Category Archives: Writing

Looking at things from a different angle

I’ve recently added website video production to what I do as part of my day job (developing websites).

I’ve always really loved to learn – and boy, this is one learning curve and a half. Or possibly two learning curves, who’s counting?

As with any new skill, it’s interesting to discover the parts of the job at which you do well – and the parts with which you struggle.

Video production breaks down into several – often quite difficult – tasks. Broadly, they are:

  • planning the shoot.
  • setting up the shots and equipment.
  • filming.
  • post-production and editing.

It was only after working on half a dozen or so videos that I began to realise the parallels with writing – and the differences.

Planning the shot is broadly the equivalent of plotting. There might be a storyboard, there might be a full script, there might be a shooting script – or there might be nothing, for those pantsers of you out there. There are pros and cons to each approach. Each can be successful and each can fail.

The reality I found was that no matter how much you plan, you will film something differently on the day. You just will. Opportunities will arise which are just too tempting to overlook. Barriers will be put in your way which are too solid to circumnavigate. Logistics will shift and you’ll have no option other than to accommodate them.

But, if you’re creative, these won’t blow your masterpiece out of the water. Frustrating they might be, but they’re likely to fuel your creativity in unexpected ways.

You’ll shoot far more footage than you expected, which will escalate the editing – but improve the product. Just because you shot more doesn’t mean you have to use it, you just use the best – even if the job of sifting through it is harder and longer.

Setting up the shots is like the research, combined with technical skills. I’m personally a big researcher. I’ve found if you “just check that later” a core assumption of your plot can be wildly wrong, leading to significant rewrites. Better to do as much as you can either upfront, or as you go.

There’s the technical as well as creative side to attend to. How far your lights are from a person affects the exposure. How far the microphone is from his or her mouth affects the sound. Plus there are settings for the lights, sound equipment and camera. These have to be managed diligently. If not, then you can be in for a lot, lot more editing and post-production. Or, worse still, a re-shoot.

The filming itself is enjoyable and usually less problematic than other aspects of production. That’s not to say it always runs smoothly – people say the wrong things and have to say them again, doors slam so you have to roll again or perhaps the battery in your camera or microphone runs out, but you don’t notice. But, with decent planning, this is more like the actual writing. You’re getting the stuff down.

Yet there’s always the story to attend to. As with a novel, we have to consider everything that’s going on around the shoot – from props in the room, to people in the background. We have to consider how using different camera angles of the primary subject can draw someone into the story we’re telling. Also, we need to look at how much more effective the story is when we’re cutting away to other places – things which illustrate what the primary subject is describing. Some of these will be considered during planning, others will happen on the day.

Finally, there’s the bit where it all comes together. Yet, it’s possibly the most time-consuming and difficult part of all. During the editing, the story is built up gradually,  using clips from different takes, adding different audio, using different camera angles – all of this modular construction is part of ‘telling the story’.

This may be the same story you set out to tell originally, it may differ slightly or it may differ enormously. The editor works with the footage and sound available and from it builds up the best story that he or she can. It takes a lot of time. A two-minute video, cut from three or four hours’ filming, can take eight hours to edit.

There can be happy accidents. For example, I’ve discovered footage that was shot on the off chance (and unknown to me, by an assistant). The footage might have been intended simply as a possible filler, or shot because something looked interesting – and this chance footage has been interesting enough to become a central part of the video narrative.

Interestingly, writing a book is a journey that’s most usually undertaken from first chapter to final – regardless of how/when you do the planning and editing. Filming is different; it can be a real jumble – you work in a way that’s time-efficient, often grabbing what you can, going with the flow and getting as much filmed as possible.

There’s no real reason that writing can’t be undertaken in this way; I’m sure many writers do – though mostly I don’t. I do often create ‘unplaced scenes’ in a manuscript. I may or may not use these later. They may become stories on their own. They may never be used. Sometimes, I write scenes for my own benefit – for example, what happened when two characters met for the first time. I may not want to use the scene, but I might want to have a deeper understanding of their meeting than I’d get from writing “Sarah met Jim, at firs they didn’t get on”, or whatever. When I write them, I may have no idea how they’re going to fit in.

What is especially interesting about the process of film-making is how much it encourages you to explore different angles, view close-ups and film others’ reactions to a primary character’s dialogue or actions. You’re working in 3D space – the real world – and experiencing the fourth dimension of time. You do this in a way that’s more intuitive and explorative than you would when writing the same scene – which is why a filmed version of a scene can be radically different from the script.

