Thursday, 22 September 2011

Writing Novels and Things #11: Talking on paper

I am reading a book about writing. I am not going to mention its name because I don't think it's very good (the writer keeps quoting his own works of fiction to illustrate his point and they really do not inspire me, if you know what I mean). However, he does quote some good people and the chapters on dialogue got me actually thinking about dialogue.

Usually, I don't really think about dialogue, largely because I think I'm better at it than other aspects of writing, so I don't work very hard on it. But these chapters made me THINK. I think I'm going to have to go through my novel once more, looking exclusively at the dialogue, and rewriting it all. (Sigh.)

Anyway, in my attempts to discover how best to write good dialogue, I have done some research and found some good hard and fast rules to stick to when writing the words that people say in your mind.

Only half of your words should be dialogue

I hadn't heard this one before but it does make sense. Essentially, the dialogue to action/thoughts ratio should be no more than 1:1, but preferably lower. I guess if you want it to be higher, you may want to start thinking about writing a script...

As with all of my excellent rules, there are exceptions. Frankenstein, for example, is technically all dialogue, and I think Trouble With Lichen is about 90% dialogue. But those novels have a storytelling premise, so it is OK. If you're trying to write a reasonably conventional story, then don't let your dialogue take up more than 50%.

Only let one thing happen per paragraph

We all know that when someone stops speaking, and another person starts speaking, we start a new paragraph. However, what I didn't know, but now see in every bit of dialogue I read, is that only one new idea should appear in a paragraph.

So instead of:

'Hi! How are you? What's going on with your hair? Do you think Davey murdered my Granny?'

'Hello! [Answers to the three questions]'

You would have six separate paragraphs where the first person asks one question in each, and the answerer responds to them one by one. It makes things much clearer and advances the plot much more effectively.

Dialogue must always advance the plot

When that one thing is happening per paragraph, something else must be happening. Without everything becoming completely expository, some information must be released to the reader with every line. This doesn't have to be the story, I don't think, it can be character points, but it has to have a purpose.

This holds true of all the words in your fiction, but I think it's worth taking extra care with dialogue. It's very easy to get sidetracked and blown off course when your characters are taking through you. They start having actual conversations like real people. This does not read well.

If you use dialogue tags other than 'say' or 'ask', you are a bad person (or Enid Blyton)
'Goodness me,' exclaimed Judy, 'there's a crab in my bucket!'

'Calm down,' reassured Clive, 'it's a dead crab, the crab in your bucket.'

'But as a child, my beloved hamster Muffy was killed by a crab,' exposited Judy.

'You're a ridiculous person,' grumbled Clive.

Even though it is quite fun to write like that, adding anything other than 'said' or 'asked' does sound a little parodic. According to Elmore Leonard, it also draws too much attention to the writer, and detracts from the story.

It also doesn't work if you add an adverb to the word 'said'; that's just the same thing. So, using the above example:

Judy said, exclaimingly.
Clive said, reassuringly.
Judy said, expositorily.
Clive said, grumblingly.

I realise that these sound wrong largely because those adverbs are mostly of my invention, but even if you might want to use real words, a 'said'-aligned adverb something you should avoid. Trust that the character's actions and the actual dialogue can convey the tone.

And these are the only four definites that I will give you, the rest is about you and yoru characters and how they want to say things. There are layout concerns, obviously, but those can easily be dealt with when you've done the writing.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Working From Home Forever (Not Working & Not At Home)

I am on holiday and it is nice! We're in a village outside of Salcombe in Devon, and it has rained for a large part of the day, and for an equally large part of the week so far. Given that we're at the seaside and this is supposedly Summer, one could get depressed about this kind of thing, but I am not and this is why:

1) I quite like the rain. It's cool and means you aren't a sweaty mess when you get to the top of great big hills like this:

2) It makes the sea look WAY more impressive than boring old blue skies.

