Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Writing a fight scene

One of the hardest things I find to write is an action scene.

There's a theory that when there's lot of action you should take your time over it, writing more rather than less. And I think this is useful. Most readers will have noted how, when the climax of a story is coming, the author gives more and more detail, expanding the big moment, even though it may in real terms all be over in a couple of seconds.

I'm in the middle of the draft of my fourth children's fantasy. It doesn't have a name at this point, so it's just book four. It picks up some leading characters from the other three books and throws them together in a new story, but one that hopefully connects back to the earlier books.

I've got a note to myself that in the climax of one chapter, where a villain is (probably temporarily) dealt with, that I need to fill this out more. Everything is over for the villain in a couple of sentences.

But today I've been trying to write a small fight scene, where the three main characters overcome three people on the opposite team, as it were. They can do it, but getting it all down on paper has required considerable writing and rewriting - even though this is still only the first real draft of the book. I don't want to skimp at this point because it's likely that what happens here will affect later scenes.

Who does what to who at which point, and who gets in first, and how do the baddies retaliate, and so on, all have to be taken into account. If I'm not careful the baddies could easily end up winning the scene!

Grimhilda intends to shoot Toby,
but his father stands in the way.
Photo by Ian Thomson
When my co-writer and I were working on the play of Grimhilda!, which came before the book version, we spent hours on making sure that on stage everything in the fight scene at the end would work. We made sure there would be time for a character to move from here to there before someone else did something to them...and so on. And then the director came along and ignored all our stage directions! I know that's not unusual, but when things work in the script, it's possibly wise to at least try those things out before changing them!

When I'm writing a book I'm not only the scriptwriter, but the director as well. This has its advantages, but it means you've got to careful to keep things tight as well as clear. You can't give one of your characters the upper hand by extending out how long they have to win when the rest of the characters have much less time. (Though you do see this done in the movies all the time.)

While your readers may be so excited at the fight itself they'll allow you as the author to get away with certain inconsistencies, I think it's valuable to know that if they fight was staged for real, it would work. Just one of those little disciplines we writers have to live with!

First drafts, notes, brick walls

I wrote around 2000 words on the new book yesterday, but twenty-four hours later think that some of that writing will have to be scrapped. 

That’s how it goes on the first draft.

I work best, it seems, writing something down – anything – rather than trying to think ahead without having already done that investigative writing, the writing that 'finds' the story, in a sense. The Disenchanted Wizard was done this way. It was written and rewritten; whole chunks and chapters were scrapped. While it often seemed a hard way to work, the book was eventually all the better for it. 

Not everything in the finished book appeared in the 'first draft.' Some things appeared in exploratory notes where I mulling over what might happen. Early in the process I wrote two chapters about the night the Dog (later to be the Wizard) was sent into the map. These never got into the book in any form. One of the characters present in those chapters vanished entirely from the story in due course, even though in the very first draft he’d been the catalyst for what happened to the heroine. However, the events from those two chapters, in a modified form, were scattered about in bits of exposition in the final book. The sense that they’d been ‘real’ at some point in the writing process helped to make the exposition clear and concise.

I recently read Andy Martin's book, Reacher Said Nothing, in which Martin sat in on Lee Child's writing process during the course of the writing of the book, Make Me. 

Child, to my surprise, writes with a real 'seat of the pants' approach. He starts writing with an idea in his head, and stops when he doesn't know what to do next. He never writes a second draft. The first draft is it. With Make Me he wrote 500 words and stopped for several days. But the thing was, within those first 500 words were the seeds of the rest of the book, only he didn't know at the beginning how all those seed would come to fruition. He didn't even understand what his characters were actually doing, or who the person was that had just been killed.

There are plenty of seat of the pants writers around; most of them write a quick first draft and then go back and revise and revise, often producing several more drafts, usually with substantial changes in them. I've never heard of any other writers who work to Child's method - unless of course you count 19th writers like Dickens and Trollope, who seemed to start at the beginning and write until they were finished. (Trollope supposedly could write 'The End' to one book, and then go straight on into chapter one of the next.) But Child's refusal to rewrite anything is more unusual for modern writers, I suspect. 

The other difference in his approach is his refusal to hurry. If he doesn't know what happens next, he waits, waits until he can see how things will develop. So in a sense a lot of his writing obviously goes on inside his head while he's doing other things - and this book gives the impression that he does quite a lot of other things.

