Here’s what all-round YA hero Chris Wooding has to say about writing really difficult books – this snippet in relation to his excellent Storm Thief: “As usual, while writing it I got to a point where I wished I’d never started, and I wanted to run my hard drive over an electromagnet…” Wooding admits. “And also as usual, I got through it, and when it was finally done and I got the bound copies I decided that I loved it again.”
I’ve been thinking about my relationship with Lifers a lot recently. Partly because I’ve been listening to actors reading it in preparation for an audio version – a thrilling experience – and partly because of a conversation I was having with some more interesting, funny, insightful children’s authors; Niel Bushnell, Dan Smith and Chris Callaghan.
Here’s the thing about reviews, I was saying. Pretty much everything, over time, ends up at 3.9. Using Goodreads, a site I love, to verify the theory finds this: The Great Gatsby’s two-million plus reviews even out at 3.9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream? 3.9. King Lear? Macbeth? Henry V? 3.9 apiece. The author Margaret Atwood gets an overall rating of 3.9. Current zombie favourite The Girl With All the Gifts scores 3.9, as does my last read, King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams. What about the novel most claim is the finest ever written, George Eliot’s Middlemarch? You guessed it.
(Before I get irritating, let’s be serious for a moment. I’m patently not trying to argue that everything gets a 3.9, or in my opinion deserves a 3.9. There were plenty of searches that just missed the mark. I was gutted to find Hamlet comes out at 4.0, for example. And Wuthering Heights gets a 3.8, though Bronte can comfort herself knowing she’s out-performed Great Expectations by 0.1; Dickens’ novel comes in at a mystifying 3.7.)
Anyway. I s’pose what I’m trying to say is this – write what you want, and try your best to love what you write. Because if and when it’s published, this is what will happen: some people will like it, some people won’t, and you’ll most likely end up with a 3.9.
So if, like Wooding, you’re battling with a project that feels so doomed you’re planning on running your hard-drive over an electro-magnet…. Don’t. Keep going. Out there are people who are going to love it – and one of them is likely your future self.
Oh, and one more thing. What about Wooding’s Storm Thief itself? What did that score?
Well, as luck would have it…
Normally on the middle Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of August I'd be in work, sorting through the previous year's A level results, interviewing students, enrolling kids on courses, running the clearing process, placating parents and preparing reports.
This year, I'm packing for Edinburgh. I'm at the Book Festival on Thursday at 5pm, then doing a ten-at-ten reading the morning after. Check out the details, and lists of fabulous other events and authors, here.
It's a hell of a way to mark a change in direction and I'm thrilled to be surviving as a full-time writer thus far. It was a shift that, at times, I didn't think I'd be able to push through; one that was years in the planning. And advice on what to do was hard to come by - not because people weren't willing to kindly offer their thoughts, but because their circumstances were so different from mine. "Ah!" some would say after telling me how they did it. "You're the main breadwinner are you? Oh. That makes it harder." Or, "Oh, and you've got a daughter to look after as well? Right. That makes it different."
Still, it's done now. And I won't be pulling the ladder up behind me - if you're planning something similar and want any advice, just ping me on twitter here or leave a comment below; I'll be happy to share.
And if you're in Edinburgh tomorrow or Friday, come and say hello. Or maybe you're heading to the Wigtown Book Festival in September - see you there! Or you might be on the Isle of Wight in October... hurrah! Me too!
A happy anniversary indeed.
You’ll have seen those mega-tomes you can buy in branches of major bookstores; 1001 Books to Read Before You Die… 1001 Movies to watch, places to go, albums to listen to, etcetera. I was chatting with a mate about the phenomenon – let’s call him Argyle for the purposes of this post – and he was pretty strident on the matter. “It’s nothing less than the complete homogenisation of taste,” he said, furious, as he tucked into his McDonalds.
That last bit was a joke.
Yeah; so I was reminded of Argyle’s comment when I met a gang of YA writers at a Waterstones event in Birmingham recently. They were a great bunch. Cat Clarke, Sue Wallman, Martyn Bedford, blogger Michelle Toy and me. We had a good time discussing thriller writing for a group of attendees. Michelle asked clever questions, we all pitched in.
Martyn teaches on a Creative Writing MA; twenty or so post-grads at a university in Leeds. After the session, I asked him what sort of projects the students were working on. “It’s all epic fantasy. Game of Thrones type stuff,” he said. What, all? “Yeah,” he said. “All.”
