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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

 

It's a pheasant plucking life!

Chris supplied the following tongue twister a few posts ago:

I'm not the pheasant plucker
I'm the pheasant plucker's son
I'm only plucking pheasants
Till the pheasant plucker comes

I'm not the pheasant plucker
I'm the pheasant plucker's mate
I'm only plucking pheasants
Cos the pheasant plucker's late

I'm not the pheasant plucker
I'm the pheasant plucker's wife
And when we pluck together
It's a pheasant plucking life!

I'm enchanted, especially as I always thought there was only one verse. (It's always nice when you discover new verses to something you know, yes?) Suddenly the little ditty looks infinitely expandable. So, to ensure that everyone's tongue gets tangled, I've added some verses of my own.

I'm not the pheasant plucker
I'm the pheasant plucker's proxy
I'm only plucking pheasants
Till the pheasant plucker stops me

I'm not the pheasant plucker
I'm the pheasant plucker's aunt
I'm only plucking pheasants
Cos the pheasant plucker can't

I'm not the pheasant plucker
I'm the pheasant plucker's man
I'm only plucking pheasants
Till the pheasant plucker can

I'm not the pheasant plucker
I'm the pheasant plucker's master
I'm only plucking pheasants
So the pheasants get plucked faster

That last particularly twisty verse was contributed by my boyfriend, credit where it's due. Subsequently I mentioned this game to my friend Claire Bott - link here to buy a book she wrote as a tie-in the Time Hunter series, any Dr Who fans) - and she came up with another one:

I'm not the pheasant plucker
I'm the pheasant plucker's friend
I'm only plucking pheasants
Till the pheasant plucking ends

- which is admirable, I think.

Reflecting on the huge amount of help this pheasant plucker seems to be getting led me to the following conclusion:

I'm not the pheasant plucker
But the pheasant plucker's lazy
I'm only plucking pheasants
Cos the pheasant plucker pays me

Which is all I can think of for now. So come along, everyone in the pool. Who's got a new verse they'd like to contribute?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

 

Can anyone American explain this?

I was watching TV the other day, and a question struck me that I ask myself at intervals, namely: why is it that when an American actor is trying to sound English and making a very poor fist of it, they say 'oi' instead of 'I'? As in 'Oi'm going to talk about cloimate change,' or 'Foine, you're hoired!'?

It's totally, totally wrong. It's not just a poor imitation or odd exaggeration of something in the accent, it's just wrong; nobody does that. Or at least, there is an accent in England that does, but it's West Country, which is to say, rural. Chew on a straw, poke a pig with a walking stick and say 'Ar, thaat'll make a foine bit of bacon,' and you might get away with it (until the pig decides to express its opinion, at least), but your standard Southern English accent pronounces 'I' very similarly to your standard American accent. So do Northern English accents, come to that. The West Country 'oi' is unusual. Putting 'oi' in a regular English accent is like saying 'y'all want any grits?' while pretending to be from Brooklyn.

Where the heck did American actors get this idea? I've only got two possible theories.

One has to do with pirates. Your movie pirate with his 'Arr me hearties' accent is, at least this is my theory, doing an accent that's evolved from the Bristolian one - Bristol having been a major port in the nineteenth century, including a thriving slave trade, hence a natural place for sailors and pirates to hail from. And Bristol is in the West Country.* (I've just looked it up, and apparently Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach came from Bristol, so maybe there's something in it.) I've yet to hear a pirate saying 'Cheers then, my lovely,' though it'll make my day if I ever do, but possibly some dialogue coach somewhere saw a pirate movie and thought all English people sounded like that. Seems a bit far-fetched, though; pirates aren't exactly ambassadors.

The other one is Dick van Dyke, because it's a national tradition to blame him for every bad English accent perpetrated by an American. (His Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, to be precise, where he tries to sound like an East Ender and only manages to sound like he's got a cold.) But I'm sure he's a nice man and he can't be responsible for everything, so that theory is a bit shaky as well.

Can any genuine Americans explain this? It's very confusing.

*(For the record, Johnny Depp isn't doing a Bristolian accent in Pirates of the Caribbean; if anything, he sounds North London. Geoffrey Rush's accent has more of the West Country drawl: 'Oi'm disincloined to aacquiesce to yuur request...' It's rather a pleasant accent, the West Country one, soft on vowels and usually spoken more slowly than most; people in surveys tend to assoicate it with stupidity, unfortunately, which might drive anyone to a life of buccaneering. Oh, and Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, incidentally, sounds Scots, in defiance of all logic, as 'Davy Jones' is an incredibly, entirely Welsh name. I like those movies, though. They are much fun.)

Monday, February 26, 2007

 

A few recommendations...

Forest Whitaker totally deserved his Oscar for The Last King of Scotland, and if you haven't seen it, you should. I've been meaning to recommend it for ages, but I keep getting distracted. Go see it, it's great.

Here's a most interesting psychology-politics book being published chapter by chapter online, called The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. As the title suggests, it's a study of authoritarian personalities, both people who determinedly obey any order, such as 'persecute those people over there' (one study turned up the result that some people are prepared, if you word the question correctly, to persecute themselves), and authoritarian leaders. Psychological research, lively writing, good stuff.

A marvellous website called smashingtelly.com. It's an ever-growing archive of, well, just good stuff, films, documentaries, dramas, all sorts of things that you can watch on that very site. I'd particularly recommend The Century of the Self, a four-part documentary about how psychoanalysis was developed in the public relations industry, leading to a sea-change not just in consumerism but in politics as well. Definitely worth watching, as it's nice to see how the trick works and be a bit more manipulation-resistant, plus it's really, really interesting. (Sometimes the pages don't load on that one, but if you click 'refresh', that usually does the trick.)

And if you haven't seen My Neighbour Totoro, you're missing the loveliest movie ever made. It's available on DVD, it's directed by Hayao Miyazaki (he of Spirited Away) , and it's just wonderful. Beautiful animation, the cutest creation in film history, and a genuinely touching story, done with wonderful naturalism and humanity. It makes me happy just to think about it. (But listen to the Japanese, not the cheesy American dub. The totoro's voice in the Japanese version is unsurpassable.) I went to see it at the Barbican last week (again; I have seen it numerous times), and I'm still happy about it. And interestingly, the talk given by Helen McCarthy at the beginning made a comparison between that film and Lilo and Stitch, which delighted me because it's my favourite Disney film. If you've seen both movies, you'll spot some things right off - the scene where Stitch lands on a road and tries to mug a frog drew chuckles of recognition from all over the cinema, leading me to conclude that I was probably not the only person there who'd seen My Neighbour Totoro already - but there's also, she pointed out, a general moral kindness to it that you don't always get from Hollywood. Nobody is really bad; everyone has their own ideas about the right thing to do, and some of them threaten the people we care about, but everyone is fallible rather than monstrous. Well, that's the same kind of ethics you get in Miyazaki (try Princess Mononoke if you want a more dramatic and violent take on the same principle), and it's far more satisfying than myths of redemptive violence.

