Friday, January 25, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

Full Time
Tony Cascarino/Paul Kimmage, 2001

For the first time, "Why Should I Read..." looks at biography--or is it autobiography? The question "whose book is this?" is central in this case. Full Time tells the story of Tony Cascarino, a professional footballer of star (but not superstar) status. Cascarino has since moved into a second incarnation as journalist and pundit. In neither of these latter careers does he appear a reflective or articulate man; yet Full Time is one of the most introspective and precise insights into the life of a professional sportsman. A paradox? No, because at this point enter Kimmage, Cascarino's ghost writer.

Paul Kimmage was also a professional sportsman--a journeyman cyclist good enough to finish the Tour de France--who became notorious for his first book A Rough Ride, a bleak account of his journey into disillusionment with the sport he loved. Kimmage clearly is both reflective and articulate, and his skill as a ghostwriter is not just to capture Cascarino's thoughts, but to prompt the kind of introspection necessary to make a wonderful book about an ordinary career.

Cascarino does not emerge as a particularly likeable character: his serial infidelities, gambling and occasional loutishness are not an appealing combination. Here again, Kimmage is to be commended, firstly for avoiding becoming too close to his subject, and secondly for extracting such honesty. If, in the end, the reader ends up with a grudging admiration for Cascarino, it's because of this honesty: he does not try to avoid responsibility for his misbehaviour, and he admits with almost masochistic relish his failings as a human being. It's hard to avoid the feeling that there's something expiatory in his frankness.

This makes the book sound like therapy, which it isn't. For anyone interested in football--or indeed 'elite' performers in any field--there are fascinating insights. One of the most absorbing facets is the self-doubt which dogged Cascarino throughout his career. Those of us who are writers will know all about the nagging critical voices which can so undermine confidence. For a footballer, particularly a forward, where instant and accurate responses are essential, these negative thoughts can be career-destroying. At least writers have these crises in private, and can solve them at their own pace.

Full Time is a magnificent achievement, a sporting biography which casts aside the usual platitudes and vacuousness to explore the psychology of the professional footballer. More of the credit is due to Kimmage than Cascarino, I suspect; it's an unusually concrete expression of 'what a writer does'. Cascarino provided the raw material, the conversation which formed the basis of the text: but it was Kimmage who organised the material, arranged the revelations for maximum effect, drew out insights and linkages, and imposed the pattern and order to make 'art' out of what otherwise would have been saloon-bar reminiscences.

Even if you don't like football--that's 'soccer', American readers!--Full Time is a perceptive character study, a powerful exercise in viewpoint, and an illustration of how the writer can interpret and enhance experience.

How has it influenced me?
It's unlikely I will ever write a sports biography (although I am open to offers). Full Time, situated at the confluence between biography, autobiography, reportage and fiction, represents for me the touchstone for how they should be written. If we see Cascarino as Kimmage's fictional construct, a flawed hero, then he inhabits the same kind of anti-hero space as Beauceron, the protagonist of The Dog of the North (although I like to imagine Beauceron has a bit more composure in front of goal).

Lessons for the aspiring writer
  • ghost-writing can be an honourable occupation
  • an unlikeable person can still be a sympathetic protagonist
  • the writer can be found in his interpretation of the events on the page, not the events themselves

Monday, January 21, 2008

How To Write... Sex Scenes

The first in an occasional series considering various technical aspects of our literary craft

My headline for today has, I suspect, lured you here under false pretences. I've only ever written one sex scene, and that of a very indirect sort. It's not a branch of literature, in general, that I admire. This arises not from prudishness but from a perception that such scenes very rarely add anything--beyond risibility--to the reader's immersion in the fictional world.

The first question the writer needs to ask is "do I really need a sex scene at all?" The writer is creating a construct, an imaginary world, by choosing which details to set in front of the reader, and which to omit, or imply. Introducing a sex scene is therefore a conscious choice by the writer. There are many ways of conveying to the reader that characters are in a sexual relationship; there's no need to depict the act unless it adds something to the reader's experience.