Argyle’s complaint again, see? And here’s a linked observation: I quit my job and finished teaching this Easter, moving into full-time writing; fiction and non-fiction. This is something I’ve been planning for a while and in anticipation of a significantly reduced income, I’ve been cutting back. I’ve been bombing round the M60 in a second-hand Citroen that makes the kids in the playground laugh. I’ve got two suits and three ties; second-hand books, one Playstation game, a cheap-as-chips Spotify subscription, a Lovefilm postal account at a fiver a month and a freeview box. “I think you’re going to be OK,” a colleague said on my last day, patently choosing his words with care. “You’re frugal,” he said. “Anyone can see that.” I laughed. We both knew he meant the car.
So anyway – I’ve reached this weird point where I’ve never seen an episode of GOT. Though I will, I will. Work colleagues have stared at me amazed and recommended Narcos, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy. And I’ll get round to them. But I’m watching Deadwood at the moment. It’s great. Good writing is good writing. And maybe there’s an advantage to be considered here, one side effect is that I’m consuming different stories to a lot of others. I’m not being deliberately obtuse or occupying some superior counter-cultural high ground. All I’m saying is – being miles behind isn’t a bad thing. There’s a weird freedom to it.
So I won’t be starting my fantasy epic anytime soon. No sweeping dynastic conflict or competing claims to a throne as a brutal winter approaches. Sheathe your swords, people.
Cowboys is where it’s at. Cowboys.
Here I am yesterday in the company of a gaggle of fellow Chicken House authors.
Look, y’all! In the foreground is the left-hand side of Dan Smith’s face! Dan wrote Big Game, Boy X, a couple of great WWII dramas, as well as four (I think…) novels for adults.
And look! There’s Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author of The Girl of Ink and Stars, no less!
Mr Barry Cunningham (Chicken House big cheese, he of the flat cap) is flanked by Kerr Thomson (who read brilliantly from The Sound of Whales) and the mighty Sophia Bennett, whose Love Song is out now and sounds fabulous…
And look! There’s me in the cap and next to me MG Leonard, whose Beetle Boy is everywhere – deservedly so – at the moment. And the tall guy at the back, I hear you ask? None other than Chris Callaghan, author of The Great Chocoplot. Follow the links folks. All these wonderful people have better websites than me.
We were at the Chicken House Big Breakfast in Edinburgh, and a fantastic morning it was. Except for two things that are on my mind, gnawing away at me; bothering me badly, tugging at my conscience. I can’t sleep about it.
One: I had a bite to eat with some of this lot afterwards. Dan and Chris are both from Newcastle; proper north-eastern lads. Both ordered a beer with their lunch. Me? A croissant and a glass of tonic water. When it arrived, there was an awkward silence. Dan Smith, deadpan, said, “Do you want a pair of ballet shoes with that?”
Two: on the train on the way home, one of our ticket inspectors passed down our carriage. He was carrying a large clear plastic bag, empty except for a pint or two of clear water gathered in its bottom third. He held it up. “Listen everyone,” he said. “Anyone seen a goldfish?”
Life is mysterious.
This is the last of three posts that cover my current thinking on narrative structure. I don’t claim to be an expert, and this is more for my benefit than it is for anyone else’s I guess, but it’s the combination of maybe five or six books on the matter as well as countless balls-ups and rewrites, and as such it might prove useful.
First, watch Sam Raimi’s wonderful thriller A Simple Plan, and pause at 1:15:00.
So here we are at gate 2. I like the way Donald Maass discusses crisis. Here’s what he says in Writing 21st Century Fiction: “Let your main character fail. Exhaust every option, block every path, alienate every ally, and defeat your protagonist in fact and in spirit.” It’s pretty raw, but that’s Maass all over; he’s the supreme raise-the-stakes-even-higher! guy.
Blake Synder is equally as forceful. He encourages us to present, “…total defeat. All aspects of the hero’s life are a shambles. Wreckage abounds. No hope.” Synder goes on to say – in movie terms – that the following 5 seconds to five minutes of film should dwell on this disaster in a sort of ‘dark night of the soul,’ before our protagonist makes an irreversible decision that moves them into act three. (Often the nature of this decision is kept from the reader. Dialogue is missed out in this manner; “So I told him what I was going to do. I laid it out in every detail. When I’d finished, he looked up, blinked and said, “You’re crazy. It’ll never work.””)
In A Simple Plan, the FBI show up. At least it looks that way; Raimi raises the stakes by questioning the identity of the new character. And we end up where we started – in a snow-choked woodland clearing where our final tragedy plays out.
Do we need the scene at the fireplace? I’m not sure. The Of Mice and Men bit strikes me as the most fitting conclusion, right? Do we need the crime-doesn’t-pay moralising? I thought we covered that during the inciting incident in act one when Hank says, “You work for the American Dream. You don’t steal it.”