Well, that's probably enough recommendations for one day. Anyone got anything they'd like to add to the recommendations list?

Friday, February 23, 2007

 

Curing cliches

The other night I and others were watching a DVD of a movie that suffered from an on-the-nose script. ('On the nose' being, I'm told, a screenwriter's phrase meaning that the things characters say are too obvious, often because themes, motivations and character thoughts are simply stated, rather than being demonstrated through what they say and do. It's the dialogue equivalent of breaking the show-don't-tell rule.) The story was all right, there were decent characters, but the dialogue clunked horribly, because every time the characters had a thought, particularly one that tied in with the Message of the movie, they simply struck a pose and declared it, in a way that nobody would in real life.

Well, we were half-watching this movie and amusing ourselves by rewriting the dialogue to make it work better, and it occurred to me that we'd stumbled on a good technique for writers who struggle with cliches.

Everyone uses cliches sometimes, but sometimes they can infest your thinking and get into your work, producing something that's far less fresh than you want it to be. What to do about that?

Looked at pro-actively, it's perfectly fixable. A cliche always expresses a thought and emotion. Rather than letting it worry you if the dialogue is coming out cliched first time round, go with it: write the scene, let the characters speak in cliches, and see where the action takes you. Because once you've done that, you've got a first draft, which is to say, you've got something to improve.

Got your on-the-nose first draft? Okay, now read it over. Look at the cliches, and think about the emotion they're trying to express. Imagine yourself in the character's situation, feeling that emotion. Then forget about the aim of the plot, the message, the theme, the end you're trying to reach, and just picture that emotion in that isolated moment. And think to yourself: if I was feeling that, what would I say?

Suppose you're writing a scene in which a husband has seen his wife with her ex-boyfriend and is worried she's cheating on him, particularly as he's always worried about whether he's good enough for his wife. You could have him say 'I was never good enough for you, was I?', or you could sit back and take a breath: what's he feeling? Primary answer: insecure. And if you're feeling insecure, do you necessarily risk saying something grandiose like that, or do you angle for answers indirectly? Do you pick a fight over something trivial, perhaps, to test her patience with you, or do you get clingy, or do you drop hints that you're feeling bad to see if she cares, or do you try to undermine her confidence in case confidence equates to being too good for you? Stuck for an option? Think about what else he's feeling. Is he primarily angry with her? Undermining her or picking a fight seems likely. Is he hurt that she's keeping things from him? He's more likely to drop hints in the hopes of reassurance. Frightened she'll leave him? Dropping hints again, or being clingy. It may or may not take the scene in a different direction, and if it does, go with it, because now the scene is working naturally, but either way, you're working with how a character would really behave, rather than on simply declaring how they feel.

It's helpful to remember that in cliched writing, characters are often speaking to the audience, making sure readers know what they're thinking and feeling. But characters don't know the audience is there: they need to speak to each other. So take into consideration how they expect the other characters will react to what they say, which will often make cliches redundant: people frequently speak to have an effect on others, and cliches aren't a very effective means of getting that. Forget about the audience: if the characters are acting on their emotions, the audience will be able to work out what those are without being told.

And the thing about the first draft is, it's given you a rough guide to what those emotions are.

Cliched drafts, in short, can be very useful in laying out the blueprint for a scene. Treat it as if it was a mock-up. Then forget about what you were trying to achieve, look at what the characters have done, think about what motivated them to act that way, and think about what you'd actually say if you had that motivation. And with a bit of luck, you've got a second draft that you're much happier with.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

 

Character versus series. Who will win?

Lots of people write series. Lots of people buy series. But series are a mixed blessing, artistically. Sometimes they're marvellous, and sometimes, well, not really.

I've talked previously about series loyalty, the force that leads people to stick with a series that's declining in quality, often past the point where the quality has declined so badly that it's now something they wouldn't actually like if they weren't already hooked. The flip side of this is that series are a safe bet for writers. You've got bills to pay, after all, and coming up with good new ideas takes a lot of time, and you've got a great character and situation, so a series is a good idea. Possibly you're also writing in, and/or fond of, a genre where series are a common thing, so a series seems like a natural way to continue. You've broken in with your first book, you've got your foot in the door, and a series will keep it there.

It doesn't always work.

Many people, I'm sure, will be familiar with the following sentence: 'It's not as good as the early books, but I still kind of enjoyed it.' Series fatigue can set in, leaving a writer producing books that lack the earlier energy. In that situation a writer should probably quit while they're ahead and have some fun writing something completely different, but series fatigue isn't the only explanation for why series go downhill. The other explanation is about plot.

Plots happen to characters, and they're generally driven by characters. Write a sequel, and you've almost always separated the character from the plot.

To use Bareback as an example, the story follows one person in a murder mystery structure. The victim is her friend; the suspect is her client; the major subplots involve her lover and her sister. The story is a personal one. If I ever write a sequel, I'll have to think of another story that's equally personal - but stories tend to be about exceptional things happening, and exceptional things don't happen to people very often. Hence, in a sequel, if you're really going to make it work, you have the difficult problem of making it plausible that unlikely things would happen to somebody more than once in a lifetime. The improbability gets greater with every sequel. There are two ways to go on this: either you fall into a formula, and keep turning out books that are enjoyable stories but basically re-visitations of the first book, which they can never surpass, or you try to build on everything that's happened, which can lead to some extremely convoluted and improbable situations.

I'm fond, for instance, of the novels of George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman series. They're great rollicking adventures with a zest for comedy and a lot of interesting historical background, and they're never less than terrific fun. The first book, though, the original, has a quality absent from all the others: it's hard to pin down in descriptive terms, but there's a freshness, a rawness, an edge that comes from the plausibility factor: all these things are happening to someone for the first time, they're tied to his life and personality. Once the second book began, the formula clicked on, and Fraser has been entertaining me ever since. But if you want to read a really good Fraser book, you should read Black Ajax, a fictionalised account of the nineteenth-century boxer Tom Molineaux which has all the zest and fun of the Flashman books, but the self-reliant strength of a standalone as well.

There are, conversely, some series that get better over time, that have ups and downs but really do work as series rather than as standalones. Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski novels come to mind, but the character that really stands out as benefitting from a series is C.S. Forester's naval hero Hornblower, a character that develops and improves as the series goes along.

The difference is a clear one: Hornblower is a character conceived as separate from any given plot. He has a personality, but his personality shapes how he reacts to events that surround him, events that happen independently of him. He's also in an interesting situation in life, a sailor during the Napoleonic wars, which means that it's perfectly plausible that dramatic things would keep happening to him: his job puts him in the way of drama. His personal life is something of a subplot - for one thing, events keep taking him away from it - and his character dictates how he deals with the things that happen to him, but not what they will be.

