The rise of the superhero genre in the modern age: when they should be enjoying their retirement in Florida

A fellow writer just asked a very innocent question: What genre are Superhero’s?

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Poor fellow.

So started the inevitable war of lines. Where does science fiction begin and fantasy end? For those not in the know, despite the tendency to lump these two together for some of us – *who me? whistles innocently* – there are some very clear and very important distinctions. In attempting to answer as helpfully as possible ie avoid ranting at the poor fellow, something – a thought that had been blowing about the cobwebbed corners of my consciousness for some time, suddenly came into focus.

Why in this time, this era of virtual superhighways, when kids are being treated for minecraft addiction before puberty, and you’re more likely to get unfriended than wedgied, are superheroes so popular?

It made sense when they first captured our imaginations. The post war era was one of revolutionary change. We’d just survived a war that, like none before it, wasn’t won by men in trenches but men in labs. Rockets, cruise missiles, atomic bombs, radar, computers, no war has ever advanced technology at such a pace as World War II. In attempting to defend our way of life we changed it forever.

The impossible suddenly seemed possible in both wondrous and monstrous ways. The atomic bomb had brought the dangers of nuclear energy to the forefront of our less than reality checked media’s attention, while the thalidomide scandal in the early 60’s saw thousands of pregnant women take a new wonderdrug only to give birth to children with malformed limbs, organs – including eyes and hearts – and other severe, in many cases fatal, deformities. Science must have felt like a terrifying abyss of possibilities. And in that was born the Superhero.

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Across the range of superheroes we see the sciences and their promises personified; the technology of Batman, the nuclear fallout of the Hulk, the space program in Superman. They meshed these two very distinct ideas, found a way to make them work together, advancement and destruction, man and machine, to balance the terrifying power of something beyond the human. In some odd way it makes me think of the old pagan traditions of praying to weather Gods. As if the best way we know to deal with anything this powerful is to reshape it in our own image.

Back then I’d have happily let them march under the banner of science fiction. At the forefront even. Cartoonish, overblown, yes, but in some ways that was a genuine reflection of how it must have felt, of the attitudes of the time. The ideas explored, issues raised, felt real, grotesquely, impossibly, possible.

Now? Batman is a car advert. Spiderman would probably just end up at A&E and Superman is an endless nerd debate about supersuit dry cleaners. Science has kept marching on and with it our credibility has been stretched. No one believes we’re exploring the possible anymore. Genetic modifications are more likely to keep your tomatoes fresh than give you the ability to climb up walls.

And no one cares.

They seem like tv’s in wooden boxes like a relic of a bygone era but in the last few years they’ve dominated the screen, large and small. Marvel’s extended universe is netting billions, with five shows currently running, over a dozen films already made and a dozen more in the pipeline. And don’t imagine DC isn’t fighting back, the Justice League will rise again in a theatre near you soon. Comic-cons around the world sell out in minutes, while sales of graphic novels – their original home – have risen year on year, netting over $870 million in 2014 compared to a mere $265 million in 2000.

It’s the biggest game in town.

And I for one, am very curious why.

One of the fundamental differences between sci-fi and fantasy – one that matters to me – is perspective. Sci-fi is always reaching forward, while fantasy predominately looks backwards. Despite superficial visual advancements much of the genre remains steeped in the past. Batman invents cool cars and abseiling equipment while in real life kids download dirty bomb schematics of the internet. Iron Man may be set against a background of arms dealing and terrorism, but his ultimate face off is still an unrealistically enhanced meglomaniac, one that armies and police forces are helpless against. One only he can defeat. The very idea of a lone hero feels left over from another age, one of Knights and chivalry, when one man armed with just a sword could fell the oncoming hordes. And perhaps that’s its appeal.

The humanity we foisted on the inhuman forces we were uncovering has morphed into a code. No longer just a face, but a set of values that cannot be transgressed, like the Knights oath, they promise to be bound by honour, justice, to put their powers into service for us. The science is no longer important, and with it goes any limitations, now its about power and control. We’ve returned to the weather gods. Despite their hi-tech weaponry and modern setting, they offer the comfort of the past and the promise that if we’re good, we’ll always be protected.

The superhero offers us a messiah, just like a religion. In the modern western world science was supposed to have bested that kind of thinking. While their popularity in the emerging modern east seems to run contrary to their strong allegiance to the notion of state over individuality. Perhaps its because the superhero of today is not a man, but an idea. Of sacrifice, of strength. Recent reincarnations of Superman have all but banished the Clark Kent aspect of the character. While the name remains, everything he embodied, the man behind the suit, the weakness, hopes, and fears have gone. In Man of Steel he was a Greek god in tight white tee-shirt and billowing locks. A rock video messiah, with a kick-ass mamma to match. Lois knows his powers as soon as she knows his face.

He – like all superheroes – is constantly asked to put friends and lovers to the side in order to serve the greater good. In the seventies Superman was defined by his love for Lois, turning back time and giving up his powers for her. He never stops trying – and failing – to win her love as Clark, as himself, a man not a birthright.

Today’s superheroes are blighted by equally unsuccessful love lives, but rarely is it down to being bad at flirting and a bit of acne. Rather they choose to reject love out of a sense of responsibility to protect. The most recent series of the Flash ended with our hero walking into a prison of Tantalus proportions in order to maintain the balance of life, just as he saves the girl. Their choice is their burden.

The Dark Knight reincarnation of Batman, which many might credit with spearheading the current resurgence of the genre, worked this particular angle to mythic proportions, with Batman hiding out as a reviled monster in the belief that this lie serves a better world. At the end, when he does get the girl, he does so after handing on the Superhero mantle. Only by ensuring the world is protected can he become a man again.

