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What is the point of reading scary stories?

Posted April 3, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Why write horror stories?

Why write something that is designed to induce fear? Designed to scare? Designed to shock and upset and haunt and terrify?

And why indeed do we read these stories? Why do we watch them?

It is a strange thing for me to find it the genre that I have settled into, that I have found comfort in, both as a reader and a writer. It’s certainly not through education, or carefully guided study. I basically fell into it by accident, having not really thought much of the genre or the writers within it.

Recently, Neil Gaiman spoke at BIL 2014 (a kind of anti-TED talk conference; BIL & TED, geddit?) and he discussed why he tells scary stories to children. Gaiman describes his reason as ‘inoculation’, a way of acclimatising readers to the difficulties and challenges in life.

Gaiman says that his fiction stories are ways of getting ‘to deal a little bit with the things that scare and hurt and damage us.’ He goes on to describe how he signs countless copies of Coraline to now-adult aged readers, and how that has enabled a conversation with his readers about how they have dealt with horrible things in their lives, and that the book became a comfort for them. The story, which deals with a young girl’s misadventures in a parallel world with parallel parents who attempt to sew black buttons over her eyes, is aimed at a younger audience, and is extremely dark, Gaiman clearly labelling it as a horror story for children.

For Gaiman, the horror story offers possibility, and hope, but not in the usual way. It talks to the reader, without talking down to them. It doesn’t try to hide, but instead reveals uncomfortable truths, truths that the reader is afraid to deal with. And the inoculation he speaks of is the fact that the reader knows they can get through it. They can get through the difficulties. If the horrific aspects of life are depicted in a story, then they’re manageable, they’re navigable.

Even if the characters of a horror story succumb to the terrors that lurk, even if the ending is a negative one, the reader still survives. They are the witness to the horror, the friendly ghost that accompanies the characters into the haunted house, and are able to walk back out again.

Terry Pratchett, who wrote the glorious end-of-the-world novel Good Omens with Gaiman, acknowledges this process between the horrified and the horror in his book Hogfather. The book itself is part of his Discworld series, which is primarily a fantasy-themed series, but in this particular story Pratchett deals instead with the fantastical things children believe, and what their terrifying reality is. In Hogfather, there really are monsters under the bed and in the cupboard, the Tooth Fairy travels with pliers, and the bogeyman actually exists, though he is upset as nobody believes in him anymore.

Pratchett has his characters confront the terrifying make-believe, often with improvised tools like fireplace pokers, and contrasts his heroic characters who can make sense of their fears with those who succumb to them and give in to the terror.

In the dedication at the beginning of his enormous horror novel, IT, Stephen King writes to his three children, then aged fourteen, twelve and seven.

‘Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists.’

The novel itself deals with a group of children who are confronted by unspeakable horror during one summer. Two decades later they reunite as adults to not only remember what had happened, but also to finally confront and defeat the horror in their lives. It’s a powerful structure, and one that acknowledges how horror works for readers.

As children, we are afraid easily. We scare at the coat on the back of the door, the noise from the floorboards, the cellar with the broken light. As children, so much of the world is unknown, undiscovered, and strange and unusual. We scare because our imagination overruns our knowledge. Our conscious gives way to the unconscious, and terror reigns. We are scared because we don’t know any better.

As we age, so our knowledge grows. Things stop mystifying us, we reason our way out of our fears. We know that the shape is just a coat, the noise is just the house cooling after the warm day, and the cellar is dusty and dank because we haven’t cleaned it this year. We think too much, and imagine too little.

It pains me that horror can be maligned as a genre, or misjudged as ghastly and disturbing preoccupations of writers and readers. For me, a horror story works when it tricks the reader, it fools them into believing something they know cannot be true. A horror story does something I think no other genre can do, by not just utilising your imagination, but letting it loose and allowing you to see the world as more than the sum of its parts.

One of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest short stories, The Curious Case of M.Valdemar, managed to create a scene for readers where a person was both alive and dead at the same time, terrifying and fascinating us all at once, by using words to extend the reality of the known world.

A great horror story is about believing, and in this belief we can confront more than we can in our waking lives.

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Podcasts you should listen to if you don’t have time for audiobooks

Posted March 19, 2014 by Mark

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As I’ve mentioned before, I love a good podcast but find my time is squeezed to the point that I can’t keep up with everything I’ve subscribed to. Audiobooks are something I rarely listen to, even though on paper I’m an ideal audiobook consumer. But there are ways to get stories via podcasts, through shows that showcase stories and storytelling. Here are a few of the best.

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Risk!

Risk calls itself the show where people tell stories “they never thought they’d dare to share”. Each episode generally features 3-4 stories told in an entertaining way, sometimes recorded in front of a live audience. The performative aspect of the stories is part of the appeal of Risk, as is the welcoming environment set up by host Kevin Allison – no topic is off limits and no story is too embarrassing or offensive to make it on the air. Often hilarious, disgusting and surprisingly emotional, Risk is well worth a listen.

 

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Selected Shorts

This is another live performance story podcast, which usually features 2-3 fiction short stories read by famous actors (Alec Baldwin and Stephen Colbert are among the regular contributors). The stories come from established writers, generally ‘literary’ figures, and often feature greats from American fiction writing.

 

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The Moth

A less offensive version of Risk, The Moth features people telling stories about things they’ve experienced. The great thing with the podcast is that it’s often bite-sized, featuring one story that goes for about fifteen minutes (there’s also a one hour version available). The stories are a mixture of moving and funny, and are often quite unexpected.

 

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Welcome to Night Vale

Night Vale is a podcasting phenomenon, and there really is nothing else like it on the market. In the form of a radio show from the fictional town of Night Vale (where every conspiracy theory is true and supernatural events are a daily occurrence), each week listeners are treated to a horror story. There may be a phantom subway that has suddenly appeared, or an evil army marching towards the town, or phantom helicopters in the sky. Usually the stories are resolved at the end of each episode, but there are recurring characters and ongoing arcs.

 

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This American Life

No podcast list is complete without a reference to This American Life, the most popular podcast on the internet, and with good cause. Each week the show features stories, mostly true but occasionally fictional, about life in America. Sometimes it’s hard-hitting (like the recent two part episode that looked at the Chicago public school system) and sometimes it’s light and entertaining (David Sedaris is a regular contributor) but it’s always interesting.

 

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The Tobolowsky Files

This is a podcast from Stephen Tobolowsky, who is the ultimate ‘that guy’ actor, as soon as you see his face, you recognise him from countless supporting roles in films and television. The podcast features Stephen telling stories from his life, usually related to his work as an actor. It’s kind of like listening to the audiobook of his autobiography as he shares life lessons, experiences, and insights into the entertainment industry.

 

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Nerdist Writer’s Panel

This spin-off podcast from The Nerdist features panels and interviews with film, television and comic book writers. It offers a great insight into the process of creating stories for these mediums, and often features fairly prominent names. Not a storytelling podcast as such, although it’s usually littered with anecdotes about what it’s like to be in a writing room. Only drawback is that sometimes the audio is bad as the episodes are often recorded at live events.

Do you have any suggestions? Leave them in the comments! And be sure to check out Podmentum, Momentum’s very own podcast, where we discuss popular culture, books and publishing.

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How Not To Write A Novel

Posted March 17, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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After looking back last week at the tools and teaching on writing that I received at university, I was struck at how much of the following years has been a process of undoing. Having to spend the good part of a decade taking an autodidactic approach to writing is not necessarily unusual, but an approach that in hindsight would have been better served by better education.

Too much time was spent ignoring or resisting natural inclinations because they had been ingrained in to me that there was a particular way to write, a particular voice and quality to the words and the story, and that every effort I made was measured against this standard. So, in the spirit of offering hope and guidance, here’s the way I don’t approach writing anymore.

Disclaimer: I am guilty of all of these.

1. Pretend to be a different writer

This is crucial. As mentioned, we often spend too long trying to write ‘good’ writing. And we measure that against notions of what is ‘good’, as promoted by critical acclaim, reviews, sales and – of course – by those we learn from.

By trying to be what somebody else thinks is good is case of putting the cart before the horse. We end up trying to emulate a particular style or story that has already worked, and ignore impulses to deviate. What we’re doing is ignoring ourselves.

Read a lot, and write a lot. If you find out what you like to read, chances are they’re the type of stories you like. Chances are, they’re the kind of stories you might like to tell. Follow your impulses.

2. Finish before starting

This can manifest itself in two ways. Firstly, by excessively planning. Planning and planning and planning. It’s the ultimate procrastination, because it feels like work, and it feels like writing. But at some point it becomes overblown, and overdone, and there’s nothing left to write anymore. There are ten thousand ways to write a story, and over-planning can leave you trying all of them before actually making a start.

Secondly, explaining everything about your story to everyone else. This happens when the enthusiasm for the planned story is so great that we just have to tell someone. Everyone. And then we lose it, because all the energy and excitement goes into the telling, and it never seems as great when we start to put it on the page.

3. The art of reorganising a desk

In other words, deprioritising the writing. Everything else is irrelevant, unless we’re writing. But somehow we find a way to make up every available excuse to prevent us actually starting, because that it the most terrifying thing in this whole process.

We become irresponsible school kids, explaining that the reason why we haven’t started the novel yet is because the dog ate the desk, and now you need a new one from Ikea, but that’ll take a while to put together because Allen keys are frustrating things, and there was a piece missing, and now you’re not sure if that’s the room you want the desk in anyway, perhaps a minimalist aesthetic would increase the clarity of your writing, and guess what? Not a word was written. Not one.

4. Edit first, write later

What we do when we finally start the damn novel, is write a great first chapter, but then start to edit it. Because it could be better. It can always be better.

And guess what? We end up rewriting that forever, for all eternity, because in editing it we’re not just calling into question our writing choices in that chapter, but all the choices we were going to make about the entire novel. We’re chopping trees down when they’re still saplings.

6. Frontloading

But say we start to write, and we write that first chapter and we resist editing because we’re good writers. Easy, right?

Nope. What we’ve ended up doing is putting every great idea we ever had into the first chapter, as if we’re trying to write The Bible, Das Kapital, Ulysses and A Brief History of Time all at once. But I get why we do this. We’re so enthralled at our ability to finally put words down on a page, we become worried we won’t get to do this again. So we put everything in.

The solution is: write more. This one thing that we’re writing is not the only thing we write, so long as we keep writing. There’ll be more time later to explain the universe.

7. Lie

By this I mean: we lie about the word count, about our progress to our friends/spouses/waiters/strange men at the train station. We lie about how great it is, how bad it is, how we’re nearly finished, we’re just tinkering, about what kind of story it is, what kind of story it isn’t, and when it’s going to be done.

This isn’t complex psychology. We’re lying to ourselves. And we need to stop it. Because it means we’re lying on the page, and we need to write truthfully.

8. Do anything but write the damn novel

So we stop pretending, we stop with the distractions and the procrastinating, we stop questioning ourselves as we go, and we start actually writing the book. Because that’s the only thing that will work.

There are a million ways to not write a novel, there’s only one way to write it.

 

 

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What use is a creative writing course?

Posted March 10, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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I.

What is the value of a creative writing course? Mine was completed over three years, with an additional honours year for a creative writing thesis, and I still hold it to be largely responsible for the path I then took beyond university, and the career I have ended up with.

Or at least I did, until I applied a bit more thought to the matter.

In a conversation prompted by an article on the alleged ‘golden age’ in Australia for debut novelists, it was suggested that creative writing courses are failing in their role as instructive degrees for aspiring writers.

