Monday, 28 February 2011

The writer’s search for emotional illogic

Last night in Paris with my writing group one of my pieces triggered an intense discussion. I’d dusted off a short story written back in 2003 about survivor guilt and the depression that can ensue, including suicidal tendencies. Not exactly a comedy…

First, an explanation about how writing groups work. The ground rules are that everyone submits a piece (short story, chapter from a novel in progress, poem, etc.) and everyone reads it and makes notes/comments before the group meets. Each piece is then discussed in the group, and the author should not say anything, not defend the piece, nor offer any explanations. Why? Because if it was published the writer would not be able to. It’s tough, but the writer gets to see (unabridged) how readers interpret his or her work. It can be illuminating, funny, or devastating, sometimes all three at the same time. But it works.

So, my piece unchained a short but heated debate about emotional logic. Why should the survivor feel guilt and have these tendencies, especially as it was not a War-type or hostage scenario. It wasn’t his fault; he wasn’t there at the time; these things happen; etc. The counter-point was that sometimes people do react this way due to the strong bonds that can exist between people. We’re not always logical, we’re emotional. Further, if we were logical about everything, fiction would be pretty bland.

It was this last point that got me thinking, that it is exactly this difference between what a reader thinks a character in a novel should do, and what (s)he actually does that makes fiction worth reading. Of course the writer’s challenge is to make it credible. After all, as a cliché’d example, why does a woman alone in her bedroom at night, upon hearing a noise downstairs, go down armed only with a flashlight? Why doesn’t she turn all the lights on, call 911, or look behind her for goodness’ sake when she’s at the bottom of the stairs? Has she never watched a horror movie?

More complicated, and more subtle, is the resolution of ‘emotional illogic’. If someone suffering from survivor guilt is told by a friend, “Look, it’s not your fault, stop this nonsense now”, well, how would you feel as a reader if they simply snapped out of it, saying “Hey, you’re right, what was I thinking?” You’d feel cheated, and rightly so, because real life (aka good fiction) ain’t that simple. What sometimes actually breaks the spell, after enough time has passed, is something subtle, maybe nothing to do with the emotional causal link the person has made in his or her mind (or gut). The writer has to make that credible, too.

Write what you know is another golden rule of writing. Okay, so I’ve been there once. Not exactly survivor guilt, but with the same emotional checks and balances, and it got close. A long time ago. Still hard to talk about it, so I won’t go into the reasons, but the solution, the spell-breaker for me, was watching a bunch of wild ponies in the New Forest. Absolutely nothing to do with the cause.

Nature’s a good remedy. Reminds us that our personal fiction, the emotional roller-coasters we stitch together and call our lives, aren’t always as important as we think they are. Animals have more sense, apparently (though no fiction).

Well, time to take on board the comments I got last night, edit it and send it off and see if it gets published. It’s called ‘No Diving’. In it I try to walk this tightrope between credible action, and emotional illogic.

From a writer’s perspective, not all stories have to be read. Some, though, have to be written. 

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Our need for unsympathetic characters

Two of the current top-billing books are by Larsson (The girl who kicked the hornet's nest) and Child (61 hours). Both of them have protagonists of dubious character: one is a violent, borderline pathological misfit who hacks into people's private systems with impunity as easily as you and I breathe; the other is a drifter of dubious origins who can be a cold-blooded killer when necessary. Yet as readers, we really 'root' for them, want them to succeed, kill the bad guys, etc. Why is that?

When I first added characters in The Eden Paradox, my 'heroes' were exactly that. The net result was way too dull. So I gave some of my characters 'darkness'. One of them, a female villain, became an instant hit with my readers, and when I killed her off, they shouted 'No, bring her back!' [Well, you'll have to read find out what I did].

Anyway, my theory as to why we want characters who have a basic morality but bend and break the law to exercise it, is that civilised life today comes at a rather hefty price. It's pretty stressful, and we are sometimes tricked or outraged by 'normal life' whether it's someone tail-gating us or cutting us up on the road, or an insurance company that finds a way not to pay out when you finally need it (that's me, today, by the way - another story), or back-stabbing by a colleague at work, etc. During all these stressful vignettes in our non-fiction lives, we have to play by the rules, and swallow our anger or take it down the gym. Unlike Salander and Reacher (Hornet's Nest / 61 hours), we can't react with a vengeance and just disappear from the law.

So, it feels good when Jack Reacher, having worked out who the baddy is, instead of arresting him and watching him find a good lawyer and somehow get away with it, instead shoots him between the eyes.

Salander usually manages to find her enemies killed without her actually pulling the trigger, so her author Larsson keeps her 'sympathetic' for the reader. Even so, most of us wouldn't actually want Salander in our lives. Except at bedtime.
In a book.

Fiction has its uses. In a crazy world where we sometimes feel out of control, or even victimised, it can be good to occasionally read about heroes who take on the system... and get away with murder.

