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Thursday, May 31, 2007



If you don't read Making Light already, go there and read this hilarious poem by a cat:


And some great responses in the thread. It's a cold day and I for one am grateful for the laugh. :-)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Characters' appearance

Hello, my name is Kit Whitfield. I'm a writer who lives in South London. I have straight, silky hair, falling down to my shoulders in deep copper drifts. My skin is pale, and my hazel green eyes change colour according to the light. My lips tend to part, two pink anemones over charmingly crooked teeth.

Well, you see, all of this is reasonably accurate. I do have red shoulder-length hair, hazel green eyes, fair skin, and teeth that are reasonably straight (but I suspect that some Americans are reading this blog and there are masterpieces of Modernist architecture that look crooked next to an all-American smile). But it's a bit of a weird way to introduce myself, isn't it?

Yet somehow, a fair number of fictional characters do just that.

Such descriptions tend to dwell on the attractiveness of the characters' appearance, either traditional or non-traditional but still charming, and this is a warning bell right there. Unless a character is terribly vain, in which case we're looking at an unreliable narrator, who talks about themselves that way? Flattering self-descriptions create a horrible viewpoint lurch, because what they do is leap outside the character's head, and start looking at the character through what the author hopes will be the admiring eyes of the reader. Rather than letting the reader work out what the character looks like, or even get on with the story and assume that appearance isn't the first thing you need to know about someone - perish the thought, the situation they're in might be more interesting than their face - the writer makes a swift foray into the reader's viewpoint, firmly establishing that the character looks a certain way.

Of course, physical appearance is the first thing you notice when you meet someone. But when we're talking about first-person narrators, we're not exactly meeting them. In effect, we've woken up in their heads one morning - and the first thing you see when you wake up is not your own face. You see your bedroom ceiling, the face of your lover, or possibly the edge of a gutter and two hairy thugs standing over you and going through your pockets, if it's not your lucky morning. In any of those circumstances, whether you're blonde or brunette is not the most important question.

This extends beyond first-person narratives to third-person-single-viewpoint narratives. When an ominscient narrator introduces a character, external description is fine; Middlemarch begins with a prolonged description of Dorothea that is an incidental character sketch. But if you're writing a book where your heroine Rachel does this and does that, and we never see a scene that Rachel isn't present at, and everything is viewed as 'Rachel saw such-and-such' (with possibly the odd view into somebody else's head, which it's time you cleared up), then in effect, Rachel is occupying the first-person slot. We can't see her from the outside, because we're inside her head.

So what is a good way to present a character's appearance? Well, the first thing to do is ask yourself if it actually matters. Not just matters to you because you personally see the character as having dark curly hair and brown eyes, but matters to the story. It can do. The only female detective in a mean-streets squad is going to be judged on her attractiveness by most of her colleagues, so the fact that she's blonde and may be mistaken for a bimbo, or has mousy-coloured hair that makes people assume she's meek and dull, will have an effect on how people behave towards her. A man who's six foot seven will probably get more deference than a man of five foot two, and will possibly have developed a carefully gentle personality so as not to make people feel threatened. A woman whose body weight is twice what the doctor thinks it should be will be profoundly self-conscious and also have more difficulty moving around quickly.

But all of these examples are things that you can show in other ways. They're things that can be seen and commented on by other characters because they actually would draw comment, rather than just because the writer wants to make sure everyone knows what their hero looks like, or they're things that would affect a character's behaviour and so be factored into their thoughts when they make decisions. There's no need to go into detail the minute the story starts.

As a side-note, 'drawing comment' doesn't mean sneaking the observations you can't have a character say about themselves into the mouths of other characters. Nobody says 'her skin is as golden as honey and looks every bit as tempting', I don't care how nice the image sounds.

Another way we can find out things about a character's appearance is at points where they see themselves. If a woman with long hair rests her head on her arms, the chances are that some of the hair will fall over her eyes, at which point she will notice what colour it is, for instance. The use of mirrors is one to be wary of, though, as it's incredibly easy to turn it into a cheat. If a character checks himself in the mirror and thinks, 'I think I'll wear this jumper so my date doesn't see how weedy-chested I am,' that's relevant to the story, but if he looks in the mirror and thinks, 'Hmm, I have brown hair and grey eyes, I'm five foot ten but very thin and feeble-looking,' then the reader is going to snag on it, because nobody catalogues themselves that way.

(Unless, of course, the character has serious body issues. In which case, they're likely to keep track of themselves throughout the story, with regular weigh-ins, checks to see if the hairstyle needs adjustment, changes of clothes, manicures on the run or whatever else their particular obsession involves. Again, appearance is related to personality and personality is expressed through behaviour.)

Scientists talk about the 'halo effect': the fact that attractive people tend to be considered nicer, cleverer, more competent, and generally get a more positive spin put on their behaviour than unattractive ones. This effect, however, doesn't exactly translate into writing. The writer may be able to picture the character precisely, but the reader can't actually see them. All they get is the words on the page. A handsome face may make a movie character seem deeper than the script actually portrays them as being, but in fiction, the physical description is just more words. In which case, when you describe the character's looks, you don't get a 'Mm, that's a nice-looking person', you get 'why are you telling me this?'

And if you can think of a good reason, then you're fine. But if not, then maybe we don't need to hear about that hair colour or waist measurement at all.

Monday, May 28, 2007


Playing to your strengths

Writers are insecure bods on the whole. And the following scenario may be familiar to you:

Oh dear, you say, it's time to start my next project. Well, what I really want to write is a tender romance, because what I get most into is intimate character interaction - but romance is a pretty formulaic plot. I'm not very good at plot. Proper books have plot. I need to improve at plot. I think I'd better keep the romance as a subplot add a twisty detective story to make sure I'm doing everything a book needs to do.

This is technically known as 'working against yourself'.

Of course it's good to develop in areas where you aren't so strong. And there's nothing like practice for developing. When I did a Creative Writing MA, I felt I was weak on dialogue, so picked a minor that involved writing a play, to force myself to do something that involved a lot of dialogue. But - here's the thing - that was by way of an exercise. If you're outlining a major project, that's not an exercise. You learn a lot writing a book, but mostly you learn how to write that particular book. It doesn't teach you how to write the next one. (I really wish it did, but alas, it doesn't seem to.) Feeling a bit worried that you might not be that great at something is no excuse not to try and make it work - but what you shouldn't do, if you want to write a book and sell it, is map out a project based on supressing the things you have a personal yen for.

The logic goes something like this: I don't find it very difficult to write, say, action scenes. That must mean that action scenes aren't very difficult to write. So action scenes aren't very impressive; I need to write a book that depends on other kinds of scene.

This is your logic bone trying to kill you. Yes, you shouldn't write a book that's nothing but one long action scene, because that would be boring, but you might consider that possibly you don't find action scenes difficult because you're good at them. And considering that, maybe you should write an action thriller, rather than an historical novel about the first love of a pacifist Quaker maiden. Neither kind of book is inherently better, but a good action thriller is better than a bad Quaker romance.