The general take on creative writing courses is that they promote and indoctrinate a particular style of writing for their students – a literary style – and that this is held as the pinnacle of the craft. This in turn is coupled with the literature degrees that either accompany a writing course or oversee it, and universities on the surface appear to be establishing a clear standard of what is ‘good’ writing, worthy of creating and worthy of critiquing.

Recently, Hanif Kureishi was quoted saying that creative writing courses were a waste of time, inculcating a culture of writing students who ‘just can’t tell a story.’ Kureishi continued on, committing the cardinal sin of teaching – blaming the students – when he said that the students:

don’t really understand…they worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’

Kureishi’s comments were then countered by Jeanette Winterson, who in her role as a writing teacher, sees her job as one of ‘exploding language in [students’] faces…writing is a state of being as well as an act of doing.’ So where do we end up? Are writing courses useless? Are they snobbish, bastions of truth and art, offering little in the way of practical writing instruction?

II.

Given that the publishing industry is changing, and the viability of writing as a career is being scrutinised, it seems fair to look more closely at whether educational institutions teaching creative writing are doing the best thing by their students.

I decided to take a look over all my old course readers from the four years I did of creative writing (yes I kept them all, what of it). Granted, this was completed ten years ago, but a brief investigation into the equivalent course at the same institution now shows little in the way of meaningful change, with only superficial alterations. Many of the same instructors are still in place.

In my first year, there was only one creative writing subject on offer. In order to complete second and third year subjects and qualify for the major, one needed this first subject. It was, of course, focused on writing about the self. Within this subject, students were able to explore such wonderful introductions to the art of writing as: imaginative inhabitation, writing as confession, writing the body, writing exile/dislocation, as well as surreality and the fabulous. We looked at Maguerite Duras, Jamaica Kincaid, Raymond Carver, Arthur Rimbaud, Anne Carson and Saint Augustine. And of course, Roland Barthes. No subject went without Barthes.

This subject was followed by a series of others, all exploring differing aspects of creative writing. To a degree. There was a theory and practice of fiction subject, which promised much (narrative, characterisation, time, order and sequence, image, voice, metaphor, and so on), but when it came down to it there was a lot of theory and the practice was left to the student. There was a subject about writing the image (still yet to work that one out), which covered concepts like fantasy and realism, framing, duplication, and ekphrasis. More Barthes was looked at, as well as Sigmund Freud, Julia Kristeva, Franz Kafka, Peter Carey, Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson and Haruki Murakami.

The one subject I was really hanging out for, which was to cover writing extended, long works of fiction, came with weekly chapters on: montage and cinematic disjuncture, liminal momentum, intertextual resonance, didacticism, and spatial and visual imagining. There was to be one week on practical notions of style, grammar, editing and presentation, but instead it was delivered through terms like ‘consider the applicability of excess, cumulative amplification or adumbration, hyperbole and disjunctive or discordant montage.’ The brief discussion of grants and publishing opportunities was reduced down to a single instruction to go and purchase the latest copy of the Australian Writers’ Marketplace.

All of this, and more, and I got my creative writing degree. To what end?

I don’t recall much discussion of story at all, if any. I don’t remember there being any talk in the tutorials and lectures of the joy one gets from reading (and writing) a story, from the enthusiasm and excitement at finding out what happens next. And to this, it appears Kureishi has a point. There was a lot of learning to love the language, of placing expression and originality in language as a primary goal ahead of character, plot and setting. Which is not to say one is right and one is wrong, it’s just that the course only offered one opinion.

I undertook a screenwriting elective at the same time, and the instruction was clear and to the point. We discussed how the industry works, what the screenwriter’s role is, and how that would apply to anyone considering that profession in Australia. We looked at successful examples of the form, and non-successful examples. We covered topics like: stories on screen, storytelling structure and strategies, character and character development, imagination and craft, genre and style, culture and commerce, and then three glorious weeks on writing and rewriting. Is it any wonder this subject made the lasting impression? Is it any wonder I saw this style of writing as one I’d rather attempt to make a living from?

III.

Kureishi is correct when he says that writing courses have their priorities wrong. But he is incorrect in blaming the students (some of which can be attributed to the out-of-context quoting of his statement). And while there does need to be an examination and promotion of language, in Winterson’s terms, to only do that is to do the students a disservice.

The role of universities and courses in the life of an aspiring writer needs to be more than just an exploratory dalliance with theories. It needs to be seen as a profitable and productive course that can provide students with the tools needed to become a writer.

Universities are reluctant to acknowledge the idea that one can make money from creative writing, lest it interfere with the process of learning about writing. But once the student is finished with the course, it is impossible to attempt a career in writing without considering where the money’s going to come from. To acknowledge this would conceivably be to acknowledge that the style universities promote – this language-heavy, ideology-laden literariness – is perhaps only one of a series of stylistic choices a writer can make, and one that perhaps isn’t sustained as a dominant style when pure sales are considered.

To do this, to reconsider their stance on what ‘good’ writing is, would be to also reconsider their idea of what a writer is. Currently, we all seem to be living in a deluded state where we aspire to be a certain type of writer, we teach others to become a certain type of writer, and we all like to imagine we read a certain type of book.

The reality of this is far different. While I can only draw my conclusions from what I learned and didn’t learn at university, I am reminded of a line about Umberto Eco’s bestseller The Name of the Rose, how it was the book that everybody owned but nobody read. I am concerned that we are too caught up in making ourselves be a nation of writers we would like to read, rather than finding out just what it is the nation likes to write and likes to read. Perhaps we need to be a bit more honest about what we read, and what constitutes good writing, if those who want learn how to write are to be taught a whole lot better than they currently are.

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The misery of literature

Posted March 4, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A recent article posited the theory that the economic mood of society could be reflected in the stories society tells itself. By analysing millions of digitised books, the researchers constructed a ‘literary misery index’, which miraculously correlated with the ‘economic misery index’ to show that societal economic downturn can be mirrored in the mood and tone of books.

The study presented the idea that there was a rough ten-year lag between economic misfortune and when that would become manifest in books, the idea being that it takes time for so-called ‘misery’ to be processed, digested and translated into narrative.

This, in itself, is hardly surprising, if taken as a face-value overview. What else are stories but reflections, refractions and interpretations of the stories we face in life? Even in escapism, one can trace back a root cause to the need to escape.

This is not wholly isolated to books, though. The parallel between popular mediums and societal climax is well-documented. But does that mean we can anticipate genre trends from political, economic and cultural climates? Can we predict that the current political mood in Australia is going to prompt a raft of anti-establishment narratives? Or that the GFC will similarly produce economically-depressed stories in the next few years?

The glut of dystopian narratives – particularly in YA books, but also then crossing to films – does seem to suggest this. That this trend is in its final throes appears, however, more symptomatic of an audience moving on from favoured styles and tropes, rather than a creative collective feeling hope where once it was only cynicism.

In film, it’s much easier to diagnose and dissect trends in genre, given that it’s a medium that wears audience popularity on its sleeve, a touch more than literature does. The constant insistence on darker, grittier and ‘more real’ qualities to films in recent years is testament to the overt displays of trend and trope. This wonderful analysis looks at the genre trends over a hundred years of cinema and throws up some interesting suggestions.

Documentary, horror and pornography all appear to have benefited from the loosening of censorship guidelines in the 1960s, allowing for not only more overt depictions of sex and violence on screen, but also perhaps a truer portrait of society. Inversely, the western is all but dead and buried after 1970, and crime, adventure and romance appear to be on downward trends in recent years. The release of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark at the beginning of the 1980s was seen not only as a revival of the action-adventure genre popular in the early-20th century, but also as a salve to the political and economic ills of the 1970s, bringing hope and naivety to a cynical world, documented and translated so thoroughly in American cinema at the time.

So, genre appears then not only as a reaction to the outside world, but also as a response to the outside world’s influence over genre. Societal thesis breeds narrative antithesis, which in turn begets narrative synthesis. The extension of this is at what point the narrative synthesis – stories challenging how we see the world we live in – starts to effect the world itself and then it all becomes quite interesting.

Our ability to predict or anticipate genre trends based on world events is not really surprising. But sometimes the cause of a trend is less overt. The popularity of The Hunger Games potentially has less to do with the strengths of the writing, rather than the strengths of the story’s ability to channel its teenage audience’s frustrations with the adult world. That this sentiment was coupled with a dystopian narrative then appears as a combination of right-time-right-place, more easily understood in hindsight than as prediction.

So maybe the deluge of dystopian stories has done its dash in illustrating our less-than hopeful view of the world and the future. Maybe the trend has rightly identified that we see difficulty in imagining the future as anything but corrupted. But perhaps that trend will now trigger a response, a vision of the world that can once again give us reason to believe that optimism and understanding are not lost to stories, nor to the world.

A ‘genre optimism index’ might be a better option than a ‘literary misery index’.

 

 

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Where do you get your great ideas? A brief chat with JR Carroll

Posted February 27, 2014 by Mark

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1. What is your daily writing routine?

In the past I used to write about 6 hours a day, beginning mid-morning. But now … a couple of hours, maybe 11 to 12 and then another hour during the afternoon. Much of my writing time is fragmented, done whenever it suits me or when I think of something that absolutely must be written at that time. I spend a lot more time actually thinking about the book – what happens next, where this or that character is going, how it’s going to end – than I used to. Thinking up plots doesn’t get any easier, I find.

2. Name some books or authors that have influenced you

Authors who have influenced me over the years are many – Graham Greene, who got me interested in fiction, Hemingway, for his taut, masculine style and the stoicism of his protagonists, Elmore Leonard ( who himself owed a debt to Hemingway, without whom, in his opinion, there would be no crime fiction as we now know it), Raymond Chandler, because of his literary qualities and his perfection of the suffering, lone wolf detective (we all have damaged cops these days; how much of that is owed to Chandler?), Philip Kerr, who carries on that noble tradition with Bernie Gunther, Michael Dibdin for the same reason and also because of the Venice setting, Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, for his brutal style and evocation of place and time, Michael Connelly (who comes through that ‘Great Tradition’ of modern American crime fiction), Ruth Rendell, for her psychological insights into the twisted mind … And ditto for Colin Wilson. The list goes on. I suppose I have been influenced by every author I’ve encountered in one way or another.

3. Why should people read 8 Hours to Die?

I would hope people would read 8 Hours to Die to be transported into a truly frightening world, if only for a few hours, to experience vicariously blind terror at the hands of vicious desperadoes in that scariest of scenarios – the home invasion. One never knows how one would fare in such a situation. whether one would be heroic or not … Character is the core of a crime novel, and in this one I’ve pushed that to extremes, to see what human beings are capable of under great duress. The most unexpected things can happen, good and bad. I’ve always loved the idea of the ‘siege thriller’, ever since seeing Peckinpah’s horrific and controversial film ‘Straw Dogs’ back in the early seventies.

4. What do you hope readers take from your book?

Pretty much as above. I would also hope the reader is kept on a knife’s edge at the narrative level, trying to figure out what is happening and how it’s all going to pan out. And then, when it’s over, to experience nightmares, to jump slightly when the doorbell rings at night … So I would like the reader to carry this sense of fear, and dread, a knot in the stomach, that such things can and do happen to just about anyone.

5. What are you currently reading?

Since I’m living in Venice at present, my reading is determined by what’s on the bookshelf here, in our apartment. I have read and enjoyed Michael Connelly’s ‘The Gods of Guilt’, Philip Kerr’s ‘A Philosophical Investigation’ (1992, before the Bernie Gunther series), Robert Harris’s acclaimed Nazi thriller ‘Fatherland’ and one of Ian Rankin’s, ‘Black and Blue’.