And if you're not convinced, read Looking for Hell, under Stories.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Tron Legacy - a cyberpunk comeback?

I saw the Scifi movie Tron Legacy (let's call it TL) last night in Paris (we’re a bit behind America on film releases), and it got me thinking – is cyberpunk making a comeback?

Before some of you rush to Wikipedia, cyberpunk is a genre of science fiction whose origins are usually attributed to William Gibson’s ground-breaking novel Neuromancer. Cyberpunk is a mesh of cybernetics – linking human intelligence to information technology (think about 4G I-Phones and IPads, and imagine what 7G might bring in twenty years’ time) – and punk, since at the start such novels were a kind of film noir brought to SF: dark, dystopian, etc. The human-machine link can either be something we interact with normally (like an IPad), or it can be something we ‘jack into’ like a computer via a bio-electrical cable into the back of the head (they don’t exist – yet). In TL, the hero is ‘scanned’ by a laser into digital format and downloaded into a massive computer program (the Grid) which is a virtual world. Cue amazing special effects…

The original film Tron was way ahead of this time, though the current one seems a bit dated coming a long time after Matrix and more recent (and more intellectually-challenging) films such as Inception. So, why choose now to release TL, nearly thirty years after the first one? And why am I blogging about it?

Well, a couple of years ago, my agent got my manuscript for The Eden Paradox onto the desks of a number of big name editors in New York  (more on that in a later blog). One of them said something like: “It’s not bad, but post-modern cyberpunk is dead.” That sent me scampering off to Wikipedia to see what the comment meant, which at least got me reading Neuromancer (every cloud has a silver lining, LOL). My own novel has two ‘cyberpunk’ elements: the first is the Optron, which immerses one of the main characters into a digitized virtual world. This is not a big part of the book, but it allows him (Micah) to unravel the Eden Paradox. The second cyberpunk aspect is that someone else has a ‘node’, a 7G interface that is implanted in her head, so she can interact directly with everything on the global net (wifi).

Despite the editor’s comments, I didn’t take these elements out, because to me they seem likely developments in the next fifty years, at the rate technology is advancing. I believe one of the roles of SF is to think ahead logically, and ask ‘what if?’ I also extrapolated the social impact of the node, which turns out to be catastrophic (in the novel – so, Apple, beware).  And when Tron Legacy came out, it made me wonder if SF should revisit these cybernetic roots, since info-tech is advancing at an incredible rate. How long before serious virtual immersion in games, with real-time sensory feedback (so the user cannot tell the difference between virtual and reality)? And when it comes, where will people choose to live, in reality, or in second life? In our current I-generation, where many people are ‘head-down’ into their phones, pads, or spending hours at a terminal, the answer isn’t so hard to predict.

I’m interested to hear from anyone on this, especially SF writers dealing with near-term SF (in the next century).

As a PS, I should acknowledge that the original Tron movie had a great impact on me all those years ago. Both films are about the ‘Grid’, a concept which I borrowed, developed into an alien transportation system, and inserted into the Eden Saga, especially Book 2. So, it was just great to see the sequel last night, if only because it was good to be in the Grid again.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Interview with an author...

I've just been interviewed by another (more famous :-) Paris-based author, Janet Skeslien, author of Moonlight in Odessa. Here's the link to the interview:

No reviews of the ebook yet, but it seems that the cover is a hit :-)

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Write what you miss...

Taking a very short break from SF while my ebook makes its way onto Amazon, I've been writing about one of my passions: scuba diving. When I grew up I wanted to be an astronaut, which I soon realised wasn't going to happen. Then I discovered diving, and was immediately hooked.

Astronauts train underwater, as it gives similar sensations of weightlessness. For me, the ability to hover, fly, and slowly freefall into the deep blue still gives me a massive kick. And then there's the fish, small and large, and the spooky wrecks. But a few years ago I got injured while diving a wreck off France's Northwestern coast, and it curtailed my diving.

As a writer, you're always trying to add little details to bring your writing to life. But if you write about your passion, especially one you miss, the details free-flow into your mind, and they taste real, not manufactured. So my short story, No Diving, which will be on my website in a couple of months, seemed to write itself. But there's a price tag. I got melancholic while writing it, because I miss it so much, and so the story itself is not a comedy. And the addiction is strong. I now want to write more stories about diving, or even a diving novel...

I still get to dive, sometimes, and on my birthday a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be in Southern Mauritius, on an electric dive in the famous Passe St. Jacques, a drift dive where you 'fly' through underwater canyons propelled by the current, and when the funnel opens up into an underwater plain, you grab a rock with both hands. The current whips you around and you hang on by your fingertips, feeling the tug on your forearms, as your body lies horizontal like a flag in a strong wind. Then the sharks come, sleek black-tips, six feet long with angular heads, jaws open just enough to show their back-sloping teeth. One of them sidled next to me, tailfin willowing effortlessly while I struggled not to let go and fly backwards into the school of sharks hovering behind me. It was within arm's reach, is gills rippling, and I was tempted to touch it, but its black eye watched me and I decided to leave temptation where it was. You can't talk underwater, but you can communicate, and the shark did exactly that - I was very much on his territory, his home ground. Dominance established, he headed off to hunt.