Which is to say, you need to find the plots that give you scope to play around with your preferences. I wasn't particularly interested in werewolves per se when I wrote Bareback, but I was interested in outsiderdom and body dysmorphia; werewolves gave me the scope to do that. What you really need is not a plot that hides your personal preferences, because, while the personal is intimate and can hence easily feel embarassing, there's actually nothing shameful at all about prefering high melodrama, low-key realism, complicated plots, a well-done formula, reflective melancholy or joyous feelgood. Whatever your preference, I can pretty much guarantee that there will be thousands of people who share it; it only feels embarrassing because it's yours.

What you need instead is to find a plot that gives you an excuse to write about the things you like. The right preference in the wrong book probably will create a mess, and that is a bit embarrassing, but the right preference in the right book creates a novel that works perfectly.

If you prefer writing green to yellow, set your story in a forest; if you prefer writing yellow to green, set your story in a desert.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Angst and darkness

It's a fine line to tread, because at each extreme are people you really, really don't want to read. Allow me to introduce you to both of them...

Meet Alice. Alice is a romantic at heart, and thrives on deep, deep buckets of emotion. More is more to Alice, and angsty trauma seems to her the essence of sensitivity. Nothing is better than a story with deep emotion, and no emotion is deeper than angst, according to Alice. Hence, her every single story is larded with sorrowful, unfortunate, tragic misery, expressed at enormous length, often a little out of proportion to the events that provoke it. Alice herself doesn't find this depressing: she gets a kick out of the sensitivity that such emotional overload implies. In effect, to Alice, pain is the dessert, the treat of the meal, and since she's cooking, she's going to cook what she likes. So it's suet pudding with treacle for starters, followed by a nice big bowl of cake batter, with some cookies soaked in chocolate milk for desert. If you ask for a bit of salad, she looks at you like you don't understand the finer points of high cuisine and wanders off with a tut.

At the other end of the table, meet Jennifer. Jennifer's penchant is ego fantasies. She likes catharsis, action, characters that act exactly as she'd like to think she would in every situation - and they win. Boy, do they win. No moping for Jennifer; it's get off your ass and start kicking other people's, and if you're not prepared to do that, why are you wasting her time? Jennifer, in fact, is irritated by most strong emotions, and particularly rattled by appeals to her sympathy. Why should she sympathise with someone she doesn't want to be? And why would she want to be somebody in pain? As a result, Jennifer eats her rare steak with Atkins-like enthusiasm, but if you proffer her a bit of sorbet as a palate-cleanser, she knocks it to the floor, furious that you've tried to make her partake of anything so, to use her favourite word, 'whiny'.

Neither of these extremes are places where you really want to go. Too much angst becomes emotional masturbation, but on the other hand, it's unrealistic to expect characters never to feel upset about anything, and it's hardly impressive to make refusal-of-sympathy the key to your taste. So what's the answer?

The simplest rule is the soundest: angst, sadness or distress should be in response to the plot. If you leave it up to Alice, angst will replace the plot: story will become nothing more than a series of pegs from which you can hang great heavy sheets of unhappy. But on the other hand, if you leave it up to Jennifer, then you can throw anvils at the characters, and all you'll get is a curled lip and a 'Gotta keep going! Never mind the fractured skull and crushed babies, I've got to make those bastards pay!' Characters will not show any kind of human response. It's natural to be distressed by distressing experiences, and if your characters don't do that, they're not people.

If, using the magical third way, you keep the plot moving - this doesn't have to involve falling anvils, the rule works just as well with a well-written three-hundred-page modern novel about a family having a two-hour Christmas dinner, as long something interesting takes place at the table - then there will be events that characters will naturally have emotional responses to. Keep those responses in proportion to the events, portray them faithfully, and the plot will be in balance.

In terms of Narrative Capital, angst is expensive. You have to save up a lot of groundwork to make a scene of lamentation work. On the other hand, if you don't invest a bit of your capital in characters getting upset when everything goes wrong, then it feels as if nothing's at stake: why should we be worried they might lose their house when they don't seem to care much about it themselves?

In short, it's a simple rule of thumb. Stories aren't excuses to have endless angst; neither are they excuses to avoid writing scenes of difficult emotion. Do what the plot has to do, and have your characters react they way they actually would.

Also please remember - this is a pet peeve of mine - that 'darker' doesn't mean better, or more adult, or more interesting. Every time I hear a series or new work is 'better because it's darker', I want to pull my own hair, because this is a horribly mechanistic way of looking at writing. One of my favourite films is My Neighbour Totoro, and while it has a deep emotional wellspring, it's a festival of light and movement and little moments of joy - and it's bloody good. I've seen many darker films, but very seldom have I seen a better one. Similarly, when I hear a series is going in a darker direction, I sigh and check the guide to see what else is on. It's seldom good news. Because the trouble is that when people decide they're going to improve something by making it darker rather than by just, you know, improving it, then it's a sure sign that they think that all they have to do to make something more interesting is to put more unfortunate events in it. Have bad things happen! Finito, now it's darker, so it must be much improved. Who's for a coffee break? And incipient laziness threatens in all other areas of the writing.

'Darker' actually can appeal to both Alice, who loves to have terrible things happen because worse-is-better, and to Jennifer, who crushes sentiment under her boots and likes a good dose of cynicism. But really. Who wants to be like either of them? Darker-is-grown-uppier is simplistic and, fundamentally, is looking to push buttons rather than encourage thought and feeling. Think about it sensibly. Is an artist who sculpts in ebony inherently better than one who sculpts in marble? Should I just dye my hair and eyebrows black and have done with it? Dark is a neutral description, not a commendation.

Besides this, anyone who talks about making something darker has probably missed an important point: there are elements of darkness in any story. It wouldn't work if there weren't. Jane Austen's novels are extremely dark, looked at from a certain point of view: her heroines frequently face lifelong loneliness and destitution if things don't go their way. Would it really improve them to have a sudden massacre in the middle of one of them? Darkness doesn't have to be obvious. There's a great deal of light and shade in any human psyche, and a faithful portrayal of that will give you exactly as much darkness, or lack of it, as your story needs.

Darker isn't better. Better is better. There's no way round that, and a poke in the eye upon anyone who doesn't get it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


You know what you should do?

You should stop reading this blog post right now and go to the South Bank website, and book yourself some tickets for the Anthony Gormley exhibition.

If you're still here, let me explain that it's the coolest thing I have seen in I don't even know how long. It's really, really cool.

Gormley is difficult to describe, because being an artist whose medium is visual, and actually does stuff that works on a visual level rather than just being an illustration of the manifesto, words don't really convey the effect being around his installations has on you. It's hard not to end up stating the blindingly obvious: 'Hey look, it's an image of feet but it looks like the inside of a tree as well!' Well, of course it does; that's the first thing that strikes anyone who looks at it. But saying it doesn't express just how deeply it strikes you. You just look, and you see.

