Creative Discipline

Creative Discipline

If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.

– Anne Tyler

I am constantly confronted with this dilemma. I work full time, because, you know, bills don’t pay themselves. Usually, by the time I get home of an evening, the last thing I want to do is start writing. Even though I am a night owl, and evenings are usually my most productive times, after a full day in the office, I find it difficult to motivate myself. It is so much easier to curl up in front of the TV and binge watch Game of Thrones while the world passes by around me.

Unfortunately, that sort of thinking leads to a downward spiral that carries you further and further from that creative spark that can be elusive even at the best of times. Yes, I am talking from experience. No, I do not have a quick fix solution. I don’t think there is one.

This is where Anne Tyler’s words of wisdom come into play, and why I find them so encouraging. Because, from what she says, it seems I am not alone in this.

1495027653825Here’s the thing: Writing is a very lonely pursuit. Ultimately, it boils down to you, your pen (or laptop) and your own train of thought. Yes, you can bounce ideas off other people and ask them to look over what you have written. But no-one can make you sit down to write but you. And there is no-one, but NO-ONE, better at psyching you out than Yourself.

I remember when I first started writing my novel (the one I started about 10 years ago, and am still fighting out the first draft!) I would look over what I had written and read through my notes, and I hated every single word of it. I got to the point that I was so negative about it that I closed my notebooks and didn’t write anything for about five years! I would go back to it every so often, peak under the cover of the notebook to see if it was still there and then run away again. Each time, I looked at it, the worse I felt about my abilities as a writer. I didn’t like it, so why would anyone else?

Then one day, my mum persuaded me to let her read what I had so far and…

She loved it!

Now, sure, you may be thinking, “She’s your mum, of course she loved it,” but I can tell you my mum is a very discerning reader. If she hadn’t liked it, I would have known about it. At length. With notes.

Anyway, the fact that someone outside of my own head was getting excited about what I had written and where the story was going, was enough for me to pick it up again and keep going.

If I can pass on one piece of advice from this: Don’t let yourself get so far into your own head that you lose your story. If you can no longer see the merits of your own work, give it to someone else. Let them find it again for you.

When I was at University (studying Creative Writing with English Literature), I found I was fairly prolific in my writing. Most of what I was working on then was course oriented, and with that came deadlines and the knowledge that missing these deadlines meant no grade and no graduation.

Once I had my degree, these deadlines disappeared overnight and there was suddenly nothing to write towards. It became very easy for me to fall into the trap of “I don’t want to write, therefore I won’t,” (especially given my own dislike towards what I was writing).

sept-29-national-lotteryAt that time, as well, I was very much of the school of thought that writing was a beautiful, spontaneous act that was best undertaken when the Great Hand of Inspiration was shining brightly in the sky and pointing directly at you. I think I had seen one too many National Lottery adverts at that point and had conveniently forgotten the ever important slogan:

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But, don’t you just love days like that? When the words just flow and the story unfolds before you as easily as breathing? I wish every writing experience was like that.

But back in the real world, this is simply not the case. Writing is not some organic outpouring of creativity. Writing is a process. It starts with an idea and more often than not ends with tears, or blood. Or both. And just like any other creative form, it is as much about discipline as it is art.

And therein lies the problem.

I want you to try a little experiment. Find a creative person among your acquaintances. Ask them about their work. If you can coax out them more than one or two words on the subject, ask them what they think of discipline when it comes to their work. Then come back here and tell me what they said. Their responses are likely to form an interesting spectrum, but will more than likely fall somewhere in the following:

  1. “Discipline? What do you mean discipline?”
  2. “Of course I’m disciplined. It wouldn’t work otherwise!”
  3. They may burst into tears (prepare yourself).

Discipline is the hardest thing to learn when it comes to creativity. Creative people in general don’t want to be disciplined. They want to be spontaneous, and unpredictable, and somewhat mysterious. They want to believe that every artist/writer/musician/whoever they admire came into the world with their talent fully formed. They don’t want to think about, for example, the hours of practice Yo-Yo Ma has to put in every day to play Bach’s Cello Suites with the grace and ease he shows in public.

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When I graduated, I thought writing would come to me as easily as reading someone else’s work. What I didn’t see – what few people ever get to see – is the hours of planning that goes into writing a novel. Not to mention the weeks it takes to bash out a single draft, or the tedious months of editing and re-drafting that come after that.

This is the discipline I found myself having to develop after graduation. My University course taught me how to work towards deadlines set by Lecturers. It did not teach me how to set those deadlines for myself. And it certainly didn’t teach me to stick to them once they were made.

It is a lesson I am still learning.

What I have found in recent years is that setting smaller goals helps a lot. It is no use saying, “My New Year’s Resolution is to write a novel by August!” (yes, I’ve used that one before), if you’re then not going to set yourself a target of a chapter per week, for example.

Writers need discipline in three key areas:

  • Self-esteem
  • Self-management
  • Self-motivation

As I said before, other people can only get you so far. They can help with the above to get you started, but it is up to you to maintain your momentum long term. So how do you go about this?

Self-Esteem

Get out of your own head every once in a while! Let someone else remind you that your work is worth writing; and then (and I can’t stress this enough) consciously choose to believe it. Especially if it is someone you trust staying it, trust their judgement and run with it.

Self-Management

The importance of forward planning cannot be overstated here. Set time aside each day, each week (whatever works for you) that is solely for writing and nothing but writing. Bear in mind that this should include time for more planning or reading or research (anything that helps keep your ideas alive).

Self-Motivation

Keep going! Trust me, Life will throw EVERYTHING it has at you. In 2016, a week before I was due to immerse myself in NaNoWriMo, my kitchen ceiling nearly fell in thanks to a leak from the flat above mine. In the space of an evening, I was completely knocked off kilter and it took me months to get back on track (which is still ongoing).

The important thing, when Life gets in the way, is to find a way back no matter how long it takes.

I can guarantee that every single writer you currently look up to will have struggled with all three of these issues at one time or another (maybe even all at once).

If, like me, you have the writing bug and are serious about developing your skills, then an element of discipline needs to be included in your writing regime. It may be as simple as setting aside time to write, or setting yourself word count goals. It may be that you need a fresh pair of eyes to help give you a new perspective on your work. Whatever it is that helps you find your writing rhythm, do it!

And then keep doing it.

Even if you don’t feel like it.

 


This article was originally published as a Guest Post on Confessions of a Bookworm by Sarah Tanner.

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I Left My Social Life In 1997

01-1997

In March this year, the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer reunited for a round of photoshoots and interviews to mark the 20th Anniversary of the show first gracing our TV screens. If you haven’t seen any of the clips from this happy reunion (where have you been?!), head on over to YouTube to look them up. Apart from the slightly sickening fact that none of the cast appears to have aged AT ALL in the intervening years, there is something really lovely about seeing them all back together in one place, talking about their time on the show.

02-BTVSBuffy really was ground-breaking in a number of different areas. The term “ground-breaking” may be somewhat overused these days, but in Buffy’s case, it really does hold up. For instance, the way that the series was structured, interweaving standalone stories with an ongoing seasonal arch leading up to a confrontation with the “Big Bad” at each season’s finale, may seem like a no-brainer these days, was not always so. Buffy may not have been the first series to go for this structure, but it is certainly one of the most memorable and influential and, due to the show’s popularity, it is a structure that has been more widely adopted since. Incidentally, writer/producer Russell T Davies, who headed up the re-launch of Doctor Who in 2005, cites Buffy has being partly responsible for the new Doctor Who series using a similar format.

Possibly more particular to Buffy was its season 6 musical episode Once More With Feeling. It was a complete departure from anything that the show had ever done, and yet at the same time it managed to feel like a natural phenomenon. Of course the residents of Sunnydale will spontaneously burst into song (and subsequently into flames, some of them). They live on a Hellmouth after all. Since this episode aired in 2001, it seems that other shows have had the courage to do the same. Again, a few shows had attempted musical episodes before Once More With Feeling, but there has been a definite increase since with shows such as Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, Fringe, and Sanctuary all seeing their characters stretch (but not strain) their vocal chords in recent years.

