Category Archives: Writing

Character Hauntology

I’m a character driven sort of writer. I like to plot, I like to plan, I love to build worlds but the thing that gets me to the finish line is the sense of duty I have to my characters.

It feels like that, a literal duty of care. Like every writer, I have a small stack of unfinished novels and the characters in those abandoned wrecks of stories haunt me. They want to be told. They want to have their say the way their lucky brothers and sisters in my finished manuscripts got to have theirs.

Pirandello wrote an entire play about this – Six Characters In Search Of An Author – about the nightmare an author faces when half-a-dozen untold stories come round to visit. Another Italian writer, Italo Calvino, wrote a novel called The Non-Existent Knight about a suit of armour that sustains its non-existent self through pure willpower. My characters, the ones that stick around, aren’t dissimilar. They force themselves into being and pester me. They lurk at the back of my mind prodding me to tell them into being. It’s a kind of channeling but the spirits being summoned aren’t all-powerful gods and spooks; my spirits are ordinary men, women and children who stumble into extraordinary situations. They’re individuals struggling in the morass of whatever invented history I’ve plunged them into. And I can’t help them – they have to fend for themselves.

I always start with a character, a person, set down in a situation. It goes from there. The end is up to them. I just have to keep writing until it feels true. That’s what I’m chasing – something ‘true’. 

The truth is something you have to be told. You can’t, if you follow me, make it up.

Currently, I’m pushing and poking at the beginning of a second novel in a series (optimistic, given that I haven’t sold the first one and have a previous novel to deconstruct into a more coherent trilogy if I ever manage to clone myself). All I know is that someone is on a beach and they’ve made a choice. The choice has consequences which the character will have to muddle through as best he or she can, generating more consequences and more choices…It’ll be complicated but simultaneously very simple. The character will always need to decide – do I want to be this person or that person? And the choices will need to tell the truth or, at any rate a truth. 

And that’s how I write a novel, bar the swearing and coffee.

Romance and bromance and YA fiction

I struggle with romance.

That is to say, I struggle with the idea that YA without romance is coffee without milk. For one thing, coffee without milk is actually a pretty undiluted coffee experience. For another, whilst teenagers seldom get through the next ten minutes without thinking about sex and relationships (not unlike your average ‘middle-aged adult’), they seem to be able to function for weeks on end without plummeting into a crisis featuring either.

That isn’t to say that romance doesn’t spring up in the strangest of environments but can it please be credible romance? Especially in a war zone full of flying live ammunition? There is romance a plenty in a war zone (they aren’t call the Baby Boomer generation for nothing, you know) but it isn’t high school. I mean, was I the only person who felt that elements of the love triangle in the Hunger Games trilogy were a teeny bit flown-in?

There’s actually a technical term for this problem, which YA seems to suffer from more than any other genre – Sex in a Submarine. Let’s say you have a story where five male and two female (or vice versa) teens are trapped on a space satellite high in orbit with the air running out. They have six hours left. The whole focus of your thriller is the frantic rush to cobble together a rescue mission, the tension felt by the waiting families, the mid-plot turn-around as its revealed that one of the crew actually sabotaged the ship etcetera, etcetera…

And then an editor somewhere asks “Where’s the romance? Teenagers live for that frisky stuff. Can’t two of them have an affair or something?”

They’re on a spaceship. A small one. With no air. They are all going to die if they don’t spend every second working on a solution. They have to keep breathing slowly and evenly and not get excited. “Frisky” is out of the question.

That isn’t to say that one can’t approach the issue in a more creative way. The crew have back stories and those back-stories might be fairly intense. Two of them might be twins separated at birth. Another pair might going steady (and one might have to make a life or death decision about the other). Otherwise, you know, spaceship.

Lastly, why aren’t there more proper boy/girl bromances in YA? Because that’s the secret. Mulder and Scully, Cagney and Lacey (sort of), Starbuck and Apollo in the Battlestar Galactica reboot…And the secret to a good bromance is that, no matter what the frisson (and we want frisson), they must never, ever kiss. Especially (see below) if one of them is a skeleton.