There's something incredibly pleasing about his works, as well as intelligent; they're just really really nice to look at. And they make you alert, make you curious and observant. One of my favourites is his massively ambitious 'Event Horizon', which you can see just by being around the South Bank: he's installed thirty-one iron statues in prominent positions all over London, on the tops of high buildings. It makes you open your eyes, look out for new ones; it makes the city suddenly feel magical.

And then there's 'Blind Light'. Basically, it's a small glass room lit from above, pumped so full of cool mist that, when you stretch out your hand, you can't see the tips of your fingers. The visibility is about two feet. It's amazing being inside it; after the disorientation, it's almost mediatational. You start to feel like you've always been there.

Oh, I can't describe it. Just do what I say and go see the exhibition, because it's really, really, really cool.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Books for boys

The Education Secretary has published a list of 160 books to encourage boys to read. Interesting.

It's an excellent idea in principle. Boys, as everybody knows, are not doing as well as girls in school. Based on watching That'll Teach 'Em, I was under the impression that this is mostly because they distract each other more than they help each other, and I'm not sure how much a booklist will help that, but I'm all in favour of books.

I have to say that the feminist in me is always a little sceptical about this whole business; girls drop well behind boys at university level, but is the country panicking about that? Obviously, not learning to read is worse than not getting a top-grade BA, but still, I cannot help but wonder whether at least some of the people freaking out would be quite so upset if it was girls who were struggling. However, feminism doesn't mean that boys aren't important: if we don't want men to claim rights solely because they're men, we must instead give them rights as human beings, and everybody needs an education. So if a booklist helps boys learn, then I'm entirely in favour of it.

But this list? I've got my doubts. And that's not good. Despite my qualms, it really is serious if boys aren't getting educated, and the list ought to be good, because it's important. It has Joe Craig on it, who's the charming brother of a friend of mine, which is a point in its favour, and I'd also like to take this opportunity to plug HIVE by Mark Walden because we share an agent and he's very nice ... but I've been reading it with my boyfriend, who's read far more of the books on it than I have, being a boy and all, and he pointed out something that is a serious problem.

It's full of mid-series titles.

Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus series, for instance. Now that's a very good series indeed; my boyfriend read it for fun, so did I, we both loved it, and I'd give it to a boy in a snap. It's well-written, intelligent, funny, has a conscience, and has two central male characters - Bartimaeus and Nathaniel - who are so different in personality that any boy reading it will identify with at least one of them, and possibly both. But the first and best in the series is The Amulet of Samarkand. They've listed Ptolemy's Gate - which is the last in the trilogy. A lot of plot build-up has already taken place; Ptolemy's Gate is denouement. Any boy who picks it up is going to wonder who the heck all these people are and why he's expected to care about them. Then he's going to conclude that reading might just suck after all.

And that's only one example. Based on a quick scan, here are some others: Castle of Wizardry by David Eddings, Eldest by Christopher Paolini, Jango by William Nicholson, Blood Beast by Darren Shan, Soul Eater by Michelle Paver, The Great Cow Race by Jeff Smith, Lady Friday by Garth Nix, Jimmy Coates: Revenge by Joe Craig ... and those are just the ones my boyfriend could identify with a glance over my shoulder.

Am I the only one who wonders whether the people who put together this list, who as adults should have known better, have fallen prey to the childish sense that recent is better, because long ago is boring? Lady Friday was written more recently than Mister Monday, so it must be more relevant? Possibly I'm being unjust, but there must be some reason for this very odd set of choices. Yet at the same time, they have Steve Jackson's Fighting Fantasy on it, which in pop culture terms is positively venerable - I mean, my elder brother had some of those, and he's thirty-three now. The mix of time seems very peculiar.

And it's too full of books about girls. Obviously young boys need to learn about girls, but there's a phase in early adolescence when your manhood is such an uncertain thing that anything girly is going to feel like kryptonite; if you want to teach boys about girls, it'll have to be stealth education - say, a book with a male hero that happens to have good female characters. But let's take an example: Terry Pratchett, who I gather has been the most shoplifted author in Britain (a teenage audience is strongly indicated), and is a really good choice for boys. What do they have of his? A Hat Full of Sky. It's got a female lead, and almost all the important characters in it are women. It's one of the most female books he's ever written. And it's the second in a series; the first Tiffany Aching book is The Wee Free Men. Why not Guards! Guards!? That's got several good male leads, features the Patrician - a nice masculine example of why using your brain isn't sissy and might actually make you strong - and also a really kick-ass dragon. Why not Mort? That's all about an undervalued teenage boy getting empowered in cool ways and also having to learn about responsibility along the way. Why not Small Gods? That's got a male lead, an anti-authoritarian message and lots of violence. Why not - oh heck, you get the point. Pratchett is prolific and talented; there were a lot of better choices they could have made.

The same thing applies to Coraline by Neil Gaiman. It's about a girl. There were alternatives that might have been a better starting point for boys whose masculinity is not yet a settled thing. Why not the Sandman stuff, for heaven's sake? It's absolutely packed with stealth encouragement to read other books. (Link to his comment about it here and you'll see that even Gaiman himself has some doubts, though he puts them with characteristic courtesy.)

And while we're at it, where are the lad books? The New Lad movement was never my favourite, and was far too often an excuse for men to act like dickheads and blame it on their gender - but a lot of boys like it. Where are Tony Parsons and Nick Hornby? They're both good writers, and they write about men who are the age young boys aspire to be. The girly mag Seventeen isn't for seventeen-year-olds; it's realised that late teens to early twenties are what early teen kids are aiming at, and if you do the same thing with boys, you've got a good foothold. Laddy behaviour is what an immature boy thinks adult men act like; use it to get them reading. How about Fever Pitch? It's all about football, which is a selling point right there, but it's also a profoundly introspective, honest and thoughtful book about male emotions; what better way of teaching boys that adult men really do have feelings and that sometimes being sad doesn't mean you aren't a man?

I'm out on a limb here, but the fact that the list is so heavy on fantasy books is not necessarily an unmixed good. If a boy is under the impression that only geeks read, a list resting its weight on geek classics is not the solution. I gather that fantasy books are a very popular genre with boys, but that might just be because, well, it's the geekier boys who are reading them, and the other boys aren't reading at all. Which means that the geeky boys are fine; it's not their reading habits that are the problem. It's the boys turning their noses up at fantasy who need help, and pushing better fantasy at them is less likely to succeed than finding books that they will like. It makes me think of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, describing the education of Tom Tulliver: Tom has a sound practical intelligence and no abstract intelligence at all, and is sent away for a scholarly education; Eliot remarks, 'I only know it turned out as uncomfortably for Tom Tulliver as if he had been plied with cheese in order to remedy a gastric weakness which prevented him from digesting it.'

After all, most adult men don't read fantasy books; they tend more to thrillers, I think. There are some thrillers on that list, but I wonder if the compilers have done enough research into the kinds of books that adult men enjoy, and then looked for books that would get boys pointed in that direction. Where are Thomas Harris, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Andy McNab? They're perfectly comprehensible for boys of, say, thirteen and up, and I'm sure many boys would enjoy them. Is there a single war book? I used to work in a popular-genres publisher, and we had regular calls about when the next W.E.B. Griffin was coming out, usually from elderly men who were obviously lifelong readers. And what about crime books? Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, James Ellroy? They clearly feel that some adult books can go in the mix (see below), so why not pick some that inspire men to years or decades of devotion?