On top of the technical leaps and bounds made, Buffy was also incredibly powerful in terms of the themes it explored. At its centre was a group of teenagers navigating their way through High School (and beyond into adulthood) while also battling the Vampires, Demons, and whatever else the forces of evil decided to throw at them. It doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to notice the metaphorical implications between the social and personal issues faced by teenagers and the supernatural elements that Buffy employed to explore them.

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As you may have gathered, I was (and still am) a massive fan! It is one of my all-time favourite TV shows. Xander/Nicholas Brendon was my first celebrity crush, followed sharply (no pun intended) by Spike/James Marsters. I know every song from Once More With Feeling. I have lost count of the number of times the show has made me cry.

It is a show that, in my house, warrants a re-watch at least every other year (if not more) and I find myself at times, not only quoting the lines, but channelling the characters without consciously meaning to do so.

Happy Anniversary, Buffy!

May your influence continue to be felt for many years to come.

But for all the hype that has been around Buffy for the last couple of months, something else occurred to me.

There was another TV show that also started in 1997 and that had a similar (if not greater) impact on my teenage self. Any guesses what that show could be?

04-SG1

Stargate SG-1 hit TV screens in July 1997 (just four months after Buffy) and between the two of them, I was so completely hooked. There really was no hope for my social life (bear in mind this was before the days of “Geek Chic”, and the internet had not yet brought fandoms together in the manner you would find today).

I, for one, am hoping that there will be as much hype in July for Stargate’s 20th Anniversary as there has been for Buffy’s. But as far as I can tell, SG-1 is not as widely acclaimed as Buffy, in that it remained a cult favourite, rather than breaking into mainstream popularity in the way that Buffy did. If I am wrong on that count, please do let me know. In the meantime, here’s my own bit of hype for SG-1’s 20th year.

Stargate SG-1 premiered on 27th July 1997 with its pilot episode Children of the Gods. It re-introduced audiences to the 22-foot-high, ancient, metal ring that, through the creation of a sub-space wormhole, transports people instantaneously to other planets across the galaxy.

The pilot episode picked up where the 1994 movie left off, with Dr Daniel Jackson living with the people of Abydos, and Colonel Jack O’Neill (two L’s this time, and that is important) moving on with his life. Both are called back into action when Earth’s seemingly dormant Stargate springs into life and a US Air Force Officer is taken captive by a new enemy, Apophis.

O’Neill and Jackson are then teamed up with Captain Samantha Carter, a brilliant and beautiful Astrophysicist and Air Force pilot in her own right, and Teal’c, an alien (Jaffa) formerly in the service of Apophis who defects to Earth in the hopes of freeing his people from the tyrannical rule of the Goa’uld.

Together, they are Earth’s first line of defence against the Goa’uld threat as they journey through the Stargate, exploring new worlds and discovering new cultures each week.

I mean, really, what’s not to love right there?!

SG-1 ran for ten full seasons (214 episodes in total), launched two spin-off series, and concluded with two TV movies. The show still inspires a following of loyal and fervent fans, many of whom are actively campaigning for a re-boot in some shape or form.

As with many Sci-Fi shows, the possibilities open for exploration were practically limitless; and in the seventeen collective seasons (ten for SG-1, five for Atlantis, and two for Universe) the writers were able to etch out an entire mythology for the franchise that encompassed existing Earth mythology (namely Egyptian, Norse, and, in the later seasons, Arthurian legend) whilst also adding its own myths and species into the mix. At the centre of SG-1 (and the subsequent spin-offs) was a constant debate between the respective virtues of Scientific exploration and the Military needs of Earth to defend itself against an alien incursion.

In the first few episodes alone, this dual mission is addressed and taken on board as Stargate Command’s Standing Orders, Stargate’s equivalent of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. In contrast to Star Trek, however, Stargate did not operate with the philosophical restraint of not interfering with the natural development of other cultures and societies. SG-1 and the other SG teams were more than happy to interfere when needed (or not), whether that was offering medical or technological advancements, or even military troops and weapons. Having said this, Daniel Jackson did serve as the show’s moral compass and frequently went toe-to-toe with O’Neill and other military characters if it looked like they were about to go too far.

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On top of all of that, Stargate, as a Sci-Fi series, managed to utilise just about every trick and trope in the book to explore the overriding theme; that is: “What does it mean to be human?” I have mentioned in a previous post that the Science Fiction genre encompasses a vast array of story types in its discussion of this theme. If you want to make comparison with my previous list, click here to read that particular post.

Of note, Stargate taps into:

  • Alien Invasion
  • Space
  • Genetic Mutation/Manipulation
  • The use of/reliance on Technology
  • Time Travel
  • Alternate Realities
  • Artificial Intelligence

Not to mention Inter-Galactic Politics!

There really was no stone left unturned. And yet, there is still room for more. While SG-1 was allowed to run its course (and then some), and end on its own terms, its spin-off series were not so fortunate. It seemed that Atlantis was gathering momentum when it was cancelled in 2009 after five seasons; and Universe was cut very short in 2011 after just two seasons. Universe may not be a favourite among fans (I for one have not yet seen its second season), but I am sure that if it had been allowed to develop, it could have provided quite a few surprises of its own.

I really could go on for days about Stargate. And no doubt there will be more posts on here about it, but for now, let me just say:

Happy 20th Anniversary, Stargate.

Come back to our screens soon!

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Narrative Voices – Part 1

26 Narrative Voices 1

Choosing a Narrative Voice for your story can be harder than you might think. Sure, you may naturally gravitate towards writing in the third person, but if a story sounds better coming directly from the mouth of its main character, then that’s how it needs to be written. Sometimes, the choice is obvious, but there will be times when you have to experiment, test the waters a little before landing on the one that will tell your story in the best and most powerful way possible.

There are of course a few things you can fall back on to help with the selection process.

First of all, work out what it is you want to convey with your story. If it is centred purely around the actions and experiences of one particular character, telling it from his/her perspective is likely to work very well. In contrast, a sprawling epic with several key characters and interweaving plotlines is better suited to be told from a third-person perspective.

Of course, it’s not just as simple as choosing one or the other and running with it. I’m sure if you google ‘Narrative Voices’ right now, you’ll come up with hundreds of articles and resources listing countless different types of voice that you could play around with. And no two lists will be the same (I know, I’ve looked).

When you get into the details, you can quickly find yourself being deafened by the jumble of voices out there.

So, let’s simplify things a little. There are lots of different factors to consider when choosing your narrative voice, but for now, let’s focus on just three things:

  • Person
  • Tense
  • Knowledge/Character

If you nail down these three factors, the rest should find its place in its own time. As you may imagine, there is a lot to be said about all three of these, so I’m not going to try and cover everything in one post. This week I’ll focus on Person and Tense, leaving Knowledge/Character to next week.

So, let’s get into specifics.

Person

There are three types of Persons you can choose from:

  • 1st Person – I, me, mine
  • 2nd Peron – you, your, yours
  • 3rd Person – him/her, he/she, them, etc

First Person

51p-96Y+0aL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_First-person narration gives you a story told from the perspective of one character. It offers the reader a single avenue into the narrative and can even make the readers feel as if they are themselves the main character (or at least very close to them – close enough to know their inner thoughts). This sort of close bond between the main character and the reader can help to magnify the tension and suspense in any story. Being allied with a single character means that the reader (usually) doesn’t see anything that is outside of that character’s knowledge. If other characters are deceiving or manipulating them, the reader will only find this out at the same time as them.

51Y0CPVcRyLThis, of course, doesn’t necessarily apply if more than one character’s perspective is used to tell a story (as is the case for The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Allegiant by Veronica Roth). Writing from more than one character’s perspective can help to widen the world of your story, but it can also be quite disorienting to the reader if they settle themselves into one character’s voice, only to be taken out of it in the next chapter, particularly if those characters’ voices are similar in tone and syntax.

I’m not saying that having more than one character narrate a story from a first-person stand point doesn’t work, but it is quite tricky to pull off.

Second Person

One of the main things to remember when it comes to any narrative voice is sustainability. If you lock yourself into a particular voice at the start of story, make sure you are confident that it will see you through right to the end. If it doesn’t, readers will notice.