Identity has always been an integral part of the genre. Comics were not always the mainstream entertainment they are today. And it’s not a coincidence that the most common true identity of any superhero is the geek, the scientist, the underdog; woven in to their tapestry is every lonely teenage boy, from frustrated love to confusing physical changes to struggles with authority.

With their mainstream acceptance, it seems our heroes have gotten a cool new makeover. Deadpool and Iron Man wise crack like comedians on speed, and if they’re not witty then they’re stacked like – well like Thor. It more often feels like they are the authority – overworked, unappreciated and all encompassing.

Some might argue that they’ve simply evolved, grown up a little, gotten a little dirtier, as tends to happen as we get older. The Dark Knight stands as a landmark in tone, introducing grit, and a lot of grey filters to the world of Superheroes. At least in the cinematic universe. In the comic-verse anti-hero works such as Constantine and Jonah Hex, have been kicking around for a while. The problem is their flaws aren’t weaknesses – saying ‘I’m an unstoppable force against the darkness’ is a weakness is a little like saying in an interview that you work too hard. Growing up for most of us means we become more vulnerable, we accrue back injuries and mortgages, not body counts. But yet again that might be their appeal. Their audience nowadays seems just as likely to be worrying about the taxman stealing their retirement fund as bullies stealing their lunch money.

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We’re lulled into a false belief that we’re witnessing darkness, facing uncomfortable realities embodied in husky voices and unshaved jawlines, when what we’re really witnessing is the uncompromising scope of their power. Their darkness reassures us. It reinforces the code, the black and white morality in play. These are men who do not stop in their pursuit of justice, who do not tire of smiting the unworthy, who will not let death or love distract them. Iron Man will not let the Mandarin go unchecked because Pepper is in danger. They will always choose the righteous path, its just littered with a lot of bodies.

And perhaps most importantly in the anti-hero handbook, they choose who is righteous. In Winter Soldier we’re presented with the idea that the entire organisation of SHIELD is evil despite every life they’ve saved, every world ending plan they’ve thwarted because some folk in it had been plotting against them. Yet Cap has no problem defending said Winter Soldier, one of their evil plots, because ‘friend’.

In the current landscape I find that a little troubling. I’ve never had much time for simplistic notions of good and evil or of circumnavigating individual choice. Vigilantism isn’t about taking the law into your own hands, its about taking judgement into your own hands. Something some of us seem too eager to dole out.

The dark subtext to religion is that it doesn’t just offer comfort in the form of goodness will be rewarded, but that allegiance to great power will protect. If I play by their rules, by their definitions of right, I will be safe. The current resurgence of superheroes, the dark anti-superhero, seems to be reinforcing pack mentality, a might is right approach. They’re still defined by their ability to lift really heavy stuff and pile up a lot of henchmen. Even when dealing with ideas of evolution, evolution to a higher form of existence, power is defined by how dangerous you are, how many you can wipe out. They have to create increasingly ridiculous villains and outlandish plans in order to justify the superhero and the destruction his anachronistic powers leave in their wake. Like gods themselves, the battles seem not unlike some ancient clashing of the Greek Titans, certainly in terms of how little they pertain to real life threats. Ultron chips out a country sized meteor in order to give them lots of screaming innocents and crumbling buildings to justify their death tallies. While Whedon had to write a lot of monologue cliches in order to justify why anyone – let alone an alien AI created to protect the world – would ever want to go to such convoluted lengths to destroy it in a time with nuclear warheads, computer virus’s and weaponized diseases.

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It may not be that their appeal is quite as actively nefarious as that. But there is no doubt power has an almost irresistible pull and nothing embodies it more than the simple act of knocking a man down. Violence has long been fetishized in Hollywood – and probably in literature and art of all kinds – but its never been as prevalent as it is today. The convergence of superheroes, the embodiment of goodness and self sacrifice, with all these elements, violence, power, the way it offers a simple black and white map to justice, vindication, may go some ways to explaining why they are so popular. A simple, fun answer, free of consequences or doubts. It’s a very long way from its science origins.

All of which sounds a lot like it adds up to someone who just doesn’t like superheroes. And honestly that’s not true. I may be more a Close Encounters of the Third Kind girl, but I was a mad x-men freak as a kid and still secretly want to write Rogue and Gambit fan fiction. Modern incarnations aren’t appealing to me, I don’t like many of the themes driving them, the twisted values that keep cropping up, the stand-in of violence for maturity, but the core ideas, the curiosity that drove the comics that gave birth to them are still worth exploring, identity, power, possibility, consequence. One of the other things that I believe defines science fiction is that it ask questions, rather than clings to dogma and old beliefs because they are safe. Science, in fiction or in a lab, seeks to push beyond the accepted into the treacherous territory of being wrong, making mistakes and not knowing where we’re going to end up.

Superheroes can still lead us there. If we’re willing to take a step into the unknown.

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Why Do Storytellers Ignore Story?

It seems a little like meeting a man who insists the dust is wet and the sea is dry. Some things are just too obvious surely?

I’m usually pretty good at ‘getting – not agreeing – but getting where people are coming from with opinions that are different from mine. We’re driven by pretty similar things when it comes right down to it – love sex and rocky road ice-cream.

I get the endless drowning of story in sex and violence, why Voyager winched poor Seven into that costume, why Buffy’s hair was always perfect, I can even wrap my head around the endless machinations of the hideous folk that people stuff like Gone Girl, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Like it, no, agree with it, hell no, admire it… do I have to answer that?

But when writers skip right past the story, the story built into the premise, the plot, the characters, the very title! – not address it poorly, but just ignore it entirely. Can they not see it? Genuinely or is there some deeper reason they don’t want to address it?

