirely, not wholly, but treated with caution, tested, prodded to ensure no weakness in accompanying verb, or redundancy in meaning. Like kicking tyres.

A reasonable compromise surely, a balanced approach?

Except in reality its just a shift down a line. The Romulans are attacking from above and we’ve got our heads down kicking our tyres. For many many reasons I’ve probably already bored everyone to tears with, but perhaps most importantly it ignores the entire question of whether its useful for a novice writer developing their voice and effective storytelling techniques, to put their attention on adverbs. And the answer is no. It’s a distraction. It’s easy to fix, easy to remove and easy therefore to master. Meanwhile there is a risk they aren’t growing or learning anything useful.

Where we put our focus matters. Another common writer ‘don’t’ is the mirror trope. This one is so common it frequently crops up in scathing reviews. The answer if followed with any consistency, is photos or selfies 😀 and will surely swiftly become a trope itself. The problem has never been that a character looks in the mirror and relates what they see, its how its done. The description itself too often tended towards, ‘raven tresses flowing about a perfect ivory oval.’. The issue isn’t solved by taking a natural part of life out of your characters story. Do you know we spend on average the equivalent of 2 weeks every year in front of the mirror? That’s more than most of us exercise. Or have sex.

Another way the writer loses their balance is with the over-correct. This can play out in various different ways, the kick-back against the ‘rules’ or prevailing style, but one of the worst is the attempt to please. The reasonable author, who values others input and is set on success, won’t kick out, they’ll attempt to adjust to fit. But whether its a kick out or an adjustment, the essential result is the same, its a push back. They went left, so now they’ll go right.

As for the kick out, this, simply put, is different for the sake of different. It’s a natural instinct, we get tired of being presented with the same thing, which in itself is a natural instinct, we mimic for success. Duality catches us in an eternal loop. Buddhists call it Samsara, the endless cycle of life and death. The enlightened middle way offers liberation from this suffering. Duality isn’t balance, its isolation from life, a question, a technique, a story, removed from context, from the world of conflicting influences.

Removing something from context is not merely about a sentence removed from a paragraph, a technique from its effect, it extends to the world beyond the fictional. Many writers bemoan the falling standards of the written word, asking whether publishers care about writing at all. They’ll cite the rise of Harry Potter forgetting it was a children’s book, aimed at nine year olds. The worst and most often cited is Fifty Shades of Grey. However what everyone seems to have forgotten is that it ignited the rise of what some refer to – derisively – as mummy porn. Basically some folk really like dirty books. Fan fiction sites are already rife with those who were aware of this, others needed to try and this book became the tester tube.. It shouldn’t impact with any force on those of us not writing erotica. Does the porn industry effect Hollywood? Will In and Out and In Again be lining up against Schindlers List in the greatest film category at the Oscars? Does Scarlet Goes Wild get compared alongside Gone with the Wind when we look at the all time best selling films?

And it’s not merely genre that effects us. Take a real life situation wherein advice was offered, good advice (well by my measure) and advice was ignored because others didn’t agree and the writer didn’t seem to understand what he was being told. It felt contradictory to other advice he had encountered. But the advice given, was given by an editor, a real life working editor, whose job is to read, and decide if something is worth publication. The advice it seemed to conflict with came from the ether. The general mutterings of writers, who’d heard, who’d been told, who talked to a friend of a friend of a friend.

The tragedy is it was potentially a great book. The story was there, the voice was there, humour, but the storytelling was weak. Not insurmountable by any means. This concerns me, it concerns me, because I suspect that book is about to be self-published. I’m as loath as ever to call this laziness. Nor will it be some POS that rightfully gets dumped to the bottom of the amazon ranks. As so many will be quick to suggest. The lazy get washed out is the assumed answer whenever we question the quality of self-published books, so why are you making it an issue? It’s become standard for anyone raising a query about self-publishing to be quickly assigned a side, and the actual concern to be glossed over.

It’s become, as so many things have, a two sided monster. How can we improve a system if we cannot even discuss it? The question of whether you are for or against it is no longer relevant. It’s here and shows no signs of falling away. The question now is how do we make it work? For some individuals it already has, that doesn’t however mean the system as a whole does. As ever it comes down to what you want from it and that includes us readers, those who should surely be benefiting most.

At the moment regardless of the opportunity, undeniably tempting to the writer, I’m not convinced literature is benefiting. And one of my fears comes from books like Fifty Shades of Grey. It shouldn’t impact on us, but that gulf between literary and commercial, between formula and invention, between pleasure and preaching, seems to be widening. We’re retreating to the poles rather than converging in the spaces we once loved to read in, because we’re perceiving it as a single variance. We’re seeing everything in isolation. A series of parallel lines, untouching, unrelated.

We think in terms of opposites. We cannot have a victim without a villain. We cannot have a hero without a dragon to be slain, a war to be fought. There is no good without evil, light without dark, angels without devils. This extreme duality is resulting in a simplicity that has no relevance, because it cannot touch the complex reality we live in. It’s an easier answer for a difficult world. There is an emotional satisfaction in this, because it is quantifiable. It’s the difference in many ways between shivering under the covers scared there might be a monster in the wardrobe and opening the door to see it there. We find it less frightening to face the beast than to live with the uncertainty. More than that we find it easier to put the monster in the cupboard than deal with the one inside us, with the truth that we can’t in fact ever see him, but he’s present, hidden, in everything.

I recently encountered a character who was morally ambiguous, or so it was claimed by countless professional reviewers. For the entirety of the book he was kind, considerate, acutely aware of the impact of his actions on his family and friends, of their feelings.. About as a nice as boy as I’ve never met. Then it’s revealed he slaughtered some folk in cold blood. For the record cold blooded murder isn’t morally ambiguous, it’s morally void.

It didn’t fit remotely with the character as presented, he was in essence hero and villain within the same body, given as one but never one, still polar opposites, at odds with one another. There was some attempt to suggest it was a difficult but necessary decision, but it was clearly written by someone who struggles to imagine a more difficult decision than firefox or chrome.

Here’s another duo: writer and reader. We need to stop separating those out. Balance is always harder, like standing on one foot, it requires awareness, effort, focus. It doesn’t let us drift into easy well worn ruts. I certainly haven’t mastered the art yet but we could start with a few simple tricks. Stop thinking villain, think human. Stop thinking literary, think story. Stop thinking light, think rainbows.

BOOK REVIEW: The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith

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So I finally got around to reading Jk Rowlings new detective series, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The first book ‘The Cuckoos Calling’ achieved a certain amount of notoriety when it was first revealed to be the work not of new unknown ex-soldier, Galbraith but the very well known best selling author of the last decade, Rowling. She released the book,  in her own words, seeking a fresh start ‘without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback’. As such it seems she is – or her book is – the perfect choice to review in order to uncover whether or not experts truly do seek out criticism and if so, what they do with it. Whether in fact it has any intrinsic value at all.

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, just in case that isn’t clear. There’s no doubting the enormous impact the books had across the cultural sphere. From Taiwan to Torquay they are a universal meeting point for kids and adults, a bridge between different worlds. It seemed as though she plucked a story out of the ether that spoke to all of us, always there but never quite realised until she gave it form. That doesn’t, however, mean they were without fault. I personally struggled with some of the later books. The fifth in particular was weak yet bloated to the point you could only assume something deeply important had to be said within. One of the issues that niggled me about the later books was that I could not help but feel that criticism – the inevitable deluge of sour grapes – had struck home.

The criticism for the most part centred around two points; the first and most common, the style of Ms Rowling. Or rather the lack of it. Style is something that concerns literary fiction – which sells so much less than its commercial counterpoint, that its counterpoint is termed ‘commercial’. Occasionally critics like to take a few pokes at some of the heavy hitters. Brown gets lambasted for his flamboyance, Patterson for his volume – mostly volume of ‘co-authors’, and King earns grudging praise. Kids books rarely get this treatment; it seems here at least we approach the art of story by judging the story. But then adults aren’t queuing up at midnight to buy Julia Donaldson or Meg Cabot. The price of success is always going to be criticism and that certainly makes parsing the useful from the bitter tricky. When it was recently revealed that the books would be the subject of academic study, it raised a lot of eyebrows

“..the prose is too basic,” says author and literary critic Philip Womack. “It’s written awkwardly and is clumsy in places – although it does tell the story well. And it lacks subtlety. Even Professor Snape, who is meant to be complex, is so obvious.”

Which is fine as an objection to an adult study of literature, but does seem rather churlish when applied to a work aimed at 9-12 year olds. Yet it didn’t feel – to me – as if Rowling were able to dismiss such criticism as sour grapes.

People criticised her portrayal of the endlessly optimistic and kind Harry who never showed any signs of his abusive upbringing. Rowling responded with a whiny aggressively-aggrieved Harry in ‘Order of the Phoenix’, a personality turn that p’d of her fans and disappeared as swiftly as it had appeared in the next book.

She was accused of simplistic morality – all the bad guys so conveniently collected in the same house. She responds by showing Harry’s father and friends, including the kind professor Lupin, as bullies.

With the release of her first adult novel ‘The Casual Vacancy’, it seemed as though she was being haunted by those criticisms, but as with Harry Potter her response seemed to be concentrated entirely on the content rather than style. With an almost impenetrable host of unlikeable characters and unpalatable subjects she produced something both diametrically opposite her inviting magical universe and exactly the same in her straightforward, detail heavy prose.

