How To Talk to Imaginary People

Great Marley Ghost MonoIn order to converse with fictional characters, consume more gravy.

Dear Readers

Firstly I would like to apologise for the protracted absence of posts on this august organ. Why it seems that it has been fully two weeks now since we last made communication. I can reassure you that all is well, that Mr Michael is hard at work on the forthcoming Paris Awakening novel and that the persistent rumours concerning a euphonium, a junior minister, a Welsh male voice choir and Lord Hollingbury are unfortunately true.

Anyway, we recently had the pleasure of discussing the matter of writing with a non-writing acquaintance. The conversation went along these lines:

“Dear chap, I don’t know how you do it! How do you work out, from all possible paths, what will happen in the story?”

“Why thats simplicity itself,” I countered. “I simply let the characters decide what they will do.”

“Good grief man!” he exclaimed, knocking over  a perfectly good brandy. “How can that be achieved?”

“My dear friend, I let them talk amongst themselves,” I said. At this he waved his arms and his voluminous mustache wobbled.

“You see, sir, you are a genius, I couldn’t conceive of doing such a thing.”

“I disagree,” I said, “I’ll wager you can, and let me explain how….”

This, in a nutshell, is the advice I gave my friend. It is a series of exercises which can be carried out in ones own mind, but I find that such exercises are better written out. Somehow writing brings extra depth and magic.

  1. Imagine two friends that you know well and who know each other. Imagine they are having a conversation.
  2. Next, imagine two friends that you know well, but are not mutually acquainted. Imagine them meeting and the conversation they may have.
  3. This time, imagine a friend you know meeting a fictional character, either one of your own devising or from a popular novel. As before, imagine how the conversation would occur.
  4. And finally, substitute the real world friend for another fictional character, and imagine how they would converse.

And voila! You know have two fully fledge imaginary people talking in your head. If you’ve enjoyed this parlour trick, be sure to tell your friends. And have a most pleasant Sunday.

 

Half Plan, Half Pants It

The_sleep_of_reason_produces_monsters_LACMA_63.11.43A Planner attempts Pantsing (or vice versa)

Dear Readers (and especially those of you who are Writers)

I am sure you are all aware of that great debate that has raged, seemingly for centuries now, and which divides father from son, mother from daughter and znarks from kithniks (in the planetary system of Ryzold Veta). This is not some theological disagreement such the Great Schism of 1054, nor political rift such as communism against capitalism. No, I refer to the twin camps of plotters and pantsers.

I shall not go over the debate in detail as a mere handful of seconds with a reliable “search engine” will reveal the crux of the matter. No, instead I will offer my tuppence worth based on my own writing experience. The “excessively loquacious and hence did not peruse” version is – why not do both?

Let me explain my position to those of you not too shocked to continue. You see, I truly believe the best bit of writing advice I ever heard was from Chuck Wendig who said something akin to “there is no such thing as plot, there is just characters doing things”. I have to say I most heartily agree, and for my characters to do things, I have to know who they are and what they are thinking. Thus begins the first phase of my writing, which will look rather like pantsing (the writing technique, not the “hilarious” pranking technique).

You see, I find something magical happens when I write a scene. Not, I must hastily add, that I am possessed with magnificent talent, but characters that are in my mind come to life of their own accord. Rather then put words into their mouths, I put them in a situation and listen. Remarkable things happen then; Miss Henderson quite literally fought her way from being a minor to major character. It was, in her words, a coop of tat. Rather than bonding joyfully with Marie (in a purely platonic way), The Nouveaumancer mercilessly bated Sir John, who then rather wonderfully bit back.

As so many of my stories are mysteries of one sort or another, I’ve learnt the best place for me to start is to present the evidence to my characters, let them have a conversation and if I’m lucky, they may start to try to solve the conundrum. That sets the mood, the tone, and turns the shadowy characters in my mind into functioning “people”.

And then, we get to a point. The characters are off investigating, but most likely, other things are happening in the story of which they are blissfully unaware. The whole world they are in is a vast complex machine with many moving parts and at the center of that machine is a cold, impersonal creature that will throw obstacles in their way, hurt them, and even dispose of them. Yes, dear readers, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, for it is I. And since I know what is happening to all the dramatis personae, I feel I have to sketch out what will happen to bring the story to its cataclysmic end. This is usually just a line or so per 500 words. No great detail, no computer software (well notepad maybe), but enough so I know what’s happening in my world. I wouldn’t call it detailed planning, but I’m far from winging it. And as always, it’s not the notes, but the thinking that counts.