6. Where do you get your ideas?

I get my ideas from everywhere I can. Real crime is a constant source of material. I’m particularly fond of long-unsolved murders, police corruption, disgraced politicians and businessmen, crime families and the culture of the outsider they instill in their young, to ensure that the cycle of criminality is perpetuated, organised blue-collar crime, terrorists, bikie gangs, the lot … I find that with each new idea I decide to base a book on, just a single incident perhaps, I have to create a new set of characters and a new setting, so I’ve never been able to settle into the ‘serial character’ pattern. That makes life more difficult, but also more interesting as there are so many bizarre and fascinating crimes out there waiting for someone to turn them into fiction.

8 Hours to Die is available now where all good ebooks are sold. Click here to find it at your preferred retailer

“Not for the faint hearted” – Shane Maloney, author of the Murray Whelan series

8 Hours to Die scorches along relentlessly, displaying all of JR Carroll’s trademark thriller-writing skills: hard-edged prose, vivid characterisation, a strong sense of place and tense plotting.” – Garry Disher, author of the Wyatt series and the Challis & Destry series

 

 

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The story formula

Posted February 21, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Recently I stumbled on an old article on Slate that discussed why so many big Hollywood releases these days seem to feel the same. They seemed to have the same rhythm, the same permutations, even the protagonists started to blend into one another, as did the bad guys. The moment in the second act when the villain is caught by the good guys on purpose, only to then reveal their nefarious master scheme, is quickly becoming a cliche. So too is the fake ending, only to twist into yet another reveal and extra ten minutes to the run time.

What was happening, according to Slate, was that a particular method refined and promoted by the late screenwriter Blake Snyder in the mid-2000s had become the blueprint for many films greenlit and released in the coming years. We are now witnessing the knock-on effect of this influence.

Snyder’s strategy for story was – like many – nothing new. It was merely one that he astutely observed and practised, from the legacy of hundreds of other successful big-ticket films over the last few decades. Described in his book Save the Cat!, Snyder’s method suggests following beats in a story, ensuring that these moments are delivered to the audience so as not to give them short-shrift on the story’s potential impact, and the arc of the characters.

This is a slight break from the tradition of developing a story along the classic three-act structure, developed by screenwriting gurus (for want of a better word) Syd Field, Robert McKee, Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush, and the monomyth of Joseph Campbell. That method was never more than a vague blueprint, a guideline of principles that – again – came from observation about what worked. It was a noticing of patterns, shared behaviour across different stories, and yet then reduced down to a step-by-step plan for aspiring writers.

Like anything, reducing a story down to a study of its architecture is a way of making something less than the sum of its parts. And to an extent, this could be one of the reasons why we perhaps tailed off blockbusters for a while, as we became clued into the formula, and why by the late 90s and early 2000s they seemed to become rather uninspired affairs.

Save the Cat! takes its title from the idea that one of the early beats for your main character should be getting them to appear likeable to some extent, such as by saving a cat. This thus engenders sympathy, and aligns the audience’s concerns with that of the hero, ripe for exploring or exploiting. Additionally, it establishes an aspect of the story without having to conform to a structural guide, and this is consistent with all of Snyder’s twelve beats. Other beats include things like the opening image - where either the protagonist or central concern of the story is established – the catalyst - where some action challenges and propels the protagonist into a new world order – and the dark night of the soul - where the protagonist is forced to acknowledge the insurmountable obstacles surrounding them and admit possible defeat.

The beats deliver a story that emotionally and entertainingly deliver, but are a bit freer in form and structure. This, however, has led to rather more blockbusters feeling a bit more sprawling and convoluted than perhaps audiences have been used to.

Regardless, planning a story by beats, and viewing it this way is a fascinating exercise, and worth considering. Snyder’s website provides story analysis – beat sheets – on many different films from the last few decades, and allows for wonderful revision of films like Jurassic Park that contains all the beats, but is structurally unusual and unique in its genre. Seriously, go read it.

But, there is a warning. As always. Snyder – who passed away suddenly in 2009 – stressed that the beats were merely necessary plot inclusions, but not a how-to guide on writing a complete story. Unfortunately, as is Hollywood’s way, the archetype has been turned into the one-size-fits-all, and increasingly we’re seeing a lot of formulaic blockbusters.

In short, we’re back where we were ten years ago.

To some extent, it’s a natural occurrence. Hollywood studios are businesses, and when something makes good business, you rinse and repeat. Exponentially. But I think audiences are too wise to story mechanisms now. We’ve become versed in the metalanguage of film and television, and carry tropes and cliches around with us as trophies of cultural credibility. The lifespan of Snyder’s beats seems to be shorter than the three acts of Field and McKee, and the monomyth – particularly among the YA audience – is just about exhausted.

If we go back to the proto-blockbuster - Jaws - it’s almost unrecognisable as a tentpole summer release of the 2010s. Middle-aged cast, meandering opening, and an inflated third act that practically dominates the movie, which traverses genres into a seemingly existentialist pursuit of chaos. It’s atypical, and defies reduction down to a schematic, despite the attempts of McKee et al.

A lesson can be learned here. To not let the story be contained by a formula. And to not tick aspects off a list and expect that it’ll do. Hollywood – and others – need to do more, and find the unique. That way lies gold.

 

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Genre is as genre does

Posted February 17, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Recently, there has been a flurry of scandalous debate about a report and analysis into the changing world of publishing by Wool author Hugh Howey. Howey’s exceedingly detailed report suggests that – based on an analysis of Amazon sales – genre authors are much better served by going the independent and self-published route, as this will offer greater yield financially for their efforts.

Howey admits aspects of his analysis are speculative and inferential, as data on raw book sales is often undisclosed or incomplete. This, admittedly, offers the first point of interest. While box office on films, and sales and downloads on music and television are all widely available (allowing for elements of bias), figures on book sales remain obscure and coded behind veils of good intentions. There is the suggestion that book sales are undisclosed for our benefit, the implication being that perhaps we wouldn’t read what we read if we knew what everybody else was reading.

The report concludes with Howey wishing for greater transparency, greater understanding of how traditional publishing models lead to a benefit in sales. Others have criticised Howey’s lack of understanding in data analysis, and that he is offering a post hoc inference about data that wilfully ignores its limitations.

Regardless, the report comes at a time when many are looking and questioning the cost benefit of writing for a living. This recent surge of attention in demanding payment, and demanding transparency in the finances of writing suggests that writing as a profession has until now existed (and subsisted) on a level where we feel it lives beyond daily wages. How do we measure writing? Per word? Per hour? Per book sold? What constitutes a financially successful career as a writer?

And is that different from being a good writer?

Do we regard certain writing as ‘good’, even if it doesn’t make money? And does writing that makes money necessarily qualify for public recognition as ‘good writing’?

Howey directed his report at genre writers – mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, romance – as categorised by Amazon.  The suggestion is that the rise of self-publishing, and the rise of digital publishing, is seen as an opportunity for genre writers to earn more from non-traditional publishing pathways.

What I find odd is that this categorisation places genre as a money-defining result. That the genre – the label prescribed upon the writing upon publication (on Amazon) – is all important, and is placed as a premium ahead of any other qualities the story might contain.

And here we have the tricky problem of genre – as it currently is the dominant way we categorise the stories we read and the stories we write. Bookshops, real and digital, organise their shelves according to genre. But this is an imperfect system. Stories often defy genre, or alternate and transcend; stories combine and manipulate genre and set it upon the reader via subterfuge. How would Kazuo Ishiguro feel if Never Let Me Go was shelved in science fiction, given the very late and shocking reveal of that element within the story? The genre here is one part of the book, not the whole, and certainly not the label.

To follow further examples in my favourite field, this genre categorisation becomes even trickier when looking at an author like Stephen King. Once upon a time, in the world where Borders still existed, Stephen King books could easily be found in the horror section. He practically was the horror section. And while many of his books, particularly the early ones, are horror, this is again an imperfect system for categorisation.

Of his recent books, 11/22/63 is listed under fantasy, where it places #3 in a subgenre of fantasy. However, it is also listed under horror, placing at #92. And yet the book is clearly not a horror book. In fact, it relies really on only one element of fantasy to even qualify as that type of story. His earlier collection of short stories, Different Seasons, is also listed under horror, and yet is the collection that spawned the films The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. Again, clearly not horror. So do we make excuses for writers who cross genres, but still define them (and their books) by the genre they started in, or dominate?

If we follow the idea of using genre to define stories, then we will end up with a never-ending spiral of subgenres upon sub-subgenres, to serve every whim of the reader, and every style of the writer. I would hazard that writers rarely view genre as a defining boundary on their imagination – so should genre be the label that prescribes expectation to the reader on what type of book it is? Should it explain exactly what it is?

Will we end up with a Science-Fiction>Alternate-Reality>Victorian-Gothic-Robotics>Anthropomorphised-Rabbit>Western>Young-Adult subgenre?

Obviously we do need some method of organising, and at the moment genre works – to a degree. But as a financial imperative? What about all the books that don’t fit genre? Why does Howey not include literary fiction as a genre itself?

There are many questions that come from the report, and many that suggest our way of viewing books, writing, and sales is imperfect at best, and fundamentally flawed at worst. The most positive take away for me is that everything’s changing very rapidly – how we write, how we publish, and how we read – and this can hopefully lead to a future where we can write and publish and read with greater ease, and freedom, and enjoyment.

 

For more on genre, Momentum authors Nathan M. Farrugia and Luke Preston, and Anne Treasure and myself are discussing Genre In The Digital Age for the Digital Writers’ Festival tonight at 6:00pm.

As it’s a digital festival, you can attend via the magic on the internet, and watch us all talk at digitalwritersfestival.com

 

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The death of the pen

Posted February 14, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A discussion yesterday about the practice of editing on paper against editing electronically branched off into an interesting tangent: just how attached are we to maintaining paper and handwriting practises? Furthermore, is this getting in the way of some fairly serious progress of twenty-first century society?

While the reports of the book’s death were greatly exaggerated, to the point of being entirely fictitious and presumptuous, it has since emerged that we actually are reading more now than ever before – at least as far as our ability to track this kind of thing.

Writing as a method of communication has always been after the fact; we spoke before we wrote, and writing initially was merely a method of establishing fact, of dismissing doubt. By the time the first books were created, writing was still a unique, unrepeatable event. Reading as a past-time was not a fathomable occasion. If we wanted to share stories, we shared them, by and large through voice and performance.

From the advent of the printing press to the spread of public education and universities, through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and on to the technological advances of the twentieth century, the book emerged as a convenient method of containing and conveying words, of communicating stories, of ingesting and processing new information. Reading and writing as a study and as an art arrived.

Our nostalgia for the book as a physical paper product is founded on a short-sighted view of human history. We have always communicated in the most convenient form available. As we settle into the twenty-first century, it becomes apparent that not only are we swallowing stories at a higher rate and in more ways than ever before, but we’re also physically reading more content as a whole. Far more communication occurs through reading, and effectively through writing, but here’s where the issue arrives.

With more being read, that means more are writing. But not writing by hand. If more and more content is arriving in a typed form – a trend that really isn’t going to lessen lest the computers turn on us – then really it should be handwriting that we’re issuing death notices for, not paper books.

Unfortunately, it appears the older generation is the one that’s caught up in blindly nostalgic waves of OCD with their inability to let go of handwriting as an asset. I say this not as an outsider, but as part of that generation. I still instinctively handwrite, I still find it easier to shape thoughts through a pen than through the tips of ten fingers. And certainly, it is an asset in a profession where handwriting might be required, but how many of those still exist? How many will for the next generation?

While Victoria has recently decided that it will look into ‘planning’ for online, typed exams for Year 12 students, leading education systems like those in Sweden and Norway have had them implemented for years. Our failure to act is costing the students. To compound this, the recent Australian Curriculum – while admittedly introducing many positives – emphasised handwriting as a key component of students’ learning, something that had rightly disappeared in recent years.

