Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Movie and Prose - different approaches to description

I've just come back for a walk in some woods between Leicester and Loughborough. The first thing is to say that it was beautiful. Early spring under a blue sky. Cool air and bright sun. The first butterflies. Birdsong everywhere.

My goal is of course to be able to turn off my mind and enjoy the place and the moment. But that takes time for me. I have to slow down gradually. Walking helps. And as I walked, I was thinking about how I would capture the scene in prose and in film, in such a way that it would give an audience the experience of immersion in the woodland.

In prose, the task seems simple enough. First give a 'wide shot' - a general description of the whole place. Throw in some mention of sound, scent or texture. Then home in on progressively smaller detail. A strand of spider silk caught in the sunlight between the trees, for example. The job is done in half a dozen lines.

But I have often puzzled over how I would shoot such a scene in film. The range of light from dark shadow to brilliant splashes of sunlight. The 360 degree, all round above and below experience. The human eye and brain can take it all in. Harder for a camera.

Clearly the film approach would parallel the prose description. Wide shots and close up detail inter cut. The revelation that came to me today - probably obvious to most people - is how much easier it would be to film and edit if there was a person there in some of the shots. A person to turn his or her head, to observe the fine detail and the panoramas so that when we cut to them, there is the implication that we are seeing through that person's eye.

Of course, a person is there in the prose description. The narrator. An implied observer, taking in the detail on our behalf. Perhaps the two forms are not so different after all.

As for my walk - yes, today I did manage to slow my mind and really be there, vivid in the moment.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Superb Story Telling

This bog post relates to two themes that have been touched on here in the past - why movies cost so much to make and how to tell good stories.

Not a big budget movie. It was shot entirely on a mobile phone.

Inspirational in every sense.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Developing a writers' eye

Leading creative writing classes, I usually feel more like a collaborator than a teacher. After all, I am on the same journey as the students. We all want to improve our writing. There is no end-point when we will be able to say, "I do not need to improve any more."

Every course I teach, I find myself picking up new things. As the present novel writing course comes to its conclusion on Monday evening, I am thinking about the things I have learned.

One of these is the way in which writers develop a special perception of the world around them. Some people have a natural "writers' eye". They describe scenes with beautiful economy, using telling details that other people might not have noticed, but which, as soon as they are mentioned, conjure a clear picture in the readers' minds.

Right back at the beginning of the course, I asked people to write a description of a place. One of the students, Jackie, was describing a run-down bedsit. She wrote that the curtains in the window didn't quite meet and were held together with clothes pegs. I loved that detail. By choosing this particular detail to show, she let us know a huge amount about the place.

Developing this writers' eye, this intensity of perception, is something we can practice. The simple act of carrying around a small notebook will help. And if you want an exercise to work on, how about this - over the next couple of days, be on the lookout for a picture that tells a story. When you see it, fix it in your mind. Let me know if you see something good.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

How to write a great novel

I must confess that when I titled my last blog entry, I did so nervously. "How to write great dialogue" is a line begging to be shot down. But so far so good. In fact, I have had some very positive responses. Having got away with that one, I have decided to follow up with an even more audacious title.

When I was first published and out doing talks and book signings, I was surprised by the number of people who came up to me and confessed that they too wanted to write a novel. Such an admission was usually preceded by a furtive glance, to make sure that no one else was within hearing range. "I've got a really great novel up here," they'd say, tapping the side of the head "I'm going to write it one day."

It makes me wonder whether people approach members of other professions and callings in the same way. "You're an architect? Funny thing, you know - I've got a building in me, and I'm going to design it one of these days."

Not that there is anything wrong with this. In fact I admire such empowerment. I'm all for getting rid of barriers - especially the ones we impose on ourselves. The problem is, in my estimation, very few of the people who make this claim actually get down to the task of writing. And of the few who start writing, even fewer push on to the end. Which is sad.