The story then follows “more-or-less” the path I ascribe to it, albeit with some amendments along the way. Maybe a scene I thought would take 1000 words is wrapped up in 10. Mayhap my characters linger somewhere longer than I expected. I can, after all, only follow their whims and demands. But in the end, we arrive where I knew, about a third of the way through, where we would be.

And that’s it, dear Readers, Writers, and Arithmeticians. That is my part-pantsing, part-planning approach. I hope I haven’t broken too many hearts or shattered too many illusions. All I can say is that it works for me.

And if you can take one more shock this evening, I am also perfectly ambivalent to this product as well.

marmite

That’s the kind of monster I am…

Why I Stopped Watching Movies

Le_voyage_dans_la_lune_drawing“Bigmouth Strikes Again!”

Good afternoon Dear Reader

Here within and withal is our final epistle in our triptych of transgressions, at least within our lights. Today we turn those lights, cameras, actions on the world of cinema and list the factors and features of the silver screen that leave us disgruntled. As before, all lack of gruntles are purely our own and no crabs were harmed in the making of this blog post. And yes, we will be using Smiths song titles again.

Paint A Vulgar Picture

The lights go down and the music goes up. Instantly we are dropped into a world of extreme excitement as a thrill inducing, vertiginous sequence with state of the art graphics shows the protagonists in action, probably, at this stage, foiled by the antagonist. There is then maybe a brief moment of quiet where we at least learn everyone’s names, and then, rather like the first day at work, we are spiralling back into action again. Perhaps there is a training exercise, or a chase, or some such. Pause for recap and repeat, each time louder, brighter and with more effects.

The lights go up as the credits role and my, haven’t we seen a wonderful spectacle. As for character development, theme, plot and so on, well, they weren’t that important, were they? Of course, it all makes for first rate entertainment, that makes an hour or so pass quickly, but without the depth of story, it is all so much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

There Is A Light and It Never Goes Out

There is a famous joke whereby a gentleman (a Mr Lenny Henry) enters a shop specialising in recorded music. He enquires after a particular piece of music and is offered the “single mix, 12 inch mix, dance mix or instrumental remix”. The gentlemen in question replies, “Could I have the one where they get it right?” We have the same feeling these days about movies. The scourge of sequels is sufficiently well known to merit no further discussion, but it seems these days we have extended editions, directors cuts, reboots, deleted scenes, alternate endings, digitally enhance versions, et cetera et cetera. One no longer knows which version of the film one is watching. We would most heartily exhort the entertainment industry to focus on making the film once and, in the words of the joke, “get it right”.

What She Said

We fear this may be a sign of ageing and impending deafness, but as we don’t encounter this problem in real life, we suspect not. The object of our ire in this section is that most pernicious and diabolical curse of the modern age: mumbling. Yes, you heard us right, which is one advantage of enunciating with clarity. So many movies today seem to feature the scourge of mumbling characters that no visit to the cinema is complete without a hissed “what did he just say” comment. Maybe it’s a stab at realism, maybe it’s what the “cool kids” do these days, but whatever it is we find it (indistinguishable words).

So there it is, Gentle Reader. We have usefully concluded then that in writing our novel we should shy away from characters that are disinteresting mumblers, from scenes of excessive violence and banal humour, from cliched genre tropes and from unsatisfactory endings. Suitably forewarned we shall approach our task with a beady eye for such misdemeanours and shall vigorously excise any examples.

We hope you have enjoyed our cerberus of criticism and continue to have a pleasant weekend. Next week we shall endeavour to “accentuate the positive” and post something much less disparaging but no less enlightening.

 

Why I Stopped Watching Television

TV“No crabs were harmed during the making of this blog post.”

So once we must apologise for the crab catchy title (see Why I Stopped Reading Books for an explanation of that phrase) and make the same general observations as from the previous post. We won’t mention any specific television shows, just the concepts that are likely to cause us to stop watching a series. These observations are of course highly subjective. As before, we hoped these thought processes might help us in our ongoing novel writing avoidance. I mean project, novel writing project.