Unlike Child, I'm not good at 'writing' in my head. 
I need to put things down in order to be able to think. What I put down may seem dislocated and shapeless, especially when it's in note form. I don't regard these notes as planning the novel structurally, by the way, and anyway, they often arise after I've started to write the first draft, especially when I've got stuck. But those notes usually spark off the next stage of writing. 

Sometimes I just have to stop completely, because things are flabby, and the first attempt at writing a scene means I've come up with something less than interesting - to others. Or I've used the same escape technique one time too many - as I suspect I have in what I wrote yesterday. At that point it takes an outside eye to tell me I can do better. I don't enjoy being told I can do better, but the books are always better for it...!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Writers on writing

I used to write a weekly column. Very early on I learned that people give you much more credit for your supposed knowledge than you deserve. I wrote about rhododendrons once, and had people ringing up for advice on how to look after them. I had no more idea than they did. So it was intriguing to come across the following quote from Kingsley Amis, in which he (rather tongue-in-cheek) discusses his writing techniques. This item first appeared in The Listener UK, though I found it in a Readers Digest April 1990. 

There are one or two little tricks of the trade you learn by writing a lot of novels: how to handle transitions more smoothly, get your characters without fuss from one scene to the next. And you get better at what might be called the tip-of-the-iceberg con. You imply that you know everything about a subject – for example, eisteddfods – just by quoting two or three little bits. The implication being, ‘I could tell you all about it if I had room, but I’m just letting these little bits out. That’s the tip, but there’s a huge iceberg.’ Of course, there really isn’t iceberg. 

This second quote was also in that Reader's Digest. It originally appeared in the Esquire magazine, and it has Columnist Bob Greene discussing his profession:

Bob Greene
I do not lift heavy objects; I do not manufacture things. What I do is to go out and see things and meet people, and then I put it all on paper for strangers. That may not sound like work – sometimes I can’t believe I get a pay cheque for it. I have been writing a column for over 18 years, and I have become virtually incapable of experiencing things and keeping them inside myself. 
I talk to people and notice things, and then I turn those things into a column for the most wonderful gift a storyteller can be given: an audience on the other end. The way I see it, everyone of us in the writing business starts off with precisely the same tools: the 26 letters of the alphabet. All we can do is try to arrange those 26 letters in a different way than anyone else has before. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

From an interview with Richard Wilbur

This year I managed to memorise one of Richard Wilbur's longer poems, Lying. Not only one of his longer poems, but also the one to which his wife at first responded, “at last you’ve written a poem that’s unintelligible from beginning to end." She came to change her mind, and though I must admit I don't understand all of it, it became clearer as I learned it. 

Here are a couple of paragraphs from a 1977 interview with Wilbur, who died in October this year [2017]

How do you compose your poems? Do you write in long hand or on the typewriter? Do you write in bursts or long stretches, quickly or laboriously?
With pencil and paper and laboriously, very slowly on the whole. I do envy people who can compose on the typewriter, though I reject as preposterous Charles Olson's ideas about the relation of the typewriter to poetic form. I don't approach the typewriter until the thing is completely done, and whatever margins the typewriter might offer have nothing to do with the form of a poem as I conceive it. I write poems line by line, very slowly; I sometimes scribble alternative words in the margins rather densely, but I don't go forward with anything unless I am fairly satisfied that what I have set down sounds printable, sayable. I proceed as Dylan Thomas once told me he proceeded—it is a matter of going to one's study, or to the chair in the sun, and starting a new sheet of paper. On it you put what you've already got of a poem you are trying to write. Then you sit and stare at it, hoping that the impetus of writing out the lines that you already have will get you a few lines farther before the day is done. I often don't write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let's say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper. Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely distinguishable from catatonia.
What is it that gets you started on a poem? Is it an idea, an image, a rhythm, or something else?
It seems to me that there has to be a sudden, confident sense that there is an exploitable and interesting relationship between something perceived out there and something in the way of incipient meaning within you. And what you see out there has to be seen freshly, or the process is not going to be provoked. Noting a likeness or resemblance between two things in nature can provide this freshness, but I think there must be more. For example, to perceive that the behavior of certain tree leaves is like the behavior of birds' wings is not, so far as I am concerned, enough to justify the sharpening of the pencil. There has to be a feeling that some kind of idea is implicit within that resemblance. It is strange how confident one can be about this. I always detest it when artists and writers marvel at their own creativity, but I think this is a very strange thing that most practiced artists would have in common, the certainty that accompanies these initial, provocative impressions. I am almost always right in feeling that there is a poem in something if it hits me hard enough. You can spoil your material, of course, but that doesn't mean the original feeling was false.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Secrets and fears