Surprisingly, of those who do write a novel to the end, a fair number do not then send it out. There is always something else to edit. Though they have got to the end, it is somehow never quite finished. Who was it who said: "Novels are never finished, just abandoned" ?

Which brings me to the question implied in the title of this posting: 'How do I write a great novel?' The answer is that you sit down and write and you keep on till it is done. Then you edit. Then you send it out. All of which may be an annoying thing to say, and surely should be an obvious thing to say. Unfortunately it is also true. There is no shortcut to learning the process. You just have to do it.

Happily, writing a novel can be a fulfilling process. Nothing you write is ever wasted. The journey changes you in good ways. So, if you haven't started yours already - why not give it a go?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How to write great dialogue

Writing great dialogue is something a few people seem to be able to do naturally. The rest of us have to work at it. Yesterday I was trying to figure out how to teach this elusive art for my Monday evening class. I came to the conclusion that there are several parts to the process.

The first part is learning to listen. Just as it is possible to develop a writers' eye - to notice the telling detail from the world around us so we can use it in our descriptions -we can also develop a writers' ear. Not something you can easily do in a classroom. It takes daily practice in the wide world.

Then there is the art of writing in one voice. You can practice this by choosing a character with a distinctive voice and writing as if that person is dictating to you. Perhaps a description. Perhaps an account of events.

Third comes the art of putting different voices together and discovering how they respond to each other. Those slight but telling illogicalities of real dialogue. The fact that people do not spell things out entirely, because the situation makes what they are talking about apparent. The way questions are not answered and each person in a conversation has their own agenda.

Fourth is the merely technical box of tricks that enable you to construct a dialogue on the page, so it is clear to the reader who is speaking and in what way and what is happening around them.

In the end is it just practice. That's what I am doing. Practicing.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"The Mentalist"

Those of you who follow this blog will be aware that early in 2007 I was invited to write a novella for the Crime Express series published by Five Leaves Press. You may also be aware that I chose the title "The Mentalist" for my story and it was published in the autumn of that year, alongside novellas from John Harvey and Stephen Booth.

Imagine my surprise then, on watching the television last night, to see a trailer for an American detective series entitled - you guessed it - "The Mentalist".

One of my reasons for writing The Mentalist was that I felt it would make an excellent plot for a movie. Thus the investment in time getting the structure just right would give me two potential products. Now, I am not sure where I stand. When I write my screenplay of The Mentalist, will I be accused of stealing the idea from this US TV series?

Happily, the TV series first aired in the autumn of 2008, a year after my book was published. So I feel that I stand on firm ground. On the other hand, that makes me ask the question - do any of the ideas in the series come from my book?

I find it somewhat disturbing.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sentence length and narrative drive

It is the first day of spring, the festival of Naw Ruz for those who celebrate it, the vernal equinox and the end of the Baha'i fast.

It is also a very sunny day and I am fresh back from leading a writing workshop in Leicester. I do love the writing workshops. It is a chance to listen to some new and really fine writing. I particularly enjoyed today a chapter from a novelisation of the life of a real individual during the Second World War. Superbly written, tense and fascinating.

In this particular chapter, the author had made good use of changes in sentence length to emphasise changes in tension. Short sentences and chopped up grammar for high tension. Longer lines, more fully written, with more clauses for lower tension. It was extremely effective. But it struck me as I listened to it, that even in the tensest sections, you do need occasional longer lines to break up the rhythm.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Innermost Cave

Why do I spend so much time thinking about dark themes? It's not just me. Story tellers have always done it - dwelt in dark places. Whether it is the story of Little Red Riding Hood or the novel, Gorky Park, people get devoured by wolves of one kind or another.

In the White Angel sequel, we are going to be looking into a prison wing and discovering monstrous lives and crimes. The poet Alison Dunn, who spent several years working in prisons, told me: “In prison, every act has a reason. Every gift is a transaction. Nothing is on the level.” That is an unpleasant thought. But as soon as I heard her say this, I grabbed hold of the idea. Perfect material for the story.

