Tag Archives: writing techniques

Clunk, click – every trip?

Shhh! What was that noise?

 

I’m humming along on the laptop, metaphorical wind in my hair, hitting a nice steady cruising speed and then there was that noise. I’m not sure but I think it might just have been the sound of my plot gears grinding.

That sound is the one I call ‘The Clunk’. Yes, you know what I mean. It’s that bit when you’re reading a book and you’re brought up short or feel a little invisible wince as, for a second, you hear the book ‘machinery’ going into overdrive.

Look, what an unexpected twist! A startling moment of revelation! What a cliff-hanger!

Clunk, clunk, clunk.

It’s hard for storytellers to entirely avoid the clunk. By definition there have to be some plot devices or elements that drive the story forward, simply to get the intrepid hero/heroine from A to B, creating a sense of peril or surprise before the resolution.

Thankfully, readers have different tolerance levels for clunk. For example, I think Dan Browns novels, The Da Vinci Code particularly, clunk along like my mum’s old Nissan Micra trying to get past 55 in the middle lane but that hasn’t harmed his sales.

Clank, clank, clank.

Even literary masters aren’t immune to engine problems. Look at Thomas Hardy’s novels, especially Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the The Mayor of Casterbridge. They have more clunk than Stephenson’s Rocket (or should that be clank). I have to resist the urge to stick my hands over my ears every time a crucial letter gets accidentally shoved under a doormat and lies unread for ten chapters, a person reappears from someone’s past at a very inconvenient moment or a sailor/soldier rises from the grave. This doesn’t mean the writing is bad or it stops you enjoying the book, you just decide to take it on faith as part and parcel of the ride.

Fingers in ears!

But it’s a dilemma for writers. Plots and characters should act in a way that seems psychologically convincing, shouldn’t they?

During the filming of the classic film The Birds, actress Tippi Hedren famously asked Alfred Hitchcock why the heroine decided to venture into the dark, dusty, cottage attic in the middle of a bird-related siege.

‘Because I need her to,’ Hitch replied. Basically because he knew chucking seagulls at Ms Hedren in a dark room would make a great scene. He ignored the clunk.

This is why storyteller extraordinaire, Stephen King, in his manual ‘On Writing’ says he abhors ‘plot’. He likes to let the characters lead him as he goes along, that way their actions always make internal sense. Doesn’t always work, mind you. Just think of the ending of IT or The Stand!

Rattle and Hum.

So, I‘m at the laptop, writing and re-reading and listening hard for the clunk as I drive along. I think I’ve got the noise down to a quiet little rattle now and maybe that’s the best a writer can hope for. After all, real life isn’t a series of convenient beginnings, middles, exciting bits and ultimate ruin or catharsis. Imposing structure on a story is clunk in itself, and very necessary, otherwise you’d just be writing text books, not novels.

A little clunk will get your book through its reader MOT – how much depends on their hearing and how much they’re enjoying the scenery!

 

Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Mark Billingham’s Rush of Blood – an absorbing and layered thriller about three couples, one Florida Holiday, one dead girl and many red herrings.

‘Listen up’ moment – what was that about a kayak??

 

Sabine Durant’s Under Your Skin.

A twisty thriller with some enjoyable media satire in which TV personality Gaby Mortimer discovers a dead body only to find she becomes a suspect.

‘Listen up’ moment – You touched her bra and you just remembered that now?

 

Tana French’s Broken Harbour.

Atmospheric thriller set in post economic depression Ireland where a young family have been brutally murdered in their home on a ghost estate.

‘Listen up’ moment – Holes in the walls? Mink on the loose? Are you sure?

 

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. A deliciously dark, multi-narrative, domestic nightmare surrounding a missing wife.

‘Listen up’ moment – do you really want to make friends with the sort of people who hang around cheap motels??

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The Little Writer That Could…?

Are you sitting comfortably? Well, I’m going to start anyway. I’ve got things to do.