We emphasise the introduction of technology into learning, into the lives of the younger generations, as it has become the currency and medium that dominates our lives. Pen and paper are as archaic as the topics in the history curriculum. But then after all this embracing of technology, something strange occurs.

By the time these students reach their final years, all assessments become handwritten again. All final exams are written, at hours on end, with a pen and paper. Why? Why do we insist this happens? Everything we had encouraged them to learn for more than a decade is diminished by the distillation of their ability through a pen.

Many universities still follow this model as well. The fear of plagiarism, the fear of students using more than the contents of their heads is what drives this avoidance of technology in exams. And yet it has no practical parallel in the real world. We never confine our knowledge in our jobs, we never limit our resources to see what we can really do. So why test this way?

We need to let go of handwriting as the end of the line for the written word; we’ve found a better way. The pens of the world are haemorrhaging our words, instead of giving them new life. To use them as modern tools is damaging the capability and potential of our potential society.

 

 

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The wonderful world of villains

Posted February 11, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It is often said that a hero is only ever as good as the villain. And while it’s not wholly successful to reduce all stories down to a good-guy-bad-guy dichotomy (or even good-girl-bad-girl), for those stories that do require the presence and actions of a villain, it’s prudent to consider how they can affect the story, and influence the actions of the protagonist.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to note how an under-developed antagonist, or one that perhaps lessens the final impact of what might otherwise be a resoundingly great story.

So, make the villains good, in the bad way. Whatever type of villain they may be.

The all-conquering villain

This is the one who basically wants entire eradication of the good side. They’ll wage wars (The Lord of the Rings), consume everything in their path (The Matrix), and traverse the galaxy in order to hunt and destroy everything that opposes them and doesn’t dress in dark clothing (Star Wars et al). Basically, they have one, shark-like psychology: to head forwards and destroy. Kill at all costs. Be bad, look bad while doing so, and oppose the ‘good’ forces at every turn.

The problem here is that these villains don’t seem to have thought things through. In a sense, they only exist for the duration of the story, which usually ends with their vanquishing. If the story considered the reality of these villains’ agendas, it would become apparent that villainous victory would be hollow and fruitless. There is no real victory, because they want to destroy everything. They champion enslavement and brutality, but after victory, who can they enslave? What do they actually want? Voldemort in Harry Potter tries to circumvent this problem, but ultimately it’s hard to imagine how this character could operate once entirely in power. (And yes I know they’re villains and therefore mentally unhinged and thus they don’t think things through properly, but that’s not the point.)

I suspect victory would result in a fairly lonely existence for these villains. They are the schoolyard bullies whose being is only validated by having someone to bully.

The psychopathic villain

A lot of fun can be had with this, because the villain here is basically a manifestation of whatever internal struggles the hero is processing. Similar to the all-conquering villain, they only exist as foil to the hero, but in a different way.

They have no agenda, they are not here with some master plan, they are the uninhibited id that haunts our hero running rampant all over the scenery. This accounts for just a hell of a lot of comic book villains (Spiderman, The Dark Knight, to begin with), made most famous in the recent Joker incarnation. Also a lot of monster stories (Alien, Jurassic Park) work with this in mind, the best example being Jaws, wonderfully sent up by The Onion here.

Additionally, they can be found as byproducts of other, larger problems. They are the mutated chemical waste of societal ills and moral corruption (IT, The Stand, a lot of Stephen King to be honest), the end-result of human folly and ill-advised endeavour (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix again,Terminator).

The best example of this, knowingly so, is in No Country for Old Men, with Anton Chigurh chaotically destroying his way through a narrative on nothing but the whims of a coin toss and the echoes of a cattle gun.

Great fun, but in some sense they’re ultimately more of an embellished plot device than a fully realised character.

The secret villain

Here you find a lot of accidental villains. Villains who got caught up in the thrill of the bad thing, for a large portion of the story can appear to be sympathetic ‘good’ characters, only to be revealed at the end as working for the other side.

Many crime thrillers and spy novels operate with this dynamic (Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy for instance), as does a lot of J.K. Rowling’s early Harry Potter books, and the villain appears to be one that relies a lot on mystery and the surprise reveal. They often come encumbered with hastily included exposition at the end, so that the reader is completely aware of the reasons and machinations behind the mysterious plot. But while it can benefit rereads for a spot-the-clue type game, it also reveals how the author has a bit too overtly manipulated the reader.

The sympathetic villain

Not really sympathetic, but understandable. I think it was Gary Oldman – among others – who said that really great villains don’t think they’re villainous, they actually think they’re doing good (interesting given his career playing psychopathic villains). There’s something to be learned here, in that all characters – good or bad – should be written as characters, as real people with real motivations, and not just as foil for the main guy strutting about on his white pony.

Some of the great villains of literature and cinema reside here, questioning just how ‘good’ the good guy is, how pure their motivations are, and how normal the world is with them residing in it. We find Hannibal Lecter, and Nurse Ratched, Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle, and with them a legion of classic characters that carve out their own piece of the story, rather than remaining bit-parts.

 

 

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Everyday rejection letters

Posted January 23, 2014 by Mark

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Dear person who decided to eat an apple next to me on the train this morning,

I have recently been inundated with relatively annoying seat mates, and have decided to pass on your companionship this morning. Please find my passive aggressive sighs and refusal to move my legs enclosed. I am sure that with the talent and enthusiasm you clearly have for apple eating in other people’s ears, that you will find an appropriate seat mate soon.

Kind regards,

Mark

 

Dear electricity company,

We receive a large number of high quality bills every month, and we cannot pay them all. We have decided to pass on paying your bill on this occasion. We were impressed with the length of the bill, but do not usually pay bills that are so large. Please feel free to submit another, smaller bill at a point in the future. In the meantime, we wish you the best of luck in finding payment for the bill you have sent. May we suggest submitting it to the bin?

Kind regards,

Mark

 

Dear person I haven’t seen since high school,

Thank you for your friend request on Facebook. Unfortunately I have decided not to accept, as our lack of contact for a decade kind of means that we aren’t really friends. Best of luck with increasing your number of Facebook friends.

Kind regards,

Mark

 

 

 

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He said, she said

Posted January 7, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Late last year I wrote a post about the conventions and use of quotation marks when writing dialogue. And not that I want to reopen the debate about writers who choose to forgo using quotation marks, it’s difficult to discuss dialogue without also acknowledge the other part of writing dialogue: attribution.

Dialogue attribution signals to the reader who owns the words that have been spoken. Just as quotation marks are little hanging signs instructing the reader how to read that series of words, dialogue attribution lets them know where it’s come from, who it’s come from.

In scenes of only two characters, it will often disappear. After the initial set-up of the conversation, it becomes superfluous. But add one more character into the scene, suddenly it becomes crucial for the writing to still have clarity.

But really, it’s not rocket science. There’s nothing new here.

Where dialogue attribution gets into trouble is when it starts trying to become part of the story. Where it works too hard. Showboats. (Okay look the words aren’t showboating, the writer is, but I’m trying to be nice here.) Stephen King writes about this at length in On Writing, declaring that the overwriting of dialogue attribution was something to avoid at all costs, particularly Swifties.

Swifties, after the style of dialogue attribution used and abused in the Tom Swift series of books from the early 20th century, essentially use adverbs in dialogue attribution to enhance the dialogue, often with ridiculous puns. (‘I’ll have a martini,’ Tom said dryly.) While classic Swifties use puns a lot, they don’t necessarily have to. But the use of adverbs in dialogue attribution might as well, as what it does is over-instruct the reader how to read the dialogue.

Take the following:

‘Do your worst!’ Tom cried bravely.

The reader ends up with this ridiculous formula:

‘This is what is said’ + This is who said it + this is how it is said.

King’s point is salient. The adverb is unnecessary, as both the context of the line of dialogue, and the words spoken, already tell us how a line might be said. So we cut it.

‘Do your worst!’ Tom cried.

Furthermore, if again contextually in the narrative it was already clear that Tom would be making this cry, the attribution to him also becomes unnecessary. Stating as well that it is ‘cried’, rather than ‘said’, ‘muttered’, ‘stammered’, ‘ejaculated’ or whathaveyou, does give the reader a clear idea, but in this case the exclamation mark already makes that clear. So one might end up with the following:

‘Do you worst!’

Of course, that also comes down to how preferential one is to exclamation marks.

King continues to describe how writers try to avoid Swifties by enveloping them into the attribution. The spoken verb suddenly becomes constantly active and descriptive, and a reader can have the experience of making their way through a narrative thinking that every character talks like a supporting character in an amateur Shakespearean production by way of daytime soap operas and William Shatner. King’s examples:

‘Put the gun down, Utterson!’ Jekyll grated.

‘Never stop kissing me!’ Shayna gasped.

‘You damned tease!’ Bill jerked out.

Basically, this style of attribution doesn’t give the reader the chance to utilise any imagination as they read the story, as the writer is too busy telling them how to read it. So what are we left with?

He said. She said.

Which is not to say these are the only ways of attributing dialogue. Not at all. But they’re the most common, and for a good reason. King himself admits it’s all well and good to preach avoiding Swifties and the like, when he’s just as likely to do it as the next person. And he admits the reason for it: ‘I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.’ If you writing is good enough, and strong enough, the reader will know how the dialogue has been said, all you need to do is let them know who said it, they will work out the rest.

What he doesn’t mention, and what I suspect, is that something else occurs for a reader when he said or she said is used. In a story with a lot of dialogue, there will be a lot of dialogue attribution. And for readers who read a lot, we are so accustomed to seeing that little couplet littered about the pages that we don’t really notice it anymore. We might pay attention to the who, just so that part of the scene is clear. But the word said is like some magic grease in the wheels of the story – it helps it move along, it helps the reader move along, but we don’t necessarily notice it happening. It becomes one of those words we use in stories so often it might as well just be punctuation. It might as well be invisible, given how it interacts with our subconscious when we read.

Finally, King’s last words on the matter, just to prove I’m a slavish disciple:

‘All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.’

He said.

 

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The Sopranos: life as a TV show

Posted December 20, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It was only a few months ago, in June, when the news broke that James Gandolfini had passed away while holiday in Italy with his family. The outpouring of grief and accolades directed at Gandolfini’s career were enormous, even though the eulogising of him as an actor seemed somewhat incongruous with the lack of stardom Gandolfini had held during his life.

Gandolini’s career was, after all, not one of a cinematic celebrity. His roles were largely confined to character-types, sitting on the edges of plots and protagonists; his leading man parts kept mostly to the stage where diversity among actors seems to be embraced more than on our screens. So, for most of us, when we really think about Gandolfini as an actor, and as a person who tragically passed away far too soon, we are really thinking about him as the actor behind one role: Tony Soprano.

Only two weeks before his passing, The Sopranos was voted by the Writers Guild of America as the best-written TV show ever screened in the US. And while that is a plaudit afforded primarily to David Chase and the writers he employed to deliver The Sopranos, it is through Gandolfini’s performance across six seasons that we are able to experience the work of the writers.

It’s not easy for me to articulate exactly why I regard The Sopranos not only as my favourite TV show, but also as the best television I’ve ever seen. It has much in common with many highly regarded shows that it’s not immediately discernible what’s so special about a show that, for some,  paid too much favourable attention to organised crime and morally culpable characters.

To many, a unifying idea or concept permeates through the fabric of a great TV show. For Six Feet Under, it was about death. True Blood is about excess. The X-Files was about belief. Twin Peaks and dreams. Breaking Bad and control. And there’s The Wire and its titular application to societal disfunction, Mad Men and societal alienation.

