The point

What is the storyI recently came across a useful post on concept revision on the Alliance for Independent Author’s website.

Written by chartered psychologist and writer, Rosalind Minett, it talks about what concept revision is and why you should do it.

She begins by saying:

Concept revision is what I call the process of thinking over recent writing, especially any sense of weakness or inadequacy. This also involves the ‘why am I writing this anyway’ thought, the stage where the story may be worked out or well on its way but the theme hasn’t really become evident.

And this resonates with me. The rest of the article puts forwards useful tips on how to think through this process. The article’s appearance comes at just the right time for me, as the editing of the first draft of my fourth novel, Zeitgeist, has forced me to get back down to the business of thinking about why I write. What’s the point? It’s something I’ve been avoiding for a while, well, for a couple of years or so whilst I usefully distracted myself setting up a business in gelateria coffee bars. Just before that I ran myself into the ground doing a 5 hour commute and tackling a job that was too senior and stressful for me. Probably a lot of this was to avoid thinking about writing.

But I’m back now!

Conversations with my other half

So having got to the end of the first draft of a fourth title, I ended up having the inevitable difficult conversation with my other half about why I write. His advice was unexpected, characteristically harsh but very useful. The conversation went something like this:

Him, ‘As with all things we want to achieve in life, often they go wrong because we fail to set out our objectives. Why do you want to write? What do you want to achieve through it? What’s your motivation?’

Me (after a long pause of several minutes), ‘I’m not sure at the moment. At first I just wanted to prove to myself that I could write a novel. I wasn’t interested in the money, nor in any kind of recognition. I just wanted to get to the end of a novel. But after I’d written my first novel with NaNoWriMo, I realised this wasn’t enough. So I went on a Faber Academy course and wrote my second novel afterwards. At this stage everything was still very experimental. I liked my second novel very much but lots of people said it was too cross-genre to do well – this has been borne out. But I didn’t care about that. I’d wanted to experiment with my writing, particularly with the themes I had in my mind at the time: those of reality, both physical reality in the scientific sense and the philosophical reality of the mind. And I’d wanted to tackle some issues I had with religious cults and the idea of the immense power people can sometimes wield when they tap into this.’

Him, ‘So you achieved that. These books aren’t Fifty Shades of Grey, are they, they’re niche. So if you want to write niche, be happy that you’ve done that and move on, and don’t moan about lack of exposure.’

Me, ‘Okay. But that was the first three books. I learnt a lot through writing and marketing them, but the fourth book is different. I didn’t write it to explore a theme, I wrote it as a pure story, a “coming of age” tale.’

Him, ‘So what? What’s so interesting about your coming of age tale, what’s the big deal?’

Me,’It’s a big deal because the events of the story – a couple of student protaganists who becomes embroiled the East German Stasi just before the fall of the Wall in 1989 – lead to the coming of age, the realisation of adulthood and what’s important therein.’

Him, ‘How?’

Me (exasperated), ‘Because the protags change as the story progresses and this change leads to their ultimate fate.’

Him, ‘So you think this will sell?’

Me, ‘No idea.’

Him, ‘You see, we’re back to objectives again. If you want big sales, then you write about things that sell – sex, violence, crime – otherwise, you are writing for other reasons, and you need to find out what those are. You wrote initially to explore themes, but this time you’re doing something different. However, what you’ve written is still a bit niche. If you’re writing a story for Young Adults, is is exciting enough?’

Me (thinking – maybe, but maybe I need to do some revising to make sure it is.)

What’s the point

So I’m back to concept revision again. For me this is:

  • What’s the story?
  • Why I am writing it?
  • How have I made it interesting – ie what’s the main character arc that keeps people’s interest in the protagonsits
  • So what? (What’s the ‘so what?’ factor)

Probably the most important point is the second one, ‘why am I writing it’, because this is the one that unlocks the other four and helps me write something that others might want to read.

Storytelling

Be part of the storyOn a hiking expedition this week I stayed in the most remote hostel in the UK. For those in the know, Blacksail – as this hostel is known – can only be reached on foot via a number of mountain paths. I backpacked into the valley in which it nestles, carrying a large rucksack and a heavy heart. Having set out to show my two teenage boys (17 and 13) what real fell walking was all about, I reached the youth hostel at 6 p.m. on the first night of our stay there, exhausted and demoralised. I wondered to myself, why do teenagers argue so, why are they so happy for their parents to shoulder their (literal, in this case, as I was carrying a rucksack for all three of us) heavy burdens whilst professing to know everything.

‘I’m hungry,’ declared one whilst his brother dismissed him as a ‘moron’.
‘Well, go and see when dinner is available.’

