The Scribbler

the new writing blog for exciting contemporary writers

Posts Tagged ‘youtube

The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post Three – Making People

leave a comment »

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden from Fight Club, arguably one of the greatest literary characters of recent times

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden from Fight Club, arguably one of the greatest literary characters of recent times

Something ain’t right with my novel.

The big bones are in place: the main characters, the plot lines, even the climax and denouement. Seen from a distance, it certainly looks like a novel. But up close, you can see that it’s just a simulacrum of one; it’s canvas doped over a frame, like a dummy aircraft to fool the high-flying enemy. A book prematurely abridged.

A good start, I hope: now the simple process of filling in…

Ah:  here’s the rub. It’s this close-up work, the real flesh of the story that refuses generaisations and synecdoche that I’m having trouble with. There are scraps of the real stuff, passages and pages I adore, but I am having trouble joining them into a consistent and cogent narrative.  It’s not quite firing, quickening, whatever metaphor takes your fancy to describe that mojo quality that is life.

It’s tricky. This writing, in fact, is positively hard. Those that have actually achieved this act of sustained imagination (or perhaps more accurately, these millions of small acts of imagination) ascend higher in my estimation every day.

The main problem lies with the characters.  It’s not about them yet: it’s still about events, and the characters just happen to be the vessels through which interesting happenings happen. The tension between plot and character is of course fundamental to all stories. But I want both to be vibrating, pulsating, symbiotes feeding and thriving off the other.

And the core reason for this problem? I simply don’t know my characters well enough. Even the main characters have not got the depth of history, of complexity, that makes me believe they’re real. I am often at a loss as to what a character will do in a situation, how they will speak, react, move about. I can’t hear them. Their voices are muted.

Or, if the problem is not a lack of biography, it is they have too many, all equally tempting and interesting, all antipathetic to one another.  Choosing a particular path for a character involves destruction as well as creation, the slicing away of a host of possible past and futures. Of all the shiny scraps of the world that I have collected- the interesting stories and happenings squirreled away in notebooks- only a small proportion will ever be realised in a character. Try to get too many in, and a character becomes a shapeless hold-all.

So sit your characters down and interrogate them.  Ask them fifty questions. Start off with the major biographical details: name, sex, age etc. But then range on, to favourite foods, pastimes, memories, to their hopes and fears. Concoct strange questions and situations, and see how they react. Examine their webs of relatives, friends and enemies. How do they sit within these networks? Are they popular or disliked? Powerful or downtrodden?

Physical appearance is essential. What do they look like exactly? Sketch them. Find photos that could be them.  How do they walk, and sit and laugh? What do they sound like when they talk to you? Hopefully when they answer your questions, they’ll begin speaking in their own voice, complete with their quirks of accent and idiom.

Running parallel with getting to better know our peeps, we have to make sure they are worth knowing.

A bad story, in a film, play or book, invariably lacks strong characters.  Forget the setting, the special FX or bodycount. It’s how alive the characters are, how much the audience can empathise with them (not always, please note, sympathise). We’ve got three million years of DNA programming forcing us to want to pay attention to what people are about. Even if cinema audiences bumble on about wanting to see explosions and full frontal nudity, what they would really like is that but with great characters.

So what makes a great character? A trawl through my own fiction reading, and various handbooks on writing, offers some consensus.

Falstaff, one of the greatest Shakespeare characters

Falstaff, one of the great Shakespeare characters

  • Characters should be vibrant. They push against life. Something is wrong in their lives and they set out to change it, whether an external event forced upon them or an internal problem revealed through self-examination.
  • Like real people they should be full of contrasting, even contradictory emotions.  Surprise the reader with how a character acts and reacts. Complex people are interesting people. External conflict often reveals the internal conflicts, the mental fault lines along which a character splits.  The character is forced to make choices.
  • A mix of characters brings realism and contrast. They shouldn’t be interchangeable with one another: the “Bad Guy No.4” in the credits. Humour and sadness ,  for example, whether expressed by a single person, or in a group, become sharper when next to each other.  A wacky character can act as a foil for the more realistic. Or a character can be contrasted against the environment; the city boys in the country; the airhead in a high-powered job.
  • They are often good at what they do, whether it be cutting wood or being a lawyer. Even if they are bad at something, then they are the best at being the worst.