It's a good example of a serialisable character. They need something that puts them in the way of dramas that aren't primarily about their own lives - sailor, detective, soldier, doctor - and enough personality to make them interesting, without so much that it starts shaping the plot in a way that can't be recovered from in later stories.

Do you have favourite series characters? What makes them work?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

 

Hold on to your pants...

All right, yesterday we were sad, and I think we need cheering up. I've got just the thing. It's called 'In My Pants', and it's a really childish game that's far more fun once you start playing it than you'd think.

The premise is simple: think of an appropriate movie title, and then add the phrase 'in my pants'.

Hence:

Mr Smith Goes to Washington in my pants.
Sammy and Rosie Get Laid in my pants.
The Silence of the Lambs in my pants.
Rear Window in my pants.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in my pants?
The Day the Earth Stood Still in my pants.
12 Angry Men in my pants.
A Night at the Opera in my pants.
Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House in my pants.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in my pants.
The Devil Rides Out in my pants.
While You Were Sleeping in my pants.
Very Bad Things in my pants.

My personal favourite comes from my friend Ben:
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit in my pants.

Come on, let's play. It gets funnier as you go along.

Monday, February 19, 2007

 

But bad stuff gets published...

A comment on an earlier post from a new visitor to this site (hello and welcome) got me thinking. The comment was to this effect: the rule of thumb that says 'The best way to get published is to write a good book' is untrue, because a) some good stuff doesn't get published and b) some bad stuff does. I've heard this argument before, and while I can see why it's common, it's also not an attitude I'd recommend.

Let me explain.

It's hard to comment on the good stuff that doesn't get published, because obviously it's not freely available to the public. But I can think of a personal example, a friend of mine who's extremely talented, wrote an excellent book, and is having trouble selling it, because editors tend to like it and marketing departments tend to veto it. This is most unfortunate, because it's a really fine piece of writing that deserves to see print.

This is a situation every writer dreads. But what are you going to do? Write worse? All she can really do is keep hoping for the best and meanwhile write something else, making it as good as she can. The worst thing she can do at this point is abandon the principle that you should write well if you want to be published. Maybe her next attempt will be the one that hits the jackpot. But whether or not it is, it would be a crying shame if she didn't work on the 'write well' rule, because that would damage the quality of her work. It would be just as big a shame if she gave up on the publishing industry; I'm still hoping for the day when her work finally sells and can be read and enjoyed by lots of people, and that won't happen if she stops working for publication. Either way, what a waste of talent.

The one that's easier to address is 'but bad stuff gets published'. You hear this one a lot. And it's understandable: I'm sure everyone has put down some published books, muttering 'I can't believe anybody would publish this rubbish!'

But if the book is bad and successful, then saying it trumps the 'write a good book' rule is missing a crucial point. Because books don't succeed without having something good about them. Maybe the author is a bad stylist but does a gripping plot. Maybe the characters are two-dimensional, but right on the button when it comes to archetypes. Maybe the execution is crude, but the basic idea expresses something deep within the human psyche. Nobody recommends a book they didn't get something out of, and word of mouth is the biggest promotional device in the world. Your latest airport bestseller is probably not going to rival Shakespeare in its use of language, but it will be good at holding readers' attention - or at least, the attention of a certain kind of reader, the kind it's trying to entertain.

And it's important, as a writer, to respect as wide a variety of talent as possible - because after all, don't we all want to be good at every possible kind of talent that's going?

When I was an undergraduate, I was reading English Literature at Cambridge. The syllabus, as you'd expect, was heavy on the classics, and the workload was just plain heavy. The time I read Crime and Punishment in a single day was probably my record - either that or the day I read all of Jazz, The Lonely Londoners and The Great Gatsby, including taking notes - but anyway, I was up to my earlobes in Great Books. But I didn't want to be an academic, I wanted to be a writer. And I knew that the syllabus didn't cover every kind of writing. So, more out of instinct than out of some systematic plan, I made a habit of haunting the city library as well as the university one. One shelf in my room carried Johnson and Austen and Milton, and the other was filled with Goosebumps novels and whodunnits. Virginia Andrews kept me intrigued, because whatever you say about the writing style and odd sexuality, you have to hand it to anyone who can keep you turning pages, even though you know that what's on the next page is probably not going to be any more realistic than what's on this one. Stephen King calls it the 'gotta', as in 'I should be working but I gotta see how this turns out', and thousands of books trade on it, rough use of language or not. And that's just one example. There were all kinds of books that were technically 'bad', judged by the standards of my syllabus, but that didn't make them bad books - in storytelling terms, they were bloody good ones.

There are, in short, all sorts of different kinds of good. And if a book becomes successful, it's pretty certain that it's good at something. It might not be good at the kind of thing you're interested in reading, in which case it may be difficult to see what's good about it from where you're standing - but it had something about it that caught an agent's eye, then an editor's, then a lot of readers'. Declaring it 'bad' and saying that this proves that being good doesn't get you published is simply missing the point. You're better off trying to broaden your understanding so you can figure out what it was that made the book a success. Who knows? You might learn something you can use to improve your own writing.

So what's to be done about this if you're trying to get published? There are two things. One, read as widely as possible, keeping as open a mind as possible. Any book that's liked by anybody has something to teach you. Two, don't worry about anybody's work but your own. Competitiveness, odious comparisons and anxiety are all bad for writing. Forget about who's getting published and who isn't; just get on with writing your own book.

The best way to get published is to write something people enjoy. It's what one might call a functional fact: it works well to act as if it were true. Believing in it has a number of good effects:

1. It encourages you to work hard on making your writing as good as possible. And this is important. However little it feels that way sometimes, publishing is more about good writing than good luck; luck is a factor, but only over a certain level of quality. Play a game of skill as if it were a game of chance, and you will lose.

2. It discourages you from making unwise attempts to get an agent or publisher's attention. Agents and publishers do not like approaches that are manipulative, gimmicky or aggressive, and frequently conclude from them that an author is silly, and probably a bad writer. If you want to see examples, look at Miss Snark's website; it's full of people trying all sorts of ill-advised tactics to get agents to look at their work, plus the responses of a genuine agent. Look at what she says: attempts to attract her with anything other than good writing tend to put her off.

3. It helps you take rejection well. If you believe that publishing is all about luck, then you feel helpless in the face of mighty forces beyond your control. If, on the other hand, you feel that your best chance is to write something good, then when you're rejected (and we've all been rejected), you can do something about it: you can write something better, you can improve and improve, until finally you break through. Your life is in your own hands. It's an attitude that makes you stronger.

4. It helps you take feedback well, both from friends and, if you're fortunate, from professionals. Many a writer gets angry if an agent or publisher writes back saying 'I don't want this book, because of this, this and that', feeling it's a series of insults, when actually it's helpful comments that you can use to improve your work. If your aim is not to get lucky in the publishing sweepstakes but to write as good a book as you can and trust in its virtues, then you become cooperative, grateful and gracious when people make suggestions. Such a writer is both happier in themselves and easier to get along with.