Not to mention the fact that the list is all over the age range with no clear distinctions. The Stinky Cheese Man is for pre-adolescents, but The Book Thief is for adults. Now, I read children's and adults' books in a happy mix, so there's no reason not to do it in theory, but still, if the first time a fourteen-year-old boy picks up a book from the list and either goes 'Huh? This doesn't make sense,' because it's over his head, or goes 'Bah! This is for babies!' because it's too young for him, then you've lost a reader. Either the website has left off the categories, or the list needs to get its act together.

Anything that gets anyone reading is good, and boys are only missing out if they don't find out that books are actually nice. It was a very proud moment when I got a letter from my 13-year-old nephew saying he'd liked Bareback; I felt like I'd really accomplished something. We have a duty to all our children to give them the best chance of making something of their minds. Which means that we've got no business being careless about it. Sequels and overly female books are careless choices. You'd think with a £600,000 budget they could have put a bit more thought into the beginning of it.

What a shame.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Deciding the truth by vote


Here's an interesting article from someone who's had it up to here with Wikipedia. The point he makes is a very simple one: if, as per Wikipedia rules, you listen to idiots with as much respect as you listen to experts, you will not get an accurate result.

Now, I like Wikipedia. But then, I don't get involved in its politics. I just look stuff up - specifically, I look up pop culture references, expecting them to be pretty accurate; with anything else, I expect it to be very broadly accurate but quite possibly misleading.

Really, I'd prefer to consider it actually accurate.

The policies that he outlines sound to me like honest attempts, but I feel like they're missing something. It's all very well to believe in human potential, to think that the average man may be as able to understand something as much any scholar. He might well be - if he's prepared to study as much as a scholar. If he isn't, then he just knows less. And if someone knows less, they're less qualified for the position of guardian-of-public-knowledge.

Wikipedia seems to have the romantic idea of a lone genius, stifled by stuffy experts, getting to voice his views freely. Expert credentials don't get you any standing, meaning that you can't overrule new thinking just because it's ahead of your own research.

It's a nice idea. But the trouble is, experts also are there to write off cranks*. If you debar genius-blocking, you also rule out crank-blocking. And cranks are more common than geniuses.

There's also the fact that it's not just experts who are conservative. Experts didn't support Galileo immediately? Well, perhaps not. But neither did anyone else. I'm prepared to bet that Galileo's controversial theories weren't accepted because they were put to a public vote; they were accepted because experts who actually knew something about the subject took a thoughtful look at them and decided he had a point. If he'd been forced into consensus with everyone who felt like taking up the issue, however little they knew about science, his views would never have got anywhere. Democracy doesn't give license to Galileos; the ignorant can vote them down. Free speech for everyone means one genius and ten thousand idiots get to raise their voices in debate. Who will be heard?

The problem is, often cranks are more aggressive in arguing. I remember once getting into a quarrel with a woman in a supermarket; she pushed her basket ahead of mine on the conveyor (I was ahead of her in the queue), and when I objected, she went for me with surprising vehemence. I'm sure many of you have had a similar experience: it went to and fro, to and fro, and after a while I started thinking, 'What's the point of arguing with this woman? She's so aggressive she's never going to give up, and I don't really care what she thinks about me.' So I gave up. If a scholar finds himself arguing with an aggressive ignoramus online, eventually he's going to think, well, this guy's wrong but it's only a website and I've got better things to do. Scholars, after all, are part of a community that verfies and corrects itself; they have good reason to think that they're right. A crank doesn't have that advantage; he has a much greater emotional need to convince people.

Facts aren't a matter of consensus. If you compromise half-way between someone who's right and someone who's wrong, or between someone truthful and someone dishonest, you will not get the right conclusion. To make consensus work, everybody has to be acting in good faith - and the sad thing is that if you throw a debate open to the entire world, then that means that bad-faith people can contribute. And if you don't have some kind of block to that, they can spoil it.

Wikipedia's argument goes thus:

We edit together in a spirit of mutual respect and equality. "I am a PhD, so stop arguing", for example, would not be a good approach. Reasoned discourse does not require credentials.

Well, fine, except when people refuse to show mutual respect. And while 'I am a PhD, so stop arguing' isn't an argument, 'I won the Nobel Prize for my work in this field and you've only read two introductory guides' is, to my mind, quite convincing. The thing is, reasoned discourse may not require credentials, but many cranks don't use reasoned discourse, they use bald assertion, which forces it down to a contest of word-against-word. You can't reason with a flatly incorrect statement, because there is no logic to engage with; all you can do is say that it's wrong, and if you can't cite greater expertise, there's no way of proving that your assertions are more likely to be sensible. Of course, people can cite false credentials, but that's a different problem and can be handled differently.

And besides, if someone says 'I'm a PhD so boo sucks to you', it's perfectly possible for a disputant to come back with 'That's not an argument, and you haven't addressed my point.' It's not that credentials are inherently worthless in proving a point, it's that they can be misused - and any layman can see when that's happening and correct it, without needing rules about never using them.

Meanwhile, someone who's right will probably prevail over experts by the force of their arguments. Experts don't want to preserve the status quo, they want to improve it. As Bob Altemeyer says in chapter 4, p 122, of his excellent The Authoritarians, 'Orthodoxy has a big bulls-eye painted on it in science.' The best way to impress people in academia is to say something they haven't heard before. If someone is obviously intelligent and has a lot of material to back up their claims, they'll probably get a hearing. Even if experts don't like what they're saying, they'll listen to it carefully: that just makes it a serious threat that needs to be challenged seriously. I really don't think that being an amateur puts you outside the gates of acceptable scholarship, not if you can prove your points.

Scholars aren't the enemies of the people. They are the people. If they differ from the average person, it's usually that they're a little smarter and a little better-informed. These are not bad things.

I like having an online encyclopedia. But I'd rather have one I could trust to be accurate. As it stands, I'll trust Wikipedia pretty thoroughly if I want to check the cast of a science fiction movie or an American junk food, but for anything that requires definite knowledge, I have to reach for the salt bowl and take a hefty pinch every time I read anything. Which is a shame. I don't have a set of encylopedias at home, and even if I did, they wouldn't be regularly updated; I'd love it if I could easily access accurate knowledge. Instead, I'm not sure of a lot of what I can learn. Which is possibly good for my negative capability, I suppose.

I like Wikipedia. But I'd like it a lot more if it didn't have lots of rude, aggressive people on it. It's a sad thing how much aggression the Internet has brought out of the shadows.

* It seems, in retrospect, kind of funny in a sad sort of way just how incredibly detailed the Wikipedia entry for 'crank' is. Really surprisingly so, if you're a newcomer. It somehow raises the suspicion that the people who wrote that entry knew from personal experience what they were talking about...