Of course, these guidelines are by no means definitive or binding. Not all these characteristics need to be included in each of your creations. But I think they certainly provide some direction.

With the details set down in black and white, with ambiguity taken away, the characters start to have to make decisions for themselves.  These concrete details are the foundations on which intricate structures can suddenly be built. New, more subtle plot suddenly presents itself.  Cards can be placed on these foundations- and then, as time goes on these lower layers seem to harden and fuse themselves, capable to sustaining structures upon them too, all the while developing in unexpected ways.

In the light of this discussion, it is perhaps telling that my two favourite stories of the moment, Anna Karenina (read the full text here), and the various series of The Wire (The Wire dedicated Guardian Blog), use their respective equivalents of the omnipresent, omnipotent narrator to peel back the inner lives of their characters.  With the same unblinking eye, we see the conflicting, and often contradictory, emotions in all parties. All are understandable as human: all suddenly become rational beings, no longer easily summed up and dismissed by race, wealth, gender or sexuality. The reader is forced to confront the tragedy or blessing of chance: that could have been me.

Vividly imagined, vital characters can help us be better people.  To crawl, waltz, crash out of the hot confines of one’s head, and into another’s: to forget one’s body and become someone else, if only for a moment, and then to return, slightly changed, more sensitive and subtle, is magic and art itself.

Just for your information and my fun, here are my top five characters:

  1. Captain Yossarian (Catch 22 by Joseph Heller)
  2. Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) (Full text)
  3. Harriet Dufresnes (The Little Friend by Donna Tartt)
  4. William Brown (Just William by Richmal Crompton)
  5. Falstaff (Henry IV Pts. I&II, The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare) (Full texts)

Watch Captain Yossarian collect a medal in the nude below:

Discussion:
Have you been finding Richard’s posts useful? What are you going to take away from this instalment? If you’re doing some writing how have you found the obstacle of fleshing out your characters? Comments and debate always welcome below.

Words: Richard Walsh

Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview One – Janice Y. K. Lee

leave a comment »

Janice Y.K Lees debute novel

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee has written her first novel to much acclaim, after making it onto the Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 The Scribbler has managed to secure a quick Q&A with the writer.

This interview is the first in a series in which we hope to talk to all the nominated writers competing for the Waterstones award.

Impressing many publications from the intellectual New Yorker to fashion magazine Vogue, Janice Y. K. Lee has managed to impress some of the harshest critiques with The Piano Teacher, a tale of love, passion and survival in 1940s and 50s Hong Kong.

+ + + + +

THE SCRIBBLER: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

JANICE Y. K. LEE: I think that people like to be transported in a novel, and 40s and 50s Hong Kong is sufficiently far away from most peoples’ worlds that they feel as if they are travelling and learning a little bit.  The Piano Teacher has been described as an historical epic and an epic love story and I think both of those appeals to readers.

TS: As a New Voice of 2009 you must be inspired by some very contemporary authors. Which writers do you enjoy reading and draw inspiration from?

JYKL: I do read mostly contemporary writers, partly because I want to support writers working now and also because it is the closest to my heart.  I think Shirley Hazzard and Michael Ondaatje are amazing.  Also Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides.  I could go on and on.

TS:  Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

JYKL: I don’t know that I “lift” them as much as they come floating up to the conscious part of my head.  I’ll be thinking about many things, and some will keep coming back, or be resonating for a reason I cannot figure out.  I was interested in a long time by people who steal, people who one would never think would do such a thing.  This found its way into short stories, characters I would write about, and eventually found its way into the book.  TPT started as a short story about an English piano teacher and her young Chinese student.  From there, the characters really led me to their story.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

JYKL: I have an unusual story, which will probably not be that helpful, unfortunately.  My teacher from grad school, Chang rae Lee, introduced me to my agent, and she took me on the basis of my short stories but she really encouraged me to write a novel.  It took me a while, but after 5 years, I had my novel.  She was always very encouraging of it and because I took so long to make sure it was right, it was in good shape by the time I finished it.  From there, she sent it out and there were a lot of interested parties and it ended up going to auction.  I had a lot of rejection during my 20s with my short stories, but luckily, with this novel, it was a fairy tale sort of story.