For The Sopranos, it was all about family.

This is integral to the way The Sopranos is viewed. To me, it deals with and acknowledges all the aforementioned major themes but through the prism of the family as the central tenet of life. The early seasons of the show were marketed on this basis, almost as a gimmick.

‘Meet Tony Soprano. If one family doesn’t kill him, the other family will.’ (Season 1)

‘Family. Redefined.’ (Season 2)

‘America’s most watched family.’ (Season 3)

While these tag lines largely played off the hook of having Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano trying to manage his own family in 21st century America, as he simultaneously tried to control and rule his other family within the New Jersey mafia, it does strike at the heart of the show. It was always about family, about how so much of our lives are ruled and dictated by this aspect, our responsibility to family, our servitude, our role within a family and our inability to escape it. Tony’s role as boss of New Jersey was predominantly an extended metaphor for his struggles with his own biological family.

I missed the show as it screened on Australian television. All of my viewing was retrospective of the seasons, ingesting each season as freeform storytelling about an extended group of characters. Very few episodes followed a set run time, very few followed any type of formula for episodic television. When I found the show, it was at the stage of life where I was out of home, unsure of any future direction, unsure of what I should be doing with the life I had. As Tony himself says in a brief moment of awakening during his coma in the sixth season:

‘Who am I? Where am I going?’

The show called for introspection. It came along at a time when I needed it. Tony’s regular psychotherapy meetings with Dr Melfi was an occasion for the audience to ask themselves these same questions: who are we? why do we do what we do? where do we come from? what are we going to do with our lives? This show wasn’t just about one aspect of life, it was about it all, about everything that could possibly happen to us, while acknowledging the one constant – wanted or not – of family.

The show explored fathers and son, wives and daughters, brothers and sisters – but all not as mutually exclusive roles but as ones that are fluid and multiplied for many of us. Tony was a father but also a son, and a husband, and a cousin, and – obviously – a godfather. Gandolfini showed us a person trying to improve his own life, as much or as little as he could. He was as sociopathic as Walter White, perhaps even more so, but we get the impression he didn’t want to be. He didn’t choose to be. Change the details around, and this is anybody. We can’t choose our family, but we can try to make the best of it.

This was initially going to be a list of my favourite episodes, but clearly I got derailed. James Gandolfini’s death was shocking and terrible for his family, but it really did clarify just how emphatic his performance as Tony Soprano was, and how enormous The Sopranos was. The show tried to show us life, in all its facets, and rarely strayed into conventional television. Episodes are difficult to isolate, as the plots and strands bleed across many – it’s an impossible challenge to try and watch an episode of The Sopranos on its own, three seems a good minimum to start with.

I won’t list or recommend episodes. My personal favourite is The Second Coming (but so are Funhouse, Pine Barrens, Pie-O-My, Join the Club and Kaisha) but one episode can’t be watched at all without having seen the other eighty-odd. The characters existed in their own reality, struggled to be bound by any type or role that was afforded them, and asked us to question and reflect on our own roles, and our own stories. I have never watched a TV show that has asked me to look at myself so much.

 

 

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The building of character

Posted December 18, 2013 by Amanda Bridgeman

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When my characters first appear to me, it will be in a climactic scene from their story. I don’t know why or how, but they just appear in my mind. I’ll see how they look physically, what they’re feeling and how they react. Picturing the character in their pivotal scene will form the core of their being, capture the essence of their personality, and the rest just seems to radiate out from there: where they came from, how they got to that pivotal place, and where they will go from there.

With Carrie Welles in Aurora: Darwin (book 1 of the Aurora Series), I first pictured her being made aware of the awful truth behind Station Darwin. I felt the tension, saw her fear, and tasted the devastation of the predicament she was in. And I wanted to know more. In particular, I wanted to know how she was going to get out of this situation. And the truth is, I knew she wasn’t going to do it alone. Not because she was weak or incapable, but because the situation before her was grave.

So, if Carrie wasn’t going to make it out of this situation on her own, then she needed someone to help. Captain Saul Harris was an obvious choice. He first came to me as a man under immense pressure, trying hard to keep his team together and alive. For whatever reason, I subconsciously pictured these two characters different in every way possible: male/female, black/white, 40’s/20’s, American/Australian, Captain/Corporal. And knowing how opposite they were, I wondered how I could bring these two together? As I began to explore the characters, however, I discovered that they had two things in common: a good heart, and the determination to survive. So this odd pair suddenly didn’t seem so odd. And it was out of this exploration of character that I found the crux of my story: Two very different people, with one common goal: survival.

There are strong themes of sexism and gender issues throughout the Aurora Series, but it’s not in the way that most people think. I didn’t want my heroine to single-handedly save the day and prove herself better than the boys. Why? Because I thought that was unrealistic. Nor, did I want Saul Harris my hero to single-handedly save the day either. The true theme behind the Aurora Series is teamwork. No-one is better than the other. If they were going to make it out of this situation they were going to have to work together on an even playing field. And not just my two leads – I have a whole cast of characters to contend with. The theme behind the series doesn’t just relate to equality between the sexes. The Aurora team is made up of a mix of nationalities, skin colour, ages, talents, career rankings, etc. This is a story about everyone banding together to survive, despite their differences.

And this is where characterisation plays a huge part, not just with the leads, but also with the minor characters. In order for a reader to feel the tension and to care about what happens to the crew of the Aurora, I needed to have well-rounded believable characters – that weren’t just there to stand in the background. To make them believable I had to build them with real life personalities that readers could potentially see part of themselves in, I had to give these characters each a part to play in the story, and I had to let the reader spend some time with the characters before the shit hits the fan.

I think all characters in some way inherit certain characteristics from their creators. I’m the first to admit that there are small elements of myself infused into all my characters. I mean, they say write what you know, right?  So, in order to make these characters real you need to insert a piece of yourself, or someone else you know, into them to lift them from the page. And not just the good characteristics, you need to give them flaws, because that is what makes them truly life-like. That said, you shouldn’t just focus on their personalities, because sometimes it’s the little physical characteristics that can help ‘flesh’ them out too. Take Harris and the way he often arches his eyebrow. He’s a captain who thinks, studies, analyses, and questions, and this little physicality underpins this personality trait.

Each one of my characters makes mistakes, but they also do some things right. It’s the ebb and flow of the character’s personal journey, and also the ebb and flow of the overall story’s journey – how the characters, in their ebbs and flows, relate and interact with the other characters. But don’t just stop at the personalities, physicalities, or relationships, and how these relate to the external turmoil of the story. To really flesh out a character there needs to be inner turmoil too.

To quote author Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

This ultimately means they should have something driving them, be it as simple as the desire for a glass of water, or a need to prove themselves to someone, or a more critical goal of something like survival.

Harris is clearly a man facing great external turmoil, trying to keep his team safe and fighting a foe he didn’t imagine possible. But as the story grew, it became clear to me that he is also a man facing great inner turmoil. The Aurora Series follows Harris as he travels through a journey of self-discovery. Slowly but surely with each episode in the series, he begins to find out who he really is and what his life really means.

Carrie’s story began as a simple ‘horror for chicks’ tale, about a woman facing the great external turmoil she discovers on the Darwin. But as the series progressed, she too became faced with a lot of inner turmoil. She, like Harris, is on a journey of self-discovery. She’s a woman who has her whole life planned out, but is suddenly side-swiped and forced onto another path she hadn’t planned. Battling the chaos around her, she is faced with the inner turmoil of questioning her career choice, dealing with the prospect of a love she hadn’t expected, and trying to resolve the widening gap with her estranged father. Slowly but surely with each episode in the series, she begins to discover what she’s really made of and what she wants her life to be.

All characters, be it major or minor, should have a back story -just like everyone in real life does. Each story in the Aurora Series peels away more layers and reveals more about each of the characters. Some of the character’s inner turmoil comes to the forefront and mingles with the overarching storyline, and some of the other character’s inner turmoil takes more of a backseat – there simply to add depth to that character.

Creating characters is not a simple thing. Strong characters are built from the ground up in a detailed 3D modelling kind of way. You need to consider every facet that a normal human has: particular physical looks, personality type, habits/quirks, background, relationships, family life, flaws, everything right down to their favourite drink.

I’ve spent about five years with the characters of the Aurora Series now, so they are like family. I laugh when they laugh, fear when they fear, and love when they love. They are as real to me as any of my friends, and I hope I have managed to translate them into words well enough, so that my readers can feel like they are part of their family too.

 

seriesAurora: Darwin and Aurora: Pegasus by Amanda Bridgeman are both available now 

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What’s in a quotation mark?

Posted December 3, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Quotation marks are odd things. I guess this is true of most punctuation marks, but I find quotation marks especially odd.

Ostensibly there to mark the difference between prose and spoken dialogue, they dress the words up, label them as special, as different, and thus direct the reader how to read them. For me, as a reader, it’s the most overt direction a writer gives to the me, instructing me, telling me the characters are talking now! Pay attention!

So for me as a writer, it’s the most conscious I am of my writing as I’m writing. It is worth mentioning how much I enjoy Elmore Leonard’s golden rule for writing:

‘If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.’

And this is where I struggle with quotation marks. I have no problem reading them; it’s a convention of how we punctuate our stories that dialogue is practically expected to be held within quotation marks. We notice when they’re not there.

The first time I discovered that writers could do this was when I read James Joyce. I was probably too young to do so. Within the first pages I was thrust into dialogue like this:

- History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?

- The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.

Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:

- That is God.

Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

- What? Mr Deasy asked.

- A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.

The lack of quotation marks is obvious. So too is the insertion of dashes to mark what is spoken with what isn’t. Joyce also, as per convention, attributes the dialogue to the speaker for clarity. But what is unusual in this scene is that the two characters are talking over noise from kids playing football in the fields outside. Their noisy interjections, though in a sense they are ‘spoken’, are provided as description. Joyce is layering his dialogue, creating a hierarchy between different spoken sounds. He forgoes one clarity in favour of arriving at another.

Cormac McCarthy is the obvious choice here, for a writer who forgoes conventional punctuation. His pared-back, lean and aggressive prose is reflected in how he uses punctuation, particularly quotation marks. Basically, he doesn’t. Not unless it’s necessary.

McCarthy acknowledged the effect of Joyce on his own writing, preferring the approach to writing where ‘you don’t blot up the page with weird little marks.’ And it’s not just quotation marks – sometimes he forgoes (or forgets) commas for pages at a time. Again, with McCarthy, he’s aiming for a different reading of the spoken word.

She opened one of the packs of cigarettes and took one out and lit it with a lighter. Where have you been all day?

Went to get you some cigarettes.

I dont even want to know. I dont even want to know what all you been up to.

He sipped the beer and nodded. That’ll work, he said.

I think it’s better just to not even know even.

You keep running that mouth and I’m goin to take you back there and screw you.

Big talk.

Just keep it up.

That’s what she said.

Just let me finish this beer. We’ll see what she said and what she didnt say.

It’s pretty difficult to miss the rhythm and flow of the conversation from here. McCarthy erases the need for the reader to process the quotation marks between the action and the dialogue, so that it all just becomes one moment. Joyce’s hierarchy is now a plateau for McCarthy, with words and deeds given equal value.

McCarthy also eliminates the contraction apostrophe, where don’t becomes dont, and the abbreviation of going becomes goin. But later he includes it, for that’ll and it’s. So this is not just a blatant omission, he wants to achieve a certain effect by withholding certain conventions. I’m unsure why that’ll remained though. It’s not like thatll is all that different to dont, except that McCarthy probably didn’t like how it looked, aesthetically, rather than how it read. I mean, look at all those consecutive lines, blotting up the screen.

