Friday, 26 March 2010

The Writer’s Nightmare, or Words which obscure rather than reveal.

The most important thing about getting a novel published isn’t the fame (what fame?) or the money (ditto), it’s the thought that someone will read it. I’ve banged on before about the collaboration between reader and writer; it’s something that happens without your knowledge. Occasionally you meet people who’ve read one of your books and you may chat about it, but that’s a tiny fraction of those who’ve relived their version of your fiction. All the others are and remain strangers. That’s sort of eerie but magical.

So what? Well, if you want to make money out of writing, you have to do other stuff – commercial stuff. It’s just as challenging but it does carry its frustrations, so I thought I’d use this posting to share a few of them with you.

As writers we love words, rhythms, sounds – the way a happy combination opens up meanings you didn’t know were there. So when we come across their misuse, we get apoplectic (or pissed – in the British not the American sense).

First example. I was writing a DVD script for a promotional video and I suggested to the MD of the company that, rather than appear in the programme himself, it would have greater impact if we interviewed some of the workforce and heard them saying what a great company it was, how terrific the stuff they produced was, etc. He saw the point and agreed. Then, the following day, I got an email from him with his scripts of what they should say. One went as follows. (I haven’t corrected the punctuation but I’ve changed the names of the company and the individual concerned.)

“My name is Fiona Campbell, Product Development Manager, Acme Corporation International. My function within the group is to research and develop innovative new products. In today’s ever-changing marketplace, the development of exciting and convenient, quality value added products, is of paramount importance for continued success in a highly competitive market. At Acme, joint ventures with customers on the development of new and existing products shall continue to play an important role. At Acme an important part of my teams duties is to liaise with customers and various departments, including quality control, production, sales and marketing, to obtain as much information as possible to help achieve quality products with a quality company image.”

Nice, natural, flowing chat, eh? That’s bound to convince people. And he used the same strangulated, constipated style for all the others too, however high or low their station. I ignored him.

Another company wanted a DVD for a product launch. I asked them for a description of the product and their reply, consisting of a single sentence, was a master class in the orchestration of subordinate clauses. It’s something I’ve quoted many times in talks and I still love it. I’ll call the product Acmeclad and this is what it does:

“Acmeclad is of a monocoque construction comprising a polymeric textile reinforcement encapsulated within a neoprene outer layer complete with integral neoprene strakes, bonded to a polypropylene penetration-resistant felt impregnated with a corrosion inhibitor or biocide contained within a water resistant thixotropic gel as dictated by the application for which the system will be supplied.”

Unsurpassable, you might think. But wait. Listen to another wonderful sentence written by a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature. (I have the full reference for this but I’m withholding it to spare her blushes).

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”


Now I know you’re desperate to be able to write just as eloquently, so in Just Write, the book I co-authored with Kathleen McMillan, we created THE NONSENSE GENERATOR. It’s an instant key to demonstrating your intellectual superiority to a reader. First, you take a straightforward sentence: “Studies have shown conclusively that (A) (B) (C) lead inexorably to the paradox of (A) (B) (C)”. Now think of any random sequence of six numbers from 0 to 9 and use them to choose words from columns A, B and C.

0 Intuitively……......…interdependent……..anomalies
1 complementary.....deconstructive……....paradigms
2 fundamentally…....disparate…………......morphologies
3 indecipherable…....internalized……… sets
4 pathologically….....polymorphic…….....…meta-analyses
5 intransigent…….....politicized…….....……structures
6 exponentially…...…volatile………......…….periphrases
7 ethically……….......…post-modern…...……values
8 pharmaceutically....inert……………........…variables
9 metaphysically…....dysfunctional…….....dichotomies

For example, if you chose 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, your sentence would read:
“Studies have shown conclusively that intuitively deconstructive morphologies lead inexorably to the paradox of indecipherable polymorphic structures.”

See? Writers-R-Us.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Workshops, proofs and head-butts.

The last few days have been so busy I didn’t even notice the blog’s birthday. Never mind, I’m sure my millions of readers will have celebrated it in their own special ways in Latvia, Transylvania, and all those other places where it’s required reading to give residents insights into the crazed British psyche.

