Sunday, October 24, 2010

The walls are speaking...again

My neighbour, Buggeroff, has a habit of going to early Saturday movie sessions and then turning up on my doorstep mid-afternoon to give me one of his half-hour verbal reviews. He expects, because I'm a writer, that I'm interested. I'm not. (Buggeroff thinks that Police Academy 6 is one of the all-time movie greats.)

Last weekend Buggeroff went to see the new thriller movie, "Buried," and says it scared the pants off him. (Not a pretty sight.)  He was mightliy impressed that the entire film was set in a box buried under the ground and that, regardless of that, he was rivetted to the screen for every single second.

I'm not going to admit it to Buggeroff any time soon, but I'm also in awe of films/books/stories-of-any-kind that have confined settings and yet keep readers/audiences hooked as suspense builds.

In the film, "Panic Room," the action is largely set in and around an actual -yep, you guessed it - "panic room," where Jodie Foster's character, and her daughter, are trapped by the bad guys. In Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," the mystery is played out almost entiely at -yep - the rear window of an apartment occupied by a man in a wheelchair. A narrow view of facing apartments, and his own confinement, are sufficient to provide a harrowing plot.

Arthur Hailey's novel, "Airport," and the subsequent movie, take place within a major airport and plane over a 24 hour period. Tension builds as multiple characters are drawn into corporate crap (is there any other kind?) love affairs, family dramas, and a terrorist bomb threat aboard an airliner. Hailey explores similar themes in a confined scenario, with "Hotel."

There's much for readers to enjoy, and for writers to learn, from finely crafted stories that build momentum within limited spaces, where the setting itself becomes as much a part of the tale as do the characters and the plot.

There's an old saying, "If these walls could talk, imagine the tales they could tell," and it's something many authors have chosen to do - to imagine what those walls could tell them.

Thriller supremo David Morrell echoes this in his novel, "Creepers," set inside a condemned building, where the history of the building is ever-present alongside the isolation, darkness and decay.

In Ken Follett's "Whiteout," the action takes place on a country estate where family, friends and business associates have been stranded by a massive snowstorm. Drawn in by the narrative, you begin to feel the chill as you're reading.

Arguably, no-one has mastered the closed-room mystery, with death and detection inside a country manor, or a cross-country train trip, like the Queen Of Crime, Agatha Christie.

When it comes to going one better, and making a closed space even tighter, trust Stephen King to rub his hands in glee.

In the climactic sequence to "Cujo," a mother and child are trapped inside a broken-down car on an isolated farm, terrorised by a rabid St. Bernard that's viciously determined to break into the vehicle.

Confined spaces don't get much more confined than that, or the fear and suspense more palpable.

Great fiction can be set absolutely anywhere - or in just one single and confined space.

For writers, it's not a bad idea-starter.

Go somewhere. Anywhere. Look at the walls.

And listen.

Some people may think you're crazy.

But the walls won't mind, they've got plenty to tell you, and sometimes a writer has to be both a little bit crazy...and a good listener.

Friday, October 8, 2010

How I learned to love the rewrite.

Okay, maybe "love" is too strong a word, but for much of the past year, as I've readied my novel 'The Delta Chain' for publication, I've been rewriting and self-editing. Sometimes there's crossover between the two, but for the most part they're two very different tasks requiring two very different hats - or alternatively a writer/editor Jekyll/Hyde personality split (not recommended.)

The end result of rewriting is that it gives an author the potential to turn an unwieldy manuscript into a leaner, meaner reading machine. And you've got to love that.

A few years back I read an interview with Jeffrey Archer in which he revealed he wrote 17 drafts of his novels. I remember thinking at the time that the first draft must have been clinically dead. However, if I've learned anything in the years since, it's that three of the most important techniques in the crafting of fiction are rewriting, rewriting and rewriting.

In between those manic - or laid-back (whatever gets you through the night) rewriting sessions, learning the craft is also about reading and studying techniques by those who have been successful.

I don't need to mention Strunk and White's 'The Elements Of Style,' just about everyone else has and there's no argument here. It should be compulsory reading in all schools as far as I'm concerned. Perhaps what I can stress to newbies is that this one needs to be re-read at least once or twice a year because it pays to keep it constantly fresh in your mind.

Two other, very different books that work for me are - firstly, Stephen King's 'On Writing.' Always entertaining and witty about the 'biz, King's pearls of wisdom on the craft of fiction, the writing life, the publishing industry, his own experiences and his no-holds-barred opinions, make learning fun.

Also, for me, 'Self Editing For Fiction Writers: Second Edition: How To Edit Yourself Into Print,' by Renni Browne and Dave King. It's clear and concise and has practical exercises that will get your motor running. Like the other two books mentioned, it won't teach you how to create stories, but it will guide you on how to write better, how to get increased value with each new draft, how to don an editor's hat and self-edit your work.

If there was a reality TV series for novelists then the judges might very well say, "Write to win."

Writing to win means mastering the art of rewriting. That means getting into the rhythm of the seemingly endless drafts. Once that kicks in, all of a sudden awkward words and phrases that should never have been there stick out like dog's ears. All of a sudden, stilted dialogue cries out to you for a makeover. That's what I found. You'll slash and burn. Hopefully you'll become ruthless and mean but maintain just the right level of balance. You'll create new scenes that fit the mood and pace much better than the ones they're replacing.

Granted, it's not always that much fun but there will be good days.

Another good thing about the books I mentioned above is that they gave me a thirst for seeking out other books on the writing craft, so if there's texts of this kind that helped you along the way, then I'd love to hear about them.

A well known scribe once said he didn't enjoy writing but he enjoyed "having written." This past year there's been times when I felt exactly the same way about the rewrites...