One week ago, in a land not so far from you, a girl called ‘me’ was given a surprise present by her mum– a copy of children’s book The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. Released in 1930 by Platt and Monk (Penguin) this was a book that had been read to her in her own childhood by my grandmother.

It’s likely that you’re familiar with the story. I only had a vague recollection of it, though I was delighted by the present with its 30s style illustrations (mum knows I love all things from the 1930s, especially book-related). But the reason my mum had bought this book for me was its message.

Again, perhaps you already know what it is as I’ve since found out that The Little Engine is something of an institution, certainly in America. There have been animated versions. It has its own website.

http://us.penguingroup.com/static/pages/yr/minisites/ithinkicanithinkican/index.html

There’s even a song sung by Burl Ives!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEhyiNVVaeU

 

Stop fidgeting, pay attention, the story continues….

The tale involves a train that must be pulled over a mountain. The train (in most versions) contains toys and presents for children and is populated by speaking toys and animals. Large engines, elegant engines and frankly, snot-nosed snobby engines, are asked to pull the train; for various reasons they refuse being too busy, too tired, and just too damn uppity. Then a little blue engine agrees to try. The plucky little engine succeeds in pulling the train up and over the steep mountain while repeating its motto: ‘I-think-I-can, I think I can, I think I can.’

 

What did Watty mean, big boys and girls?

Of course it’s a great old fashioned morality tale about the power of believing in yourself – basically of the triumph of optimism over defeatism – it’s about try, try and trying again. We want our children to take these messages to heart, to believe they can do anything they dream they can – that their only limitations are in their own mind. So why had my mum given me this book? Because, as adults we turn away from such simple optimism. She was trying to reinforce the message she gave me as a child, ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.’

 

Look out – here’s a bad and grumpy lady!

Why now? Because she knows I’m trying to finish my third novel and she knows how long it took me to write the first two, then to get them into print. And she knows that sometimes I feel like a tired old engine chugging up a whopping hill. How does she know? Because mums know these things, of course (and also, probably, I moan about it a lot more than I realise.)

This writing lark’s hard sometimes. You have to force yourself to sit down and write knowing  no one else can finish it and make it good in the hope that one day you’ll have scratched the itch you had to tell that story and then that someone will read it and enjoy it ( and maybe even buy it!) There are days when you think ‘Who will ever want to read this drivel’ (especially if you read certain reviews!)

Yes it’s easy to approve of heart-warming stories like The Little Engine but harder to take the message on board after the age of eight!  Do as I say, not as I do, right?! And if at first you don’t succeed, go drink some Merlot!

 

Wait! The heart-warming bit’s coming next!

A few days later, feeling defeated, I took a break from writing and popped into a gift shop in Llantrisant town. Browsing around I spotted a nice enamel bangle.  Imagine my surprise when I picked it up ad read the words inscribed around the outside – ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.’

I’m not particularly superstitious but I thought – hang on, is someone trying to tell me something? Like that scene in the movie Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey thinks life has got it in for him. He cries out for God to send him a sign as he’s driving in his car – then a highway truck with a big flashing message veers in front of him bearing the words,‘Go back. Danger ahead,’ but he’s so busy whinging he ignores it. Now I’m not saying God was speaking to me in a shop in Llantrisant….but I bought the bangle. And when I next find myself predisposed to whinging I’ll try to say, ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.’

 

So the moral of this tale is?

Well, you work it out, you’re a grown-up and I aint no Watty Piper, but probably it’s, ‘Stop whining and write something.’ And, ‘Maybe mum really does know best, even when you’re in your thirties!’

 

And I lived happily ever after? (Yeah, if I ever finish this bloody book….I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…) 

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The film of the book of the song?

The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar!

Or so Paul Simon started singing the other day when I was in the middle of the hoovering.

Isn’t this one of the best song openers ever? As soon as you hear the intro to Gracelands and that lyric kicks in you’re transported somewhere else. At that dust-busting moment I was pinged back to the summer of my GCSEs – waiting for my results in my mum and dad’s back garden, listening to my Walkman (yeah, remember them?)