This is exactly why second person is rarely used for fiction, unless you are writing a gaming book where the readers choose their own adventure. What is interesting about it, however, is that it puts the readers directly into the action, as the story is written as if it is happening to them. This may sound like a lot of fun to play with (and it is), but try keeping it going past the first chapter. It’s a lot harder than you might think.

One thing I will say about second person is that it works quite well for stories within stories. If, for example, you have a character who wakes up from a coma and can’t remember how he/she got there, another character could quite credibly recount to them the events that led up to their comatose state, using second person to fill them in.

Third Person

neverwhere-book-coverLastly, there is always third person to fall back on. This is the voice type that I tend to use the most. I find it offers the most flexibility, as it means you don’t have to tie yourself to one particular character. Instead, the narrative becomes a lens through which the reader views the whole story. It allows you to add in scenes that don’t include your main character at all, making it easier to showcase your antagonist every once in a while, or get inside the minds of secondary characters who have their own take on the story’s events.

The main thing to decide with a third-person narrative is the scope of the narration: will it be limited, or will it be omniscient? This is something I will be coming back to next week.

Tense

The English Language has at least a dozen different tenses to choose from. Thankfully for us, they boil down to three essentials: Past, Present and Future. As with second-person narratives, the future tense is not particularly common in fiction (unless your story happens to include an element of prophecy). Writers are more likely to write about events that have happened, or are happening, rather than ones that are yet to come.

As such, the main choice you will have to make here is between Past and Present.

Present Tense

Telling a story in the present tense offers a sense of immediacy. Events are unfolding as the story is being told, which means that the reader knows as much as the characters do about what is to come as it hasn’t happened yet. This works particularly well when coupled with a first-person perspective as the narrative character tells the story as they go.

It is less common with third-person narratives, as the nature of the third-person voice naturally tends towards recounting past events.

Past Tense

The past tense, on the other hand, has a more retrospective feel to it. The reader gets the sense that the story has already happened and is being told after the event. This means that more hints of what is to come can be dropped into the narrative. Foreshadowing future events can be very useful for keeping a reader’s attention, but it can also come across as trite if phrases such as “little did they know…” or “if I had known then what I know now…” are over used.

Past tense can be used with either first- or third-person narratives but are probably most commonly paired with third person.

Mixing it up

If you really wanted to get creative with the narrative structure, there are ways to include both past and present into your story (and even both first and third person as well).

Bad MonkeysBad Monkeys by Matt Ruff, starts with the main character, Jane, in a police interrogation room, using a third-person, present-tense voice. As Jane goes through the events that led to her being in the interrogation room, the narrative switches to first person, past tense. Throughout the book, Ruff periodically takes us back to the interrogation room, switching back to the third person, present tense narrative to gauge the reactions of those in the room with her.

Most important of all when choosing a narrative voice is to keep things fresh. Don’t settle on a particular type just because you are most comfortable using it. Changing your narrative voice to suit the story itself can have a huge impact on how it is appreciated by your readers.

And all this is before we’ve even had a look at the importance of knowledge and character within the narrative voice. But that’s for next week. For now, I will leave you to your own experiments with voice. Feel free to share some of your results in the comments below.

 

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Fandemonium

Fandemonium

Brooklyn 99Just a few days ago, Brooklyn Nine-Nine set a new record for the shortest cancellation of a TV series EVER. After airing five years with Fox, the studio announced on Friday 11th May that the comedy cop show had run its course. Within minutes, the internet exploded with irate fans (including Yours Truly) voicing their displeasure at the cancellation.

And they were heard. Fast. By the end of the day, NBC stepped in and made the announcement that they would be picking up the show for its sixth season; continuing its legacy of diversity and inclusion wrapped in fast-paced comedy banter. This may not be the first fan campaign to save a show, but it’s certainly the shortest.

Fans of the Nine-Nine, we salute you!

Salute

Fan campaigns may seem like a fairly recent phenomenon, but they have been going a lot longer than you might think. Let’s be honest, in a Roman Gladiatorial Arena, crowd appreciation could literally save a man’s life. If that’s not fan power, I don’t know what it!

But with the prominence of Social Media these days, fan campaigns seem to be gaining more attention and inspiring other fan groups to follow suit. And we all know that dedicated fans can come up with some truly creative and inspired methods for getting their opinions noticed.

Here are a few honourable mentions:

Firefly/Serenity

FireflyFirefly is frequently listed as a show that was cancelled too soon. After just 14 episodes, Fox pulled the plug. Given that it had played with the show’s running order and scheduling, this maybe wasn’t as big a shock as it could have been. Nevertheless, the fans were devastated, especially when the DVD release meant they could view the show in the correct order. Thus, the Browncoats were born. Letters were written to the studio, and to Joss Whedon to show their support. They even paid for whole-page ads in magazines. In the end, the show was not renewed, but the fans’ support inspired Whedon to go on his own campaign to find a studio willing to fund and produce a movie to enable him and the fans to say a proper goodbye to the franchise. And so, Serenity flew one last time.

Chuck

chuck-aboutimage-1920x1080-ko.jpgProduct placement is rife in just about any film or TV series you can think of, but no product has ever been more welcome on screen as Subway was in Chuck. After just two seasons, Chuck looked like it was for the cutting room floor when fans (together with the show’s star, Zachary Levi) took it upon themselves to partner with Subway to save the show. Hundreds of fans flocked to Subway stores in the hopes that the bosses would sign a sponsorship deal with the show. And it worked! Chuck went on for three more seasons thanks to the investment from Subway, and their sandwiches featured prominently on screen as a result.

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Star Trek (Original Series)

TOS_headFans have always been passionate about ensuring that the Star Trek franchise lives long and prospers, never more so than when the original series was under the axe in 1968 after just two years on the air. The fans launched a letter-writing campaign that set the benchmark for future campaigns. They even picketed the NBC offices and studios to get their point across. When Star Trek was renewed for a third season, the Executives cited the fans as the reason for giving it the green light. Well done, nerdmigos!

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Veronica Mars

When CW cancelled Veronica Mars in 2007, the studio was inundated by fans sending in over 10,000 Mars bars. This isn’t the first time that fans have sent show-centric items to studios in the hopes of renewing their favourite shows (it was bottles of Tabasco Sauce for Roswell and boxes of tissues for Stargate SG-1). Ultimately, in this instance, the studio was not moved by the gesture. So, fans got together with the goal of raising $2 million to help fund a film. They ended up raising $5.7 million and the Veronica Mars movie came out in 2014 with its original cast intact.

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Of course, for every successful campaign, there are at least five that end in tragedy. Series such as Pushing Daisies, The 4400, and Angel will never see another episode, much to the disappointment of their dedicated fans. But that doesn’t mean that fans should just give up and keep their silence.

With more and more fans connecting through Social Media and showing their solidarity, studios are being forced to take notice. As Melissa Fumero tweeted this week following NBC’s announcement regarding Brooklyn Nine-Nine,

“You [the fans] got loud and you were heard and you saved the show!”

It’s a happy ending that more of our favourite shows deserve and I do hope that more studios follow suit in taking the views of their fans into consideration.

Thank you NBC for saving the Nine-Nine!

Cheers

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Great Opening Lines

Opening Lines

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a strong story, must be in want of an enticing opening line.

This is so universally acknowledged, in fact, that it barely needs repeating anymore. But I’m going to anyway.

The first line of your novel/short story/novella/whatever you are working on is what will make your readers keep reading. If they’re not interested right from the start, then they will stop reading fairly quickly.

If that’s not enough to jolt you to attention, then here’s a statistic from the world of traditional publishing: a publisher will usually decide whether or not your manuscript is worth their time within reading the first three pages. Given that you will have submitted your work to them double line spaced, that means you have roughly 800 words not only to grab their attention but hold it as well.

The more you invest into that first sentence, the better. And the best way to do this is to look at some examples of opening line that have really grabbed you.

So, here are some of my favourites to get the ball rolling.