3) You get to stay in pubs all day instead of having to all that afore-mentioned walking. I do like walking, obviously, and it is an infinitely more enjoyable means of getting to place on two legs than, say, jogging or... walking sideways. It's just that I like even more being in pubs. (I don't have a photo of this but look at my companions atop a hill!)

4) Waves! (Depth perception is not my camera's strong point but if you spin around a bit before looking at the next photo, and then turn on some kind of industrial wind machine, you will appreciate the lengths I went to take it.)

5) It's Burgh Island, of course. If it were sunny, it would be all wrong. Going there with a dark storm approaching/a little bit underway, I really got the sense that a murder could happen at any moment. It nearly did happen when the pub ran out of crab baguettes, to be honest.

And this is my grey holiday, or today's portion at least. I wonder if I should start championing the 'holi-grey' or if I should keep it to myself, lest other tourists start appearing in the supposed off-season. Yes, this will be our little secret. Do not tell anyone!

Mister Rhys Mystery, Case #10: Nessie

There is a word that the liberal left like to overuse when talking about legendary but shy beasts, and it is this: cryptid. It's a derogatory term that basically means 'imaginary animal', and is lazily applied to a multitude of unexplained biological wonders, for which conventional science has found no 'proof'. Bigfoot is one such 'cryptid' and the Loch Ness Monster, aka Nessie, is another.

Nessie is undoubtedly one of the most famous of these cryptids and dates back to the 7th century, where there reports of a 'monster' on the prowl in Loch Ness. These reports were, clearly, heavily embellished, and the term word 'monster' is a woefully inaccurate description, given what we know of Nessie's kind-hearted temperament. She is a gentle, loving beast who, it is posited by me some, may well be a fallen angel with healing tears and a sword of light. Admittedly, she has never been photographed wielding a sword of light, but there is some argument for the fact that anything composed entirely of light might not come out in a photograph.

But I digress (and will stick to the facts).

Nessie was dubbed the Loch Ness Monster (LNM) in 1933, a time of peace, between two world wars, and she was seen out of the water, crossing a road. She was also blamed for someone else falling off a motorbike, but this is a great, dirty lie. She was photographed for the first time in 1934 and, I think you'll agree, she is magnificent. In 1938, some bright spark decided to go on a Nessie hunt with a great big harpoon gun. She was then not seen again until the 50s. Coincidence? (Trick question; there is no such thing!)

When they did manage to find her in 1954, it was with sonar technology. This is when a boat makes sounds and... yes, well this leads to knowing what is in the water! It proved inconclusively that there was something moving under the boat and that this was, almost definitely Nessie. That this experiment has not been replicated to this day, despite great advances in technology, is clearly a case of Nessie's introverted nature at play. She has shown us once that she is with us, and that is enough.

In 2003, the BBC supposedly debunked the supposed myth of the 'supposed' Loch Ness Monster, by doing lots of scans of the loch with lots of sonar and... other things... that would be able to find something the size of a small buoy. They found nothing and the scientists, who had nothing better to do apparently, proved that there was no such thing as an LNM.


If you believe, like some, that Nessie has a great big light sword, and is a fallen angel with healing tears, do you think that a little bit of sonar or radar or what-have-you couldn't be fooled? I'm not entirely sure of the logistics but then I'm not a divine being. I imagine that a simple bit of sword swirling is involved and then the sonar noises go back to the boats saying something along the lines of 'there's just normal water here, boss'. (If that's how sonar works, I don't know; I clearly have better things to do than learn science.)

She's out there, no matter what the television people say, you mark my words. And she will rise from that loch, oh yes, she will rise! not sure what she's going to do then, but, well, she does have that sword...


Monday, 19 September 2011

Writing Novels and Things #11: Taking inspiration

There are certain things about writing that I find relatively easy, that others find difficult, stuff like starting projects, finding a voice, sending my stuff off to be rejected, sitting down and doing writing, stuff like that. Then there are the things that others seem to have a surfeit of, that are seemingly essential to the creative process, that I lack. One of these things is ideas.