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Pond pests

Okay, I need some help and/or advice. My garden pond, which you may remember I inherited when I moved into my new home and know very little about maintaining, seems to be suddenly crawling with larvae. Also, still, some tadpoles, whom I have nothing against - but it looks like the larvae are winning.

Some of them look unpleasantly like mosquito larvae. Either that or midge larvae, which isn't good either. I'm sincerely in favour of supporting wildlife, but not to the extent of sharing my life's blood with it. Besides, the neighbours have children, and letting creepy-crawlies dive-bomb them from my garden would not be a sociable act.

Some of them - most, in fact - well, I just can't indentify them. They're sort of looped; from a distance they look like tiny, curled-up tadpoles, but they have segmented bodies and tiny antennae, and they can shift pretty quickly, if randomly, when they feel like it.

What are they? Does anyone have any ideas?

More generally, can anybody recommend a good website or adviser? Surely somebody out there knows about ponds. If this gets too bad, I'm going to have to put fish in there to eat the pests, and I'd rather be providing an ecological haven. But I'm not having my garden try to eat me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Scary vs Sexy round 2

The excellent Naomi posed the following interesting question in reply to yesterday's post:

I'm interested to know if people think the trend towards "safer" monsters is just a trend, or if eventually that pendulum will swing back towards horror again.

What do we think? I can see arguments either way.

As it stands, I have the suspicion that the horror element of, say, vampires is pretty played out for the moment. Once you've seen something parodied ad naseaum, or fluffied up, then it's kind of hard to get scared of it. It loses its shock value. Fear of the unknown is a staple of fiction, and if you know everything about the vampiric monster right down to its dress sense, that's not exactly uncanny.

Then again, things can be revived. Emily Bronte's Heathcliffe is a pretty scary guy. Romance has tended to smooth that kind of character into the misunderstood hero who can be redeemed by the love of a good woman, which is a long call from aggressive, wife-beating, miserly Heathcliffe. But Alice Hoffman's Here On Earth is an overt re-telling of the story, and her Heathcliffe character is still disturbing.

I think, fundamentally, it depends on individual writers rather than genre traditions. Single writers can always make exceptions to rules; any writer who's good will be in some way original, because there are infinite ways of writing well. But freshness in storytelling has a lot to do with it. If you're busy thinking about the entire tradition, then there's a lot of fuzz in your head. At cooking school I was told that a few flavours makes a tasty dish, but too many makes it bland, and there's a similar element going on when a genre gets too self-referential: everyone is imitating everyone, and the result is entropy.

I may just be arguing my own interests here: when I started writing Bareback, I'd read pretty much no urban horror or werewolf stuff, and I personally think that was useful: I could start with my own ideas and not worry too much about other people's. As time went on, I did read and watch as much werewolf fiction as possible, but it was the historical research that I was really interested in; other fictional renderings tended to be more like a weather-eye on the horizon, making sure nobody had done something similar enough to cause overlap. A lot of Internet chatters mention Laurell K. Hamilton when they talk about werewolf books, but I never heard of her until after the book sold and people started asking if my book was like hers (gap in my research there, never mind); I checked out Kelley Armstrong's first book when I heard of it, but only after I was well into Bareback and, seeing that it didn't overlap much, put it on the shelf and forgot about it; I enjoyed Terry Pratchett's renditions of werewolves because, well, Pratchett is pretty hard not to enjoy, but again, I didn't make much of a connection... The work I ended up thinking about the most was A True Discourse Declaring the Damnable Life of One Stubbe Peeter, and that was written in 1590.

So to my mind, the main issue was to avoid re-inventing the wheel, and after that, think about writing the story the way it should be written rather than wasting thought on how anybody else might have written it. The general point is that, possibly, if you want a scary take on a traditional story, someone up to their eyebrows in the tradition may not be your best bet.

Tangentially, I think one reason why people have tended to fluffy monsters is that some authors seem to feel the desire to rehabilitate villains; to present them as misunderstood, or glamorous, or sympathetic. The assumption appears to be that, by portraying a character as bad, the original author is being somehow unfair to them.

It's not an impulse I particularly share; you shouldn't go around wantonly accusing real people of evil, but fictional characters aren't real. An author giving a hateful portrait of, say, a miserly scholar may be displaying unfairness, but the unfairness that matters is the unfairness of their attitude towards real scholars that this portrait displays. The fictional scholar doesn't care. If you think that say, Bram Stoker was being unfair, then the people who deserve your sympathy are foreigners and the sexually unconventional rather than vampires: vampires don't exist enough to care what you say about them.

As well, while heavy-handed moralism is tiresome in fiction, moral judgements can be made. People make moral judgements every day; they influence every major decision we ever make. And it's hardly unfair to take a base-line morality like, say, 'It's bad to kill people.' Two-dimensional villains may be implausible, because real people aren't usually that simple, but that's an issue of competence rather than fairness.

Anyway, to get back to the point, I don't think every writer shares my attitude, though; some seem to feel an instinctive desire to champion the underdog, even when the underdog is at the bottom of the pack for biting the other puppies. But that instinct may have a lot to do with the fluffy-monster swing of the pendulum.

And writers who want to potray frightening things, in the face of fluffification, may decide to move on rather than de-habilitate. If you want something scary, rather than saying, 'No, Rice was wrong and Stoker was right,' which has an element of tick-tock to it, you might just decide to invent something else that's frightening. The scariest film I've seen for years is Ring, (Japanese version, thank you), and while there are fairy-tale elements to the story, the monster is definitely an independent creation. And that film scared me so badly I had to sleep with the radio on for two nights.

It does seem to be possible to make scary monsters scary again, but you need to make them unfamiliar. There's a theory, for instance, that the Alien movies are basically dragon stories: the poisonous, unkillable reptile that ravages the people with fearsome strength. They even have an element of the knight myth: both Scott and Cameron have Ripley don something like a suit of armour towards the end. But nobody had really tried to make dragons scary for a long time, and Scott didn't call the monster a dragon. As a result, it was pretty bloody scary.

Things need to feel somehow real in order to be frightening. They can either be good portraits of real things - Heathcliffe is fictional, but abusive men exist - or they can be imaginary creations so convincingly portrayed that we believe they're real. The more a monster is re-invented and played around with, the more we become aware of their fictionality.

At which point, there are two things to do: either come up with something new, or put the monster back into the box until we've all forgotten about it and will jump again when it pops out. And, of course, the third way, which is just write something really, really good. I'm always in favour of that.

I think scary monsters will always be with us, but vampires may need a bit of a rest before we're ready to be scared by them again. The pendulum may need to come to a standstill, then wait until some clever writer gives it a push.

What do y'all think?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Scary versus sexy

Here's an interesting article that someone livejournaled. (Searching for my own name does occasionally turn up good stuff. I figure it's because the people who like my book are all such intelligent, witty, good-looking gifts to civilisation. Paragons, every one of them. Also, the author, a Ms Naomi J. Clark, has clearly done her homework and knows about the subject, which, added to a refreshingly sensible attitude towards killing people, makes it a good read.) The article is calling attention to an odd recent phenomenon: for the most part, people tackling the old myths such as vampires, werewolves and what-have-you have tended to make them - well, rather nice, really. It's not so much that they wander around killing people; it's more as if they have an eccentric fetish.