I can see him now, without closing my eyes.

So, for any writer, write what you're passionate about, and if you miss that particular passion, the good news is it will probably improve your writing.

And if you get depressed afterward, do what I do, and eat some chocolate.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

On Writing: Shifting Points of View (POV)

The most frequent comment I got from professionals reviewing my books before publication was that there were too many points of view (POV), writers' shorthand for the 'heads' readers get to see through when reading a novel. The 'classic' novel has one point of view, the protagonist, and everything is learned through that POV, even if it is not the main character in the book (read the Great Gatsby, for example).

The official rules (aside from the real rule that every rule can be broken in writing) are not to use too many POVs, and using multiple POVs in a single chapter is generally frowned upon, even when the writer signals to the reader the change of 'camera-view' by using a line break or three asterisks in a line break, etc.

So, I've recently read two best sellers: The girl with the dragon tattoo (Millennium series by Stieg Larsson) and 61 hours (Lee Child). They both use different POVs (especially Larsson), although they have definite central characters (Blomkvist & Salander for Larsson, and Reacher for Child). Where they succeed is in building complex plots, which it would be hard to unravel from a single character's point of view. Then, in key chapters where suddenly things happen and the plot accelerates, they use switching between these different 'heads' to show how it is coming together, allowing the reader to join the dots. In Larsson's book, for example, there is a key chapter in the middle of the book, where there are no less than eight POVs in a single chapter, and it's gripping.

One of my reviewers likened my second book to the TV Series 'Heroes', warning that books are not TV (and also warning that Heroes ultimately failed due to the sprawling POVs and lack of any 'centre'). But it does make me wonder if readers' tastes or tolerance for more 'fragmented'' writing styles are evolving. We live in a very complex world these days, where life itself is 'multi-media', and it is hard to keep on top of anything. Perhaps contemporary writing is showing us the current truth about our lives as it has always aimed to. After all,  could a single person these days really stumble onto, for example, an inter-governmental conspiracy, and unravel it? Even Larsson and Child, to maintain their central characters as the focus, and their readers' interests, rely a little heavily on Salander's hacking skills and Reacher's intuition to help work things out. So, fiction points out the truth, but stays true to its nature of being good story-telling. [As a reader I wouldn't want it any other way, LOL].

As a writer, what have I learned from all of this?
1. POV shifting is okay, if it is needed, e.g. a complex plot involving many people in different locations or times.
2. POV shifting still has to be carefully signaled to the reader.
3. Too much at the start of the novel will disorientate the reader, and ultimately disinterest her - there will be no 'centre' to the novel, no one to root for.
4. POV shifting can be used to great effect to accelerate the plot and increase tension, because the reader sees it coming together, possibly before the central characters do.
5. To bring it off as well as Larsson did and Child does, is not so easy...

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Writing & Insomnia

Those who know me often ask when I find time to write, as I have a busy day job and am always travelling (around 30 international trips a year). So, here's my secret - insomnia.

For those of you lucky enough never to get it ('Just go to sleep, what's the problem?' I hear you say) this is how it works for me. First, I'm usually tired, make no mistake. But my brain won't switch off, it's too 'wired', and believe me I've tried everything, and sleep-drugs make me grumpy in the morning. So, some time ago, I made a deal with my brain...

First - a bit of psychophysiology - from a writing perspective, your right brain is the creative one, the fun one, and the left brain is the editor - more anal, to be honest. They're joined by a bridge (called the corpus callosum), so they can talk to each other. If I'm working against a deadline (like now, to get the book through its copy-editing phase and onto Amazon), the left brain wakes me up early - yesterday at 4am, to get some work done before my 'day job' starts. Similarly, if I'm working late writing or editing, and my left brain isn't satisfied with the end result, I won't sleep, and may as well stay up and finish it properly.

A few months ago I was on business in Brussels, and went to bed early (10:30), only to wake up at midnight. After an hour trying to get back to sleep, I dragged out my laptop and started typing. My right brain had a feast and I wrote most of the story 'Looking for Hell', at least the bones of it, and by 4am my left brain said 'good enough' and I crashed out like a baby, and actually felt refreshed when the alarm went off at 7am.

Travel is great for insomnia (especially if you season it with a little jet lag), so is great for my writing. Other writers have other tricks, so now you know mine.

Would I trade in my writing for a good night's sleep? Now, there's an interesting question...
© Barry Kirwan |
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