Take Voyager. It was as the name implies a ship on an epic voyage. A voyage home. It’s on a mission into the badlands in the alpha quadrant to track down a missing Maquis vessel, tracing the route of the rebel ship they find themselves mysteriously transported across the galaxy to the delta quadrant, 70,000 light years from home.

It’s a great premise.

Here’s more.

The rebel ship has a spy aboard – Tuvok – Captain Janeways confidant and security chief.

Captain Janeway destroys the mysterious array that transported both ships, acting under what she believes are Starfleet principles, the very principles that have left the Maquis as outcasts.

The Maquis vessel is sacrificed by Chakotay in order to protect both crews from an attacking native species, the Kazon

A ‘helpful’ trader manipulates them into saving his friend and creates the animosity that in part causes the Kazon to attack.

The two crews – because of Janeways actions – are now stuck together. Although Starfleet outnumber the Maquis considerably.

Besides Tuvok, there is another traitor, Paris, a jailbird, brought on board to help navigate the badlands, who sold them out for a reduced sentence.

The Maquis crew include a half Klingon who washed out of the academy, a Cardassian infiltrator and a beta-zoid sociopath.

I don’t think you could GET a premise more ripe with story. At the end of the opening episodes, you have both crews alone, in the debris of the battle…and there is Chakotey in full uniform beside Janeway as she announces how they’re all going to have to make their new crew members welcome ..

And all of a sudden it’s homeward bound only with pointy ears instead of wagging tails..

 

Oh story raises its head now and again but it’s tepid, token at best, raised and solved in a neat half hour, with no real sense of underlying tension or unrest. And the only time any true voice of dissent appears she is quickly relegated to a cartoon villain role, revealed to be a traitor, and departs – the same episode – to make an alliance with their new enemies the Kazon.

Can you set up something so ripe and not see its potential? I suppose its possible. Perhaps there were conflicts. Whedon has spoken somewhat openly about the demands of working within an established franchise when he stepped down from hemming the Avengers. Star Trek is huge and at the time Voyager was launched it was at its height, with Deep Space Nine still running and the popular TNG having not long wrapped. It may have been intended to fill that void, and veering from the well worn formula may have had opposition. It’s also worth remembering that DS9 is often considered the least Star Trek of the franchise, – with little trekking involved, a very alien-heavy main cast, and a willingness to undermine and question the untouchable Federation. The Maquis are never painted as villains, even when one of the crew is revealed to be a member, betraying them all, he is unrepentant to the end and shows both heroism and treachery.

Voyager rather than further exploiting this complex situation seems almost instead to function like party sponsored arbitrator, absolving the rebels of anything but misguided good intentions while not so subtly upholding Starfleet values and practices at every turn, moulding them all in the accepted Federation way..

Propaganda in writing is probably unavoidable but on behalf of a fictional institution? Yikes…

I’ve encountered a lot of threads on a lot of boards (its a weird way to be jaded, but I like the tobacca-chewing image) with writers saying, I have my characters – I’m great at characters! – or I have my setting – I’m great at world building! – but I can’t think of plot. And each and every time I think, but if you have characters, you have plot. If you have a world you have plot. You might suffer from too many to chose from, but you surely shouldn’t be faced with none?

Unless of course by character they mean 5’5, 124lbs, good student, average athlete, likes hotdogs, punk music and hates long walks on the beach. if so, please revise your previous assessment. You suck at characters. It’s not an e-harmony profile..

I have no difficulty wrapping my head around the issues with works such as Interstellar. Not to say its forgivable but they didn’t ignore the story sitting in front of their eyes, they just ignored the lack of story sitting in front of their eyes.

Ignoring causality, believability, and accountability in favour of visuals and cheap tricks that tickle the directors fancy – or wallet – is pretty standard. Hollywood is an odd mix of both wanton self indulgence and ruthless risk avoidance in pursuit of profit. Much of this results, as in the case of Voyager with a rigid adherence to formula over and above anything approaching character. The strings are so clearly marked you can see the reason written like chalk directions on a clapper board in front of every action, and its never, ‘because that’s how the character would naturally react’.

In Age of Ultron we have Tony Stark the troublemaking genius who pushes at every barrier just to test it, deciding to use mind blowing alien tech not because its mind blowing alien tech but to keep his superhero friends and family safe. Or Black widow – I mean the name says it all – but she eschews her name, training and flirt with everyone commit to no-one personality to fall headlong in love with a man who despite being a giant uncontrollable monster, is, we can only assume, a scintillating conversationalist..

And finally we have a villain, built from a desire to protect the world, who just wants to drop something really big on it.

Given the established party line is formula bad.. thank you Hulk, while character and conflict are both revered as good, you sort of wonder if this is an honest attempt gone wrong. Not just Age of Ultron, but much of Hollywood’s output. That they can’t in fact see how closely they are adhering to cliché, but rather imagine that they are plumbing the emotional depths of their characters.

Sometimes I think we get character and personality mixed up. We use the former in writing a lot, we talk about flaws and traits, depth and believability, yet we rarely end up with a personality, that unique messy blend that defines a person.

when writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters – Earnest Hemingway

Character is the best most natural and compelling form of conflict there is. Their power to drive and shape plot, provide obstacles and generate tension is however, rendered utterly obsolete when they’re all the same character; when every writer is looking not to life, to the people around them, even within to the truth of their own feelings and reactions, but to tropes, to established patterns of behaviour within fiction, we’ve left story far behind.