Singing along and boogie-hoovering in time to the music I realised that Gracelands is one of those songs that is not just a song (about going to see Elvis) it’s a narrative – a novel in miniature, if you like –set to music. There’s a brilliant opening line, a hinted at dysfunctional family, a woman leaving her man and a road trip with hopes of redemption. That’s just the first verse!

Listen again if you don’t believe me, but I bet you do cos if you’re a writer or a reader you know the power of words (and music) and a few well-placed phrases to work their evocative magic and create a world we can touch, taste and feel! It made me think of how certain music has influenced my writing, particularly the feel and tone of my first novel Telling Stories.  The tale is told by Lizzy, the heroine, in the present day but it flashes back to her student life at Cardiff University. There’s a definite haze of nostalgia (but it’s clear this is the beginning of something far more sinister.)

Lizzy’s Uni life is defined by the music of the Brit Pop 90s, the Blur and Oasis showdown, the weirdness of the Cool Cymru fad with The Stereophonics in the top ten and  Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews belting out, ‘Every day, when I wake up. I thank the Lord I’m Welsh!’ (How we laughed!) It permeates Telling Stories but the soundtrack I was writing to was something far more melancholy. American band Counting Crows, who’ve never been very big in the UK, were an integral part of my student experience and the writing of the novel. Their albums are the soundtrack that seeped into Telling Stories giving it a dark quality – it’s there in the longing, the regret and the disappointment.

Some songs are cinematic in the images and feelings they create. Crows songs have this quality because they’re fierce, regretful, resentful and often very sad, even when the guitars are wailing. My ‘beloved other’ calls it suicide music. As soon as I put it on he pulls faces and makes exaggerated sawing motions at his wrist.

He’s right of course – some of the best writing comes from being abandoned and filled with rage. No one ever wrote a heartfelt novel about being in love with a really nice bloke did they? Songs like Gracelands make us wiggle while hoovering but it’s often the other songs that make us sit down and write. Songs about the bad things people feel, feel guilty for feeling, try to pretend they don’t feel, or wish they didn’t feel.

So if you’re looking for emotional inspiration, don’t be afraid to crank up the stereo and get ready to write!  Here’s my mood-music suggestions for instant character empathy!

Counting Crows-fest

Suspect your hero’s girlfriend is a cold-hearted bitch?  – Miami from Hard Candy will give you instant pages of rage, regret and running away fodder.

Gotta get out of this town baby?  – Round Here from August and Everything After provides paragraphs of haunting, small-town teenage inaction angst.

Channelling old-fashioned tender loving? Colourblind from This Desert Life will make you want to undress someone, real slow..! Worth at least a chapter!

 

Best of the rest

Trying to channel an intense, destructive romance that won’t end well?

The National – any of the songs on the High Violet album, especially Runaway and Blood Buzz Ohio ( no one really knows what the latter is about but just feel that spiralling anger and impotence!) Multipurpose elegiac brooding for sensitive yet manly heroes! Swoon!

 

Trying to write about dirty-old-man thoughts? Your character feels old and unloved?

PulpThis is Hardcore from the album of same name – heavy breathing and used hankies abound! Instant sleaze!

TV Movie –lashings of wistful loneliness in less time than it takes to microwave that meal for one…sob!

 

Need background inspiration for an edgy, urban love story?

Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid album (even the title’s poetic).

Try Grounds for Divorce for passion, poetry and thrown pints.

Or Mirrorball for ‘it’s not so grim oop north’ moments of bedroom bliss

 

Setting the tone for a coming-of-age summer road-trip?

Paul Simon – Boy in the Bubble, from Gracelands – strange and sinister, top-down, blowing through the bayou footstomper for that ‘this can’t last’ end-of-summer feeling.

 

Go on – get downloading now! Hankies at the ready!

Share your mood music with me on Twitter or leave a comment here.

 

*Okay I know I hinted last time I was going to ramble about dystopian fiction this week but sometimes you gotta go with the flow (or the beat). I’ll get round to it – it’s not as if the world’s ending…

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