1: Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

01 Pride and PrejudiceIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a young man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Given that I started this post by paraphrasing this opening line, it would have been rude not to include it in the list. Regardless of whether or not you are a fan of Jane Austen, I’m sure you will be familiar with this line. In the world of opening lines, this one is nothing short of iconic. So much so that it is often parodied (and not just by me).

Who could forget its use in Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 parody, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a zombie in possession of brains, must be in want of more brains.”

So, what is it about Austen’s opening line that is so effective? First of all, it makes a bold assumption. There are not many things that we would count as ‘universally acknowledged’ but Austen tells us that this is one of them. She then invites the reader to agree with it immediately. “Why, yes of course; a young man in possession of a good fortune must indeed be in want of a wife. What else could he possibly need in his life?”

It also introduces one of the book’s major themes, that of marriage and the social pressures that once came with it (and perhaps even still do).

In making such a bold sweeping statement at the beginning, the reader then assumes that Austen will prove her point with the story that is about to be told. And so, they read on.

2: Lorelei’s Secret – Carolyn Pankhurst

02 Lorelei's Secret“Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.”

From the well known to the lesser known, Carolyn Pankhurst’s 2003 novel makes no less of an impact with its opening line. Here, the entire premise that the book hangs on is stated clearly and concisely in 41 words. The book itself follows Paul Iverson as he investigates his wife’s death and tries to work out what the one witness to the event, their dog Lorelei, actually saw. By stating the premise in the opening sentence, the reader is very quickly brought up to speed on the events leading up to the start of the book and it is that much easier to follow through the rest of the narrative.

3: Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

03 1984It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Up until the last word of this sentence, there is nothing particularly eye-catching about it. But how many clocks do you know of that strike thirteen? In the context of what Nineteen Eighty-Four is about, this subtle change at the start of the book is quite in keeping with the idea of revisionist history. By taking something so mundane, and changing it ever so slightly, we are instantly alerted to the fact that this is not the world we are used to, and if we want to learn more about how this society is different from ours, we have to keep reading.

4: I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

04 I Capture The Castle“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

This may be one of my favourite opening lines to a novel ever. The image it conjures up of someone sat scrunched in a kitchen sink with a pen and paper makes me smile no end. It is presented as normal that the most important thing in the world to do if you are forced to sit in a sink is to write about it. Immediately. And of course, it is; I couldn’t agree more.

In a similar way to Orwell’s clock striking thirteen, Dodie Smith manages to throw the reader off balance by twisting the expectation as to where a person ought to be sitting. The difference here is that the break from the norm, rather than simply piquing our curiosity, also makes us laugh at its absurdity.

Humour is a brilliant tool when it comes to breaking the ice in any situation. Writing is no exception.

5: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – C. S. Lewis

05 Dawn TreaderThere was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Again, there is an element of humour in C. S Lewis’ opening to his third instalment of the Chronicles of Narnia (third in terms of publication, not necessarily reading order). But what I have picked this book for is it is an example of a character being introduced quickly into the story. This is particularly effective in this case given that it is part way through a series where several characters are already well established, and we are now meeting someone else for the first time – someone who will be very important to the story.

We are compelled to read on to find out more about this new character, and to find out if he does in fact deserves his name, as Lewis suggests he does.

6: Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landry

06 Skulduggery PleasantGordon Edgley’s sudden death came as a shock to everyone – not least himself.”

In literature, death is a fairly common trigger for events in a story changing suddenly; or, as in this case, starting them in their entirety. It may be that the person who dies has left the main character an inheritance that sets their life on a new an unexpected path. Or they may have been a crucial figure whose death begins a cascade of events that the main character becomes caught up in.

In this instance, Gordon Edgley’s death is a little of both for his niece, Stephanie, the character that a lot of the Skulduggery Pleasant series revolves around (together with Skulduggery himself, of course).

A death right at the start of a book leads the reader to be intrigued as to how this death will colour the rest of the story.

7: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger – Stephen King

07 The GunslingerThe man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

Now, I freely admit, much to by best friend’s annoyance, I have not read the Gunslinger in its entirety, and I have not read any of the other books in The Dark Tower series. But this line stands out to me because of how simple and effective it is.

Whatever you think of Stephen King’s work in terms of subject matter, there is no denying that he is a master of his craft. In the opening line to The Gunslinger, he plunges the reader right into the middle of the action. There is no drawn out “Once upon a time…” here. We immediately have two opposing characters and a whole heap of questions: Who are these men? Why is the man in black running? Why is the gunslinger following? Why are they in a desert? And so on.

Pulling the reader straight into the action of your story is a sure-fire way to keep them reading. This also works well if you open your story with dialogue.

8: I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes

08 I Am PilgrimThere are places I’ll remember all my life – Red Square with a hot wind howling across it, my mother’s bedroom on the wrong side of 8-Mile, the endless gardens of a fancy foster home, a man waiting to kill me in a group of ruins known as the Theatre of Death.”

You don’t necessarily know it from the start, but all of the places listed are very important to the story you are about to read. In listing them like this, Hayes creates a sense of mystery surrounding the narrative character. The four places are so very different – Russia, Detroit, New England, and the ruins known as the Theatre of Death (I won’t spoil where they actually are) – it makes you wonder how they are all connected to one man. Given that the story that unfolds is a detective/spy thriller, the sense of mystery that is created right out of the gate is quite fitting and sets the tone for everything that is to come.

These are just a handful of techniques and tropes that you can employ for your own opening lines. I’m sure that if you were to peruse your own bookcase and list the opening lines that stand out to you, there will be other things that you notice about them as well.

If you are going to undertake this exercise (which I encourage that you do as it is quite enlightening), here are a few questions to keep in mind as you search:

  • How is the mood set with the opening sentence?
  • What does it tell me about the story I am about to read?
  • What specific word or phrase makes me want to keep reading?

If you start to see trends emerging, try applying them to your own work. It may end up proving to be the making of your story.


 

Bibliography

1: Jane Austen (1813), Pride and Prejudice – originally published by Thomas Egerton (1813), re-printed by Penguin Classics, London (2012)

2: Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (2009), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Quirk Books, Philadelphia, PA

3: Carolyn Pankhurst (2003), Lorelei’s Secret – Hodder and Stoughton, A division of Hodder Headline, London

4: George Orwell (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four – originally published by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd (1949), re-printed by Penguin Classics, London (2000)

5: Dodie Smith (1949) I Capture the Castle – originally published by William Heinemann (1949), re-printed by Vintage Digital, London (2011)

6: C. S. Lewis (1952) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – originally published by Geoffrey Bles (1955), re-printed by Harper Collins, London (2008)

7: Derek Landry (2007) Skulduggery Pleasant – Harper Collins, London

8: Stephen King (1982) The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger – Donald M. Grant Publisher Inc, Hampton Falls, NH

9: Terry Hayes (2012), I Am Pilgrim – Bantam Press, An imprint of Transworld Publishers, London

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Overwriters -v- Underwriters

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First of all, let’s just be clear: there should be no negative connotations for being either an Overwriter or an Underwriter. These are not criticisms of style, but rather indications of the starting point of your writing process.

By the end of your process, a reader should not be able to tell if you are an Over- or Underwriter. It is not based on the word count of your finished work and it certainly doesn’t mean that your use of prose is either overdone or under-developed in any way.

It also, in this context, has nothing to do with the signing of legal documentation!

So, what does it mean?

Well, in imitation of Lemony Snicket, an Overwriter here means a person who fills out their first draft with as much detail, and as many words as possible, and spends the majority of their re-drafting process trimming and refining their work. An Underwriter here means the opposite. This person’s first draft will be brief and probably low on descriptions. This person will spend their re-drafting time fleshing out their world and adding to their word count.

If you want to think of it visually, an Overwriter would be like a sculptor working with a block of marble. They will cut away at the excess and chisel in the details until they are left with a masterpiece they are happy with.

An Underwriter, on the other hand, is more like a painter. They start off with broad brush strokes on their canvas that roughly resemble people, or the features of the work they envision; then they start to work in the detail over the broad strokes. As the layers of paint build up, the picture becomes clearer and clearer.

