Sunday, 31 October 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you … Stanley.

By a nice coincidence, my first ever collaboration with an illustrator began just after I’d written the previous blog – about visuals in text. My kids’ stories featuring Stanley, the fairy who lives in the washbasin in my bedroom, had been accepted by a publisher and I obviously needed someone to create some appropriate images for him. Fiona-Jane Brown, a FaceBook friend, suggested I contact Melanie Chadwick. I did and, as a consequence, met Stanley for the first time.

By that I mean that, although I’ve written seven stories about him and am aware of his character, his habits and his presence, I’d never really thought about what he looked like. I knew he was the size of a mouse and that he preferred being miserable, but that was it. In the first story, which I wrote in response to the publisher’s request for information about how he’d come to be living in my bedroom in the first place, I gave him a scarf, woollen socks, a tee-shirt and some shorts, but I never envisaged him wearing them.

Melanie agreed to do some sketches for me and I have to say I’m delighted with her ideas, her style, and the Stanley she’s created. But …

The first sketch she sent me was a black and white version of the one above. I’d told her that Stanley was miserable and that’s what she’d given me. But it was only when I looked at it that I realised that, more than miserable, Stanley is angry, aggressive, rude, impatient. I’ve known him for two or three years at least but it was only the visual representation of him that brought that realisation. So a more typical Stanley pose is this …

The point is that all my theorising and/or speculating about visuals in text was exactly that – abstract – and it was only when I literally had to look at a picture of Stanley that I first began to wonder what he looked like. Well, thanks to Melanie, now I know. She’s produced lots of versions of him in various moods and has designed three of the seven covers, bringing her own sense of Stanley (and sense of humour) to them and really transforming the stories into something other than the things I’d written. Her sketches have also given me ideas for more stories because I’ll now be ‘interfacing’ with the character in a different, more questioning way.

This business of visuals in text is even more complex than I thought it was.

By the way, it’s important for me to say that the copyright for these images belongs to Melanie Chadwick and they can only be reproduced with her permission.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Now you see it, now you don't

Yes, it’s proofreading time again. This time it’s the proofs of Brilliant Essay. The strange thing is that it and Brilliant Dissertation have been listed on Amazon for several weeks but the proofs for the first have just arrived and I won’t get the ones for Brilliant Dissertation until next month. Anyway, it means that, for a few days, I can just settle into the semi-automatic state of re-reading and checking my stuff and feeling the satisfaction that it’ll soon be on the shelves.

It’s a process as absorbing as actually writing a book. My mind seems to switch into the necessary mode and obliterate everything else. Phone calls and knocks on the door are intrusions, bringing irrelevant things into whichever cosy writer’s world – researching, writing, editing, proofreading – I’m in at the time. But, of course, being so absorbing, it gets in the way of other activities, such as writing blogs.

I’ve been meaning to have a go at writing about a remark Linda made in her comment on my bit on rhythm. She wrote ‘As an auditory learner/communicator, I tend to overlook the visual in favor of rhythms. So next time around, if you don't mind, tell me how to create visual images for my readers!’ It’s an interesting challenge and one I hadn’t thought of before. I write DVDs and other commercial scenarios for training, safety and promotional purposes and the actual visuals there are obviously very important. But I don’t think that’s what Linda’s talking about. In those scripts, I call for real images and sequences – it’s not a question of conjuring them up in the text.

I don't think I've ever read stuff about this, so I can’t offer theories – all I can do is stop and think of how I use visuals and what dictates the way I describe or convey them. And I think the answer to that is that I work backwards, starting from the reaction I have or a character has to what’s being seen. If it’s a beautiful scene, a sunset, the look of a lover’s hair or eyes – things like that – I try to imagine how I’d feel as I looked at it, then isolate and describe the aspects of it that provoked that particular response. The same applies if I want to scare or horrify the reader. I imagine the horror, then think of what sights might provoke it.

In other words, the visual isn’t just a scene or setting, it has a function, it impacts on the characters or story. If I write ‘The sky was blue’ readers are justified in thinking ‘It usually is,’ ‘So what?’ and other less polite things. On the other hand, ‘The sky was a limitless, translucent dome, stretching its porcelain fragility over them, inviting them to dream’ would make the reader slam the book shut and throw it as far away as possible. So I prefer linking what’s seen with what’s experienced, as in ‘The blue of the sky was an insult, made a mockery of the darkness within him’. I’m not suggesting that’s any good, just trying to work out my approach to visuals.