I never had any interest in reading it. I have no interest in being preached to and subjected to the literary equivalent of an acid bath, just because someone somewhere decided it was worthy. I was hopeful with the release of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, that she might finally have shaken of those criticisms and returned to form. Cormoran Strike sounded suitably silly, PI’s might be the real world equivalent of the Loch Ness monster, none of us quite able to believe anyone really does that for a living and it was set in the suitably unrealistic world of models and celebrities. It seemed a recipe for all her strengths, larger than life characters, great twisty plots and fun settings.

And of course there was the front cover crawling with rave reviews..

‘The Cuckoos Calling reminds me why I fell in love with crime fiction in the first place. – Val Mcdermid

I don’t pay attention to these sort of things usually, but some do and I do really like Val McDermid. She seemed – seems? – like someone who would be honest. Of course, it could have reminded her by reawakening the desire to write something better…

Because it wasn’t good. I really wanted it to be, but it wasn’t good.

There will be spoilers ahead, so please if you haven’t read it and intend to, please don’t read on.

Spend too many years in the strange trenches of the wannabe masses, (which these days is the great published masses) and it changes your perception a little. I cannot for that reason perhaps, say the book was terrible. I did finish it, although there was a fair amount of skimming. My mum, for whom I actually bought the book, can’t remember if she did. She thinks she might have, but can’t remember much about it at all. That’s pretty unusual. She’s an avid reader of crime fiction – almost exclusively – never skims, always finishes but falls far from the snobby elitist so many of Rowlings detractors have been.

Let me put it this way, I have no intention of reading any more in the series. And I bought my mum ‘The Silkworm’ at the same time, so I wouldn’t even have to fork out another penny. That’s about as damning an indictment I can dole out as reader and would dread as an author.

It feels as though Rowling is still haunted by those voices of criticism. And in particular the ones taking aim at her prose. It’s very easy given the sheer length of the last four Harry Potter novels to assume that Rowling had gone the way of King and so many others, who it is unofficially acknowledged no longer have to adhere to the editors administrations. As Anne Rice put it (quite officially)..

“I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself,” she wrote. “I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me.” – NY Times.

Publishers after all have no reason to encourage length. It costs them more, and if you can make three out of one, a la Lord of the Rings? Muchos more mullas. Yet from the very start Rowling has defined herself with both her attention to detail and delivering works much longer than their counterparts. The average kids book is about half the length of ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ and rumour has it the original was over 100 thousand words. If this is a battle fought and won, might I suggest it was the wrong one. The length was troublesome in the later HP books and becomes potentially insurmountable in ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’. There simply isn’t enough story here to justify the length, it drags, meanders and late at night, the sheer weight of it metaphorically and physically, induces the reader to surrender to sleep.

The detail that illuminated a magical world rich in complexity and wonder, is entirely unneeded in the drab reality of modern day London. Worse, much of her verbosity owes nothing to her eye for setting and everything to do with proving herself as a stylist.

A strange stray thought came to him now, as he looked up at that portrait: that this was the reason it had been painted, so that one day, its large hazel-green eyes would watch him leave. Had Charlotte known what it would feel like, to prowl the empty flat under the eyes of her stunning eighteen-year old self? Had she realised that the painting would do the work better than her physical self? – The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

We are constantly treated to the musings of the main character as he nurses his broken heart, not merely short paragraphs such as above, it felt at times like entire chapters. The prose is – odd. Not bad. Some is quite pretty, but quite pretty isn’t quite enough to justify it. Great prose is just that – great. And even then it consistently loses out to great story. A few – for my mind, truly great – authors figure this out and limit themselves to storytelling. The prose is still great, it just doesn’t advertise itself as such. You have to appreciate it through its functionality. Which actually makes it even greater. The art of the weave is the mark of the master storyteller.

The issue however, isn’t its greatness or otherwise, its that we don’t actually care. It’s revealed almost like a sub-story – well exactly like a sub story – explaining who our man is and how he ended up where he is. But this isn’t a story. It’s ordinary, everyday, there’s no deep secret, no intriguing detail, much as she might try, its just a man who fell in love with a beautiful spoilt woman and finally decided he’d had enough.

And further – and you can shoot me, I don’t care – in pursuit of that beautiful prose, she abandoned show and succumbed to the dark side to tell. We don’t see this relationship unfold in the past, the traumatic scenes, the fights, the manipulations. We don’t meet or hear this woman, get to judge her actions, we’re simply told as he sulks about it. In fact i’m surmising what she actually did(either faked a pregnancy, faked a miscarriage or had an abortion) with no idea why, except ‘thats what shes like..’ so we’re told.

This tendency is rampant throughout, both in terms of creating subplots which aren’t really plots and which fail mostly due to being reduced entirely to tell. Robin – the co narrator of the story – has a doubting boyfriend who dislikes her temp job as the PI’s secretary. We don’t really meet him, but we hear about him a lot. You get the impression building a triangle or rectangle of sexual entanglements might be on the agenda, but any tension is negated by the lack of a visible third wheel.

Likewise the mother, and family dynamic in general, of the victim is continually referenced by all other characters yet we never meet her until the solution has already come to Strike. The uncle, also barely makes an appearance, albeit slightly earlier. Given this story is really truly the story of a young adopted girl and her troubled family, this impacts on a much deeper level than Robin’s boyfriend. It doesn’t merely obfuscate any hope of figuring out the truth – which might have in part been the thinking behind it – it pushes everything of real interest to the background. We spend most of our time chasing neighbours, IT girls and celebrities none of whom appear to have any reason to hurt the victim, or indeed much of a story to uncover. As such we never feel as though we are chasing anything of substance.

And perhaps strangely given all of that, the ending isn’t a surprise. I thought it several times, yet dismissed it because of one insurmountable obstacle that just couldn’t be got around. The killer was the man who hired Strike to prove that his sisters death – months beforehand – was not the suicide it was believed to be – and officially declared to be. There’s some attempts to work around this, but they just don’t pan out. No man who is free and clear would reopen an investigation into a murder he committed.

The second accusation that gets levelled repeatedly at JK Rowling is that of unoriginality. Not merely in her copious use of existing mythology and obvious nods to the forefathers of the fantasy genre, like Tolkien – mostly Tolkien –  but also in the stereotypical nature of her characters. Brave orphan Harry, wise mentor Dumbledore, evil bully Draco… and so forth.

I’ve defended Rowling – and will – against most of those claims. They weren’t incorrect, it was merely that for the vast majority they were used well, the sheer scale of her vision and world, the history it came with and again her audience were all tricky yet important factors and she managed to balance all of these considerations and still managed to surprise, delight and innovate.

She seems to have approached ‘The Cuckoos Calling’ in much the same way, carefully plucking elements, a character here, a plot device there, from existing fiction and re-crafting them to suit herself. Unfortunately I’m not sure she pulled it off with the same aplomb. Potterverse has its own unique flavour. Strike’s feels like a rather tepid mishmash. Despite the modern setting there was an old fashioned quality: The thirty five year old detective who felt more like a fifty five year old from the 1940’s due in part to sentences such as, ‘(he) held out a hairy backed hand and attempted to counter his visitors sartorial superiority by projecting the air of a man too busy to worry about laundry,’ creating a stiff voice at odds with the image of the man and thus cancelling out the image of the man. Part of me was expecting a ‘gee golly’ to pop out of young go getter Robin, and the picture in my head of unseen fiance Matthew was circa 1950 Coronation Street, replete with gray slacks and patterned knit vest. I’d lay good odds she’s a big fan of Christie.

The modern elements, perhaps most notably the celebrity culture, something which should have been her hidden ace in the pack, felt utterly at odds with what really longed to be an old fashioned family melodrama with shades of the classics. With first-hand insight into this world, it’s slightly worrying that all she could offer up was a slew of the most base stereotypes: The gay designer, the gossipy blackmailing make up artist, the rich society girls who marry old men for money and prestige, the boyfriend with his frequent stops in rehab and his deep need to be seen as.. deep.. the list goes on. And on. Which again might be part of the problem.

Harry Potter was epic world building. It needed to be to convince. In this she has again assembled a considerable cast, but here it dilutes. Everything and everyone feels like they’re just passing through. Checkmarks on a list. Both they and the victim never root in our imaginations, owing in no small part to being at best marginally helpful, but never central to the story we’re supposed to be reading about. Yet the focus remains here for most of the book. In Potter we may have a huge cast, but we’re always with our trio of young heroes, their friends, ensconced in the daily rhythms of life within the walls of Hogwarts, which is perhaps the greatest character of all and whose peculiarities tint everything we see. There is no corresponding filter here, and yet this type of story is one that could benefit from a claustrophobic limiting of scope and cast, an intensively skewered worldview to give it shape and flavour. The overall effect is generic and distancing, not aided at all by her tepid – dare I say it – politically correct approach?

Every author who writes fantasy seems to have to fight to prove their merit, or simply defend their choice. The presumption, I suppose, that fantasy is a bit silly. Boy wizards and possessed cars and epic journeys of small men with hairy feet.

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” – Tolkein.