The busy-ness is threefold. First, I’ve just set aside a nice chunk of pages which are the proofs of the book I wrote last October in that hectic spell. I love getting proofs to read and correct; it’s the fact that the onscreen words have suddenly started to morph into that delicious object – a book. I’m about halfway through and, so far, the typesetters have done a great job. Despite the care I take editing and re-editing copy before I submit it, I always find things I’d like to change. But you have to resist those impulses because even minor deletions and additions mean wholesale re-setting.

So instead, I find myself saying either ‘Hey, did I write that? It’s not bad,’ or, more frequently, ‘Hey, did I write that? It’s crap’. On the whole though it’s another of the jobs that give you that warm feeling that you are, after all, a writer.

The second thread of the busy-ness is the need to get my thoughts together for a talk/workshop I’m giving next Tuesday to a keen local writers’ group. I’ve got plenty of notes on different talks I’ve given in the past but I always prefer to try to tailor material to the specific audience, so I raid the old stuff, juggle it around, and add new stuff.

And the third busy thread concerns last night’s CSI Aberdeen event. I mentioned it before – a charity evening during which groups had to solve a mystery I’d written. I briefed the actors who were playing a mother, daughter, family friend, daughter’s boy-friend and the police forensic medic. The groups interviewed the actors, did fingerprint checks, examined evidence and did tests with chemicals. At the end, they presented their results with explanations of how they’d arrived at them and details of motives etc. It was great fun and everyone seemed to enjoy it. In fact, one of the solutions was ‘wrong’ but it was much better than mine and I’ll use it in future. I did ask permission of the guy who dreamed it up and he was just pleased I liked it.

I chatted with the actors afterwards and, apart from learning things which will make it even better next time, I heard that:
• The family friend, part of whose character was to be a flirt, had a great time coming on to the women who interviewed him. He said to one ‘Are you single?’ Her reply was, ‘Yes, and so’s my mother’.
• The daughter was played by a very attractive young woman and one of her questioners had asked his group specifically if he could interview her. They said yes and he spent almost the whole 5 minutes just looking at her.
• 2 groups suspected the police medic was the murderer.

But, best of all, in one of the groups there was an ex-CID inspector – a great guy, and he told me the true story of one of the scenes of crime he’d attended. It’s his anecdote so I can’t just steal it, but it was a hilarious tale of how he came to be the only serving police officer who’d been assaulted by a corpse – literally. The corpse head-butted him.

Now, back to the proofs. Normal service may or may not be resumed some time soon.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Passion and coincidence

In her comment on my previous posting, Sandie suggested that she ‘sensed a passion’ in the way I was writing about this project and I realise that she’s right. But I’m not sure whether it’s a writer’s passion for the specific work or a passion constructed of something else. Whatever it is, it was generated while I was writing The Figurehead.

First, as a background, there are the personal connections with shipping and shipbuilding. I was born and brought up in Plymouth but I’ve spent most of my life in Aberdeen, both major UK ports. My maternal and paternal grandfathers were both shipwrights and many of the men in my extended family were/are seamen.

But it’s more specific than that. As I was researching the book, I had lots of help from the people at the terrific Aberdeen Maritime Museum. At one point I remember the ship at the centre of the novel being completed and then wondering how the hell they hoisted the huge masts onto it at a time when there weren’t the giant cranes we have nowadays. So I just asked and, after expressing initial ignorance herself, the librarian looked out a couple of books and there was the answer.

I was also given access to the original documentation relating to shipbuilding and ship-owning around the 1840s and that’s where I came across the first coincidence. One of the great ship-owning dynasties through all those years was the Duthie family and I saw letters from them to shipwrights, etc. The librarian then told me they were still in contact with the remaining member of the family, a woman, and that her sister had died a few years before. A little bell rang in my head. I asked if the sister who’d died was called Enid. She was. Bingo. Enid L. Duthie was my PhD supervisor. I knew she’d originally come from Scotland but I had no idea she was a member of this particular family. So that was the first spooky link that emerged.

Next came The Scottish Maid (that’s my model of her in the picture). She was a two-masted topsail schooner and she’s famous for being the first sailing ship to be built with the ‘Aberdeen Bow’, which is the design used for all the famous clipper ships later in the century. She’s an important development in shipbuilding and she was designed and built by the Hall brothers in Aberdeen and launched exactly one hundred years to the day before I was born. So I share a birthday with her.