Janice Y.K Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

JYKL: I think writing a first novel, in particular, is difficult as you are writing in obscurity, you are likely not making any money, and people often don’t know what to make of you.  All I can say is that you just have to believe in yourself, and in your book, and keep on.

TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.) How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it?

JYKL: I haven’t read the book through since it came out.  I don’t know when I’ll do that.  I do flip through sometimes, and read a passage, and usually I will like it.  I suppose that’s pretty good!

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?

JYKL: Writing a second book is awfully difficult as well!  I feel there is a certain expectation as to the kind of the book I will write, and I’m trying hard to let that feeling go and write what I want to write.  I think I have successfully left TPT behind but it’s just trying to get to that new place right now.

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?

JYKL: Treat writing like a job.  It is a job and you have to work very hard at it.  It is not always some romantic life of late nights and wine and talking about one’s process (that may come afterwards! or before!).  You have to sit at that desk and write.

TS: In your opinion what is The Piano Teacher about?

JYKL: I think it’s about Claire (the book’s piano teacher), but I’ve been argued down to the ground about that.  Others think it is about consequences of actions made under duress, east meets west, wartime.  But I’ll stick to my guns and say it’s about Claire’s journey as a person.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?

JYKL: Any of the books written by the writers I mentioned above will move me and make me want to write.  They have a way of surprising readers, using words differently, illuminating character, that make one pause and savour the language.  

TS: What is your learning background? And do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

JYKL: I went to university and studied English and American Literature which was certainly helpful.  I did an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing which was helpful insofar as it gave me time to write in a community of people who were doing the same thing.

+ + + + +

Click on the below clip to hear an except from The Piano Teacher:

Discussion:
Please take this chance to discuss, promote or rant about Janice Y.K Lee or any of your favourite new writers for 2009, and expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.

Words: Seamus Swords

Writer and creator of The Wire back on the beat

leave a comment »

David Simon, creator of The Wire

David Simon, creator of The Wire

Celebrated creator of the much loved hit US police drama The Wire (The Guardian’s live blog on all five series) has returned to his journalistic roots to investigate crime in Baltimore, the setting of the HBO series.

Writer and journalist David Simon was reportedly unhappy with the Baltimore Sun‘s coverage of a police shooting which reported that “one old police reporter [Simon] lost his mind and began making calls” following a handful of unsatisfactory stories.

You would have thought the Baltimore police would have learnt it’s lesson after five series of The Wire but Simon was denied the face sheet of the shooting report.

David Simon said: “I tried to explain the Maryland statutes to the shift commander, but so long had it been since a reporter had demanded a public document that he stared at me as if I were an emissary from some lost and utterly alien world. Which is, sadly enough, exactly true.”

Have a look see what Charlie Brooker thinks of The Wire below:

Discussion:
Has the Wire inspired anyone to try their hand at screenplay writing? Does anyone enjoy writing about crime, and why? Let us know what you think of The Wire.

Words: Dean Samways

The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post Two – Writer’s Block & Procrastination

with 9 comments

Philip Pullman, not a believer in writers block

Philip Pullman, not a believer in writer's block

For all the stories that are constantly rattling around and exploding inside my head, all too often actually sitting down at my desk and writing things down is bloody difficult. It’s a bizarre dilemma. Too many ideas; not enough writing.

As you may have guessed, the topic of the week is procrastination and writer’s block. Fittingly, this blog is a week late. Apologies. My book hasn’t been going that well this week, you see. I’m still stuck at the thirty thousand word mark. In fact it’s actually shrunk a bit, when I lopped off a couple of dodgy pages, and murdered a whole character. I’ve been under a lot of pressure in the day job, and then I had a midnight trip to casualty, and there’s been some good telly….

All true, but I know it’s not the main reason for the lack of progress. I suspect I’m adept in the dark art of procrastination.

I’d like to think I’m not entirely to blame. Even if it is not harder to be a writer today than in the past, I think it is easier to be a procrastinator.