A sex scene can be justified, it seems to me, for one or all of the following reasons:
  • the relationship depicted is the central point of the novel
  • the scene is revelatory of one or both (or more--orgies are within the scope of the discussion) of the participants' characters
  • it provides an emotional counterpoint to events immediately before or after the scene
  • it provides comic relief
Let's assume that you've decided that your story does need a sex scene. Your next choice is the kind of language you are going to use. Do you prefer euphemisms and oblique metaphors? Does the sea pound against the shore? Is your heroine carried along on a surging tide? (This approach frequently deploys nautical imagery). This method will at least avoid offending your grandmother, but if you want sidle up to your sex scene in such a peripheral manner, why have it at all?

At the other end of the scale, do you prefer anatomical precision? There is a comparatively limited gamut of what can be put where, and in what sequence, but at least this tactic avoids coyness.

Analysts of the sex scene will be interested in how the author chooses to refer to what Jack Vance called "the frontal member". From this one choice, the tone of the rest of the scene will follow. The choices are (with variants, of course):

He, Him
As in "she felt him inside her, a pulsing warmth etc etc etc". Under this approach man and member are one, indistinguishable and indivisible. The point of the scene may be to demonstrate precisely that fact about the protagonist's character, but more usually it's a default setting for the writer who's keen to display sex on the page without the indelicacy of listing the anatomy involved.

Medical terminology is occasionally used to avoid the oblique obscurity above. Unless the writer is trying to convey a clinical and emotionless coupling this is unlikely to be successful.

Slang terms--there are of course others--are often used to convey an earthy immediacy, and can deliver anatomical precision with emotional intensity. The main danger here is that the language is so alien to the voice of the rest of the story as to jar.

There is an annual 'Bad Sex Award' "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it". In this latter aim it appears not to have succeeded--indeed there is a perverse kudos to winning it--but it does illustrate that a bad sex scene stands out with priapic prominence from its surroundings in the way that, say, a bad fight scene would not. Your sex scene may be fully justified in its context, but if you can't write a good one, you are still setting yourself up for an embarrassing failure.

In creating the illusion of a fully realised fictional world in the reader's mind, the writer is making a series of choices about the scenes to present. Your reader will fill in any gaps you choose to leave. When considering a sex scene, more than anywhere else, you should ask yourself whether you can do a better job than your reader's imagination before reaching for the literary Viagra.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling, 2007

I had long resisted reading Harry Potter. That wasn't because they were children's books, but because they were so hyped. I am naturally resistant to reading anything which is forced down my throat, and often disappointed by books which are touted as spectaculars.
Harry Potter was therefore an acquaintance I was not keen to make. Set against this, though, was the fact that the books were fantasies which had picked up a mainstream audience, and so of professional interest to me.

In the end, I'm glad I held off reading them as long as I did, because in the end I was able to read them one after another, without having to wait a year between each book. Reading them in this way reinforced the consistency of Rowling's vision, and for a month I lived in her world. I've chosen the last book in the series as "Why Should I Read...?" not because it's the best of them (although it's close), but because to get that far, you'd have to have read the other six - so it's seven for the price of one.

The criticisms of the books are well-known, and in most cases misconceived. The later books are supposedly "too long". While Rowling tends to the verbose at times--and the proliferation of adverbs can irritate--they are tightly plotted, both within and between individual novels. The writer she most reminds me of is Dickens: in her ability to create comic grotesques, in the fierce morality of her voice and her mastery of the long, complex plot, the comparison is not inapposite. Modern readers, queuing for days outside the bookshops in the way nineteenth century readers thronged the dockside for the latest Dickens instalment, clearly agree.