When I’m writing, though, I struggle to get to that point where I can’t hear myself writing it. It reads, and sounds according to Leonard’s rule, too much like writing. I have to trick myself to liking it. This happens especially with dialogue. And the only way I could get myself to like my dialogue was by hiding it. Not showboating it with quotation marks. So I went in and deleted them all.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not against quotation marks at all. This is purely about writing insecurity. I hope to put them all back in as the confidence grows.

The interesting thing was, I found I was able to write dialogue better. I could see it just as words again, and not get too caught up in making something read like a representation of how someone could talk if they were a character on a page.

I’m not sure where publishers stand on punctuation, and using and abusing the conventions. I like to think that if it makes sense, if the sense of the writing can still be read, then you can do whatever you damn like. But maybe that’s a bit easier to do when your name is McCarthy or Joyce.

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Will the real Vin Cooper please stand up?

Posted November 29, 2013 by Mark

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This post first appeared on www.davidrollins.net

I know some of you will find this hard to believe, but there is a real Vin Cooper. Okay, so there are several billion people on the planet and there’s bound to be a few of them kicking around. But this Vin Cooper is also Special Agent in the OSI.

Yeah, utterly freakish, right? In fact, my entire universe tipped on its side and a couple of galaxies rolled off the edge when I found out.

The real Vin Cooper contacted me over Facebook. He told me that a buddy had given him one of the books. He reckons he read it mostly with his jaw hanging open on account of, he says, well, that I’ve basically written about him.

So I thought it might be interesting to compare the two. See if you can guess which one’s the genuine article.

 

 The Real Vin Cooper?  The Real Vin Cooper?
Hair color? Brown Sandy
Eye color? Green Green
Height? 5’ 9” 6’1”
Weight? 175 lbs 215lbs
Married? Married. No, thanks.
Favorite drink? Crown Royal, Jack Daniels, and Johnnie Walker. Single malt when available (Glen Keith), or bourbon whisky (JD or Maker’s) when it’s not.
How do you take your coffee? Strong with two lumps. Strong, black.
Favorite people? Amy (my wife), Devin (my daughter), and a select few. Ones that wear (short) skirts.
Least favorite people? Most reality TV stars. Divorce lawyers (my ex’s).
Religion? Not religious. Anything that serves wine and bread can’t be all bad. Though some cheese would be a welcome addition.
Your idea of a great first date? One my wife approves of. I prefer the old dinner and a movie date. I don’t like to have many distractions when I’m trying to get to know someone. She survives.
Are you funny? I think the character Vin is funny. We both crack jokes at the worst possible moments and we are both sharp witted, though I’m quicker-witted than Vin is. I’m into fast one liners, whereas Vin’s is more of a joke approach. My humor’s probably more offensive than Vin’s. Are you kidding?

 

Standoff, the new Vin Cooper thriller is released on December 1. Preorder your copy here

 

 

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Write what you know

Posted November 27, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Recently I finished reading John Safran’s new true crime book Murder in Mississippi, and like most in the genre, it was clear that the bulk of the narrative is there to clear up what happened, who was involved, and why. Ultimately, it’s a search for truth.

What else resonates with this book and other true crime stories, is that the more you look the less you know. Safran comments that if he visits a town and interviews one person, he leaves that town with a very clear, definite idea of the place, of the incident, and of the person that he met. However, if he stayed just a day longer, or talked for a bit more, or to someone else, that definite idea suddenly becomes less clear. The more he looks, the less he knows.

While this is patently obvious in the sense that one does need to investigate further in order to understand the complexity, it does reveal the goal of a story: tell the truth.

Is this true in other styles of writing, other genres?

It’s often said that writers starting out should write what they know.

It’s also said that writing what you know is crap, that writing fiction is clearly about writing unknowns.

I like to think it comes from a bit of both. For example, you can write about what you know and then start to creep into territories that are yet to be found. Imbue and extend the known world into undiscovered countries. Or, write about something completely different and distinct from yourself, but then enrich it with details and sensibilities brought from your own parallel experiences. So, either way, whether you’re starting with what you know or what you don’t know, you seem to end up in the same place.

This is where the truth comes in. Somewhere, in the middle of what you know and what you don’t know, there’s the truth. And that’s the story.

‘To read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world. By reading narrative we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world. This is the consoling function of narrative – the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time.’

So stories are told in order to get at the truth. This is the glorious nature of fiction for me. By the concoction of a fiction, of a lie, we get to a truth. By obfuscation and masquerading, we reveal.

The writer is allowed to lie and deceive the reader, take them somewhere that doesn’t actually exist. But then, by the end, the truth is revealed. We were talking about the real world all along; we were writing and reading about fictions, and all the while a growing realisation occurs. The real world has changed, we see it differently now, a truth – no matter how small or how large – has been revealed.

For Safran, and I assume any investigation into a known event, the more you know the less you’re certain.We all know Oswald shot Kennedy. Or do we? Maybe he did, but why? Maybe he had help, but who? Life doesn’t fit itself into three acts, or developed arcs, or moments of revelation. We aren’t all on a hero’s quest. We don’t all cross thresholds from ordinary worlds into extraordinary worlds, charged with creating our own mythology. The more we look at life, the less it is a story.

Story is rather the way we can look at life and understand it. Make sense of the disorder and discontinuous moments. We rely on pattern recognition to read, to communicate, to recognise and interact in our daily lives – the use of narrative is merely another pattern we overlay in order to get to an understanding.

The emergence and reliance on tropes and archetypes, genre and style is evidence enough that we can – as readers or writers – take a gathering of events and orchestrate them into a fashion, a pattern, that makes them coherent. The more we sift through the confusion, the more we explore the complexities, the more we can make sense of the uncertainty.

So write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Write both. It doesn’t matter. Somewhere in the middle is the truth, and that’s worth aiming for. Never one to dress up the facts, Hemingway said that ‘all you have to do is write one true sentence, write the truest sentence you know.’ Whatever that might be, it’s worth trying to find out.

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The best closing lines from books

Posted November 21, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A while ago Mark did a series of posts on the best opening lines in fiction. Around the same time there was this excellent piece in The Atlantic by Joe Fassler where he interviewed *coughcough* Stephen King *coughcough* about the art of writing opening lines, who then also gave a fairly extensive sample of his own favourites.

Considering that, and the fact that Mark covered science fiction, fantasy and horror opening lines, I decided to turn to closing lines.

What makes a good closing line?

If done right, I think it can influence the entire reading of a book. Similar to a title, in how it establishes so much forethought and anticipation for a reader, speculating about what might come, a closing line can redefine so much of a reader’s impression. One or two in the list below completely overhauled my feelings about what I had just read.

In the article above, it mentions how a good opening line invites the reader in, says to them ‘you want to know about this.’ In conjunction, a great closing line can work magic on the reader, can propel the story from just words on a page to an experience that lives on beyond the covers of the book.

So, some of these are science fiction, some of them aren’t. Hopefully none give away anything about the plot, or detract from the joy of reading them for the first time. I’m not going to go for any of the obvious, time-honoured choices here though because, well, where’s the fun? We’ve all had our boats back against the current, loving Big Brother, and leading on into a heart of darkness. We know how they all end. Here are some others.

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“I feel…what’s the word? Happy. I feel happy.

Shots outside. I’m going to look.”

- The Passage by Justin Cronin

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“If you want to imagine the future, imagine a boy and his dog and his friends. And a summer that never ends. And if you want to imagine the future, imagine a boot… no, a sneaker, laces trailing, kicking a pebble; imagine a stick, to poke at interesting things, and throw for a dog that may or may not decide to retrieve it; imagine a tuneless whistle, pounding some luckless popular song into insensibility; imagine a figure, half angel, half devil, all human… slouching hopefully towards Tadfield… forever.”

- Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

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“Then the music takes us, the music rolls away the years, and we dance.”

- 11/22/63 by Stephen King

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“‘And then what?’ said her daemon sleepily. ‘Build what?’

‘The republic of heaven,’ said Lyra.”

- His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

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“I never saw any of them again – except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say good-bye to them.”

- The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

9780340993781 “From long habit, Smiley had taken off his spectacles and was absently polishing them on the fat end of his tie, even though he had to delve for it among the folds of his tweed coat.

‘George, you won,’ said Guillam as they walked slowly towards the car.

‘Did I?’ said Smiley. ‘Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did.’”

Smiley’s People by John LeCarre

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“Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him—and it was still hot.”

- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

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“He sprung from the cabin window, as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.”

- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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“It makes no difference whether I write or not. They will look for other meanings, even in my silence. That’s how They are. Blind to revelation. Malkhut is Malkhut, and that’s that.

But try telling Them. They of little faith.

So I might as well stay here, wait, and look at the hill.

It’s so beautiful.”

- Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

5

“Why? and automatically answering, out of the blue, for no reason, just opening my mouth, words coming out, summarising for the idiots: ‘Well, though I know I should have done that instead of not doing it, I’m twenty-seven for Christ sakes and this is, uh, how life presents itself in a bar or in a club in New York, maybe anywhere, at the end of the century and how people, you know, me, behave, and this is what being Patrick means to me, I guess, so, well, yup, uh…’ and this is followed by a sigh, then a slight shrug and another sigh, and above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry’s is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes’ color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.”

- American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

 

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What I learned from screenwriting

Posted November 13, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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For several years during and after I finished at university, I wrote scripts. Mostly for screen, though a few for stage performance. I would hazard a guess to say that all were awful, but a handful I really liked, and there were a few moments in some of the lines that I really loved.

Regardless, I stopped writing scripts. It is a strange existence, writing a story where you are merely a tiny cog in an enormous machine, that keeps turning long after you do. Furthermore, the script is often merely the beginning of it all, and rarely – if ever – the end result.

But writing a script for performance – whether stage or screen – comes with its own set of insurmountable stresses. You can make a great film out of a great script (Chinatown, Lawrence of Arabia, Seven). You can also make a terrible one (hello Prometheus and Mystic River). Occasionally a good script can inch its way into being a really great film (most Michael Mann films), due to the inherent storytelling capabilities of the director. Rarely can you make a good film, let alone a great one, out of a bad script. Bad scripts beget bad films. For the single greatest exponent of this rule, see the entire tradition of Australian cinema.

Moving along, the pressure on writing a script brings a host of beneficial tools with it, tools that have translated well as I’ve moved back to writing fiction again. For while it’s a relief to only write for myself, to see the finished product my own way and not have to wait for someone’s interpretation of it, the few decent things I learned writing scripts have helped enormously.

Writing an ending

If there’s one thing a script can’t do, it’s remain unfinished. It demands an ending, it demands resolution. We’re so used to watching endings unfold on screen, we forget that sometimes books get away with only half-endings.

Knowing your ending when writing a script is paramount, and making the ending function as a visual resolution is something worth devoting a lot of energy to. Witness this glorious moment in Adaptation:

It’s tempting to not plan the ending for a story. I find myself avoiding thinking about it, as if knowing what it is myself is going to ruin the experience of writing it. I know. It’s not clever thinking. Being able to objectively see the ending for what it is, and what it structurally brings to a story, has been one of those happily learned accidents from screenwriting.

The show, don’t tell thing

It’s tempting to write scripts as if you’re telling a story. Take a look at the following godawful screenwriting from Unforgiven:

As the men disappear into the house Sally leads the Albino toward the barn.  Her sharp eyes don’t miss the stock of the shotgun where it protrudes slightly from the bedroll.  Her eyes seem to see even into the future… and all they see is trouble.