Pixar storytelling rule #15 If you were your character in this situation how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations

Returning to Interstellar, we have a little girl who adores her father and wants to grow up to be a scientist just like him. When he has to go off to save the world (for her) she gets mad at him. Fair enough, it’s a standard trope but believable enough. I wouldn’t have behaved this way, nor can I imagine my brother or sister reacting similarly, but we grew up in a happy two parent home, with no threats of imminent world ending so who knows. Where the trouble starts to come is that in the few days that her father is traversing space and looking through his messages, a great deal more time has passed on earth. And his daughter is still mad. Twenty years later. It makes for a poignant moment for poor old dad, if you’re willing to go along with it. I’m not sure how any fully grown woman, fully cognizant of the tragedy facing mankind and how few remain who are skilled enough to offer any help could possibly still be mad, especially when all she has to do is chat into a laptop camera, as pain free apologies go they don’t come much easier.

Beyond character – as some might put it – you have world. I don’t personally think the two are distinct. World – at least any we know – is built by people, what we do, what we need, what we fear and how we deal with it all.

In the case of Interstellar you have again a lack, rather than avoidance. The world is dying, but no one knows why. Most of the action is not spend dealing with either figuring this out or attempting to deal with the reality of it, but navigating space where we are treated to a series of inconsequential, implausible and somewhat tenuously linked issues, none of which relate to the characters. The final solution does actually attempt to link back to the central (apparently) relationship of father and daughter, suggesting their deep abiding love could connect them across space and time. The same abiding love that left a grown woman perfectly content to see her father strive and die alone in space knowing his daughter is pissed off with him… mmmm I hope no one involved ever decides to love me..

But Voyager… ah Voyager. There is a reason fan-fiction is so ripe in the Star Trek community. It’s a rich ready made soil. A plethora of alien species, existing conflicts, and the unlimited possibilities of a new system without the tying strings and danger-free familiarity of the Federation controlled home territories.

Or consider Age of Ultron. Many films draw on the world we have here and now, positing an alien – literally or otherwise – element and then simply asking what if? I often find this sort of premise somewhat akin to superhero origin stories. Our instinct is the new is always preferable from a story pov, but in reality there is little new left. They’re all dealing with essentially the same thing, treading the same ground of shock and denial, horror and wonder, something that makes the second instalment or third much more appealing. We can go deeper. Or we can rehash. Hulk is targeted.. again. Tony and Steve butt heads .. again and none of it affects the seamless fighting dynamic of this disparate group who’ve barely seen each other – as all the intermediate franchise films demonstrate. New territory is provided by going against the established canon. The chemistry between Hawkeye and Black Widow fizzles to nothing as he suddenly has a wife and three kids (who were totally not worried when he was under the evil power of Loki), the fall of the triskelion – eh… the what now? and Fury’s surrender of power become irrelevant like all the other intervening events. While the world at large continues with the same old headline – Avengers: friend or foe?

Superhero films as a genre have always struck me as particularly guilty of the ‘ignore story’ protocol. Is this a matter of fearing to disrupt an existing audience? Comics themselves have grown in darkness and scope, holding firm as the lonely teenage geeks best friend but no longer afraid to piss off mom and dad by addressing everything from masturbation to sexual identity. In fact identity has always been at its core, it just got a little dirtier.

I get wanting to remain loyal to your fans, the aspirational quality that has always defined them whether it’s wisecracking Deadpool or earnest icon Superman. But to borrow that old adage about courage.. is aspiration defined by lack of struggle or the overcoming of struggles? It can’t be a coincidence that the vast majority of superheroes have such pathetic roots – bullied, belittled, orphaned, traumatised – but to render overcoming as simply as buying some spandex and coincidental as shit-other-folks-did-made-me-cool? Somewhat redefines ‘overcoming’…

Some recent films have seemed to attempt to address this. Chronicle is about powers gone wrong; Zach Snyder commits the ultimate sin when his superman kills; Spiderman lets a criminal walk free. Yet none of it speaks to the individual’s struggle. It’s portrayed as an attraction to the dark side(usually leggy and smelling of whisky), a contrived set up, a superficial attitude that never dints their self sacrificing heroics.

Nowhere else is this more agonisingly evident than in Superman and most specifically in his recent incarnations. The Clark Kent persona has been discarded, reduced to the equivalent of a fake moustache rather than the real man behind the blue suit. By removing all the inherent weaknesses of Clark Kent – the difficulty of growing up different, wondering where you really belong, having to conceal physical abnormalities, the desire to be loved and accepted for who you truly are, feeling inadequate in face of the expectations placed on you – you reduce Superman to less than even a ‘character’, to a symbol.

Lastly one of my pet hates is the curious paradox of the hero who must bear the ‘responsibility’ of his powers, yet in doing so renders all others free. The Flash must fight for Central City because no one else will.. well honestly if folk won’t stand up and help themselves. If all the brilliant bright minds, deep pockets, political powerhouses can’t ante up and do something then I’d honestly be saying screw you. The demands – the constant cries of save us! – has he abandoned us? – are embraced as staples of the genre, as evidence of his unique chosen-one stature rather than examined on a larger scale. No one addresses the very real evidence that the only people who put all their needs on someone else are usually abusers.

Now there is a story – does society abuse superheroes? I’m sure someone will be along to ignore it any day now..

Story Genius: Can A Book Tell You How to Write?

Lord that’s a dull title. I’m getting a little serious here.

I’ve been reading my first ever ‘craft book’, Story Genius by Lisa Cron. It was leant to me by an aficionado of her method and neatly coinciding as it did with my decision to write a piece on pantsing vs plotting, the different approaches writers take, it felt fortuitous… or at least indicative of many minds – the great and slightly bonkers  – thinking alike.

Structure, plotting, outlining, formula.. lots of different words all amounting to the same thing. A concern with shaping your story before you actually write, or even conceive your basic idea. The difference in words is to my mind nothing to do with their meaning, or their result, and everything to do with how writers wish their work to be perceived. Structure has integrity while formula is derided as the approach of hacks. And there could be some merit to that – structure does matter – but in every discussion I see on it, it’s reduced to a formula, in all but name.