Rowling is credited with changing the face of literature, certainly children’s literature and getting an entire generation to read at a time when it was believed to be falling out of favour. For some giving that much credit to a woman who wrote about flying cars and whomping willows is just not acceptable and I’m sure she’s felt that ‘tone of scorn and pity’.

It certainly reads like it in ‘The Cuckoos Calling’. Her cast may be stereotypes but her tone is always striving for gravitas. Her musing detective and his odd mix of fifty dollar words (about thirty quid) and expletives, the throwaway comments on the political issues of the day, the jabs at the celebrity culture, mostly though its harder to pin down that, a lack of humour, and a fear perhaps of committing to something, anything, with any vigour.

Rowling with the release of ‘The Casual Vacancy’ and her recent embrace of Twitter has shown herself an … ardent? Liberal. In that thoroughly middle class sort of way. The victim at the centre of this all is a mixed race young woman, adopted daughter of rich white aristocrats, searching for her true roots. But really she’s dead and it’s about two white folks trying to figure out why… 😀 I’m not berating her for that – but I sorta feel like if she ever read this she would berate herself. She’s not only a known supporter of the Labour Party but good friends with the Browns, yet she openly makes disparaging remarks about Gordon Brown in the book. They are presented as neutral background, the beliefs prevalent at the time, rather than belonging to any of our heroes. Our two narrators are never so foolish as to brave a political opinion. Although they manage a bit of righteous indignation and get along with the ones who you know are ‘good sorts’..

This deliberate neutrality is something I want to applaud, but I can’t lie and say it works. It doesn’t because its artificial rather than honest. Its pandering to a mindset, a popular, vocal one and its tainted every character and choice she’s made, consciously or not.

This story would have worked if the focus was on the rich white aristocrats. It suits her voice, her plot and theme. They were, despite being ruthlessly sidelined, where the interest lay, where a world could have been built, one we would have been happy to escape to for a while.

Big SPOILERS now. The brother, another adopted waif, killed his sister, as he had once killed his brother many years ago. Out of jealousy, spite and greed. The mother always preferred the others, smothering them in a claustrophobic love, overly permissive with one child, then upon his death overly protective with the other. The uncle, employer of the brother and partner at the prestigious family law firm, had always suspected the death of the first son had not been an accident, suggesting as much to his sister, and causing them to be estranged for many years. All of which is explained to us in about two scenes at the end of the 536 page book.

It’s hinted he reopened the investigation because he feared a claim might be put on her fortune by her real half brother, whom she had planned to meet that night for the first time – unbeknownst to anyone but him. The idea being if he could successfully put the blame on the brother – by repeatedly saying ooh it must be that fuzzy faceless dude seen on the cctv – he’d have no grounds for an appeal. I don’t know the legalities, but I don’t believe a man who had gotten away with murder would take a risk on something that had about 1 chance in a million of happening.

What would have been believable was if he was acting on behalf of – seemingly in agreement with – his mother, on her deathbed and unwilling to go believing her beloved daughter had taken her own life. An hysterical, obsessive woman who still controlled the family purse strings. But it would only have worked if the focus had hinged on them, their constant interference, their privileged archaic and dysfunctional world, with the other characters in the periphery. We would have felt the suffocating influence of the mother, understood the desire to grasp some freedom by her daughter. We would see the constant desperate attempts to steer the investigation by the brother, even feel sympathy for him under the sneering presence of his Uncle. And we’d have done it all in a world we are rarely given insight into, a world very far from most of ours. (unless you polo on the weekends..)

The second potentially interesting aspect of this book was the two main characters. Ask Agatha Christie, better yet, ask Tommy and Tuppence, how important your main character/s are in a detective novel. This was handled bewilderingly, initially set up with a modicum of bite, two seemingly opposite characters, who very quickly seem to blend into sameness. When they do fight, you kinda don’t understand why. Strike’s incredibly considerate – unbelievably so, sorry guys. Her editor might have been convinced it was written by a man, I’d qualify that with ‘delusional man’. Robin’s apparently the best damned secretary in the whole world. In a manner reminiscent of Hermione, in too many ways, she organises his life, magicks chocolate biscuits out of thin air and weaves spells round judgemental sisters. Unfortunately beyond her filing skills I’m not sure what point she serves. Okay the biscuits are a plus, but still not enough. Again there’s that tepid tiptoeing. The initial set up begs for a classic clash of opposites, but what’s delivered is the single most pointless, boring relationship I’ve encountered in a long time. And two individuals who simply cannot sustain my interest.

Wow that reads rather harsh.. I might have to go watch Toy Story to cheer myself up. Sorry JK! I still think you’re great. It is however, as I said, a perfect book, given her background, its initial release under the pseudonym, and the very public criticism she’s received, the perfect book to look at the influence of outside feedback on a writer. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been given such an opportunity to measure the response of an ‘expert’ before, which is perhaps why it always feels as though to a one, they are utterly unresponsive. In fact, to reference Ms Rice again, that responsiveness and success have an inverse relationship.. (always wanted to use that in a sentence. Makes me sound like I know maths stuff…) Back to normal language, the more famous they get the less they care about anyone’s opinion.

JK may be the odd woman out, but she does seem to be listening. And I wish she hadn’t. She’s fixed all the wrong things, she’s abandoned all the things that once made her great. Things that she could been focused on strengthening and building. Of course, she says she hasn’t, that ‘The Casual Vacancy’ was not literary revenge, but for god sake, she even capitulated on the adverbs! King may admire Hemingway and Leonard, and his advice may seem like he is trying to craft us all into little minimalist clones, but his writing tells a different story, (a really long one..) He’s a man who knows who he is when pen hits page. JK hasn’t reached that yet, too much success, too much criticism too fast, for all the wrong reasons?

I’m just one opinion. No opinion is definitive, not even my wise, enlightened one.. The book did well, even under its pseudonym, although I would factor in that it was a hardback launch by a major publisher and endorsed by most of the big reviewers. You can make up your own mind. But for me it reinforces something I’ve been thinking for a long time, ever since I hit the writing circuit, we – beginners – may have lost something incredibly valuable, the chance to write just for us, just with us in our heads. I certainly would say that if you intend to publish, until you find that great feedback you can trust, the best approach is know yourself, know why you write, what you’re striving to write. And never read reviews.

Feedback: The New Writers Debate

uncle buck

Anyone who has ever belonged to a writers group has probably bumped up against this one. How to critique: What’s worth mentioning, how to deliver it, how much is too much, when to praise, if to praise. That last might seem a little odd if you are not a veteran of such sites, but the current mantra is simple: Be brutal. And thats not coming from those seeking to give feedback but those seeking to get it. Hit me baby, hard.

A new survey released concerning this topic in the commercial sphere states that: novices seek praise, while experts seek criticism. I can’t argue their conclusion as I can’t access their data – not without paying and I aint paying! This is the link so feel free to do so yourself. However it immediately raises questions – what constitutes an expert vs a novice? Is this a distinction between amateur and professional? Does it correlate with success? Length of time? And how might it be relevant to writers?

Put critics and writers into google and it’ll spit out pages that read much like this:

As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.” Kurt Vonnegut

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs.” John Osborne

And all of that was back when the only feedback anyone ever got apart from friends and family was perhaps an old English teacher and some folk in a leaky town hall who spent too much time debating whether the Last Stand or War and Peace was a better door stop.

The claim is that novices need reassurance in order to continue on the path. This seems at odds with so much of what I have been told on writer’s sites, from writers themselves, the same writers who seem to agree with the novice/expert divide this study cites and the conundrum bothers me.

I am assured repeatedly that each and every writer comes fresh to the slaughter writers group believing they have written a great masterpiece. That such radiant self belief is intrinsic to our process. The novice in this instance – the first time novelist – isn’t so much crossing their fingers and hoping for praise but rather expecting confirmation. The criticism which they then receive in its place is claimed as enlightening. And from then on, they claim to embrace the experts approach and demand the harshest of critiques.

When Jack Canfield (American self help guru) conceived the book Chicken Soup for the Soul he went to 123 publishers, each one of whom rejected him. Experts. Knowledgable, currently working in the field, the top of the field, gave him feedback, the kind of feedback surely only an idiot would ignore. And this is a man who says get feedback, whatever else you do, GET FEEDBACK. These people all told him that they could not sell it. And he ignored them. He says everyone else he talked to said they’d love to read a book like that. They – people not putting their livelihood, reputation and just plain old money where their mouth was – told him what he wanted to hear and they are the ones he listened to. He chose the praise, regardless of what he sought.

To return to the matter of the writers process, there again I find myself on the outside. My first novel I threw out. Not a word remains – I mean I was 14, but that was my novice period and I wouldn’t let anyone read it. I can’t remember feeling remotely positive about it. About anything I wrote back then, I remember only deep disappointment even despair that my bright shining ideas stuttered so utterly when I tried to capture them in words. I liked the ideas, the characters, the stories in my head. Even now and again I liked a line, a verse in a poem, even almost a whole poem. But it wasn’t that I believed them great in any objective way, I never considered myself a competent poet, but rather that I liked them. Purely subjective. Sometimes I think that was when I stopped trying to fit my writing to someone else’s ideas of good and simply sought to please myself. It was certainly my selfish, teenage angst phase. Self expression, cigarettes, too much vodka and a lot of unrequited love. Basically, that first conclusion of the study, the belief that the distinction between the expert and novice may owe more to needing encouragement not to give up early on, meets my own experience perfectly. I still need it. But what class does that put every other writer into if they never needed this?How does that divide us?