5. It protects you from envy, as much as anything can. If you think publishing is all about luck, you're liable to resent the published for having what you lack, but if you think it's about writing good work, then you can give them credit for their success rather than letting it fester, and turn your attention back to your own work, where it belongs.

So maybe a book got published that you think is bad. What are you going to do? Resent it? Get slack about your own writing because obviously quality has nothing to do with success? Turn sour on the publishing trade? None of these things will help you. It's difficult and painful some of the time, and it can be desperately frustrating when a work that you're sure is good gets a rejection slip. (I say this from personal experience; I've had plenty of moments when I had to find a quiet corner to cry in.) But theorising about the industry that sent it to you will not help you. The only thing that will help is to commit yourself, once again, for the thousandth time, to writing the best work you possibly can. Dry your eyes, find your resolution again, read, write, learn, and keep on going.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

 

I am gender confused

Behold: the Gender Genie!

I discovered this on Making Light, to give credit where it's due; there's also an interesting article about it on the Guardian's site.

Now, remember a few posts ago I declared, with some minor annoyance, that my name (Kit, for the benefit of anyone feeling particularly dozy; Kit) is short for Katharine, not Christopher? It appears I was wrong.

The Gender Genie is a computer program that allows you to run a piece of prose through a computer algorithm which determines, based on your use of language, whether you are a man or a woman.

Well, who can resist? I logged onto it immediately, murmuring 'Isn't science wonderful?' And, to begin with, entered a passage from the novel I'm currently writing, sitting back and waiting to be told that it sounded like female thinkin'. I was prepared; I know that I'm girly sometimes. I try to write good male characters, but my gender keeps getting in there. So I was pre-resigned, ready to be told I'm a womany kind of stylist.

To my amazement, Gender Genie did not agree. It thought I was a man.

Well, that passage was about a male lead. So I tried a bit from Bareback. If anything was female, it was that book. Surely Bareback would come out as female?

Nope. That was male as well.

So maybe it was my fiction style? Gender Genie allows non-fiction and blog posts as well. So I entered a bit from an article I wrote a while ago.

Hello Christopher, said Gender Genie. Back again, old man?

'No!' I insisted. 'Here, try a blog post!' And I slapped some text from this very blog into the program.

You're not fooling anyone, laddie, said Gender Genie. Yes, indeed, I was once again designated as male.

In desperation, I improvised the following paragraph:

'Oh my darling, how I yearn for you,' he said, clasping her to him in his strong arms. She gasped at the feel of his muscles, taut as hawsers, enfolding her delicate flesh.

'But, but,' she stammered, 'I thought it was my beautiful sister that you loved!'

Gary Stu laughed harshly. 'That minx?' His eyes gleamed. 'She threw herself at me, my darling. But I swear, I only flirted with her to make you jealous when I thought you didn't care. You are the only one for me, my angel, my only. I must have you and no one else!'

And lo and behold, this passage came out scored as female!

Well, that proved something, I thought, though I wasn't sure what. I had at least demonstrated that I was capable of writing female prose.

Then my boyfriend wandered in and looked over my shoulder.

'Look, I've finally proved I'm a woman!' I said, pointing excitedly at the computer.

'Hmm,' he said, seating himself. 'Let me try something.'

I handed over the keyboard with feminine grace, and sat back while he also improvised a few sentences.

"Crom," swore Conan, his hands still dripping with the fallen man's blood. "We should have slain him sooner. With those things closed, we'll never get inside." He gestured towards the immense bronze gates which now barred their passage.

He clicked the mouse, and sat back waiting for Gender Genie's verdict.

Gender Genie decided that my boyfriend is a woman.

My boyfriend maintains that this was because he, I quote, 'gamed the system'. (Which is a phrase I'd take as reasonable evidence that he's male, but there you go.) He had noticed that certain keywords which you'd think were pretty gender-neutral were given designated sexual roles: 'with' and 'was' have frilly little pinnies on, apparently, while 'it' and 'is' shoot bears in the woods on holidays and sit with their legs akimbo on public transport. He swears that he was confusing Gender Genie on purpose by rallying all the pink words and making them march in a masculine formation like good little soldiers. Why he felt this was necessary behaviour I'm still not clear, but I'm sure it was something manly and pro-active in the spirit of bold discovery. The unworthy thought that he's just after cheaper car insurance hasn't entered my head.

However, my natural writing style remains pegged as masculine. I'm forced to conclude that either my family, doctor and friends have been perpetrating a major conspiracy against me, or that Gender Genie needs a little work. Personally I'm inclined to go with the former; you can't argue with science.

Have a go yourselves and see how it works. If you need me, I'll be in the shed hitting things with a hammer and talking about football.

Friday, February 16, 2007

 

Method writing

Here's a piece of advice for young writers that I don't hear given often enough: join the drama club.

When I look back on my own life and try to identify the things that taught me to write, I can identify several. The first, obviously, is that I read a lot. I mean a lot: I whitened my mother's hair trying to read and cross the road at the same time; anyone trying to make my bed would invariably find two or three books under the pillow; my father was endlessly putting up new shelves in my bedroom until it looked more like a library than anything else. (It still does; after I moved out my mother took it over as a study, finding it ideally furnished.) But the other things I learned from were acting, meditation and automatic writing, and those aren't mentioned in many of the writing groups.

Meditation and automatic writing were things I began learning just after leaving school; the meditation classes I went to had art workshops included, and it was through those that I started writing things. The principle of automatic writing is simple: you just keep your hand moving, even if all you're writing is bananas bananas bananas I can't think of what to write so I'm writing about bananas. Keep doing that for long enough, and your mind starts inventing things to fill in the void. Bananas bananas bananas are yellow and the skin is thick and it makes a noise like tearing cloth when you pull them apart and expose the white insides like peeled snakes ... You may produce some gibberish, but it trains you beautifully to keep your hand abreast of your thoughts, to take chances, to listen to what your subconscious is kicking up, all of which helps create a much more vivid and less forced writing style. A metaphor that your brain throws out spontaneously is always more apt than one that you have to labour over, and you need to be able to tune into what your mind is saying if you want to get it across. Having conditioned yourself to catch thoughts on the wing, you'll be able to catch the good ones when the occur to you.

So that's one useful thing. But the other one was what my school called 'Speech and Drama', which taught me more about writing than an English BA. I was lucky, in that I went to a school where liberal arts were highly prized and the drama department was headed by an extremely talented and intelligent woman with a large personality and a deep sympathy for teenage girls; as a result, everyone did a bit of Speech and Drama at the beginning, and as the years went on you could opt to keep doing it, and a lot of girls did. What this was was not text-based play performances - there were school plays, but they were separate. Instead, the focus was on improvisation. You got into small groups and were given a rough subject: this play has to end with a suicide, show us how the character gets to that point; the title is 'The Bully at the Bus-Stop', let see what you can do with that; everyone take a picture of someone from a newspaper or magazine, now play those people being together at a party. You had a brief chat beforehand, roughed out a structure, then improvised the dialogue.

