Ever noticed how sometimes your background music sets the entire mood for the day? Bopping my way down the street the voice in my ears was merrily encouraging me to ‘open the window and jump into the blue…’ because things could be marvelous. Couldn’t agree more. The next one up, no more than five minutes down the road said ‘Tell the truth and the whole world understands.’ Lessons to live by I reckon.
The beauty of Steve Chats is that’s basically nothing more than whatever seems to cross my mind at any given time, and if I’ve got the time to tap out a few words about it, then tap away I shall. Let’s just say, cards on the table, I’m starting to think about how I do what I do, as well as why… So, jumping into the blue…
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about time and memories and people and those boxes from childhood that I’ve hidden under the bed. Way back somewhere I explained the boxes under the bed, you see what I really mean is even though there are a lot of people out there like Charles, who I haven’t spoken to in 28 years, he’s still my friend, he just doesn’t know it. I’ve boxed that friendship up and hidden it away under the bed and can bring it out whenever I want to remember playing Football Manager and winning the FA Cup for the first time, or building forts on top of the old air raid shelter or throwing bread buns at some guy’s lillywhite arse as he has sex in the grounds of the mental hospital. All of those memories are just there, waiting to be remembered. I’m lucky, I’ve got great recall. It used to really bug my friend Didge, because he’d study his arse off and I’d be able to remember what the teacher said word for word 5 months before. It really was an unfair advantage back then, but now it’s a gift. It means those boxes under my bed are filled to bursting with stuff.
I also tend to think a lot, by which I mean internalising, taking those memories and turning them over in my head, wondering why they are the ones that remain. Some are great, some are tragic, some visceral, and I always wonder why some people just slip away and no matter how much I might want to zoom back and remember, the entire period of time is gone. I remember more about girl from Saturday’s entry than I do about a woman I lived with. Perhaps it’s the brain’s way of protecting me?
Anyway, Sunday morning, crappy hotel, lace curtains held together by the dirt staining them, I lay in this narrow single bed and had a realisation that was really important to me, and yet it is so flippin’ obvious it should have been slapping me around the head for years. I’m slow like that sometimes.
What was this great moment of enlightenment? Had I solved the age old mystery, the riddle behind life, the universe and everything? Maybe…
Time can’t spool backwards. It can’t take away the look in the eye of the girl who’s your first kiss while you’re cuddled up in a hotel corridor, close and frightened and excited. It can’t change the meaning of the first love letter that landed on your doormat, the necklace that broke 3 years later, or weaken the thrill of the first Valentines card. Stuff can happen in the here and now, that girl could have grown into something ordinary or ornery and just not be someone I could connect with now, but it just can’t diminish the brilliance of the memories and experiences I need to tap into every now and again. Like I said, obvious to you, a revelation to me. The day will always be the day, the night will always be the night and yesterday will always be back there, unchanging, locked in time. That momentary glimpse of reason helped me process a lot of stuff. I joke regularly about my impending midlife crisis (20 days now, if you are counting,) and about how finally life and its events seem to be shaping me into the man I was always meant to be. It’s an interesting process – and a dissociative part of my brain, the bit where Steve the Writer lurks, is watching everything with something akin to voyeuristic glee.
So, anyway, this morning as I was waking up muggy headed and in need of caffeine, a rogue thought slipped in unchallenged and I figured, “hmm log it, and if you get time, use it here.” I’m changing as a person and I’m changing as a writer. I can feel it happening every day. Now, it could simply be that my midlife crisis is approaching full steam ahead (but I think not), but it could be something else as well. It could be that I am finally connecting with my own life and this thing they call talent and my ability to write what is inside me at any given time.