But I was aware of those coincidences when I was writing The Figurehead, so why talk about them now? Well, I have no idea where the notion of using a troupe of actors came from, but …

… the PhD thesis I mentioned, the one supervised by Dr Duthie (with great patience, sensitivity and scholarship), was on the theatre of Victor Hugo. His major plays were nearly all written between 1829 and 1843, which is exactly the period in which these novels are set. So there’s another personal link for me and I can draw on what I remember of the thesis for local colour. (And anyway how can you resist plays in which the hero tells the heroine ‘being away from you is like having darkness in my eyes, an empty heart. It’s like dying a little more each day, locked in the blackest cell, lost in a night without stars. It’s not living, not thinking, not knowing anything.’? And she's equally intense, telling him ‘If I had to choose between you and Paradise, I’d choose you’.)

But the final thing which makes Sandie’s choice of the word ‘passion’ so apt is a video I watched last week. I wanted a quick reminder of the whole theatrical moment of those times, so I watched (again) the wonderful Marcel Carné film Les Enfants du Paradis. It’s a brilliant recreation of the real personalities, energies, passions, extremes and moral context of the world of popular theatre in 1840s Paris and, despite a sad ending, it’s an entirely life-affirming experience.

So now, after all that, no excuses. Let writing commence.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The work not even in progress yet

Time to get serious. In between other things I’ve been researching various aspects of life in 1841-2 to fill in details of the lives my characters lived. The cogitations have so far produced four main threads to the narrative. Since it’s a sequel to The Figurehead, it’ll naturally be concerned with the making of ships and all the carvings that involves, so the setting for the action is Aberdeen harbour and the business that goes on there.

The first thread is part of that business, too, because the central female character (Helen) is strong-willed and refuses to fit her stereotype. Her father is a highly successful ship-owning merchant and, as his only child, she wants to learn more and to help him with his transatlantic trade. First, though, she has to persuade him that her involvement is a good idea.

The second thread is one which will contrast very strongly with these commercial pursuits and with the fairly settled life of the tradesmen who build and fit out the vessels which make Aberdeen such a thriving place. There’s going to be a troupe of actors presenting some plays at the Theatre Royal, Aberdeen. Acting in the middle of the 19th century was a larger than life business – all colour, exaggeration, artificiality and passion. The most popular form (aside from Shakespeare) was melodrama and, from about 1830, nautical melodramas were all the rage. That seems too good an opportunity to miss. I can put people who, every night, strut about pretending they’re involved in the hazards and drama of shipboard adventures beside others who know what it is to sail to the whaling grounds in winter and thrash to and fro across the Atlantic. Also, if I throw into this staid, provincial society some beautiful actors (male and female) who have access to great chat-up lines stolen from plays, heads may be turned, jealousies may ferment and mayhem could ensue.

The third thread also involves Helen and is a love story. It began to grow in (and tried to take over) The Figurehead and it needs to be properly resolved now.

All that remains is to fill in details of the fourth thread which, because I write crime novels, has to be a murder (or several if need be). But the strange thing here is that, while I can envisage some of the exchanges that’ll take place between the characters and some of the conflicts and stresses they’ll feel, I don’t yet have an idea of the nature of the crime, its victim or its perpetrator. I want to link it with an unsolved murder which was mentioned in The Figurehead and I know the type of person who’ll commit this particular crime but as yet he/she doesn’t exist as an individual.

I’ve never expressed thoughts such as this about any of my previous novels and I’m not sure whether they evolved in the same way at all. This time, though, I’m trying to write the thing and, at the same time, observe the processes involved in doing so. Which is a pretty good displacement activity.

(This, by the way, is another posting I may live to regret in that, just as when I wrote of starting the research, it commits me to a course of action which may lead nowhere or to a very different story from the one I’m sketching out here. But the idea that a book may emerge from this woolly, insubstantial thinking is a nice thought to carry around.)