The questions being asked aren’t, is this working structurally? Why is this bit falling flat? Why does interest flag by this point? (And even these I write with caveats) But rather, how do I structure my novel? Who has a good blueprint I can apply? By what page must I perform this plot point in order to comply with this model? As if structure were something to be welded on to an existing story or a pre-existing scaffold you must then wrap your story around. In short that it is something distinctly separate.

When I first started reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, I was really, I have to admit, incredibly curious. I’ve never read a book like this and while I have read snippets of others, I really wanted to see honestly, fairly, whether there was any merit to such a book. Any real craft lessons that could be applied and help a writer grow. I’m about three quarters of the way through and flagging. Initially I wasn’t completely dismissive, although every time I’d think she’s making some sense, she’d say something that would make me pull back and look around, as if to the shocked spectators, thinking ‘dude? Really?’

The foundation of her premise is that readers read with their emotions. Which I agree with. How you engage those emotions however is tricky and will vary reader to reader. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt to acknowledge that on her part or that you’ll never appeal to everyone. She cites big selling examples, including Fifty Shades of Grey, The Little Engine That Could and Die Hard, showing a distinct lack of (taste) and appreciation of how the medium influences your approach, using them as indicators that there is one universal truth – the only truth we need concern ourselves with  – to how story works. Since at least one of those failed to work for me, that’s straight away problematic. Further, despite her claim, she doesn’t demonstrate how any of these fit into her blueprint, even loosely. Instead she uses them mostly to push her claim that all the other concerns we have over what makes a story great are irrelevant.

It’s true that Fifty Shades is horribly written – by beautiful writing standards, that is… And yet, the year Random House acquired the trilogy it catapulted them into the black. In fact, they gave every employee in the United States.. a five thousand dollar holiday bonus. Clearly something is going on here, something that has absolutely nothing to do with the “quality” of the writing. That something is story. – Lisa Cron

Much as I would like to, I can’t dismiss this out of hand. I do think it’s overly simplistic, no evaluation of Fifty Shades can be credible if it refuses to take into account that it was a/ fanfiction that piggy backed on the fame of another best seller and b/porn. Without knowing the exact figures I do know the entire genre of romance/erotica exploded (in a non-sticky sort of way..) around the time of its publication.

Great writing fails time and time again to prove its selling mettle to the public – The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, The Stud – and sadly far too many self published success stories seem to uphold this. As Fifty Shades does. Rejected by publishers, snaffled up by readers, books rushed out in a month or two, building sales and audiences, seeming to deliver exactly what a large percentage of the book buying public want at a fraction of the cost and some would say, quality.

The major issue I would have with all the cited examples (barring Die Hard, obviously) isn’t their lack of beautiful prose but their lack of interesting story, the very thing she claims helped them sell. I may be more sophisticated than the average reader – obviously darling.. but for all I have problems with many of the best sellers I equally take issue, the same issue, with the award winners. While they are full of elegant, unconventional and complex prose, they often sacrifice story in order to maintain this style, because the truth of the matter is the two are never separate. I would go further, nothing is ever separate, including your approach.

This is the fundamental flaw with Story Genius. It continually separates things that are inseparable, creating a sort of hierarchy of consideration with her one concern obliterating all others.  One wise reviewer pointed out that its done in the name of flogging her wares. The oft touted belief that without the surety of the seller, you’d never make a buck. It’s the same thing that stops a PM from shrugging and saying, mate I can’t predict the future, but we’re hopeful.  Instead we lie  – but in order to uphold that lie we twist everything and render it useless.

Take her approach to pantsting and plotting, both of which she cites as myths. She debunks the myth of pantsing by first admitting many great writers do it, (but you know not you.. ) and second by claiming that it persists only because it’s the easy option.

But if pantsing leads to failure, why is it so damn seductive?.. Simple: we’re hardwired to do what’s easy. – Lisa Cron

I can’t believe any writer would ever write that sentence.

And okay, she isn’t a writer, she is an agent, a story consultant, which explains the emphasis on flogging and wares. Yet she wrote this book, she created her ‘method’ surely she has some understanding? All I can say is I may be a rubbish planner, but I would still chose it and housework and treating a crocodile with gonorrhoea over writing. It is the writer’s eternal paradox

I hate writing. I love having written

Plotting she dismisses as surely each and every plotter ever, didn’t consider character.. em… She also takes aim at other well known methods, for the very same reason. None  – not even the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell consider the internal struggle of the character, concerning themselves solely with plotting the external.

..these guides zero in on the sequencing of events in and of themselves as if each “hero” gets tossed into a one-size-fits-all gauntlet. So something “big” happens by page 20, something “dangerous” by page 50.. and so on. Successful stories often do follow the external patterns these guides set forth, so its deceptively easy to believe that all you have to do is ape the shape.. – Lisa Cron

All of which echoes my own concerns. Story follows a certain organic path, by its nature it’s an exploration of a problem, a moment of change and all that entails. It’s easy, like horoscopes, to apply generalities to almost every successful one out there, if you are flexible enough about what ‘big’ means, just as easy to ignore that something equally ‘dangerous’ happens three pages later, and then again four pages on. The more problematic issue is when we try to change the story to fit the model, shifting that dangerous moment to an earlier scene so it’s at the right place. When in essence we separate form and content.

I recently had a discussion about Remember the Titans with a writer who believed it failed as an example of the Hero’s Journey, because there were multiple protagonists and there was no wise mentor. In actuality most of the characters have stories that function more like obstacles standing in the way of the Coach’s goal – to harmonize his team and make them successful. While the Coach works in the role of both hero and mentor. He must guide the young players to be better than their peers, their parents and their fears, in doing so he also points the way to himself. The other writer had applied such a literal interpretation of Campbell’s model that he couldn’t tolerate even these slight variations.

