Friday, 23 May 2014

Me, Myself and I

One of the things about becoming a writer that doesn’t agree with everyone is the isolation. If you look at various writing blogs (and indeed any sort of creative freelance role, from illustration to graphic design) you’ll notice this as a common theme. It can be a lonely business. My friends sometimes rib me that I spend too much time in coffee shops, tapping away at the laptop like some kind of hipster blogger, supping mochaccinos all day. It’s not quite true of course. the reason I go to coffee shops at all these days is so I can see another human being; recharge the batteries; change the scenery.

But this post isn’t about coping with loneliness. I generally do okay with that to be honest, and my significant other gets home each evening from a ‘proper job’, so it’s not like I’m the last man on the international space station or anything. No – this blog is about the benefits of extended periods of isolation. It’s something that has only recently hit me, as it’s started to help me figure out a few things about characterisation in my work. Sounds like a leap? Read on.

Write What You Know
It’s an old cliché isn’t it? Write what you know. It’s a very limiting mantra if taken literally, but I tend not to take anything literally, which is why I do what I do. ‘Write what you know’ doesn’t mean you have to write a kitchen-sink drama set on an estate in 1980s Stoke-on-Trent (that’s a personal example, I’m sure yours will be different) – it means you can take the relationships that you had, or observed, and the feelings that you felt, and transplant them to outer space, a fantasy world, Victorian England (my favourite), or wherever/whenever.

But the point where the old cliché really helps is with characters. And this is where I start to make an actual point – isolation has helped me to understand myself, and understanding myself has helped me to write better characters.

I’ve always reacted to the world with gut feeling, rather than intellectualised, rationalised viewpoints. That’s often left me grappling for the right words to express my views on politics, religion, society, art, education – whatever. But lately I’ve been giving these things and more some serious thought, drilling down to my core beliefs and really analysing what makes me tick. This allows me to do three very important things in fiction (and in life, to an extent):

1. I can be absolutely sure that not all of my characters are me by extension. They can all contain facets of my personality, share some of my beliefs, if I want them to. But characters need to portray myriad viewpoints, and be complex individuals butting up against ideological conflict. Otherwise, I may as well write essays rather than stories – inform rather than entertain.
2. I can observe people with a writer’s eye. It sounds pretentious, but really it’s just me paying attention to my interactions with other humans, and their interactions with each other. People come from all walks of life, and believe all sorts of things – when you meet someone whose views conflict with your own, how do you react? How do they make you feel? Only by absolutely understanding myself do I gain a point of reference by which to measure others.
3. I can write situations to create conflict. By understanding my personality type (and there are lots of esoteric tests you can do if you want to get really technical), I know what situations cause me stress, or pleasure, or intellectual stimulation, or tiredness, etc. And I can rationalise how those situations would affect different types of people. This means I can put my characters in situations that elicit a particular response from them (usually stressful ones in my work, if I’m honest).

I read an article yesterday about world-building in sci-fi and fantasy. You can find it here. The bit that struck me the most was point 4 – that a common mistake in sci-fi is that every denizen of every world thinks, believes and acts the same. It’s almost as though the aliens that live on Rigel VI would never go down the pub and argue about UKIP’s political agenda – they just all vote the same way. But humans, of course, are as diverse as they come.

Another thing all this introspective navel-gazing has taught me is that it’s actually dangerous to be an author with controversial beliefs and put those beliefs into your fiction. L Ron Hubbard, for example, ended up seeding his religious ideology into his sci-fi novels (some people call that sort of thing ‘subversive’, you know. Watch out for that). I read some old Richard Laymon stories recently, and because the treatment of his female characters is pretty much universal across his books (and hard to read), it starts to raise questions about the man’s beliefs – ‘Is he accidentally expressing his core beliefs about women, or is he doing it deliberately to make a point?’ As soon as you start asking that question, suspension of disbelief is broken, and you start to wonder about the author’s agenda. Art and ideology should be considered separately to an extent – I reserve the right to write a Catholic character despite not being terribly religious, or even a well-rounded racist character, without being labelled a racist myself (though if he goes on to become a hero without learning his lesson, the work may well be labelled 'problematic', and rightly so). Then again, some writers come from the opposite angle, and make it really difficult to justify buying their books, however hard they try to hide their agenda. I digress. Let's keep it light...

Hopefully, amid that waffling and sidetracking, there’s some useful musings, based entirely off my own experience over the last 12 months. A lot of this stuff boils down to empathy – understand yourself, and empathise with others. That way, simply through day-to-day interactions, you’ll end up with an infinite bank of characters and character types that you can draw on when writing your characters.

Of course, that means you actually have to get out of the house. Ah, the writer’s curse.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Get to the Point!

A short(ish) post today, taking my own advice about getting to the point…

A few nights ago my dear lady wife and I sat down to watch the BBC’s new adaptation of Jamaica Inn. I’ll confess, despite it being right up my street I haven’t read the book, so I came to the series cold. The trailer looked great, though!

Now, I’ll set aside all criticisms of the show that have been covered elsewhere. You can’t type ‘Jamaica Inn’ into Google without finding some mention of the mumbling, poor-quality sound and historical inaccuracies present in the show. I forgave it, for the most part anyhow.

The show featured lots of walking around in 
thick mud whilst wearing long skirts.
Which kind of counts as conflict, I suppose.
What I couldn’t forgive quite so easily was the seemingly aimless meandering of that first episode. Half an hour in and I had no idea what the story was meant to be about. What was the conflict that ultimately would have to be resolved? What was there to the story, other than the fact that our heroine, Mary, has fallen on hard times and has had to relocate to Jamaica Inn? By the end of the episode, I kind of worked out where it was going and why, but the opening 30 minutes just sort of drifted by, which is a bit odd for a TV drama. No questions were asked, beyond ‘how will Mary cope with life at Jamaica Inn?’ Is that enough to sustain three hours of screen drama?

The point of this blog, then (ironically coming halfway through), is about getting to the point. This TV show made me evaluate my own writing. It made me think about how important it is to set up conflict nice and early. While spelling out the overarching narrative isn’t recommended (it robs the text of real immersiveness if everything is there on a plate), it’s really important to establish plot and character as quickly as possible, and give the reader some genuine questions to answer, and reasons to carry on to the next chapter. In the TV show, I simply needed some cue to tell me ‘this is about Mary’s struggle to rise above criminality’, or ‘this is about Mary trying to stay true to herself through really hard times’; maybe just 'this is another Regency love story about Mary falling in love with a wrong 'un'. Or even ‘this is about pirates and smugglers, being all piratey and smuggly’. Sadly, none of the above points were very forthcoming; although it was all very broody and moody, which is something I suppose.

I intend to give the book a read now, just to see if it’s more gripping than the TV drama. Maybe it’s a sign of the times – those Regency heroines used to just drift between balls and dashing beaus, after all, whereas these days the reader requires pace, action and quicker gratification.