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Editing reality

A short while ago I wrote a bit here about theatre being a collaborative process. I want to take the idea of collaboration a little further. In the comments on The Play’s the Thing, I said I thought the director had much more power in movies or TV plays than in the theatre and, consequently, the writer’s role was overshadowed. But there’s so much more to it than that. In a chapter of Just Write, the book I co-wrote with Kathleen McMillan, we drew a parallel between editing film and editing text. The relevant passage runs as follows:

‘It’s like the process of editing film or video; a scene is shot from various angles, favouring different perspectives, emphasizing different aspects of what’s happening but, in the edit suite, the material is reviewed, selections are made and then spliced together to create a fluid ‘real’ representation of events. The editor creates a ‘reality’ on the screen which never actually happened as a single episode. You want to create the same sense of flow, blend selected pieces of the information you’ve collected into a single, coherent sequence, create your own, unique written ‘reality’.’

If you’ve never been involved in making a movie, this totally artificial ‘reality’ it creates is puzzling. On the screen you see, for example, the woman reach for her scarf and have difficulty tying it round her neck because she’s so angry with her partner. She’s shouting at him and tells him that he must either spend more time with her or she’ll leave him. Then she grabs her car keys from the table and goes out, slamming the door behind her. There are probably cutaway shots of the partner, attempts at bits of dialogue from him. There may also be some other element – visual or aural – that’s in the scene to symbolise something or maybe hint at a shared memory or a harbinger of something sinister waiting to happen. The important thing to note is that what you see as a single sequence never happened, so the reality it’s offering is a lie. Having to set the camera up in different places to highlight the different characters and objects involved takes several minutes and maybe much, much longer – but the editor cuts it together and what we see is a seamless scene lasting maybe 20 seconds.

But then, we’re judging its reality by the way it mirrors what we see around us – people slamming doors, having a row, fumbling with items of clothing. It’s just a straightforward picture of it. And yet it’s not, because the editor and director will have cut the scene to suit their purposes. Maybe they want you to dislike the woman, or maybe they suggest that the argument she’s having is simply a cover for something else, or perhaps the two characters are being manipulated by someone or something outside their awareness. And so, as we watch, we’re being manipulated too; our judgement is being deliberately compromised so we become accomplices of the director …

… just as our readers become our accomplices when it comes to the written word, because this process of creating a seeming ‘reality’ out of disparate incidents and actions is even stranger in prose fiction. Let’s just take one example from the scene I’ve been describing. (By the way, this is a useful little exercise to get a class discussing how fiction works.) We’ll make it as basic as possible and write:

‘Samantha grabbed her scarf and walked to the door.’

OK class, how many actions does she perform? Two, you cry – ‘grab’ and ‘walk’. But wait, didn’t she maybe look at the scarf? Reach towards it? Ok, four then. But she must have opened and closed her fingers too, so six. And the more you break the sequence down, the more the actions multiply. So much so that, in the end, the simple act of reaching for the scarf requires an infinite number of steps as neurons fire in the brain, amino acids do what they need to do to provide the fuel which energises the muscles, the lungs take in oxygen, the heart pumps the blood to where it’s needed, nerve endings relay messages that contact has been made with the material, etc., etc. In other words, what we describe and perceive as one fluid, meaningful action consists of millions of sub-routines without which the whole edifice crumbles.

But such detailed analysis would be unreadable and is, obviously, unnecessary – because we collaborate with the writer. We’re grateful to him/her for breaking infinite complexity down into a couple of distinct, apprehendable movements. But, again, we’re being manipulated because not only does the writer reduce the action count, he/she chooses the words to convey them. If I write ‘water’ you might think of oceans, a tap (or faucet), a bath, a cup of tea, a pond, a river, a shower. But the more I qualify it, the more I restrict the interpretations available to you – ‘running water’, ‘hot running water’, ‘a bloodstained leather tube from which hot running water spewed into the stagnant, viscous residues at the bottom of the pit’. Hmm, so bang goes your cup of tea.

Art is artifice and yet it produces realities far more profound and affecting than most of those around us. As I keep saying to myself and repeating to anyone who reads this stuff, it’s a joy to be doing something that lets us pretend there are meanings and significance somewhere and even to create our own. I won’t bleat on about this because it’s a point I made in a posting ages ago but isn’t it great that, out of scraps of experience which we’ve woven together, we can make someone in Brazil, Australia, Canada or anywhere feel an actual emotion? Once again, it’s that mystical, intimate, one to one connection that’s so fundamental to the reader/writer dialogue.