Six recent YA (or close as dammit) reads which do and don’t resort to the Submarine Stratagem in one form or another. There may be spoilers. Proceed at your own risk etc.

  1. All You Need Is Kill by Sakurazaka Hiroshi. I’m cheating already. It isn’t strictly speaking YA (too much of that horrid swearing) but with a big Tom Cruise movie based on this imminent and a large manga following, it’ll find itself shelved in the same zone. This is a book where this is nothing but shooting and killing. Lots of killing. There’s a romance if you look hard enough but it’s a wistful, between-the-lines, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of romance that belies the unsubtle nature of the rest of this novel. And observe the male/female bromance factor!
  2. Artemis Fowl vol 1-4. Artemis really has other things on mind – chess, crime, being a super-genius, winning Nobel-prizes as a hobby. Is it a coincidence that the moment Eoin Coifer began (for me)  to feel that he needed to explicitly address adolescence, the series began to lose a little steam And the switch from the marvelous ‘bromance’ between Holly Short and Artemis to icky inter-species snogging? Eww!
  3. The Girl of Fire and Thorn by Rae Carson started out so promisingly! Arranged marriages! Hopeless husbands! Weight issues! Then the heroine goes all Keira Knightley in the dreadful King Arthur (ie skinny, likes pointy things) and the hot boys are suddenly all over her. Sigh.
  4. Red Shift by Alan Garner. I’ve written before about this short, brutal take on love, sex and adolescence (with a side order of mysticism and genocide). I don’t think love, violence and dystopia – even if the dystopia is the caravan park in our heads – have ever been integrated as well as here.
  5. Firebrand (Rebel Angels #1) by Gillian Philip. Now this isn’t perfect (though I thoroughly enjoyed it) but one thing Gillian Philip does very well is evoking the almost constant physical ferment of adolescence without letting it get in the way of the ferocious action at the core of the book. Plenty of bromance but we are, after all, dealing with a book about two brothers.
  6. Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy. I do love me a good Skulduggery novel and Valkerie is a genuinely original heroine. Are there boyfriends, romance? Yes. Do they drive the story convincingly? Yes. Do they occasionally come to satisfyingly, sticky, messy ends? Yes, quite literally. And there’s also another wonderful bromance, between Skullduggery and his sidekick Valkerie.

Book – “Red Shift” by Alan Garner (1973)

Back when I was in secondary school, I tore through Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor. Red Shift, along with its immediate predecessor, The Owl Service, was tougher stuff altogether. His earlier novels were full-blown fantasy of a particularly intense and mythic kind. Back then, they left one feeling that the reality of the world could at any moment be torn away. Nowadays, I’d understand that as a visceral sense of the sacred, the wildness and the connectedness inherent in the world around us and within ourselves, and the power that stories and words have over us. The power that almost anything has to become, and wield power as, a myth.

Red Shift confronts that wildness and connectedness head on, without recourse to fantasy but through the interlocked stories of three couples dominated by the myths of their own times. The first couple, a Roman deserter in early Roman Britain and a tribal ‘corn goddess’ survive through capitulation to the mythic discourse shaping their world. At the time of the civil war, conflicting political myths bring nothing but death to a village in the same part of Cheshire and the couple there are nearly destroyed in the process. In the ‘modern’ Cheshire of the early seventies, two teenagers struggle with discourses of science and class – contributing myths of our own time – and ultimately break up. All of this is held together by a sacred axe passed from age to age and a mysteriously sacred landscape.

As was becoming typical of Garner, all this is communicated through intense, elliptical dialog and starkly visionary evocations of time and place (and the reality is that he’s always thought this way). It’s hard to believe Red Shift was written for a teenage audience and it suggests that YA fiction hasn’t exactly progressed in the last few years in comparison. Mind you, most fiction suffers in comparison with Garner.

Some things about Red Shift sting a lot more today than they did then. The smothering nature of modern-day Tom’s family  is both poignant and horrifying and uncomfortably reminiscent of my own awkward relationships with my father and mother. The incessant jargon and in-jokes and the atrocities committed by the gang of deserting Roman squaddies (survivors of the lost Ninth legion?) are a little too obviously paralleled on American actions in Vietnam but the violence is economically and brutally evoked.