Cron’s desire to marry character with plot and structure very much meshes with my own view, yet despite this claim, in reality she seems to be effectively separating them at every step; identifying one aspect then moulding and adjusting the other to fit in. The example she uses throughout, a story her friend is writing, and I presume she is guiding, doesn’t appear to be an actual novel. And I can understand why. We start with a dog and a woman who doesn’t like dogs and end up with a writer with a partner on life support, a rabid stalker-stroke-fan, an alternate time lime with a girl breaking down on a football pitch, a studio deadline, and a famous actors dog…

Apparently it’s all about how our Protag is afraid to love – which leads to her kidnapping a dog which she doesn’t love and will never love, because she doesn’t love dogs but it will help her write a script all about the power of love…

I know, I know. It’s just as easy to make a story sound ridiculous as it is to make it fit the three act structure. But my eyebrows were disappearing further into my hairline with every plot  – sorry, character motivation, we explored. It felt disjointed and painfully contrived. Cron’s blueprint is hinged around identifying your characters inner struggle – something she designates the third rail, in the belief that like the third rail on a subway train, it’s what drives your story and by default your plot. The problem is that despite understanding there is an influence between the internal and external, they are still two distinct things in her head. And they are created as such. Then she simply searches, or directs her writer to search, for anything that might tie them together, no matter how tenuous they feel, no matter how often they have to rely on coincidence and convenience.

She has decided she is going to have to save Ruby from herself by removing her from her house and sweeping her off to wherever Nora lives (I know, I know, people will wonder how in the world one adult would have the power to do that to another. I’ll figure something out… ) – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

In pursuit of her one universal truth she has cast aside all other considerations, including plausibility and bizarrely for a character-based approach, character. There is never any question of who Ruby is. Her entire personality is distilled into one belief, the one which is her third rail. Again I find myself not entirely in disagreement. I’ve never particularly ascribed to the theory that your character must be fully worked out, in the sense that much of who your character is will never be revealed in your story. Sherlock Holmes and the Prostrate Exam is none of any readers concern. However, I’m not sure that her method has anything to do with character at all, and that she hasn’t in fact just switched terms on us. There is so much simplicity in this approach that I cannot see the character’s desire as anything other than the character’s goal by another name. Her internal struggle or ‘misbelief’ is just more obstacles. Her origin scene is just another inciting incident. Because we aren’t shaped that easily by one event. If changing our belief system where that easy we’d all be psychotic. We’ve taken the external plot structure and dressed it up in ‘character-y’ sounding words.

For all the talk of brain science, which again by any other name is simply psychology or rather the neurological underpinnings of our understanding of it, there is very little scientific rigour in evidence. Even the Myers-Brigg test is more sophisticated and that only measures four out of the agreed upon five personality factors, which determine much of our behaviour and how we will respond to external events. Take Sherlock again – while I haven’t given a great deal of thought to his prostrate, should I chose to I could well imagine how it might go. Why? Not as the third rail suggests because I have some notion of his one defining belief, but rather because I know what kind of man he is. Sanguine about matters that others find squeamish, arrogant to the point he always presumes he knows best, plain speaking as he believes efficacy trumps (others) ego’s, yet finds it difficult to deal with his own shortcomings, physical vulnerabilities as much as any other.

Knowing the who and what of your story, knowing that one does not exist without the other, character always driving plot, the external always impacting on the internal, is the best guide to writing I can think of. But Cron isn’t interested in guiding. Guiding is for those who believe in the myth of ‘the shitty first draft.’ To letting it all pour out. Forget guiding principles when you can tick boxes. Yet in that lovely contrary way that writing has, the more she limits us the more the story meanders. Her tightness of focus in character and worldview leading to an external plot that escalates in ever increasingly ridiculous events –  sister-napping, dog napping, coma’s, deranged fans –  inexplicable behaviour.. again dognapping? – and disconnect from the core message – love is worth it.. again dognapping?? You know those Hollywood films you watch where you spend the entire thing thinking, but why didn’t they just *insert obvious sensible action*?

According to Cron actually making sense is irrelevant. Cause brain science. I suspect brain scientists might want to disagree. She poo-poos the notion of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ claiming we have no control over it, that we are in fact hard wired to believe, that it is an evolutionary tool, a means of figuring out ‘what if’.

We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.  – Lisa Cron

Noticed the problem? I’m fairly sure I’ll never find myself with a writing partner I never married lying in a coma, a sister who kidnaps me for my own good, a studio boss who wants to replace me with a fanfiction/stalker and the deep seated belief that kidnapping a dog will solve all this. That’s not a ‘what if’ I’m ever going to ask, nor am I even sure what I would be asking. Credibility matters. Plot matters.

I’m a character writer, I’m supposed to say it doesn’t.

But ..

PLOT MATTERS

Cron is absolutely determined that our internal struggle is the only thing that really matters; that external events need only work like switches on a railway track triggering our emotions, but beyond their ability to connect, the shape and form they take are utterly without meaning.

Yet if I say to you there was a pile up on the motorway your husband drives everyday.. I don’t need to tell you about your fear of abandonment because your mum always missed parents night, or that time you lost your pet turtle when you were five, you can in fact have lived a life without any bereavement at all and you’ll still have a pretty good idea of how gut wrenching such an announcement would be, how potentially life altering even those few minutes of uncertainty would feel. The external matters because it’s the world we have to navigate. It’s the world that smacks us down, lifts us up, terrifies, bewilders and excites. If we’re using story to figure out how to predict and survive what might be coming, it matters who we are, but it also matters what we face. Even the seemingly fantastical are often grounded in real day present fears, an apocalypse by another name is disaster. War, famine, plague – these are realities people through time and in the present day have had to deal with. Dystopia’s tend to speak to our fear of political control and to the need to conform, the consequences of not belonging, and again they draw from world’s we know have existed, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Iron Curtain to the incredible tales of North Korea.

