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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… 

REVIEW: Dawn of Super-Heroes Exhibition at the O2, London

Well, the book is finished and the submission process underway, so I have time to blog – so thought instead of making apologetic noises without posts actual substance, I’d share a pseudo-review (with photos). Is that okay? Yes? I’ll take your silence as the sound of nodding.

As I may have mentioned, I live in London, and I read comics regularly, so I was intrigued when I saw this poster on the tube recently:

A bit of internet searching dug up that it’s an exhibition which has previously been shown in France (where comics are treated like any other medium), and stated that as well as original art pages from lots of comics, they’d be exhibiting costumes from most of the DC Comics-based films and TV shows, so yep, I was into that.

(Sudden realisation: ‘DC Comics’ is one of those redundant phrases like ‘PIN Number’ or ‘TSB Bank’, but I don’t see myself changing the way I say it in any kind of hurry. Anyway…)

So I booked and went along the other day, and (TL;DR summary) I thoroughly enjoyed it. Good array of items from DC’s history on page and screen, and as they don’t mind you taking photos (in fact, staff seemed keen to let me know about it), here are some pictures – not necessarily in order – and my sillysod comments…

Unsurprisingly, it starts with Superman (who’s 80 this year, though with all the reboots and reimagining, he looks pretty good on it, I think we can agree). Quite a few original art pages from Action Comics both old and recent, but then I spotted this:

Yep, that’s Christopher Reeve’s costume from the first Superman film. And yes, it’s tall, but he was tall, and he also gave one of the most enduring performances of the character (I mean, look at the videos of his transformations on this page – that’s acting). Terrific actor, and great to see his costume up close.

Speaking of up close, I certainly leaned in to look at these original art pages from Superman Annual 11:

The art’s by Dave Gibbons, from a script by Alan Moore, and … well, they’re two creators who have had an immense impact on the comics field (and beyond) – probably because they’re both immensely talented.

The middle of the exhibition is about Batman, one of my favourite comic characters, and spans pretty much all the filmed appearances – here’s one of Frank Gorshin’s Riddler outfits from the 1960s Batman TV show:

A selection of costumes from the Keaton/Burton films:

And then from the Kilmer/Clooney/Schumacher films:

And on to the Bale/Nolan films – both costumes…

…and prop vehicles:

There’s more comic art, including painted pages from Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s brilliantly brain-bending Arkham Asylum:

And pages from Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (a series which certainly helped make the Batman films from the 1980s onwards possible).

There are also props and costumes from a lot of the more recent films – the Snyder-era films, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman.

Have to admit that I haven’t seen the Jenkins/Godot WW film yet, but I hear good things about it, and I’m favourably inclined towards it (just haven’t got round to it yet, it’s as simple as that), and it’s interesting to see the differences between the costume from the fondly-remembered Lynda Carter TV show –

and the more battle-oriented costume as worn by Gal Godot:

Granted, there are differences in the materials etc available, but even back in the 70s they were able to make chain mail and other armour stuff for films, so I tend to imagine it reflected 1970s thinking that the emphasis was on a ‘softer’ ambassador role for Diana, rather than the more warrior-based version I gather we see in the recent film. Both are equally valid readings of aspects of the character, to my mind, and show how (as with any long-running character, really) successive generations take what most resonates to the perceived audience at any given time, and focus on that.

But I digress (as my long-time readers will recognise as a statement of policy more than an occasional observation); there’s a lot of interesting and nostalgia-provoking stuff to be seen at the exhibition, as well as a pretty good gift shop, so if you’re interested in DC superheroes on the page and/or screen, I heartily recommend a visit – this link gives more info. It runs until September, I believe.

If you do go along, why not leave a comment about what you thought of the exhibition (or just remind me of key elements I forgot to mention – I’m sure there are some)? Keen to hear other people’s opinions on it!

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.

It’s Just A Cycle Of Disagreement…


 Boys, boys, boys.

 Instead of confusing the nice bookshop customers, can’t you  just agree to disagree?

 Tch.

Ah, Remember When Columnists Used To Talk About The Wire All The Time? Those Crazy Bygone Days

I’ve come to appreciate that there’s a lot of hype and nonsense around many TV shows – particularly ones which a lot of journalists are watching but in which yer general public show less interest (The Wire, Mad Men and the like), but the quote on the front of this forthcoming novelisation of the TV show The Killing may set some new hyperbolic record:

Seriously, Radio Times? Sarah Lund, who’s been in 30 episodes of a TV series in the past five years (and only shown in the UK in the past 15 months) is the top female detective in the world? That seems rather short-sighted, almost as if the person claiming it has a very short memory indeed, or at best is a bit caught up in Killingmania. Has the source of that quote never heard of Jane Marple? Or even Jessica Fletcher?
Now, it’s possible that the publishers of that book are being rather selective with the quote, so I went looking, and found this: The Radio Times Rundown Of The Top TV Women Police Officers, November 2011.

Sarah Lund above Jane Tennison? Oh, Radio Times, you disappoint me.

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.

The Better Devil, You Know

As long-term readers will know, I’m currently working on a novel – but enough about me, let’s talk about M’colleague, who’s has finished his book, and guess what? E’s only gone and made it available to buy on the Kindle Store, innee? Ee as! Ee really as!

Ahem.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to read a draft of the book, and it was a cracking read, and the author assures me that he’s done further polishing on it since, so it’s probably even sharper now.

So, get thee to Amazon, and for less than the price of a large coffee (ie: £3.08), you can get yourself a slice of fiction*. What’s not to like?

The cover’s pictured here, and this is the link to click on: Designer Devil – Stuart Peel

Go on, give yourself a present. You know you want to.

*You don’t need a Kindle to be able to read it, there are Kindle ‘apps’ for mobile phones and PCs and the like. I know, this ‘living in the 21st century’ lark, it’s nifty, isn’t it?

Snap. Snap, I say.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted ‘booktwins’ here on the blog, but this pairing strikes me as pretty blatant.

They’re presented in what I believe to be chronological order, if you know what I’m saying…

Hmm.

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.

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