It’s not an easy read but those of you who remembered Garner from your childhoods and felt bemused by Boneland‘s challenging ‘completion’ of the Brisingamen trilogy may find it a bridging work that helps you make a little more sense of his most recent novel (which I loved, by the way).

Writing Wednesday for the last week in February

Oh my poor, neglected blog!

Lazy link stuff, mostly on writing

Writing Scenes: Cooking at the Right Temperature by Lorin Oberweger (a useful nudge as I trudge through scene after scene asking myself “What exactly is it I’m trying to accomplish here? And are there any more words I could use to describe ‘snow’?”)

The Tyranny of the Word Count by Sally Zigmond (Because word counts tyrannize me.)

Utopian for Beginners: An amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented (A long piece from the New Yorker via @lillithsaintcrow. The very definition of life imitating Borges)

The Nature of Fun: David Foster Wallace on Why Writers Write (The statutory link culled from Brain Pickings)

*Must Try Harder*

Foreshadowing that whispers and foreshadowing that goes “Thump!”

Foreshadowing is that most fundamental of narrative tricks, the suggestion or weaving together of future action or outcomes with a character’s ‘present’ situation. The Publetariat provides five snarky but all too accurate examples, including:

There should be a useless looking object that your character gets stuck with. It should be so seemingly irrelevant that it can only be exceptionally relevant. Later, it saves your protagonist’s life

It’s particularly on my mind at the moment because of both the revision of the WIP I’m prevaricating about and the novel I’m currently reading – Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch.

I’ve written before about Sutcliff’s marvellous Eagle of the Ninth where foreshadowing is used in an allusive, poetic way. The hero, a Roman centurion called Marcus, forms a close across-cultural-barriers bond with a local chieftain with whom he is later to come into conflict. Further on in the book (notice how carefully I’m trying to dance around possible spoilers here?) Marcus forms a not dissimilar bond with another  Briton. The parallels in the two relationships and the many contrasts and ironies they suggest are never explicitly pointed out. Instead, Sutcliff simply lets the story unfold and the resonances accumulate beautifully and poetically for themselves. The result is a yet another thematic layer added to an already richly layered story.

With The Silver Branch, things are a little different. I’m only fifty four pages in (and I’m enjoying it) but the occasional foreshadowing doesn’t so much whisper in the ear of the reader as yell “Ahoy! Seriously plot point alert! PAY ATEN-SHUN, READER!” while waving a placard. For example, The Eagle of the Ninth centres around a quest to recover a lost Eagle, a standard belonging to a legion that marched north and was never seen again. Twenty or so pages into The Silver Branch, we learn that an ancestor of the two main characters was rumoured to have had some sort of a quest to do with an Eagle. “I’m not sure,” a character says, “but I’ve always wondered if it could have something to do with the lost Ninth.” Now I suspect that the Eagle is going to turn up in a very satisfying way but the hint lands in the text like a brick.

Of course, this highlights another problem – how to weave information from a first book into a sequel, especially if the lives of the characters are completely discontinuous. Without getting too sidetracked into what is another question entirely, I note that foreshadowing in sequels seems to all too easily tip into information dumping, a little bit of which seems to have happened here.

A separately clunky bit of foreshadowing is a scene, very early on, when the main villain of the piece crushes a moth in a really brutal way. The scene in itself is perfectly well-written but it’s just too much – we’ve already had half-a-dozen hints in the same scene that this individual is a nasty piece of work. Again, the foreshadowing commentator with a megaphone is at the reader’s ear: “This man is a killer and he will crush someone like a moth!”.

Now I don’t want to put you off what is shaping up to be a worthy (if occasionally flawed) sequel to something of a minor masterpiece and I’ll review The Silver Branch in full at a later date. But this foreshadowing stuff. Tricky.  As Lynette Labelle notes, you want the reader to understand that the clues to the killer or thief or trickster or whatever were there all along, if only they’d noticed them. Diana Wynne Jones does this particularly well in Archer’s Goon.

What’s the best and worse bit of foreshadowing anyone’s come across? Currently, I’d personally go with the use of the gun in 1Q84 (I reviewed it here). But you’ll have to read it to see what I mean.