Back in a previous life I was asked to help design a school's reward system. How might we celebrate and champion students' efforts and endeavours? There was a lot of BS talked in the room that day; nonsense about trading 'behaviour points' for prizes. Or handing out school 'dollars' that could be used to buy cinema trips or get free pizza; trips to theme parks for kids with good reports, all that blah.
Thankfully I was deputising to a headteacher with her head screwed on. At one point, she suggested leadership roles. The ones who'd put in a shift, she explained, get to coach others, run school events, lead sports teams or clubs. "I dunno..." shrugged one member of staff. "Sounds like it could be hard work for them." The headteacher thought for a moment. "Well," she said. "Perhaps the reward for hard work should be more hard work."
I remembered her words listening to a superb speech given by poet and playwright Jack Nicholls at a recent award ceremony for young writers. Jack's on the left in the picture above, the dude with the remarkable pants; the other judges pictured are Paul Morris - another impressive and accomplished speaker and writer - in the centre, and me. (Shout-out to the wonderful Jake Hope and Danielle Jawando who judged, but couldn't be there at the event.) I won't attempt to reproduce Jack's words from memory here. You could ask him yourself on Twitter. The gist was this:
Congratulations, he began, addressing the shortlisted writers. It's official, you're all writers! We've loved reading your work! Now take a moment. It will never get any better than this. (There was an uneasy pause here, some nervous laughter. Jack grinned and resumed.) This is a career in which virtually no-one will ever tell you if you're doing it right.
So true. There are a vanishingly small number of reward systems for writers. Sure, there are regional and national prizes but the shortlists tend to have six books on them. Your book is one of several hundred published in any year. You ain't going to get on many shortlists. No-one's going to stop by to praise a WIP chapter or clap you on the back for drafting a superb poem. Most days you'll sit in a caff somewhere, like I am now, and just hammer the words out.
No-one will notice.
No-one will visit your site or thumbs-up your vlog.
No-one will say well done or offer up a high five.
No-one will provide a detailed report of recent sales or collate a list of glowing remarks.
That particular headteacher had it right, and the lesson is clear.
In this game, the reward for hard work is more hard work. It's up to us to Just. Keep. Going.
True story. Witnessed in a recently read spooky novella: our narrator, assailed by sinister events, tells us:
“My heart skipped a beat.”
Of course the writer has chosen a narrator who is no accomplished wordsmith so that might go some way to explaining the rather wooden description on offer. Look, there’s nothing wrong with narrators resorting to cliché if that’s what they’d do irl. (Or indeed repetition; one chapter later, his heart skips a beat again. The precise sentence is repeated.) But on the other hand, we do need to be immersed and invested emotionally in the protag’s terror… and when, in a chapter towards the end of the book, we get,
“A shiver ran down my spine…”
…we're running the risk that cliché denies the real power of fear, tames and civilises it – wraps it in something comfortingly familiar.
The power of fear is that it’s something animalistic and instinctive inside us, buried way down in the DNA; something tribal, a pre-civilised fight/flight dynamic. Visualise the last time you had that genuine lurch of terror you get when something threatens you and ask, where exactly does fear breed? It’s not the spine, for my money. Neither is it, in my experience anyway, the back of the neck – and it won’t surprise you to learn that the hairs do indeed rise on the back of our narrator’s neck at one point.
Check out 32 Ways to Write About Fear for a good physiological starting point. And consider ‘Killing the Word Was’ from Storycraft, where Jon Mayhew and I discuss ways young writers might replace “I was scared…” with something more visceral and emotive.
It's not a simple case of adjusting the adjective - it's about adjusting the whole approach.
Nate Crowley's fabulous 100 Best Video Games that Never Existed sets a high bar for post-truth non-fiction. I wept with laughter at a number of the entries, including write-ups for;
Behind the Bins at Burnely Co-Op Warriors ("a refreshingly gritty take on an otherwise fantastical genre"),
Quadbike Sorcerer ("it's about a wizard who rides a magical quadbike. What more do you need to know?") and
Scouse Dracula ("Dracula - but he's from Liverpool.")
...but the one that caught my eye during a recent read-through was Moulin Luge, a "gem of a sports game" that tells the story of a troupe of Parisian cabaret performers who set their sights on the Winter Olympics. The inciting incident of the whole sorry escapade is when "ageing courtesan Delphine sees a vision of a toboggan at the bottom of an absinthe bottle..." and realises she has "one hell of a pun on her hands."
I love a good pun. Here's how much. Once, I seriously considered re-writing Payback, a book that takes place over the course of a summer holiday, so I could shift the action to October and November and call it Grand Theft Autumn.
I'm glad I didn't. In the end, the pun is surely too puny (ha ha) a joke to carry the weight of an entire novel on its shoulders. When I see books with pun-tastic titles, I tend to steer well clear. For example, I have absolutely no intention of ever reading First Among Sequels, Bratfest at Tiffany's, Crime Brulee, The Toyminator or Night of the Living Dad.
*conflicted grinding of teeth*
OK! I admit, I love Bratfest at Tiffany's. Order it up!
With Payback I thought about what Robin Hood might look like as a story if I tried updating it and setting it today. A number of exciting ideas emerged: Robin Hood might be a gang of teenagers not one person. They might fight evil corporations and corrupt companies instead of a greedy royal family. They might be urban rather than rural … and so on.
Here's an eqivalent to workshop with students or young writers. What if we tried to retell the story of Cinderella? First, we’d need to get to the heart of the story. Maybe we'd start by considering the following:
Now consider this: which bits could we change to make it more interesting or relevant? Here are seven things we might experiment with:
Not all remakes, however, are a good idea.
Imagine if children were in charge of society and adults were banished. That’s an inversion that The 100 has a pretty good go at exploring. Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses is an inversion, Amazon Prime's The Boys is too. And Neflix's The Highwaymen also inverts expectation. Instead of telling the gangsters-on-the-run story of Bonnie and Clyde, it focuses on Hamer and Gault, the two aging Texas Rangers who were hired to track down and kill the bandits. I came to it through Thomas Newman's haunting score, but stayed for the terrific performances.
Inversions are a great place to start if you're running a workshop or a story-plotting session. Invert a heist story, and tell the tale of a thief who, overwhelmed by guilt, attempts to secretly return every item they've ever stolen.
Or consider this list: