Category: Personal Page 1 of 18

For A Post On The Subject, This Is Arguably Rather Unstructured…

I’m currently reading Into The Woods by John Yorke, which (as you may know) is about stories and storytelling. Unsurprisingly, it features quite a bit of discussion of structure, which is a subject I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently, and in the spirit of self-indulgent sharing, it’s the springboard for this blogpost.

Cards on the (perfectly square and clean-baized) table: I like structure. And I like it both as a reader and as a writer. As I’ve written before, my tiny mind was happily bent out of shape many years ago when I started reading and watching things that played with form and chronology and the like, and I still delight to this day in works which don’t draw a straight line from “Once upon a time…” to “… happily ever after” (provided it’s in service of the story; if it’s just done for its own sake, I may wonder if there’s some shortcoming in the story which is being disguised by shuffling the chronology or whatever – and I’d go so far as to suggest that might well be the case with my own first published work. But I digress, and this parenthesis is getting unworkably long, so I’ll close it and then put a full stop and we can move onto a new paragraph).

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think there’s been a bit of a rise of narratives with unusual structure over the past few years – to give a couple of examples,the success of Gone Girl in both written and filmed form was testimony to audiences’ willingness to watch events play out of sequence, and complex structure was a key aspect of Steven Moffatt’s work on Doctor Who (though he doesn’t need time travel as a plot device to enable this kind of thing, as fans of his earlier work Coupling [and I am one of those fans] will be aware). There are often suggestions that audiences are becoming increasingly sophisticated and aware of how narrative works, and I guess that willingness to accept breaking and bending of the A to B shape of a tale may well be a part of that.

But whether it’s part of a wider phenomenon or not, I’ve long been a fan of structure; as a reader, once I recognise it, I find it reassuring (and in the case of Cloud Atlas, it took me until the midpoint of the book to realise what the author was doing, but when the penny dropped, it did so in a very satisfying way), and as a writer – you knew I’d get to this eventually – I find it very useful.

I’m a plotter, through and through, and like to have a pretty firm grasp on where the story’s going before I set down even the first line; I’m not one of those people who conjure up characters and then set them off into the environment of the story and see what happens – as novelist Sarah Perry says at about 2m38s in this podcast…

… the characters are plot devices; they’re adrift in the sea of the story, and they can no more shape the tides than you or I can.

And from a writing standpoint – and especially working, as I do, in the crime/thriller genre where plot is key – there’s something very useful about having a structure to work to; that might be a simple three or even five act structure, it might simply mean having the story starting and ending at the same place or in a similar way to hint at some idea of symmetry, or whatever, but if you have a structure sorted out ahead of time that lets you know what you should be writing about next, then that’s very useful indeed.

My most recent completed novel, Captives, was very deliberately structured from the outset of the writing process, because I knew that I wanted to have an investigation taking place in the present day, but I also wanted to detail the events which led up to the start of the story, to give a sense of what the stakes were and of the players involved. Rather than do this through infodumps disguised as dialogue or anything like that, I opted to alternate sequences set in the present with flashback chapters which grew progressively closer to the inciting incident which happens a couple of hours before the start of the first chapter; once I’d cracked that approach, it made things a lot easier – though I still regret the fact that as I counted down from ‘Twelve years before’ to ‘one day before’, I couldn’t make the time-jumps involved align with a reversed version of the Fibonacci Sequence… though given how pretentious that sentence looks when typed out, maybe that’s for the best.

So, as you can imagine, I was keen to see if I could take the same approach with the next novel (working title: Refuge). Once I’d had the characters sketched out, and the sequence of events worked out, I wondered if it would be possible to create a structure which would serve the story – as the book’s about a kidnapping, I wondered if I might be able to rotate the narrative point of view so that we’d hear from The Detective, then The Kidnappers, and then The Kidnappee, before rotating back to the Detective again. I’m particularly keen to make sure we spend as much time as possible with the Kidnappee, as it often feels that people in such stories run the risk of being little more than a MacGuffin, or ‘item’ to be retrieved, and I wanted to avoid that.

However – and you’ve probably already spotted this – the problem with this idea is that (non-spoiler alert) the kidnappers and the kidnappee unsurprisingly spend a lot of time in the same locale, so whilst I could convey a fair amount of detail on events by jumping from our detective to the villains, there’s little additional material (save for internal monologue and the like) that would be conveyed by the jumping to the kidnap victim. I’d effectively end up spending 2/3 of the narrative time on the baddies and their environment, which would make it hard to describe what was going on outside of that without the book becoming excessively long.

However, given that the story is in itself a ‘ticking clock’ tale with a set ending looming on the horizon and moving closer in stages (akin to most films featuring weddings, for example: the wedding is a fixed point in time and everything we see is drawing us closer to that), it did occur to me that having a race against time which is also viewed through the fragmented narrative of rotating POVs would perhaps be too much to put on top – and given that (again, non-spoiler, given the genre expectations) the paths of the Detective and the Kidnappers will inevitably cross, whose narrative section should I include that in? The Detective closing in, or the Villains realising that things aren’t panning out as planned? I wasn’t sure.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to keep it straightforward, shifting scene as required whilst trying to maintain the sense of a countdown, and to find other ways of including the relevant background information and internal monologue of the Kidnappee. We’ll see how it goes – and given how cathartic and therapeutic it’s been (for me, I mean – I’m sure this has been less so for you) to discuss it here, I’ll see about reporting back on how well (or otherwise) it works out.

Given how writing’s an essentially solitary process, and how every 100,000 words is probably more like 300,000 or so re-written and edited and generally switched around in the writing process, talking about it in this way is very probably just an attempt to provide an almost contemporaneous ‘director’s commentary’ during the process of writing it. Which in itself could be distracting – and is often the reason I cite (with varying degrees of truth) for my infrequent blogging.

Thanks for reading this long sprawling post, and if you have any thoughts, insights or tips on structure, or examples of great structures which amplify or serve the story, please do leave a comment below, I’d like to hear other viewpoints on this.

But enough musing and prevarication: back to the actual writing… 

What Year Is This? Who’s The President Now?

… all of which is to say: has it really been that long since last I blogged? Crikey (though a part of me is oddly relieved to see that it hasn’t been a whole calendar year, because – let’s face it – it wouldn’t be the first time that long a gap had happened between posts).

So, as is so often the case on this blog, I open with apologies to anyone who’s been visiting on a regular basis in the hope of finding updates – thanks for your patience, and sorry the only things that have greeted you have been silence and cobwebs.

I haven’t been writing on the blog, granted, but (by way of long overdue update) I’m glad to report that I’ve made good and hearty progress in the world of long-form prose; my novel Captives has been through multiple drafts and re-drafts, and my test readers have all made very useful suggestions which led to a few bits of re-re-drafting, and now it’s out for consideration by literary agents.

Trying not to let the momentum dissipate, I’ve started on the next novel featuring the same detective protagonist, which currently has the working title of Refuge. I won’t get into the details of it here, but I like to think that the shape of the books is almost akin to that of the films of Dan Brown’s novels – the first one (The Da Vinci Code) is full of flashbacks, but the second is a ticking-clock race against time (Angels and Demons). So I’m working hard on making sure it has that all-important sense of forward motion, which I’m increasingly finding is a good way to stop me from waxing too lyrical, as if the words don’t serve plot or character, then they’re probably not needed… but I’m sure I’ll talk about that more in future blogs.

As is so often the case in my relationship with blogging, this return is intended to be the clearing of the throat before more sustained communication; in these politically and socially divided times I’ll probably steer clear of too much in the way of politics or similar, but I’ll try to compensate for that by sharing thoughts on writing, the odd review (and not necessarily of new items – one of the wonders of the internet is our easy access to things from the past), links to things which amuse or interest, and the like.

Speaking of things which amuse, I’ve recently discovered Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a TV police comedy which is genuinely as good as its fans make out, and I recommend you have a watch of it, if you’re not already a fan. That show has led me to enjoy the musical stylings of cast member Andy Samberg and his cohorts in the group The Lonely Island, which in turn led me to the following video… hip-hop isn’t really my thing, but ludicrous comedy and utterly committed performances are very much my things, so (in the nicest and most praise-filled way possible)  I urge you to look at these idiots:

All new … almost ready

If you’re reading this,  then that means you’ve found my revamped website. Hello! Are you well?

This blog pulls into one place my very first online musings (dating back years –  cue nostalgia about how the internet all used to be fields) from the old ‘blogger’ platform, and the far more limited number of postings which I made directly onto the old version of this site (for the technically-inclined amongst you, it was an FTP setup, and I found it very hard to post regular blog updates using that approach). So if you want blog posts by me, this is the place.

There are a couple of pages which I just need to put the finishing touches to, but they’re almost there now (I promise), so this site should be all in place very much imminently, and then the blogging shall recommence (I promise). In the meantime, though, please feel free to take a look around, and do let me know what you think of the new place.

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

Well, what better way to round off things on this blog than to post a picture which I don’t have the real right to post, but which is, y’know, of me? Seems about right somehow.

Anyway, this blog is not dying, it’s moving – or, to be more accurate, I’ll be moving my attentions to my ‘new blog’ and so I doubt I’ll be posting here again (techical issues permitting) for the foreseeable future.

The reason for the move is pretty simple, really – for some time, I’ve been looking into trying to ‘streamline’ the number of places and locations I occupy online, and so I’ve revamped and reshaped my website so that it now includes automatic updates on my Twitter messages, and so it only seems logical that I shift the blog updates over there too.

I speak with utter confidence about this move, but of course if the server crashes or my technical ability reaches its limits, I may well be here again, so I won’t be deleting this blog. Many of the links which you can see in the right-hand column are on the new site, so you don’t have to feel lost and disoriented if you just use his blog as a stepping-stone to other people’s pages. I don’t mind being the guardian of the crossroads, even if Robert Johnson had his misgivings…

Anyway, I hope you’ll come and visit the new blog, and maybe you’ll even be so kind as to add John Soanes to your list of bookmarks? Thanks in advance.

Finally, if this is your last time of visiting, many thanks for your time and eyeballs over the last few years. It’s much appreciated, and as intermittent as my updates may have been in the last year or so, it’s always been reassuring to know that you fine folks were out there reading my nonsense. Seriously, you’ve been fantastic.

And you know what? So was I.

One Of The Perils Of Getting Older Is That Many Things End Up Reminding You Of Other Things, Which Leads To This Sort Of Post

Over the weekend, I was on a train, and saw two young-ish chaps talking quite excitedly. They were twenty years old at most, and they were chatting as they passed what looked like a glossy magazine back and forth.

If you’re thinking it might have been a … let’s say ‘gentlemen’s leisure interest periodical’, then I’m sorry to disappoint you; it was, as I saw when they sat quite close to me, a glossy rulebook or other supplement for a role-playing (or tabletop miniature combat) game, and their excitement and interest seemed to stem from the implications of this on their chosen game – I could hear them saying things like ‘magic attacks’ and ‘stats’, which rather reminded me of my teen years.

It probably won’t surprise longtime blog readers to know that I was what is now known as ‘a nerd’, though back in those days you were more likely to be labelled a ‘square’ or ‘boffin’. But we all know what that means – probably wearing glasses, not physically confident, not very good at talking to girls, and so likely to have solitary (or at least indoor) hobbies such as playing Dungeons & Dragons or computer games, or reading books or comics. And of course there were quite a few of us at school, as well as all the others who weren’t like that.

Strangely enough – on a mathematical basis if nothing else – my school’s equivalent of the cheerleaders and jocks so often shown in American films seems to have been known as ‘the popular kids’. I say ‘strangely’ because the school year I was in had so many ‘factions’ in it (why, even the secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off refers to “the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads” at Bueller’s school), that if you took out my group of friends, the other groups such as the gothic kids and the very studious kids, and the various loners, there were probably only about fifteen of the so-called ‘popular kids’, and none of us really gave a monkey’s about them and what they did, so I have no idea where the presumed ‘popularity’ came from.

It’s not like we ever took a vote on it or anything… though maybe it was an early example of the kind of ‘implied consensus’ or ‘silent majority’ that you often come across in later life. Returning to a film that was out at the time (and whilst it may seem lazy to refer to 1980s films, they were the cultural backdrop of the time, and I think we tend to try to find something that mirrors our own experiences in films and other stories), there’s a nice exchange in The Breakfast Club which may touch on the truth of this:

THE PRINCESS
Your friends […] look up to us.
THE GEEK (LAUGHING)
You’re so conceited, Claire. You’re so conceited.

… I never actually heard the ‘school dynamic’ verbalised like this, but I hope I would have responded in this fashion, as my circle of friend didn’t look up to the ‘popular kids’. We were too busy worrying that playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on our ZX Spectrum computers would, as legend had it, kill the keyboard before its natural expiry date.

Anyway, when I saw the two chaps on the train at the weekend, I looked at them with a mixture of recognition and almost-pity; I say ‘almost’ because I was genuinely happy with my life in my teen years, even if the things that made me happy were incomprehensible – or risible – to other people: I was more concerned about whether I’d get my D&D character to Level 5 than whether I’d get to home base (no, not the shop) with a girl (and one of those events certainly seemed much more probable than the other during that era of my life). So I can’t honestly look back on that period, and the way I led my life, in such a way that I pity those who seem to be treading the same path.

Yes, I could have shouted to the chaps on the train, “for the love of God, shave off the wispy beards and get some contact lenses and spend more money on cool clothes than 20-sided dice, and maybe you’ll get to touch a boob this year”, but they seemed pleasant and happy enough, and besides it’s possible that they were both total hits with the ladies (or gents, I don’t want to presuppose too much), and that I’m just projecting.

