Sunday, 31 October 2010

The deep breath, the holding of the nose, and the run up...

Pinch and punch, first of the month!

Okay, so I'm early. But tomorrow is the first day of November. For some it is the sign of Bonfire parties hoving into view, for others it is the last month to wait through before the one which contains Christmas. For me, it is the start of NaNoWriMo, the event which asks its participants to attempt to write a whole novel in a single month.

The novel need only be 50,000 - the same length as classics such as 1984 and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - and so all that is required is 1667 words a day. Every day. For a month.


It's quite a tall order, but as I look at it from the day before, it seems doable. What makes it even easier is that I already know what I'm writing and have had a number of long car journeys to mull over character biographies and the like.

In a previous post, I offered a selection of ideas that I might be trying. I asked for your votes. From the lack of response, I could tell that, far from being apathetic, you were quietly willing me to pick idea number 2, but were too polite to foist your wishes on me. But, who am I to ignore your silent demands. Number 2 it is.

(I'm not going to go back over the idea, check back and see what it was, then come back. I'll wait...
Okay? Up to speed? Good. I'll carry on.)

I'm glad you all picked this one. It is going to be a sea-change from my last idea, as this one is all action and adventure without the stress and suicides. The first idea, which looked like the front-runner for a while till you all wordlessly spoke, is much in the same vein. And because of this it looks like I might just be allowed to have fun! If I'm going to spend the dark November nights locking horns with this beast of a project, I think a little fun should be allowed, don't you?

I shall endeavour to blog about the experience as I go through it, though I might occasionally have to sacrifice the analysis for the actual writing. But stay tuned, and feel free to chivvy me if you think I'm falling behind. Even if you do it silently, I'll know.

And if you don't, and I fail to complete the project, it'll all be your fault, won't it?

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Structural Analysis for Cylons

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a boy, later a man, who could watch TV and read books simply to enjoy the story. Part of him is still inside me and he likes a good tale, whether it's told by Charles Dickens, Terry Pratchett or Joss Wheedon. But, as a writer, and as an academic who, let's face it, spends a lot of his time deconstructing texts, there is now always a part of me casting a critical eye over whatever I read or watch, whether it is Northanger Abbey, The Wasp Factory or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

My current favourite waste of time is the third season of the new version of Battlestar Galactica. Much has been written about how this series is a critique of the events of 9/11 and the war in Iran and Afghanistan, and all of that has passed through my mind as I've watched it. But, above and beyond all that, it is a well-told story which works. The realisation of that is the point at which my inner critic starts to pick that story apart to try and find out why it works.

Some of the things it does - and I'm talking about the third season here - are particular to serial drama. At the end of the second series everything has changed and all the things we think we know are overturned. As a result, the season starts by showing us the intractable problems of all this change and then slowly, piece by piece, it returns us to the status quo. This is typical of this kind of drama. Normality - even if this is the whole of humanity on the run in a small number of spaceships from an overwhelming and evil force of Cylons - needs to be maintained for the story to continue. Back in the 80s, the story-writing guidelines for Star Trek: The Next Generation were publicly available and they made this clear. No-one could be killed, ships could not be destroyed, things that were known to be could not be otherwise unless, that is, they were returned somehow at the end of the story. There must be continuity.

But, within this larger arc of continuation, there are the ups and downs which make this highly acclaimed series so engaging and addictive and each episode features the things we would expect from any great show, box-office success, or award-winning novel.

First, there is conflict. Any writing teacher will tell you that drama and plot emerge from conflict. Those who are together will split. Those who are apart will find a way back together. Friends will become enemies, traitors will be revealed as trusted allies, the weak will find a way to be strong.

In the course of any single episode there will be a set-up in which questions are posed. Some of these are based in the past; in previous conflicts. Some propose possibilities for the future. As the story carries on, these questions will be unpicked as the missing details are revealed. At about the 2/3 point there will be a major conflict which seems, in some way, to be the premature end of the story, but instead merely leads to the confrontation which forms the real end of the story. These are often, but not always, the result of two seperate sub-plots which in some way mirror each other - either directly or in opposition.