For me, the process of film-making encourages me to be braver and looser with the writing; to explore different viewpoints of the same event; to plan even more – and edit even more than that. The more you put in, the more you polish, the better the end result – and the more it looks as though the whole process was effortless.

When is a monologue not a monologue?

I was reflecting recently on the nature of interior monologues (yes, I know, that in itself is an interior monologue).

Setting aside for a later blog the question of whether it’s good for the narrative to expose thoughts of a character in a way that’s impossible in real life, it occurred to me that an interior monologue is frequently anything but a monologue.

True, in real life, much of our thinking takes place without us thinking in words. But this is written fiction, we need the words to be understood, so the interior monologue will be, for the sake of the medium, better constructed than our real-life thoughts.

A monologue, though, is literally the thoughts of one person – and true, when expressing thought in fiction, that’s entirely valid, as in: ‘Bitch, thought Gerald’.

Yet people aren’t comprised only of their own thoughts. We’re all the sum of our past, our surroundings, our family and our friends. When we reflect on an issue, we take it apart using our own views – but we also test it with the views of others. We consider how others would feel; what they would say. That’s one way, perhaps, that we reach a viewpoint that’s different to the one we previously held.

So a monologue can involve the thoughts and influences of more than one character. Not as a conversation (unless the character is schizophrenic – I’m thinking in particular of the excellent Gollum to Gollum monologue/dialogue in The Lord of the Rings film The Return of the King) but as a single voice, albeit a mental one.

It’s the nature of people to be multifaceted – and so should be the nature of fictional characters. Our views are seldom that black and white. Sometimes we do things which seem to be contradictory to our nature, at least as others understand it.

Thoughts in fiction, then, are where these different facets of our lives can crystallise. Where internal debate can become a force, like opposing waves crashing each other – or, more gently, like two different coloured paints meeting, to make a third colour. It’s where decisions are made, choices debated – and where even what others might assume is unthinkable can be considered.

If the only viewpoints in the interior monologue were those of the one character, then there’s less scope for that character to behave as a real person would, to change, to go on a journey, to grow apart from another character or perhaps grow closer to one.

Sure, the voice of the interior monologue will be one voice, but more than the single character holding that voice will shape it.

An unexpected gift

It’s always nice to get feedback from readers, but I was overwhelmed when I received this e-mail from reader Adam Hall yesterday: “Just finished reading The Well and I must say it was a brilliant book. So, in celebration of that fact, I drew you some fan art, which can be found either via the link below or on my website.”

Here’s the illustration:

Becca in The Well

Becca in The Well, by Adam Hall

I posted the drawing to my personal Facebook page, and comments from friends included: “Brilliant,” “That’s incredible,” “That’s awesome,” “What a fab illustration,” “Creepy and excellent,” “What a wonderful tribute” and, my favourite, “I propose a graphic novel of The Well”.

What can I say? I’m always grateful for comments, but for someone to spend so much time creating such a wonderful illustration – I’m literally overwhelmed. Thank you, Adam – you’re very talented. (For those who are interested, Adam says that it was drawn in Sketchbook Pro and Photoshop.)

The times they are a-changin

So, a few things have happened recently. Sadly, Steve Jobs died. I visited the Beamish Museum in northeast England and I saw Bob Dylan in concert. Work continues (slowly) on my second novel. Quite possibly, these are all unrelated, but you know how life is. Sometimes, the connections seem to be there, begging for you to write about them, to give them meaning.

So, in reverse order.

My second novel is (honestly) progressing, but slowly. It’s the topic I’ll cover in least detail here, but within it I cover a fairly wide time period. Fortunately, it’s a time period that I’ve lived through – and so have first-hand experience of. I think this can lull a writer into a false sense of security. Yes, I remember the 1970s and 1980s fairly well, I think – but it’s easy to make mistakes.

Can I really remember how, as children, we used to arrange to meet – without having mobile phones? Indeed, many of us didn’t have landlines. How I managed to complete my homework without access to the Internet? This kind of detail is easy to remember with a little effort, but hard to write effortlessly.

I’m 50. That doesn’t feel old to me, but I’ve lived through some staggering changes. Not to me personally, though I now have a soft centre and less dependable vision. I’m thinking worldwide. I’ll come on to some of those shortly, but first I’ll cover something that’s been around all of my life. Well, not something, someone. Bob Dylan’s been making music since I was a toddler. He’s 70 – he probably got laid before I was born.