I remember writing in The Darkness about the experience of being in total blackness – not just the lack of images when you close your eyes, because you still sense light through your lids, but the almost tangible absence of all light. I actually sat in a cupboard to experience it. (Am I, like Dinsdale, a Method writer?) It makes you redefine yourself, rethink just about everything. In The Figurehead, the visuals were part of my attempt to convey early 19th century Aberdeen, with its horses, square riggers, items of tradesmen’s equipment, stalls laden with slippery fish, and the general busy-ness around the harbour. But they all had to be linked with sounds and smells to create a textured experience. I suppose I’m saying that visuals, rather than being objective elements in a context, are inseparable from the story’s or the characters’ impulses.

I’m probably remembering this wrongly, but I seem to think I read that Stendhal didn’t know the colour of Julien Sorel’s eyes because, as he said, ‘If you see the colour it means you’re looking at them, not through them’. My sister-in-law once told me that what she missed in my books were indications of what the characters looked like. Since then, I’ve deliberately tried to include little asides about clothing or appearance, but it obviously doesn’t come naturally to me. I sort of feel that a straightforward description of something implies that there's both the thing and an observer, so it interferes with the narrative, where there is no observer, simply the characters doing what they do.

And the more I try to examine how I use visuals, the less clear it is for me. So anyone else got any ideas about it?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Blame it on the boogie - part two

In the previous posting, I promised some examples of the importance of rhythms and how they work, but a list of them would be tedious, so let’s focus on just a few. In fact, I’ve taken them all from poetry but I’m quoting them as prose so that your reading isn’t influenced by them being chopped into shorter lines. I want the rhythms to do all the work unaided. Rather like this:
There was a young man from Dundee
Who was stung on the arm by a wasp.
When asked if it hurt
He said, ‘Not very much.
It can do it again if it likes.’

Any effect those lines have is almost entirely down to rhythm. So, for the first example, just the magnificence of rhythms which give the meaning even greater resonance – lines from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. A courtier tells the king ‘Your majesty shall shortly have your wish, and ride in triumph through Persepolis.’ To which the king replies ‘And ride in triumph through Persepolis! Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles? Usumcasane and Theridamas, is it not passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?’ I always find that to be a ‘hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck’ job.

But it’s not just noble rhythms that work. Othello was a great orator, with lines such as ‘Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife; the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!’

But his self-assurance and conceit break down when Iago suggests that Desdemona’s playing away, and he loses control. ‘It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is't possible?—Confess—handkerchief!—O devil!’

So rhythm works not just through its own power and consistency but when it’s broken and overwhelmed. French classical drama, for example, was highly formal. It aimed to ape what it thought Greek tragedy was like, so it was written in Alexandrines – rhyming couplets of 12 syllables, with a caesura (a pause) coming in the middle of each line and a sort of mini-caesura after the 3rd and 9th syllables. The example usually quoted of the form at its best is one of Racine’s. I’ll mark the caesuras with /:
Arian/e, ma soeur,// de quel am/our blessée
Vous mourût/es aux bords //où vous fût/es laissée.
(Literally translated: ‘Ariane, my sister, wounded by love, you died on the shore on which you were abandoned’ – a translation which is an example of very bad rhythm, completely unsuited to what’s being expressed.)

As well as being great poetry, this formal structure, including the rhyme scheme, is the way elevated individuals speak. All the main characters in classical tragedy are high-born – kings, princesses, generals, etc.. They have dignity, poise and their control of language is a mark of their superiority, elegance and social standing. If you like, it’s another of the masks they wear. So when they seem to stumble over syllables, you know the ordinary mortal under the mask is having trouble suppressing baser instincts or just plain human emotions.

My favourite Racine play is Andromaque and there’s a great example there of how rhythm does the poet/dramatist’s work for him. The plot is complicated but essentially it’s Oreste loves Hermione, who loves Pyrrhus, who loves Andromaque, who still loves her dead husband. So, not much chance of a happy ending.

At one point, Hermione makes a long passionate speech outlining how Pyrrhus’s rejection of her has brought shame on her family. She ends it by urging Oreste to go and assassinate her enemy and not come back until he’s ‘covered with the blood of the infidel’ (i.e. Pyrrhus). That’s how, she says, he can be sure of having her love.