Chicken Soup for the Soul became a major bestseller and has since had around 200 sequels! I didn’t think it was possible to have 200 sequels.

Is the truth that the real distinction between expert and novice is that we are always one or the other? Will I always be a novice because I can’t take the leap of faith on my own work? While the Jack Canfields never doubt themselves and criticism can be left, picked and chosen from as they see fit? Is it not feedback but confidence we have truly measured?

His success might suggestthe feedback he got wasn’t just smoke up his ass. That’s another phrase they like in writer’s groups. We live to look down smugly upon those who need sunshine blown up their skirts or kilt (being all gender neutral as we are). The article cited above looks at the type of feedback given, the how and what rather than the who, yet the distinctive difference (beyond the obvious) between the feedback Jack Canfield chose to listen to and those he chose to ignore was their point of view. As I said, one set were working in the field, experts at the top of their game, their entire career built on finding books that the public wanted to read. The others had no expertise, no investment, no insight, but they were potentially the people who would ultimately be his audience.

The writer vs the reader feedback is frequently, endlessly, tediously debated. The problem of course is that most of us don’t have any access to reader feedback until we publish. Writers trying to be readers usually fail. Like the expert publisher, they can’t switch off their professional brains. And their professional brains are filled with rules of what should be, what has been, what was. If you present them with anything new, they don’t have any data to draw on. It can be argued this type of feedback is the type that leads to rip-offs of rip-offs of rip-offs and the ever decreasing sales that are still enough positive feedback to keep us wading in them.

Those who value writer feedback point out that readers cannot articulate why something doesn’t work for them. They can say they don’t like it, but that doesn’t necessarily help you fix it and if you put yourself into the field too early – say by self publishing – it can destroy your career before it even begins. Resounding silence might be the harshest critique of all.

There is a world of difference between someone learning and how we go about helping that process and the feedback that tells us whether a particular product on the market is working, or even if there is a market for such a product. Growing as a writer is not the same as succeeding within a professional sphere, one should precede the other and the needs and aims of any feedback must surely be very different. Yet self publishing has blurred those lines.

The biggest issue is whether writers are any more able to help than readers. I don’t believe that teachers are those that can’t. Like anything else its a skill, and the issue isn’t decided by whether or not you are a writer, but rather whether you have this rare, valuable ability to read and guide, encourage and evoke – perhaps even provoke – the best out of your student/critique of the day.

Neil Gaiman famously said (well famously to writers): If someone tells you something is wrong, they are almost always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Many writers, for good or ill, have bypassed the apprentice stage and gone straight to print. They’ll be the ones who are blissfully sure of their brilliance -but then apparently that’s everyone. In the Amazonian new age there is nothing stopping anyone from being an author, putting the highlight not on learning, but on selling. And I just don’t think they can be approached as the same.

When I first joined a writers site I was fascinated by the process of critique. What would other writers – like me, yes?… no? – have to say? How would they phrase it? Boldly, cruelly, delicately? Would we agree? I remain actually – bewilderingly – interested in other people’s opinions. It helps me figure out how people think and not just on the article in question. The interesting thing about reviews, is the problematic thing about feedback: what it really tells you, isn’t what its telling you.

At the first site, the overwhelming majority of reader-writers were positive to the point of mad enthusiasm. The kind of enthusiasm that makes you suspicious of a review on amazon. This didn’t tell me that the books were all bestsellers and booker prize winners – it told me a game was afoot. And it was. The aim of it being praise others so they vote for you, get enough votes and you get to place your book before a big time editor. A big time editor who seemed more inclined to see the book the way I did, although they still did the sandwich – praise, criticism, praise – before they rejected it.

I read a lot of reviews on amazon. There’s either far too many writers in the world, or the terminology/process isn’t quite as esoteric as we imagine. Certain phrases are getting as overused as literally is. Things like, one dimensional characters, gives us nothing to invest in, poor pacing, conventional plotting, far too much tell not enough show are rampant. And i’m not the only one reading. There is plenty of back and forth in the comments section and most of it is far from pleasant. I have seen fights break out between author and reviewer, between ‘friends’ of the author and reviewer. Maybe they aren’t experts? Is Anne Rice? According to the NY Times

Many authors are upset by the snide tone of some Amazon reviews; Ms. Rice decided to do something about it. She posted a blistering 1,200-word defense of her book on the site, laying in to those critics who, she said, were “interrogating this text from the wrong perspective

The article suggests that specificity is more useful than general advice. It goes further to suggest actionable advice, which seems like an addendum to the previous point, eg don’t say, I don’t like it, or be more humorous, rather suggest, focus more on his clumsiness, like you did in the first chapter. Aim to introduce it every time he comes on page. It cites the process followed by Pixar. A company, with many interlocking movable parts, focused on group work. Few writers have this kind of dynamic, and the structure makes a huge difference to both approach and result. A company has a product to sell, a writer has an ego to stroke. Even those of us who feel adequate can’t deny our very personal investment, however professional we may desire to be however much we value the idea of producing, mastering, quality. The author is his own boss, but the boss is rarely the creator in any other business. The architect is employed, the designer answers to a paying client, the journalist an editor. Feedback in such a situation is immediate, clear and not particularly negotiable.

I have a fantasy – I had it before I ever joined that first writers site. It involves me, a laptop and an editor.. There’s tears, there’s tantrums, there’s really fucking great advice.. Maybe everyone would secretly like a mentor.

Writers may be solitary but they also tend to flock together: they like being solitary together – Neil Gaiman

The Bloomsbury lot, the lost generation, Lewis and the inklings. Van Gogh dreamed of an artiste’s circle he named the Studio of the South, preparing the Yellow House for both himself and a fellow artist to work in. Paul Gauguin was its first and last guest, a visit which ended with Van Gogh one ear down. Tolkein may have converted Lewis to Christianity but Lewis failed to convert Tolkein to Narnia. In fact the inklings may have spent more time making fun of Amanda McKitterick Ross than giving one another useful feedback.

So what am I saying? – avoid all feedback? Only get it if you plan on selling your soul for a high amazon rank? Ignore everything this article says?

I’m saying I don’t know. I’m saying I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve given feedback and seen it do more harm than good. I’ve given feedback, had it accepted, yet the author has failed to continue with the work in question and I don’t fully understand why as it was potentially a great work. A best seller even, yes I liked it that much. I have even received feedback I suspected was on the money, yet I to failed to follow it through. The work has sat unopened for over a year now on my hard drive.

I tread very lightly – fearfully even – when it comes to giving my opinion on others works. I don’t review books on amazon, I don’t give much feedback to other writers any more, I don’t even do reviews of films that often, not even to friends, and when I do I tend towards kindness rather than truth. As for here where I do speak out, much of what I say isn’t built on anything except my deep belief in freedom and exploration, that commitment and vision cannot be substituted bysomebody else’s notion of rules. If I offer advice its to encourage examination and rethinking rather than build a formula to apply. Mostly I don’t speak up, not because I think who am I – although it frequently crosses my mind – but because I suspect the author is thinking, who am I?

Can feedback be useful? Some clearly believe its a very firm, essential yes, but for me, as a writer, the question must remain where, when and what kind? Was Jack Canfield successful because he listened to feedback, or because he persevered despite the feedback?

In light of this, I’m going to write a review, filled with spoilers, so be warned, one which will allow me to explore many of the issues raised in the article and maybe get a little closer to an answer. Or maybe not..

WinterBow

bow

They call them fog bows, apparently or sometimes white rainbows. I’ve never seen nor heard of them, but they are utterly beautiful, like something from the Snow Queen. Rather than rain, they form in the mists, the smaller droplets creating the icy palette.

This image was captured on Rannoch Moor, by Melvin Nicholson.

 

 

Linear Storytelling: Pure Imagination (Part 3)

The last book I read was a fantasy by a new rising author with a hit or two under her belt and plenty of favourable reviews. Rave reviews. I’m not going to name it. I’d feel mean. Not that it was unreadable. It was initially quite promising, quickly devolved into mildly diverting before sinking to who cares? Not me, being the answer. I’m a tough reader, in that I know exactly what I want, but I can’t believe this is what others want.

imagination

Even if I had managed to fix the craft issues – and there were some of consequence – I was left with the depressing realisation it wouldn’t have saved it. Only a complete rewrite would do. Why? Because it needed a heck of a lot more imagination.

Imagination is a lot like creativity; most of us only consider a tiny fraction of what it comprises. Both are assigned solely to the weird wacky guys in the arts. Ignoring the fact that being weird and wacky, if you are weird and wacky in that way that countless other guys in the arts have been, requires little to no imagination and the straight laced accountant who tweaked the tax system might be a creative landmine.

This book was an intriguing idea with poor realisation. The world building was non-existent. The magic was quite literally hand waving. Consequence was – linear. And every page crowded with clichés. We can call them tropes but when that’s all you see, it’s too fine a slice from here to there.

I could simply call her lazy. Maybe she was.

I could simply call her arrogant. Maybe she was.