Ugh. It really is terrible. Fortunately those moments are rare in the script, in what is largely a damn good one, and a great film. But what it is doing is forcing the writer’s telling of the story down the viewer’s throat. Good screenwriting is absolute adherence to letting the image tell the story. Show it, effectively. Have the viewer experience the story as if they are completely unaware of being guided through it by a conscious hand. Great instruction for good writing.

Pacing and structure

This all comes down to good planning. And also relates strongly to one of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing rules:

‘Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel time was wasted.’

This is crucial in scripts, in that you only write was is absolutely necessary for the story to be evident. There is no wasting of words, of description, of unnecessary details that trivialise but don’t enthral a viewer. It comes down to understanding the effect you are having on a viewer, and then anticipating it. Messing with it. For example, every Hitchcock film ever made.

These days, I try to write with a mental flowchart that documents how the reader is feeling during the story. If at all I feel I’m straying into the territory of meeting expectations, I try to turn in a different direction. But do it in a way that lets them feel like they knew what was going to happen, until they suddenly don’t.

Dialogue

The best screenwriting, my tutor taught me, should be able to work without dialogue. Film did originate in a silent era, and many foundations of the medium were developed that way. Writing never had to worry about silent characters.

One trick I was taught is to read through your story as if it’s been muted, so that you can’t hear the characters talk. Does the story still work? Is it still comprehensible?

What then becomes clear is a lot of dialogue is meaningless. Or unnecessary. And again with the paring back and trimming of the details until all that is needed is only what’s on the page. Dialogue then becomes a punctuation to a scene, a representation of what people say, rather than a reflection.

Exceptions abound to this, obviously, but what happens there is that the dialogue becomes the action in the scene, replacing physical interaction with verbal. This is most obvious in Quentin Tarantino’s films, particularly in the scene below in Django Unchained (sorry about the subtitles).

I love that the demise of these two characters is down to their verbal formalities – the dialogue between them – rather than any strength of physical attributes. The words become the weapons.

These are just some of the things writing in a different format have helped me with. Writing across different formats and mediums can allow one to seeing where a story works, where its strengths and weaknesses are, and how to best impart that to the chosen audience.

 

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What’s in a (Fantasy Writer’s) Name?

Posted November 12, 2013 by Dirk Strasser

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This post first appeared at www.dirkstrasser.com

Many people have said to me that my name sounds like a fantasy writer’s name, asking me if it’s my actual name.  Garth Nix also often gets asked the same question.  In both mine and Garth’s case, they are our real names, but it makes me wonder what it is that makes a name sound like it belongs to a fantasy writer?

Names are funny things.  I recently discovered that Eddie Perfect is the Australian performer/writer’s real name.  I was absolutely convinced it was a stage name.  As he says, though: ”If I was willing to change it, I’d have gone all the way to F..king–Brilliant.  Hyphenated.”

So, what is it that makes a name sound like a fantasy writer’s?  My guess is that the letters “J” and “R” have something to do with it: J R R Tolkien, J K Rowling, George  R R Martin. There aren’t any initials in “Dirk Strasser”, but there are three Rs.

I once had the venerable science fiction author and editor, Algis Budrys, comment in a rejection letter to me “Mmm, with a name like ‘Dirk Strasser’, I would have thought you’d be South African.”  And I would have thought maybe someone with the name “Algis Budrys” shouldn’t really be commenting on other writer’s names.

Do people with fantasy writer-type names naturally  drift towards fantasy writing?  That would be a bit spooky.  Maybe there’s a prophecy thing happening.

What if a John Smith wants to turn his hand at fantasy?  One solution is to add some initials: John R R Smith works.  But I think there’s a better solution for turning an ordinary name into a fantasy writers’ name – add an exotic sounding middle name.

John Tiberius Smith does the trick, as does Jane Aphrodite Smith.  It’s just a matter of trawling through enough history and mythology to get the right  combination.

Not everyone has been fortunate to have been given fantasy writer names by their parents.  For those of you that haven’t, well, you’re just a google search away from your destiny.

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The Books of Ascension by Dirk Strasser are available now

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In search of lost books

Posted November 4, 2013 by Dirk Strasser

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There’s nothing more tantalising than a lost book.  It whispers to us across time, beckoning us through second-hand accounts, showing us glimpses of what could have been, never revealing whether its words could have changed the world.

Top of any list of vanished works would have to be Shakespeare’s lost play, Cardenio, which was thought to have been based on a bizarre character driven insane by love from Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  We’ll never know what Shakespeare would have conjured out of this episode from a masterpiece that’s considered the first modern European novel.

An early novel by Hemingway based on his World War I experiences was lost when a suitcase containing the manuscript was stolen from his first wife while she was on a train from Paris to Lausanne, Switzerland.  Hemingway said that he would have chosen surgery if he knew it could wipe his memory of the loss.  Apparently, he was reported as saying on more than one occasion that the loss was the reason he divorced his first wife.  Hemingway never tried to rewrite this lost novel.

As tragic as these losses are, perhaps we should mourn lost fantasy books most of all. Novels allow us to experience multiple lives, places that we’ve never been to and emotions distilled to their essence, but every lost fantasy book also contains an entire world that we’ll never inhabit.

Epic fantasy doesn’t get much more epic than the Iliad and Odyssey.  The two works by Homer, however, are only part of a much larger collection of ancient Greek poems called the Epic Cycle (the Cypria, Aethiopis, Little Iliad, Iliupersis, Nostoi, and Telegony).  These six lost epics, only known through references by others, were said to have far greater fantastic and magical content than the Iliad and Odyssey.

The Telegony, in the best fantasy tradition, is effectively a sequel to the Odyssey, continuing the further adventures of Odysseus and of his son Telegonus.  Central to the story is a magical spear tipped with the sting of a poisonous stingray and an enchanted bowl that depicts stories.  Who knows what rich veins of the fantastic could be found in these epics?

One of the most famous lost books is the first draft of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. After Stevenson’s wife criticised the draft as “a quire full of utter nonsense”, saying that it should be rewritten as a moral allegory, he apparently threw the manuscript in the fire. We’ll never know how much Stevenson’s original vision for the story swung in the direction of the fantastical.

I have long been fascinated by lost books. Those in my Books of Ascension series are lost in many ways.  In Zenith: The First Book of Ascension, the twin protagonists are each given a Talisman which will determine their Ascent: one a battle-axe and the other a book.  The story is about which one ultimately proves to be the most powerful.  Throughout the Ascent, blank pages appear and written words fail to form or seem a foreign language, until at the very end their meaning finally becomes crystal clear.

In Equinox: The Second Book of Ascension, the fate of an entire world hangs on a single word that seems to have miraculously changed in the opening sentence of the most sacred of books.  What happens when a reader realises they are being read as part of a story within a story?  And what is the mystery around Chapter Twenty-one?  Every reader will need to work that out for themselves.

Eclipse: The Lost Book of Ascension is about that most elusive of lost books – one that ends up not being what you thought it would be.  In a sense, this novel has itself been a lost book.  This is the first time it’s been published in English.  It concludes The Books of Ascension, which was a two book trilogy for far too long.

So, here’s to finding the lost books and bringing them back to life.

Can you see the story breathing?

 

The Books of Ascension by Dirk Strasser are available now

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Why are we so obsessed with TV these days?

Posted October 23, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It’s no secret that we’re in a golden age of television. At least, that’s what we keep telling ourselves.

It seems a week can’t go by without some actor or director making a transition from film to television, in search of the golden ticket: an ongoing drama series, critical acclaim, overjoyed audiences and, hopefully, big time awards.

It’s no secret why they’re doing it. For the hardworking character-actor, it’s gainful employment in an ongoing role. For a director or producer, it’s the chance to have the freedom to explore a story, rather than cut it down to the fickle specifications of a test-audience.

But most importantly, it’s where the audience is.

So, why are we there?

1. Films just aren’t cutting it anymore

There are two reasons for this theory. Firstly, accessibility is now the norm, the demanded norm, and we want our stories sooner rather than later. We want them across a range of formats, through a variety of vessels. We’re not prepared to wait inordinate amounts of time for a cinematic release to make its way slowly around the world anymore (a lesson free-to-air TV has taken too long to learn in Australia). Additionally, the experience of watching at home is increasingly trumping the experience of going to a cinema. From the outset, a film needs to be offering a hugely rare story experience for audiences to migrate away from their couches to the multiplex. Otherwise, the audience will just wait, it’s not nearly as long anymore until we can purchase it, download it, for half the price.

Secondly, the stories in films are becoming lazy. And standardised. After the innovative peaks of the 1970s, where story challenged and confronted and broke as many rules as it possibly could (following on from similar trends around the world), it lulled into spectacle and trash through the 1980s and 90s. Aside from a brief period of new wave digital innovation in the early 2000s, it’s now lulled again into a redundant era of franchises and spectacle that is giving audiences short shrift on quality stories.

(I do realise I’m giving a highly overblown and generalised view of the last few decades in cinema, but bear with me.)

I’m sick of the villain that gives himself up intentionally in the second act because it’s all part of his devious plan. I’m sick of psychologically flawed heroes that overcome them just enough to survive into the next sequel. I’m sick of stories that promise a lot but either don’t bother with the details, or cut them out. I’m sick of enjoying a three and a half hour cut of a film on DVD more than the two hour release, because they actually put in all the well-written scenes, rather than just the bits we need to dazzle our eyes but not our brains.

So we go to TV. And the 12 hour seasons. And the 60 hour box sets.

2. TV gives us more

So clearly we get more story on TV. Much much more. More twists, more turns, more characters that take us there. Stories get to evolve organically, rather than fit a commercial model.

I don’t think this is just greediness on our part. Mostly, we all accept when a show has to finish. When they finish well, it’s understood. When they don’t, we think perhaps they needed to do it earlier. There’s nothing more excruciating than a TV show that stays too long. So clearly, we like long form stories on TV, but it’s because the medium offers us something we can’t get elsewhere.

Additionally, as a medium it’s now starting to realise what it can do. It’s still rather shallow, the pool of entries in the Golden Age of TV, because the medium is still so new. It has taken a while for us to realise how good we could have it with the long form, but now we know. From the trickle of shows in the 90s (Twin Peaks, Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz) to the groundbreaking early 2000s (Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, The Shield), and the onslaught of now (Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Homeland and so on and so forth), it’s still slim pickings for the long form TV canon.

What’s interesting now, though, is that it’s starting to break its own rules. With the advent of instantly available, downloadable shows – breaking the trend of having to wait for each episode – so the form itself is changing. Witness any episode of House of Cards (the new one) to see how it’s not bound to ad breaks, not bound to forced closure to scenes, fade outs that punctuate unnecessarily. The story is dictating the form, not the other way around.

3We’ve always wanted long form

This much is clear. It’s just we find different ways of getting it. If there’s something curiously familiar about our obsession with long form TV shows, it’s that they feel like cinematic novels. It’s as close as you can get to watching a book, rather than reading it. The fundamental difference is that you get to share this so much more with TV. One only needed to witness the systematic and simulatneous implosion of feelings across the internet when The Rains of Castamere episode happened on the last season of Game of Thrones.

(Perhaps if book reading could somehow find a way of enabling its readership in a similar way?)

But the similarity of long form TV shows to books is only the first step. Books themselves – or novels, rather – haven’t been around for that long either. But long form stories have for centuries before the novel ever existed. Through songs and poems and epics, we’ve always told these stories, always wanted to capture an audience for a long sitting, to let them not just get the bursts of a narrative drive, but several. Not just experience one arc of a character’s life, but the ups and downs of many arcs through many characters.

It’s really just an organic step on the evolution of storytelling. We find a way to tell our stories, and eventually the stories find the best way to be told.