Apparently my miserable tone, if you can call that miserable, would make the eldest want to kill himself if he ever married anyone like me. Great.

Young Adult Audiences

This is my new audience, the one I’m currently writing for, so I bear this suffering with the view that at least I live with young adults and have the privilege of getting into their mindset. Beats whipping yourself on a daily basis, anyway. On the plus side, walking and the forced separation from mobile phones and tablets this induces provoked many interesting conversations with my boys. We discussed Tony Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ which they dismissed as ‘trying too hard’ even though they admitted the writing was pretty damn good (well, suffice to say, I wish I could write like her –maybe one day when I’m old and grey). One things teens don’t like is ‘trying to hard’. It’s up there with preaching and being ‘down with the kids’. However, they were interested in the idea of freedom being in the mind and independent of external factors, which I think is part of Toni Morrison’s message.

It’s just that to get any kind of complex message across to teens requires tight and coherent story telling.
So on that first night in the middle of nowhere I spent some time thinking about how an author connects with people, particular younger ones. What makes a good story or an accomplished storyteller? What hooks a reader in and keeps them interested?

Sometimes I think good storytelling has very little to do with the mastery of the writing (that’s poetry, a different skill altogether, maybe). But then, bad writing gets in the way of storytelling. Tricky.

Writers v Storytellers

For me, I enjoy storytelling when the author gets out of the way and I am eased into their storyworld and into their story with masterful ease. Who does this well? When I ask myself this question, I don’t come back with obvious answers. For me, a great storyteller is Rachel Abbott, author of The Back Road, Nowhere Child and Kill me Again. Or Laline Paul, author of The Bees. Also Dan Brown -sorry folks, but I think this is why he’s so successful – not the most eloquent writer but a fab storyteller. And, of course, JK Rowling, the best storyteller of all. Not surprising she’s so popular with young adults.

I also think that whilst young adults will read complex texts they have low tolerance for convoluted ones – rightly so. There’s an important difference. They see straight through texts that are trying to be clever, just for the sake of it, preferring tighter prose. Again, the better the storytelling, the more respect they have for the author.

As a digital communications manager I worked in several sectors – commerce, government and charity – and in all of them I found that digital storytelling was the most effective way to get any kind of message across. Whether you’re selling tax compliance, the services of sight loss support officers or gelato, the method is the same – tell the audience a story and they will listen. Give them a bulleted list of information and they will switch off. Never is this truer than now, given the amount of conflicting information we consume on a daily basis and in a wide variety of formats. And never is this truer than for Generation X.

So I sat in my bunk pondering all of this. I’ve published three books to date, and my readers’ favourite isn’t my own. My own favourite is the most layered and complex, probably a book which is quite difficult to understand. My readers’ favourite is a more straightforward tale, with an obvious supernatural bent. For a long time I wondered about this.

See if you can guess why.

The Borderliners Trilogy is available on Amazon. Each novel can be read as part of the trilogy or on its own as a standalone story – you decide.

See these eyes so green

See these eyes so green
I can stare for a thousand years
Colder than the moon
It’s been so long
And I’ve been putting out fire
With gasoline

How strange that the last scene of the last film I watched this weekend should have been this one:

So powerful. So much so that my teenage boys sat watching this transfixed, afterwards waxing lyrical about how amazing the track was – not a usual occurance while listening to music I like, I can assure you.

I identify with this scene and with this track on so many levels, it almost defies words. But I’ll try to explain. The inherent taste of revenge being a dish best served cold is what powers this track, but there’s so much more. I’ve always loved green eyes, in themselves a rarity, and put them into the faces of significant characters in my novels. There’s something enigmatic, creative, super-intelligent about them. Show me a stupid green-eyed person – I don’t think I’ve ever met one. The emotion in the track is so delicately balanced, it’s exquisite. The undercurrent of rage that sits just below that icy exterior sends chills down my spine. It’s a masterpiece.

Universe1And the idea of the eye in itself is a recurring motif in much of what resonates for me. Take the most recent ‘photograph’ released by NASA of the known universe.

It looks a bit like a human eye. I know this may be wishful thinking on my part, but wouldn’t that be great? The eyes are the window to the soul? But also to the entire universe.

David Bowie is dead after a long battle with cancer but his legacy lives on. His intense creativity and boundary-breaking work will continue to inspire and encourage the rest of us to be more than we thought we could be, do more, think more, and most importantly of all, create more. His ethos was to go with the creative flow, wherever that happened to take him.

See these eyes so green? Hopefully, they are still around somewhere in the soul of our eternal universe.

Farewell David Bowie.

Age of the cyborg

A guy named Yuval Harai hosted at discussion session at Intelligence Squared yesterday. By the time I got to hear of it, the event was sold out. A disappointment, as this sounds like one interesting guy.