As a minor aside, we really don’t possess a television as we prefer reading improving books or dining in fine restaurants as an evening’s entertainment. But we do have access to a well known video streaming service named after a South American river.

Half A Person

“He’s a wise-cracking smart-alec manufacturer of craft beer, she’s a by-the-rules cop with a taste for danger. Together they are Trouble Brewing.”

Maybe the character development stopped at the “elevator pitch” or maybe the size of the writing team means that no one person scripts all the characters’ lines, but quite often we notice a certain “two-dimensional” quality to characters. It seems like they all have wonderful, clever lines, well suited to the character’s archetype, but they never speak to each other as normal people do. This makes them seem less real, less plausible and then we don’t care as much about them anymore. And we all remember what happens when that happens…

Suffer Little Children

We like some dark in our fiction. Regular readers of this august organ will no doubt be aware of that fact as we weave in some fiendish and mesmeric scenes into our stories. But for us, dark does not mean constant decapitations or slow motion torture or psychological torment. It means… a certain atmosphere or feeling. A sense of unease or a disconcerting moment. So when we encounter television shows with body parts flying around and human beings in pain, it tends to “turn us off” as the young people say. And so we in our part turn it off.

I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish

We have persevered for weeks, we have followed every twist and turn, on the edge of our seats. Our hearts are melted by the protagonist, enraged by the villain and enraptured by the mystery. The series finale beckons with a final reckoning. Evil will be punished, good will be rewarded and we will finally find out what is in Cory’s bedroom closet. And yet, our faith and energy are not rewarded. There is some ending of a story arc to be sure, but the villain has escaped, the heroine has lost her job, and inside Cory’s closest is chest of drawers.

Of course, all of this sets us up nicely for the next season in how many months time, and of course we are hooked. Or at least we are for now. We are aware of the truth of the famous quote that a mystery endures longer than the explanation, but nevertheless there has to be some satisfaction in the end. I would implore any creators to finish the story arc they started. Trust the audience, if we liked the show we will be back next time even if you haven’t left us dangling over a cliff. Because a story without climax, is, well…

That’s all we shall discuss this week. We hope that you have enjoyed our critique. Next Saturday we shall discuss Why I Stopped Watching Movies. Have a marvellous week.

 

Why I Stopped Reading Books

Oscar ReadingA Victorian Gentlemen Concerned About Catching Crabs

So we must immediately apologise for the misleading and attention grabbing title. We believe it is called “clickbait” in the modern parlance, which sounds to us like something one uses for catching crabs. We refer not to a refusal to read books of any kind. No, rather, to the the reasons why we may abandon any given book. You see, we have on our “electronic reader” a collection of books named Stopped. This little collection is like a dark corner of our literary world where we place books that we feel we cannot continue with right now on the assumption we may one day return. Of course, once placed in that virtual pile, they fester away, never touched again, with their electronic bookmarks wagging like the fingers of a chiding aunt.

As we are currently in the middle of writing a novel (stop laughing at the back) we thought it might be useful to visit this little literary backwater in the hope it might deliver us some insight on why these particular books have suffered such an ignominious fate. The aim, of course, is to prevent our own novel suffering the same misfortune. We present here the aforementioned knowledge. We shall mention no books in particular and offer the immense caveat that these ideas and judgements are most certainly subjective. One’s man’s meat is another man’s murder.

This Charming Man

After reviewing the list of books, one common aspect immediately made itself known to us. Namely, we don’t care about the the characters. We don’t mean they are unlikeable, although that may be a factor. Or even that they are uninteresting, although that too may influence such a judgement. We mean simply this: we don’t care two hoots whether the characters achieve their ambitions and dreams or end up in Cheapside taking in laundry for a living. We’re sure the reasons for this are as myriad as they are arbitrary, but once settled on such an opinion, it is hard for us to shift it. And conversely, the book is easy to shift into the Stopped section. Lesson number one, then, is make the characters likely to be of interest to the people who you hope will read the book.