But after I’d thought about this sort of thing a bit, and both wallowed in nostalgia and cringed at the recollection of the clothes and large aviator-style glasses I wore, it occurred to me that there are often articles in papers and magazines nowadays with headings such as ‘The Geeks Inherit The Earth’, talking about how the rise of the internet, and the information age, has meant that many of my pasty cohorts have become very successful in their chosen fields, with the financial rewards attached to that. The heads of IT firms, founders of websites, creators of best-selling computer games and apps, and even the directors of films, are shown to have had classically nerdy formative years – and whilst some of them have made their way in the world by appealing to nerds alone, many of them work in fields with wider audiences.

It’s intellectually amusing to see large crowds of people getting excited about seeing films like Watchmen and Avengers Assemble, when I was reading the source comics twenty-odd years ago, and whilst there’s a slight frisson of ‘Hah! I was right all along!’, I can’t get too triumphant about it – possibly because having that kind of teenagehood doesn’t necessarily prepare you for being the victor, and maybe because of that sense of loving something niche that gets a little soured when it breaks through to a larger market (which of us hasn’t either been or known someone who talks up a band, but the minute they get big, starts talking about them ‘selling out’?). More than anything else, though, I think it’s because the stuff I was into back then, like the stuff I’m into now, was a genuine interest, and wasn’t on my list of ‘Likes’ to impress other people: it was stuff I was actually into.

Which, it strikes me, is probably why there are fewer bold claims of triumph from the swots and nerds and squares; whilst the people who were concerned about looking cool as teenagers are keen to claim they were right all along, when offered the chance to write a book, Bill Gates writes about future technology and the like. Whilst the ‘popular kids’ at school spent a lot of time (and, I’ll wager, their parents’ money) on their outfits for the ‘5th year social’ (aka what would now probably be called a Prom), I was reading and re-reading Batman Year One, and not bothering about what anyone might think about this.

I think that’s why the articles you see about the Rise Of The Nerds will tend to be written in the third person plural – that is, not written by the geeks in question; because they’re still out there, doing their thing – coding, writing, rolling dice or whatever. But the chances are it’s indoors.

They say the best revenge is living well, but I suspect many of those who were made to feel somehow ‘geeky’ will be living well albeit unseen by those who may have ostracised them in the past. Except for those of us who decide to post about it on the internet, of course.

Persona Season 3 Starts This Week (And I’ve Written For It)

The third season of smartphone drama Persona launches this week (the first episode was yesterday, but don’t worry, you can catch up), and I’m the writer on one of the stories in it – specifically, this one:

It looks like the cast and crew have done a great job, so I’ll be watching eagerly – can I ask you to do the same? Persona is absolutely free of charge for iPhone/iPad and Android users, and you get a new episode every day for no charge too.

Interested? Good-o, here are the relevant links:

On iTunes you can download it here

On Android, you can get it here

Please do give it a look, and let me know what you think. Thanks!

It Doesn’t Last That Long, But It Made Me Happy

I’m pleased to be able to report that I’ve had another joke included in Newsjack, the topical radio comedy on Radio 4 Extra (formerly BBC7). I’m included in the credits which you can see here, and if you’d like to hear the jape itself, the show can be listened to or downloaded as a podcast here, and it’s probably available via iTunes too (must admit I haven’t checked yet).

It’s the gag in the opening monologue, at 0’56” to be precise, about the passing of the NHS Bill. I think the show’ll be there to listen to or download for another week or so, which is probably about right as the joke itself’ll probably make less sense as time passes.

Anyway, this blog post is a shameless brag really, as I’m pretty chuffed to have a second BBC broadcast credit, even if it has been a couple of years since the first. I shall see if I can narrow down the intervening period between the second and third…

Get The Car Running, I’ll Meet You At The State Line

I received this very scary e-mail this morning:

Obviously, I’m deeply troubled by it.

But more amused by the fact that the above shows the subject line; the e-mail had no content whatsoever.

I’m beginning to wonder if the phishy-spamsters are losing their mojo.

Bubbles In The Cold London Air

Spotted on the rather literally-named Hilly Fields Park in South London yesterday afternoon, this splendid chap  was making enormous swathes of bubbles for the delight of passing children (and adults):

Mystery bubble-maker, I salute you. Especially as you didn’t mind that the crowds of children were taking such fun in popping your handiwork.

… Or Is It Just Another Post Trying To Avoid The Appearance Of What I Believe Is Known As ‘Blogfading’? Hmm…

Hello.

I know, I know, it’s been ages. How have you been? Good, I hope.

Anyway, just dropping by to mention that I do genuinely absolutely positively intend to be blogging a lot more regularly – as ever, I’m brimful of opinions (mainly ill-informed) about various forms of media and news events and whatever else skitters across my eyeline and makes me feel the urge to comment.

If you’re dying for some insight into the current contents of my head, I’m fairly active on Twitter here, and of course if you need to contact me directly, my info’s in the column to the right.

So: back soon, but in the meantime, I recommend tea.

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