I was fortunate enough to see him in concert, for the second time, last night. What’s amazing about Dylan live is that his songs are seldom the same. Well, they have the same words and general direction, but they’re frequently rearranged. That’s quite interesting – he’s been around for 70 years, progressing musically all of the time (sometimes being rejected by an established audience because of abandoning one musical genre for another). So, if he were a character in a novel (or perhaps used as a reference anchor) we’d experience his journey along with our own. But because he rearranges many of his songs as he sees fit (well, they are his) he remains an unpredictable moving target. I hope I can say the same at 70.

This is consistent with my view of writing about people – they’re so darned inconsistent. When you make them behave according to a prescribed pattern, they’re not really believable any more.

Still, in this piece, Dylan’s simply our touchstone – perhaps in the way Kate Bush was used in Starter for Ten.

A more central character is Steve Jobs. Dead at just 56, too young in anyone’s book and certainly not enough life for someone so restless, so driven, so creative. (Although, as was observed of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, “the light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long” – and he did burn so very, very bright.)

Steve’s connections to me? Well, not much more than many of you. I use an Apple computer – although that wasn’t always the case. I own an iPod, an iPad and an iPhone. I don’t mind if you mock me.

Ah – but the connection is tighter than that. I complained to Steve directly about iBooks – and he forwarded my e-mail to the person in charge, asking them to get in touch so I could express my views more clearly. Still not much of a connection, though.

Wind back the clock to when I was at school and I had two clear choices: to write (most probably as a journalist) or to become a graphic designer. I chose the latter and went to art college. Steve was only a little older than me, so he’s not yet got around to creating the thing that would change my working life.

I studied typography. This was only 30-odd years ago, but at the time, setting metal type was still the norm. I learned to set type by hand, in a stick (which means learning to read upside down and backwards, no kidding). I learned that upper case and lower case are so-called because of where they were kept in the wooden case – a kind of massive drawer with compartments for each letter. That the spaces between lines were expanded with leading, so called because they were padded out with strips of lead. Type is beautiful, elegant. Words convey meaning and beauty, but the right type can give them a sense of being.

I also painted type by hand (using a brush, if it was above 12pt, or a pen if it was below). Hand-drawn type wasn’t good enough for reproduction, only for rough designs – but it was still a required skill that the tutor could tell exactly which typeface had been drawn.

Letraset existed, but its use was not permitted. We did hear tell of computers. Vast things, which companies were trying to make small enough to use in the office and home. We laughed. What on Earth would we use one of those for?

We laughed because we lacked vision.

In his (retrospectively moving) address to students at Stanford University, Steve Jobs cited how he also studied type, drew it, loved it. This love of type inspired him to want his computers to use proportional fonts for display and print. When personal computers were new, this hadn’t been the case – we had fixed-width fonts and no typographical control.

Apple ushered in (with the help of Adobe, Aldus and Quark) the era of desktop publishing. What had previously taken teams of specialists to do (layout artists, finished artists, repro people and more) could now all be done on one machine.

I use such a machine pretty much every day of my life to earn a living. True, I now mostly create websites – though I still do design for print also. (Actually, more than half of my work is now copywriting.)

It’s not all thanks to Steve Jobs – but he played one of the biggest parts in it. And I love it. I love the total control working on every single element of a design, from one machine, can deliver.

I also write, as I already mentioned. The same machine is my typewriter – and I can move my manuscript from word processor to page layout easily, making it available in print or on Kindle. My children, who can’t recall a world without computers, don’t see in the same way I do quite how amazing this is or quite how much people such as Steve Jobs have changed our lives.

So finally, to Beamish Museum, where I came face-to-face with a Victorian printshop. I smiled with nostalgia as the gentleman, younger than my eldest son, patiently explained how the letterpress machines worked. They had a working Cropper, a machine so notoriously dangerous to use that the phrase ‘come a cropper’ is now part of our everyday speech.

Then I realised. Print hadn’t really changed that much since it had been invented. For hundreds of years, the process got faster, but was essentially the same. Metal type, inked up, added to paper. Litho printing brought more speed. Phototypesetting brought clearer type. Desktop publishing blew it all out of the water. What I realised was this – I was a piece of history. One of the last people to learn how to use all printing technologies. That’s how fast the pace of change was – I learned how to set metal type for letterpress, phototypeset for gravure and litho print and desktop publish for litho and electronic delivery formats such as PDF.

I’m 50. That’s all. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press sometime around 1440. Yes, it evolved, but not really that much. Most of the change happened in the last 50 years.

That’s the challenge of writing across any kind of timescale – understanding the magnitude of change. It’s not just a question of trying to avoid anachronisms. Change is everywhere. Change permeates everything: across the world, in culture, music, politics, attitudes, technology – everything. It’s a challenge to capture just how people embrace and adapt to that change – quickly forgetting what life was like before – without downloads, CDs, cassette tapes, 8-track and vinyl records. I’m sure Bob Dylan remembers, because he recorded for all of those formats – and I bought his music on most of them.