So off he goes. When he sees her again, he makes a long, noble speech full of elevated imagery and awe at the enormity of events, declares his love for her and ends by saying that he’s killed Pyrrhus. She’s horrified at the news and immediately rejects him in a short speech where she barely maintains control of her temper (and the lines she speaks). It ends with the words ‘Qui te l’a dit?’ (Who told you to do that?) It’s a brusque, very ordinary question with no thought of being noble, and it’s up to Oreste to finish the line with the correct number of syllables, the rhyme, and so on. But, of course, he’s completely shattered by her words, and the man who’s just made that great rolling speech, is reduced to near incoherence. The complete couplet goes as follows:

Qui te l’a dit?
................‘O dieux! Quoi! Ne m’avez-vous pas
Vous-meme, ici, tantot, ordonné son trépas?
(Who told you to do that?
........................Oh God! What! Didn’t you
Yourself, here, just now, order his death?’)

Compare that with the beautiful fluid couplet I quoted earlier. There’s no rhythm, no regular pauses, no flow. The words this time are simple, desperate attempts by the characters to make sense of things but the broken rhythms show the crumbling of their masks. The glorious noble exteriors fall away to reveal the lost, unhinged people inside them. Rhythm and control give way to chaos.

So, back to my point, read your stuff to check that the rhythms are working for you. And they don’t always have to be smooth, regular pulses. Breaking the rhythm is just as effective. Get it right and you could be as good as Racine.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Blame it on the boogie – part one

I’ve no doubt said this in previous blogs somewhere but I need to repeat it to set up what this posting is about. It occurred to me as I held two workshops this week in two branches of Aberdeen libraries and gave my usual advice to people who want to write. The advice always centres on the same three things:

1. Trust your own voice. You don’t necessarily need big, fancy or poetic words, or a huge vocabulary, or a familiarity with several cultures. Your way of putting things is unique, so trust it. You can always correct things later (see 3 below).

2. Read what you’ve written aloud. This applies whether it’s a chapter, a poem or a letter of complaint to your electricity supplier. Reading aloud reveals mistakes, repetitions, places where punctuation’s absent and should be present and vice versa, and other things which just ‘don’t feel right’. It also makes you realise that your sentences are maybe all around the same length, so there’s a monotony about your delivery.

3. Make writing and editing separate exercises. Finish the writing, set it aside for as long a period as you can, then return to it as an editor. And cut, cut, cut. Almost all writing is better for being cut.

It’s the reading aloud bit that I want to pick out because, apart from the mistakes and omissions it reveals, it also brings home the importance of rhythm. Rhythm’s an obvious element in poetry but it’s just as important in stories, novels or the letter of complaint.

In more formal types of poetry, there are usually rules about where stresses should fall and different metres measured in things called feet. For example, Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is a typical iambic pentameter. An iamb is a foot made up of 2 syllables with the stress falling on the first one and there are five of them here. If you switch the stress to the second syllable, the iamb becomes a trochee, as exemplified in my own comic masterpiece beginning ‘I went down the pub on Friday .…’

You can, of course, create other effects by mixing them up, and then there are the more complicated ones whose names I’ve forgotten, such as the galloping horses rhythm of:
‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.’

The point is that, in poetry and prose, rhythm gives you another string to your writing bow. As well as conveying your thinking and your effects through what the words mean, you can influence the reader by soothing or disturbing her with gentler or unsettling cadences. (And that sentence is an example of how reading aloud can make things stand out. It’s poor because it sounds as if it’s both the gentler and the unsettling cadences that disturb her, whereas ‘gentler’ belongs with ‘soothing’ and ‘disturbing’ with ‘unsettling’. But then, if I try rewriting it, as in ‘… you can influence the reader by soothing her with gentler or disturbing her with unsettling cadences’ it’s rubbish because there’s a sort of puzzling gap after ‘gentler’ which doesn’t get filled until the end of the sentence. And ‘… you can influence the reader by soothing her with gentler cadences or disturbing her with unsettling ones’ is even worse because it ends on that very feeble downbeat ‘ones’. So, with my habitual laziness, I’ll leave the perfect formulation of it to you.)

Anyway, if the rhythm’s not right, the words have less impact. I’m no theorist about all this but I think there must be an instinctive psychological response to rhythms at a level beyond the rational. For example, I don’t think it matters in the slightest if you don’t know the meaning of:

‘And I shall pluck ’til time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.'
The combination of images and rhythms there is enough to make you feel good.

That’s more than enough for now. I’ll try to think of some examples for part two.