 

Of course, this is a fairly simplistic analogy and definition, as there will always be a time to add and a time to cut during re-drafting.

As I mentioned above, there should not be any stigma accompanying these two different approaches. They are simply two different mindsets that writers can adopt. In my experience, it is not something that you will necessarily have control over. I highly doubt you will wake up one morning and consciously decide to be one or the other. You will more likely find that as you go, you fall quite naturally into the pattern of either an Overwriter or an Underwriter.

There may even be a third option that hasn’t been thought of yet.

By now, you’re probably asking yourself: why is it even important to know if you’re an Overwriter or Underwriter?

Honestly, in the broad scheme of things, it probably isn’t. It won’t change how you write, and it won’t magically add to your word count or make you suddenly more frugal with your adjectives.

But what it will do is help you understand your own process a little better. And anything that does that can only be a good thing.

There’s also the fact that if you don’t work it out on your own, sooner or later someone else will point it out to you, so you might as well be aware of it upfront.

When I first heard of the distinction, it was like a lightbulb over my head. I suddenly understood a different aspect of my own approach to writing. I also gained insight into my best friend’s process as well. Which explained a lot!

Life as an Underwriter

I can quite honestly say that I am an Underwriter.

NaNoWriMoIf I’m being even more honest, I’d tell you I have actually spent a lot of time feeling intimidated by Overwriters. I marvel at the speed that my Overwriter friends can churn out page after page of engaging content in a relatively short space of time. When I took part in 2017’s NaNoWriMo, I spent a lot of time on Twitter following other people’s progress and using that to fuel my own momentum through November. And I was completely blown away by people who posted REALLY early in November that they had already reached their 50,000 words goal (I’m talking, like, Day 5 early!)

When I was at University, it was drummed into me that it was a bad idea to rely on fleshing out your work, rather than being able to trim it back. At the time, I didn’t think much of this, but I do wonder if I took this to heart a little more than I should have given my own natural tendencies as an Underwriter.

My first drafts will usually cover the main ideas and events of the story I am trying to tell. A lot of the feedback I usually get after a first draft is description, description, description (usually to do with what the characters look like).

And I’m OK with that. As Terry Pratchett once said:

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In working on my first novel recently, I have found myself making notes as I go about incorporating more details earlier on that (I hope) will add to the overall flow and pace of the book once it’s done. As I am still working on the first draft, and don’t want to lose the momentum I have, these notes will be like signposts for me when I come to work on the second draft.

Some people may find it daunting coming to the realisation that the manuscript you have been working on for [insert your own heartbreakingly long timescale here] needs more adding into it. I am not one of these people. For me, if I know that a particular scene or section needs something adding to it, it usually that means I know what needs to be added.

After all, if you read something back and realise that your characters jump quite suddenly from point A to point C, you know that you need to make sure they go via point B in the process. Knowing where your characters have come from and where they need to get to should make writing the in-between stuff that much easier.

In theory, at least.

My advice to any Underwriters out there is: don’t be intimidated by the need to insert extra content into your story. Writing is a process, after all, and if your process is to start small and keep building, then that’s what you have to do. In the same breath, though, be wary of the temptation to add content just for the sake of boosting your word count.

At the end of the day, the cohesion of the story should be first and foremost in your mind.

That goes for Overwriters too.

Both types of writers should constantly be asking the question: “Does this add to the overall story?” If the answer is yes, it stays. If not, delete it.blur-book-browse-256546

Of course, I say ‘delete it!’ like it’s easy. It’s one thing to get rid of the odd word here and there that has inadvertently been repeated but having to let go of great swathes of dialogue or detailed passages is nothing short of painful. I’m sure any Overwriter would be able to tell you that. But if there is no purpose for those words being there, then they have to go. There is nothing worse than having a Reader come to the end of a passage wondering: “Why did I bother with that?”

So, can we fix Over-/Underwriting?

Well, yes. Initially, we’ll be able to spot over- or underwriting when it comes to the editing and re-drafting stages. People who read your work in order to give feedback will be able to point out what is missing, or what has been over-egged. You job then is to listen to them and do something about it.

As I said above, at the end of the day, when your work is out there in the world, readers shouldn’t be able to tell whether you’re an Overwriter or an Underwriter. They should just be able to lose themselves in the flow of the story.

If they don’t, then one of two things will have happened:

  • Either you haven’t received the feedback you needed
  • Or you haven’t listened to it

Either way, it is your responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. Be thorough when it comes to choosing a critique partner or editor, and be thorough when it comes to going through their comments.

Hopefully, the more you write and re-draft, the more you will pick up on your own idiosyncrasies, even before they are pointed out to you. When that happens, learn from them. Train yourself to include the details your readers are missing. Train yourself to be wary of over-describing when it isn’t necessary. These are the kinds of lessons and techniques that can only be developed over time and with practice.

So, keep going. Be aware of your own process and improve on it where you can.


Now, you may be reading this as an Overwriter and feeling that maybe I haven’t touched upon some key aspects of your own process. The simple reason for this is that I don’t know what it’s like to be an Overwriter. If it’s something you feel strongly enough about to share, I’d like to invite you to write a Guest Post on the subject.

Just follow the link the in menu for more information on my Guest Post Guidelines.

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My Blind Date with a Book

Blind Date

We have been told for years: Never judge a book by its cover.

Well, now there is a website that ensures you never will.

Blinddatewithabook.com is a fairly new service that shows you a library of books available for purchase, but it doesn’t show you the book’s cover, the author’s name, or even the title of the book. All you have to go on are five brief bullet-point descriptions about the book itself and nothing more.

I had seen a few promotional posts about the site popping up on Facebook for a while and, last week, I decided to give it a go.

Boy, was I NOT disappointed!

First of all, the site itself is well laid out and easy to navigate. You have the option to order books on an individual basis, or you can sign up for their Book Club, which sends you one book per month for six months, in a range of genres selected by you.

I opted for the individual option just to test the water’s and here’s how it went…

When I first started going through the site, I couldn’t help appreciating the novelty of it. So many times I have perused the shelves of bookshops and found myself admiring cover art and poring over the blurb, trying to make a decision, or even a judgement as to whether or not I would enjoy the book itself. And suddenly, all the indecision was stripped back to its absolute minimum. With only five brief bullet points in front of you for the entire decision process, the choice actually became a lot easier.

The book I chose to buy was billed as:

  • Spoof Fairy Tale
  • Romance
  • Adventure
  • Fantastical
  • Hilarious

Those who know me will tell you that, when it comes to stories, this description (brief though it is) is not just ‘right up my street’, but is already through my front door and making itself a cup of tea with no questions asked! Whatever book this brown paper wrapping was concealing, it was definitely for me.

So I ordered it. An individual book on the site is priced at £7.99, plus £2.99 for postage and packaging. Given that this is the average you would pay for a paperback book these days, it seemed more than reasonable here.

With my book order placed, all I had to do was wait. And anticipate.

Instantly, I started thinking over what it could be. Would it be a book I had heard of? Or even one that I had read before? Would I find I was wildly disappointed with the selection? Or maybe find that it did not live up to its description? All of that was going through my head on Tuesday evening as I clicked “Buy”.

On Wednesday morning, I received an email confirming my book had been shipped.

On Thursday evening, I returned home from work to find it waiting for me on my door mat. You would not believe the excitement this caused me!

Think of it this way: here is a website that allows you to buy yourself a gift and still retain the surprise of not knowing what that gift is until you open it. It is really quite clever.

So this is what I received:

Blind Date with a Book.jpg

It was so beautifully wrapped that for a moment, I didn’t want to open it. But eventually, curiosity got the better of me and I tore into the packaging.

The book inside is everything the description said it would be: A Spoof Fairy Tale, full of romance and adventure, with plenty of fantastical elements, and it is altogether hilarious! There have been times, while reading it, that I have had to stop for a moment due to bouts of full-on belly laughs at some of the descriptions and narrative quirks.

Before you ask, I am not going to tell you the title of the book. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise for you if you happened to order it for yourself.

What I will say is that Blind Date with a Book is a service well worth checking out if you enjoy surprises and reading in equal measure.

As for me…

I will certainly be going back for a second date.