Meanwhile, as I design brochures and websites on my Mac, I download Bob Dylan albums using Apple’s iTunes. There’s a kind of symmetry to that.

Research the facts to enrich the fiction

There’s one vital part of novel-writing which potentially doesn’t involve any actual writing: research.

I say “potentially” because the need for research, the type of research and the amount of research depends very much on the subject of your novel.

So, for a novel which is based in a familiar location (your home city or town), using characters who are familiar to you, very little research may be required. Or perhaps you’re writing about an entirely fictional world – one with twin suns, populated by steam-powered robots. In such a novel, research may be largely irrelevant, since the world is entirely of your own invention.

For the rest of us, research is vitally important.

The danger of pressing ahead without research is that you’ll be creating characters and plot based on assumptions and third-hand information. Any assumptions will be – largely – based on media you’ve consumed: television, films and books. Fictional portrayals are not to be trusted: you might research thoroughly, others might not.

Any third-hand information is also not to be trusted – let’s face it, in court of law, it’s called hearsay, and it’s not permissible as evidence.

There’s only one solution: go to the source.

Research is time-consuming, challenging and often extremely inconvenient to your partly constructed plot and characters (since these will already be based on assumptions and third-hand information). But, to an open mind, research can also be enormously rewarding – enriching your work beyond measure.

Let me give you some examples from my own work.

In my first novel, The Well, one of the things I needed to research was exactly how police search for a missing person. My only experience of this was from television shows, so I made the normal assumptions when planning my characters and sketching out the plot.

Once writing was underway, I needed to nail both plot and characters – to underpin them with facts. I arranged to meet a policeman.

(Most people are more than happy to help with your research. People enjoy talking about their own jobs and are happy to contribute to your work.)

We chatted about police procedure and I gathered the facts needed for my storyline. During the conversation, several bombshells were dropped. Now, once you’re in possession of this new information, it seems obvious – how could you not have seen that? Yet before this, you could never have guessed it.

Bombshell one related to how open the police are with the parents of a missing child. My personal experience of police is that they are helpful and open – but when a child goes missing, said my interviewee, “everyone is a suspect” and we feed out information in a way to benefit the investigation. Obvious – when you know it.

Bombshell two was how the families of abducted children react. In many cases, rather than pulling together, the additional trauma can tear them apart. In the absence of someone to blame, couples can turn on each other – and old, hidden grievances can surface. Again, obvious – when you know it.

I’m currently researching for my second novel. Speaking to a pathologist was rewarding and gruesome in a coldly clinical kind of way – and enormously enlightening. There’s a world of difference between the television portrayal of pathology and what happens in the reality.

I also needed to speak to someone who understood the personal, professional and family life of a vicar. I could have gone to a vicar, but I suspected I’d get a less filtered view from a close family member – in this case I spoke to the widow of a vicar.

We discussed the proposed character – a minor player who makes a few key contributions to the plot and character motivations who will, however, be important in a later book.

Again, some of my assumptions were simply wrong. One of these was that my vicar, who is at the point of retirement, would settle into a house nearby and attend his own church, sometimes giving ‘guest sermons’. Well, that would be nice. Except, in the UK Church of England, that rarely happens. Vicars are encouraged to retire to a different parish – after all, the vicar will have been one of the spiritual leaders of his/her own parish for many years; he will have loyal followers, views, opinions and so forth. A new vicar may work differently and it doesn’t help to have the previous helmsman hanging around. Obvious – when you know it.

I’d also planned a sweet scene where the old vicar hands over the keys to the church to the new one. Again, this rarely happens. Indeed, there’s usually a gap between the period of each tenure.

These two pieces of information – and others provided at the same time – have created the need for quite a bit of replotting and led to some really quite rewarding character enrichment.

Of course, I could ignore them. Just because something seldom happens doesn’t mean that it never happens, or couldn’t happen. However, that would mean that my work would be more predictable – because often our assumptions are similar.

I’m not exactly writing within a genre where everything has to match real life. But for the part of the work grounded in reality, it pays to keep it as close to that reality as possible.

And I have to confess that I enjoy both the research and the ways in which it affects my stories. I like meeting new people, exchanging ideas, building new characters and developing unforeseen story twists.

Without this, your entire book is something that you could guess at – and your readers can guess at too. With it, your characters and plot take on a new, more grounded and interesting life. Plus, the more believable the everyday stuff is, the more believable the supernatural stuff becomes too.