How did this happen? I'd be fascinated to hear people's theories. Here's mine: I think it's a short progression that goes down a few literary generations. Never having been a big monster-fic fan myself, I haven't read every vampire book ever written, but it's not that big a hop from myth to Bram Stoker to Anne Rice to vampirism-as-lifestyle.

Stoker poured fears into his conception of Dracula, and there were several main ones. Threatening foreigners was one - Dracula is definitely Not From Around Here. So was contamination and disease. And, being a Victorian man living through an era where convention and morals were being continually questioned, inevitably sexuality was another fear. I gather (from a source that's Internet so I can't check for definite) that Stoker himself was not altogether comfortable with sex: he's quoted as saying 'the only emotions that in the long run harm are those arising from sex impulses', which pretty much speaks for itself. So Dracula is foreign, and he's contagious, and he's sexual. Scary things, if you're Bram Stoker.

Dracula expresses sexual fear; later writers, most prominently Anne Rice, pick up on the undertone and take some of the fear out. Dracula is sometimes a handsome young man, sometimes a fragile old one, sometimes a leechlike, blood-swollen scarlet-skinned grotesque, spanning the possibilities of youth and decreptitude, corpsehood and vigour, shifting between them as if his antiquity frees him from the one-way-ticket inevitability of the mortal lifeline. Age and youth are states he can visit, not states visited upon him. Conversely, Rice's characters are freed from ugliness and age. It's not that they can experience decrepitude for a while and then escape it again; it's a state they'll never reach. The rot is sponged off, leaving only the sexual temptation.
And with that achieved, Rice does the temptation in a much purer form. It's worth noting, for instance, that Rice also wrote some bestselling sado-masochistic erotica. Having read a bit of both (but by no means all of either), I can see why the style is a match: in both erotica and her vampire novels she's able to take a rather dream-like narrative structure, moving from emotional or sensual high point to high point rather than fixing her attention on rigorous cause and effect. Given this dream-like quality, a gaze that focuses on moments rather than origins, you can see why the fear might get lost. Rice evidently has a strong erotic imagination anyway (as witness the success of her BDSM books); in short, she did what writers always do, which is cherry-pick the things that interest you out of your influences and go with that. In this case, sexuality.
And from here, we move to lifestyle monsters. At this stage, I think a major factor comes into play: youth. I am guessing here, but I have the strong feeling from comments I've seen online that the majority of lifestyle monster fans are young. And it's a curious thing: the older you get, the more the nastiness of violence strikes you. I read A Clockwork Orange with great admiration when I was seventeen; I still admire it, but when I started rereading it last month, there was a big sign in my brain that wasn't there before, saying, 'This is really horrible.' Teenagers are generally nice people, but the capacity to identify with the victim of a situation being described by the aggressor is, at least in my own experience, something that grows on you with age. You become more immune to cool. If you're writing for a younger audience, then sexiness becomes something of a trump card. Hence, the violence inherent in the biting-people lifestyle may be easier to ignore.

This is especially the case when you're writing for girls, I think. Now, I may be just about to show my age here, because when I were a youngun we didn't have no fancy Internet and all t'young lasses may be downloadin' nowadays, but I still have the impression that, while teenagers of both sexes are interested in finding outlets and anchors for their sexual fantasies, girls are likely to be more covert about it. Boys know they're expected to look at porn; girls, not so much. But they still have sexual feelings, and respond to things that speak to those feelings. Hence, a book that's officially 'romance' or 'fantasy' but has some nice sexy scenes in it is going to be a real find. It's titillating, but it's not officially porn. Porn usage is a virginity like any other kind of sex, and I suspect that girls, particularly younger girls who are more likely to be fastidious, may prefer to hold on to their porn cherry. A sensual book that's technically just a novel is the perfect solution.
Add to this the fact that women seem to be more aroused by written material than by pictures, and you've got a big market for erotic fiction with stories that are about something other than sex.
There's yet another reason for this, which is that it's very difficult to sustain a narrative on nothing but shagging. Outside of a bordello, people don't have sex non-stop, and it's a feat of structural engineering to make it seem even halfway plausible in a plot. But most women seem to prefer erotica where the characters have at least a semblance of reality, the sex has at least a semblance of context, and there's some kind of emotional background. If the story is about something fetishistic, that has a sexual overtone but isn't just plain sex, you've made the task easier.
Vampires, which have an erotic history as part of the package, are an obvious choice. But there's another element of fantasy as well, which I haven't seen anyone give a name to but which I generally call 'ego fantasy'. Mary Sue is the classic ego fantasy, but it doesn't have to have violet eyes and ankle-length curls for the term to apply. Basically an ego fantasy is a story where a character does things that gratify the writer's and readers' desires for power, status and specialness, in the same way that erotica gratifies your desire for sexual pleasure: it's fantasy via Adler rather than via Freud.*
Ego fantasy, by its nature, is more driven by either wish-fulfilment or authorial admiration of the character than by psychological realism; the writer's main desire is not versimilitude. With the pull of ego fantasy, distortions can happen.
This isn't to say that there isn't a place for such fantasies, but they tend towards a bottom line. Give a character supernatural or exceptional powers, and there's a risk of it turning into ego fantasy. Take an idea and let it pass down several generations of writers, and you've got the Blurred Photocopy effect thrown into the mix. The original bite fades away, and you're left with - well, like, that would be cool to live forever and fly and stuff.
The mild-to-severe BDSM tone of such stories isn't surprising. Sado-masochism, according to a theory I've heard from various sources, is an eroticisation of one's worst fears. If something frightens you, you have to deal with that fear, and there are a number of ways to do that. You can endure it; you can conquer it; you can eroticise it. The story that gives a child nightmares may end up giving the adult an entirely different kind of thrill. Besides, if you want to denature the horror of an idea, what alternatives are there? You can be revisionist and deny that it was ever frightening, only misrepresented, or you can turn the fear into sexual tension that can be released in arousal.
And at this point, the original, stark, horrifying myth is a long way from home...
* In fact, Adler's theory of the secondary inferiority feeling is based on ego fantasies in real life as opposed to fiction. In order to compensate for feeling inferior, one creates an idealised image of oneself and strives to reach it; secondary inferiority comes from comparing one's real self to the ideal self that one created to compensate for feeling inferior in the first place. Sad business, really. What he'd say about writers who put their idealised self into fiction to compensate for initial feelings of inferiority I don't know; maybe it's a good solution. (Not that I'm particularly knocking the egos of ego-fantasy writers; everyone feels insecure sometimes.)
(Incidentally, there are supposed to be more paragraphs in this, but Blogger is refusing to oblige. Sorry.)

Monday, May 14, 2007


Listen to Stubby Kaye!