Unlike George R.R. Martin, Rowling can keep control of her material over the long haul, but like Martin she has a propensity for killing off sympathetic characters. It's this steeliness of vision--her recognition that characters are subordinate to the overarching structure--which pushes her work into the enduring category. When you read the later books, in particular, you have a real sense of peril which most thriller writers can't match. Characters you care about can and will die. And these are children's books! Here again, Rowling is to be commended: she doesn't sanitise her message for a juvenile audience, and a series which starts off with the cosiness of Enid Blyton ends with bloodshed on an epic scale. The way in which the books treat death, not as a plot feature, but as the thematic core of the series, is more mature than most books written for an adult readership. And those readers, sadly most in the US, who denounce the books as apologetics for paganism and witchcraft have missed the point by the largest margin possible. The Harry Potter series is profoundly moral, and in a mainstream Christian way--and, incidentally, retailed with much more humour than those more overt Christian propagandists CS Lewis and Tolkien.

Rowling's series is destined to be regarded as one of the greats of fantasy literature: at once profoundly serious and richly comic, propelled by a spectacular imaginative fertility, these are books which will be read, re-read and loved for generations to come.

How has it influenced me?

I first picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone less than two months ago: it hasn't yet had a chance to influence my writing. But if you see me kill off your favourite character in a future book, you know where I got the idea...

Lessons for the aspiring writer?

  • Write what you want to write--if it's good enough, the market will come to you
  • The reader will forgive you killing off favourite characters if there's a good reason for it
  • Humour and tragedy can, handled skilfully, enhance rather than contradict each other
  • You probably don't need that adverb...

Monday, January 14, 2008

On the Big Screen

The Kite Runner, 2007

dir: Marc Forster

Last month we looked at the latest film adaptation of I Am Legend, and judged it a qualified success given the long shadow of the book. Yesterday I went to see The Kite Runner, Marc Forster’s treatment of Khalid Hosseini’s bestselling novel. Unlike I Am Legend, I had not read The Kite Runner, and was able to watch it with a mind uncontaminated by the source text.

The film has garnered mixed reviews, but the bad ones can only be from critics who are difficult to please: for me, it was the best film of the year. A haunting coming of age tale, a story of long-delayed redemption, a respectful picture of a middle-eastern culture, The Kite Runner is at once timeless and yet evocative of a particular time and place. A major Hollywood film with more than half the dialogue subtitled would deserve points for bravery even if it had nothing else to commend it, but The Kite Runner has many more points of excellence.

The plot is simple, which need not be a bad thing: two boys from different social backgrounds, Amir and Hassan, grow up as friends in pre-Soviet invasion Kabul; Amir’s cowardice leads to disaster for Hassan, and they grow apart; their lives take different paths and it is only a quarter of a century later that a reconciliation, albeit of an indirect sort, occurs. The relationship between the two boys is captured with marvellous subtlety: their estrangement occurs not because of Hassan’s resentment, for he feels none, but from Amir’s guilt at his behaviour: guilt which leads him to frame Hassan for the theft of a watch. Hassan admits to the crime he has not committed out of loyalty to his friend. It’s a heartbreaking scene.

The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly the two boys and Homayoun Ershadi, who gives a compelling, nuanced portrayal of Amir’s prickly, proud and ultimately noble father. The ending, which I won’t give away, brought sniffles to my cinema companion (who is normally quite hardboiled about these things), as the soaring kites underscore Amir’s redemption.

There are some obvious parallels with Atonement, another recent film of an acclaimed novel: both concern the effect of childhood actions on adult life, and both dramatise the redemptive power of story-telling. Atonement has garnered the critical plaudits, but for me The Kite Runner is a much more satisfying film. Where Atonement is, for this viewer at least, static and emotionally uninvolving (with the plot hinging on a flashy and obvious piece of misdirection), The Kite Runner trusts the characters and plot to generate its emotional power.