This, I think is more to the point. I’ve been trading a lot of letters with friends recently, and I’ve gone looking for a lot of old friends like Karen, Elaine, Elliot, and Katie who all put up with me age 11, then there’s Didge who I have to call Sid now, and Tris and Mike who were all there when I was 15 and hopelessly in love with girl, and remember all these other aspects of me I never really knew. Didge sat telling me stories in a restaurant behind Waterloo Station that had tears rolling down my face because the moment he started telling them, the more I remembered them and heard the ring of truth over the years clear as a bell. Boy did I do *stuff* back then. Poor old Mr Coles… What Didge could never work out was how I’d do stuff, and not just get away with it, but be almost praised at times. He used to sit next to me Maths. It was like the blind copying from the dumb. So, one day Mr Coles (whose full name I still don’t know) is on This is Your Life with Eamon Andrews, because he was Oliver Reid’s teacher and it was Ollie’s episode. Of course, there was a picture in the Radio Times so I snuck out of school, bought a copy… and glued it to the blackboard. So Didge decides he’s not going to sit next to me that lesson and abandons me to my fate. Coles comes in, sees the wanton vandalism, looks around the class, sees me on my own, sees my erstwhile partner in crime hiding at the back and says ‘Dijani, who did this?’ knowing Didge would blab, the bastard. So, old man Coles comes up all menacing. This was back in the day when teachers didn’t just hit kids, they dreamed up cruel and unusual ways to do it. He comes and sits next to me at the desk, and everyone is just waiting for him to explode. Instead he leans across and says: “Oliver Reid was an absolute pleasure to teach. In fact, you remind me a lot of him, Savile. You’ve got that same blatant disregard for authority and a sense of humour that helps you get away with it. You’re cocky but people can’t help but like you.’ And that was it, instead of beating me or banishing me to detention for a month, Coles spent the next 80 minutes reminiscing about Oliver Reid and the way the school used to be. It was one of the best 80 minutes of my life because I got to understand the man. And he never mentioned the magazine glued to the board. Hell, he made Didge clean it off afterwards, which just about summed everything up.
I’d forgotten it completely, but he only had to say ‘Oliver Reid’ and it all came crashing back, but thankfully I had a friend to paint in all the details where I was hazy.
It’s been a really wonderful experience this whole process of reconnection. I’ve been learning about me through the eyes of long forgotten friends.
Some of the old gang are going through tough times, some proving to me that in fact they are exceptionally strong people, some just being good people.
I’ve been writing. Not stories, not essays, but proper traditional letters. I’ve been connecting with these old friends in a way I haven’t in my life. And I just took a few hours to look back at a few of these and realised for the first time that I really can write. And it’s not about thrillers or fantasies or sf or any genre, it’s about people, about mining my own thoughts and emotions and being brave enough to lay my soul bare to be judged. You’ll notice Steve Chats is getting a lot more personal than it ever used to be, or than anything I ever put out on the net was, and that’s because I’m changing as a person and a writer, and now I want to connect with the world around me rather than simply look on with a vague feeling of smug superiority.
If I had to pick an inciting moment it would be earlier in the year, when I heard about Vicky’s death, and wrote the essay Catharsis for Storytellers Unplugged. That essay took a lot out of me personally, but so many people (and I mean hundreds) actually wrote to me about their own Vicky’s, or about being someone else’s Vicky, or just about friendship and grief and losing people, that I realised something fundamental that I had never actually believed – I like people. Go figure.
Not a bad midlife crisis, then.
So after a lot of ramble (and I’m not getting paid by the word for once) here it is…
Following on from boy girl, I thought it could be interesting to sit down and actually think logically about relationships in stories, after all, it’d be my contention that the emotional core is by far the most important aspect of a novel, the heart of it, if you will. Of course that’s going to mean different things to different people, but in my head that means it’s all about the Story People – the characters with stories important enough to be told. In the ‘which came first, the characters or the plot’ conundrum, it’s not much of a conundrum in my case. It’s all about the characters. Boy meets girl, remember? I guess I am a romantic old fool at heart.
Now, let’s play ‘let’s pretend’ for a while.