You haven't heard of him? Have you seen Guys and Dolls? He's the guy playing Nicely Nicely Johnson - the fat chap with the dainty step of a cat and the vocal precision of a marksman. He was, in short, brilliant. One of those men who has the ability to turn a few seconds of walking into a dance, with tremendous wit and style. (No relation to Danny Kaye, incidentally - both WASPed their names, Danny from Kaminsky and Stubby from Kotzin.)

Anyway, I discovered a song I like from the musical L'il Abner - which I haven't seen, but I was noodling around looking for Stubby Kaye stuff, and behold! Here is a link to the complete lyrics, but I'll paste them below anyway (if anyone reading this has copyright objections let me know and I'll desist). That's the full lyrics, which I really rather like. And if you link here, you lucky people, you can hear two verses of Stubby Kaye singing it with his usual charm. The song is about Jubilation T. Cornpone, who, for the benefit of people who, like me, were prevented by their nationality from having heard of the comic strip L'il Abner, origin of the musical, is a Civil War general hailing from a small town called Dogpatch: he was rubbish, but the Dogpatch citizens celebrate him anyway because he's their only notable citizen. Which has considerable style, in its way.

Go Stubby Kaye!

The song:

When we fought the Yankees and annihilation was near,
Who was there to lead the charge that took us safe to the rear?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Old "Toot your own horn - pone."
Jubilation T. Cornpone, a man who knew no fear!

When we almost had 'em but the issue still was in doubt,
Who suggested the retreat that turned it into a rout?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Old "Tattered and torn - pone."
Jubilation T. Cornpone, he kept us hidin' out!

With our ammunition gone and faced with utter defeat,
Who was it that burned the crops and left us nothing to eat?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Old "September Morn - pone."
Jubilation T. Cornpone, the pants blown off his seat!


When it seemed like our brave boys would keep on fighting for months,
Who took pity on them and ca-pit-u-lated at once?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Unshaven and shorn - pone.
Jubilation T. Cornpone, he weren't nobody's dunce!

Who went re-con-noiter-ing to flank the enemy's rear,
Circled through the piney woods, and disappeared for a year?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Old "Treat 'em with scorn - pone."
Jubilation T. Cornpone, the missing mountaineer!

Who became so famous with a reputation so great,
That he ran for president and didn't carry a state?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Old "Wouldn't be sworn - pone."
Jubilation T. Cornpone, he made the country wait!

Stonewall Jackson got his name by standing firm in the fray.
Who was known to all his men as good ol' "Paper Mache?"
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Jubilation T. Cornpone, he really saved the day!


Though he's gone to his reward, his mighty torch is still lit.
First in war. First in peace. First to holler, "I quit!"
Jubilation T. Cornpone;


Jubilation T. Cornpone, he really saved the day!


History says that General Grant was pretty good with a jug,
Who went drink for drink with him and wound up under the rug?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Passed out until morn - pone.
Jubilation T. Cornpone, his whiskers in his mug!

Hearing that a Northern spy had come to town for the night,
Who gained entrance to her room and lost the glorious fight?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Old "Weary and worn - pone."
Jubilation T. Cornpone, he fought all through the night!

There at Appomatox Lee and Grant were present, of course.
As Lee swept a tear away, who swept the back of his horse?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
Jubilation T. Cornpone, a picture of remorse!

(Incidentally, I'm not romanticising the South: slavery is a bad idea. It's just a fun silly song.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007


Back from the Author's Club award ceremony...

... which you may remember was for the Best First Novel award. Well, I didn't win, but I'm happy to say that the prize went to a fellow Random House author, who I sat opposite and who was very nice, to wit: Nicola Monaghan, author of The Killing Jar. The other shortlistees, who I'd like to take this opportunity to plug, were:

Naomi Alderman, author of Disobedience (who approached me in the hallway and said, 'Bareback! Yes? I loved it!', which is reason enough to buy her book right there)

Vanora Bennett, author of Portrait of an Unknown Woman

J.M. Ledgard, author of Giraffe

Stef Penney, author of The Tenderness of Wolves

Ray Robinson, author of Electricity

... and me, of course, but you've already read my book, right? Although, of course, a spare copy never did anybody any harm.

They had some fine apple crumble at the ceremony too. I mean, really nice.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007



I have tadpoles in my garden! Having moved to a house with a tiny pond out back, I've been vaguely wondering if I should do something ecological to it - but lo and behold, the other day I looked into it, and my idle gaze fell upon about fifty little tadpoles, all minding their own business in a cutely aquatic sort of way.

What I'm going to do if they all hatch and I have fifty frogs in my garden, I'm not quite sure.

Here's an ancient and oddly addictive game called Frogger that you can play online, to celebrate. It's a hard world for little frogs.

Monday, May 07, 2007


It's finally happened!

I was idly internet-seaching for myself, and it's finally come to pass. After eight months in print, gracefully ignoring sniggers about the double-entendre of the title, Bareback has turned up a mention on a gay porn site. (No I'm not going to link to it, you can find your own porn.)

I am most entertained. I fear the strapping young gentlemen disporting themselves on said site may get a bit of a disappointment if they actually read the book - but then again, who knows? I'd like to think it was an entertaining read, even if it does lack 'sporty straight lads' having it away with one other.

Giggling up my sleeve aside, I'm pretty pleased: eight months is a good long time to wait before somebody genuinely gets the wrong end of the - gets the wrong idea about what the title means. My faith in the book-buying public has been vindicated; I always thought that most people would have enough sense to know the difference.

But if they're all straight, how come they're having sex with each other? It's a mystery to me.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


'The Aristocrats' from a writing perspective

Okay, if you haven't seen the movie The Aristocrats, you may need a bit of catching up; if you have, you can skip this first paragraph. 'The Aristocrats' is a joke that apparently has been told for generations by comedians - but usually to each other, rather than on-stage. The basic structure is this: a man goes into a theatrical agent, and says, 'I've got a family act: my family and I come on stage, and...' at which point the comedian describes the most revolting and horrific things he can possibly think of, generally involving wallowing in excrement and deviant sex. The agent gapes and says, 'What do you call that act?', and the man says, 'The Aristocrats'.

Not a very funny joke, really, basically a shaggy dog story where you really do shag the dog. The movie actually gave me bizarre and disagreeable nightmares, but it's very interesting to watch different comedians give their different perspectives on this Roscharch blot of a joke. (Here's a link to one of the better performances, involving some fantastic prestidigitation with cards and a fairly classic telling of the joke itself. I wouldn't necessarily look at it at work, or if you're easily offended, but trust me, I still picked one of the nicer tellings.) More than that, though, there are some interesting points to consider from a writer's perspective.

Telling a joke is an act of improvised narration, and with a joke that can be told any number of different ways, you get to see different ideas about writing. When telling 'The Aristocrats', there seem to be two basic ways a comedian can go; they can go with the structure, or they can go with the content. That is, they can try to make it into a story - what's with this man? does he think the act is good? is he trying to scare the agent or impress him? why does the agent ask what this horrible act is called? - or they can focus on making the description of the act itself the funny bit - how can I make the act as gross and funny as possible? (There's a particular motivation to do that when the punchline is either known in advance or not very good, both of which are true of this joke.)