What improvised drama teaches you is how to perform characters. To perform a character, you have to understand how they work - and the same is true of writing. Getting inside a character's head is crucial if you want to write them plausibly, and acting is a huge help: it makes you get into the role, feel out how someone would react and behave. You don't have to be a good actor; I'm pretty bad at it, but it doesn't matter. My voice and face don't execute the character commands my brain sends particularly well, but when I'm writing them down, then that difficulty is surpassed. Having good empathy for your characters is acting on the page, playing all the parts and having complete control over the performances.

The other useful thing about it is that, when you have to create a plot using only a rough scenario and characters, it's a close-up object lesson in cause and effect. You can't force things to happen when there are other actors around whose character may go off in an entirely different direction; there's far less capacity to favour one or two characters and have the others act as convenient yes-men or straw men, which is a fault that bedevils bad writing. Neither can you use plot coupons, because that makes for a dull play, especially when you lack props and scenery; nor can you rely on a lot of backstory that can't be expressed in the action. With no setting except the one you create, and a need to drive along a plot because you've only got a few minutes' worth of performance time in front of the class and they'll be waiting for a complete story, you have to tie structure and character together quickly and efficiently with no cheating.

The presence of an audience is also helpful: you can't get too self-indulgent when people are going to watch you. Making up a story is a solitary pursuit, and there's a temptation to turn it into, effectively, a game of dress-up, where you pick a character you like and have him or her do stuff that's satisfying to perform. If you make it up knowing that you have to please your audience rather than yourselves, you're far more likely to come up with a plot that actually works. The need to communicate your story is made paramount.

So is this helpful if you don't happen to belong to a drama group? Well, yes. For one thing, acting is no guarantee you'll write well - I've seen some pretty bad stuff written by actors - but for another, it's the technique that matters, not the actual acting. If you can get into the mental space that performance involves, then that'll help your writing whether or not you actually do perform. There have been odd occasions (I use the word 'odd' advisedly) where, faced with a crucial scene, I've made my writing environment as close to the scene as possible, assumed the mood of the central character, and basically acted it out - only writing down what gets said, rather than saying it aloud. My friends and I called it 'Method writing', and it can be very useful when you have to get the tone right. On a smaller scale, that's what you always have to do: act out all your characters, making them react to each other as if they were all played by different people - all of whom happen to be you.

Think of the dialogue as something that'll actually be spoken. A good friend of mine who went to stage school gave me some sound advice about dialogue: if you're not sure it works, audition it - see if you can say it aloud in a manner that's halfway plausible. If you can't say it, then your character shouldn't.

Thinking about your audience rather than your characters chokes off good writing pretty fast, but on the other hand, remembering that you do want people to read your work someday, and that they'll have to be entertained, is a good way to draw a line between fiction and fantasy, which are two different things (fantasy as in daydream rather than as in genre).

Remember to keep the action tied to the characters, each thing following on from what precedes it. Treat each character as if they had to be played by different actors - overpaid, temperamental actors, who'll flounce to their trailers if they feel their character's being reduced to a mere foil for the star.

There is, in short, a case to be made for the following theory: writers are actors who can't act. (What actors are I couldn't say, but the ones I know are all pretty nice, so it's probably something agreeable.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

 

Let's talk about sex, baby

More specifically, writing sex, it being around Valentine's Day and all.

Sex scenes are the acid test of writing. They contain almost every problem that a scene can have, to wit:

- You have to describe physical activity. Physical activity is difficult to describe without descending into 'he did this, then she did that, then he did this, then she did that...' and getting flat.

- There's a lot of emotion going on, whether it's the first romantic love-making of the hero and heroine, a nasty sexual scuffle in the back seat of a car, or a bored middle-aged couple pretending to each other that they're not disappointed. Sex is always emotional - and emotionless sex is strange, and hence even more important to handle well. You have to get the tone right.

- In English, at least, the vocabulary for describing sensations is pretty limited. You've got 'pleasure', and 'arousal'; possibly 'tingle' and 'heat', and, well, that's about it, unless you're going to include words like 'itching' and 'discomfort', which may not be exactly what you're aiming for.

- Ditto for the sounds people make. Sex very often involves people making a variety of non-verbal noises, and while moan, groan, gasp and grunt describe some of them, they don't cover everything by a long way, and all of them have strong emotional overtones that may well be wrong for the scene. And worse still, the standard 'Aah' noise that most people make in response to a strong sensory stimulus, either pleasant or painful, is not accurately conveyed by any of them. Writing a sex scene in a language that denies you a word to describe 'going aah' is working under a dreadful disadvantage.

- It's watching characters do something that people don't ordinarily do in public. The intimacy ratchets up, and hence the reader is going to perceive things more intensely. Readers usually meet the characters like they'd meet a person socially - and suddenly hearing about a social acquaintance's perineum is, to say the least, mildly startling. The feeling of the conversation changes.

- There are a lot of cliches to avoid.

- It's easy to slip into generic sexual fantasy, meaning that your precisely detailed, finely-drawn characters are suddenly acting with uncharacteristic blandness.

- Many a good writer finds sex scenes force a sudden lurch in writing tone. The rest of the book was a thriller or a family saga, but these three pages are out of some pink-covered supermarket romance.

- The author's insecurities about beauty can kick in, leading to some odd inconsistencies. The heroine has been comfort eating for chapter after chapter, but take off her skirt and the hero finds himself kissing the 'flat plane of her stomach'. The hero's spent the last eight weeks performing non-stop miracles in the emergency room, which you'd think would cut into his gym schedule, but when the heroine reaches back, 'taut buttocks' await her grasp nonetheless. It's not just the implausibility that's a problem, it's the sense of anxiety that it implies. Western ideas of beauty are vicious, and when an author breaks off a sex scene to reassure us with irrelevent compliments about the characters' bodies, you can hear the echo of an appeasement chant to the Gods of Looking Good: 'It's all right, they can have sex, they're attractive enough for it to be legitimate.' But it doesn't work. It's a nervous aside that's worked its way into the scene. 'Burning with desire, John fumbled the catch of her skirt, unsnapping it at last to reveal her delectable hips (it's okay, though, they were only size twelve, so it's not as if there was any cellulite there to put him off) and buried his face in her stomach (not that there was very much flesh on it, of course).' If you want to write a good sex scene, burning Cosmo is the first step.