Why do so many stories take us into dark places? I think they are leading us into that dark underworld where we are faced with our worst fears. And then they are leading us out again, somehow empowered by our experience. Of course, there are many stories that do not lead us back into the light. There are even some with two alternate endings. But those of you who have read my novels will know that my stories tend to be redemptive, though usually not in the way the protagonist had anticipated.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

White Angel

Those who follow this blog regularly will have read some of my comments about Chris Jones, director of the multi award winning short film, Gone Fishing. I have been following Chris's Gone Fishing journey though his excellent blog. When the news broke that Gone Fishing had reached the final shortlist of 10 films for the Oscar, I was not surprised. It is a remarkable short film.

A few weeks ago, Chris asked me if I would like to write a screenplay for the sequel to his 1994 feature film White Angel. Of course I said yes. (see "Index Cards and Plotting" - 9th March.)

White Angel is a very British feeling psychological crime thriller. It is a game of cat and mouse between two fascinating characters and features excellent central performances from Peter Frith and Harriet Robinson.

That kind of compressed and intense character interaction is great to work with. Very much my sort of thing. I'll post more about the project as it develops. In the meantime, do visit Chris's blog. It's well worth following.

The proof of the pudding

Following yesterday's post on fasting, spirituality and creativity, I am today attempting to write my blog post in the last hour of daylight, just before I break my fast. I say 'attempting' because my mind is not very focused and I keep having to pull myself back to the task in hand.

I found Maxine's comment on yesterday's post particularly thought provoking - the idea that the focus we try to develop during the process of writing is a narrowing in, whilst the focus of meditation is a widening out. (Forgive me if I am misrepresenting what you said, Maxine).

I usually think of the writing process as being controlled by two voices from within. One voice is that of the creative genius who lives within us all. It is able to make strange connections, wonderful discoveries and create the gems that are hopefully scattered through our work. The other voice is the editor and critic. It is composed of reason. It sees the limitations and reigns back on the excesses. If the creative genius has disproportionate influence, we write masses of material with gems in it but also piles of dross. If the editor/critic has disproportionate influence, we do not write at all. We are blocked.

I imagine the editor/critic to have a narrow focus, while the creative genius opens itself up to a very wide view. When the writing is flowing well, if feels to me as if these two, apparently contradictory voices, are both powerful and balanced.

This is all hugely subjective, of course. And as before, I'd be very glad to hear other people's experiences and thoughts related to this question.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Creativity, Spirituality and Fasting

First, let's look at the 'S' word. Spirituality means different things to different people. I'm not talking about anything specifically religious, nor even about beliefs that there is anything beyond the physical world. The spirituality I am talking about in this blog entry is a quality that some people seem to have, in which they are able to psychologically detach themselves from the immediate physical world around them. Spirituality as opposed to materiality.

Some people pray or meditate to take them into this 'spiritual' state. But it could be said that when artists are creating, they are inhabiting an inner world, somewhat cut off from much of their surroundings. Even if they are focusing on the object of their art - it is at the expense of the rest of the world.

One of the practices common to most religions is fasting. As a Baha'i, I try a dawn to sunset fast during this part of the year - leading up to March 21st. I have observed that during the afternoon on a day when I am fasting, my mind is definitely in a different state. I feel less tied down to immediate worries and concerns, more able to let myself drift in a creative space.

Is there a connection between the qualities of 'spirituality' and 'creativity'? Are they part of the same drive? I am not sure. But it does feel to me as if there is an overlap at least. I'd be interested in hearing what other people think on this.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Write-off - the results

A hugely enjoyable evening's entertainment was had last night in a function room above the Mill on the Soar. Writers from all over the East Midlands gathered to hear readings and performance from the Runaway Writers and Leicester Writers' Club in the final of the Write-off competition. I counted representatives from 5 different writers' groups present in the audience audience.