His premise is that we have already begun merging with computers, our reality is already no longer what it was, what it has been for the last 10,000 years.

Read Yuval’s Harai’s recent interview with the Guardian – simply fascinating.

Our future in the hands of the social and digital media giants

For example, this:

‘Only now, the decisions are being taken by “a small international caste of business people, entrepreneurs and engineers”. Governments have become “managers”, he says. They have no vision, “whereas meet the people in Google, in Facebook, they have tremendous visions about the future, about overcoming death, living for ever, merging humans with computers. I do find it worrying that the basis of the future, not only of humankind, the future of life, is now in the hands of a very small group of entrepreneurs.”’

Me too. The likes of Facebook (let’s say), should not have more information about the British public than the Government, but my concern is that they may do – and companies such as these do not have the elected and moral obligation to look after people that governments have. They could do whatever they wanted with their data. And we’re giving it to them by the truckload.

Meditation

This, also, is significant:

“I suddenly had a tool to scientifically observe directly my mind… and I realised I had no idea who I really was. I had this fictional story in my head but the connection between that and my reality was rather tenuous.”

The need to still and control the mind is important, nowadays more than ever. Reality is not an obvious path and it’s easy to get pulled this way and that by emotions. Mindfulness is not something preached by many of the world’s religions, but maybe the Buddhists have it right –  it should be.

Interstellar – a film about death or love?

interstellarThis week a dear uncle of mine died. After his death which came too soon after that of his younger brother less than a year ago, I was reminded yet again of my views on death.

Well, I say my ‘views’. What I really mean is my ‘doubts about’.

For something else happened before either of my uncles died: my mum dreamed of my grandmother. In her dream, Nan (as I called her) was trying to warn her of something. Being a sensible science-biased kind of a person, my mum put it down to her own subconscious telling her that her younger brother was ill. However, she was left with a feeling that this wasn’t all. Shortly after her dream her younger brother was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer. He died but not long after that her older brother also fell ill.

In the long chain of life her brothers had linked hands and decided not to let go.

One night, not long before my second uncle died, I sat down to watch the film, Interstellar. Expecting the usual Hollywood blockbuster, an action-packed roller coaster to take my mind off things for a while, I was surprised by the emotional blow the film dealt.

It took my breath away.

Granted, there’s a lot wrong with it – like a fair amount of the logic ties itself up in paradoxical knots. But I’m happy to grant it the artistic licence it deserves. The ideas therein were sound, the philosophy perfect. Unsure at the beginning, I then got well and truly hooked at the point where Cooper, Amelia and the crew touch down on a planet beyond a wormhole the other side of our galaxy in order to find fellow scientists who had travelled there a decade before. Given that time does strange things on the other side of the hole in space (yeah, a big given, but I bought it), every second they spend on the planet’s surface costs them many earth years. In short, the longer they spend down there, the more their loved ones back on earth age and the less likely they are to see them again.

A setback occurs and they end up on the planet for an hour, something that costs them decades of earth time.

In the meantime their loved ones, and in particular Cooper’s two children, have aged decades and have left them 22 years’ worth of messages on the comms system. As Cooper sits down to view all his messages, he sees that his kids have grown up, that tragedy has befallen his son’s family, that his daughter – now herself a scientist – is bitter, crippled by her belief that her father is not coming back. That he might be dead, his non-response to her messages no comfort to her year in year out.

This is how we feel when our loved ones die, isn’t it?

Where do they go? Into what strange universe beyond our reach? Do they hear us when we call out to them, as the years trickle by? Are they trying to get a message back? What if they are really there, but the space time their consciousness has moved into so removed from us, the messages they send to us are not what we might imagine? Just as Murph’s ‘ghost’ is really Cooper who finds himself in the ‘Tesseract’ fifth dimension after his travel back through the black hole on his way back to earth.

What is death then, after all? What happens when we die? Do we still exist somewhere, even if it is only in people’s minds? Or do we continue to exist, in another dimension, in another time?

The love between Cooper and his daughter and, to a lesser extent, between Amelia and her lover – another scientist lost in space a decade before – is what drives them to keep hunting for something that will help them understand the universe better, that will help them (and the human race) continue to survive, to prevail. Love and death, so intertwined, one unable to exist without the other but both vying for dominance in this great, dark multi-dimensional world.

The film, Interstellar, is about both. Which wins? I don’t know. And I don’t know the answer in real life either.

In another twist of fate my mum chose a poem to read at my uncle’s funeral. Not a fan of Sci Fi, she hadn’t seen Interstellar. However, can you guess which poem she read?

‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’