- Most importantly, and worst of all, there are absolutely no sensible words in the English language to describe the important body parts. What are you going to call them? Penis? You sound clinical. Cock? You're swearing, which sounds brutal, especially if the characters are not usually this forthright in their behaviour. Manhood? It's time to go and stick your head in a bucket of cold water. And let's not even consider the difficulties of describing the female bits. Given human nature, it's pretty much impossible to invent a word for a sexual body part that's neutral in the same way that 'arm' or 'neck' are neutral; people get all giggly and before you know it, the word has its own register.

This last has given rise - oh wait, now there's another one:

- Unintentional innuendos rear their heads from every corner of the page. If you want an opportunity to look stupid, a sex scene will give you one. And once people start noticing them, everything you write starts to look accidentally naughty, and then you're stuffed. I'd continue in this vein, but I think you've got the point, so I needn't keep it up all night.

Ahem. The difficulty of naming body parts has given rise to my basic rule of thumb when it comes to sex scenes: don't mention his willy. In the absence of a sensible word to use, it's better to say nothing. The trouble with the no-neutral-words issue is that, while your lover's breast, penis or clitoris is firmly attached to your lover, an integral part of their body, it's almost impossible for the words naming them to be integral parts of the sentence. They leap off the page, jarring the register; it's as if the text speaks at a normal volume throughout and then the occasional word shouts off the page, which does not convey the sense of physical harmony that good sex is all about. It would be like having a movie sex scene where romantic music plays in the background, and then a raucous car horn honks every time one of the actors touched a sensitive part of the other. Not good.

There are other ways of describing sexual encounters that don't involve giving the precise details of what happened, and very often, that's all you need to know. Sex, after all, is an event in the plot; it matters because of the effect it has on the characters. Hence, you can probably get away with telling the reader how the evening went in general terms, mentioning only the relevant things - whether she enjoyed herself, whether he was considerate or rough, whether she managed to stop thinking about her ex for the duration, whether he felt pleased with his performance or embarrassed afterwards. You can get out of writing the scene by writing elliptically and sticking to the after-effects.

There are, of course, other possibilities. If you're very clear in your mind about the effect the sex is going to have on the characters, you can slant your emotional tone in that direction. This is probably more the case if you want the sex scene to describe bad sex, because sex scenes often make readers feel uncomfortable, and if you want to convey an uncomfortable encounter, you can just take that discomfort and go with it.

There is also, of course, the choice of just writing porn, but you will have to deal with the fact that, if it's not a porn novel, the scene will be different in feel from the rest of the narrative. If it's too different, readers may actually skip it if they're not in the mood for porn.

One way to look at it is character writing. A subjective sex scene can be much easier. For instance, you can get around the don't-mention-his-willy rule if you're writing this scene from the point of view of Gideon, who was raised by his religious maniac parents to think of his lady-pleaser as his 'Serpent', or Jack, who's a bit of a lad and says 'cock' whenever he can, or Sophie, who's never seen a naked man before and thinks 'penis' because it's the only word she can bring herself to say in conversation. If you can write from inside the characters' heads, that solves a lot. But if that's the case, don't forget to keep viewpoint consistent: if we're seeing it through Gideon's eyes, we're seeing it through his eyes, which means that he's also going to be more aware than most people of the creak of the bed, because the neighbours might hear and realise he's sinning; he'll be either bewildered or disapproving or relieved or secretly thrilled if the girl is bold, vengefully sadistic or guilty and awkward or gallantly tender if she's shy; his awareness of her body, and the words he'll think about it, will be conditioned by his religion and also by his ignorance, assuming this is his first encounter, so there'll be surprise at the feel of her flesh, an intense sense of observation that comes with discovering something new ... you get the idea. You can write a really good sex scene if you have the character's psychology down, but it takes a lot of empathic projection.

In a way, this difficulty is a good thing. Sex scenes force you to be inventive. Some literary problems, you can look at what other writers have done and think, 'Oh, that works', but with sex, it's what other writers have done that's the problem, or at least a part of it. So many pulp romance novels have used the word 'moan' that it immediately invokes a pulp romance novel. So many lad mags have used the word 'tit'; so few people at all have used the word 'frenulum', even if they see one every day. Other authors' prose has a baleful effect if you're writing a sex scene. The thing to do is try to remember why the sex is taking place. What's the importance of it to the story and the characters? And from there, you can decide whether it needs to be detailed or vague, and if it needs to be detailed, what kind of details best convey the mood. It's a tricky old job, but someone's gotta do it.

 

You can make a fortune...

With a new range of greetings cards for Valentine's, don't you think?

Here's the thing. Almost everyone, at some point in their life, has reached Valentine's day in the following state: you're dating, and you like the person you're dating, but ... you've only been going out for a few weeks, or this is one of those friendly-but-casual relationships, or you both know the relationship is going to end when you emigrate next July, or - well, any number of things that mean that you can't say the L-word. Maybe not ever, or maybe just not yet, but all the cards with the words 'I love you' are out. But it would still be nice to give a card.

And have you tried finding Valentine's cards that don't say 'love'? There just aren't any! Or at least, the only alternative is the raucously bawdy ones that yell about sex in a way you'd expect to hear from the rowing team six pints into a stag night, which might not be quite the effect you're aiming for. Or one that says 'to my wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend', which doesn't necessarily work either.

What on earth are you supposed to do under those circumstances? The only suggestion I've come up with is to find a bookshop or art shop that sells nice cards with a blank inside, and find one with a picture of flowers. Which will do as an expedient, but still - there's got to be a big gap in the market here.

I'm convinced of this. Market a range of cards with nice pictures of roses, chocolates, images of beauty and what have you, and put in a simple message: To someone special, happy Valentine's day. That's all that needs saying.

But where are these nice but love-free cards? Nowhere, that's where. And if you printed some, you could make a fortune. Because there are thousands and thousands of people who need one, and they're not getting them. Hands up if there's never been a Valentine's day when you, or someone you knew, needed one? No one? Thought not.

So for anyone who owns a major greetings card company (which I'm sure is a lot of you), here's an opportunity to make millions. Let's split the profits fifty-fifty, I'm a fair woman here. Then we'll all be rich and we can retire to the Bahamas.

Actually a nice warm beach would be good right about now. I've got a cold and my voice has dropped into my shoes. I'm trying to convince myself that I sound like Greta Garbo, but I've got the sneaking suspicion that I sound more like I've been punched in the throat. By a frog.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

 

Warning: this product may drive you nuts

Okay, guys, there's something I've been wondering about and I'd value your feedback. Looking over reviews and general response, the book is doing just dandy - but there's an issue that may need addressing in the light of some newfangled technology I've gotten involved with.