Nevertheless, a great movie, a superb story, and an object lesson in structure.
Seven books I own - and would recommend - on story structure:
Donald Maass Writing the Breakout Novel
Donald Masss Writing 21st Century Fiction
James Scott Bell Plot and Structure
Blake Snyder Save the Cat!
Jerome Stern Making Shapely Fiction
Ronald B Tobias 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them
Christopher Vogler The Writer’s Journey
John Yorke Into The Woods
This is the middle of three posts that pretty much cover my current thinking on narrative structure. I don’t claim to be an expert – I challenge anyone to screw up the middle of a story quite as well as I can – and this stuff isn’t new. Nevertheless, it’s the combination of maybe five or six books on the matter as well as countless balls-ups and rewrites, and as such, I might a least save you a bit of time.
You'll need a copy of Sam Raimi's movie A Simple Plan.
OK. Part Two. Once you’re through gate 1, there’s no turning back, remember. Usually this gate is psychological. It is in A Simple Plan; it’s murder and the associated guilt that comes with it.
Philip Larkin once quipped that most stories have three things; a beginning, a muddle and an end. He’s got a point. Act two is hard. I started to get better at this when I listened to Writing Excuses, which is a really useful podcast on the craft of storytelling. Hosts Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal use the word escalation to discuss act two. “Act two is a series of try-fail cycles…” they say; the protagonists try but fail to achieve their goal, and with each attempt and failure, the stakes are further escalated. (See also the ‘Yes-But, No-And’ model for further details on try-fail cycles.)
If you’re up for it, stick A Simple Plan on again kicking off, remember, at gate 1 which is 33:00. Spoilers coming up. There are at least six degrees of escalation in Raimi’s act two. I’m doing this from memory, folks, but my seven go something like this:
You’re looking for a point of complete crisis next. It must be three or four times the enormity of the gate 1 crisis, and must be followed by gate 2 – another turnstile, this time a decision, choice or action which makes the remainder of the story inevitable.
The crisis is easy here – it comes at about 1:15:00. Gate 2 - in my opinion - is the arrival of a character. I'll finish up tomorrow in the next post.
The next three posts exist because of a twitter-chat I was having with @eugene_lambert, (author of the upcoming The Sign of One) and a class I taught on story shape. They pretty much cover my current thinking on narrative structure. I don’t claim to be an expert – I challenge anyone to screw up the middle of a story quite as well as I can – and this stuff isn’t new. Nevertheless, it’s the combination of maybe five or six books on the matter as well as my countless balls-ups and rewrites, and as such, I might a least save you a bit of time.
Oh, and remember – diagrams like this only represent the story as it happens, not necessarily the story as it's told. There’s a difference, and that took me literally years to figure out. I detest myself sometimes…
Anyway. If you want to play along, folks, you’ll need a copy of Sam Raimi’s movie adaptation of Scott B Smith’s A Simple Plan, available at all good retailers and streaming services. It works because of a unity of place, a small cast of characters, and a relatively straightforward plot in which the story as it happens is the story as its told.
Go on, people. Just watch the first 33 minutes then pause; there are spoilers ahead.
Before you watch the rest, speculate as to how act two – with its six degrees of escalation – will work. List all the stuff that’s been left unresolved, all the problems that have been set up to unravel.
Then read the next post.
I’ve just finished an obscure Stephen King novel – if there can possibly be such a thing – called The Colorado Kid. It was published in 2005 with Hard Case Crime, a publishing house who deliver a fine line in pulp covers with gaudy lettering. It looks brilliant. Eight years later, King returned to Hard Case Crime with Joyland, a carney mystery sporting a vivid pulp cover with gaudy lettering that looks brilliant. The two stories have become entangled in my head somewhat.
What King does so well is the old-timers-shootin’-the-breeze narrative. Invariably the story will work as a flashback and be told from the perspective of a wise, insightful, even-handed octogenarian. Or two, in the case of The Colorado Kid. They’ll make comments about the incomplete nature of the narrative, wry observations about the impossibility of reconciling the messiness of life with the neatness of fiction, dish out some homespun life lessons. Often the audience is the reader, sometimes King throws a youngster as a stand-in. In the latter case, at some point in the narrative a third party will pitch up with some sandwiches and cold cokes. There’ll be a patch of late August sun too, so no-one gets uncomfortable. They’ll all sit in the warmth and yarn. I love it.