 

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How not to get screwed when a producer options your novel

Posted October 21, 2013 by Luke Preston

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Writing a novel is a war of determination, self-doubt, rebellion, bad grammar, cheap beer and downright guts before it’s finally unleashed to the public. If you’re lucky, the book will get a few good reviews, a few sales and then the phone will ring and a producer says: ‘Hey, we want to make your novel into a movie.’

Now, before you call up the girl who dumped you in high school and brag, make sure you have a contract that properly protects you. Most producers are honest and genuine but there are still a few sharks out there.

Here are a few things to keep in mind before optioning your film rights:

Is the producer capable of making a movie?

Good intentions are lovely but they won’t get a movie made. Before optioning the film rights to your project, access whether or not the producer is capable of making a film. If they have made films before, this is a great indication of their ability of getting your project up. If they do not have any feature film credits, do they have any television or short film credits? Also, feel free to ask them what their plan is for developing and financing the project is. If they are cagy or vague about their plan, they may not have one. And just because they have produced a business card that says they are a producer doesn’t mean they can produce a feature film.

The option fee

Never option the film rights to your novel for no fee whatsoever. You don’t need bucket loads of Scrooge Duck cash to swim around in for a producer to hold your films rights but they should pay something. Paying you a small fee is a clear indication that they value your work. If they cannot pay that small fee, it’s possible they may not be able to afford to put together the project at the early stages of development as that process does come at a cost (an option fee being one of them).

Movies can take years to develop and finance so be reasonable about the length of the option period that you grant a producer. I tend to like an option period of six months to no longer than four years. Never option the film rights for life. What you don’t want is your project sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust especially if you have other interested parties.

Getting Paid

If everything goes to plan; the screenplay is in place, the key creatives have been attached, there’s money on the table and a shoot date has been set, make sure your contract stipulates that you get paid on the first day of principal photography. Not on completion of the shoot, not upon distribution, not when Santa comes but on the first day of principal photography. If the catering can be paid, so can the writer.

Credit

If you are also the screenwriter, credit gets you your next job. Your credit needs to be clearly defined and on all appropriate materials such as the poster, trailers and of course on the film itself. Try to avoid phrasing such as ‘The Producer will endeavor to…’ or ‘The Producer, to the best of their ability will try to ensure to…’. If the producer can guarantee their own credit, they should be able to guarantee yours too.

Negotiations

You want to keep your writer/producer relationship positive and sometimes negotiations can leave a bad taste in your mouth. It’s always best to have an experienced representative to negotiate on your behalf. An agent is always is the perfect way to go, if you don’t have an agent, hire a lawyer or alternatively the Australian Writers Guild of the Writer Guild of America both offer services in this instance (if you are a member, which you should be!). Negotiations can be tricky so you need somebody in your corner who knows what your rights are. If a producer doesn’t want you to take their contact to either a lawyer or an agent, there’s a reason for that and even more reason to seek advice. Negotiations should not be nasty, you’re are seeking a mutually beneficial deal but if they do turn nasty remember, you own the project and you can do whatever the hell you want with it.

Stay out of it!

Stay the hell out of the production of the film. Let the filmmakers make the film. Unless you have had substantial experience in film production you have very little to contribute on set and will ultimately get in the way.

3 Things never to do during production:

1) Suggest dialogue changes

2) Suggest shot selections

3) And never, ever, try to pick up the lead actor

Your novel will always be your novel, but the film will always be somebody else’s baby. Respect that filmmakers are storytellers too and if they genuinely love your story, they are going to lay their careers and hearts on the line to see that story on the screen.

 

9781760080495_Out of Exile_coverLuke Preston is an author and screenwriter whose latest novel, Out of Exile: A Tom Bishop Rampage, as been called “a hard assed crime thriller” by Greg Barron, author of Rotten Gods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Do androids dream of fax machines?

Posted October 18, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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There’s a section within William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition where the protagonist is on her computer, sifting through posts on a message board. It runs as follows:

She automatically clicks Reload, and his response is already there:

    Where are you? nt.

    London. Working. nt.

And all of this is hugely comforting. Psychological prophylaxis, evidently.

The phone rings, beside the Cube, mirror-world rings she finds unnerving at the best of times. She hesitates, then answers.

‘Hello?’

‘Cayce?’

There are a countless number of these throughout the book, where the character of Cayce juggles multiple strands of communication, flipping instantly from a text-based conversation on the internet to one on a phone. What I found fascinating as I read it was how rare it is to see someone effortlessly weaving in multiple strands of communication without drawing too much attention to it.

There are anachronisms throughout Pattern Recognition, which is to be expected, given that it was written in 2003. Given that so much of the plot is based around information and communication carried across the internet, and that the internet of 2002/3 is a vastly different landscape to the internet of 2013, it makes it quite fun to read the now-antiquated shorthand that dotted the forums ten years ago, the searching for crucial plot points in a web browser’s history, and the fact that all the characters in the book are obsessed with discovering the source of anonymous video clips on the internet. It’s almost quaint.

But I guess that’s the point now. Technology is so pervasive these days, and so ingrained into our daily routines and communications that it’s logical to include it in such a normal, effortless way as Gibson does. The problem is that is changes so readily that even a story written two years ago instead of ten will quickly appear outdated in how it references our use of technology.

Gone are the days where anything technology-related in the plot is farmed out to the token hacker character (otherwise the velociraptors will eat us) or that a character’s affinity for technology becomes the driving force for the plot (we can’t always rely on Sandra Bullock to save us from the internet).

Anyone uses technology these days. Everyone. It’s practically banal. So do we include phones and tablets and wifi and whatever else we invent tomorrow in our stories?

It’s not such a problem if the genre demands it. But what if it’s a story where technology is not necessarily inherent to the traditions of its genre? Can you make an iPhone romantic?

Use of contemporary technology can make a story relevant and effective for its immediate audience. Douglas Coupland’s early novels Generation X, Shampoo Planet and Microserfs all went a long way towards defining a large section of early 1990s culture, particularly in the proliferation, usage and inundation of rapidly developing technology.

And there’s the benefit – I think – for featuring technology in stories: it makes them immediate.

But the exponentially evolving path of technology these days has meant that the window of that immediacy grows ever shorter. Coupland’s more recent novels have failed to strike as much of a relevance to a 21st century audience as they did to a late-20th century audience. Or maybe they did, but they then quickly became out of date.

In the 1999 film The Insider, Al Pacino’s character ropes Russell Crowe’s whistleblower into an interview through a series of unanswered phone calls, fax machine notes and answering machine messages. It’s ridiculously dramatic in the steps their protracted conversation negotiate. It’s also ridiculously ‘90s.

Technology quickly becomes laughable as it becomes obsolete. There is the potential a story can live or die by this, in the sense that unintentionally jarring and comical references occur out of nowhere.

So do we avoid technology, if it’s not needed? That seems almost odder, given how infected we are with it these days. How much we do seem to need it.

Maybe it’s just that awkward middle ground, the time that occurs between a book being shockingly relevant and now, and it becoming quaint and nostalgic. Maybe that’s it. If we’re daring enough to throw in iPhones and Twitter and Facebook and whatever else we’ll use to generate and communicate information in the future, if we risk a brief period of obsolescence, we can eventually reach that time when a reader gets to look back fondly at the way things were and see with fresh eyes how far we’ve come, just like in Pattern Recognition.

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On Editing

Posted October 15, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It is often said in filmmaking that when making a film, you get to create the story three times. Once in preproduction, mostly through the creation of a script. Next during the shooting, through the direction, the acting and the happy accidents that come from organised chaos. And lastly in the editing – the sequencing of images together that yield unforeseen results and carve out the third incarnation of the story.

I have a fairly consistent approach to writing, and it’s one that sort of reflects this three-fold approach. Generally, I begin with lots and lots of handwritten notes, half-formed sentences and paragraphs, and snatches of conversation. I try to keep these in some sort of notebook but often they find their way onto receipts, newspapers and other scraps. Lately, these have also migrated into notes on my phone which, if I’m organised enough, I can sync to magically appear on my laptop whenever I get to sit down and sift through all the notes.

This is generally the fishing for ideas. Casting nets of imagination out, hoping to catch enough to begin to plan a story around. Planning is a process I’m trying to get better at, though I have it on good authority from a certain Nathan M Farrugia that Scapple is excellent for this, so I must endorse (though I’m terrible at mind-mapping and end up using pen and paper unfortunately – sorry).

The second stage is the writing. The writing writing. I won’t waffle on too much here, because that’s not the point of this post. But I do wholly approve of the door shut/door open method suggested by Stephen King in On Writing. In short, the first draft – sometimes even the first few drafts – are so raw that you really don’t want to mess with them too much. They’re so full of the initial enthusiasm for the story that you want to keep them in the dark, keep it untouched by anything but your imagination and your own critical eye. Keep the door shut. Then, when you can see the story for what it is, then open it up for a selected reader or two, let the outside world in a bit and see what happens. Open the door to the story, and see the effect it has on a reader. And choose your readers wisely.

But lastly, the real reason for this post, there’s the writing of the story through the editing. I really enjoy editing – even when I hate it and it doesn’t seem to end and I can’t see any way the story is getting better, I still appreciate that it’s a necessary part of the process.

In a recent interview between Donna Tartt and her editor Michael Pietsch on Slate, Tartt acknowledged trepidation she had when editing her first novel, The Secret History. The big fear was that it was so different to the trend of the time – in terms of style, narrative and point of view – that she felt it would be carved up into something far removed from her own work. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but this is something I can imagine a lot of people must feel – and fear – when having the work scrutinised and edited by foreign eyes.

On the small handful of occasions that I’ve had a story edited by someone else, I’ve found it infinitely rewarding. I find collaboration of minds on a single project extremely fulfilling, and a better road towards a successful end to the story. I might’ve got there on my own, editing my own words, I might’ve achieved the same result, but it would have taken a lot longer. Collaboration is a quicker route even when it doesn’t seem so. And when there’s a detour, it’s much nicer to take the detour with someone else.

In the interview above, Piestch mentions how he sees the editor’s role as one working with disappearing ink:

‘If a writer takes a suggestion, it becomes part of her creation. If not, it never happened. The editor’s work is and always should be invisible.’

This is an idea I try to get across to my writing students. Help and advice and criticism is always just that. When they workshop, they can take or leave the suggestions they receive, but it’s still their story. It takes a while to get used to that idea, that including a suggestion from a different mind doesn’t compromise your story, just because it’s not your idea. In the end, the suggestion was created because of the story, so it all works out.

There was a rather interesting discussion that I witnessed yesterday about editing with track changes on Microsoft Word. The general assumption seems to be that track changes is the only positive aspect of an extremely unhelpful program. But nobody really teaches track changes. It is certainly a process I’m still learning to handle, and I’ve used it in different ways depending on what’s been asked of me. Sometimes it’s been to make the changes on the document and acknowledge them in the comments pane, other times it’s to write the change in the comments but leave the document untouched. I get the impression there’s a whole lot more that can be done with the process than what I’m aware, but I’m still stumbling blindly.

My preferred method of editing my own writing is to return to the beginning. Once the draft is typed, it’s printed. A good red pen is sourced. And I read the thing on physical paper. I find the distance from the screen helps my eyes and the words seem much more concrete, and therefore I can notice where they’re not structurally sound. I can see the cracks, the dodgy grouting, the bits where I’ve tried to pave over weaknesses and I’ve compromised the story. Essentially, returning to a physical hard copy allows me to see the story with different eyes.

But that’s what having someone edit your work is all about. I think it is a singular joy and privilege to have someone work on your story. To have more than one mind, working towards the same goal, it makes the story real. So I embrace the editing, killed darlings and all, because in the end, all things serve the story.

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