Basically, the problem is this: to some people, the words 'werewolf' and 'female lead', taken together, promise a book that will be like Laurell K. Hamilton, Kelley Armstrong, Underworld, or generally speaking, a female empowerment fantasy involving a kick-ass, wise-ass, generally positive-ass heroine. I've got nothing against empowerment fantasies in themselves, but that ain't the kind of book I wrote; if anything, it's a study of disempowerment. This tends to piss the empowerment types off. Expecting something larger-than-life and cathartically gratifying, they run into characters and situations that I worked quite hard to make naturalistic and life-sized, and then they get bored and frustrated. They assume that, at best, they bought the book due to false advertising, and at worst, that I was trying to write an empowerment fantasy and messed it up. The underlying assumption is that there's only one way to write a book with werewolves and a female lead.

Now, using werewolves is not, to my mind, a binding promise to write a book just like other books that also have werewolves in them. Frankly, I think that's silly; I wrote about working in an office as well, but that doesn't mean I've promised to write like Ricky Gervais. Come to that, J.R.R. Tolkien was very fond of trees, and so am I - proofreading the novel, I found that I mentioned trees repeatedly. Doesn't mean I've promised to write The Lord of the Rings, though. It's that old genre stereotype rearing its ugly head again; people are assuming I must be influenced by books I hadn't even heard of when I started writing my novel, and getting all impatient when they find that I'm not.

I feel like I ought to issue some sort of a warning: this book may contain werewolves. It has, however, been factory-tested and found to contain no larger-than-life female empowerment fantasies, and asses will only be kicked in naturalistic proportions. Among other things, I fear the assumption may be putting off readers who don't like empowerment books but might like mine. I don't want to rob empowerment fans of their hard-earned money when my book isn't what they want, either - I know how annoying it is to find you don't like a book you've bought. (Okay, in strict honesty, part of me doesn't want to rob people. The rest of me has bills to pay, but I'm trying not to listen to that bit.)

This is particularly a concern since my MySpace page is now up and running, and has over a thousand people on the 'friends' section (how about that, eh? What do you think of your little friend now?). MySpace is freely available and many a person may simply see the full moon and think, 'Oh great, another one of those books I like.' Followed by 'Yuck, this isn't what I wanted at all!' I do not want a thousand people pissed off at me, and a statement of some kind might lessen the risk.

But is there a way of doing it without sounding like a lunatic? Or like I'm having a go at writers I've got nothing against, just don't want to be mistaken for?

Random House are going to put the first chapter of Bareback online, and my plan is to put a link to it on the MySpace page, so people can decide whether or not they like my style without having to buy a copy; is that enough?

Or should I just shut up and hope for the best?

Monday, February 12, 2007

 

Can you say this quickly?

The Leith police dismisseth us
I'm thankful, sir, to say.
The Leith police dismisseth us,
They thought we sought to stay.
The Leith police dismisseth us,
We both sighed sighs apiece;
And the sigh that we sighed as we said goodbye
Was the size of the Leith police.

Friday, February 09, 2007

 

Final act of godmothering

... or godfathering, if your taste runs that way.

It's been a long day, and there's one christening left to attend in the parish. The service is boring, the food is bad, and you're just bone tired. You need some cheering up. And what better way to do that than to give the kid a comedy wish? Can be either good or bad, as long as it amuses you.

So, for instance, I'm giving mine the ability to take on the form of any animal in the world - but only from the ears out.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

 

Wicked fairy time

Okay, you've given your godchild three wishes for a good life. You walk out of the chapel, feeling pretty fine about everything ... and then you hear the bells ringing in the next village.

By the time you get there, the christening is over. And you know what? It's that couple you did so much for over the years! You were supposed to be fairy godmother to the kid, and they didn't even invite you! All they did was invite your three sappy cousins, who wished the little brat to have beauty, health and long life, of all the boring things.

It's payback time. You have one wish with which to stitch the ungrateful little moppet up properly. What will it be?

My starting point: she'll always believe someone who tells her what she wants to hear over someone telling the truth.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

 

Thought experiment

You're a fairy godmother at a christening. The other two fairy godmothers couldn't make it, so all three wishes go to you - you have three good qualities to give to the baby that's currently lying burbling happily in its golden little cradle. The evil godmother who nobody likes hasn't shown up yet; whether or not she will, and what kind of curse she'll impose if she does, is anyone's guess. You have to equip the kid, not knowing anything about how its life is going to go.

What qualities are you going to give the baby?

Here's mine, to start you off: the baby is going to be brave, kind, and have some common sense.

Monday, February 05, 2007

 

Another kind of scam

Miss Snark's website, which as you can tell I've been reading a lot this week (see previous post, y'see) had a query that sounds to me like a new kind of scam, which I'd call to your attention. I won't quote the whole thing, as you can find it on her site, but the question was:

I recently ran across a literary agency that offers consulting services as a sideline: contact negotiation, general editorial commentary and line editing (three separate services). They are upfront about stating explicitly that if you submit to them and are rejected, using their paid services will not necessarily get you a second look (though they do say that it might), and they charge an upfront retainer for those services.

Ring the alarm bells and add it to your list of things to be careful of, because this sounds to me like an agent-style variation of vanity publishing scams.

Miss Snark's answer, basically, was that if you want editing go to an editor, and she added, perceptively:

The elephant in the foyer here is that people believe, no matter what we say, that if we just read their work we'll want to represent it. They'll pay for editorial consultation to get it read. There is no amount of "warning" that will dissuade them.

This is the nastiness of that particular scam.

(If you read the comments, you'll see one I've made; this is a longer version of the same argument.)

There are two things going on in this agency which should make you disinclined to want their representation. First:

They evidently feel that the money they make from selling their clients' work isn't enough to support them. Think about it. JK Rowling's agent turns up on richest-people lists. Agents take fifteen per cent of their clients' earnings; if their clients are earning money, then the agents are earning as well. A good agent is a successful agent, who has lots of clients getting published with profitable deals. If they're having to make extra money by selling editorial services out of the back door, that tells you that they aren't getting good deals for their clients.

(If they defend themselves on the grounds that they don't have enough clients to support themselves, don't believe them. Agencies are indundated with applications, and there are bound to be some good ones. The only way they'd keep good writers away is by offering a bad deal, which means that writers with enough talent and sense to write a good book exercise that sense and choose to go elsewhere.)

Money-making on the side suggests, at best, a failing agency. You don't want to nail your flag to a sinking ship.

But I don't think it's a failing agency, because of the second point:

They aren't spending all their time looking after their clients' interests. Instead, they're giving a lot of editorial feedback to people who are not now and may never be their clients.

Agenting doesn't stop when the book is accepted: agents work full days every day sending stuff out, negotiating, promoting and generally fighting their clients' corners. All of this takes time. The trouble is, so does giving editorial feedback. Reading a book is one thing, but reading it, giving line notes, structural overhauls, full reports and all the rest of it is liable to take days. Imagine yourself being represented by an agent. Would you feel comfortable if that agent was spending all that time on editorial services for non-clients? (Much though every writer would like to think so, the fact does remain that you aren't your agent's only client and they may spend some of that precious time on other people that they're representing rather than you, but there's a difference. For one thing, it makes you look good if your agent gets lots of good deals, but it's also a question of professional priorities. Once an agent commits to a client, the client is their responsibility, but if they aren't committed to a client, why are they neglecting the people they do have a commitment to in favour of them?)