I am amazed at the sheer amount of distractions available. Mobiles, email, daytime television, Facebook – so far I have resisted the siren texts of Twitter – all consume vital minutes: often not many, but enough to break into my periods of concentration. As many times as writing feels glorious and effortless, I find it feels like homework or exam revision. During these periods I will do anything to avoid my desk.

Even as technology has granted us time from manual chores, it gives us the choice to do something else. We don’t want this choice. Watching Ice Road Truckers on Discovery, or joining some bizarre collective on Facebook is far easier than actually writing. For a writer, choice of entertainment is a bad. Give us only books, paper and pen, and lock us away.

Perhaps it will be a good thing. Only those committed enough to screen out distraction will complete their books: and thus the dilettantes and chancers will be screened out themselves, never cluttering the publisher’s desk, and leaving the field free for the committed and the good. And the question that wakes me in a cold sweat at night: which one am I?

A writer needs isolation and silence. He needs to delve deep into his own head: set dilemmas, flesh out characters; have the quiet space for his own imagination to whirr and play. Like Homer in the isolation booth, only when you’ve set aside some quality time with just you and your head, will the hallucinations that form the strange stuff of stories flicker into existence.


Not the Homer referred to in the blog post but still a poetic one

But then, perhaps when you’ve actually managed to pluck up the courage to sit in front of the laptop, you feel the weight of expectation pressing down on you. You’ve read a lot of books. You know all about literary theory and the corpus of 19th century Abyssinian poets. Thus, what you write is going to be perfect – isn’t it?

This has been one of my biggest problems. I want it to be perfect. But, almost always, the words on the screen capture just a ghost of my intention. That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I meant at all. I am paralysed and I have to fight to stop myself slipping back into the embrace of impossible expectations.

But there is hope. Few great authors found the writing process easy. In fact many of them spoke of the craft with something approaching revulsion and horror, yet still managed to write, publish and be successful. Philip Pullman, answering a question on writer’s block says:

“I don’t believe in it. All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that give a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?” (www.philip-pullman.com)

In practical terms there is a universe of techniques to jumpstart your writing. The most important for me is letting yourself be bad when you write. Lay down utter drivel. Just keep it private and tell yourself it’s just a rough draft. Rediscover the joy of forming sentences, paragraphs, creating characters. Create a schedule. Get up an hour early, and write in the dawn. Go walking – leave for work a half hour earlier and walk, letting your thoughts riff along the beat of your legs. Knock yourself out of regular thought patterns. Buy the Daily Mail. Get yourself worked up.

To finish on a more philosophical tack, I think that ultimately what keeps you writing is a mixture of love and fear. Love, for the special times, when writing feels like flying; and fear, of the alternative: of not writing. That is a giving-up, a little death. To write is to have a chance to live twice over, at least: firstly, you see, hear, smell and touch more intensely; and, second, when your stories are read, you yourself are multiplied. That’s worth writing for, isn’t it?

Watch Pullman talk about The Golden Compass and his writing technique below:

Discussion:
What are you guilty of when it comes to procrastination? Have you every experienced writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

Words: Richard Walsh

Writer to rescue Heroes

leave a comment »

Bryan Fuller - writer and producer of Heroes (Independent)

Bryan Fuller - writer and producer of Heroes (Independent)

We’ll be straight with you, The Scribbler is not a fan of the current craze of American television shows saturating our beloved Beeb and other channels.

Shows like Lost seem to ramble on endlessly purely for that fact, because an endless plot and a forever unraveling storyline means an ever engaged audience. These are commercial gravy trains would appear to be coming off the rails though.

Bryan Fuller, the former writer-producer of Heroes, has rejoined the show’s crew as a consultant. The move follows the cancellation of his Emmy-nominated show Pushing Daisies.

The superhero series has been hemorrhaging viewers since the start of the second season.

Talking to Entertainment Weekly Fuller said: “My job is to help facilitate the vision of the show, and the vision has been a little inconsistent.”

“But Fugitives (the next arc) is such a great sea change. I think people who have been critical of Heroes will come back.”

The drama’s original writer believes drastic measures are in order to attract fans back, though those measures are somewhat questionable in our book.

“People will die. And some will return. Matt’s wife (Janice) comes back. We’ll find out what happens when you have a superbaby.”