* * *

Matt Curran wrote a typically interesting piece over on the MNW blog about the pros and cons of film adaptations from the writer’s perspective. One of the big plusses he mentioned was that, if the film is halfway decent, it will bring more readers to the book. The Kite Runner is a case in point: probably a book I would not have got round to reading, it’s now in the post on its way from And if I like it, he has another book out too. Now as for Atonement

I can never sit and watch trailers in the cinema these days without imagining how my stories would translate to the big screen. There’s a hell of fantasy epic to be pulled out of The Dog of the North (nudge to Macmillan’s rights department) even if it has a piece of plot misdirection of the sort I derided in Atonement.

In any event, I think my self-published novel Dragonchaser has the most cinematic potential. It has a relatively simple plot, a small number of main characters, and most of all it has galley races—and how marvellously they could be rendered on screen! A thought for another day…

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

"Learning to Be Me"
Greg Egan, 1990

The Australian science-fiction writer Greg Egan has been a prolific contributor to the scene since the late 1980s at both short story and novel length. His great gifts as a writer--brilliant conceits, concision, scientific depth and philosophical complexity--are better suited to the shorter form, and while his novels are good, I've always found them slightly unengaging. But as a short-story writer, he has few equals in the sf genre.

"Learning to Be Me" is just about the best of his short stories, a corrosively powerful examination of the nature of identity and consciousness with bears comparison with Kafka, and an opening line of Austenesque brilliance:
I was six years old when my parents told me that there was a small, dark jewel inside my skull, learning to me be.
The 'jewel' in question is a kind of miniature hard-drive onto which every thought, sensation and emotion of the host is engraved. This can then be implanted into a new body, providing a quasi-immortality to the host. Once the technology has become established, it becomes the fashion for people in their twenties voluntarily to 'die' and move their jewel to a new host body to avoid the dangers of accident. "Learning to Be Me" is the story of a man who tries to identify his sense of self with the jewel and not his body to overcome his fear of physical death. The story's resolution, which I won't give away, is chilling, and not one to make us desire this kind of immortality.

Egan's story is an effective fictional exploration of the idea of self, told as so often in his fiction, through a dysfunctional relationship. Few writers pack so much into so short a space, and in his best work he combines speculative originality with emotional power.

How has it influenced me?

Egan is about as far from me in the speculative fiction universe as it's possible to be. He excels in short, pithy work at the hard-science end of the spectrum. While I've long been an admirer of his writing, it's something I could never do, and have never tried to. But he serves as enduring reminder of just how good science fiction can be--and why most of those who sneer at it are arguing from a position of ignorance.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Short stories are not cut-down novels; they are a wholly different forms with different requirements and effects

The short story can be a powerful means of exploring philosophical questions (and by extension, novels are not)

In the short form of fiction, uniquely, strong characterisation is not essential

Monday, January 07, 2008

Getting on with it...

I have not yet got back into blogging in 2008. Partly this is the natural indolence which always afflicts the New Year, but--on a more positive slant--it also reflects the time I'm putting in to my new writing project. I've been working on plot, on character sketches and the location of my new story. And I woke up this morning with a great idea for a twist which overturns part of the standard "boy meets girl" plot element. I don't know whether it works yet, but potentially it gives me a narrative reversal of the sort which underpins much good fiction (and much bad fiction too..).

There's an interesting post over at the MNW Group Blog this morning in which David Isaak talks about selecting a title. I find it hard to work on a story without a title, or shortlist of titles, but David's one of those who can work in the void of a project called "Untitled". My new story doesn't have a firm title yet, but there are several in my mind. Getting the right title is important: it's the first part of creating an expectation in the reader's mind about the kind of story I am going to tell.

The title at the top of my list at the moment is A Prize So Dear. It works on nearly every level -- "dear" has more than one meaning, each appropriate to the story I am telling; there is more than one "prize" the title could refer to; and as well as being lifted from a Shakespeare sonnet, it's also relevant to a poem in the story. So far, the perfect title for this story. The only downside: it sounds more like a trashy romance than a fantasy. Is it creating the right kind of expectation in the reader's mind? While there is a romantic strand which is central to the plot, the book will be in no sense a romance.