That Joke’s Not Funny Anymore

At the Benthic Times we’re rather fond of comedy. We tend to prefer deadpan and surreal to, say, a piece of slapstick, but we’re not above making jokes about pineal glands. Our reading too reflects that, we heartily enjoy tales that a have a comedic element to the fore. However, there can be too much of a good thing. And, we have found, that books that are all gags and no substance tend to lose our interest. We call this the “pearl theory” of comedy. It’s pleasant to have something smooth, shiny and translucent to look at, but if there isn’t at least a little bit of grit at it’s heart, it’s going to seem rather fake and cheap.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

On a similar note, we like genre fiction. A lot. And whilst we like nothing more than a book that merrily (and hopefully, humorously) subverts genre tropes, we’ll groan and yawn when confronted with one that seems determined to tick all the cliche boxes without an ounce of irony. Not every genre book should be constantly genre busting, of course, otherwise there would be no such thing as genre. And yet, some fresh angle or approach is very welcome.

Well, that concludes our little reel around the fountain and through the cemetery gates of our electronic reader. We hope it was entertaining and enlightening. Next week we shall looking at more crab catching with a post entitled “Why I Stopped Watching Television”.

Paul Michael

An Interesting Modern Device to Assist the Writer

Hansen Writing BallNot this…

Good afternoon, Dear Readers. This afternoon I’m going to take the unusual step of pulling back the curtain to reveal some of the gears and levers that go into producing the literary content of the Benthic Times. Pay not attention to the man, I want to show you something else.

Following a marvellous tweet from the equally marvellous Gail Carriger, I started to utilise a most interesting thing called Trello. This works rather like a card index system and allows me to create one card per scene and hence organise the forthcoming Paris Awakening novel. One can also create boards that can function as different sections (for example, Act 1,2,3, or even chapters) and so the scenes can be put in the correct section. One can also re-arrange them at will and add labels (such as characters, locations and so on). My most favourite function of all though is that it allows me to use it via a so-called “app” on my portable telephonic device (the Queen has one, I believe). This rather wonderful thing allows me to carry out plotting at a bus stop. All the more remarkable given I never take the bus.

As I am neither a full on “pantser” nor a meticulous “planner” but some horrible chimeric writer (a “panner” I suspect) who starts writing to get the location, atmosphere and characters, then plots on bits of paper, this is a sheer joy for me. And as the actual financial outgoing is very reasonable (it’s free), I can recommend it to anyone with a reasonably sized writing project on the go.

Wishing you all a pleasant Sunday

Paul Michael

Welcome to Sunnyport!

Tatty Seaside Town“Tatty Seaside Town”

So readers have been asking in their droves: where is Sunnyport? Those photographs seem familiar…

A cursory glance at a map of Southern England will reveal no such place. It is of course a fictional location, but as all such places, one rooted in some real experiences. We thought it might be informative and enlightening to list some of the ideas that run behind the town.

Inaptronymic placenames: it is the author’s general experience that the pleasantness of English seaside town-names is indirectly proportional to how agreeable the towns really are. Thus “Claphole-by-Sea” would be perfectly nice, but “Haven Bay” would be a crime-ridden rat-infested nightmare. Incidentally, the same applies to hotels and public houses. Any public house called The Friendship will have an undercurrent of violence, and any hotel called the Bella Vista will face a gasworks.

Sunnydale: which holds a special place in our hearts even twenty years on.

Innsmouth: “you’ll never leave” – a local town for local people.

Seaside holidays in the nineteen seventies: for many reasons the author does not wish to relate his experience of holidaying in B&Bs of various kinds, nor expand on the manner of hospitality extended in such places. To our readers who visited the English seaside in decades past, I am sure the reasons are clear.  To those who missed such an experience, the first chapter of Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small island” should serve as an introduction.

And one thing that is not an influence on the fictional town of Sunnyport…

London-by-Sea: The self confessed “tatty seaside town” of Brighton (and Hove) will quite often be the “location shots” for Sunnyport. As a previous resident of this wonderful and unique town I can wholeheartedly state that Sunnyport is not Brighton. Brighton is much, much weirder.

Don’t forget – the first four Jennings and Jennings stories can now be purchased from Amazon…

UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B071V9PP6F

US https://www.amazon.com/dp/B071V9PP6F