And so, as the episode closes, the story has moved on to a new place, with new questions to be unravelled in a future episode and old questions settled. The status quo is maintained, all the main characters are alive, the things that are needed to move the whole story forward are still there, but allegiances have shifted and the plot, as a whole, has moved on.

I'm not saying that we should all write books, or dramas, based on spaceships fleeing the destruction of the human race, and in search of the mythical 'Earth'. I'm also not saying that this structure is one which underpins all good drama or literature, and nor should it be. But I am saying that there is something in these TV series which can be analysed and understood on the basic levels of good-story-telling and may give us insights into the dynamics that in the end make a story engaging for the viewer or reader.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Novels, Novels, everywhere...

The combination of low summer sun, recasting the smears on my windscreen as opaque tigerstripes, and Radio 4's Book Programme whispering in my ears seems to be my recipe for inspiration. So, another long journey yesterday: another novel idea.

My mind is working on novels at the moment as National Novel Writing Month approaches. NaNoWriMo, as it's known, asks you to write a brand new 50,000 word novel, from scratch, in the 30 days of November. Only one week of actually planning is allowed, but that doesn't preclude thinking about it and casting about for ideas.

The idea behind this was originally to get non-writers to take part and see what they could do, so why am I, I hear you ask, taking part in this? Well, as you might already have worked out, I need a deadline. And, being a budding novellist, the only deadline you have is a self-imposed one. We all know how stretchy they can be. So, by taking the challenge of NaNoWriMo - and by telling everyone that I'm taking the challenge! - I hope to force myself into producing at least a workable first draft of a new work before the 1st December.

So, as the month approaches, and I start to think about what I'm taking on, my mind, as I say, has been throwing novel ideas out at an alarming rate. I now have three completely different ideas to chose from and I find myself in a quandary. So, I shall turn myself over to you, and let you make the decision.

What follows are short indications of the three ideas I've had. Let me know, by commenting, by email, by text, by call, by pigeon, or by letter held in a cleft stick by a small boy, which one you want me to write, and I will:

1. A novel about the lives of a depressed man and a troubled teenage girl.

2. An action-type story in which the protagonist is caught in the backwash of a much larger story.

3. The walls of reality and imagination break down and only a man with no imagination can help.

So... that's it. Let me know what you think, and then keep watching as I slowly disintegrate over the month .

For more on NaNoWriMo go to

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain

I'm poorly.

One week back to teaching and the mingled bugs of a thousand students have wormed their ways past my defences to give me a good old-fashioned cold. The red eyes, the streaming nose, the tissues and cough-sweet wrappers scattering from my pockets. It's not pretty.

But elsewhere, something has happened. On their way to attack mucous membranes and alveoli, the bugs seem to have unlocked doors in my head.

Two night ago, tired of sneezing and coughing, I turned the light out and lay down, in search of an early night. But instead of passing into a lemsip-induced coma as I wished, I found myself plotting parts of a new novel. This is the book that I intend to write for NaNoWriMo in November (more on this at a later date) and already I found small ideas and scenes coming together in my head. Unlike other late-night mental writings, I found these were still present in my mind the following morning, and I'm starting to look forward even more to my novelling month so I can get them down on paper.

And then, last night, with the cold at it's peak, and feeling as rough as I can remember in a while, once again my mind delved into my 'pending' file and started work on an idea that I've been toying with for a few years.

A couple of years ago, my friend Mike and I started to write a collaborative project set around the idea of multiple characters in a hotel. The result would be published on the web as a hypertext which allowed for navigation between characters and also a progression through time. It was a nice idea, and we wrote a few room's-worth of stories before it ground to a halt. Partly this was due to other things getting in the way, partly it was due to my not being able to work out how to structure the thing to make it work. Well, last night I found my brain pondering the problem again, and this morning I was able to sit down and write out the structure of the hotel and a series of rules for how it would work.

My next plan is to set the thing up and then invite other writers to come and take rooms in the hotel, to create a vast, online, collaborative story, using the power of hypertext to create a web of narrative. Not bad for a fever dream, eh?

So, today I'm feeling a little better, and part of me is slightly disappointed. Tonight I may well have a good night's sleep. What a loss that will be.