Who knows what goes on in a family? I learned this as a student. 
'You can spend years with a patient and still they'll surprise you,' Wesley told me after we'd shaken hands for the first time, his fingers yellow with nicotine. 
'How so?' I asked.
He settled himself behind his desk, clawed his hair back. 'You can hear someone's secrets and their fears and their wants, but remember that these exist alongside other people's secrets and fears, people living in the same rooms. You've heard that line about all happy families being the same?' 
'War and Peace,' I said. 
'Anna Karenina, but that's not the point. The point is, it's untrue. No family, happy or unhappy, is quite like any other...'

The Woman in the Window by A J Finn, page 98 

The narrator is a child psychologist; Wesley is her tutor.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

McIlvanney's Laidlaw, some quotes

A few extracts from William McIlvanney's Laidlaw, a book full of witty writing. Laidlaw is the first in a series on a Scottish detective with a bit of Rebus approach to life....but written a few decades earlier. Further, it's set in Glasgow, rather than Edinburgh. The other two titles are The Papers of Tony Veitch, and Walking Wounded. 

Sunday in the park - it was a nice day. A Glasgow sun was out, dully luminous, an eye with cataract. Some people were in the park pretending it was warm, exercising that necessary Scottish thrift with weather which hoards every good day in the hope of some year amassing a summer.
The scene was a kind of Method School of Weather - a lot of people trying to achieve a subjective belief in the heat in the hope of convincing one another. So the father who lay on the grass, railing in his children with his eyes, wore an open-necked shirt, letting the sun get at his goose-pimples. Two girls who were being chatted up by three boys managed to look romantically breeze-blown rather than cold. An old man sitting on a bench had undone the top two buttons of his overcoat, heralding heatwave. A transistor played somewhere, evocative of beaches. People walking through the park moved unhurriedly, as if through an air muggy with warmth.  page 23

Just because you've got a wooden leg doesn't mean you've got to go about battering all the two-legged folk over the head with it.  page 167

What I've got against folk like Lawson isn't that they're wrong. It's just that they assume they're right. Bigotry's just unearned certainty, isn't it?  Page 200

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A rift in the lute

My wife and I frequently do the cryptic crossword that appears daily in our newspaper. Some days it can be so straightforward it's done in a quarter of an hour. Other days some of the clues seem incomprehensible, much more like the ones that appear with the Saturday cryptic, which is much harder - though we've found it more doable as the years go by. 

Yesterday we got stuck with a clue that we just couldn't make head or tail of. The clue was "Musical version of someone rocking the boat."

The answer was scattered around the crossword: a four letter word here, a two letter word followed by a three letter word, and then finally another four letter word. We got the two centre words, which were pretty plainly 'in the'. But what was in the what eluded us, even though we struggled with a variety of word combinations for some time. 

The answer was 'Rift in the lute", as I discovered this morning, when checking the answers. A rift in the lute? It doesn't even seem to make sense, and it's certainly not an idiom I'm familiar with. How does a lute get a rift? I suppose the word can be being used in the sense of a crack, which would certainly cause a bit of a problem for the lute-player. 

Apparently 'rift in the lute' means: "A small problem or flaw in something that jeopardizes the whole. For example, I hope this bit of rust isn't a rift in the lute and doesn't end up damaging the whole paint job."
I've never heard the expression rift in the lute. Is anyone else familiar with it?

Supposedly it comes from a poem by Tennyson - Idylls of the King -  in which he writes:
‘It is the little rift within the lute,
That by and by will make the music mute.’

The phrase must be more common than I think. Someone called Maximilian de Gaynesford has written a book with the title, A Rift in the Lute. Go to Amazon and you'll find he's not the only one to use the phrase as a book title. Much and all as Mr de Gaynesford's book sounds interesting - its subtitle is attuning poetry and philosophy - the hardcover price of US$65.93 (down from $80.00) is a little steep. And worse, the Kindle version is only $3.30 cheaper at $62.63. For a Kindle book!

So there we go. I've learned a new phrase, discovered where it comes from, and realised that far more people know it than I'd have expected. Humbled again.  

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Writing is tiring work

G K Chesterton writing to his friend, Bentley, not long after GK started his first job working for a publisher - Redway, mentioned in the letter. 