(I am quelling the desire to justify this, so that you don't think I have nothing to say and/or shouldn't be working in a creative field. Have I also just given too much away, admitting as I have that I care what you think? As this paragraph is bracketed, I would prefer if you never mentioned having read this. Thanks!)

If I sit there at my computer and think, 'OK, let's find something for my characters to do,' I will freeze, entirely. My characters will do nothing. They'll sit around an office, or a coffee shop, or a living room, wittily, insightfully, charmingly, gazing into their navels and remarking on the world around them (and this world will, probably, be quite a lot like mine). This kind of fiction is rarely of interest to people who read things. Honestly.

So, I have learned that, for me, I must come to the empty Word document with a hook or concept, lest I write yet another moody coming-of-age tale where nothing happens (which I love, by the way, and will never stop writing). You come up with these concepts by having things called ideas. These can be found all around, and when you get these ideas from around you, it is said that you are drawing inspiration.

Mur Lafferty wrote a good little blog post about ideas and generating them. Essentially, ideas are like a magic penny, hold it tight and you wont have any, but spend it, lend it, and you'll have so many that they'll roll all over the floor. Yes, I just stole those lyrics from a song about God, but I think it works in this regard too. Basically, you're supposed to use all your ideas all the time, and don't save them up for later. You'll think of new ones. Getting the old ones out of your head and onto the page will actually clear room for new ones. This is, I think, Science.

So, in summary, in order to be a good fiction writer, you need ideas. You may well have known that already. The good thing is, prompts for ideas are all around us because we live in a world where there are so many things! One of the first assignments in my masters course was to find a picture and write a story about it. I can't find the original picture, but I'm fairly sure that it was a Studio Ghibli film still with a little girl looking at her reflection in the river. So I wrote a terrible (not in terms of subject matter, in terms of quality) story about that!

It's a good exercise, because it teaches you not to be too precious about your subject matter, and to look deeply into everything around you. If you can create a story sparked by just one little picture, what can you do with a whole world at your disposal?! Write more stories, mostly.

Music is good for that. Just this week, I was very inspired by an Elbow song. I haven't yet turned it in to anything, but it made me want to write a poem for the first time in ages. I then realised, while trying to write the poem, that I had no idea how to write a poem and that copying song lyrics is not the way. However, the first short story I ever got published was based on a song by Air, called Le Voyage De Penelope. It wasn't so much the song as the title; and it was a very literal interpretation. If I tell you that the title of the story ended up being Le Voyage De Lady Penelope, I think you'll get a good idea of where I went with it. I still quite like that story though, which I almost never say, modest bastard that I am.

It doesn't always work. I was fascinated by the painting below for about ten years, I even made a sculpture of it, from wire and black feathers, and have, in my head, turned her into a superhero, but I have never been able to write something about her that isn't, well, a bit rubbish.

 See also: the above Elbow anecdote. they can't all be winners!

Still, this is my advice to all those struggling for ideas: steal be inspired by someone else's! You won't be sorry.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Writing Novels and Things #10: Write what you (don't) know

I've been meaning to write about this for ever, and I think I wrote it down in a notebook somewhere (writing tip: be organised with your notebooks - it's all very good writing things down, it's excellent, but it is only an effective planning/idea-generating exercise if you can find the notebook when it comes time to do some writing), but I lost it and had to write about short stories and stuff instead. (Another writing tip: try to avoid overly long parentheses - well the sentences between the parentheses - as these can derail the flow, and more importantly the meaning, of your sentences.)

The reason I've been wanting to write about this for ever is because the old adage.. ,

'You should write what you know,'

... is one of the pieces of advice that people love to bandy around about writing. It would be a commandment, if Creative Writing were a religion. Creative Writing is not a religion. Anyway, yes, it's a little bit of a universal truth. But is it universally true?

Not really.