A superbaby? Don’t tell me Fuller didn’t hear the sighs of disappointment from cinema audiences when Clark Kent’s alter-ego found out he had a son in Superman Returns.

As for why Heroes found itself out of favour with fans, Fuller has his own theories: “It became too dense and fell into certain sci-fi trappings.

“For instance, in the Villains arc, when you talk about formulas and catalysts, it takes the face off the drama.

“You have to save something with a face, otherwise you don’t understand what you’re caring about. We’re also altering the structure so that there’s a very clear A story.”

So basically Heroes is in line for a spot of dumbing down then?

“But it is a big ship, it’s going to take a little while to turn it.”

Part of the reason The Scribbler isn’t a fan of shows like Lost and Heroes is their lazy use of the English language. Scriptwriting 101: Use as few words as possible to say as much as possible, this is how people really talk. People don’t describe every single thing they are doing, even if there have got a few subplots going on elsewhere. The below clip from the incredible police drama The Wire proves our point exactly.

Discussion:
What are your favourite examples of screenplay writing? Are you a fan of any the American television-cum-Hollywood shows and why? Are you penning your own ‘high production value’ television drama? Care to share?

Words: Dean Samways

How to talk to girls – Tips from a nine-year-old

with 3 comments

Can all men learn something from lil Alec Greven?

Can all men learn something from lil Alec Greven?

There are many difficult subjects for writers to tackle, but a nine-year-old boy getting to the bottom of the eternal mystery of nine-year-old girls seems to be a unique one. The pre-teen version of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus (boys are from the climbing frame and girls are from the sandbox anyone? – Ed) started out as a school creative writing project for young American Casanova Alec Greven.

The hand written pamphlet proved to be a surprise hit at his school’s book fair and the story was picked up by local news. The leaflet soon turned into a full-blown called How To Talk To Girls. Alec was then invited onto a US TV chat show which led to a publishing deal with HarperCollins. The hardback is now available across the the United States.

In an interview with the New York Post he revealed his inspiration for writing the book. “I saw a lot of boys that had trouble talking to girls.”

The book includes some very eye-opening pearls of wisdom. In an extract from chapter three he writes: “Stop showing off, go easy on the compliments and be wary of ‘pretty girls’. It is easy to spot pretty girls because they have big earrings, fancy dresses and all the jewelery. Pretty girls are like cars that need a lot of oil.”

His mother has put Alec’s success down to the fact he is an avid reader.

Here is the boy himself talking to the New York Post about his book:

Discussion:
So have you learnt anything from lil’ Alec? Are all the pretty girls the ones with big earrings? Case in point, Jackie from Hollyoaks. What will Alec’s next work be? A Mills & Boon tribute?

Words: Seamus Swords

Highest earning novelists revealed

with 3 comments

J.K. Rowling (PA)

J.K. Rowling (PA)

American high society rag Forbes has released what it deems to be the top 10 highest paid authors today.

Released last month there are few surprises as to who tops the list. J.K. Rowling took the number one slot earning an estimated $300 million with her closest rival, detective novelist, James Patterson (Along came a Spider) earning only $50 million.

Writing mainstays Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel make up the rest of the top five, proving their books are as popular than ever (and as predictable and dusty to – Ed). Could this be down to the fact they are half price every Christmas in the WH Smiths sale?

Will Rowling rake in the same amount next year now her Harry Potter series has come to a close? One thing is certain, she has set a president for high earnings in the literary world.

Here is the top 10:

  1. JK Rowling, $300m
  2. James Patterson – $50m
  3. Stephen King – $45m
  4. Tom Clancy – $35m
  5. Danielle Steel – $30m
  6. John Grisham – $25m (tie)
  7. Dean Koontz – $25m (tie)
  8. Ken Follett – $20m
  9. Janet Evanovich – $17m
  10. Nicholas Sparks – $16m

For all you Harry Potter fans out there, and we know there must be some, we have pinched and pasted all five parts from the amazing documentary about the author by James Runcie below. The filmmaker spent a year following the author as she penned the final installment in the Potter series. Enjoy:

Discussion:
So does JK Rowling justify earning so much from her work? Is Harry Potter really all that good or is it simply media generated hype assisted by the Hollywood machine?

Words: Seamus Swords