There is that confounded 'Picture of Tuesday' which I have been scribbling at the whole evening, and have at last got it presentable. This sounds like mere amusement, but, now that I have tried other kinds of hurry and bustle, I solemnly pledge myself to the opinion that there is no work so tiring as writing, that is, not for fun, but for publication. Other work has a repetition, a machinery, a reflex action about it somewhere, but to be on the stretch inventing things, making them out of nothing, making them as good as you can for a matter of four hours leaves me more inclined to lie down and read Dickens than I ever feel after nine hours' ramp at Redway's. The worst of it is that you always think the thing so bad, too, when you're in that state.

From Gilbert Keith Chesterton, by Maisie Ward, page 67. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

We shouldn't necessarily pay attention to Word's Grammar corrections

Courtesy Pixabay
In a draft of a book I'm writing, there's this sentence: 

They were dressed in a variety of ways, one in an expensive suit, another in overalls; one in a track suit and running shoes, another in a jersey and gardening trousers.

A perfectly reasonable sentence for a Kiwi author to write: jersey being the common equivalent of a 'pullover' or a 'sweater.' Which doesn't explain Word's idea that the following are two better and more grammatical alternatives: 

'...some jersey and gardening trousers.' Or, ' jersey and gardening trousers.' I'm a bit hard-pressed to know what they think 'jersey' means here. I'm intending the first of these two definitions: 

a close-fitting, knitted sweater or shirt.
or a plain-knit, machine-made fabric of wool, silk, nylon, rayon, etc, characteristically soft and elastic, used for garments. 

A football jersey is a prime example of such a thing. Of course, I could be thinking of a Jersey cow, but it's unlikely in the context. 

It seems as if Word is somehow thinking of the person being dressed in the material called jersey as opposed to the garment. Which plainly doesn't make sense. Few people merely wear the fabric of something, especially when doing the gardening. Most of them wear a garment made out of the fabric. 

Word already has a thing about my not using a comma after such sentences openings as 'Of course he went...' or 'After all it was...' Their idea that this kind of opening phrase automatically requires a comma is false; it's grammatical only in the sense that some sentences do require the comma. It depends on what follows. 

I rely hugely on Word's Spellchecker, because my typing isn't topnotch, and it can be easy to miss a spelling error. Of course Word isn't always right on these either: you have to keep an eye on them, just as they're keeping an eye on you...

PS: I notice the man in the photo is wearing gumboots, so I think the sentence in my draft should read: They were dressed in a variety of ways, one in an expensive suit, another in overalls; one in a track suit and running shoes, another in a jersey, gardening trousers and gumboots.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Marketing for self-publishers - does this idea work

Yesterday I came across a blog post entitled: The Fool-Proof Twitter Book Marketing Strategy You Need to be Using. My first reaction was, Yes, this is what I've been looking for, but having considered overnight some of the things the author is saying, I'm having second thoughts. 

One thing I do agree with is that merely announcing on Twitter that you've written and published a book will probably not add a single sale to your sales chart. I get tweets like this all the time from different authors, and most of the time I switch off, or just flick straight past them. Once in a blue moon I will actually consider buying the book on the strength of the tweet, and occasionally (perhaps five or six times in nearly a decade of being on Twitter) I've actually bought a book. 

So it's not a total loss, but it certainly won't bring big sales - unless you're already very well known as an author. Even then it's only part of the overall marketing strategy. 

Another thing the writer, Derek Murphy, says is that interaction with other readers - not other authors - is necessary. And again don't hammer them with the sales pitches: befriend them as people, and respond to their tweets and talk about mutual areas of interest. 

Neither of these things were news to me. 

However, Murphy starts off his article by encouraging us to add 100 tweeters per day, ones who are interested in the genre in which we write and who are likely to read the sort of book you've published. In three months you'll have 5000 targeted followers, he claims. 

This is where things start to fall down, for me. Finding and following even an additional 100 people a day is quite a commitment, even when you only take a quick squiz at their tweets. Furthermore many of these tweeters will not necessarily just tweet about writing and books and such. They, like me, have other interests. 

But the bigger problem is that just because you follow these particular 100-5000 people doesn't mean they will follow you in return. Some will, many won't. So in fact you won't necessarily have 5000 targeted followers after three months. In fact, it's unlikely. 

You might argue that some of these people will retweet your tweets to their friends and, if those friends are book-focused people, they may follow you. You'll get people on board you hadn't originally followed. Yes, this is true. 

But there's no way you'll have time to have twitter conversations with even a small number of these people. 

Murphy goes on to say that you also need to be writing blog posts about writing and your genre, and cross-referencing other people's posts, and thus building up your profile. Furthermore you need to be following up on hashtags that relate to your genre and area of interest. 