Connection isn’t enough, story works best when plot and character are so interwoven you cannot separate one from the other. Its why Batman only works in Gotham, while Superman just makes it look dirty. It’s why hi-concept sells despite all that poor prose and idiotic characters. Ever heard of how the team behind Alien got the green light?

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It’s the most famous tagline that’s never been used. Because all the emotion you need is in those three words, that one simple idea, event, what if, is what everything else flows out from. And sometimes that what if can be internal, or character based. Lolita. Animal Farm. Forrest Gump. Edward Scissorhands. We should be careful not to confuse complicated with complex. One has depth, but can usually be distilled down quite easily to a simple idea, event, individual. The other just meanders wildly and leaves the reader bewildered.

Cron’s story has no what if. Her very base premise, detailed in the blurb, the introduction and the opening chapters, is ignored. Ruby’s dilemma is convoluted, her fear of losing someone she loves natural and identifiable, but it’s disconnected from the story that is being told, from the initial idea dreamt up:

I kept thinking about a story with a woman at the centre who doesn’t like dogs. That’s all I had – this woman with this strange and somewhat unpopular characteristic – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

became..

what if a woman who’s spent her whole life believing she’s successfully hedged her bets against love (of people, of things, of dogs) is on the verge of losing everything – the one person she’s felt close to, her lifelong career and her grasp on reality? Mad with grief she has one chance to set things right but first she must convince those around her that she’s not suicidal so she devises a scheme to steal a dog… – Jennie Nash in Story Genius by Lisa Cron

It goes on…

..but when she can’t get rid of the dog..

And on..

..is what makes the inevitable grief of loss endurable.

Then ends with Cron’s applause…

Bingo!

Me – I’d say go back. There is one word in that initial idea, one word that resonates: Unpopular. And it seems oddly potent that it’s the one idea she’s refused to address in favour of a much more popular theme: better to have loved and lost..

Many writers and critics of writing would say that in the end we’re all writing about the same few things. Some might even go as far as saying we’re all writing about death: dying unloved, dying alone, dying unremembered, dying too soon… But themes, however powerful, aren’t what we write. They are what emerge from what we write. They are the dark shadows that lie beneath and the more you try to address them directly the more they slip through your fingers. It is the concrete world that allows us to grasp them. Cron’s basic premise, the what if’s, the power of emotion, is undeniable, it’s her failure to connect that successfully with the surface, the concrete form of story, that illustrates how much the two work together and fall, apart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do You Do It?: Plotting, pantsing and gardening.

As someone who doesn’t regard The Rules as great dictates chipped into stone and then dissolved into binary ether and sent forth to confound us all (or even something deserving a capital), I feel like I should begin with an apology. There’s a possibility this might get a little biased…

I’m a pantser – which is an odd word for a Brit and always makes me want to assure folk I’m not just wandering around the house in my knickers.

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It’s never felt like a choice as much as a compunction. Something’s are bone deep. This is the way I write. I love the idea of organising my head. I periodically attempt it, before, during, after – more during and after. I like the surety, the systematic certainty of it whispers to me and I have often tried to whisper back, but for me when I create, I must create. That’s simply how it works. Only in the act do I find my inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong, for all I talk of feeling the lure of the planner, I know well how alluring the pantser (ye know without that name sullying it) can seem. They are the epitome of the romantic writer, ink smudged across their pensive faces, caught in the mania of creation, the passionate scribbles of the possessed. We’re all a little in love with that image of ourselves, mostly because we know the reality and yeah, pants might be a better description..

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This debate goes right to the top. King calls himself a ‘discovery writer’, believing he doesn’t create anything, just keeps chipping away, one word at a time until he uncovers the story.

Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses. ~  On Writing, Stephen King

George RR Martin believes in Gardeners and Architects.

There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like… And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up.. they don’t how big it’s going to be, or what shape it’s going to take. I am much more a gardener than an architect.  ~ GRR Martin

As for the plotters, it would be so tempting to go with Patterson, whose entire writing is an outline. However there are a few others who have come out in favour of the planned approach. Grisham has claimed the more time dedicated to preparation the better the final work while JK Rowling imagines this is a basic outline…

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Beyond them are the middle-grounders, the ones who believe we’re all on a sliding scale that tends to tip us towards the middle where we’re all slightly pantsing and slightly plotting. Oddly in this instance I think the dichotomy has merit. There are inherent differences between the two that I believe matter and will show in the end.

That’s not to fully sway you towards one when you’re naturally drawn to another. Part of the reason I think the distinction is relevant is that how we write is such a personal issue that trying to force ourselves to fit to someone else’s style can be crippling. Lisa Cron, in Story Genius states that she believes only one percent of writers are capable of holding all their story in their head – nice to know I’m finally a one-percenter even if I can’t afford a car. Of course she also believes that both plotting and pantsing are flawed and instead preaches her blueprint, somehow magically different from your bog standard outline as it focuses on your character and their internal struggle rather than external events. Which in turn brings me to my second concern, something created almost entirely by the misdirection of semantics.

A blueprint is an outline. Which is also a plan. Which is something we plot. This is the heart of a plotter. It’s not someone who has an idea, or a scene playing in their head. It’s not someone who only writes events, it doesn’t preclude those who don’t delineate chapters, or call characters A,B and C. As we can see from JK’s outline, her concern isn’t simply plotting action, certainly not in detail, but takes a big picture approach, laying out the underlying thematic arcs, ‘prophecy’, key relationships, ‘Hagrid & Grawp’ as well as important scenes, such as ‘Ron and other w’s told about fathers injury’. Whether you snowflake from thematic logline to intricate outline, or research everything to do with police procedure before killing off your first victim, the point is you are amassing a body of material so you will know what to write.