It’s hard to credit either because world building is just about the most fun a fantasy author can have. Clothes on or off. Seriously.. they’re weird…

I know, because if there is one thing that will make me write fantasy, as a sci-fi lover, it’s the world building. So even if you’re arrogant or lazy, I’m still hesitant to believe that the world building would be the thing you skip, not deliberately. The only conclusion is that she did what she believed to be the best she could. And a whole lot of people told her it was fine.

She wrote a bestselling fantasy book, calling her unimaginative might seem daft, and it might seem like there’s no cure. But if you can write, if you can conceive an interesting idea you can be pushed to be better. I’m sure every runner under the sun has bust their guts doing the best they could, but a few years of training and they’ll bust their guts for three points of a second less. And that’s the difference between being a champion and not.

This is my biggest bugbear with craft groups and writing sites, with amateur critiques. This writer had fine prose. A great little intro. Seduced me, stubborn ornery cow that I am, I’m sure it was worked to death. If she’d ever spent time on a writer’s critique site it would have been, certainly. But we never address the imagination. And until we do I don’t believe we’re ever going to get better. Agents don’t crit your world building. They’re big picture people, they want to know if they can sell that picture. If they can sell your voice. Your concept. Your central character. They might prefer a happier ending, or want a love interest squeezed in, but they aren’t looking at the nitty gritty.

And so the linear story form flourishes.

If you aren’t quite on board with me, there are exceptions. JK Rowling is the first that jumps to mind. Ever wondered what made her so different from every other writer, every kids boarding school and magic book out there? Try length. The Philosopher’s Stone was around double the standard word count for a middle grade novel. What she filled that with was detail. Immense, consistent, inventive, believable details of a world that made us wish it was real. King, Adams and Martin, Tolkien, Pratchett and Asimov are others. These writers stand out. They stand out across time. Not just through time. Because no one else can do what they do, quite like they can. Though god knows, plenty have tried. Tolkien developed three different languages and writing systems to accompany his worlds. Three whole languages.

Detail makes your world. Detail distinguishes your characters. Detail hooks your reader. Detail enriches your plot.

A great deal of this falls under show don’t tell – I’m not apologising, I could talk about that all day long – not least because if you try and sit and tell your reader all those details it’ll turn into a text book. Every step of your plot should be a way to reveal your world, every revelation of your world should be filtered through your character and every aspect of your character should drive every step of your plot.  That in and of itself is imagination. It’s not about coming up with something a bit weird or different, its about seeing how it plays out, every little consequence across many different levels – about understanding how a burnt soufflé in chapter one led to an act of treason in Chapter 12. It’s even about understanding how your decisions will be received by your readers. Imagination, like creativity, lies in the connection between the points, the trajectory, the path, the faint finger web of arteries leading to and away from your points of interest. Too many put all the attention on the points of interest and you know, making them wacky..

Consider one of the greatest discoveries of all time. A man sitting beneath a tree gets hit on the head by an apple. And suddenly he understands how the moon stays in the night sky. Somewhat embellished, but however it transpired it’s safe to say for most of us there is no obvious connection. No link between the two, but Newton and his immense imagination (unequalled apart from his arrogance apparently) saw the pattern beneath the surface that joined them.

That word beneath is key. Because creativity isn’t just about a imaginative plot, its about building up the outline, putting flesh on the bones. A well thought through world, a detailed backlot gives three dimensions to your story. It means your plot will hold water, even if its a bit holey, it means we won’t see the strings you’re pulling, even if they are pulling in an obvious direction. Or at least we probably won’t care. Yeah, boy gets girl, but what a tale, what a man, what a dame..

Star Wars is loaded with tropes. And in the words of the great, late Alec Guinness, “the dialogue is excruciating.”    

We have an innocent young ingénue, a princess in desperate need of rescuing. A big bad, who is literally big and bad, ooh and all in black, just in case you missed it. A rogue with a heart of gold, a wise old mentor.. And we win. We blow shit up. We get lucky. We accidentally press the right buttons. There was nothing unpredictable about any of it, not the first one. And it didn’t matter. Because also in the words of the great, late Alec Guinness, “It’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted…it remains a vivid experience.”

The world we were presented with was unlike anything we had ever seen. Lightsabers, death stars, wookies, Jawa’s, big buns. But it went beyond that, it was the ripples under the surface not yet realised that we’d fallen for. The connections between Obi-wan, Darth Vader and Luke. The only three who seem to have any awareness of this mysterious Force. The intrigue peaked by the casual mentions of the lost religion of the Jedi knights. Obi-wan’s strange, triumphant even, surrender to his own death. The friction between Leia and Han, the devotion of the rebellious R2D2. We like rogue’s with a heart of gold and wise old mentors, we just want you to bring them to life.

writers she could nver be

Books and films are different beasts in how they do this. A film can leave much more unexplored, as visual spectacle. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier or less important, but there’s a limit on how much you can realistically put in without putting your audience to sleep – hence big yellow letters at the start of Star Wars.

A magic system in a film is mostly about setting clear limits and establishing level of ability. In a book it can go so in depth it’s a like a university degree. In weird ass physics. This for me is where show and tell come into their own. Because while I love the depth a book can offer, I don’t want a lecture. Moreover, simply telling us this is sort of how magic works is actually one of the worst ways for the writer to renegotiate their own rules. Like in a textbook there are often addendums, footnotes. Or worse, as in the book I just read we can simply say, who knows how it works. I mean we use it every day, but we don’t really get it and it might just work this time. The minute I read this I know magic is going to work just cause. Our writer attempted to build up tension by implying it shouldn’t, then waved her magic hand and somehow it did. By the end of the book everything I knew about the magic and in fact the different worlds of her novel, was the same as what I knew at the beginning. Most of it was covered in the blurb.

I had no idea how magic functioned on an everyday level. I had no visual, sensory grasp of it. I couldn’t tell you if they cooked with it, if they altered their appearances or governed their world. If it made a difference in how well they did in society. How it was administered. Did they purchase spells? What did they teach in school? Was money a dictator of magic or magic a dictator of money? She did drop a few funny sounding words in. But only our hero uses them. He’s different. We’re told.

Returning to the seeming contradictions that make writing so much fun, one of the main issues that made this story and world so thin was her tendency to try and explain everything. As with everything else in linear storytelling doing what seems to be a good idea usually ends up being a really bad idea. Explain is an excellent synonym for tell. Every time you start to explain you’re shifting out of show and weakening your readers suspension of disbelief.

The force in the first three Star Wars films can be summarised with ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ In the – well technically the first three, but really the second three – we get midi-chlorians and it all starts to sound a little like an advert for toilet duck. However, in terms of what it can do, in the original three we have Jedi Mind tricks, lightsabers, vision of the future, some telekinesis, all in play in varying degrees. Oh and the lure of the dark side. In the second three we have Jedi mind tricks, lightsabers, visions of the future, some … essentially everything we’ve already seen.

What details you bring in and how you bring them in is key. You’re not looking to give your readers an easily memorised wiki summary, you’re looking to embed them in it. Give them a visceral, sensory grasp of what it looks, feels, tastes like to live in this world.

The only magic system I’m even remotely well read in, is JK Rowling’s. I’ve seen plenty of spirited debates both viciously attacking and staunchly defending her world. This in itself is only possible because there was enough detail to substantiate different interpretations. Detail that many felt needed explaining, but often wasn’t. Detail that was sifted through every chapter, every scene, every line. It was a constant, specific and interconnected presence.

That artery of Newtonian connections is often effectively – ‘should’ even perhaps – be accessed through your characters. Nothing brings the varying classes of Rowlings hierarchy into focus as the way she distributes her magic and wealth, position and power, through her cast.

You’ll as a writer often come up against a warning about diluting focus and using to many characters. Not saying it’s bad advice, but here’s a few facts. In the book I just read, comprising several magical worlds, there are nine characters I can name, three I remember but can’t really name. And then ‘people’

In The Philosophers Stone, I stopped counting characters I could name around 21, because counting bores me and I think the point is made.

If you plan on writing epic world creating fantasy, you might want to actually populate that world. That’s not the same as shifting your point of view or using Omni. It’s not to say that each character must have their own arc, but they should be distinct. I can describe every one from Harry Potter, both rough physical descriptions, and basic personality traits. I’d really be struggling just with hair colour for the last book I read. I’d be struggling to write more than a couple of lines on any of the main characters.

The comparison’s continue. The backstory of the Wizarding War and it’s legacy is seen in virtually everyone’s inability to say Voldemort, in Ginny’s inability to speak to the legendary Harry Potter, in Dedaldus Diggle bowing to him mysteriously in a shop, the crowd in the Leaky cauldron, Mr Olivander’s owl eyed curiosity over his wand, in Draco’s confrontation on the train, in Quirrell and Snape and….

This more than anything is where the other book truly let me down, because a huge part of it is basically exploring this very issue, magic gone bad, the why’s and wherefores. It’s not background, it’s pretty much Main Plot. And yet it rests on two horribly clichéd characters who are really horrible cause …??