In the movie, for example, you can see two excellent comedians going in different directions: Whoopi Goldberg decided to make the act bizarre as well as disturbing and started telling a story about men doing tricks with their foreskins, and got so involved in doing the sound-effects and visual demonstrations that I'm not sure she actually bothered to deliver the punchline. Billy Connolly, on the other hand, started wondering why someone would ever consider this act in the first place, and invented a scenario where the act is actually a perfectly normal song-and-dance turn, but the agent embroidered it somewhat when pitching it to theatres - meaning he has to return to his client and explain the new plan, over cries of 'You said I'd do what with a donkey?!?' Goldberg is in for the duration, Connolly wants a plot. Which are two poles of storytelling between which every writer has to find his comfortable midpoint.

Picaresque or structured? You tell the joke and decide for yourself.

There's also the question of how interesting, artistically speaking, you find the act of transgression. For some people, though I'm not one of them so I'm describing this tendency from the outside, the act of breaking a taboo, shocking people, or otherwise transgressing the norms of the acceptable has a value in and of itself. Personally I see shock as a means of getting people's attention, and if you don't then say something worthwhile once you've got it then you've effectively yelled, 'Hey!' - and then when they turn and say, 'Yes? What', basically stared at them in silence, or possibly taken a bow and said 'Ta-da!'. (Come to think of it, I'm going to try that some time and see what happens.*)

This is partly temperamental, but I think it has an artistic aspect as well. The comedians who went for the really shocking renditions tended to be the ones who were less interested in structure; artistically, they had an aversion to order - not only did they like to disrupt it by shock, but they were less interested in creating it within their storytelling. Comedians who were interested in the punchline, on the other hand, tended to be less interested in making the act as shocking as possible - it only needed to be shocking enough that the punchline had a point. Which is to say, for some people, transgression is an end in itself, and for others, it's a means to an end. For some people, structure is a vital part of the story, and for others it matters less than the incidental content. Different people have different ideas about what the point of a joke is.

That shows up particularly well because 'The Aristocrats' is a pretty pointless joke. You have to create the point for yourself. It's notable, for instance, that despite the punchline, very few of the American comedians saw it as a joke about class. In the extras, on the other hand, a singing duo called 'The Royal Debonaires' do a decidedly English rendition (I've tried to find it online, but the closest I can get is an extract here, number 38), in which the agent works in Denmark Street (very central and posh), and the song lists the fancy theatres his acts perform at, describes the man with the act as 'working class and five foot four', describes the agent as 'a discening man of culture and impeccability', and includes in the act a turn involving throwing balls of excrement at the Royal Box - and the perfomer seems to think the act is clever and stylish. The upper-middle-class agent, the working-class performer and the royalty in the audience: all of this brings class into it, and suddenly the joke has a point: the performer, being a man of the people himself, has some rather peculiar ideas about what constitutes aristocratic behaviour. (Whether the joke is on the working class or the aristocracy remains up to the viewer to decide.)

But it also occurs to me, which it didn't seem to occur to the comedians in the film, that 'The Aristocrats' is also the ultimate agents' joke. If you've ever been in charge of a slush pile, and I imagine the theatre is the same, then you know that everybody who approaches you thinks that by bringing you their idea, they're doing you the best turn anyone's ever done you. This is an opinion held entirely regardless of quality; no matter how awful somebody's work is, they think it's terrific - and often, humility is in inverse proportion to quality. (People smart enough to produce good work are smart enough to know their limitations, but the direst work comes from people who think it's genius.) Hence, after a long day reading the slush pile and the angry letters people post after rejections, the idea that someone could have an act that involved nothing but throwing balls of crap and shagging donkeys, and still think it should be called 'The Aristocrats', seems eerily plausible.

*I went into the kitchen and tried it on my boyfriend, and it pissed him off and I had to apologise. He was not amused, but he seems to have forgiven me now. Here endeth the experiment; I have tried it, so you don't have to. The things I do for you...

Friday, May 04, 2007



Congratulations to Josh, who's getting married this weekend! Have a cake. Let's hope the wedding is the first of many, many wonderful days in your new married life.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Royal Storylines

A Royal Storyline is a plot that, by virtue of its scale, ambition or emotional weight, inescapably upstages the other elements of the story.

A canny writer recognises when they have one of these on their hands, and rebalances accordingly. This is necessary, as spending more time on, say, the grain merchant who sells the grain that feeds the knight's horse, however complicated his personal life is, than on the knight's visions of God telling him to go and find the Grail in order to prevent an apocalypse - or indeed, spending more time on the knight, if it's the grain merchant who's getting the visions - produces a very peculiar story indeed. That's not the only example, obviously; if you're telling a magic realist story then visions can be a background thing... But generally speaking, Royal Storylines are stories that you know when you see them. And if a writer ignores them - often because they're so massively ambitious that it's easier to write the subplots - then you get unsatisfied readers. It can be more work to deal with a Royal Storyline, but you have to do it. It pays off.

To take a positive example, have y'all read Bryan Talbot's comic The Tale of One Bad Rat? (If you haven't, you should, because it's outstanding.) The story is about the flight and recovery of Helen, a teenage girl with a deep passion for Beatrix Potter's art (which is reflected in Talbot's artwork), who runs away from her sexually abusive father, goes through homelessness and depression and finally manages to get back on her feet. It's very honest and touching and generally speaking a great book, but also worth reading is Talbot's comments in the epilogue.

Talbot says, in brief, that he was originally planning on doing a comic about the Lake District. Feeling around for an idea, he started thinking about Beatrix Potter, who lived there, came up with the character of a teenage runaway girl, based on a girl he'd happened to see who reminded him somewhat of Potter, and, because he had to explain the girl being a runaway somehow when he was writing his proposal, had pencilled in the girl's motivation for running away as 'fleeing sexual abuse at the hands of her father'. He put in this motivation, as he puts it, 'without much consideration', because it seemed like a serviceable idea. But, having put it in, he did some research, and started looking at the idea seriously. This is what he says:

This issue was far too important to marginalize; I needed to change the nature of the story in order to address it. It became Bad Rat's raison d'etre and the chief concern of the plot ... Instead of creating a comic about the Lake District, I ended up writing and drawing a story about child sexual abuse. And I'm glad it turned out that way. This has been the most worthwhile book that I have been involved with and the best - not to mention the hardest - comics work that I've ever done.

Talbot, in short, recognized that he had a Royal Storyline on his hands, and took the appropriate action: he rearranged the less important elements of the plot rather than prioritizing them because he thought of them first and put in the extra work to do the main story justice. (And he really did put in work - just as an example, there's an acknowledgement in the back to a hairdresser he consulted to make sure the heroine's hair was growing at the right speed during the story's time frame.) The result? Well, according to his own website, it's the second-most requested graphic novel in the libraries of America.*

Pay attention to Royal Storylines. And read Talbot's essay; it's a fine example of someone taking stock and carefully working out how best to handle things.

*Beaten only by Maus, which is an absolute masterpiece; there's nothing quite like it.


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