I remember reading an interview with Phillip Pullman (I honestly am not in love with him or anything), where the interviewer asks him how on earth he, an old man, could get into the head of Lyra, who is, in fact, not an old man. He says this:
People often forget that there's such a thing as imagination. What imagination does is to take the things we know and play with them so they're not always recognisable.
  And then he says this:
Some people would say "Always write about what you know". I don't think that's good advice at all. Nor is the advice to write what you think people will like. I think that's just silly. We shouldn't bother about other people at all when we write. It's none of their business what we write.
He's an opinionated man.

Anyway, yes, he says is perfectly. If people genuinely wrote what they knew - their lives - and this was what publishers wanted, there would be millions of books all about boring office jobs and watching X-Factor. There be some of those, but not many.

The job of a writer is to make everything mean something. Conversations in real life rarely go anywhere, they're just to fill time or for entertainment's sake. They don't help move forward the plot of our lives, and they are filled with stutterings and affectations and repetition and stutterings and affectations... Ha! And the same goes for our actions. We make dinner and it doesn't affect our relationships. We brush our teeth and go toilet and call our mums and it doesn't mean anything.

In One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde, a fictional character comes into the real world and is completely confused. So many things happen, and she can't tell if any of them are salient to the plot or if they just, you know, happen. It's impossible for her to solve the case she's working on because there are so many clues that could be meaningless. And time passes so slowly; if she wants to wait for something that's happening in an hour, she has to sit through that whole hour. In the fictional world, it take three words: 'An hour later...'

What that book, and Phillip and I am trying to say is this: fiction is not real life and real life is not fiction. And that is OK.

I'm taking quite a literally approach to the 'write what you know' maxim when I say it's rubbish. In essence there are, in fact, good things to take from it. As Phillip says, we 'take the things we know and play with them,' in fiction. You may know how feelings work, or certain professions, or certain sciences and fantasies, in the real world, but really these should just be tools that you use in forming your fiction. Like... knowing how to spell? Stuff like that. You don't, when you write fiction, write down a long list of the words that you know how to spell. That's not fiction, and neither is a blow-by-blow account of the daily minutiae of your life. Not that you were going to write that either...

And thus we get to my point. When we start writing fiction, we should start with our imaginations. We create a story. From there, everything else hangs: character, dialogue, voice, our real-life experience, word-play, sentence construction, and so on. Your reader will thank you and, I can guarantee, be much more interested in the things that you know.

(Big thanks to the articles below for reminding me that I wanted to write about this (and also for their contents, which I slightly stole).)

Writer Unboxed
The Atlantic

Monday, 5 September 2011

Griff's Fairy Tales, Part 3: Mary's Child

There was this time, where some parents were poor, and they had this daughter and they gave her away. Rather than go through standard adoption channels, they decided to give their baby daughter to Mary. Jesus' mum.

So Mary took this girl, let's call her Judy, to Heaven to live. Actual Heaven. And that was fine.

When Judy was a teenager, Mary went on a journey, a cruise, and left Judy in charge of the thirteen secret keys and the twelve allowed doors and the one forbidden door.

'You can open the twelve allowed doors, with their respective keys,' said Mary, 'but woe betide you should you open the thirteenth door with its key, which is on the same keyring as the others. You mark my words!'

'I don't even wanna open that door anyway,' said Judy, which was a lie.

'Don't lie,' said Mary, as she swooshed her blue head dress behind her shoulder, picked up her suitcase and left to join her cruise for single mothers in the Bahamas.

Twelve doors later, Judy was extremely bored. Behind each door had been some extremely evangelical old men who'd called themselves 'the Apostles'. She got enough of that with those Jehovah's Witnesses, all banging on the gates of Heaven trying to tell her how to get in to Heaven, from the outside of Heaven. She never let them in.

Judy looked at the thirteenth key, and then at the forbidden door, and then at the key, and then at the door, and then at what was behind the door, which she had just opened with the thirteenth key.