Even when the characters are imbued with certain traits, or behaviours which might illustrate our world, they are shallow and everything continually rests on the shoulders of our tiny little group of heroes and villains. No one man can represent a world that effectively. He can be a conduit, a filter through which to view it, but you need to build in those details, those characters that will allow the landscape, its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, to come to life. We humans that’s our downfall. When we say world we don’t mean the hills and the valleys, we mean the politicians and the farmers. We understand scope by how far away the last man stands, not by points on a map. When Ron is humiliated by his mother’s screeching in the dining hall, we feel his embarrassment because we can picture Draco and Neville, Lavender and Seamus, Percy and Fred and Oliver and Kate, all of them with all of their different responses, all of them looking at him, hearing his mother’s words.

When our Hero in LBIR (the last book I read) falls down, who’s there to see it? A shadowy nothing? Faceless mute crowds? People are a powerful way of taking an abstract concept and making it real. Know how in cop shows whenever a serial killer kidnaps someone, the family are always encouraged to use the name of that person to make them real? Well, it works in fiction too. Other serial killer analogies should be carefully scrutinised though.. Characters are your way to map your world, to make the edges distinct, but you have to make them distinct. Stereotypical can be distinct, as long as you don’t make them all the same stereotype. Give them a face, a name, a voice, a habit, give them details.

People are also wonderfully, stupidly illogical. At least if you’re applying linear logic. Human logic, the logic of emotion, the conflicting needs and desires and fears that drive us, are much less easy to predict. I despise contrived behaviour, and despite the fact it’s done by everyone, I’m still not advocating it, what I am saying is that when it comes to circumventing, or just plain ignoring plot holes this is your friend. If your characters and their behaviour hold true, we’re generally willing to overlook, a lot of the times don’t even notice the gaps, until some smart-ass points it out on Buzzfeed. According to Amy Farrah Fowler Indy was pointless in his own film, except Indy’s why we watched, not the ark.

So, a quick summary, cause even in fiction it can be a very necessary tool, and when your mind wanders as mine does, an exceptionally useful one.

When trying to avoid linear storytelling, something marked by moving – plodding – predictably from action to reaction, the best things to consider are: Consequence – how can you build more in? Expectation – how can we build more in? And remember never, ever explain yourself.

All clear? Grand..

Linear Storytelling: No Ordinary Plot ( Part 2 )

Ultimately linear storytelling is a plot issue. Plot is how we organize our story, how we ‘plot’ our course through the events of the tale. Amazing how they come up with these terms.. And every little decision we make, to go left, right, move forward, turn back, needs to be considered on multiple levels – tension, character, consistency – it needs to answer to what came before and what comes next, not just immediately but every other step taken will play its part. And I say that as someone who is a pantser.

writer-island

Many would argue the pantser is the prime linear sinner. (Ooh I like how that sounded.. linear sinner). How can we foreshadow events we haven’t conceived of yet, lay the breadcrumbs for a betrayal we never knew was coming? As we have nothing but the previous steps to guide us, the only line we can follow is action > reaction.

I disagree with this wholly. First a pantser still often starts with something in mind. At least, a story. And a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We know we want to write about Superheroes who turn rotten and have to be brought down by ordinary people taking a stand. Your end – your guiding star – is built into your premise. We may build haphazardly, but as with a jigsaw different parts reveal themselves to us, even if we don’t put the pieces down yet. I think of myself more as someone who plans in my mind rather than on paper, somehow its easier to scrub and take fantastic leaps that the writing might unexpectedly offer when you’ve haven’t laid out a path in black and white.

Another accusation would be that genre writers are linear sinners, because they are beholden to the conventions of their form. A quest involves a mythical target of great value, a series of clues leading the way, and a ragtag crew with the requisite skills to get us there. Basically its a polite way of saying they are formulaic. I won’t delve into the issue of whether literary fiction is a genre all of its own, I’ll simply say that formula exists wherever there is a body of work. It’s the familiarity that presents the problem when it comes to linear storytelling. However ingenious certain ideas were at their inception, time and repetition will quickly erode their value.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself – The 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar

Formula is scored into our brains. We watch too much television, read too many books and as writers that’s going to bite us on the bottie if we’re not aware of it. A lot of writers aren’t aware of it.

One of the pitfalls here is different for the sake of different. We still need to be considering the whole, the internal logic of your world and story and providing something that will satisfy. Much like before it comes down to readers expectations. Only here we’re looking to subvert. The key to knowing the difference between what to change and what to keep? Emotional investment.

A romance reader is invested in seeing the main characters come together and there are certain ‘plot points’, for lack of a better phrase, that they definitely don’t want to see skipped over. As one friend of mine frequently rants – years later – ‘they didn’t even kiss!’ However, there are plenty of other steps along the way that exist only through repetition of established form and these works, despite following the successful model, fail to satisfy.

Or we see variations on the surface, changes to the superficial world that don’t carry through to the underlying form. Either in terms of leaving it essentially unaltered, something which insults the readers ability to recognise the manipulation. Readers are much more sophisticated than many writer’s credit them. The rise of the anti-hero who is actually just as self sacrificing and noble as a Ideal Hero, but you know he wears black and smirks a lot, is a good example of this.

Or they change the wrong element,  failing to understand why it was the way it was, and leave the reader disengaged or dissatisfied emotionally.

I want to take a moment to address that word, ’emotionally’, because some people tend to take issue with it. They think its applicable only to soap operas. They think when I talk about making it emotionally appealing I’m suggesting something along the lines of the abysmal Arrow or Smallville. Good lord no, that’s precisely what I am advocating against. They’ve alienated their primary audience precisely because they didn’t understand what would appeal to them. Emotional engagement speaks to excitement, intrigue, tension, curiosity. It doesn’t just mean weepy declarations of love and self-pitying angst fests. Just as relationships are not all sappy romances and likeable characters aren’t always nice guys. You’re a writer, engage with the word in all its dimensions.

Lets return to our quest. Because I know nothing about romance. There’s a scroll. You have been tasked with finding it and saving the Kingdom. You assemble your ragtag crew. There’s one clue, passed down through the generations. You solve it, it leads to another. Then another. You throw in some fanatical snake headed pursuers, a helpful smitten princess – mildly distracting our hero from his beautiful but prickly crewmate. A final face off with the King of the snake headed fanatics, and boom! we’re all saved..

What would you change to make it non-linear? Unpredictable and exciting?

A great deal of emphasis tends to go into the end twist. The mildly distracting Princess is the King(ess?) of the Snake heads! Gasp!

Not only is the twist so common it’s now a formula all of its own but something as superficial as this won’t remedy the plodding nature of the journey. The reason that Sixth Sense worked was because of how it altered the way we thought about everything that come before, how we perceived the character, his life, his purpose. The twist made it into an entirely different story. Not only is this particularly hard to do well, but even when it is, it tends to leave the writer unable to dig deeper into the world and characters for fear of revealing too much. The entire thing risks becoming a sleight of hand, balanced precariously on misdirection and withholding. And in books, far more than films, that’s a problem, we’re investing far more time to the journey, and most of us, we rather like digging.

What are we actually invested in? Do we care about the Kingdom? We haven’t spent much time there. I have seen an attempt to remedy this by creating alternate storylines wherein we spend time with the helpless Kingdom as it crumbles under the magical ravaging threat. If you make the threat incredibly interesting, this might work. Mostly however it ignores the reason we picked up a quest book in the first place – it’s the closest we’ll ever get to setting sail for high adventure. We’re explorers. Our gaze is forward fixed not backwards.

The Scroll then? The scroll is simply a means to saving the Kingdom. You can add another twist to this, a la Kung Fu Panda. Long lost, turned to ash, a old man behind a curtain. But the emphasis is still on saving the Kingdom, something we’re not that interested in. Even if you throw in that helpful princess and her elite fighting forces as a nice alternate solution and create a backwards loop, until you identify what it is that really hooks the reader, you’ll be left with something neat, clever but hollow. And yes linear, because trust me, your reader has already noted that elite fighting force. Your surprise will be expected, but their expectations will not be surprised.

The answer will vary from person to person, and the best answer you’ll find is when you ask yourself. And then ask yourself again, and then again. Most of us initially don’t know exactly why we are drawn to certain books and away from others. Like me struggling with why so many left me dissatisfied as a kid. We don’t know how to verbalise what we feel and we latch on to obvious superficial details, which is probably how genre arose in the first place. I don’t like much fantasy, yet some of my favourite books are fantasy. I almost never read historical fiction yet I adore both Austen and Lee.

That’s not to say many readers of fantasy don’t love fantasy. I used to say I was a sci-fi slut. I’d read anything from that section of the library. I’ve grown more discerning but yes, the weird and fantastical, the inventive and mind boggling has an allure of its own.

However, I don’t want to delve too much into character and worldbuilding, because these are the pieces and the board, and plot is the game. That doesn’t mean they are separate – they are never separate in good storytelling – but in this instalment the emphasis is on the relationships, the dynamics between the elements, how we use plot to reveal character and our fixed elements to drive the action.