Many pantser’s have an idea of something when we sit down to write. What that something is will vary considerably, not just person to person but work to work. I free write many shorts, I usually have a story idea in mind when I write a novel, not much when I started my first three, but as time has gone on, the list of what I would like to write just keeps growing, giving me plenty of time to ruminate on them – although I rarely get much past  a series of vague images in my head. Sometimes a scene or a unique character as well. Like I said it varies. Saying that adds up to a plan is like getting in the car to go on holiday and remembering to pack underwear. I may even have some sense of the destination, but it’s a long way away and I have no idea how I’m getting there or even if I will. I’m prepared for that but I haven’t planned for it. And that to my mind makes a difference.

Where you put the emphasis will guide where you put the emphasis in your story. If I’ve packed sunscreen, I’m going to be looking for the sun. I’ll drive south, to the coast. If I know how much money I have I’ll plan ahead to make sure I can stretch it out, know where the cheap petrol stations are, good camping or luxury hotels.. The more I know before hand the more it will inform the decisions I make, no matter how much I believe I am open to change.

But as I said, I’m not sure it’s a choice. Lisa Cron wants us to put the emphasis on characters. I’ve yet to read a story where the characters, their wants and needs, behaviour and personality weren’t a defining factor. Not necessarily to the benefit of the work, and that probably comes down to things you’re not even aware of. If you naturally incline towards a fascination with character it will show in your work; you’re always looking for interesting attitudes, unusual relationships. If you like battles and magic systems, rich playboys or sexy werewolves, it will show not by lack of characters but in how they come across – and not everyone will have a problem with that. Recycled tropes are as popular as ever. Lisa herself cites 50 Shades of Grey as an example of how her method works, but there are some of us character writers who think its an example of how it doesn’t work, sales be damned.  Planning or pantsing will not change this, but it might indicate slightly which you are more likely to benefit from.

As a character driven writer I need to let the characters lead. A plot driven writer is more likely to stunt the development of her characters and I wonder if it’s because they’ve boxed themselves in with a plan? Take JK for instance, a planner. It was evident early on in the books that Harry and Ginny would end up together, yet by the time it happens, I wouldn’t have shipped them for all the gold in Gringotts.  She hadn’t given Ginny time to breathe or room to grow into an interesting character in her own right. It felt like ticking a box.

I can’t help but feel the approach we take is knitted into our mental makeup – the very reason I know many dislike thinking of it as a dichotomy. Yet I can’t dissuade myself from this idea that our attitude defines our work in myriad nuanced, even unseen, yet important ways. I don’t know what is going to happen until its happening, til I’m there living, breathing, fighting.

No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader ~ Robert Frost

Science has identified something known as the incubation effect, where creativity is fostered by a wandering mind. Ever get great ideas in the shower? Or taking the dog for a walk? These rote mechanical tasks free up our higher minds to make incredible leaps. Conversely when we try to force our focus we tend to follow well laid plans, the road already known. To take planning and pantsing to their absolute, I create as I write – or to be more specific as I type. This is my rote mechanical aid. While when I plan I sit thumbs twiddling, waiting for inspiration before I write a single word. Even there the attitude of the planner is defining, the emphasis always on the before. Before we write we must have something tangible, concrete in hand, fuelled by a belief that we cannot spin nothing into gold, cannot discover something that doesn’t already exist.

Maybe all writers need to believe enough to take that leap. Maybe that’s why every time, every story I think I got nothing.. until I start. I keep hoping it’ll get easier to trust I will always be able to unearth something, but thus far.. And sometimes I think that is the true lure of the plan. Writing is hard. Planning is naming spaceships and thinking about how much I really love my eccentric new android – he’s got a thing for cockroaches, so cute! – planning can very easily fall into procrastination. No matter how much stuff you accumulate the only thing that’s truly tangible is the writing. Until then you’re still in the before, facing a blank page.

I promised myself this wouldn’t turn into a plea to pants and its worth reminding myself that I love Harry Potter and never really liked King. And who can ever remember how his stories end?

As I said it’s a matter of listening to your bones. In my first ever drafts I got consumed with research to the point it was crippling and it distracted me from what I really wanted to write, what I believe is my strength: character dynamics. Likewise when you consider Tolkien it’s that world which has blueprinted an entire genre, the history, languages, geography and breath-taking scope that works. How much of this lies in planning and plotting? Martin is six books and thousands of words in and does anyone feel closer to a resolution? He, like King, has always struck me as a man who is exploring the nature of the darkness within us.

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It’s easy to read that as me condemning all plotters to the formula or action-heavy genres – which in itself isn’t a condemnation unless you’re not overly fond of reading it – but Joss Whedon, a man who puts huge emphasis on structure, can deliver larger than life personalities better than almost any screenwriter working today. He does however fall victim to trope-holes more than I suspect a man less inclined to plan would. I suspect it happens most when he is hemmed in not by his own creativity, however it comes to him, but other’s expectations.

I wrote down everything that I thought would be useful–what we hadn’t had enough of, what I thought had clicked, what we could improve–and also things that excited me about the second season. Once I had that memo out to the writers I felt like I was ready for anything. I wasn’t, but it was cute that I thought so ~ Joss Whedon

And that’s really how I’d like to leave it. The most important thing to remember when it comes time to try and figure out the best approach is to shake yourself free of any expectations, romantic notions of a real writer, wannabe’s selling you their latest four pronged, ten-horned, thrice guaranteed formula. Listen to you. There is room for every kind of writer, even bad ones. Thank god 😀

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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.

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

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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..

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.