Lets say I’ve decided to write a crime series with a duel male/female lead, like the X Files’ Mulder and Sculley. You want that frission between them. You want him to be every so often hot under the collar, challenged by her intelligence every bit as much as her beauty and just plain attracted to her. She shouldn’t be ‘perfect’ because no one is. I like broken characters in some way. Ones who can grow and heal and develop as the arc of the story progresses. So, female lead… You want her to be worth the chase. Which means she has to be worth the chase to you the writer, but not in this princess in her tower waiting to let down her hair way. So, for that I delve into my own life and mine that box under the bed marked girls I chased for whatever reason, and look at what made me hot under the collar at different times in my life. I want to say it was always something different, to make myself seem deeper, but it wasn’t, ever. It was always the same thing. So with that in mind I know my weakness. It could be, say, that our boy has a weakness for stomach muscles, the kind that could scrub wet laundry off… or it could be something about the eyes. See that’s my Achilles Heal, it’s the challenging fierce intelligence and sometimes the cheekiness or some play around that. I guess it’s body language of a sort, in that your eyes are talking long before your mouth ever is, so, for our boy, let’s give him my fatal flaw. He’s an eye man. Why would I make such a choice? Because I know it. I know what it feels like. I know how it enflames and frightens and how visceral its connections can be. I’m not an ass man, I’m not a boob boy, so giving those characteristics to a lead can be very problematic for me as a writer. So, when I write our boy, I am always going to plumb bits of me, even if it is subconsciously. What does that mean? Our girl needs to be modern, not something stepped out of Jane Austin. So, quite capable of chewing bubble gum, kicking ass and taking names. Feisty. Fiery. Fierce. Hmm, how many more F’s can I come up with?
And you should be able to guess why already… because they’re the things that I respond to, meaning they’re the traits I recognise and admire and can hope to capture.
This kind of thing is relatively easy to do in a visual medium, sly glances, body language, that kind of thing, and a good actor can layer in all of these subtle undertones where the scriptwriter has just left the potential for them in the lines he wants you to read between. You get Stana Katic to play the lead, or Jamie Ray Newman, who both have that certain something in the way they look at their romantically inclined male counterparts… and of course, me, through the screen.
But how about as a novelist? How do you do it then. After all you’ve ‘only’ got the words.
You’re going to need a whole new bag of tricks. You want to engage your readers, you want them to be sympathetic and willing to take the journey rooting for the characters right along with you… so again it’s back into that box… what engaged YOU about those girls. With Flame Jane, who I’ll talk about in a minute in relation to Primeval, it was just how damned difficult she was to ‘get’, if that makes sense? The easy part is falling, the hard part is staying fallen.
I’ve got a line in Silver where Sir Charles, the leader of the Ogmios Team, basically says ‘For christ sake don’t tell Noah, I don’t want him doing anything stupid…’ it’s a hint of unmined potential. I mean, it’s about a girl, and the fact that this misfit psychological screw up of a guy would break the laws of space and time for this girl if it came to it, but he’s never once said a word to her about it, he’s never once looked at her in a way that says ‘I want you in ways that go beyond meat.’ Is it love? Absolutely. Is it carnal? Physical? Reciprocated. Nope. Not for a minute, but that doesn’t remove it as a weakness for Noah, and it’s one that the old man knows all about.
So it’s there, it’s alive inside my creation of Noah. Unrequited love is a strong love. At least for me.
The thought this morning though was, when this is all gestating in my head, how do I actually go about showing it? That’s the old adage isn’t it, show don’t tell. What works? What makes the characters live and breathe? What out-right doesn’t? Is there such a thing as telling too much? Can a show actually be a tell?
Okay, thinking about the last one, in my Primeval novel Shadow of the Jaguar I have a scene were Connor (the kid I could always identify with in the show, in love with Abby, who has no clue, sound familiar?) and Abby, are walking through the city in Peru and Connor’s trying to be cool because he wants her to like him instead of the Action Man Stephen. I’ve done this, more than once, though not in Peru, but the one that sticks in my mind is Flame Red Jane G., a brilliant beautiful redhead I convinced to go out on a series of dates when I was 18, who was older, politically aware, funny and fabulous (she was in my math class at college and basically we were the only two not in our 40s so it was inevitable we’d bond at least in some way) and I was just three levels below her on the evolutionary scale. So, one night we walk through Newcastle and I start to talk. I’m terrified of the silence so I try to fill it. I’ve been studying local history, Richard Grainger, John Dobson and the like, and the collapse of the shipping and coal industries and all this, so suddenly I’m talking about all of it like a bloody tour guide. I’m enthused – which is actually blinding fear and absolutely crippling nerves – and she’s bored but cheerfully playing along.