 

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Introducing: Turning Ideas Into Words

Hi there!

Seems like I while since I have been updating on here. I am aware that posts have been sparse recently. This is mainly due to my own time management, but also due to me working away on my first novel. It is still in its first draft stage, but the more I write it, the more excited I get (and the bigger it gets!)

I can’t wait to be in a position to share it with you, but in the meantime, let me tell you about a new section to this site that I am launching this week.

You may have noticed that I have updated the look and layout of the site a little (I won’t be offended if you haven’t noticed). One thing that has changed is the site’s tagline, which is now “Turning Ideas Into Words.” This is also the title of a new series of posts I am working on, looking at various aspects and techniques of writing fiction. I do hope you find it useful.


TIIW Banner

Back in December 2017, my friend Sarah and I traded blog posts. She wrote a piece for me on “Banning Books” and why that usually backfires spectacularly; and I wrote an article called Creative Disciple. It covers a subject that is quite close to home for me and in writing it, I have been thinking a lot recently about the technical and mechanical aspects of writing – the things you have to rely on when Inspiration seems to be always hiding around the next corner.

What I’ll be doing over the next few months is sharing with you some ideas and tips about what I find helpful. Maybe they’ll be helpful to you too, maybe not; as long as they get you thinking about your own process.

What to look out for

Available now:

Some aspects of writing I will be covering are:

  • The merits of being an Over-Writer or an Under-Writer
  • The importance of Opening Lines
  • Choosing a Narrative Voice
  • World Building
  • Character Development
  • Naming Characters and Places
  • Dialogue

Now, I am by no means a master of all these, so please do feel free to add your own thoughts to the discussion. I am always open to learning new techniques. 


What else is going on around here?

I will still be working on other areas of this blog as well:

I am also accepting Guest Posts! Check out the link in the menu for more details.

For those of you who have read Episode One of The Eternity Mirrors, I am still planning on continuing the story with Episode Two, but at the moment, work on the first draft of my novel has taken precedent there. Sorry if that has left you hanging a bit.

For those of you who haven’t yet read Episode One of The Eternity Mirrors, it’s never too late to start just follow the links in the menu above, or click here to begin!

You can also check out the Podcast version of Episode One, recorded by Emily Wilden.


Don’t forget you can follow this blog to receive emails notifications of posts and updates – just click the Follow button on the right.

I’d also love to hear from you in relation to any thoughts, comments or feedback you may want to share. Either leave a comment at the bottom of any of the pages, or go to the Contact page in the menu.

Anyway, enough from me for now!

Happy reading!

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Book -v- Film: Catching Fire

CatchingFire

There is a trend at the moment with book series’ that are turned into films, for the last book to be split in two. It started with Harry Potter, continued with Twilight, and seems to have stalled somewhat for Divergent.

What hasn’t happened yet is other books in a series being afforded the same treatment – that honour is reserved for the last book only.

But if you have a series that packs as much character development and action into its second instalment as it does its last, should studios consider drawing things out even more? Could we have been reasonably expected Catching Fire Part 1 and 2 at the box office?

When you think about what was cut from Catching Fire, you could argue that there was another film’s worth of material that could have been explored.

The-Hunger-Games-Catching-Fire-Katniss-and-Peeta-header-550x325Catching Fire picks up six months after the end of The Hunger Games. Katniss is adjusting to life back in District 12 as a Victor, with the Capitol paying for a more than comfortable lifestyle for her and her family. She is also dealing with the psychological fallout from the Games (the film shows this in a flashback she has of killing Marvel, the boy from District 1, while she is hunting with Gale). We soon learn that she and Peeta are due to leave on the Victory Tour, in which they will visit each of the districts, paying homage to the fallen tributes while towing the Capitol’s Party line that this is all done for the benefit of Panem.

Before they leave, Katniss is paid a visit from President Snow who was utterly unconvinced by her ‘performance’ in the Games regarding her blossoming romance with Peeta. Snow wasn’t convinced that her act of defiance at the end of the Games was motivated by love and he warns her that the districts aren’t convinced either. In fact, her actions are causing people to stir and talk of outright rebellion against the Capitol.

He issues and ultimatum for her: convince everyone that she is in love with Peeta (“Madly, willing to end it all, in love”) or she and her entire family, and Peeta, will be made an example of.

The-Hunger-Games-Catching-Fire-President-Snow-Donald-Sutherland-642x362This colours the entire tour to the point at which Katniss and Peeta are forced to announce their engagement by the time they reach the Capitol. Even so, Snow is not won over.

Back in District 12, the Capitol begins to tighten its grip, becoming more and more oppressive with each passing day.

And this is all before we even get a sniff of the Games coming around again!

By the time the lead up to the Games comes in, you are already so fearful for the safety of Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Prim, Haymitch and everyone else in District 12, that it feels as if nothing can make things worse…

Then the Quarter Quell is announced.

A Quarter Quell, we are told, is a special commemorative version of the Games that occurs every 25 years and promises a greater ‘spectacle’ than the usual 24 teenagers battling to the death.

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This year, on the 75th anniversary of the Games, the Capitol announces that the Tributes are to be reaped from the existing pool of Victors, thus reminding the districts that no-one is beyond the discipline of the Capitol.

For District 12, the pool of Victors is somewhat limited, consisting only of Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch. One way or another, they are going back into the Games.

All of this is condensed, squeezed and shoe-horned into the first 30-45 minutes of the film. Like I say, I wouldn’t have begrudged the studio from producing Catching Fire as two films.

As it is, there is A LOT that gets cut out, or at the very least, cut down in the opening third of the film. As with the first film, the use of multiple perspectives and visual cues helps to convey a lot of information in a very short space of time. Notably, in the book, Katniss (together with her friend Madge who is absent from the films) learns first-hand about the riots in District 8. She sees a news feed of what is happening and talks openly with Madge about the implications.

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In the film, the riots are covered in about 5 seconds while Katniss is on the train during the tour. She is walking past a security room on the train and happens to see footage of District 8 as a group of Peacekeepers are watching. As soon as they realised Katniss is looking in, they slam the door shut and nothing more is said on the matter.

The Victory Tour itself takes place over the course of a montage sequence and only lingers long enough in each district to get a sense of the mounting tension across Panem.

I could give several other examples of material being shorted just in the first part of the film, but suffice it to say, there is a lot to get through and not a lot of time to do it. I am sure the film could easily have run to at least 4 hours in length, if everything had been kept in.

The material that does make it to the screen, though, is faithful to the feel and arc of the book; and, as was the case with the first film, there is enough going on that is true to the original story that you don’t feel like you have completely departed from the book altogether.

woodyharrelsonhungergames2Having said that, there is one massive chunk of story that is missed from the film that I was very disappointed had to be cut. The Second Quarter Quell – the Games that Haymitch himself won 25 years ago.

The story of his Games adds so much to Haymitch’s character. They also add to the backstory of Katniss’ Mockingjay pin. As I mentioned in my previous post, in the books Katniss receives the pin from Madge. In Catching Fire, we learn that the pin had originally belonged to Madge’s Aunt, Maysilee, who was a tribute in the Second Quarter Quell. She and Haymitch had been allies for a while before parting ways prior to Maysilee’s death. The implication in the book is that, in different circumstances, Haymitch and Maysilee could have had a similar relationship to Katniss and Peeta.

However you interpret the events of Haymitch’s Games, the sequence in the book serves to draw parallels between Haymitch and Katniss, and highlights that given enough time, Katniss could easily spiral into a similar state of depression as Haymitch finds himself in. Of course, Katniss has Peeta and Prim to help keep her grounded. This contrast of Haymitch’s complete isolation from the rest of District 12 and the support Katniss draws from those around her re-enforces just how important people like Peeta and Prim are in her life.

Anyway, back to the story at hand. The Third Quarter Quell is announced and the Tributes are reaped with Effie’s usual shrill tones, but with less of her usual flair. Even she has been shaken by the Capitol’s choice for these Games. She comments, “You deserved so much more than this,” which is the first time her humanity starts to show through her glossy, Capitol-ised exterior.