All of this adds up to one conclusion: this is a cunningly disguised scam. As Miss Snark points out, people are willing to pay to get their stuff read if there's a chance it'll get representation. Hence, a rogue editor can get a sweet deal going: promise representation for some lucky people if they'll pay to get their stuff read. It's a far better advert than the usual 'Let me improve your work and that'll increase your chances of getting representation'; instead, it's 'Let me improve your work and then I'll represent you'; a one-stop shop for the hopeful, in fact. But let's remember something. They don't promise representation. Even if they offered it, this representation is highly unlikely to be anything other than, well, half-assed. Agencies depend on reputation, and this is not a reputable thing to do; they depend on energy and commitment, and the energies of this 'agency' are scattered. But in fact, it's perfectly possible that they never represent anyone. Why would they need to, if the money keeps coming in from hopeful writers?

Do not fall for this line.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

 

Genre stats

This is most interesting. A discussion on Miss Snark's website threw up the following statistic: that more than half the people who answered a 'What's Your Genre' poll on Absolute Write were writing fantasy. Looking at it, the statistics are a bit funny - if you add all the percentages, you get by my (unchecked) calculations a grand total of 259.36%, so either people are writing multi-genred books that let them tick multiple boxes, or else they're writing several different books at once. However, if you add up science fiction, fantasy, horror and paranormal, which is to say, books with a non-realistic scenario, then you get back up to roughly half again.

What's going on? This being an internet poll, it's almost certainly not a poll of everyone who's writing a book, just the people who are writing a book and who regularly use the internet to inform and entertain themselves rather than just for e-mail, which narrows down the category, and, as Miss Snark remarked previously, science fiction and fantasy fans are probably 'early adopters of electronic forms' - ie, likely to be over-represented statistically in Web polls, because the mystery writers aren't surfing. A survey in a newspaper or a public library might produce some interestingly different statistics.

However, I certainly remember from the last job I had a pretty high number of stories with a science fiction or paranormal leaning in the slush pile, which suggests that a lot of people are writing that kind of thing. Wondering why it's so popular, I suspect one major reason is that the fans of - oh, I need a blanket term, and I can't stand the acronym SFF, so let's call it paranatural for the sake of argument and amusement - fans of paranatural literature tend to socialise over their genre more than most. They get on the Net and meet people who share their tastes, they organise events, they have magazines; there's an air of participation that you don't get with, say, action/adventure fiction. That sense of participation might well lead you to take the next step, which is to participate by trying to write one of those books yourself.

Conversely, at pretty much all the writing classes I've ever attended, there have been practically no writers there who were writing paranatural stuff: the vast majority would have been what that survey called 'Mainstream/Contemporary', with a handful of mystery and thrillers thrown in. From what I can gather on the Net, this may be because paranatural fans have their own writing classes specifically for paranatural fiction, and also use the Net more. (It may simply be that the kind of classes I went to happened to attract mainstream/contemporary authors, of course, but still.)

Personally, being an enemy to genre labels of all kinds, I think segregated writing classes are a bad idea, whether for paranatural, adventure or minimalised conceptual fiction-bytes. You may have the benefit of an audience who are sympathetic to your aim, but it's a way of keeping a genre ghettoised; if you only have to work to please people who are already on side, with the basic idea if not necessarily with all the details of your execution, then you don't have to work so hard. The result is stuff that'll seem closed-off to outsiders, because you can rely on conventions and presuppositions rather than striving to create something that can stand alone. I remember going into a comics shop for the first time, having read Maus and wondering if there was anything else like that (I suspect there isn't, but I thought it was worth a try), and being utterly bewildered: to someone who didn't already have a good familiarity with the genre, there was simply no way to browse, because it was entirely organised for people who pretty much knew what they were looking for before they went in. I wandered around leafing through stacks for about five minutes, then gave up and left in sheer puzzlement. An overly in-turned genre can feel like that: you pick up a book and go 'Huh?', leafing through in confusion, wondering what all these assumptions that seem to be being addressed actually are. Any genre that has a loyal readership can develop habits, and habits are bad for fiction: you can put something in because it's habitual, neglecting to justify its presence, and that'll alienate people who aren't already in the habit. That's going to keep your readership small, and almost certainly produce worse work.

But that aside, what draws people to write particular genres? Which is really the most popular? And if so, why?

Friday, February 02, 2007

 

Fiction therapy

Chris asked a good question in the previous thread, and I'm very interested to hear people's answers, so here it is, in the prominent position it deserves:

That's a good point about fiction helping people to work through bad events, but then it really has to be something special. For example, "The Quiet American" is spell-binding stuff, with Greene making so many points it dazzles you. On the other hand, while a film like "The Day After Tomorrow" does try to warn us about global warming and be entertaining, I just came out of the cinema thinking, "So, they really can do anything with computers." For me the film completely missed the target (notwithstanding that that might just be my fault!).

Does anyone have any examples of good fiction that can help/has helped people through the trauma of bad events?

I'm trying to think of examples myself, but it's actually kind of difficult. Fiction can act as a kind of emotional work-out, making you feel empathy and perspective, which may make you better able to deal with things life throws at you - but that's fiction read before a bad event, rather than after.

The only example I can think of, a bit tangential but still recommended, is the movie Citizen X. It's a based-on-fact-but-not-entirely-accurate-for-narrative-convenience film about the years and struggle it took to catch the Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, in the face of Soviet insistence that serial killers were a decadent Western phenomenon and couldn't happen here, so no you can't have more resources to investigate these fifty-odd murders. I don't know how it would affect anyone whose loved one had been murdered, but it did give me a sense of restored faith in humanity, the opposite effect to the one we were discussing in the last post.

In the wake of Thomas Harris (the high quality of his early work notwithstanding), there's been a tendency to view serial murder as a kind of performance art; lots of really tacky stuff where the murderer does all sorts of baroque and frankly lame things in the way of mutilations, cunning clues and drastic scenarios, as if killing people was a bold and brilliant means of self-expression - naughty, but somehow full of genius as well. Citizen X, on the other hand, tells a story I've seldom seen told so well: without self-righteousness or self-congratulation, it follows the desperately hard, frustrating, necessary struggle to catch the man who's doing these things. The tag line says a lot of it: 'You don't want to know what he does. You just want to know when he's caught.' The point is not the coolness of either the killer or the detective - the killer is a pathetic loser and the detective is a rumpled, determined, ordinary man, who's trying to catch Chikatilo because he has to be stopped, no other reason. It gets its priorities right. It always made me feel better to think that at least someone can treat of so gruesome a subject without being ghoulish.

That's artistic reassurance as much as real life reassurance, though. Has anyone got a better example?

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