 It was never about the monster. It was about the emotion. The monster came from that. We didn’t always make them unique. We tried as much as possible, but what was important was how they related to the characters and that’s what made them unique. – Joss Whedon

One of the main things that bothered me in both of the books I read recently, those that inspired this series, is how shallow and uninteresting the relationships were. In part of course this does come down to character and other fixed elements. Their needs, wants, fears and obligations were never well developed, or even mentioned in some cases. But it goes so much further. There was no tension, no growth, no conflict. In one, the main potential hot young love interest declares his love for our heroine before our adventure even begins. They even plan a date.  This explodes the ticking timebomb of their relationship and kills any will they/won’t they speculation. Some – I’m guessing the writer – might labour under the misapprehension that this is an annoying cliché best got rid of. How its done can certainly be annoying and clichéd, but all they are actually getting rid of is a good reason to read on, tension, stakes, curiosity about how things will pan out. When our heroine makes a tit of herself in front of Hot Young Potential Love Interest (HYPLI?) it doesn’t matter, he’s hers. Whey they run into that sexy alien, no worries, he’s hers. When he comes across like he’s thoroughly p’d off with her, she knows he’s still hers. If I am completely honest I couldn’t really figure out what he was doing there.

Blindly attempting to subvert formula, being different for the sake of it, often leads to contrived conflicts, going against established rules of character and world. Even those who identify (and it aint rocket science, sadly I’d be terrible at that) the importance of creating emotional draws, don’t seem to recognise how to do this, mostly they put the emphasis on the story and not on the reader and how the two interact. It leads to an over-reliance on blunt tools, such as raising the bad guy body count to that of an exponentially self replicating virus, trite montages, poor little unloved hero flashbacks, long monologues where our HYPLI tells our modest heroine of how amazing she doesn’t know she is and the inclusion of otherwise pointless characters such as dying children and siblings with random ailments (most of which cause big eyes and sickly sweet advice). The reason they feel the need to raise the stakes til the universe is ending, is because no matter how high they ratchet it up, they just don’t care. This is linear thinking. A sad thing causes sadness, an exciting thing causes excitement. Fiction is not that simple, especially in the written form. Car chases make me yawn, body counts are literally just numbers. You need to think beyond the obvious. The most exciting moment in The Chamber of Secrets was when a boy wrote his name: Tom Marvolo Riddle..

 There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they DO NOT KNOW ABOUT IT – Men In Black

A linear plot is marked by static signposts. Moving parts make it infinitely harder to see the full picture and predict the outcome. In short they keep your reader on their toes, excited, engaged. All your main elements should be interacting and acting on one another, changing one another, shifting the goalposts. Or signposts.

To return to our quest. We follow a clue, we turn up in our new exotic land, adventure ensues, odds overcome, clue found and we’re on to the next land. This fails to do the above, because no matter how interesting a diversion it was, it didn’t really matter much. Nothing that happened there apart from the clue was of consequence, and even finding the clue doesn’t deviate from our course, like the sun following the moon, it’s as expected. Even if this is where we meet our mildly distracting Princess who becomes either saving grace or King of all Evil, it doesn’t change the linear flow. She simply reappears at the end. But what if mildly distracting Princess ends up coming along with our crew? That’s really going to throw a spanner in the budding romance with Prickly But Beautiful. And should she turn out to be the King of All Evil, after becoming a member of the crew, friend, trusted ally?

That’s a particularly bold example. You can’t pick up a new crewmate in every harbour, that becomes a formula in itself. But the way that one change can create other changes throughout your story, is where the interest really lies. Men in Black use a similar format, tracking down clues which leads them ultimately to a face off – or skin off – with the Big Bad. In one early interview we have a squeeze-the-slightly-dodgy-informant-set -up, a standard of the genre, however the way in which they play with this format makes it a genius piece of subversion and non-linear revelation.

Not merely because of the way it plays with our expectations in all the ways that we want it to, but never would have predicted, but because of the way they subtly alter how Jay interprets his new world and develop the relationship between him and the stoic Kay. The noisy cricket, the tiny little Kinder egg gun, from the man who calls him ‘sport’ and ‘kid’ at every opportunity, but turns out to be so powerful it blows him out the window. Kay’s seemingly cold blooded act of murder, forcing Jay to turn his noisy cricket on him, right at the moment the man he’s just shot grows another head. He is increasingly being wrong footed and it is forcing him to put his trust in a man who explains nothing, and is as unpredictable as the new world. Of course Jay isn’t quite the trusting type, yet.

To return to an analogy I used in the first part of this, think of it like throwing a pebble in a pond. Too many writers think it causes only one ripple moving in one direction. In reality the ripples are everywhere, moving forward, back, sideways. And when they bump into those static elements, those signposts stuck in the water, more ripples form.

Consequence is your friend if you are remotely interested in depth and nuance. Not a shocker that I like this. I like the little touches, the details. It’s hard to even think of an example because the real little touches, they fade into the background, but it’s this background that allows everything else, the important things, to stand out. A good way to get a handle on ripples is to understand the currents that drive them. Some might refer to these as themes. They aren’t always obvious til the end, but good writing is re-writing. In Men in Black a recurring theme is seen in the way the obvious is subverted, from Jay ignoring the monsters and shooting the little girl in the training test to the galaxy on the cats collar. The theme is things are not always what you think; small can be powerful, ugly can be beautiful. Using a theme this way, a link between your ripples, creates a sort of alternate storyline beneath the surface adding depth and making that line a little less linear.

No, I’m not finished yet. One more instalment, then I might have a handle on this. Here’s a pressie in the meantime. I still love this!! You have no soul if your foot doesn’t start tapping immediately.

 

 

Linear storytelling: Graduating Class

Disclaimer: Terminology in writing is – well, its indicative of how unorganised and confusing the field can be – but its difficult to find agreement, and being writers you tend to find yourself arguing semantics and rather missing the point. I acknowledge up front that I am stretching the definition of linear storytelling here. If I knew a better way of defining it I would use it, but like show and tell, at the moment we’re stuck with this one.

writing-is-hard

For most, linear storytelling defines a basic structure and is generally meant in a temporal sense: A problem arises on Tuesday, shit gets serious on Wednesday, a ray of hope on Thursday and a happy ever after just in time for the weekend. It’s probably the most common structure in fiction, across all mediums, and even if you have a few flashbacks, dreamy memory sequences, dotted through, by and large it will still be regarded as linear. Austen is linear, Dan Brown, Jk Rowling.

Others would ignore the temporal aspect and say its the causality, specifically that it follows a clear cut line of action, that matters. Simply it’s a story that goes from a to b to c… One development leading directly to the next, so that even in a time travel story such as Back to the Future, the line between action and consequence is so clearly marked that it is still linear. Time is essentially functioning as a location. However, a story such as Kate Mosse’s, Labyrinth, where two storylines from two different time periods are explored simultaneously, is generally not considered an example of linear storytelling under this definition.

I’m going to stretch the definition a little further. I’m going to say time travel, multi-pov, flashbacks, flash-forwards, frame narratives, all the so-called alternatives can suffer from linear storytelling. The key is in the ‘storytelling’ part; it’s the execution that is going to make the vital difference.

And yeah, I said suffer.

There’s never been a time as a reader that I haven’t been a writer as well, but back when my terminology was nil and I had only gut instincts I was often left with a sense of dissatisfaction. A promise the blurb made that the writer had been unable to deliver on. Usually I put it down to the characters, I had/have a lot of problems with characters, but that was only the visible part I could easily grasp. Recently I reread a childhood favourite – one I remember liking the characters in – and found a whole other problem, one repeated in a adult fantasy book that is garnering lots of rave reviews.

Linear storytelling.

It is in essence the literary equivalent of doing a join the dots puzzle. I could see the whole picture before I began, I knew every step we were going to take and when complete it was exactly as expected and nothing like I’d hoped. Still barely a sketch.

The issue here is that most of us will construct linearly. Life is constructed linearly and, as said above, a shift in time, or pov, will not necessarily solve the issue. I recently read a Sue Grafton novel which divided the pov and was so bored with the alternative narrator I started skipping it, and it was a better book for it. Grafton follows the classic PI model of digging where the clues lead, surely as linear as they come, and yet never delivers a linear story.

And I would be a liar if I said screw the consequences! Consequences matter, causality matters especially when it comes to suspension of disbelief and getting your reader fully invested. If your PI gets shot, she needs to make a pit-stop at the hospital not take on six henchmen after tying a hankie over the wound. If anything I would plead that most storytellers pay more attention to consequences not less.

What about throwing random curveballs in a la Gothika? Also not the answer. Simply saying Gothika probably told you that. In fact pretty much everything you automatically think of as breaking the line of action can be problematic, while those things that might seem to exacerbate the issue might actually be where your answer lies.

I likened the effect as being like a join the dots puzzle where you can see every step that’s coming. And now I’m going to suggest that the answer, the cure for what I consider the great ill of the mediocre, might lie in foreshadowing. Not the answer, like I would ever suggest anything is that simple, but a technique that if mastered could definitely help.

Many interpret foreshadowing as the classic.. ‘If only she had known what was about to happen..’

On Wednesday Morning it had rained very heavily, the lane was wet and muddy, but the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent’s house for what was to be the last time.  –   The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

The interesting thing about Adam’s foreshadowing is that he immediately goes into the explanation that a bypass is planned right where this house sits. Of course once you read on you realise the real threat is a little bit bigger and a lot more interesting. Thus even this most rudimentary form of foreshadowing creates a loop within the line, information in the future is effecting how we read what came before, making us draw backwards, pull forwards and rewrite our understanding.