Recently I was doing a class about flashback, using film as illustration. We started with Luhrmann’s Gatsby and discussed Carraway’s voice-over from the sanitorium particularly the line, “Back then, we all drank too much…” which became a productive prompt for a flashback story. Then we visited Jon Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café so we could see what happened when parallel narratives were established. It was good. Well, I enjoyed it.
There are a whole bunch of flashback techniques other than King’s, it turns out. Some are illustrations; a suspect’s response to a detective during an interview might become a compact flashback narrative. There are fractured flashbacks that come a piece at a time, building slowly to a whole, used particularly when a traumatic and suppressed memory is gradually returning. There are regret flashbacks; accounts of crucial errors. (I use these in Lifers.) There are flashbacks that occur from the mid-point of the story that effectively foreshadow what’s to come. Loads of ways to do it, folks.
Mostly though, I’ve been enjoying King’s old-timers-shootin’-the-breeze thing. Many of King’s stories may be dark, supernatural, disturbing, but when they are framed in a way that distances the content from us somehow, they’re made safe like diffused bombs. We can hold our breath and chew our fingernails as the narrative unfurls, but deep down we know we’re eating sandwiches, sipping cokes, and listening wise, insightful, even-handed octogenarians.
There’s no better way to spend a sunny afternoon than that.
Searching through my notebooks recently I found, scribbled cryptically at the corner of a page, “like a fat man peeling quails’ eggs.” And a few pages later, “eyes so big he looked like an owl in aviators.” What was I going for with the quails’ egg thing, I wonder? Some sort of juxtaposition about unexpected delicacy and physical size, maybe.
Often notes from the past like this, while sounding kinda beguiling, have lost their immediacy and applicability. I s’pose I must have been thinking of something as I hastily recorded them, but God knows what it was.
Whereas my crappy similes have a weird transience, others – really good ones – stay in the mind for years. Decades. This week I was reading an autobiographical piece by Henry Winter, one of my fave football writers. He mentioned having a brother, Tim. Timothy Winter, I thought, and immediately after, “…comes to school with eyes as wide as a football pool.” Now there’s a line from way back; a poem we did at high school, and a simile that seems to make sense on some level way deeper than language given that no-one knows what a football pool is.
A writer of prose whose similes stay in the memory is of course Raymond Chandler, particularly on facial expressions. Here are two very different smiles, for example:
"Her smile was as faint as a fat lady at a fireman's ball."
"His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish."
Perhaps the real reason that “like an owl in aviators” hasn’t made it out of the notebook and into a story is less to do with its lack of quality and more to do with the fact that my workmanlike prose doesn’t suit it.
I’m not Charles Causley or Raymond Chandler. In future, I’ll leave the poetry to them.
In the final stages of editing Lifers, I was in a regular back-and-forth discussion of the book with the team at Chicken House and they suggested changing some of the character names. There were two in particular they thought needed adjustment, both on the grounds of phonetic similarity; they began with the same letter, or sounded (accidentally) too similar.
So my protagonist’s best buddy ended up being called Mace – a move I was pretty pleased with, since I got to name-check my fave old-skool turn-table hip-hop outfit De La Soul – and my female protagonist became Ellwood, something I found harder to take. I loved the name that got discarded. It’ll turn up again in something else, I’m sure.
Naming characters is important – as David Lodge will tell you far better than I can in The Art of Fiction. I thought a lot about what to call my protagonist in Lifers before finally settling on Preston. Weird really, because it was a name that made perfect sense in those very early drafts, where one of the ideas I wanted to explore was the shape of urban landscape. Name the kid after a town, I thought. It sorta worked that way for the Wombles… Now, with the book so changed, Preston seems a touch anachronistic but once you’ve lived with a kid for two years and grown fond of them, you can’t contemplate them being called anything else.
My daughter, who’s five, has an unerring super-confident fluency in naming fictional characters. Anything that can stand-in for a person, from dolls through magnetised dinosaurs to shampoo bottles, gets named. I’m approximating her pronunciation here, but we’ve had Arto, Bellefusse, (‘belfoose’), Generation Girl, Mosser, Avro, Budi, the Pop-Up Ghost. When she’s playing the role of teacher, she’s the improbably named Mrs Perpatterfew.
When I’m asking older kids in creative writing sessions about possible character names, I sometimes get a shrug, and eventually, ‘Bill?’ It puts me in mind of a study of creativity as told by Ken Robinson and animated by the RSA here, which details the findings of a study in which young people were asked to imagine the largest number of possible uses for a paper clip. Draw a line graph of the number of suggested uses plotted against age, and I bet you can guess what it shows.
Bill indeed. Here’s to Avri, Budo and the Pop-Up Ghost.