So what are the other title possibilities? In second place is The Last Free City. This one has the merit of being easy to remember, and of capturing exactly what the story is about. On the downside, it's not very interesting. The language is too simple, the impression too static.

My third and final option is one I greatly like: The Dimonetto Road. In its own way, it's perfect. Readers of The Dog of the North will know what a dimonetto is, although not how it relates to roads--a combination of familiarity and mystery which is ideal. It sits trippingly on the tongue too. So what's wrong with it? The problem is that its connection to the story is too tenuous. There is a "Dimonetto Road", but it exists almost outside of the story, and its impact, although profound, is indirect. If the story develops as I've outlined it (by no means a certainty) then the Dimonetto Road is becalmed in the margins.

No doubt the problem will resolve itself, and will certainly become more clear once I start writing. For now, I simply offer it as an illustration of the kind of artistic choices a writer has to face.

And while ::Acquired Taste is not in any way a democracy, if you love or loathe any of the titles, why not let me know? If you were browsing the bookshop for a fantasy novel, which of those titles on the spine would you take down from the shelf?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

A Game of Thrones
George R. R . Martin, 1996

A Game of Thrones is the first novel in a sequence which is perhaps the most ambitious ever attempted in fantasy. When complete, A Song of Ice and Fire will run to seven immense novels, a feat of sustained story-telling which makes The Lord of the Rings look like a preliminary sketch. The first novel in the series introduces Westeros, a continent riven by civil war and broadly equivalent to medieval Europe. This is not surprising: Martin is a student of medieval history and has cited the Wars of the Roses as an inspiration. The plot arc is one of competing houses vying for the throne of Westeros, with a huge cast of characters buffeted by events outside of their control.

Other than the immense scale on which Martin's imagination operates, two other features are worthy of note. The first is the extremely risky multiple-point of view narrative strategy he adopts. Each novel has between eight and a dozen third-person narrators. Each chapter within the novel uses a single one of these viewpoint characters and the effect can be dizzying. Martin risks reducing identification with the characters--and hence immersion in his fictional world--by chopping and changing so frequently; but the approach does allow him to keep several major plot arcs going simultaneously. By the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, Martin seems in danger of losing control of the material: some storylines have been abandoned altogether (to be picked up again in the yet to be published A Dance with Dragons). It's just about impossible to keep so many balls in the air at once, and Martin has decided to set some down in a dignified way rather than have the whole lot collapse around him. It's a sensible and pragmatic decision.

The other main characteristic of Martin's narrative is his willingness to kill off sympathetic characters. With so many viewpoint characters on stage, he can destroy some major ones without losing momentum or narrative coherence. The result is electrifying, and the reader really does get a sense of the brutality and arbitrariness of life in a war-torn pre-industrial world. It's a technique that's almost impossible to use in a more conventionally structured work: if you have a single protagonist, you might kill him off at the end, but you can't do it halfway through. The result is that Martin can not only imperil his characters, he can follow through on the threat. It's another high-risk approach and it's magnificently successful.

How has it influenced me?

A Song of Ice and Fire has been a huge influence on The Dog of the North, in more ways than I realised at the time. The Macmillan cover of my book, with a flaming city at the top and a sheet of ice at the bottom, draws out one very obvious (but unintentional) parallel. And Martin's interest in medieval warfare and political intrigue is also at the centre of my own fiction. Martin's world is bigger, rougher and more brutal than mine (although he greatly admires Jack Vance, not a lot of that admiration seeps through into his writing), but we both draw on some similar motifs and inspirations.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Your story is as long as it needs to be

Effective fantasy works not because of the 'fantastic' trappings, but through the richness and depth of the characters

History provides a marvellous touchstone and sourcebook for the fantasy writer - it's what you do with historical material once you've got it that makes it fantasy

When writing a long story, there is a delicate balance between sustaining interest by using more viewpoint characters, and losing focus by having too many of them