It was just God, or the Trinity of God, or something. Judy was never quite sure about how that all worked. The Trinity was pretty, certainly, and felt very omnipotent, but was more or less the same kind of thing one always found in Heaven, and did little to quench her boredom. She began to feel guilty.

Mary returned from her cruise tanned and refreshed. The moment she saw Judy's face, she knew something was wrong.

'Did you open the thirteenth door, Judy?' she asked.

'No,' said Judy, staring at her fingers which were fidgeting mercilessly.

'Yes you did.'

'No I didn't.'






'Did! Oh. Balls.'

Mary was not pleased.

'You get of my Heaven, this instance,' she said, pointing her finger to the Pearly Gates.

Judy left Heaven, and went back to the earth that spawned her. She lived on the mean streets of London for a while, surviving purely on her wits and heavenly beauty.

One day a TV producer happened to pass by and, stunned by her beauty, an idea formed. Suffice it to say, she was the subject of a very successful transformational reality TV show and soon became a gossip magazine staple, bagging herself a footballing spouse in the process. Unusual among footballers, her husband Dean was a doting husband, and exceeded even his own faithfulness expectations. They decided to start a family.

On the birth of her first son Chesney MiddleName Sprouse, Judy was visited by Jesus' mum, Mary.

'You're a grandma,' said Judy, as she handed the baby over to Mary.

'Judy,' said Mary, 'can you admit that you opened the thirteenth door?'

'God, Mum,' said Judy, blasphemously, 'I wasn't even going to bring all that stuff up, I thought Chesney would, like, reunite us or something. No, I didn't open that bloody door. If I had, I would have told you, without you tricking me into saying it.'

And with that, Mary disappeared, Chesney in tow. Judy realised she may have made a mistake.

The tabloids were all over it. The police were suspicious. Judy and Dean's marriage hit the rocks. A year on, they tried again and had another boy, and they called him Nine Jeff Sprouse.

Once more, Mary appeared at the hospital.

'Where's Chesney?' asked Judy.

'He's in Heaven,' said Mary, 'not opening doors. Speaking of which, are you willing to admit now that you opened the thirteenth door, and we can put this whole sorry mess behind us?'

'No, because it didn't happen!'

Mary disappeared. Judy looked over to Nine's crib, and knew before she saw. Nine was gone.

'But I didn't blaspheme,' she said.

Again the police and the press were intrigued. Criminal investigations were launched. Suspicion turn from potential stalkers to Judy herself. Dean didn't look at Judy the same way again.

Somehow, another child was conceived. The baby was delivered in the presence of guards, who then stood outside Judy's room, peeping in through the door frequently. Nevertheless, Mary slipped in.

'What's her name?' asked Mary.

Judy shrugged.

'Judy,' she said.

'That's rather plain,' said Mary, scooping the baby Judy into her arms.

'Didn't seem much point,' said adult Judy, as she prepared for her third baby to disappear.

'Judy,' said Mary, 'stop being a whiny little bitch. Just tell me.'

Judy, knowing exactly what Mary wanted to hear, but finding herself so very full of rage and shame, said nothing. It was the silence of realisation, and that realisation was this: she had nobody to blame and couldn't bring herself to make things right.

Mary disappeared with baby Judy.

Adult Judy was arrested, there was nothing anyone could do. She refused to speak when interrogated, refused to profess any innocence, and eventually that convince a jury of Guilt, and it set a precedent.

As she was lead away to the cells, stripped of all her clothes and given the prison garments, she whispered, under her breath:

'I opened the thirteenth door. I'm sorry.'

She woke up in bed, her own. Beside her were three babies, and she recognised them all, despite their uniformly baby-like Winston Churchill faces, as Chesney, Nine and baby Judy. They were all a day old. Dean lay beside the babies. They had a very big bed.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Mister Rhys Mysteries, Case #9: Atlantis!

It is a recorded fact that water takes up at least 5% of the earth's surface, but that we know less about the ocean's depths than we do about space and aliens and the future. We know that there are fish in it, and sea 'mammals', and Nazi submarines, and some think there is pollution in it, but what about people?