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Katniss is chosen as the female tribute for District 12 (hers was of course the only name to choose from) and Haymitch’s name is drawn for the male tribute. But, in a moment that mirrors the first book, Peeta volunteers as Tribute, ready to follow Katniss back into the Games.

What follows is remarkably faithful to the book. From the train journey back to the Capitol, the Tributes’ Parade, the training, the interviews, right up to Cinna being dragged away by the Peacekeepers (I’m still not over that), the screenwriters were able to follow the line of the book very well. As such, there is not a lot for me to comment on in this particular section.

SpileWhich brings us to the Games themselves. As with the District 12 section of the film, there are certain aspects of the Games that are condensed purely for the sake of saving screen time. For example, when Katniss and her allies receive the spile for drawing fresh water from the trees, in the book the group ponders over it for quite a while before Katniss has her “Eureka!” moment of realising what it is and what it’s for.

In the film, however, she takes it out of the mini-parachute it has arrived in, read’s Haymitch’s clue (“Drink up,”) and instantly knows what to do with it. Now, I know that films need to be conscious of their run time, but even a few more seconds of head scratching would have been appreciated at this point.

Another aspect of the arena that was dropped was the fact that each segment of the ‘clock’ was identical, even down to there being a replica of the Lightning Tree on the perimeter in each section, meaning that when the centre part spins, it is all the more difficult for them to orient themselves for where the lightning will strike at midnight.

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The film also misses out the parcels of bread that are sent to them at various stages, that are later explained as being hidden messages to Finnick, Johanna and Beetee for when the rescue plan was to commence.

One thing I was grateful for, and again this goes back to the freedom the film has in using multiple perspectives, is towards the end when Johanna knocks Katniss down to remove the tracker from her arm, it is a little easier to determine what is going on. In the book, Suzanne Collins writes Katniss’ disorientation very well – maybe a little too well as at the point at which Katniss doesn’t know what is happening to her or around her, the reader also has very few clues to help figure it out as well. This may have been deliberate, but when there is so much going on at once that the narrative character is unaware of, it does take a little longer than usual to find a foothold in the action again.

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And let’s be honest, as good a narrator as she is, Katniss has a tendency to be fairly oblivious at the best of times!

As the camera is able to show several things outside of Katniss’ perception, it is easier to follow the action as plot twist follows plot twist and characters’ motives are called into question within seconds of each other.

Fortunately (and this goes for the book as well), the rapid fire of the last few minutes in the arena is balanced by the well-deserved explanation that follows. This is what we are left with at the end of the film:

  • A number of the Victors have been working towards rebellion for years.
  • Haymitch worked with Finnick and Plutarch (the new Head Game Maker) to get Katniss and the others out of the arena as best they could.
  • As a result of this, District 12 has been levelled!
  • Gale (thank goodness for Gale!) was able to get Katniss’ family and a few hundred others out of District 12 before the bombs started falling.
  • District 13 (which is referenced very briefly in passing in the first two books/films), it turns out, was not destroyed by the Capitol several years ago and is now their base of operation.
  • Oh yeah! And the Capitol is holding Peeta and some of the other Victors captive. He is more than likely being tortured as they speak.

DO YOU SEE HOW THIS COULD HAVE BEEN TWO FILMS IN ITS OWN RIGHT??!!

As Katniss processes all of the above, her face changes from utter confusion, to despair, to anger and finally settles on defiant determination as the screen snaps to black and the Mockingjay flames into view. It starts off in the pose we know from the Pin – wings arched back and an arrow in its beak. Then it curls to become the bird trapped in a cage, resembling the clock-arena (as seen on the cover to Catching Fire). Finally, it spreads its wings to take flight as it does on the Mockingjay cover.

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If that isn’t enough to set you up for Part 1 of the finale, I don’t know what is!

In all honesty, Catching Fire is quite an achievement story-wise, both on screen and on the page. The characters that are brought in here and the groundwork that is laid for the final instalment is phenomenal and once again leaves a great sense of anticipation for what is to come. And it does all of this without feeling like a typical second-book-stepping-stone that is only there to move the characters into position for the final showdown.

If Suzanne Collins could please give a Masterclass on how she achieved this, I would be first in line for that!


For those of you who are as disappointed as me not to have had the Second Quarter Quell featured in the film, this video link is a fan-made film of the Second Quarter Quell itself. It is expertly put together by Mainstay Productions. More of their work can be found on YouTube, Facebook, and on their website.

 

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Book -v- Film: The Hunger Games

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The first film in The Hunger Games franchise is one that I saw before reading the books it was base on. In doing so, I went into the cinema with no expectations whatsoever regarding the characters, the storyline or any potential changes the film could make to its source material. It resulted in me thoroughly enjoying the film with no provisos. It also left me desperately wanting to know what happened next and I promptly went home and devoured all three books one after another (I read the majority of Catching Fire in one sitting on a particularly blissful Saturday).

Of course, now that I have read the books, I am fully aware of the changes that the film made. And for once, they are not deal breakers.

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The Hunger Games (just looking at the first book/film rather than the series as a whole) is set in a futuristic America, now known as Panem. The country, and presumably the rest of the world, has been devastated by a war (or possibly several). All that is left of Panem is the affluent Capitol and twelve struggling districts, whose people work to produce everything the Capitol needs – fuel, food, clothing, timber goods etc. As a reminder of the failed uprising staged by the districts, the Capitol demands an annual tribute of one girl and one boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each district to battle one another to the death, leaving one champion (victor) standing.

Jennifer-Lawrence-as-Katniss-Everdeen-in-The-Hunger-GamesEnter Katniss Everdeen, a seventeen-year-old girl from District 12, who volunteers to take her sister’s place as tribute. She travels to the Capitol, with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark, to take part in the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Together, they unknowingly start a chain of events that will alter Panem forever.

As I mentioned above, there are very few changes between the book and the film. Certainly, in terms of the main story, all the important beats and milestones are met and the characters’ arcs are true to their paperback counterparts. The most noticeable difference is in the way the story itself is told.

The books are written in first person, present tense narrative. Katniss herself tells the story as it is happening. This style, I will admit, usually puts me off a book. For me, The Hunger Games is one of the few books that it works for, as there is a good balance between what is going on in the world around and how Katniss thinks, feels and reacts to it all.

Of course, it is quite hard to convey a first-person narrative on film. Effectively, the camera becomes the first person in any film and, without resorting to voiceover dialogue of the protagonist, it is quite difficult to bring that perspective back to the main character.

Incidentally, if you want to see a TV episode where the camera’s perspective is specifically used to tell a story, I can recommend you watch Sanctuary, Season 1 Episode 11 – Instinct, in which the episode is viewed almost entirely though a journalist’s video camera. However, I doubt that this style could be maintained for a full feature film.

senecabeard-1Anyway, this is not something that Director Gary Ross tried to replicate for The Hunger Games. Instead, he took the opportunity to expand upon the world that Suzanne Collins had created on the page. The opening scene of the film is noticeably not from Katniss’ perspective, but instead starts off in the Capitol with an interview between Caesar Flickerman and the Game Maker, Seneca Crane. Similarly, the film ends with President Snow watching footage of Katniss and Peeta arriving back in District 12. The look of distain on his face (together with the music building into the end credits) leaves the audience with a sense of foreboding for what will come next.

By adding these scenes and others that show the Game Makers and conversations with President Snow, the film is able to add to what happened to Katniss in the Games as we now see what is going on in the background leading up to certain events (like the forest fire, the creation of the Mutts, and the rule change that allows both Katniss and Peeta to win together).

What I found interesting about the insertion of the Game Makers and their control room is how they in essence refer back to Suzanne Collins’ original concept for the series. It has been reported that Collins’ initial idea for the series came as she channel hopped one evening and flicked between news footage covering wars around the world and so-called reality TV programmes. She became fascinated by how the two almost blended together as she changed channels. It says a lot about our own society that we can so easily move from harrowing images of war to trivial programmes, like Keep Up With The Kardashians, without any thought at all. This sort of desensitisation through the media led Collins to take the idea to the extreme and her story became centred around a reality TV programme about children fighting to the death (which is what the Hunger Games in Panem ultimately are).