First came the toss of a coin. Runaway Writers won this and elected to bat first. We were then treated to a hugely enjoyable half-hour showcase of writing, which stretched across several different forms, including poetry, monologue, play and short story. A particular favourite of mine was a short play set in a lost property office. (Which would in my opinion make an excellent short film). Another highlight was a beautifully controlled monologue, the story of a woman who had lost her sex drive.

The remarkable thing is that all this material was produced, gathered and rehearsed in two short weeks. For it was two weeks ago that the teams were sent notice of the topic - Lost and/or Found.

After the performance there was a half hour break to allow the judges time to consult, added up the scores and grab a well deserved bite to eat. This also gave the performers from Leicester Writers' Club the chance to consult about a problem that we had been noticing through the first half. There was clearly a function room directly above the one we were in, and to judge by the noise coming through the ceiling, it seemed to be occupied by a large party of elephants.

Performing second, we did have the advantage of preparing ourselves for this, limbering up our voices etc. In that perhaps we had an advantage over the Runaway Writers. On the other hand, the pachyderm party upstairs grew considerably louder as our set began, and during the reading of deeply moving poem by Liz Ringrose, the elephants broke into a rousing and cheery chorus of 'Happy Birthday to you'. Amazingly, Liz didn't miss a beat.

So - who won the final? Well, it could have gone either way because there was superb material from both teams. In the end, it was Leicester Writers who were awarded first prize.

The Leicester Writers' Club performers, complete with 'Writers on the road' T-Shirts. (Photo courtesy of Nigel Ringrose.)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Write-off final

It's here at last, the final of Write-off - a jousting tournament for creative writers, which has pitched several East Midlands clubs against each other over the last couple of months. The competition has a knock-out format and tonight we are left with the final pairing.

I do have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, a fiercely fought competition is not necessarily the best thing to bring writing groups together in a spirit of harmony. On the other, a bit of friendly rivalry often brings the best out of everyone.

My hope and expectation is that tonight's performances of new work by the different clubs will be an uplifting and impressive display. And more than that, I hope that everyone will find themselves making new friends from across the region. In which case, we'll all be winners.

On a different subject - I've been working some more on that film treatment. And last night I had a chance to have a phone conversation with one of my collaborators. It's given me new things to think about. My collaborator pointed out that one of the characters is a shade too passive in my first treatment of the film. And when I look at it again, I find that he is correct in this.

If I'd been writing the story as prose, the character would not have been too passive, because we would have seen the inner workings of her mind. But as a screenplay, the only thing you can write is what can be seen. Hopefully in a week or so, I'll be in a position to tell more about this exciting project.

Now, I'm off into Leicester to facilitate the WSL advanced workshop for a couple of hours. It's going to be a busy day, but hopefully a good one.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Index Cards and plotting

How do people construct a plot for a work of long fiction? Everyone has different methods. Some just write and have an instinct for constructing a fine storyline. Others use post-it notes, index cards, charts and diagrams to help them.

Me - I have done different things at different times, depending on what I was writing. With BACKLASH, the book more or less wrote itself. By the time I reached BURNOUT the complexity of having the story interwoven with two other novels meant that I had to develop a big wall chart to help me.

Right now I am working on a treatment for a movie. (This is a project I was invited to work on, so I will have to hold back from writing about it too specifically for the time being. At such time as it goes public, I'll say more.)

Back to the question of plotting - how do you plot a movie? This is far easier than a novel because there is far less plot. You can more or less hold an entire movie plot in your head at one time. A novel is more that a head-full.

But I still find myself using a specific method to help me. In this case - index cards. I've already worked up a short treatment. To develop that into a full treatment, I simply take each scene that I know I will definitely need and write a couple of lines about it onto a blank card. I can then lay the cards out on the floor and figure out which cards definitely have to come before or after which. The process will inevitably help me to understand extra scenes that are needed - and where they have to go.

The end product is a stack of 40 or 50 cards, each with a mini scene description. That's the plot. Simple as that. Wish me luck.

