Monday, February 26, 2007

Are you a character in someone else's fiction?

Following a number of discussions on fiction, metafiction and films such as Stranger Than Fiction, Annie Hall etc, I thought it might be useful to provide the following practical checklist. If you suspect you may be a character in someone else’s novel or movie, here are a few signs to look out for:

If you are able to find a parking space outside any building you happen to want to visit, you are certainly in a movie not in real life.

Similarly, if you book into a cheap hotel room in Paris and find your window looks out on the Eiffel Tower.

If every time you turn the TV on it happens to be a news bulletin on an issue directly relevant to your present situation, then you are definitely in a work of fiction.

If you are still in doubt you could always try this: go into the city centre and start dancing. If everyone you bump into knows the steps to your dance, you are definitely in a movie.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Stranger than Fiction

Characters in novels do sometimes come to life. Like in the novel Breakbeat – where I put my main character in an argument with a woman from the Social Security, and was surprised when, at the end of the conversation, he invited her out on a date. They both wanted it, so I let them. Other times I have to keep my characters more tightly under control. I have occasionally spared them some ordeal, feeling they have suffered enough already. But I have never believed they were real.

In the film Stranger than Fiction, however, they really are. It is a delicious ‘what if’ story. What if someone woke up one day and found a narrator in his head? What if the plot choices of a reclusive novelist were being played out in real people’s lives?

Will Ferell plays a man who thinks he is in control of his admittedly narrow life. He counts the strokes of his toothbrush. He counts the number of paces to the bus stop. But when the voice of Emma Thompson comes into his head one day, narrating the things he is doing and is about to do, he starts to suspect that his future is being written.

With metafiction – stories in which storytelling itself is in some way the subject – one is never quite sure whether any shortcomings are in fact ironic statements by the writer. In Stranger than Fiction, the clich├ęs and quirks of Emma Thompson’s narration are surely intended in this way, and added greatly to my enjoyment. I would have liked to think the unbelievably two-dimensional character of the author’s assistant, played by Queen Latifa, was another ironic statement. Unfortunately that one was just a mistake. There was nothing wrong with her acting, but the character was so obviously a device to give the novelist someone to talk to that she became unbelievable.

However, that is a small complaint about an otherwise eminently watchable, well acted and cleverly constructed romantic comedy which has plenty of laugh out loud moments along the way, especially for those who enjoy reading (and /or writing) novels.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Story Structure - Getting to the end

I’ve heard it said that Sue Grafton describes the process of writing a novel as being like driving through fog. You can see the road for a little way in front of you but the horizon in obscure. Other novelists speak about the process of planning out a novel in great detail before setting out on chapter one. It has been years since I read it, but I believe R. F. Keating describes this method in his book on how to write a crime novel. For me, the experience is somewhere in between. I know where I am going, but the landscape I’m going to pass through on the way will be a surprise to me. (Hopefully a pleasant surprise.)

I’m presently coming to the end of writing something and last week I had the magical experience of understanding how to get from where I am to the climax of the story. I perceived a pattern in what had previously been a complex jumble of information and story threads. Suddenly the chaos resolved into a single picture. I walked round the house smiling like a Cheshire cat looking for long-suffering family members to tell.

But there is one bit of a story that I never know before I get to it. That is the last little bit – after the climax but before the words ‘The End’. The crime may be solved. The action may be over. But in my stories that last chapter often contains the real payoff – the emotional resolution. I may guess what it will be, but I can’t be sure until all the rest of the book is written.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Runequest and team writing

Thank you, Geraint, for your comment on my last posting Don't Judge a Book by its Cover.

But perhaps I should explain for those who don't know (the population of the world minus three). When I was 18, I spent the summer holidays with a schoolfriend, Paul, planning out a comedy fantasy novel called Runequest. Geraint, another schoolfriend, came to join us for a number of those writing sessions.

I don't know if anyone else would have found our story funny. All I can say is, I had never laughed as much before, and have seldom since. It was my first experience of writing a story for my own pleasure. It was wonderful.

Then, of course, this man called Pratchett (you may have heard of him) came along and cornered the market in fantasy take-off novels. We all went off in different directions and our Runequest story never saw the light of day. I believe Paul still has the folder containing the plan. Looking back on it, and having gone through the novel writing process a few times now, I'd say our plan had enough material for a 5 book series.

Perhaps there is something particularly pleasurable about team writing. Every time I have done it since, it has been a huge pleasure. So far the only bits of that work that have come to fruition are the performance stories Hazard Warning and Blood Mother, written with Clare Littleford and Sally Spedding. The next performance of Blood Mother will be in the Derby Guildhall on March 15th 2007.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Don't judge a book...

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover. But don’t we do exactly that? The title, the cover image and the blurb make some kind of impression that get us to put the book back on the shelf or open it up and start reading.

All of which makes my present dilemma more difficult. There is a story that has been tumbling round in my head for some time. Now I have started to write it and, for various reasons, I need to come up with a title. I’ve grown quite fond of this story, and so I want a really good title to go along with it. That puts the pressure on. Ho-hum. I’m just going to have to choose one and hope. I'll let you know when I have it settled.

Perhaps I should have done it the other way around – devised a drop-dead brilliant title, then imagined a cover and a blurb to go with it, and finally got round to thinking up the story.