The film version, by showing scenes away from Katniss’ perspective, is able to show the sort of desensitisation that has set in with the people of the Capitol. They are shown placing bets on their favourite tributes, enjoying the spectacle of the tributes arriving, and generally getting caught up in the media/propaganda hype that the Capital places on the Games themselves.

As with any screen adaptation, there are certain things from the books that are condensed in order to save time. Most noticeable of which is the way in which the Mockingjay Pin comes into Katniss’ possession. In the book, Katniss is given the Pin by Madge, the Mayor’s daughter. We later find out (just in the books, this isn’t in the films at all) that the Pin had originally belonged to Madge’s aunt, Maysilee, who had been a tribute (who died) in the 50th Hunger Games (more on that in a later post). In the film, however, Katniss finds the Pin amongst a pile of junk at Greasy Sae’s stall in the Hub.

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It is a little sad that the Pin’s backstory is taken away from the film as it does add a little history and gravitas to the symbol. Having said that, the symbol of the Mockingjay relating directly to Katniss (without its added history with the Games) is still powerful enough for the film to carry.

Along with Madge, there are other characters who are pushed to the sidelines for the sake of saving time on screen. Namely, the Prep Team in the Capitol (who feature a little more in subsequent films) and Portia, Peeta’s stylist, who is seen alongside Cinna on occasion, but has very little to say. Aside from missing some comedic relief in their frivolous and often absurd banter, the removal of the Prep Team does not leave a gaping hole in the film and so it is quite easy to overlook the fact that they are no longer there.

567793b21f0000dd00e9c3fcInstead, thanks to the casting of Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson, the banter between Effie and Haymitch is taken up several notches and provides enough comedy relief in itself to forego any other characters being needed.

Finally, in terms of changes made in the film, it goes without saying that the violence of the books is dialled down somewhat for the films. Yes, we still have scenes of young teenagers brutally killing each other in the Games, but these scenes are nowhere near as graphic as Katniss’ account of them in the book. The camera moves quickly around the fallen tributes, not lingering long on them past establishing that they are in fact dead. Even Rue’s death, tragic though it is, is relatively sanitised for the 12 certificate. Cato’s death is mercifully quicker in the film, rather than the brutal and drawn out affair it is in the book.

 

Even Katniss and Peeta manage to make it out of the Games relatively unscathed (physically speaking). Katniss doesn’t lose her hearing in the explosion and Peeta gets to keep his injured leg. Both of these tweaks have ramifications for the other films, but I’ll get to them in their own time.

Overall, The Hunger Games is proof that, even though changes have to be made in the adaptation process, these changes don’t have to alter the overall drive or feel of the story in a significant way. This is an excellent example of a story working as well on screen as it does on paper.

In terms of The Hunger Games as a film franchise, the first film set the series up very well and left audiences with great expectations for the films to come. Stay tuned to see if those expectations were met.

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Guest Post – Banning Books

Guest post by Sarah Jayne Tanner

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Banning books gives us silence when we need speech. It closes our ears when we need to listen. It makes us blind when we need sight.

Stephen Chlosky

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation on WhatsApp with a friend about books. She asked me if I had heard about To Kill a Mockingbird. At that point, I hadn’t, so asked what specifically I should have heard.

She told me, “That it’s been taken off the school reading list in Mississippi. Because some of the language makes people uncomfortable. I have no words.”

I thought about it, and replied, “Excuse me, I need to go and bang my head against a wall for a moment.”

I find the issue of banning books both intriguing and frightening. Intriguing because it fascinates me as to why people deem books to be too dangerous for the general public to be trusted to read them, and frightening because censorship is always something to be carefully considered and wary of.

In no particular order, books that have at some point been banned somewhere include: The Bible, Huckleberry Finn, The Communist Manifesto, The Call of the Wild, Of Mice and Men, Green Eggs and Ham, American Psycho, Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Ulysses, All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Farm, Brave New World, The Catcher in the Rye and The Anarchist’s Cookbook.

 

Although I don’t support the banning of books, I can understand why people have got themselves in such a state over a couple of the ones listed here.

Fifty Shades of Grey is truly terrible.

The problem – for those doing the banning, at least – is that banning a book just gives it even more power, because there is absolutely no more reliable way of getting people to read a book than by telling them they can’t.

Except maybe putting JK Rowling’s name on it.

Banning books tells people that, first off, there’s something in that book that someone doesn’t want them to know, or an idea that they fear being released into the wild. However, human nature being what it is, tell someone that they can’t do something, or that they shouldn’t do something, or hint at some form of forbidden knowledge, and people will fight tooth and nail to get at it. Sometimes this is out of curiosity – what’s the secret and is it really that bad? And sometimes it’s out of a determination not to allow someone else – usually some form of authority figure – to curtail their freedom by telling them what they can and can’t read.

Essentially, telling people what they can and cannot read is telling them what they can and cannot think. Most of us would agree that the rule of law which governs our actions is, generally speaking, a good thing. Of course, there are some fairly absurd laws in force. Here in the UK, for example, it’s still illegal to be drunk in a pub (yes, really), for MPs to wear armour in Parliament, or to queue jump in the Tube ticket hall. However, the majority of laws are there for a very good reason. And, whilst many us will hold strong and understandable views about what people should and should not think, opening up the possibility of trying to control what people think can lead society into a very dark and dangerous place. Those who have read 1984 will see where Orwell envisaged this kind of thinking leading.

Ironic, perhaps, that 1984 has itself been banned from schools and libraries.

 

1984

Part of the problem is that the banning of books is not usually because they contain something truly dangerous or illegal, but as a knee-jerk reaction to themes or ideas contained within those books, books which those demanding the banning have often not read. Sometimes those intentions are well-meaning, misguided attempts at protecting children from difficult realities such as bullying, drug addiction and racism. But attempting to ban books which deal with those issues doesn’t help matters. Banning books for containing certain ideas and addressing certain issues doesn’t help deal with those issues in the real world, and doesn’t equip either children or adults for encountering them in real life. It doesn’t highlight them, it doesn’t challenge them, it doesn’t demand change. It only sweeps them under the carpet, and pretends that they don’t exist.

Books do more than simply tells us stories, provide us with entertainment or teach us cold hard facts. They teach us about the world that other people live in, people who are not like us. They teach us about the world we live in, and the world we don’t, about the world that other people live in every day.

Banning books shows the privilege of the people demanding the banning. Children who are only exposed to violence in books are incredibly fortunate; perhaps those demanding the banning of books should be more concerned with the very real violence that too many children face. Banning books that confront racism only sweeps the reality of racism under the carpet and allows the privileged to continue pretending that racism is no longer an issue. In today’s world, with the internet and social media, it’s getting harder and harder for people to ignore important matters of social justice. However, despite how excellent a blog post or how powerful and relevant a Tweet or Facebook post may be, and many of them are and do amazing work in addressing difficult issues, I am a great believer in the role that books play in educating ourselves on important matters, whether those books are fictional or autobiographical. I believe that fiction especially creates a safe space in which to begin exploring the realities of those issues in a way which is not too terrifying or overwhelming.

Banning books does nothing to educate people about the realities of life. Banning books only protects the privileged few and allows them to continue to pretend that they don’t exist and, if they don’t exist, then no one needs do anything about them.

Copyright © Sarah Jayne Tanner 2017

 


 

If you would like to submit an article to be posted on this site, check out my guidelines for Guest Posts.

author-imageFor more of Sarah Jayne Tanner’s work, check out her blog: Confessions of a Bookworm

Sarah’s debut novel, Defiance, is available now on Amazon Kindle: http://amzn.eu/8hlSA65

 

About Defiance

IN A WORLD OF INJUSTICE, DEFIANCE IS THE ONLY OPTION.

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Down in the city’s underbelly, Noah, a smart-mouthed combat fighter, has been sold against his will to Dream Scenarios, an exclusive organisation specialising in body-switching technology. Stripped of his freedom and forced to cater to the whims of the elite, Noah cannot resign himself to life as a puppet of Dream Scenarios and its wealthy clientele.

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