Friday, March 06, 2009

World Book Day

Wheew! It was a busy day yesterday. I started out by talking to a group of teenage dyslexic kids. Very enjoyable - for me, at least. Good to have a chance to ask them what things they are really good at. The usual question to dyslexics is what they are bad at.

Then on to a group of GCSE English students who are presently achieving results at grade C but are aiming for grade B or A. It was a small group - particularly because several of them had bunked off. When I was faced with them, I had a sinking feeling that it was going to be really hard work, because most of them didn't look enthusiastic. World book day it might have been, but did they really want to be talking to a novelist about story structure?

The first thing I had to admit was that I only achieved grade C at GCSE English language. And that my school didn't even bother putting me in for English Literature, as I was not good enough. After that we spent most of the time chatting about movies - which they seemed to know a lot about. I gave out some photos of people - pictures cut from newspapers and magazines. From that the students created characters and stories.

Really good stories. Several in that class were natural story tellers.

Later in the day I went to another class of GCSE English students. This time they were kids working at grade A or A*. It was very interesting to me that the kind of stories they were coming out with were quite different from the 'lower achievers' earlier in the day. The narratives tended to be more introspective. To characterise them simplistically, the 'higher achievers' were writing the kind of plot line one might expect to find in literary fiction and the 'lower achievers' were writing what one might expect to find in genre fiction.

But here is the thing - I don't see literary fiction as inherently superior or more worthy than genre fiction. It is possible to tell a simple, accessible story and make it many layered. That was the quality I was looking for and I found some of it in both groups.

Why do I put quotation marks around 'higher achievers' and 'lower achievers'? It is a mark of my own scepticism in the belief that the GCSE is measuring the most important things in our English ability. If I had to pick out the best natural story tellers from the two groups, there would have been three from the 'lower achievers' and five from the 'higher achievers'. But the latter group was more than twice as big.

Then in the evening I headed off to Leicester Writers' Club for one of the best evening's entertainment available in the city on a Thursday night - sitting back and listening to people reading and performing some stunning stories and poems.

I'm glad there is a World Book Day. But glad also that it isn't every day. I'd burn out.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Verb Choice and Powerful Prose

It was once pointed out to me that good choice of verbs can inject power into prose. The example given was the following sentence:

"He/she entered the room."

But 'entered' gives no clue as to the manner in which he or she did the deed. "Can you think," I was asked, "of other verbs that could be used in its place?" After a few moments of head scratching, I offered:

"He ran into the room"
"He bounded into the room"
"He stole into the room"

"Good start," my instructor said. "Now, spend the next 10 minutes writing down other words that could go into that sentence."

No way! I'll have run out after one minute, let alone ten. I tried it anyway. And to my surprise, I found there was almost no end to the words that I could fit into that one, deceptively simple sentence.

Since then, I have often used this as a short exercise in writing classes and have got used to the kind of words that people come up with. Even so, every so often someone comes up with something new. In my class last Monday evening for example, someone suggested: "He teleported into the room."

Great fun.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Search String Questions

One of the great things about web traffic statistics is that they let you know what the search strings were that people typed before being directed to your pages. I have noticed that several of theses searches are in the form of questions. So... in no particular order, here are some of the questions that have led people to this blog, and my own answers:

How many pages in a novel chapter?

The answer depends on many variables, from the size of the page to the type of story being told. Perhaps a better question to ask would be: "Why do we have chapters at all?" We have them in part to manipulate the reader into putting the book down at a point whee we feel confident she/he will pick it up again. So a chapter length should have some relationship to the amount a reader might want to take in at one sitting.

How do I become a novelist?

Write a novel. There isn't a shortcut. Sorry about that.

Where does creativity come from?

It constantly streams from our unconscious minds. The trick is to train your conscious mind to entertain it. How does it get into the unconscious mind? I wish I knew. Sometimes it feels as if it is coming from outside. Other times you can see that it comes from the mind recycling things that have happened to you.

What is author intrusion?

Anything that makes the reader aware of the author in a way that distracts them from the story.
Is dyslexia real?