I remembered this vividly when I sat down to write the Connor-Abby scene.
This was me and Flame Red Jane circa 1988, the names changed to protect the innocent. But it was us walking. It was me jabbering. I read a comment recently that the book was great apart from the info-dump scene, meaning the nervous nerd-boy out trying impress the hot girl and just talking too much about everything. It made me smile in retrospect (though initially I was staring at the screen going but but but…it’s my life!) because it is my life. Heh, my life is an info-dump. It’s a shocking revelation… In the same situation I’d do the same thing again. So in trying to ‘show’ my own version of nerves I ‘told’ too much? Or is it that people expect Hollywood brevity in scenes, ala 3 page chapter novelists for the short attention span generation? I don’t honestly know, but I am thinking… I know I’d do the scene the same way again if I were tackling it now, two or three years on from when I wrote it because my inspiration would be the same – I’d be dipping back into that childhood box under the bed and coming up with Flame Red Jane.
So do you go for a more introverted approach then? Dip inside the character’s head and simply ‘tell’ some of their discomfort? Do you push for more of that body language and write visually? Have him fiddling with his collar, licking his dry lips? They’re all good signs of nervousness, but those obvious ticks also have the disadvantage of (lick lipping equals furtive) double entendre, and not the fun sort.
Is there a simple check box to tick that says this is humanity? This is how we do it?
Is there a formula that a writer can follow that will help him mine that emotional core and manipulate the reader?
The answer is almost assuredly yes – but if you sit down and actively think ‘I am going to tick these boxes to make the reader love me and engage with my world’ what you’re actually doing is stilling that emotional heart because you’re transforming it into formula. You’re making it predictable. It’s the RomCom where boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, all is good til boy stuffs it up doing something dumb, boy can’t live without girl, something happens, boy runs to the airport/does something amazingly romantic and girl can’t help but love him all over again. Yawn. See that’s never ever happened to me. Normally by the ‘boy does something stupid and stuffs it up’ stage that’s it, the dagger through the heart of it. Sometimes it is girl does something stupid as well. My life’s an equal opportunities clusterfucker at times. Our emotional responses are automatic, like body language cues, we can’t really control them, so when I am trying to do something ‘right’ I’ll go back and look in the box for things that make me think ‘ahhh that’s why I did this…’ I know certain songs evince unwanted memories and take me places I don’t want to go, I know certain songs take me right back to my favourite place. Audible cues are really strong, they’ve got their teeth in memory. But again, it’s a different cue for a different reader, so I can’t sit and think ooh I’ll drop this in to make YOU think/feel/remember, all I can do is make myself think/feel/ remember and trust that the depth of my reaction, and through it, the character’s reaction, will touch you.
And I’d always rather it was that way than me trying to trick you into feeling…
Remember the second of those two songs I mentioned three and a half thousand words ago? “Tell the truth and the whole world understands”.
There isn’t a cheat sheet for a good writer to check off looking for ways to tap that emotional core, not without damaging it. I believe that. I believe that each and every writer should focus completely on writing the books only he or she can create – that means opening their own Pandora’s Boxes of childhood and teenage and that collection of experiences we call life, and interpreting them for us. Transforming them into glorious lies we can lose ourselves in.
In the Catharsis essay I wrote a little about this feeling of guilt I had that my second thought after losing my friend was ‘this is why he goes home’. The writer part of my brain doesn’t ever switch completely off, it exploits my life for the gain of story. I know that and have come to terms with it. A friend wrote to me after that and explained how watching his father die in hospital had given him his most emotional story ever, and sent the story along for me to look at. It was brilliant because of the raw honesty of the piece. You knew the writer was telling you the truth even as he was lying to you. He wasn’t just pulling your strings to get a reaction. That story of Russell’s was an important story for him, but it was also an important story for ME because it helped me realise it wasn’t wrong that I mined my own life. That’s what writers do. We collect experiences, we process emotional highs and lows, and we find ways to interpret them for other people so that they can be transported to (A) the place we want to take them in our stories, and (B), to the places they’ve left behind in their lives.