Here's another problem: doing all this work will severely curtail your available time for writing books. From experience I know that as soon as I start to work on marketing, hours flit by, often with very little to show for it. 

I'm beginning to think that there are a number of writers out there who don't actually write very much in the way of books, but spend vast amounts of time writing about how to market. Which means, for me, that their real focus isn't writing, but marketing. 

Some time ago I followed a bloke - his name now escapes me, but no doubt others will know him - who, having written a series of books, basically said that he wasn't really interested in writing any more books but in marketing the ones he'd written. And that was certainly his focus. His aim was to make as much money out of these few books as possible. 

I understand the frustration that self-publishing writers have in terms of marketing. It tears the writer in two. It's no wonder publishers take on the marketing role in the normal way of publishing; writers just don't have the time. 

I'm not sure what the solution for self-publishers is - throwing heaps of money at marketing, maybe - but I know that trying to write and market just doesn't work for me, however enthusiastic I may be about such posts as Mr Murphy' first. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Stranger - or Forest of Secrets

Last night we finished watching the 16-part series, Stranger, also known as Forest of Secrets. It's available on Netflix; apparently that company paid its producers $200,000 per episode. It appeared on Korean television in June and July of this year, so it's very new. 

Is it worth that kind of money? I'd say it is. Made in South Korea with an all-Korean cast, it's a top-notch thriller-cum-detective story. The two leads, Jo Seung-woo as the Prosecutor, Hwang Shi-mok, and Bae Doona as the female detective, Han Yeo-ji. 

Hwang is one of the few honest Prosecutors in his department, and thus a threat to those who allowed bribery and corruption to creep into their work. But he has had brain surgery when younger because certain things, such as loud noises, affected his emotional state. Unfortunately, the operation has reduced his capacity for empathy and emotion. Jo Seung-woo has to play a man mostly incapable of smiling or expressing happiness or anger. In spite of this the actor comes across as a man with whom we have great sympathy, and some characters in the story admire him greatly. 

Korean prosecutors involve themselves in judicial procedure by conducting investigations, determining indictable cases, and the prosecution process, a mode of operating that's different to the English adversarial system. Thus in this story the Police and the Prosecutors work hand-in-hand for the most part, while still complaining about each other's methods at times. 

Bae Doona is a wonderful actress, and a great foil for the seemingly straightfaced prosecutor. She's gutsy, generous, sympathetic, warm, sharp, cool...everything you want in a heroine. She comes across to the audience as someone you want to keep spending screen time with. A delight. 

There's a massive cast of characters, and to give even a brief indication of the plot would take several paragraphs. Suffice to say a man involved in offering bribes on a large scale is murdered early in the piece, and this leads to an ongoing investigation that gradually sees men of high status brought down. Slowly. 

When I say slowly I mean that the events play themselves out in such a way that we're fooled by red herrings; confused about who's on the right side and who's not - at times; discovering characters who appear to be playing the wrong game but who turn out to be playing the right one, and vice versa. I don't think you'll guess who the actual murderer is before he's revealed (there are three murders scattered over the story), even though you'll know who the real baddies are in the story quite early on. 

The series isn't concerned with a constant rush: many scenes take plenty of time, and reveal character in detail. There are certainly action scenes, and big crowd scenes (a chase through one of Seoul's airports late in the series, for instance), but there's plenty of quiet space as well. 

The series is subtitled, and this is well done, but it takes a bit of getting used to the names. You have to latch onto at least one of the three names virtually every character has and hold it in your head. This isn't always easy, because there are least a half dozen Kims in the story. Kim is a surname, of course - and a very common surname in Korea - but when the characters refer to each other, they tend to put the surname first. So hang onto the first names, if you can!

The music is great, especially the main theme, and the photography outstanding. Even though it's in colour, you come away with a sense of monochrome. We've been gripped by it, even watching two episodes in an evening on some occasions. 

In addition (25th Aug, 2017): Forgot to mention the constant bowing towards superiors that goes on during this series. I'm sure it's a common factor of Korean life. It shows up a politeness that doesn't exist in European countries or the USA. 
And one other thing: cellphones are ubiquitous in every episode. And they always work and no one ever runs out of data and they always get the person they want (with one or two exceptions). They can even track people at the drop of a hat. But in one delightful moment, the hero is forced to go to a computer (shock, horror!) to view a video that's been sent to him. Which kind of puts cellphones in their place...