There are loads of humans living on land - surely, logically, this means that there must also be people living underwater? (And I don't mean animals that supposedly think like people, like dolphins and mermaids, I mean actual human beings.) It just stands to reason.

Well Plato thought so too, so he made up presented his findings on the matter thousands of years ago, when he told us the history of Atlantis, which is an island that was as big as Libya and Asia combined, which sank into the water and became lost. He doesn't mention that the people quickly involved into sea dwellers, capable of breathing underwater and of surviving the crushing pressure of the ocean depths, but it is implied.

So what have the Atlanteans been doing in the last few millennia? And what do they look like?

There are theories, mostly in comics.

Well, as all conspiracy theorists worth their salt (water - ha!) are aware, there is no such thing as coincidence. Clearly, there are two things that unite the disparate images of sea-dwelling people: a green and gold colour scheme, and forks.

'But surely gold and green just go with water blues!' I hear cynics cry.  'And the forks are tridents, inspired by the Poseidon myth!'

The sad thing about such cynics is their unquestioning and smug belief that theirs is the only opinion that matters. They won't ever believe the theory I'm about to posit. But think about it... think about it.

So, gold and green, what does that remind you of?

Capitalism, perhaps? Imperialism, maybe? Greed?

And what about the fork? Well, that just goes without saying...
Ever heard of Sodom and Gomorrah? This, in my theory, is the fate that befell the Atlanteans. They were an avaricious race, and the seas ate them up as punishment. Strangely, though, they survived, and lived on... just underwater. Maybe they learnt their lesson?

There have been a number of hunts for Atlantis, notably by the notoriously gullible Nazi party. Nothing has come up, per se, but one can't discount popular culture entirely from telling the truth that is yet to be uncovered.

Atlantis exists; we just haven't looked in the right place yet.


Friday, 2 September 2011

Working From Home Forever: A downside

People think it's so sexy, working from home. Like how I don't have to get dressed every day. And how some days I don't shower until the afternoon. Sometimes I don't even brush my teeth until I've had lunch! Maybe sexy isn't the right word...

Anyway, I have now discovered the one thing that is not good about working from home and it is this: I am poorly but I still have to go to work!

I just did not see this coming; I'm never sick! Yes, I have complaints on occasion, you know: migraines, backache, a suspicious looking freckle, dry skin, oily skin, spotty skin, inconsistently coloured skin, sore feet, a deep sense of ennui, itchy elbows, excess eyebrow skin, tummy aches, stuff like that. But I just don't get sick.

In the three and a bit years that I've been in my job, I think maybe I've taken two days off work with a serious bed-binding illness and when I returned to work people agreed that I had come back too soon and that I was helping no-one. That's just the kind of guy I am!

This week, I have been sick. It started with a sore throat, and then there was all this mucus, and finally these crazy headaches that wouldn't let up even when I was sleeping. At first, I wondered if this was because I'd forgotten to buy coffee and had to exist that day purely on green tea and lovely, caffeinated Lemsip. But then I got some coffee and the headaches got even worse. In fact, that was around the time that the nausea and high temperatures fully kicked in.

I think it might have been just a bug.

Anyway, this brings me to my complaint about working from home. You kind of don't have an excuse not to turn up to the office. I mean, I have to pass it to go to the loo at the very least, and with the modern wonder that is my laptop, I could even do it from bed.

So I worked for three days with a temperature and in pain, and it wasn't the worst thing that happened. It definitely made me grumpy and a bit short with people, but that could, potentially, be mistaken for efficiency and fast decision making; it made me not give a shit about answering my emails, which meant that I actually got a lot of things done.

The worst thing, when I think about it, is that nobody even noticed. If I didn't live with my boyfriend, I would probably be having dark fantasies right now, about my neighbours eventually finding my body, eaten from the inside out by woodlice.

That reminds me, I must go feed the woodlice...