Breaking the linear curse relies on understanding that it is essentially an effect, as are most of the more complex ideas in writing, and its all about understanding how your words are working on the reader. The lines that matter are the ones drawn in the mind, the connections they make, what they expect, see and hope for. Expectation, whether anticipation or dread, is vital to good storytelling.

The above form of foreshadowing is pretty blunt and best suits an omniscient narrator. There are far more subtle ways to seed the present with expectations of the future. Something as simple as changing this line – The moon was shining – to  – The moon was shining that night – will create a greater sense of something noteworthy about to happen.  However, I don’t want to put the focus on the prose. There are potentially countless ways to seed through your narrative, the things that make the difference – really make the difference – lie more in the content than the style.

Take for example a theft from a high security building.

As the thieves carry out their heist, a small red light starts to blink in the corner.

An alarm?

But what if an alarm is not heard?

What if we don’t see guards sitting in a room with another flashing red light?

What if we don’t see them storming down the corridor, guns drawn?

What if our thieves don’t suddenly have to complete their task in seconds?

What if they don’t realise anything has changed?

What if that light just quietly blinks? And no one knows why, not even our readers.

The above (that I am suggesting you avoid) are all standard actions you’re likely to see in a heist movie. Our heroes would still get away, after a battle against an army of heavily armed guards. Causally it follows, one action leading to another. It follows standard rules of fiction – nothing can be easy, throw as many obstacles as you can think of at your heroes. It breaks the line of action with a pov shift (to the guards). What it fails to do is create a non-linear form, a realistic outcome, or any anticipation in your reader. The pov shift steals any mystery clearly showing exactly what is happening, the consequences force our heroes to do in seconds what they had previously thought – just for fun? – they’d do in hours and the obstacle, the problem, is solved by the end of the scene.

A classic feature of linear storytelling is raising an issue and solving it before moving on to the next. Once we’ve moved the pen through dot 3 we can forget about it and move on to dot 4. This actually stems from a lack of consequence, because it doesn’t allow for the truism that even a small pebble in a big pond will cause ripples long after and far away from where it landed.  One of the most effective ways to break the linear curse is to create a sort of sub plot out of your obstacle, an underlying festering threat that never quite goes away, or at least not immediately. To carry the ripples with us as we move through the dots.

The reader wants to know what the light was. It bugs them, it draws them back. They’re reading with an eye to figuring it out, to draw allusions, connections within the innocuous.

An example of this, sometimes used well, sometimes not, is Superman and his secret identity. While it became painfully clichéd, in every episode/film/recreation, we’re still wondering how Clark will explain his absence this time, how he’ll be both helpless captor and heroic rescuer, creating an extra layer of obstacle to what might otherwise be painfully easy for the invincible Superman.

The Hunger Games I always felt missed out on a great opportunity when Kat volunteered to save her sister. It was a simple solution and allowed us to quickly move on to the next obstacle. If however she’d not been able to volunteer – why give the tributes any choice, make them think they have some measure of control after all?  – and had to pretend to be her sister, it creates a extra dimension to her already unfortunate situation. Does Peeta know? Will he out her? The dynamic between them becomes even more complicated, she has to trust him, manipulate him or get rid of him. Or all three. And that’s before the games even begin.

Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it… the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters …

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.  -Alfred Hitchcock

Furthering this point I would suggest you don’t mistake mystery for surprise.  The key is expectation. Surprise after all is ‘what you didn’t expect’. When deciding what to reveal or withold, the important point is whether you are creating an emotional investment in what is unfolding. Hitchcock would have it that ‘whenever possible you need to keep the audience informed’  I would slightly modify to say that ‘whenever possible’ means that you need to understand when it is beneficial. Too much and your story is already told. Too little and there is no story.

Another form of foreshadowing is what I term back-shadowing. JK Rowling famously made this her own with the Harry Potter books. It’s where seemingly straight-forward things happen that are then cast in an entirely new light by later developments. Hagrid winning a dragon’s egg in The Philospopher’s Stone creates the immediate problem of what to do with a dragon and how not to get fired over it. Later on we realise it was part of a larger scheme to draw information from him. In this instance its a form of misdirection, one issue is dealt with while the real problem goes unnoticed and is allowed to become a much bigger issue for our heroes to face.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this would be the one ring to rule them all. Found in one book, a trinket, a saving grace, and nothing more, it becomes the fate of the world in another. Despite the recent filmic attempts to suggest otherwise, there was not initially any suggestion the ring was more than a magic trick. Tolkien himself later suggested revisions that allowed a hint of the true power the ring had, at least in terms of how attached Gollum had become to it.

In the second edition edits, to reflect the new concept of the ring and its corrupting abilities, Tolkien made Gollum more aggressive towards Bilbo and distraught at losing the ring. The encounter ends with Gollum’s curse, “Thief! Thief, Thief, Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” This presages Gollum’s portrayal in The Lord of the Rings. – Wikipedia

It is still considering everything – burning worlds, bound to the will of pure evil etc – a relatively inauspicious introduction, yet those reading out of order will find a chill running down their spine, a sense of ‘when does it happen?’ in their minds at the start of each chapter. Even those who read in order, if they know anything of what will come, will read with a certain guiding curiosity.

This got away from me a little. It is one of my greatest bug bears in writing, a hidden trap that even seemingly competent and assured writers are too often unable to avoid. Both books that inspired this are well received, one award winning, yet I struggled to maintain interest in either. They both had different flaws at their hearts, different styles, different techniques, yet the effect was the same, linear and dull. A flattening of a story that should have throbbed with intrigue and life.

I’ve only begun to touch upon how it might be remedied. So I guess if you are interested, stay tuned for part two.

 

Why do you write…really?

Ask most writers why they write – and its a question that gets asked a surprising amount by writers themselves – and you’ll likely get an answer that either draws an awww or a respectful nod. Most of us claim we write for the joy of it, despite also claiming that it is a torturous process we struggle to force ourselves to engage in. The anonymous, oft quoted phrase, ‘I hate writing. I love having written’, is a writers favourite, seeming to many of us to simply be a truism of the craft and needing no attribution except ‘that’s the way it is.’ We – and that’s definitely including me – claim to be driven by the story within, the need to recreate it perfectly on the page and the frustration of our own inadequacies.

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Another commonly cited reason is to effect change. To put out something of value that the writer believes the world must hear. I try and avoid books like those and yet…. I don’t want to be responsible for the world and I haven’t come up with any answers other than, be nice. I think people should think for themselves. But I also frequently shake my head in horror when they do. From democracy to the realisation the lunatics are running the asylum, there’s no part of that I want my writing to be held accountable for, but I can’t in fairness deny that I am commenting on this messed up, pissed up, pissed off world with every word I write. I don’t know how not to. Frequently I wish I could master it, because I really don’t want – should I get my dues and become rich and famous – to be rich or famous. Not when I know this messed up, pissed up, pissed off world is going to want to have a little chat with me about my views on it.

And hypocritically, I want more honesty from writers. More credibility in their attempts to address relevant issues or better put, I am assuming a lack of credibility in their attempts. I want them to step up and answer to my beliefs, take a look through my eyes. Perhaps because I am too cowardly to do it myself? I’ll still quibble that I am not offering answers but simply a new vantage point. Yet given the nature of my stories I have to own that its a possibility I might be writing to say something.

*shudder*

I’ve always felt a certain ambiguity with publication. I’m not comfortable with it, with being in the public sphere, however obscure I might remain within it, and yet I still write, I still dream of this career. I can’t let go of the need to say something and to have that something heard.

Why do we write?

George Orwell, a man I listen to ever since he said, It was a bright cold day in April and all the clocks were striking thirteen, believed there were four main reasons. And they aren’t going to make you think ‘awwww’.

The first, egoism. Pure and simple. You write to say to the world, look at me, listen to me. I am worth it.

The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

Interestingly I think its worth remembering that he wrote this essay back in 1946. The second world war had just ended, a time when millions of men and women had given their lives in the defence of their country, their home, but also for strangers, for a belief in duty and the responsibility of every man and woman to fight for the greater good. I can’t help but wonder if he would find the entire world of 2016 acutely selfish? Me-time is a thing, we’re raised to follow our passions and a life well lived is a life of self-fulfilment.

On the other hand every time I read a meme on facebook or twitter I wonder who it serves. My liberal friends preach to their liberal friends about their liberal values – are they genuinely under the impression it might effect some change or merely looking to cement their sense of self righteousness?

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The second reason, a little purer. Aesthetic enthusiasm. I do love how he phrases that.

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

I love this, especially that last line. It’s a truly lovely way to put it and yes, to contradict myself, did draw an ‘aww’, but only half of one as I was already half way through the next line..

The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers..

He does go on to say that he believes beauty or the appreciation of it at least, is present in even the most workmanlike prose. I’ve read his opinions on his peers’ prose, so that’s really, honestly, little comfort.

Third, he calls Historical Impulse.

Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity

This is a little nebulous and I can’t help think owes much to the first, a desire to store oneself up for posterity, certainly our own perception of true facts.

Finally fourth, seeming to my mind to be another subset of the first, Political Purpose.

Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after

Every dictator in the world was likely motivated by reasons three and four. And just in case you do have any last remaining notions of nobility, he sums up..

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.  For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.

So, why do you write? Willing to be a ‘windowpane’ and look upon yourself with the same searing honesty?